Launch by Andrew Jakubowicz The Man who Wasn’t There – Searching for Gerhard By Susan Hearst, nee Friedlander Melbourne Beth Weizmann, 308 Hawthorn Rd, Caulfield. Sunday 01 December 2.30pm
To buy: phone Lamm Jewish Library +61 3 92725611 or email email@example.com.
I acknowledge the Aboriginal custodians of the land on which we meet, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin alliance, and pay my respects to their elders past present and emerging.
Remembering is a personal and a political act – a stand in that flow of history that otherwise dissolves the past from under us. In oral cultures history become myth and is repeated through the generations, in rituals of story-telling. As people of the book we are drawn to writing the stories, perhaps no less ritualised or myth-repeating.
The aim of the Holocaust, though such a tragedy cannot be so sanctified with any sense of a rational mind at work, was to remove the telling of the long narrative of the Jewish people, by removing the people. The first action by the Nazis involved burning books, then burning synagogues and homes and shops, and then burning people. The writing of a book about our history represents a step forward into the face of those who burnt everything precious. The palm rises into the hoard bearing down on us, tripping up and hurling aside the hooligans of eradication, reinscribing on the palimpsest scraped free, our record of lives lost but now no longer forgotten. As Susan and I had chiselled into our grandmother’s grave in Sydney “As we live, she lives”.
Family histories are exemplary ways to communicate the long story of love and caring and human frailties and strengths, stretching back into an infinite regression. They also foreground through their telling those values that are to be communicated into the future, to children, grandchildren and onwards, to be read not just now but again and anew. So Susan has done not only her own good work, but good work for many others of us, and many others of her own.
This book is partly about heart-break, about the way in which the Holocaust rolls on through the decades, catching and shaking the lives of survivors and their children. It is also about discovery, and quite literally putting the pieces back together again, out there in the narrative, inside in the heart.
When Susan asked me to launch her memoir and investigation into her missing father, I was honoured but worried. When you start opening the discarded baggage of other peoples’ lives, you can disgorge stuff that has no resolution. And so with this set of stories, and nearly all of her own doing, though with a little help from her friends.
Susan and I have been close forever, from the time we used to eat mangos in the bath when kids in the Blue Mountains, or cower from the anger of adults when we had done something quite naughty as we played in the house in Bentleigh. I vaguely remember her in the dark serge of St Gabriel’s school, just around the corner from our place in Bondi, chosen for her by a single mum who had to work.
The stories of Maria and my parents and our mutual grandmother were the stuff of our childhoods, great escapes and dumb silences. In her wonderful analysis, The Silence: how tragedy shapes talk, my old friend the late Ruth Wajnryb takes us on a journey to disinter the stories from the many silences with which we are surrounded. For Susan these silences were palpable, both that kept by her mother, and those left like a relentless wake by her father. As Susan says of her mother and her one great passion, a man who appears suddenly, momentarily yet warmly in these pages, that when she could tell she wouldn’t tell, and when she would’ve told, she could no longer tell. Everything can be in the telling.
The book picks out the pieces of Susan’s family – firstly the survivors who escaped from Lodz through Vilnius to Japan. Some of that narrative lurks in the memoir by our uncle Marcel Weyland, The Boy on the Tricycle. Some I have referenced in a series of academic articles on Shanghai and the Jews of China, also an exhibition at the Sydney Jewish Museum in 2001. Some is in the interviews recorded for the Shoah Foundation by the late Maria Kamm, Susan’s mother, many years ago. Yet Susan’s story only gestures to how my side of the family, my parents Hala and Bolek, and our indominable grandmother, Babcia Weyland, shaped what would happen to her. Perhaps we were not always great for her, however well-meaning we might have been. Gerhard and Maria were a young married couple when my tribe arrived from Shanghai and moved in with them at Kings Cross in 1946. The marriage didn’t last that much longer. Susan alludes to a dynamic that shifted their love affair of wartime to the reality of the postwar recovery, when Gerhardt left and effectively disappeared. Everyone else knew more about him than she was ever allowed to know. Except me, I knew nothing.
Searching for fathers lost through the Holocaust has become an oft-repeated but always demanding laneway in history. So often it was the mothers who shielded the children, arranged their escapes, led them to safety. The fathers were taken earlier, found it harder to hide, went on their own adventures. So it is for Susan’s search for Gerhard, George, the man who introduced my recently arrived father in post-war Sydney to the six o’clock swill, where he would drink ten icy schooners in a row thinking he would die of a frozen throat. George who convinced my father to go on a road trip into southern Queensland where he noted that the water in Roma, tasted oily, missing the chance to become an oil magnate. And George who one day was no longer there.
Why had Gerhard deserted her as a baby, this German refugee, with a family lost in Europe, hanging out with a young Polish woman? Did he love her- either Maria or Susan? What did he know about his own family? Why had he cut off all contact? In bursts, Gerhard emerges like a body sculpted from marble, cool, distant but increasingly distinct as Susan discovers elsewhere many of the answers to questions she wanted him to answer. But of course not the one that matters.
Intention and serendipity intertwine, blocked passageways open out, people appear out of unformed landscapes with fragments of the story. Susan puts them together like a jigsaw, moving the pieces around as her writing tests propositions of possibilities and then tightens the logic from the evidence she can nail down.
We skip from Australia, to China, to Poland, to Germany, to Norway, to Palestine, to Israel, to north and south America, to Chile and on. Along the way there are many stumblestones, not just the ones sunk into the cobbled streets of Berlin or Vienna to remind the passers-by of their stolen Jews, but those created by history in the soul.
We meet Susan at the beginning of the book as an orphan with an unknown father and nothing more, isolated on the edge of the world. By the end, the families in which Gerhardt played a part have dimensions in time and space, and Susan is wrapped in an extended network of caring and memories across five continents – I await to hear the story from America of the distant cousins who survived through a Shanghai escape: where my own parents found refuge.
Throughout the book there is the figure of Gary, from the first call from my parent’s home to a momentarily rediscovered Gerhardt 44 years ago, to the guide he offered to Susan through his own tragic landscape of Austria and Byelorussia. He knew there was a “piece missing” for Susan that had to be found for their family together to be made whole.
In publishing this book Makor extends the Loti and Victor Smorgon Community Archive, which comprises all the books in the Write Your Story program, adding to its already renowned and impressive portfolio a unique “take” on the meaning of survival. The Makor/ Smorgon archive is the largest publisher of Holocaust memoir in English in the world, and I wish to recognise the contribution they make to the reinvigoration of memory, and the survival of culture.
This book is a good read, moving, insightful, sharp, curious, not unlike its author.
I have great pleasure in launching this book, The man who wasn’t there: In search of Susan…
I pay respect to the traditional
and original owners of this land the muwinina (mou wee nee nar) people, – to
pay respect to those that have passed before us and to acknowledge today’s
Tasmanian Aboriginal people who are the custodians of this land.
In 1979 when FECCA was established
I had just returned to Australia to become the Director of the Centre for
Multicultural Studies at the University of Wollongong. From the outset I had a
close relationship with FECCA and wish to acknowledge the founders and the staff
who have sustained this organisation and its national networks over four
Today I want to reflect on those
years and what we have learnt about multiculturalism, its challenges, successes
and failures, and where we stand today. Multiculturalism was never something to
take for granted, remaining today a
controversial idea. When Al Grassby and Jim Houston put the idea into
circulation in 1973, as part of the Whitlam ALP government’s initiatives on
human rights, Australia was just coming to terms with the idea that White
Australia would not define our common future. So multiculturalism’s birth and
White Australia’s alleged death were closely aligned – though the next five
years until its incorporation into public policy through the Galbally report in
the Fraser government remained a rocky road.
Multiculturalism has been
concerned with outcomes of social cohesion and national stability through
processes of that address inequality, prejudice and marginalisation.
Sociologists recognise that in a country like Australia that has built its
non-Indigenous population through recruitment from many different societies,
the creation and deepening of social capital remains a major social challenge.
Because with diverse societies social trust, the “cement” of social capital, is
always shallower than in more monocultural societies, social programs have to
look to how social capital can be created. Immigrant communities bring with
them a tendency to focus on bonding social capital, that is the intensification
of and reliance on interactions and resources within the group. Yet a
multicultural society needs to strengthen the bridging social capital that
allows people to interact with and trust people different from themselves,
while using and contributing to organisations over which they may have little
Multiculturalism in Australia has
always been framed by a “progressive” conservatism, most eloquently expressed
in the continuing refusal of both major political groups to consider its
legislative enactment. Yet it took a conservative government to bring it into
the arena of broad public policy, advocated for by Malcolm Fraser and shepherded
by Petro Georgiou, the last liberal Liberal.
Let us hear from Fraser (though it is more likely Georgiou, given his
comment that Georgiou “could still relate to the issues
much more readily than I ever could, for example, or other people in my office”) as he marked out what he believed it was necessary to achieve in 1981
at the launch of the ill-fated and short-lived Australian Institute for
We have not simply grafted an
ethnic dimension on to an otherwise unchanged conception of ourselves.
There has been a fundamental reappraisal of the established way of seeing
Australia. In multiculturalism, we have forged a radically innovative
basis upon which we can respond as a nation to Australia’s diversity, to
its challenges and opportunities…. We know that the attempt to enforce
conformity holds high costs both for the individual and the society.
It denies people their identity and self esteem. It drives a
wedge between children and their parents. Ultimately it poses a real
threat of alienation and division. We cannot demand of people that
they renounce the heritage they value, and yet expert them to feel
welcome as full members of our society… Multiculturalism is about diversity, not division
— it is about interaction not isolation…. multiculturalism is about equality of
opportunity for the members of all groups to participate in and
benefit from Australia’s social, economic and political life.
The man who had put the program together, Galbally, noted some years later (1994), that the situation he needed to address was confronting: “ You wake up in the dark. You do not know where you are and you can’t even find the light switch. And that was it. The migrants could not find the light switch”.
Speaking in 1988 at the FECCA Congress Fraser reflected on the decade
since Galbally, noting ‘I said then that: “multiculturalism is the most
intelligent and appropriate response to the diversity which characterises our
society”. In hindsight, that judgment could perhaps have been expressed
slightly more forcefully as: “multiculturalism is the only intelligent and
appropriate response to our diversity …”’. He ended thus: “If ever we
find discrimination against ethnic groups, if ever any of us see any element of
race in policies of government or of political parties, then that must be
opposed with all the force at our command”.
Fifteen years later and I was addressing the FECCA Congress of 2003. In
that audit of multiculturalism 25 years from its creation, crucial issues had
emerged – a rhetoric of respect and
recognition of diversity masking a sustained pattern of ethnic power residing
in the Charter communities of White Anglo-Celtic Australia (WACA). In 2003
there were no non-WACA in Cabinet, on the ABC Board or on the High Court.
Religion was becoming an increasingly conflictual dimension of social difference,
with a rapid intensification on one hand of anti-Muslim political discourses,
while on the other anti-Asian rhetoric declined.
Fast forward another fifteen years and here we are today. Australia has
gone through tremendous population changes, with communities from NESB
societies now contributing to over half the population having immediate family
links outside the country (born overseas or at least one parent born overseas).
The largest single religious grouping is now “no religion”, strongly affected
by the immigration of Chinese from the PRC, with fast growing non-Christian
religions including Buddhism and Islam, along with Eastern Rite Christians.
The Cabinet is still overwhelmingly WACA, though now it has Ken Wyatt as
Minister for Indigenous Australians the only outlier. Here Cormann and
Frydenberg can be counted as WACA for our purposes. Meanwhile the High Court
has become more diverse, at least in terms of gender, though showing no signs
of visible cultural diversity. The ABC Board now has a majority of women,
though again all members are from the Charter ethnic groups.
The factors that have driven Australia’s population changes remain
broadly as they have been – though family reunion has shrunk and skill and
capital importation has grown. A much larger part of the population are longer
term temporary residents, facing ever more difficult requirements to achieve
citizenship. The most important social change though must lie in the political
impact of non-European immigrants on the direction of Australian public policy.
Two critical examples of the complex relationship between multiculturalism and
human rights are now evident in retrospect.
Once the Coalition achieved government in 2013, it set about as a top
priority the evisceration of the Racial Discrimination Act provisions in
relation to racial harassment (Section 18C). It was a concern of the Charter
elites who drove Coalition public policy on such matters (as in the Institute
for Public Affairs) that section 18C unfairly limited the rights of public
actors to criticise people on the basis of racial characteristics. A number of
significant contributors to the conservative rhetoric (especially Andrew Bolt
of News Ltd and Sky) had been caught out when their comments had caused grave
offence and personal distress to their targets. Twice the Government attempted
to remove or limit the extent to which 18C would affect these ostensible free speech
rights. There was widespread public push back on this issue, with the
Government failing to win its reforms. The opposition alliance was bi-partisan
and multicultural, even though the conservative chair of the Government’s
Multicultural Council supported the Government goals. This alliance, drawing
together Jewish, European, African and Asian groups, mobilising the growing
strength of Chinese and Indian networks, checkmated the forces in the
government advocating for a return to pre-18C days. In the 2019 election the PM
refused to resurrect the reforms, though they are not dead for all time. These
campaigns proved the strength of the multicultural lobby in defence of one of
the few pieces of legislation that enshrined the values that Fraser had espoused
in the 1980s.
However while the conservatives were aiming for the right to vilify,
progressives were aiming for the right of gay people to marry. This was also a
human rights struggle, but it took a different turn. Ultimately successful, the
strongest opposition to the same-sex campaign came from “multicultural” working
class areas of the cities, and the White rural zones. Interestingly the
strongest support came from middle class WACA localities, especially those with
higher incomes. So the Charter communities also held the significant pockets of
moral progressives who were also important in defeating the anti-18C push,
though some of them had seen the anti-18C campaign for free speech in similar
terms as they later saw the freedom to marry campaign.
Multicultural communities are therefore neither inherently progressive nor
conservative – the highest “diversity” communities supported protecting 18C,
but could also be diametrically opposed on same sex marriage. However the
impact of a politics of morality on Australian public life has had profound
effects on multicultural communities of faith.
By the 2019 election the sheer size and concentration of multicultural
communities in both safe Labor and swinging seats meant that they constituted a
new “third force”, one which no longer tied purely material interests to
voting. A very high proportion of those communities now consisted of
dual-citizenship voters, people who could not stand for Parliament but could
vote (following the citizenship reforms of 2000). In their localities Labor
members, before perceived as defenders of diverse communities from the threats
posed to their well-being by diminution of 18C, were now seen as aligned with the pro-same sex
marriage campaign, often identified by religious leaders as an anathema of
atheistic modernism (true in many gatherings of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist,
Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and Confucian faiths) . In marginal seats, where in effect
the 18C fight recently had been won, non-WACA voters moved on, seeking to
protect traditional moral beliefs (often presented as the antithesis of same
sex relationships) by rejecting demands for change.
For proponents of multiculturalism, the importance of freedom of
religious belief has been a given, though its consequences are now levering
apart many of the key planks in that edifice. In the decade before the adoption
of multiculturalism, the century old tension between British Protestantism and
Irish Catholicism had been resolved through the introduction of Government
support for Catholic schools. This principle was extended into the Howard
period of multiculturalism, generating a rapid expansion in faith education and
the bolstering of faith lobbies in the public policy environment. Yet faith
implies faithless, with some major tensions between religions seeking converts
and those from which they were exiting. Prejudices against faiths among the
faithless (now the largest religious bloc) have deepened, fed by perceptions
that faith communities are opposed to human rights, worried only about
protecting their beliefs and sanctifying their prejudices.
Today, as this FECCA Congress convenes, hundreds of submissions have been made on the Government’s proposals for religious discrimination legislation. Speaking in 2017 Robin Banks former anti-Discrimination commissioner in Tasmania, noted that “if we’re committed to multiculturalism, we must also be committed to freedom of religion—because a multicultural Australia is also a multi-faith Australia.” She made a passionate defence for the right to hold religious views while also pointing out their expression and imposition must be balanced by other rights in relation to gender, sexual identity, and race, for other people. Commenting earlier this year she argued that the Government’s religious discrimination bill was in fact “an extraordinary foray into the culture wars”, licensing offensive views about women, disability and sexual identity. It overrides state laws to protect religious speech, including those here in Tasmania, so long as it does not “harass, vilify or incite hatred”. It would permit speech that offends, insults, humiliates and intimidates, such as is outlawed under Section 18C. Importantly for one group, it would continue to exclude Muslim Australians from the protection of 18C while leaving them open to insult and humiliation by antagonists who defend their anti-Muslim rhetoric by pointing to their religious beliefs about Islam.
Today, despite reiterated claims that Australia is
the most successful multicultural country in the world, there are many aspects
of our multiculturalism that are far from successful. I would suggest that we
remain a society where the Charter peoples retain their overarching power, and
permit minorities to have restricted access to acceptable cultural behaviours.
We are failing dismally in ensuring that bi- and
multi-lingualism remain appropriate aspirations for the society as a whole and
a recognised resource for new generations of Australians.
Patterns of inequality in terms of economic
advancement and social status reveal that ethno-racial equality has not been
achieved, and we see in places exactly the layering of ethnicity and economic
marginalisation that Fraser warned us of so long ago – especially for former
refugees. We continue to refuse to adopt or even to discuss the legislative
base necessary for the success of Australia as a multicultural society to be
realised, even if the Greens have circulated a draft bill for a national
multicultural commission. We are reluctant to address the political
discrimination that excludes dual citizens from the opportunity to represent
their fellow citizens. We are unwilling to ensure a knowledge base for
understanding Australian pluralism, the ways in which power and opportunity
flow to the already privileged, and how such flows can be democratised.
Over recent years we have seen public hostility to
particular groups intensifying, complicated by global factors and the changing
place of Australia. Three main targets, Black Africans, Muslims and Chinese,
reflect major international transformations, played out in local unrest and
concerns. We live in a world where wealth and power are moving east from the
We sit in the south and on the east – and our
future is strongly tied economically to peoples to our north, while many of
them choose to come to live in Australia transforming us all in the process.
Our political institutions are not well shaped to cope with or even take
advantage of these processes, our charter elites reluctant to open doors to the
wider society and its diversity or share their power with new players at the
The multicultural dream that was espoused by the
founders of multiculturalism – Grassby, Houston, Galbally, Fraser and Georgiou,
and the millions of women and men who rallied to its promise of a fairer and
freer future for all Australians – remains alive. However its commitment to
social justice, its abhorrence of racism, and the centrality of mutual respect
and trust and the sidelining of old hatreds, are now under fiercer pressure
than we have seen for many years. The lesson of forty years of multiculturalism
is perhaps best summarised by the late Mick Young, one of its early champions:
… take the community
with you when you want to do these things.
Left to its own devices, progress is going to be
very slow. You really do have to keep your finger on it. The government,
particularly as a trend-setter in these areas, must keep its foot on the
accelerator. Because as soon as it lifts its foot, people are quite happy for
things to drop back, and we have seen illustration after illustration – lots of
enthusiasm early, and then as soon as you blink, back it goes to the bad old
Let’s not blink, lift our fingers or our feet. This remains, as it was at the
outset, the central role of FECCA
I have just landed in Lodz from Munich, tracking the approach taken by the Nazi stukas in September 1939. The next ten days will cover the installation of a memorial plaque at the Bracka St Jewish cemetery to honour my grandfather Hersz Przedborski, of whom I knew little and now know a lot more. Many questions… I am staying in a garden studio (not) in what was a Litzmannstadt ghetto locality, just around the corner from Basarowa Street where my Jakubowicz grandparents were forced to live, and from which they lost their lives – through starvation, disease, poisoning and incineration. More to follow…