It is difficult to conceive today, in our circumstances of relative comfort, of the great energy and travails of the immediate post-war period for a country which had experienced two world wars in a generation, costing nearly 100,000 lives and turning upside down the lives of most everyone.
The First World War had decimated a generation of young men lost in battles fought far away, and in turn leaving families without husbands, brothers and fathers. A calamity of worse proportions would be difficult to perceive, only to be followed shortly afterwards by the Great Depression of the late 1920s. These were black days.
The Pioneer Gardens one encounters in so many Australian cities and towns speak for the determination of a generation of pioneer women of the 1920s and 30s who built their lives, families and communities without male partners, fathers, brothers and sons. Resilience was pushed to the limit, only to be followed by the wild period of the collapse of the world economy in the late 1920s and mass unemployment rushing into the onset of fascism in Europe in the early 1930s. The threat of war soon emerged and then actual combat only a few years later - diverting many returned soldiers and a new generation of sons and daughters back into battle and, for the first time, the grave defence of the homeland from invasion.
These were tumultuous and decisive nation building years, with the great challenges of defence and survival generating fear, ingenuity and civic courage.
Immediately following the second war, there were hundreds of thousands of servicemen to resettle and a nation awaiting a restart, with opportunities on the land and in new industries beckoning (not least the new Australian car and the great power generation scheme in the Snowy Mountains).
A resilient post-war Labour Government took the courageous decision to open up the country to immigration – populate or perish was the slogan.
The immigration policy was a cornerstone of nation building. A new workforce was needed.
Villages in Greece and Italy emptied out enroute to Australia. Britains keen for a new life made their way onto ships, willingly taking a journey once forced upon their convict brethren.
And then, amongst the many smaller groups of arrivals, there were the forlorn and desperate Holocaust survivors who were of no interest whatsoever to most countries.
A typically good-hearted Australia showed particular generosity here following the determined persuasion by the leadership of the Jewish community of the Australian government. It was not a popular migration – not with the broader population and, to some extent, nor with the established Jewish population who fretted over the harm to reputation and dislocation which could be caused by the unpredictable newcomers and their strange ways. With the new Jewish state being founded, some thought the newcomers should be headed there. For those who had survived the Nazi period, and who had no where else to go, the prospect of settling in embattled Israel was not warmly embraced.
In fact, despite apprehensions otherwise these newcomers significantly revitalised a dying community. It is hard to imagine the state of Jewish Australia today without the re-energising of the community through post-war immigration. They brought a highly educated sense of Jewish life to what was ostensibly a failing Jewish backwater. Many came with high levels of Jewish education from the centres of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, and devoted themselves to creating strong Jewish schools, new synagogues and generally enabling a revitalisation of Jewish life.
The same could be said for the impact of this migration on the broader community, transformed in key respects by the immigration of the Holocaust survivors, such as by the immigration of the Lowy family in the 1950s, who brought great determination to rescue themselves from the mire of their recent experiences. It is difficult to explain this level of determination from the relative comfort and ease of our present world view. I also do not think this instinct has been replicated in generations since.
Despite political considerations favouring the rejection of Holocaust survivors, Arthur Calwell, as Immigration Minister, agreed to a limited entry on the guarantee of the local Jewish community to take financial and social responsibility for the newcomers – and it did. Harold Holt, as the new Immigration Minister, in 1949 continued the policy. It was bi-partisan and driven by a sense of core values. The established Jewish community stood by these offers permitting the entry of the newcomers.
My parents were amongst the fortunate new arrivals (from Warsaw (via France)), knowing little of its English customs and language. They could not have travelled further from the troubled and bewildering Europe they had left behind, and were happy not to see again. They had been completely abandoned by cultured Europe. Their entire families on both sides had been murdered only a few years earlier. There was no looking back.
They entered Australia with refugee permits obtained in Paris, where they spent two years following their departure from Poland in 1949 with papers permitting their transit to Marseilles and then to the new state of Israel. It was the only means of permitted departure from communist post-war Poland. Israel was and remained for some time in a state of dire warfare, and thoughts of a new life drifted elsewhere during a period in transition in Paris. These thoughts were only compounded by the commencement of the Korean war in 1951, raising the spectre of yet another world war, and the prospect of a nuclear exchanges in Europe between an emboldened east and and a fatigued west.
Friends in far-away Melbourne offered good reports, and my parents and brother sought and obtained refugee entry to Australia on the guarantee of the Jewish community in Melbourne, which provided them with welfare assistance on their arrival and an interest free loan supported by the personal guarantee of wealthy members of the Jewish community. It was a special moment when the loan was repaid some years later, with great pride at the achievement which this repayment represented to us as a family.
There is a special irony in my personal story in that I ended up marrying the granddaughter of the guarantors of the loan to my parents. Fortunately, they paid the loan back.
I am trying to imagine how things would have been on the bow of the ship as it was arriving at Station Pier, Melbourne in 1951, with the vista of red tile roofs in Port Melbourne and St Kilda shimmering, in shall we say (for purposes of embelishing the story), thick summer heat. You know, that desert like haze drifting off the roof tops. They had never encountered heat like it – a confronting antipodean welcome for our forlorn but determined stateless newcomers as the friendly sea breeze met a monster of a north wind and a confronting welcome to country. They travelled with a few bags and a child in tow (my brother). Had they travelled any further, they would be starting the journey back.
They were met by some representatives of the Jewish Welfare organisation and taken to a temporary boarding house home. It must have been a moment not far short of landing on the moon - one of relief, joy and bewilderment. We have arrived, now what? Trundling along the wharf at Station Pier, who knew what awaited? There were no throws of the dice remaining. They had to make do.
They had finally arrived in a place they frankly knew very little about, but where they planned to remain for the balance of their lives, and in which they invested the last remains of all hopes and prayers. There was no absolutely no prospect of going back. The place from where they left had shut its door and bolted it closed. No bolt was required. This was it.
Here they were walking off the ship, old weathered bags in tow, into the great unknown, with little English and even less money, trusting in the new land after the complete betrayal and depravity of the home left behind. Surely, they had made the correct decision – didn’t they?
Immigration then was about arrival and making good – doing the best you could with such opportunities as were available. It was a one-way trip. My parents had arrived in the most remarkable but then isolated and protected place, a world away from all the terrors they had known.
Of course, very strange and peculiar things happened in this upside-down place which took some time to comprehend, if they were ever to be understood.
My mother once recalled the fickleness of Melbourne’s weather. She dressed my brother in shorts and no shirt for a trip to the city on a hot day, only to be trapped in one of Melbourne’s famous summer deluges during which searing temperatures drop dramatically in a matter of minutes. For her, nature had evolved a special set of rules for Melbourne.
Their simple and only plan was to respond to the challenge and do whatever they could, which was complicated not least from a communications perspective, given the problem of not knowing much English. They became self-taught and gradually became very proficient, but at first with barely a word. Their first language was Polish, with Yiddish a close second, and then French and some German and Russian. To the end of their days, they counted in Polish and swore in various languages, mostly Polish, which has a very guttural array of swear words. If they wanted to say something which I was not meant to understand, they would use Yiddish. It was, at least for me, their secret language. “What did you say?” I would insist. They would never tell me or never tell me properly – “You wouldn’t understand.”
Having established themselves in Australia and living in relative comfort, they remained, with their close friends, ostensibly on their own. It is more than slightly shocking to think that they never made one (what they would call) “real” Australian friend in over 40 years. They used the term “Australian” to refer to non-Jewish people, not out of any sense of prejudice. They were proud themselves to be Australian, but there were them and us. If I was going out with a non-Jewish girl, they would call her “Australian”. We were Jewish, “they” were “Australian”.
They were deeply self-sufficient and relished their peace for which they were eternally grateful. They would look at me and wonder what experience or wisdom I could possibly bring to life never having lived through anything in particular. What could I know, not having experienced the immediacy of possible death as they had known – just around the corner lay some trap from which there was no escape? For all my years of formal education, what could I tell them? Not much.
Their primary job, as parents, was to protect the children and hope we would not have the misfortune of living too fully (as they had done). Their instinct was to protect the little ones from the rage. Who was I to say the rage was overrated, that it is all not as bad as it seems? In their hearts, despite the bravado, I think they did not know true inner peace after all that happened, but they were gifted survivors. I remain in awe of their ability to survive, from day to day – somehow managing. Survival was the issue and it remains with the children of the survivors, like myself, to this day.
These “children” (now mostly 60 and older) may look secure. They may give the impression of being comfortable, affluent and successful, but in their hearts (at least my heart) they (me) are secretly engaged in private very personal acts of survival – just managing often quite ordinary situations (managing a queue, crossing the road, eating (usually too much)). If I think about it too much, I worry about a shaft and descending into the deep inner recesses. It is better that shaft remains closed. Sometimes, to be perfectly truthful, the absolute vulnerability of it all can seem too much to bear, and I enter into moments of very quiet solitude. You don’t know just how bad things can get, I think to myself.
I was born in the very dim distant past of the middle of the last century. Every time I write 1955 as part of my DOB, I feel a twinge of discomfort. Looks and sounds like quite a while ago. My parents had only been living in Australia for a short few years. I am told I was conceived in place of getting a dog. My mother told a childless woman who had a dog that she would like to get a dog. The woman said “don’t be mad” – “if you can have a child, forget the dog.” That’s me – woof.
In truth, I was born under the luckiest of stars. Looking at the objective considerations, you would never rate my prospects of being born. We are all a product of chance. My chance fell from the sky – there was the Holocaust, the most unlikely survival of my parents, the new country and growing affluence, and the desire for a dog.
As a young boy, my parents would speak to me in Polish, but encouraged me (when I could speak) to reply to them in English. This was a product of their absolute disdain for Poland after all they had been through, with the anti-semitism that one would have thought might have passed with the ending of the war quickly rekindled with the new communism after the war and its own virulent Stalinist anti-semitism. There were always Jews to hate, even when, in the case of Poland, there were almost no Jews left. You don’t need Jews to hate them. In fact, the fewer Jews around the better for thinking the very worst.
As a result of all this internecine politics and ancient hatreds, which was all well beyond my little mind of the time, I learned a child’s Polish vintage 1949 or so (being when my parents left Poland for France). I would do well in a kindergarten in Warsaw, assuming the language has not changed too much. I also had a good grasp of Polish swear words but invariably they defied translation. One of my favourites was the word “cholera” (pronounced in Polish as “ch” (as in how “h” sounds when you are trying to clear your throat), “ol” (as in “ol”), “era” (as in “error”). It could mean “oh shit”, “fuck”, “bloody hell”, “crap”, “that’s terrible” and more – all at once. “Shakref cholera” meant “cholera” ten times over.
My parents had suffered terrible disasters only a few years earlier – their entire families were murdered by the Nazis in the Second World War, very likely at Treblinka. They were the only survivors of two large families, having managed to escape from the Warsaw ghetto and finding a place to live in a country town, not far from Warsaw, which was arranged by a Polish family who knew my parents, but who sent them away to avoid being caught helping Jews. While the Poles, in the most general sense, had no particular affection for Jews, they often hated the Germans even more. For all the things said about the Poles in our Jewish houses, unlike France and Italy, and other Eastern states, they did not have a collaborationist government, and in fact made desperate efforts to fight the Germans, including the uprising in 1944.
In the country town where my parents found themsleves, they changed their identities and lived as Polish Catholics, which they somehow managed to do for some years of the war, dodging the chance occasions when they might be exposed - this time assisted by some local people who risked everything to protect them and aided their survival over years of the war. Unlike many Jews of Warsaw – a city where almost half of the population of two million or so before the War was Jewish – my parents both had very good Polish (many Jews did not, but instead had Yiddish as their mother tongue), and they were of fair complexions. Unlike Polish Catholic men, my father was of course circumsized, but luckily there were no revealing experiences, which would have been the end of them. It is a bit discomforting to think that the difference between betrayal/murder and life lay inside my father’s underwear.
It was one of the tragedies of the war, for my parents, that the good people in the town who helped them in their subterfuge, were killed in the final days of the war at the time of the Russian invasion, in circumstances unknown to me.
It is to my very great regret that almost the entirety of the detail of what happened to them is unknown to me. They didn’t want to talk about it, and the importance of testamentary accounts was not established as I was growing up. There was a lot they preferred to forget. They never did really, but they weren’t telling me about it.
The family who aided in the initial escape from Warsaw to the village survived and kept in touch with my family over the years. During the grim days of communism, we would send them a present of US dollars every Christmas through the Polish Government Travel Office, which had a branch in Melbourne. It was a common pilgrimage for Jews and non-Jews alike at Christmas time to the Polish Government Travel Office in Flinders Lane in the city, to arrange for the sending of US dollars to a forlorn people back in the old country.
The events of the 1940s were a complete disaster, and left gaping holes in our hearts, but all the Jewish boys and girls I knew in our survivor world in Melbourne were in the same position – none of us had grandparents and few, if any, had uncles, aunties or cousins. Our impression of generational connections was completely reserved to our imaginations. While I regret everything about this, as a grandparent today, I harbour a very secret wish (which I am now sharing) that I could have experienced having my own grandparents. I would have loved knowing them and learned from them about being a grandparent – not to be.
I had seven aunties and uncles who, of course, I never met. I know some of their names but not all. I probably had many first cousins. I could not tell you any of their names. There were some family photos – few remained – but I could not name most of the people in the photos. These were my aunties and uncles. I could not tell you anything about them.
Amongst the prized possessions of my family is a photo of my mother’s brother Joseph as a young man in his late teens or early twenties, in a posed photo wearing a suit and tie, one foot resting on a chair, elbow leaning on the resting leg. He is a constant figure in the background of our lives. He never ages. He just stays at ease in his enticing pose and stares at us. I sometimes wonder if he might somehow magically emerge from the photograph into our lounge room. We would love to tell him about all the good things that have happened since then and how well we had done.
I also have a photo of my mother’s father, taken when he visited New York in the 1920s, looking very handsome and ready to make do. He even became an American citizen, but unfortunately decided to return to Poland, I am told in search of a bride. It proved to be a disastrous decision.
The fact that I was told so little of the family story is a testament to the total trauma which my parents harboured and did their best to keep within themselves. They didn't want to talk about what happened and that was that. It was almost impossible to ask them. I always thought it was best not to go there.
Our families lived in Poland and Russia for generations – probably going back hundreds of years. They no doubt thought that the generations to come would lead similar lives in the same lands and continue the traditions that sustained so many of them over the centuries. All of this is speculation. I truth I know nothing beyond the generation of my grandparents and couldn’t think of how I would come to learn anything. The stories of generations upon generations of family members are completely lost.
Of one thing I was fairly certain – I was living very likely the best life of any of them, and just one generation away from complete disaster. I hoped this would give their spirits some comfort. Despite everything, we had done well. We had beaten the enemy and done well.
In Melbourne, amongst our Jewish circle, we regarded ourselves, out of necessity if nothing else, as being in one big family of special people who had survived and moved on – we were all quasi brothers, sisters, cousins and somehow connected through the special bond of survival and being the progeny of survivors. And we were Jews. The circumstance challenged the conventional notion of family. We were all family to each other. Our Jewish friends knew exactly what had happened and we were bonded together for life by shared experience, knowledge and empathy for the plight each of the families had faced. Of our close group, many had lost spouses and children in the wartime, but remarried after the war and started again. At least my parents, who married during the war, had each other.
To this day I have a special bond with the children of a number of these closely linked survivor families.
You might have expected that my household, and those like mine, would have been overwhelmed by grief, mourning and sadness. This was not how it was at all.
You see, there were generally two types of Polish Jewish immigrant families in Melbourne in the period of my childhood – those overtaken by the events of then only a few years prior and those who were intent on looking forward and building a new life in the welcoming and agreeable new land. My family was in the second group. We looked forward, and spent little time, at least public time, thinking or talking about what had happened. Private thoughts and secretly harboured terrors were something else and little discussed. It was not part of the discourse of the day to dwell, in public at least, on all that had happened. We were victims and to some extent quietly carried the almost unavoidable shame of the victim – who had been vulnerable to persecution and worse.
I do recall members of the first group – people who had been driven quite mad by all that had happened. I remember, as a child, being scared of some of the family friends, who presented, to my childhood eyes, as disturbed and dangerous – they seemed to wear permanently sunken eyes, probably heaving with sedatives. They looked like they never slept and somehow were incapable of wearing clothes properly – shirt buttons not done up properly, stained cardigans or ill-fitting shoes. Almost invariably, they hardly had any English and it was not easy for me to follow what they were talking about. They were always very kind to me, but I longed to be away from them. They were frightening.
The creation of Israel in the late 1940s, and the image of the strong Jewish fighter, further contributed to the quiet guilt of victimhood of the Holocaust survivors. Of course, a lot of this was to change, but at the time I am sure we were in the sway of this thinking.
If there was a particular time when everything changed, it coincided with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961, when for the first time the hero nation allowed itself to speak of its deepest feelings and terrors. This was the very first great event of public testament.
There were dark, bleak times in our house, when doors would be shut and the Polish swear words would go around, but they quickly passed – like a brooding storm which would occasionally cross over our sunny sky with its dark clouds. The arguments had to do with family failings, money lost, a stupid decision, insurrection of my brother, plain old anger. And then the troubles would go away, as if nothing had happened. I can remember a pot or pan being slammed down (not thrown). Was I ever smacked as a child? I don’t think so. Smacking children was common then. I thought of myself as being absolutely loved – a true little prince.
I have very fond memories of important Jewish holidays, celebrated with friends, in particular Passover, where the traditional Hagadah (the story of the exodus from Egypt) would be recited in its combination of Hebrew and Aramaic (the latter said to be the language of Jesus), usually at lightening pace in an Ashkenazi pronunciation which is more or less unknown today (other than in ultra-orthodox circles). These were very memorable family get-togethers. At the end of the night, it became a tradition to listen to recordings of the Yiddish comedian Dzigan (then living in Israel). My parents and their friends would be crying with laughter. “What did he say?” I would ask. It didn’t matter. “You wouldn’t understand”. I would never understand. The next joke was coming. The absolute and mysterious gaiety of the laughter is something that is one of my most treasured memories of childhood.
Compared to today, we had very simple lives. In keeping with the world around us, of other immigrants and working class locals, we didn’t have much money and did not really need much more than we had. In truth, there was not a lot to buy that we did not own. My father had a Holden car, we had a TV (black and white) – purchased for the 1956 Olympic Games, clothes and plenty to eat. We were doing well. We were street smart, which partly explained the wartime survival experience – street smart with a lot of luck. And we were grateful for whatever good fortune was available – no matter how seemingly insignificant. We were able to do well with the available opportunities, which was very much the way – the greater nation welcomed initiative and determination, but largely kept out of the way. There were no ground rules for success, no class system to be addressed. Everyone was encouraged to “have a go”. There was Christianity and white bread, but there was tolerance and a “good onya mate”.
But for immigration, it is hard to know how things would have been. The immigrants brought their foods, diverse practices and all sorts of guile and determination. Collectively, they wanted to give their kids chances they would never had in the old countries. They saw opportunity. It is difficult to imagine just how things would have been had Australia refused immigration. Instead, the nation embraced its multicultural future.
In our first family house, in Northcote, we did not have a toilet in the house and had to go outside to a little shed-like structure which housed a toilet. It didn’t seem to matter much. I am sure we would have to venture out on bitterly cold nights, but none of this remains in the memory. The inconvenience of an outdoor toilet would, of course, be unthinkable today, but it was all we knew then and we managed just fine.
In my early days, our fridge did not have automatic cooling, but was a large box which was not connected to any electricity. I cannot recall why this was – we were probably saving on the power bill. Perhaps fully electric fridges were hard to come by. Every morning an iceman would come by with his cart and horse – and deliver a bag of ice to keep the fridge cold. The clip clop of the work horse would be the familiar sound to mark the start of the day. I would peer through the curtains to see the steam coming off the horse’s breath on cold days as it pulled to attention in front of our house, and the heavy loads of ice would be lifted and dumped at the front door. Milk and eggs would come the same way – left at the front door. It was a forerunner of Uber Eats.
I have memories from this time, which I can locate to this time because when I was about five years old we moved from working class Northcote to serene Brighton. I didn’t think a lot about it at the time, but our move from Northcote to Brighton was a remarkable achievement. In a period of ten years, my parents had made enough money to move to a beautiful suburb by the sea, and we said goodbye to gritty Northcote and all the hardships of arrival in the new land and the early years of adaptation.
We had enough money but never a lot of money, just enough to keep moving forward. Other than trips to the bank with my father, where he would chat for what seemed to be an age to the tellers about nothing in particular (no one was in much of a hurry), money actually did not seem to count for very much. Some Jews, and other migrants, were buying shops and blocks of flats – not them.
Whilst in Northcote, my parents started a small clothing business, specialising in the manufacture of women’s uniforms – starting with no experience or particular skill, but clothing manufacture was typically a Jewish business – we referred to the produce of the business as “schmattes” (or rags in Yiddish). Assuming a New York/immigrant perspective on the issue, it probably had something to do with outfitting the new immigrants as they arrived in from Ellis Island. Anyway, in the case of my parents, they employed newly arrived women from southern Italy, as they continued to do when the business moved to Brighton and a special bond was established between the new arrivals from some small towns in Sicily and our family. It was a business for the new arrivals, doing piece work that the locals weren’t interested in, or (as I suspect my parents probably thought) were too lazy to do.
My main contribution to our economic welfare is that my father would get me to come to our little factory after school, when I was about 12 and for a few years following, to help type up invoices and letters. He did not really trust his grasp of English, although in time to come, when I was living overseas, he would write the most beautiful letters in long hand and in a formal slight old-fashioned English, which he largely taught himself. The particularly significance of this little sidebar to the present story is that I taught myself to type. If you could see me now, you would be admiring of my very unusual self-taught typing, with two fingers clunking hard on the keyboard that I know without looking.
I mentioned the television. It was a big deal to have a television in the mid to late 1950s. People began buying TVs in numbers to watch the Melbourne Olympic Games of 1956, which was an amazing coming of age moment for the city. I have a strong Northcote memory of television – watching Superman while lying on a couch arms outstretched like the great flying superhero. Superman and I would fly together in the noble cause of the rescue of the world. Like Superman, I think I might also have developed a special crush on Lois Lane with her pencil-thin waist, prim hats and high-heeled shoes, insofar as that was possible at age four to five. I had a particular crush on the high heels. I am pretty sure it was love. She was my epitome of the perfect woman, assuming again such a thing was possible at age four or five. Freud would be impressed.
At the end of our street in Northcote was the municipal rubbish tip – a fact of our lives which would be scandalously unthinkable today, but which, along with just about everything else, did not seem to bother us much. Nothing really bothered us much. We were not precious about anything material in those times. We just got on with everything.
Across the road from us lived a Pentridge prison guard. Whilst I never got to see the weapon, there was much talk (at least in my little mind) that he brought home a gun from work every night. I have implanted in my memory that on my last night in Northcote (before the move to Brighton), I slept at his house. The night, at least in the story I tell myself, coincided with my brother’s barmitzvah. The celebration party was too late for me to remain other than for an hour or two into the evening. I was driven home and taken across the road to the prison guard’s house to spend the night (under guard - spooky). There were no grandparents to stay over with, and neighbours did those kind of things for each other back then. As far as I knew, perhaps with the gloss of childhood memory elaborated by time, next morning we were all packed up and gone from Northcote, together with the mysterious gun across the road, the nearby tip, the outside toilet and wogs everywhere, forever - and into the serene beachside environment of Brighton. All of this happened in the blink of an eye, or over the course of an eventful day in the remnants of selective memory.
How my parents came to buy a house in Brighton, or even knew where Brighton was, is yet another mystery to me. I was pretty sure they had not robbed a bank (at least no one mentioned doing so), but they had done reasonably well in a short few years – such was the fabled promise and opportunity of the new land. It was as if we arrived in the new land a second time, but this land was really new, and it was Brighton (by the sea) and loaded with “Australians” – so many of them and so few of us.
Here we were in the new Anglo-Saxon-Celtic world of Brighton – away from our migrant and working class first home in the new world.
I was sent to the very respectable St Leonard’s College kindergarten, and then Haileybury College Primary School in South Road and my brother to the less glorious Brighton High School. The decision to send me to these schools was nothing short of remarkable – they were church schools, but were happy to have a Jewish boy. For much of my schooling I was in a minority of one to five or so Jewish boys in a school population of many hundreds of non-Jewish boys. My racial/religious identity was well known, and while our white bread country was not wonderfully welcoming of our rye or wholemeal, herring and other smelly things (purchased in Acland Street St Kilda on a Sunday afternoon), and a degree of genuine tension surrounded bringing my non-Jewish friends back to my foreign house, I still to this day cannot recall an experience of anti-semitism. How did I not earn the disapproval of the Christian world? I did not know why, but it never happened. If it did happen, I have chosen to forget all about it.
Robert Menzies was our Prime Minister (it seemed for life – like a kind of stately prince), and all was going well, save for some kind of problem between Russia and the United States, the details of which were not very clear to me but which involved nuclear weapons and the regular threat of mass destruction (which did not resonate with me – I was just enjoying myself). If they wanted to destroy each other, that was their business. I was having fun, by the sea, in Brighton.
In fact, the grandchildren of the Prime Minister attended my school, including one with the same name as the great leader himself and who was in my year. In the great tradition of grandparental pick-ups, I have a memory of the Prime Minister arriving at our school to take his grandchildren home, with much fuss and an entourage present. I mostly had to make my own way home.
My first real meeting with the big world of the news and world affairs very distinctly arrived on a Saturday morning in late November 1963. I was watching TV, kind of waiting for my parents to wake up so we could do something. The kids shows were suddenly stopped for an important announcement – President Kennedy had been killed. There was a cross to Walter Cronkite. He was looking grave. This sounded bad, really bad, so I thought I should wake my parents and tell them what I had heard. I can remember my mother crying at the thought of what terrible events might follow, and for the loss of the handsome and generally remarkable young President. It was a sombre and fearful Saturday, although whatever trouble was going to come, it would probably get to Melbourne last, so there was some comfort in that. We were far away and in the middle of nowhere so it couldn’t be all that bad. There would be a new President. It couldn’t be all that bad. That day still remains for me a turning point into a grey and often dark version of politics.
Another feature of these easier times was the willingness of parents, at least my parents, to allow young children to navigate their way to and from school, and generally do things for themselves. I would take a bus home from school, but actually getting home depended on taking the right bus and getting off at the right stop, which one day, as a little boy, I failed to do and ended up some miles from home. I knew I was in trouble and unsupervised got off the bus at a place I could not recognise. No one supervised my alighting at what was the incorrect stop.
This situation was, to be frank, totally overwhelming and I did not know what else to do but stand to attention and cry. Would I ever see home again? Some good soul saw me crying on a street corner and took me to the nearby police station. I was so completely beside myself that whilst I could remember my name was Colin, but I could not remember my surname. Remarkably, I did remember that I had a brother called George at Brighton High (but not our surname). The police contacted George’s school, found out where I lived (by a process of working through all of the Georges at the school) and promptly drove me home and into the arms of distressed parents. I was saved.
I realise now that my confusion over my surname could well have arisen from the change which had been made around that time from Golebiewski (our family name at the time, which no one could say) to Golvan (which my parents made up, but which had a respectable Francophone kind of sound to it and in fact is not entirely uncommon in France – as I now know from Google searches). It was hard for me to keep up and I am not sure I could quite follow what was happening. All I knew was that under the cloud of being lost, I simply could not remember my surname. To add to the general confusion, these “G” names had nothing to do with the family name before the events surrounding my parents going into hiding in Poland. Our name then was Pinkel. The name Golebiewski was an assumed name, which was distinctly Polish (and not Jewish, unlike Pinkel), and which I have decided (with no proof) belonged to someone else who was killed during the war, with that person’s papers came to be assumed by my parents. In other words, as part of their survival during wartime, I am guessing that my parents took the name of a real person or people who had died and their papers had become available. Alternatively, the name and the identity of Golebiewski could have been completely made up and been the subject of forged papers.
You can see that I am very confused about my family name.
This name change to Golvan was part of our gentrification story, as was giving me the name Colin and then sending me to a Presbyterian boys school. It says so much about the thinking of my parents at the time – they were not going to be victims again, but wanted to be part of the main game, but that did not mean giving up Jewish identity. That would be unthinkable. Rather, the plan was to make that identity translatable, and to have all the right trappings and skills to best manage the next catastrophe for the Jews which, they figured (based on then recent experience), was bound to happen some time in the relatively foreseeable future. We had to be equipped to survive, with a good knowledge of the ways of the non-Jewish world. We were not going to be caught out again. We were match ready for survival.
It is fair to say that the deep paranoia of those times has passed, or so it seems, although it is part of the great Jewish story that disaster will inevitably return. That is the main point of most of the Jewish festivals – the Jews are living in some degree of comfort and at ease, disaster strikes (usually unexpectedly and with no good cause), we have to move on (from Egypt, Persia and even our promised land), and to properly honour each such event today we say a few prayers, have too much to eat around boisterous family tables and take some comfort in honouring ancient tribal traditions.
Whilst on names, and just to show how shambolic our situation was, when I was born, my parents wanted to name me after my father’s mother, who was known as Tzippah (short for “Tzipporah” which means bird in Hebrew). They thought the closest sounding English name would be Cecil. My then eight year old brother interceded and demanded they drop the ridiculous idea of Cecil, and so the name Colin was reached by negotiation. I am not sure what terrible fate in the playground would have awaited Cecil Golebiewski.
There is something to be said for how the course of a life can be changed by one’s name and, at the very least, by not having to spell out Cecil Golebiewski.