by Edmund Campion
Alan Gill - a name treasured by longtime readers of the Sydney Morning Herald; as the paper's church roundsman he won a reputation for cluey, unbiased reporting. When he was awarded an Australian honour some years ago, everybody was happy. One of the fingerprints of Gill's reporting was its personal note: he knew and had spoken to the people he wrote about, whether Ian Paisley or Cardinal Freeman or Archbishop Loane, and he spiced his story with apt anecdotes. (As I well know. Thirty years ago, when I published my first book, I had a tee-shirt emblazoned with the slogan EXPAND YOUR MIND, READ LORD ACTON AND THE FIRST VATICAN COUNCIL: A JOURNAL. Thereafter, whenever Gill mentioned my name that old tee-shirt somehow got into his text.)
Leaving the Herald after 23 years, he set himself to write the story of the thousands of British children who were immigrated - the passive voice is deliberate - to Australia, their vicissitudes and triumphs. Surviving the collapse of its original publishers, Orphans of the Empire became a voice for the voiceless, which made it a success and won Gill many friends. Now he has followed this with an account of the German and Austrian children, mainly Jewish, who came to Australia as refugees from Hitler's Reich. Interrupted Journeys (Simon and Schuster, $34.95). Another winner, I'd say.
With his account of the child refugees Gill mixes in bits of the history of somewhat older people who came here too to escape from Hitler. The most famous of these were 'enemy alien' passengers on the Dunera, the most talented shipload ever to arrive on Australian shores. Their contributions to Australian academia, culture and sport are well known; and Gill does not dwell on their fame. Instead, he focusses on the everyday lives of the new arrivals, tapping into their memories half a century later. As in his journalism, Gill has here gone out to meet the people he writes about, so that he can recount their lives in their own words.
There is horror here - of course, because he is writing about human beings: brutal British guards, uncaring foster homes, loneliness and the longing for lost parents. There is also, however, the celebration of good people who cared for the refugees, gave them homes and got them through school and then into jobs and invited them to Channukah celebrations and listened and guided and loved them - surrogate parents. It is good that this grassroots history is being recorded. Our epitaphs are written in the memories of our friends, as the New Zealand writer Dan Davin once wrote; now, thanks to Alan Gill, some worthy epitaphs have progressed from memory into print.
There's Syd Einfeld and his wife Billie who met the new arrivals and took them home, keeping an eye out for the shy ones. Today a stretch of the Bondi Junction freeway is named after Syd; but his real memorial is the remade lives of dozens of young people and their fortunate descendants.
There's John and Peggy Lewinnek, who kept open house each Saturday, always on call to sort out young people's troubles. An importer of women's fashion, Lewinnek would invite refugee women to his showrooms and give them their pick from each season's creations. At Channukah he used to throw a party in a communal hall for all the new arrivals. One year they surprised him by throwing a Channukah party for him and over a thousand people came. One of them, who met her future husband at a Lewinnek party, remembered half a century later: "They had no one. They had no language, no profession, no one to turn to; and suddenly they had this wonderful couple to act like substitute parents."
Some fifty photographs augment Gill's book. The last of these may startle a casual browser, for it shows a placid Otto Nechwatal in his Melbourne shop, which sells, as the picture reveals, crucifixes, icons, holy pictures and other Christian artefacts. The picture seems an odd addition to a book you had thought was about Jewish refugees... until you noticed that Gill has tacked onto his book a chapter about the Vienna Mozart Boys' Choir, who were stranded here at the outbreak of war and to whom Dr Mannix gave sanctuary, with the help of hospitable (and often poor) Catholic families. The boys, including Otto Nechwatal, became Mannix's cathedral choir: 'Singing for their supper' is the apt title of the relevant chapter.
An early chapter traverses the question whether government constraints on Jewish immigration amounted to anti-Semitism. It's a question that divides Jewish historians. Some, such as Suzanne Rutland and Paul Bartrop, have argued that any limitation on numbers was discrimination. Others, led by W D Rubenstein, point to the painful shortage of shipping after World War II. Minister for Immigration Arthur Calwell was sympathetic to survivors of Hitler's Reich but, while accepting the Jewish community's offer to pay for transport, he persuaded communal leaders to limit Jewish passengers to 25 per cent on each ship. When Australian service personnel and dislocated families couldn't get ships to return home, the arrival of shiploads of refugees could and probably would have become inflammatory.
I say 'probably' because in fact anti-Semitism never erupted as a major social disease here. Oh, I know there still exists a sort of subfusc anti-Semitism - Rubinstein's big history has 121 pages on anti-Jew cartoons, jokes and leaflets - but that level of anti-Semitism seems to me no more threatening (though it is discomforting) that the anti-Catholicism one sometimes encounters at film festivals or meetings of the Teachers' Federation. Gill quotes a letter to PM Chifley: 'I am not a vindictive woman: these aliens are God's creatures just the same as we are. All the same, I sincerely, trust that a U-boat gets every one of them.' You might encounter that sort of shit at any moment of modern Australian history; but for the most part we keep bad thoughts to ourselves and we don't act on them. It is a remarkable fact that, per capita, Australia admitted more survivors of the Holocaust than any other country, Israel excepted. As for Arthur Calwell, the grateful Jewish community named a forest in Israel after him.
Alan Gill's is a book that inspires hope for the future because it tells one of the success stories of our nation.
Book from Simon & Schuster