The search for surviving relatives of World War II hero, Lieutenant Basil Harvey “Bunny” Austin from Hillcrest in Durban, has ended successfully, but not without some strange twists along the way.
This follows both print and online articles in The Independent on Saturday, who were contacted by Hubert Kuberski from Poland, during his attempts to track down Austin’s family.
Warsaw-based Kuberski said publishers would like to translate Austin’s 1963 book Urszula, which concerns a young girl who hid him under her bed in Warsaw.
Austin was on an SA Air Force plane that was shot down in the middle of the night on August 16, 1944 while he was trying to re-supply fighters participating in the Warsaw Uprising. Austin was a member of the SAAF’s 31 Squadron, under Jacobus van Eyssen.
Austin’s book relates his experiences, with Urszula being the name of the girl who hid him and who he later managed to spirit away from behind the Iron Curtain.
Kuberski had managed to establish that “Bunny” Austin returned to South Africa in 1958 and worked in Pretoria and Pietersburg, marrying Susan Naude. In 1974, he and his wife moved to Durban to be with their married daughter and grandchildren. His health deteriorated due to Parkinson’s disease, and he passed away in Hillcrest in 1977.
Following our articles, Dr Ed Granger from New Zealand contacted the newspaper, saying that while growing up in Durban and attending Durban High School he had a friend whose father was known as “Bunny” Austin.
“He was the father of a good schooldays friend, Geoff Austin, with whom I used to attend athletic/track meetings in Durban in the early 1960s. Geoff was a pupil at Westville Boys’ High School and he and his family lived in a beautiful double-storey house in Gillitts, where I sometimes visited. This was how I came to meet his father Bunny on a number of occasions.”
Kuberski was excited that perhaps a lead had been found, but further investigation by Granger revealed that the initials for his “Bunny” Austin were VV and not BH.
That both men known as “Bunny” Austin lived in the same area around the same time is quite a coincidence, but perhaps there is a connection.
Expanding the search, we shared the story on the Durban Down Memory Lane Facebook page, and this week were sent an e-mail, as was Kuberski, from Pierre Maritz in Edenvale, who said his family were relatives of “Bunny” Austin.
“We are direct family. We also have the book in our possession, and his daughter, Pamela Maritz, is still alive. Pamela’s maiden name was Austin,” said Maritz, adding that there were three grandchildren of “Bunny” Austin.
While Kuberski has still to establish more details with the Maritz family, he was delighted to have made contact. “Thank you to The Independent on Saturday for ending the first half of the mystery. Now I have the task of finding Urszula, the title character of ‘Bunny Austin’s’ memoirs. He took her from communist Poland in 1958. Where does she live, does she have children and grandchildren? She lived in Poland and near Warsaw until 1958.”
He has also contacted local Polish media in the towns of Jozefow and Michalin, where, he said, there were still residents who remembered the shooting down of the Liberator aircraft and Austin’s team.
“There they still remember the SAAF pilots; there is a monument and even a scout team,” he said.