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Dorothy Matlak (nee Shipp) has lived at Twilight Aged Care’s Glades Bay Gardens in the Sydney suburb of Gladesville for over 20 years.

Twilight’s Manager Staff Services, Emily Hams and CEO, Neil Wendt, caught up with Dorothy to find out what brought her to Glades Bay Gardens and learn more about her fascinating life story.*

We met Dorothy in her lovely unit at Glades Bay Gardens (GBG) in Gladesville. Twenty years ago, Dorothy offered to drive a good friend to visit a hostel that she was interested in inspecting. Dorothy took one look at the rooms and view and decided she would move in herself.

That was over two decades ago and Dorothy is still very happy with her choice. Dorothy shared that she is not a person that makes big decisions quickly, but for some reason she knew this was a chance she had to take. So Dorothy sold up the family home at Chatswood, where she had raised her two daughters Susy and Ellie, and moved to GBG. 

Dorothy was born in 1926 in Vienna, Austria. Her father was a lawyer, however due to being Jewish, their welfare was at risk as Hitlers’ influence grew across Germany and Austria, so her parents decided to leave Europe.

Dorothy said that at that time Australia was seen as the place to go. To be given a visa to Australia was like “winning the lottery”. Over dinner with friends, her parents were encouraged to complete an application form, though she recalls her father saying, “this is a waste of time as we won’t get in”.

Their application was successful and in 1938, as Hitler marched into Vienna, Dorothy, her brother George and her parents fled by train to Zagreb, Yugoslavia, where they spent a month before heading to Napoli for the long boat trip to Australia. 

They sailed on the Italian liner ‘Romolo’, which Dorothy recalls as being a luxurious ship. She still remembers the wonderful smell of the cheeses at meal times!

As a 14-year-old, the entire journey from Vienna was seen as a bit of an adventure. Dorothy says she didn’t realise the gravity of the situation and that this was really a matter of life or death. Her grandmother was unable to leave Austria and she died at Auschwitz at the hands of the Nazis.

The ship travelled from Naples to Messina, Port Said to Aden, Colombo, Freemantle, Adelaide, Melbourne and finally they arrived in Sydney in 1938 and took residence at Potts Point. Years after travelling to Australia on Romolo, she met a man who was born on the very same voyage to Australia. He gave her a small framed picture of the boat which hangs on Dorothy’s wall.

Her father was not able to practice as a lawyer, so they started from scratch. Dorothy’s mother was a good cook and one day the local nuns tasted her cakes and ordered some for their convent. From there the business grew and soon the entire family had a role in making and delivering cakes and biscuits. Eventually, the family opened a small cake shop at Milsons Point, down near Luna Park.

Dorothy was attracted to social work, and after completing a degree she moved to Canberra to work for the Australian Immigration Department as a counsellor. At that time, she was very good at table tennis and played competitively. Dorothy went on to win the Australian women’s title four times and was inducted into the Australian Table Tennis Hall of Fame in 2008.

As noted by the Canberra Times, in 1949 Dorothy held the Australian, Victorian and NSW women’s championship at the same time.

One of Dorothy’s table tennis trophies

Dorothy loved social work, and was eventually transferred to Sydney in 1952. At a friend’s wedding, she met a young man studying his Masters in Mathematics. She recalls saying to her friend, “this is the type of man I can see myself marrying”. Sure enough the pair did marry and had many wonderful years together raising their two girls Susy and Ellie.

Dorothy and her husband

Dorothy now has five grandchildren and one great-grandchild, named Archer. She secretly admitted to us that at 18 months she can already tell that Archer is a genius and he is also the most perfect great-grandchild she has met. She said you can tell by the look of wisdom in his eyes.

Dorothy has been back to Europe several times, but feels no particular tie to Austria. She does love Italy though and listens to Italian music. She had a wonderful holiday there with her family and still recalls the amazing hotels they stayed at.

Dorothy’s family holiday to Italy

It was a pleasure to have our chat and coffee with Dorothy. She told us at the start that she had an ordinary life, but I think you will agree with us that’s far from true! How different her life and family would have been if they didn’t win that lottery to Australia.

As we left, Dorothy admitted that she used to be a mad keen pinball machine player and requested one for Glades Bay Gardens.

*Please note, this story was written prior to mandatory mask wearing requirements.