My request for information from the NSW Chess Association had been acknowledged and I was sent an article from the Chess Times which proclaimed Kruger’s victories. Bless the author for he had thought to include Kruger’s age, place of birth and fascinating history. The photo captured a young man who seemed possessed of a sweet humility and intellect. It would take some searching to prove that this man was our Stefan Kruger but something in my gut told me to pursue it.
Stefan Kruger and his parents, Max and Dr Anna (née Spitzer), were ‘38ers’, the name given to the Jews and other persecuted people who fled Austria after the Anschluss. Kruger’s uncle, Dr Hans Spitzer, came to Australia with his family in November 1938 and soon sponsored the immigration of his sister and his wife’s brother. The Krugers arrived in July 1939 and would have had just months to get comfortable before Britain declared war on Germany. Suddenly all Germans and Austrians, even the refugees, were classed as enemy aliens and many of the men found themselves being sent to detention camps. Fortunately, most of the refugees were able to prove their reasons for fleeing and were soon released. What this meant, however, was that these immigrants had to assimilate into Australian society, and fast. The German language had to be left behind and dinner had to become the main meal of the day.
Kruger was 12 when he arrived in Sydney, but just over three years later he graduated from Scots College as dux of his year. He went on to study organic chemistry at university (following in the footsteps of his Uncle Hans) and after graduating started taking chess lessons from Lajos Steiner (another ‘38er’ and a nine-time state champion). Kruger took his chess from amateur to professional while also completing his MSc and being awarded two fellowships. Always so humble, Kruger underplayed each of these achievements.
The Hungarian violinist, violist and conductor, Robert Pikler (who immigrated to Australia in 1946) was Kruger’s contemporary. Besides their chess connection, Pikler is the first hint to the music world that may have surrounded Kruger. It was Pikler who, with Richard Goldner and others, established the Musica Viva Chamber Players. To be an AustroHungarian émigré was to have come from a world we can barely imagine. Musicians hadn’t just played in orchestras, they’d played under Mahler or Richard Strauss. In the intellectual class, it was the women who brought people together. In their famous salons, they hosted the leading authors, painters, musicians and philosophers of their day. When poverty struck after World War I, those with property took in lodgers including Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti. Everyone in that society knew everyone, and everyone supported everything: science, art, politics … there were no divisions between them. Thus Pikler, the musician, played chess and Kruger, the chemist, loved music.