How to find a long lost friend- Google it

by Ian Lett

It is December 2018 and my dad Jurgen has come to visit. He is 80 and lives in rural Victoria, Australia. He made the 1,300 kilometre trip by car and plane on his own. He has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease resulting in shaking, but this has been managed with medication. He has early stages of dementia with some memory loss. So it was important for me to ask lots of questions about his life and particularly his travels around the world.

I asked Jurgen about his travels in Japan. In 1961 he rode his bike across all of Japan’s major islands, with a French man, Pierre, and another German, Franz. Over 6 months they traveled 10,000 kilometres, meeting many welcoming people. Friendships were formed that persist to this day and Jurgen kept in touch with many of his Japanese friends. As a child I remember the many Japanese students that stayed in our house, hosted through the Japan Australia Friendship Association (JAFA). Twenty five years later I visited one of these students, Satoru, at his home near Osaka, and was welcomed like family.

Jurgen with loaded bike

While visiting me in Adelaide Jurgen said to me, with a tear in his eye, I would love to get in touch with Franz and Pierre. “Okay” I said, “I’ll Google it”. A few moments later I asked Jurgen how to spell their names, and any other information which might identify them. Armed with this information, I started searching. I started with Pierre, as his surname, Piroche, was less common. There were few results, but one was a nursery in Canada, Piroche Plants. I also found a flyer for an art exhibition of work by Setsuko Piroche in British Columbia. I knew I was onto something. Pierre had married Setsuko after they had met on the cycling trip. (Jurgen was keen on her sister, but left after many sad farewells).

When I told Jurgen that I had found Pierre, he was stunned. He couldn’t believe that Pierre was still alive, as both Pierre and Franz had worked for a year in the blue asbestos mine at Wittenoom, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Many of the workers and their families succumbed to respiratory failure due to asbestosis, and Jurgen thought his friends may have been fatally affected. So he was thrilled to be presented with not only details of Pierre’s whereabouts, but with contact details. He rang the number for the nursery and was connected to the receptionist. She asked Jurgen to hold the line. Then a voice came down the line, breathless and deliberate. It was Pierre, excited to be talking to his cycling mate. Pierre said he couldn’t talk for long as it was hard to talk. The asbestos had affected him.

Pierre Piroche


When Jurgen said he would like to visit, Pierre invited him to come and stay. So Jurgen is planning a trip to Canada in May 2019. He will travel on his own, and will stay with Pierre and Setsuko in their house just out of Vancouver.

And that is why my next series of posts will be about Japan in 1961. I want Jurgen to take printed copies of these posts to give to Pierre. The rest of the story can wait. Like Jurgen, Pierre does not use a computer and does not have a smart phone. They grew up with print, and that is how they prefer to read. So the Japan posts will be printed and collated. And together, they can read about their adventures, half a century ago.

A bomb in the garden

by Jurgen Lett

When I was two years old my mother’s mother was living with us.
She was a loving generous lady and we called her Grossmutter (grandmother). Before our home town of Wuppertal was bombed, she moved to Hohensolms Castle near Frankfurt, in 1942.

My mother Martha, sister Iris and I remained in the family home in Wuppertal-Beyenburg. When the air raid siren sounded, we retreated to the cellar, which had been prepared for extended stays, with food and bedding. Another siren rang several hours later indicating that it was safe to leave the cellar. One day we heard the second siren and came out to inspect the damage. We found an incendiary bomb against the wall of the house, which fortunately had not been ignited. However the window of Iris’s bedroom had been smashed and glass was found under the covers of her neatly-made bed. Official documents from the town hall ten kilometres away were found in our garden.

Beyenburg is a village on the outskirts of Wuppertal and the village suffered only minor damage. In contrast, other districts of this industrial city were extensively bombed with incendiaries. In February 1943 the British bombed the Goldschmidt adhesives factory, which made wood adhesive used in wooden air frame components. The pharmacology firm Bayer was targeted, as were other factories. Over 6,500 people died as a result of the bombing of Wuppertal, and 38% of the built up area was destroyed.

Wuppertal town hall, where my father Ernst worked as the city architect

My mother (we called her Mutti) decided it was time to move somewhere safer. After the first bombing in 1943, Mutti packed up the house and we moved to Hohensolms Castle.

Jurgen’s story

by Jurgen Lett

A fertiliser silo exploded a few kilometers from my grandfather’s flower nursery. The family were picking flowers for the market when the blast knocked them all to the ground. Several lost consciousness. When they came to they found a huge boulder amongst the flowers. The glasshouses were destroyed. My mother, Martha Genaehr, was 18 years old.

The family belonged to the United Evangelical Mission (VEM) and several family members had worked as missionaries in China and Indonesia (former Dutch East Indies). They asked the church if they knew someone who could redesign the glasshouses. Ernst Lett arrived at the front door. Remarkably, he lived in the family home while the glasshouses were being designed and built. Ernst became part of the family, and later became friendly with Martha. While they were keen on each other, it was over ten years before they were married, mainly because they could not afford a wedding and setting up a house.

Ernst Lett, brick layer, master builder, architect, building inspector

Ernst was required to study architecture and learn a trade as part of his training as a Baumeister (master builder). He chose the trade of bricklayer, and here can be seen on the tools. Note the wooden clogs. He later worked as a building inspector for the City of Wuppertal, with an office in the town hall. Ernst was born in 1900 and this photo was taken in the 1920’s.

Martha was born in 1903 and had six sisters and five brothers. She worked as an au pair in Utrecht, Netherlands while she was single. All of Martha’s brothers played brass instruments and on Ernst’s birthday they stood outside his bedroom and play for him. Not wanting to miss out, Ernst jumped out of bed, climbed through the bedroom window and ran around the back of the house. He stood behind the brass quintet and played with them on his cornet, for his own birthday.

Cornet aka piston