Cui Bono – who benefits from the current decline in China/Australia relations?

The dramatic decline in Australia China relations has paralleled the rise in the anti-China rhetoric from the Trump administration, capped by its naming of COVID as “the China virus”. Who benefits from this situation? Hint: it’s not China and it’s not Australia.

A recent article in The Australian by Paul Kelly, hailed as insightful by China Matters (the consultancy  defunded by the Morrison ministry as too pro-Beijing) pointed out that while Kelly agreed with almost every step that the Government had taken, the consequences were a mess and boded ill for the future. The reason Kelly proposed lay in its incapacity to articulate a clear set of goals other than an inchoate “national interest”.

Ten years ago  I argued that immigrant societies always face tensions for the loyalty of newcomers (for instance, from China) between their identification with their origin countries, and their commitment to their new country. In receiving societies (for instance, like Australia) with a history of racism and race hatred, people of colour may be attracted by the willingness of their new country’s government to actively protect their human rights, especially in relation to any continuing racism. In Australia this willingness by government has been declining.

As well, China I suggested would be anxious to maintain the loyalty of Chinese immigrants to the greater transnational community of Hua Ren, led by the vision of Beijing – today guided by Xi Jinping thought. In his speech of 2015 marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the global Anti-Fascist War  Xi proclaimed that China was dedicated to peace while noting “an ancient Chinese saying goes, ‘After making a good start, we should ensure that the cause achieves fruition’.” Fruition for Xi is a developed society which can never again be threatened with disruption, foreign invasion, or the horrors of regional war-lordism. It does not, he claimed, seek any hegemony nor desire to impose on other societies the horrors that China endured during a hundred years of foreign incursions and invasions, from Europe, the USA and Asia.

In order to achieve this peace, China in 2015 announced a sequence over fifteen year for expanded rings of influence and security. The first “ring” encompassing the South China Sea, has reached initial fruition, with the seeding of the southern waters with Chinese land bases, frustrating its neighbours and causing regional powers to push back, somewhat ineffectually. The current year marks the beginning of the next phase, pushing into the Pacific, and the implementation of the next five year economic plan, announced in May.  The lock step between foreign policy and economic policy is no accident, reflecting the sense of imminent threat that China has experienced for nearly two hundred years. This explains its strategic use of economic capacity to bind partner nations in the next zone in ways they cannot avoid.

Australia has noticed the effects of these plans on the Pacific nations which it had previously assumed sat comfortably under its own hegemonic umbrella. When China butts up against the USA zone of influence in the Pacific (as Japan did in its attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941) current tensions are likely to become even more inflamed than the Trump administration’s calling out of China’s economic hooks into America has achieved over the past four years.

However the warnings are clear – as Yale University’s Jason Stanley noted in his discussion of contemporary fascism on the UTS VC’s Democracy Forum (1 October 2020), fascism is a process of ensemble practices rather than a thing. So all the players in Venn diagram in which Australia is trapped use some fascist and anti-humane practices to advance their regime position. Australia’s finesse in holding asylum seekers at arms length in torturing situations has psychological reverberations with earlier regimes’ intimidation and torture of people they wished to deter or expel – Jews in pre-war Nazi Germany for example. That doesn’t make Australia a fascist state though to some Australians (many young Indigenous men or asylum seekers) it may be experienced as exactly that.

If we step back a bit and review the current apprehensions constantly stoked by the conservative elites (both prompted and echoed by some leftist nationalists such as those at the former Fairfax press), the Trumpets in security and defence, and the stalwarts of the Institute of Public Affairs, China has been construed an appalling though rational fascist state seeking to extend its hegemony over populations which wish to escape its grasp. Some escapees wish to pursue religious alternatives to the state ideology – including Muslims in the North West and Christians and democrats in Hong Kong. Others are democrats willing to put up with the more chaotic life offered by Western societies while hopefully prospering in less authoritarian regimes. Many immigrants from Communist China in Australia are seeking a degree of freedom, clean environment and economic opportunity hard to find in the old country. Others though are apparently potential spies, saboteurs and agents of the malign forces based in Beijing. Those forces, we are told, have infiltrated everywhere, watching us, influencing our views and seeking to erode and corrode our fierce sense of independence and autonomy that is the essence of Australian identity and morality.

Only the forces of Good can protect us, and anyone who resists is either a fool or an agent of the regime, even if they are not aware of their collaboration (Clive Hamilton on Jocelyn Chey as an example). In particular, anyone who suggests that the critique of the Chinese government and the Communist Party simply disguises a White Australia prejudiced loathing of the Mongol race, plays into the hands of the highly manipulative Beijing scriptwriters.

While this summary might be interpreted as a caricature of the real and subtle complexity of a constantly evolving situation, it does capture most of the talking points that pepper the rhetoric of the “beware” community.

There is a competing narrative that is given short shrift in the Australian media, well cowed by the trumpet players. China has dragged itself out of centuries of Euro-American imperialist impoverishment, and learned to play the games of global capitalist wealth accumulation through a state prism. One thing Chinese rulers have taken from their own detailed analysis of history – fed but not drowned by the insights of Leninist studies of imperialism – is that no one will look after their national interest (or their own place in the elites/ nomenklatura) other than themselves.

This lesson has been reinforced by the performance of President Trump, who correctly recognised that China had been playing the US economy as a rigged roulette wheel for years, to its advantage and the US’s real cost. China (and maybe also Trump)  recognises that capitalism without a state plan has been prone to massive fluctuations as the business cycle regularly pushes tsunamis of growth and contraction through the economy: dirigisme would most likely trump neo-liberalism over the medium to long term. Possibly the most important indigenous lesson learned was that the empire/Middle Kingdom would collapse if regional war-lordism were allowed to break out again (as experienced post 1842 and the Opium Wars and then 1912 to 1949). Taiwan for Beijing is a war-lord enclave not yet subdued, Hong Kong has been a war-lord enclave now being subdued, Tibet was a war-lord enclave well subdued, and Xinjiang was threatening to become such an enclave and there it’s all out to subdue resistance.

Moreover the alternatives of neo-liberalism offered by the West have been demonstrably incapable of handling the accelerating Gaia crises – COVID, global warming, water shortages, wildfires, hurricanes, ocean warming and rising,  and environmental pollution. Also Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are not exemplars of how democratic states successfully resolve the rise of irredentist religious anti-regime movements, the feared and not unrealistic potential outcome in China of Xinjiang Muslim autonomy movements. Boris Johnston and Donald Trump provide salutary lessons of what happens when under-educated self-interested socially-unaware populations “choose” incapable leaders who sacrifice their own populations (Brexit, COVID) due to their ineptitude and lack of social concern. It is not only China where the emphasis on Law and Order neglects the third key element – justice.

Throughout Chinese history a principal strategy of successful regimes has kept a buffer zone of dependent-supplicant economically-productive states/ cultures/ tribes/ regions between the heart of the empire and the barbarians beyond. The Belt and Road initiative reflects this world-view amplified through an appreciation of globalisation and its threats and benefits. In the Chinese view, collaborations between Chinese ingenuity, management and strategic vision, with subordinated or partner governments offering local resources, energy and logistics, would create a win-win with China on top while aiding a lot of other populations floating upwards to become extended consumers in a global Chinese supermarket.

Thus we have seen the Africa push, the Pacific push, the Europe push and indeed the Australia push. Pity though about Huawei, which freaked out the trumpets with its imaginative or imagined access into the heart of the Australian future; its banning means Australia will slip even further back into remaining a mine and pasture, with a rump of sheltered-workshops “making things because that’s what Australia does”, now that the two other industries – tourism and education – have been on the one hand wrecked by COVID and on the other trashed by the trumpets. 

So, who benefits from the current mess in Australia / China relations? It does China no particular good to have to keep swatting at the Australian fly buzzing at it. It is now clear that the ham-fisted raids in Australia by the trumpets on Chinese journalists led to the “please explain” interviews with the Australian journalists in Beijing. The Australian media accepted government advice to pull “our” journalists out of China, a sensible move in the short term, but now a guarantee we are without independent thoughtful analysis of the current Chinese situation. I would not like to trust the hysteria of the IPA to provide the nation with a compass into the future.

In Australia there were raids on an Australian politician, Shaoquett Moselmane, and his Chinese born advisor John Zhang. Moselmane’s career and reputation have been trashed, but he has been declared of no further interest, and no crimes have ever been alleged against him, let alone taken to court or proven: practices remarkably like those of other authoritarian regimes anxious to suppress internal criticism.  The trumpets then had the Australian government ban a number of Chinese academics who had specialist knowledge of Australia, just at the time this knowledge (rather than fevered propagandised prejudice) was needed in China – a really smart move (not). The Chinese had banned two trumpet politicians (not smart but hey, they are a pain) and two leading academics who are PRC regime critics. In the meantime a tit for tat series of dumping claims riddle the inter-nation trade situation.

The only interest that is served by the current state of affairs is that of the Trump regime, and its Australian trumpets, who show many of their own signs of being undeclared agents of a foreign power. In this case the USA (in its Trump incarnation) has undermined much of the Australian relationship with China. We know Trump uses disruption as a tactic while pursuing a more shaded longer term strategy: viz at even the inter-personal level his shouting over Biden in the first Presidential debate, the effect of which (until Trump was laid low by COVID and then returned resurrected and youthfully invigorated by the virus treatment) was potentially to reduce the interest of moderate US citizens in voting at all. A similar effect is emerging following the urging of the trumpets on Australia’s relationship with China, demonstrated through our disengagement, apprehension and reduction in real knowledge interactions. 

Hopefully the relation can be resurrected, but only if we recognise that both China and the USA are gaming us, and not for our benefit.  The basis needs to be a rational appreciation of the societal values that Australia espouses, the reality of how we actually implement those values, and the distances we need to travel to draw them together.

We should not have any illusions about the Chinese government and its ruling party, though we might be rather more respectful of their circumstances.  Similarly we should have no illusions about the USA, or the cabal that runs its government.   Empires have their own logics, which may work well for the metropoles but rather less well for the periphery. As a peripheral nation we will continue to be a small but precious (to us) circle in the Venn diagram of imperial contestation in the Pacific over the next century. 

Dark data hole leaves multicultural Australia in danger in second wave pandemic.

Part 1 The problem

A dark hole sits at the heart of multicultural Australia – the data by-pass on how the COVID19 virus pandemic is affecting our culturally diverse communities. While extraordinarily careful measures have been taken to identify and protect vulnerable Indigenous people, governments in all jurisdictions have been cavalier if not conspiratorial in ensuring they know nothing about our multicultural reality and the disease.  This works both for the impact of the disease on communities, and the contribution that communities make to containing or transmitting the disease.  Now with the second wave rising in inner northern Melbourne, these issues have suddenly come to the fore with a vengeance. The Victorian government doubled down on multicultural communication, admitting it had only started this a day or so ago (following the release of this article! )

Despite the national government’s reiterated claim that Australia is the world’s most successful multicultural society (never true and especially not so now), one of the fundamental requirements of a multicultural society, that social facts as they effect social groups should be enumerated and recorded, has been consciously and systematically avoided. In the USA and the UK ethnicity or race are clear indicators of vulnerability. In Australia, who knows? The only public commentaries are anecdotal reflections, and a shared belief apparent among the managers of the pandemic in government that for the most part the disease is confined to Anglos either local or travelling in. The first study of the question (based on an online survey through Sydney University) appeared on June 5, where the key findings demonstrated that lower levels of health literacy are associated with poorer practices in health protection. A key indicator of low health literacy even among English readers, was a language other than English spoken at home. Other factors (age etc.) exacerbated this effect.

While multicultural health issues can be quite well researched, and state health agencies usually record data that allows an understanding of the potential cultural and social influences on health and illness, a perfect storm of absence has been generated around the corona virus – and not because as the US President opined, it should be called the China Virus. In the process of preparing this article I used every element of my research network to discover what it would be possible to say with any degree of certitude, while also identifying where and why the data for policy was failing so substantially.

Collecting data

The story apparently begins with the National Notifiable Diseases data base, created in its current form about fifteen years ago, with its associated Surveillance System. The data is collected under state public health legislation reflecting the WHO definition of surveillance as “continuing scrutiny of all aspects of the occurrence and spread of disease that are pertinent to effective control”. One would expect that given the social dimensions of this definition, demographic data beyond age, Indigenous status, gender and location would be pertinent. Perhaps but in fact, no such data are not collected on ethnicity, language spoken, or country of birth. Asking the national government what is being revealed by the ethnic characteristics of groups infected by the disease, tested for the disease or under-represented in testing, reveals nothing. No data, no answer. My in-box is replete with “no information” emails from media groups at all levels of government, or as often, no reply.

Perhaps then the testing schedules might help – yet no ethnicity data is collected on individuals tested that is of any use, even though with many hundreds of thousands of tests done this data would be of enormous potential value. What of incidences of infection – over 7000 so far? The schedule that is used to determine the pathway of infection and permit tracing to be pursued, a primary method of controlling disease spread, does include country of birth and language spoken at home. However it appears that these questions only get asked IF an interpreter is required, and it is impossible to discover how many of the 7000+ even used an interpreter. So the assumption appears to be that the spread of the disease is geographic rather than through social networks; in lockdown phase this may be an acceptable proposition, but after that? Given that the correlation of neighbourhood with ethnicity varies considerably, knowing where outbreaks occur does not help adjust strategies for tracing contacts per se through ethnic networks across cities and regions.

Harassment of minorities – is it better not to know?

It has been put to me by many people in the system that it’s good we don’t know the answer to my query, because were such information to leak out it would intensify racism and put hotspot groups at risk of attack, abuse and stigmatisation. It is clear that abusive harassment of cultural minorities, especially but not only Chinese and other Asians, Jews and Muslims, has been intensifying both online and off during the pandemic. When the level of abuse had risen to the point that Australian Chinese leaders were petitioning the government for action, PM Morrison and Minister Tudge came forward, decried the abuse, and while reiterating the claim about the success of Australia’s multiculturalism, proclaimed that racism has no place in Australian society. The victims of abuse were advised to complain to the Human Rights Commission. It is possible then that adequate data might reveal something else – that ethnic communities are missing out on access to adequate testing and disease identification, indicating structural and systemic discrimination exists at the most fundamental level, a finding evident in US studies.

Furthermore, Morrison made reference to the fact that Australian Chinese communities had gone into lockdown and isolation far earlier and with greater discipline than many other groups, thus exemplifying social responsibility in the face of the pandemic. As we now know, the Chinese government has publicly identified Australian racism as a major issue for Chinese citizens thinking of visiting Australia in the future, suggesting they might be safer elsewhere. Last week a coalition of ethnic and Indigenous organisations called for the reactivation of the Australian Anti-racism Strategy operating before 2015 but cancelled by the Abbot government.

The failure to collect data on cultural background and language leaves potentially vulnerable groups without adequate information, and epidemiologists and public health officials without a realistic sense of the landscape in which they need to move. If sanitary social distancing and testing are the key weapons against the disease at least in the short term, then rigorous documentation of how the pandemic is affecting different groups must underpin strategies that seek to protect the vulnerable and ensure potential “spreaders” can take appropriate and rational precautions.

Part 2 What we know but need to know more.

What can be discerned at this early data-scarce stage in investigating the ethnic dimension of COVID19 in Australia? From discussions with various officials ranging from ministerial advisers through NHMRC committee members to parliamentarians, multicultural agency officers, ethnic community workers, and frontline health personnel, a knowledge framework that has bits of information associated with its nodes can be discerned. [more]

The three knowledge networks that co-exist in the COVID19 space encompass: a) epidemiological understandings; b) political economy understandings and c) social communication understandings. 

Culture and epidemiology

The cultural epidemiology suggests in Australia that the primary entry of the virus came via five or six pathways. The first were individual arrivals into Australia from countries where the infection had already taken hold. The people came from China, Iran, Italy and maybe South Korea, from which entry was soon shut down. However the second source, through uncontrolled intake, a case of institutional racism lit large and lethal, allowed people from Britain and the USA to enter without control until all entry was shut down later in March. Of the Anglo sources the UK appears to have been the most prolific with the USA not far behind – Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson being the most infamous examples. The Bondi outbreak among American backpackers (ostensibly transmitted through partying in which $100 bills were shared to sniff substances) was another example of this phenomenon.

However of all cases Anglo-Australians are the most likely patients (either travelling home or acquired locally), not only because they are a large majority of the population, but because in the older age cohorts Anglo-Australian or British reflect the make up of the population forty to fifty years ago, and to some degree the class structure, where more middle class and White populations survive longer than people of colour from working class backgrounds.  Then of course there was the Ruby Princess, with its 2500 passengers (the majority apparently Anglo-Australian) and unknown number of its multicultural crew with their Sydney contacts, amongst whom the virus was reproducing with gusto, that flooded into Sydney and spread out from there.

Political economy of ethnic groups

It is at this point we need to understand the cultural political economy of Australia. Ethnic groups are not distributed randomly across either the economy or the landscape, but rather clumped into certain occupations, localities and socio-economic classes. In the USA and the UK higher rates of infection and death among certain ethnic groups reflect the social power of those groups or the lack of it. For those groups concentrated in more poorly paid, casualised, and under-unionised sectors of the economy the onset of the pandemic and the lockdown regimes imposed, especially among women, created catastrophic consequences. Extended and multigenerational families moved in together, overcrowding became more common, domestic violence rose and the possibility of social distancing in the domestic environment significantly reduced. The conditions for self-isolation at home effectively disappeared for many.

This picture of Australians society has been described as one based on a division between primary and secondary labour markets, first identified fifty years ago by Jock Collins in his “Migrant Hands in Distant Lands”.  In simple terms, the primary labour market can be expressed as a large pool of workers with recognised skills, fluency in English, and stable jobs, protected by the trade union movement and with associated benefits. In the pandemic these have been the workers most likely to have been protected to some extent by the JobKeeper and JobSeeker schemes. The secondary labour market reflects the opposite characteristics – lower pay, casualisation, few benefits, poor workplace protection, and in some cases they are undocumented status and highly exploitable. The overwhelming members of that market are immigrant or refugee, or asylum seekers who are the most marginalised. While the majority of migrants are not in the secondary market, the majority of secondary market members are migrants. They are the ones effectively abandoned by the national government.


As should be clear by now, we have very limited information about what has been happening in Australia in relation to ethnic groups, other than that the same social processes and parameters are likely to have been activated here as in the USA and elsewhere. However we do know from anecdotal responses around some hotspots such as retirement and nursing homes, that particular ethnic groups are more likely to be employed in those facilities, at various level of skill. For example nursing homes in the west of Sydney employ many Filipina workers, from cleaners and assistants to nurses. In the north of Sydney Iranians may be more likely to work in those facilities, while in the south it may be Nepalis. On the cruise boats the multinational work forces also fell ill, but we do not know what their socio-cultural networks might be in Sydney and Perth. News reports of the cases at Cedar Meats in Melbourne point to the high level of non-English speaking background workers (especially from the Middle East), their low educational backgrounds and fluency in English, and the hazardous work environment. Infected workers have passed on the infection to an aged care worker and a nurse, as well as a school child. The reports of Melbourne’s MacDonald’s infections refer to extended families – most likely immigrant and refugee background.

Social communication and ethnic networks

These networks of vulnerability already exist in Australia, but are cloaked with a barrier to identification. Why should this be of concern if identification and tracing can be pursued on a locality basis through voluntary and extensive testing? We have no idea what the rate of testing is, and who may be missing out – and for what reasons. In discussion with frontline health workers they have described the sorts of issues that have arisen that suggest clusters of people who are rarely tested though they may be vulnerable. Three dynamics may be at work.

Most health communication messages in NSW are originated in English and then translated by Health translation services or the State Translation agency, directed by Multicultural NSW – targeting vulnerable communities with limited English skills. Multicultural NSW has a seconded officer working in State Emergency Operations Command with authority to ensure sensitive coverage of ethnic communities. In Victoria ethnic community networks on social media have been widely used to get messages through. Social media penetration declines as the population gets older.

There has been considerable commentary on how different messages from state and federal authorities can cause significant confusion even for fluent English speaking native born Australians. In NSW state messages get processed through state agencies and follow state policies, while the same communities may also be exposed to Federal messages translated by the National health agencies, and through SBS, and get other information from social media. Moreover, many immigrant communities follow social media in their own languages and media streams from overseas, deluged with the variable nature of those messages. (For instance, if you are an elderly Greek what would be your information sources to decide whether to wear a mask or not when going to church, with that option now open?)

For many communities, their social conservatism clearly displayed in their voting during the Same Sex marriage poll, religious leaders provide a guide to appropriate behaviour. Early on in the pandemic messages were delivered in some faith communities about the role that religious piety might play in protecting people from infection, while medical explanations and advice went unheard.  In NSW  MSNW moved quickly to activate its religious leaders’ forum fortnightly, usually a quarterly event,  to ensure that across the range of beliefs in NSW the message of the government was delivered clearly. It also provides grants of $5000 -$10000 to community groups providing essential support services to culturally and linguistically diverse groups.

Social media has also become a space of contestation, as messages ranging from bot trolling and overt racism to academic medical research struggle for the attention of audiences and their networks.  Fear and anxiety has grown, with hate speech dividing communities from each other, and fear and “fake news” feeding each other.  Communities especially of faith are also seeking ways to protect their members from harassment, through reinforcing social solidarity online, as shown in  a recent Scanlon Foundation report detailing the response by religious bodies around the country.

Testing regimes have proven a difficult terrain with unknown impacts. Knowing the ethnic or linguistic dimensions of people who have been tested would allow some scoping of the people who have not been tested, and are therefore at greater risk as both patients and transmitters. Frontline workers told me of such situations. Young Afro-Australian men in western Sydney feel that the surveillance of COVID19 lockdown behaviour by police soon became yet another form of harassment, exacerbated by their overcrowded living conditions and poor incomes.  Single mothers with children, still working on limited incomes, feared that they would lose what work they had, as slow test processing times meant they had to stay at home in self-isolation until cleared: they feared the self-isolation regimes.

Why we have to do “multicultural” properly

The signs of a second wave are already riffling the not so distant horizon. Official after official told me, becoming astonished in the telling to realise it, that there was no data about ethnic diversity. We are on the edge of something very complex with potentially major “downsides”. It is not just the abandoned asylum seekers whom I see searching for cans in the bins on my local street in order to collect a few coins, or the refugees fed by charities shivering in the cold as winter comes on, or the international students riding through the night for Deliveroo, but the whole edifice of multicultural Australia that has been overcome with shadows.

Hopefully someone will work out that some authority needs to say, “let’s do this right”, and open up the illumination. This must begin by redefining the Notifiable Diseases strategy to recognise Australia as a multicultural society, and soon, so that if/when wave 2 arrives the country is rather better prepared to respond, resist and recover.

Launch talk “The Man Who Wasn’t There: In Search of Gerhard”

Book cover: launch on 1 December 2019 Melbourne

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 info@ljla.org.au.

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…