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Saida Pearlie: A nurse's window to war

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Among my great-aunt’s possessions is a curious little book. Its covers are made of olive wood, and a plaited narrow cord in shades of brown binds the pages. The front cover features a stencilled picture of a man riding a camel and the word ‘Jerusalem’ above. A piece of metal with an engraved number is fastened to the top of the cover. Its shiny silver appearance looks out of place against the desert scene.

On page 26 of the book a soldier explains how the metal became part of the story about the man and his camel. ‘On the front of this book I have placed for you a piece of It (Italian) plane from Mersa Matruh. NX 58598, Pte P.H. M McDonald, Ward 12, 22.6.42.’ The soldier had taken a piece of metal from an Italian war plane that had crashed during the Battle of Mersa Matruh in Egypt, part of the Western Desert campaign in World War II. It was his souvenir to my great-aunt Celia (Pearlman) Leon.

‘Pearlie’, the name Celia’s army colleagues, patients and friends gave her, was an army nurse in Palestine during World War II. She left her St Kilda home in October 1940 to sign up for duty, and four months later she boarded the troop ship, the Aquitania. In April 1941, she arrived in the Middle East and was attached to the 2/7th Australian General Hospital, a tent hospital that was often camouflaged with thick mud.

While Anzac Day commemorates the anniversary of the landing of Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli in 1915, I’ll also be remembering my great-aunt Celia, who worked tirelessly trying to mend soldiers’ minds and bodies. Unfortunately, nurses’ efforts are often just a footnote in commentary about April 25 and the ANZAC Day March, which Celia participated in.

Her mesmerising 73-page autograph book, held at the Jewish Museum of Australia along with Celia’s photographs and other items from her time serving as an army nurse, illuminates how much the soldiers appreciated my great-aunt’s dedication and care. Australian and South African soldiers as well as three Italian POW drew pictures, wrote poems and limericks as well as kind words for Celia.

The soldiers sketched scenes of the Holy Land in fine pencil and brush strokes. Soldier A. McLean drew a grinning local in a flowing robe riding a donkey who has an equally beaming face. The soldier has expertly used watercolours, which are muted except for the donkey’s tongue that is a fiery red. ‘Saida Pearlie’ is the caption underneath. (Saida is happy or joyful in Arabic)


'Celia returned to Melbourne in February 1943 and in October she was made a Captain in the Australian Army. There was little rest for her. She continued caring for soldiers at the Orthopaedic Hospital in Heidelberg in Melbourne, and in Toowoomba in Queensland. Celia married in 1949 and continued nursing into her seventies.


Sergeant Bob Cookesley deftly used his ink pen to draw a bored and grumpy soldier sitting on an outside dunny with his pants around his ankles. The laughter among the soldiers must have hit a crescendo with the Sergeant’s final strokes. ‘I dunno, nothin’ ever seems to happen round here!’ he wrote. ‘A bullet is heading for the soldier from behind.’

On the previous page Sergeant Cookesley used his ink pen again to craft exquisite flowing handwriting while quoting Charles Kingsley, an English poet, social reformer and Anglican priest. ‘A blessed thing it is to have a friend; one human soul whom you can trust utterly; one who knows the best and worst of us; and who loves us in spite of all our faults.’

Another soldier gave Celia a separate postcard-sized book, Flowers From the Holy Land, which also contains coloured images of scenes such as Jerusalem from Mount Olives with captions in Hebrew, English and French. On alternate pages are dried flowers whose petals and fine wispy stems have been skilfully arranged. Olive wood is once again used as covers stencilled with camels and palm trees. Inside the front cover is an inscription in block letters written in blue ink: ‘TO SISTER C. PEARLMAN, FROM A GRATEFUL PATIENT, NX2279T, F.G GRIFFITH.’

Celia returned to Melbourne in February 1943 and in October she was made a Captain in the Australian Army. There was little rest for her. She continued caring for soldiers at the Orthopaedic Hospital in Heidelberg in Melbourne, and in Toowoomba in Queensland. Celia married in 1949 and continued nursing into her seventies.

Celia also became involved in the Victorian Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women and became its first woman life member. A 1967 article in The Australian Jewish Herald detailed Celia’s membership.

‘Each patient (at the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital)looks forward with great pleasure towards her arrival. She comes with afternoon tea and other surprises for the patients, and then continues her tour to visit and chat with every Jewish patient in the hospital. Many letters of appreciation are received by VAJEX from appreciative patients who enjoy Celia’s visits, her kindness and personal interest.’

Although it’s 80 years since the soldiers created the autograph book, I’m hoping that future generations will come across it and remember the nurses, like my great-aunt, who cared for broken soldiers. This quote from the curious little book will stay with me.

‘Carnations may wither,

Roses may die,

Friends may forget you,

But never shall I.

With fondest memories to Pearlie.’


*Celia died in 2002, 15 days before her 96th birthday. Three of her brothers also served overseas during World War II, and one of the brothers, Leslie, was killed in New Guinea in 1942.



Erica Cervini is an award-winning journalist and a casual academic at the University of Melbourne.

Main image: (Top to bottom) Celia (Pearlman) Leon's autograph book, the nurse standing before a field hospital, detail of a sketch. (Provided)

Topic tags: Erica Cervini, Anzac, War, Nurses, Memory



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Existing comments

Very interesting piece of Australian wartime history

David Marlow | 24 April 2023  

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