Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Acknowledging a forgotten people

 I'm celebrating today. I have just received the first copy of the reprint of my sister’s book. This means that at least one of my projects has come to fruition this year.  The first two small print runs had sold out and there were still some outstanding requests, but my sister hasn’t been in the best of health lately and couldn’t do it herself. It was supposed to be really easy.  Sabi deserves loads of credit for getting it out there in the first place, but best of all, it can now be bought through almost any bookshop anywhere in the world and can also be ordered online via Amazon, Booktopia, The Book Depository and possibly even this blog, when I work out how to put the widget on. Copies of the book are also available in several libraries, especially around Melbourne, at the Immigration Museum and in some University German Departments. I am talking about the English version here. The German version published by Verlag Sindlinger -Burchartz*  was released in April.The difference in price is because the English version has some colour illustrations, in case you were wondering.

Gundel 1940's - No, this picture isn't in the book, but it's one of my favourites

 So what is this book about and why does it matter?

 On the surface “A Life in Two Suitcases” is a simple story lovingly pieced together from fragments, diary entries, letters and my sister’s recollections of our mother’s life.  Gundel’s cultured, middle class life in southern Germany is shattered as Hitler rises to power. She is expelled from school for writing an anti -fascist essay, some of her family members are forced to flee and neither of her parents survive the war. As peace returns, she is at last able to marry and she and her husband begin to eke out a modest living. However, after another personal tragedy, she is persuaded to seek a new life Australia, though this does not prove to be the utopia she imagined.

Through the prism of Gundel’s story we see what life was like during the Nazi era in Germany, particularly for those of Jewish descent, and what Australia was like in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. That picture is not always flattering. See for example, what Gundel wrote of her first impressions of George Town in the 1950s:

“But everything is so empty: there is a lack of fantasy, spirit, soul and heart. Here one becomes spiritually and emotionally sterile.”  [“A life in two Suitcases”: P. 76]

Later, reflecting on the migrant experience as we moved yet again, she wrote:

“Somehow we are always in transit. I don’t mean that we are physically on the move, but since we have severed our roots in Europe, we are rootless and have become spiritual gypsies…” [“A life in two Suitcases”: P. 89]

Fortunately she eventually comes to appreciate those wide open spaces, and there are also some lighter moments, but that’s all I'm going to tell you for now.

This book is not perfect in every way. The poetry sounds very stilted in English, some of the pictures could be better. I even disagree with some of the things my sister wrote - for instance Dad's car was not a Hillman, but a maroon gangster saloon with big running boards, and there were no plastic bottles in the 50's, but it doesn't change the substance of the story. It is about real people and real lives. It's significance lies in the fact that it gives a voice to the experience of many of those Post World War II migrants for whom coming to Australia was not necessarily the universal success story which almost everyone now seems to claim. For example,  Dr John Hirst, Emeritus Scholar, School of Historical and European Studies, at La Trobe University, writing in The Conversation  in 2014, began by saying,   “Let’s admit it, Post War Immigration was a success “ simply because most migrants did eventually end up owning a home and their children usually did well.  

However, this glosses over the fact that it was not always a happy experience for everyone. To his credit Peter Mares in "Not Quite Australian" 2016:16)** mentions the bullying, taunts, social exclusion and social stratification, though at least there was no overt persecution.  A Greek friend, who came to Australia at around the same time as we did, says her mother cried every day.  Large numbers, around 10% returned to their homeland when this became possible due to growing affluence and the advent of cheap airfares.  In Gundel’s time, that was an impossible dream. 

Why does this matter 50 or 60 years later?

As Barbara Roche, the UK’s former Minister for Immigration and now Chair of Trustees of Britain’s recently opened National Immigration Museum, explained at its opening in 2017. “…personal stories (are also) national stories; all our stories,” and a way of exploring our history.

So far the literature has been remarkably sparse with respect to the 4.2 million people who migrated to Australia between 1945 and 1985 (although around 40% still came from the UK).  Perhaps like Gundel, their lives ended prematurely, or they lacked the language skills or the leisure to write down their experiences, or they thought their lives were simply too ordinary and no one would want to hear about them. It certainly did not do to suggest that this “shining example of Australian humanitarianism and generosity” (Mares 2016:13)**which represented a ‘seismic shift’ in immigration policy, was anything less than perfect.  To quote from Barbara Roche‘s opening address again, although she was speaking about the UK:

“Britain has one of the best museum sectors in the world, but there is no cultural space devoted to conveying the importance of migration in the narrative of this country. It has always seemed a strange omission, as if there is a reluctance to acknowledge the integral role migration has played in the formation of Britain as we know it.”

The same could be said of Australia too, although Melbourne did get its Immigration Museum in 1998. No -one wants a pity party, nor was it all bad, but we shouldn't airbrush the stories of quite a large number of people and a particular period out of our history either, as we  used to do with aboriginal history and convict history.  I like to think Australia has grown up a lot since those times, and that this book will help to fill in that void.  Alas, the people who would have appreciated it the most, have largely left the stage, but it will resonate with their families and anyone who has had to make a new life in a distant country. The people who should read it, are those who have stayed comfortably at home.  

 As new waves of migrants sweep the world and we now embrace sushi, burritos, laksa and Rogan Josh, it might be worth pausing for a moment while sipping that latte, or that nice little drop of Merlot or Chardonnay, or even while eating your muesli or yoghurt, to drink a little toast to those pioneers and say a silent thank you.

A big thank you also to all the people who have helped me with this project over the last couple of months, especially Scott Jones at the Waratah Group, Jacinta at Focal Press, the many people I have badgered  at Ingram Spark, my fabulous family and in-house IT team, and of course the lovely Michael C.  who not only offered to write a program to overcome some technical issues, but provided much emotional encouragement. 

PS As my friend Michael pointed out, Australians may not have been terribly enthusiastic about all the newcomers, but by allowing people to come to Australia, they did save many from persecution and  possible extermination.

 (Gundel’s family is better known in Germany, partly because of Gundel's own writing, but also because of the missionary work in India by previous generations and the connection to  Herman Hesse [Winner of 1946 Nobel Prize for Literature] see for example the Herman Gundert portal at the University of Tuebingen about Gundel's great grandparents and Hesse's grandparents which will be available internationally with translations as of 20/11/2018) .

** This line is loosely borrowed from “Not Quite Australian” by Peter Mares (2016: Text Publishing, Melbourne). It talks about contemporary migration and temporary migration and how this differs from earlier periods.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Lilac Time

Just a few snippets today as I have been sick this week and now have a lot of catching up to do.  I have also been testing my camera as it wasn’t working properly when we went to Tahune. This is such a beautiful time of the year. The scent of lilacs is in the air. It always reminds me of that wonderful summer in Siberia* where lilacs are used as street trees. Most of the other trees are are now clothed in lush green although there are still a few cherry blossoms about.

Mobile Healthcare for the Homeless

Free Hearing tests for Seniors Week

Free books and reading on the way to town

For weary bookworms
Post office does its bit for farmers too

There are some divine aquilegias about too

Hope you are all feeling perky and thank you very much for the lovely comments and feedback on the blog, which, as usual, I only seem to discover when I have enforced downtime. Nature’s way of making you stop and smell the roses – er lilacs.

* Cheers to all my friends there. I've just looked back at some of the blog pics. from that time and see they are small and squibby and that some have fallen off. I will try to update these at some stage, as they simply do not convey the beauty of the place.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Superb Lyrebird – or is it?

This is what a lyrebird looks and sounds like. If you prefer to see the same clip with lower picture quality, but in David Attenborough's well modulated tones, see the clip at the bottom.

I forgot to mention it yesterday, but just before we got to Tahune, a Superb Lyrebird crossed the road in front of us – a rare sight as they are normally very shy. The remarkable thing about the Lyrebird is its ability to mimic other sounds. I was telling Miss Ten that the last one I saw - also in this area, on my first walk to Adamson’s Falls, sounded like a chainsaw and she said, “Is that why they call them Liar birds?” You'll see why they call them Lyre birds when you have looked at one of the clips. For information about their habits, feeding and breeding click here

Lyrebirds are not native to Tasmania but were initially introduced from the mainland by Lady Franklin in the 1800’s. In the 1930’s and 40’s fearing mainland extinction due to habitat loss  and the presence of European predators such as foxes,  several more  were released near Hastings- just south of here,  and Mount Field.  Beautiful as they are, as with most introductions e.g. rabbits, cane toads and blackberries, there is a downside. 

At first  Lyrebirds seemed to have fitted in rather well, possibly occupying the niche which used to be occupied by the small Tasmanian emu which became extinct  soon after white settlement  (No, the settlers didn’t necessarily hunt them to death. It is now thought that the rats which came with them, may have eaten the eggs), but now the 22 birds which were introduced by1949 have grown to an estimated 8000 birds and have extended their range all over the state. Their habit of scratching up huge mounds for nests now threatens other species - tearing out seedlings, removing the insects and preventing regeneration.  It is in the leaf litter and moss that the seeds for our rare species germinate and once loosened, they are easily washed away.  This is why some of our beautiful wilderness waterfalls will be very slow to recover after recent floods.

Because of their history on the mainland, Lyrebirds are still protected, but the day may come when Tasmania may have to consider culling them. This is the problem when you live on a small rock which is in fact a floating Ark.  It is also why we have to be s -o -o -o -o careful with what can be brought in, so please don’t complain when we ask you to ditch you fruit and vegetables on entry. Every introduction, even a microscopic one, poses new risks.

Enjoy our lyrebirds while you can.

Here's David Attenborough’s English version of the above clip

UPDATE 3/8/2019 :Just came across this interesting bit about Lyrebirds, which debunks the myth that the chainsaw sounds I heard the lyrebird make are copied from human activity. If you hear something like that record it with your phone and send it to Send it to offtrack@abc.net.au

Saturday, October 13, 2018

A fine day in the Huon Valley and some great news for Tasmanians

At this time of year it should be compulsory for everyone to visit the Huon Valley. The fields are still green, there’s a touch of snow on at least one of the mountains and all the apple blossom is out.
Now there’s another reason to visit for Tasmanians at least.  Tahune Forest Adventures is offering Tasmanian residents a free forest adventure pass for 18 months if they apply before December 31.  
Cantilevered section of the Airwalk  gives views over the tree tops, the mountains and both rivers, if you don't mind heights

Being the last official day of school holidays, we thought we should go before the operators changed their minds.  Soon the five of us – representing three generations, were heading off in the direction of the Airwalk. This is an engineering wonder which affords excellent views over the Huon River, the Picton River and the Hartz mountains. It also allows you to get up close and personal with rainforest species such as sassafras, myrtle, celery top and leatherwoods, as well as some tall stringy barks.  For those not familiar with temperate rainforest, it’s an excellent introduction, and even for those who are, it offers a whole new perspective.  And if, like one of the friends with whom I walked a few days ago, you prefer your wilderness a little less wild and with all amenities, then this place for you.   

Huon River - Cymbaline's Phone pic.

Spring growth puts pretty coppery tips on myrtles
The Native Laurel is  in flower

I think this could be a yellow flowering dogwood

As we stopped for apples beside the river, this magnificent square rigger sailed by
Tasmanian or not, you still have to pay for the accommodation and other activities such as Eagle Gliding or rafting, neither of which we attempted today, though we did enjoy the Swinging Bridges Walk which was a big hit with the girls who seemed a teensy bit apprehensive on some parts of the treetop walk. 
Then, after having afternoon tea in Geeveston, were lucky enough to spot a platypus or two on the Platypus Walk along the Kermandie River. Bees buzzed in the blossom and daisies, bluebells and perwinkles flourished at the margins. Of course, no visit to the Huon would be complete without buying at least one bag of apples from the many honesty boxes on  the way home. Just as we stopped  to do so, a square rigged wooden boat sailed by - just as it would have in days gone by -a fitting  finish to a lovely day.