Articles written for JEWISH WEEK by Leonard J. Lehrman

Reflections on the Shoah and the Refuge Down Under:
Cultural Contributions of Some Australian Holocaust Survivors

April 2, 2002

by Leonard Lehrman

Written in time for Yom Hashoah issue; not printed

[see editor's message at end]

In a secret report by the Australian Consul-General, Colonel Fuhrman, in Shanghai, the Jews were characterized, in 1947, as a people with "pasts unknown and unspeakable, their intentions obscure." Immigration was halted.

Nine years earlier, at the Evian Conference, the Australian delegate had also spoken against Jewish immigration: "We have no racial problems, and have no wish to import them." (Only in 1967 did Aborigines obtain the right to be counted in every future national census. But that's another story.)

Despite such prejudices, Australia has been a refuge for the unwanted, and especially for Jews, both during and after the Holocaust, as well as right now--a time of (white) exodus from South Africa that we in the Northern Hemisphere have little awareness of. Just as German Jewish communities are doubling and tripling in size from the influx of former Soviet citizens, so Jewish property owners from Capetown to Johannesburg, many of whom fought against apartheid, now, with a black majority government, find it impossible to prevail against illegal squatters, and have been abandoning their properties and migrating in droves to Sydney and Melbourne in the southeast and especially (the much closer) Perth in Western Australia.

The Fuhrman quote above is on display as part of "Crossroads: Shanghai and the Jews of China," an exhibition at the Sydney Jewish Museum, a building which devotes nearly 80% of its space to the Holocaust. Among the 40,000 Jews of Sydney's 5,000,000 population are the museum's volunteer docents like 81-year-old David Benedict who survived the Holocaust and came to Australia to get as far away as possible from "Europe - the graveyard of my people."

Yet the museum also features stories of the first Jews of (early 19th century) Sydney, like Ikey Solomon, the alleged model for Fagin in Dickens's Oliver Twist; and Joseph Samuel, whose death sentence was commuted after the rope with which he was being hanged broke three times, and this was seen as a "sign of divine intervention."

More recent and comprehensive Australian Jewish history is featured in the Jewish Museum of Melbourne, where Jews number 50,000 in a population of 4,000,000 and, according to novelist Lily Brett, the highest concentration of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel may be found. (Performing at both the Hakoah Club of Bondi in Sydney, and the Theodor Herzl Club in Melbourne, we were reminded of the Miami Beach of a decade or two ago.)

In Melbourne's Jewish Museum you can see historical photos of synagogues all over Australia, most of the rural ones now dissolved for lack of membership, as well as a portrait of the English-born father of Australian opera, the composer Isaac Nathan (1792-1864), who collaborated with and inspired Byron in his Hebrew Melodies.

Next to the painting of Nathan is a large photograph of film and opera composer and bassoonist George Dreyfus (b. 1928), a colorful character who was one of only 17 to arrive in Australia from Germany in the Kindertransport of 1939, and who seems to live by the motto that forms the title of his latest video, "Life Is Too Serious." When his opera Garni Sands received its U.S. premiere, in 1975, he threatened a cutoff of diplomatic relations if no one came to review it! (The Times and Aufbau did, the latter calling it "no Australian Bohème.")

A strong contrast to the Melbournian Dreyfus is the equally prolific Sydneysider composer/pianist and teacher Eric Gross (b. 1926), another Kindertransport survivor, from Vienna, by way of Scotland. Unlike Dreyfus, who has celebrated the Australian Jewish vaudevillian Roy Rene in his works and returned to Germany for productions of his absurdist operas, written in German, Gross has not done so. The Czech Republic, yes. But as for Vienna, his birthplace: "I can't be bothered." (Dreyfus's parents both survived; Gross's father never returned from Theresienstadt.) His one opera, The Amorous Judge, in English, based on a German classic, Kleist's The Broken Jug, has had only one production, in Sydney. It deserves more.

De Profundis, an opera by yet another Australian Jewish composer, Canberra resident Larry Sitsky (b. 1934), who emigrated from China with his Russian-born parents in 1951, received its U.S. premiere March 14 at New York's oldest synagogue building, the Angel Orensanz Foundation on the Lower East Side, co-sponsored by the Australian Consulate and the American Australian Association of New York. A monologue for baritone, string octet and percussion based on Oscar Wilde's letter from (not the ballad of) Reading Gaol, the seven-sectioned work received a heartfelt performance by Australian baritone Kerry Henderson and an ensemble conducted by Eckart Preu. Mr. Henderson has the looks and energy of a Mandy Patinkin, if not quite the vocal control or the charm.

Still, the audience was stirred. Gay themes seem to be very much à la mode in Australian presentations these days, from a revival of Steve J. Spears's flamboyant monodrama of 1976, The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin, at the Sydney Opera House, to Dean Bryant's and Mathew Frank's coming-out musical, Prodigal at Manhattan's York Theater last month. The latter prompted the comment by Neil Genzlinger of the N.Y. Times: "Ho-hum. Maybe this is unexplored territory in Australian theater." The Spears piece, not about the American inventor, is rather about a young boy names Benjamin Franklin whose (offstage) precocity provokes unfulfilled but nonetheless punished longings for pedophilia on the part of his cross-dressing speech teacher.

But Jewish themes? Actually, the two intersect in real life: A leading cantor of Sydney's majority Orthodox Jewish congregations recently went over to the Reform (known in Australia as "Liberal") because of lack of acceptance by the Orthodox of his homosexuality. And Melbourne's Midsumma Arts Festival featured a new opera by Estele Pizer entitled Perverse, "about a daughter coming to terms with her father being gay."

One would like very much to see Mr. Sitsky's 1980 opera, The Golem, which is also the title of a provocative poem by Melbourne's Alex Skovron, a child of Holocaust survivors.

Musical settings by two American composers -- Gordon Brisker (b. 1937) and this writer -- of poems by Lodz Ghetto survivor Jacob Rosenberg (b. 1922) were among those premiered by soprano Helene Williams to a sold-out house January 5 in a program entitled, "An Australian Odyssey - Poetry Into Music" at Melbourne's Chapel Off Chapel, organized by Skovron and recorded by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Yet one of Australia's leading music critics, Clive O'Connell, while praising the singing and the "bid to give musical voice to Australian poetry," mentioned every one of the poets present who read from their works--except Mr. Rosenberg. Whatever the reason for the omission, the poet was not impressed. "I am not hurt as a person," Rosenberg remarked. "I am hurt as a Jew."

Even among the nicest, most laid-back, and understanding of people, as Australians are, there is room for progress, eh, mate?

--Leonard Lehrman

Tuesday, April 02, 2002 2:09 PM
From: "Rob Goldblum"
To: elehrman
Subject: RE: Yom Hashoah issue article for Jewish Week
we'll pass on this piece. just too far afield. thanks, rob