opinion

Operation Pied Piper: How one of Australia's greatest heroes saved thousands from the Nazis.

To most who boarded the train in Bucharest, nothing would have seemed out of the ordinary. The dozens of women and children dotted throughout the carriages appeared to be on an excursion to the seaside. Some were carrying beach bags and the little ones were chatting excitedly to each other as the train rocked through the Romanian countryside towards the resort town of Constantza.

No one could tell that many of these women had what little jewellery or valuables they still owned secreted inside the hems of their dresses. No one could tell they were fleeing.

The group, mostly refugee wives and widows of captured Polish officers, was joined by 400 more at the seaside resort town. Together, they boarded the ferry to Istanbul, clutching their travel documents — either forged or black-market.

Among those herding the little ones on board, was an English-speaking woman posing as a governess. An Australian. Joice NanKivell Loch.

The writer and journalist was among a civilian humanitarian group that planned the escape of thousands of Polish Jews to Cyprus with the approval of British authorities. As part of the effort, these 1,000 women and children were entrusted to her.

Her journey was dubbed Operation Pied Piper.

Today, Joice is considered one of this country’s most unsung heroes. With 11 medals from Australia, Greece, Poland, Romania and Britain, the writer-turned-humanitarian remains Australia’s most decorated woman.

This is why.

The making of a hero.

Joice was born on  January 24, 1887, at Farnham, near Ingham, Queensland, in the middle of a cyclone. As the granddaughter of a wealthy sugar company owner, her early life was one of great privilege, until the family fortune was lost with the abolition of Kanaka labour (workers from the Pacific Islands).

The family moved to rural Victoria, where Joice earned a career reviewing books for the Melbourne Herald, as well as penning her own poems and children’s books. One of those she reviewed, was written by a journalist and Gallipoli veteran named Sydney Loch. The pair married in 1919, marking the beginning of an extraordinary partnership.

As well as each writing several successful books, the couple spent the interwar years devoted to those in need: from the troubles in Ireland, to displaced peasants in Poland and refugees in Greece.

According to the Australian Biographical Dictionary, it was there they ultimately settled, and Joice set about providing medical aid and education for girls, as well as empowering locals in the village of Ouranoupolis by helping them establish a successful rug-making industry.

Sydney and Joice. Image: ANZACS in Greece.
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As war stirred again in Europe, Joice and Sydney joined an organisation called the Friends Relief Service in Bucharest to help the Polish refugees that were pouring into Romania.

And it was from there, in 1940, that the Queenslander's incredible mission began.

Operation Pied Piper.

After their journey across the Black Sea, Joice's group arrived in Istanbul and were met by other Polish refugees who'd fled the previous year. It was there they learned that, just hours earlier, the German Army had marched into Bucharest. They had escaped with barely a day to spare.

But their journey to safety was still not over.

As historian Susanna De Vries described in her book, Blue Ribbons Bitter Bread: Joice Loch - Australia's Most Heroic Woman, after catching an overnight ferry to Mersin, Joice had to secure a ship to take them on to Cyprus.

Desperate, she phoned the British Embassy and gave her codename: "Pied Piper". Despite the risk that German forces may be listening to the call, she persuaded officials to secure her a navy vessel. The boat slipped out of Mersin harbour in the dead of night, and across the heavily-mined waters to Cyprus, where Sydney was waiting, and then later, as the Germans invaded Greece, to the Israeli city of Haifa.

Along the way, Joice and Sydney secured food, clothing, money and accommodation for those in their care.

Thanks to their efforts, more than 2,000 Polish refugees had made it out alive.

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the Lochs spent most of the remainder of the War working with Polish and Greek refugees in Palestine. They returned to Greece in 1945, where Joice helped in the post-war relief and reconstruction effort.

"After Sydney died in 1954 she continued her rug-making work and free medical clinics and used royalties from her writing to give her village a clean water supply," the entry reads.

This humble woman, who the Australian Woman's Weekly described in 1965 as having "seen more death, disaster, starvation, misery, and sorrow than most people ever think about", was awarded honours in multiple countries for her humanitarian work. Among them, the Greek Order of the Phoenix, the Polish gold Cross of Merit and the Romanian Order of Elizabeth, and Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Joice died at her home in Ouranoupolis on October 8, 1982, at the age of 95.

At her funeral, De Vries wrote, the visiting Greek Orthodox Bishop of Oxford spoke of her incredible story; her best-selling writing, her devotion to those less fortunate, her "intensely Australian belief in 'giving everyone a fair go'". Closing the service he described her, simply, as "one of the greatest women of the 20th Century".

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Feature image: Twitter/George Vardas.

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