On “Jewish Writing” in Australia

Metaphysical Dread


At the back of her pocket Collins German Dictionary, in the looping Suetterlin script once taught in German schools, my grandmother has written, “This dictionary bought with the last money exchanged into English currency and bought on departure from Europe. Liverpool 1939.”

The tattered relic with its broken spine and fraying, Sellotaped edges was one of the few possessions she carried when she left Europe as a German Jewish refugee. It’s become symbolic of two things about my grandmother: her determination to be identified as Australian-never speaking German outside the home even once it was safe to be German, and Jewish-and the sustaining role that writing played in her life.

More than 60 years after the end of the Second World War books by Holocaust survivors are still being published in Australia. Recent examples include Sabina Wolanski’s Destined to Live (HarperCollins, 2008) and Auschwitz survivor Jacob Rosenberg’s award-winning East of Time and Sunrise West (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2005; 2007). Yet the declining number of those who’ve directly witnessed the Holocaust means the event will increasingly be portrayed by younger writers. How do works from the children of survivors in Australia—the so called “second-generation”—differ from their predecessors’ and what features do they share, if any?

Professor Richard Freadman has written the only extended study of autobiography and memoir by Australian Jews, This Crazy Thing A Life: Australian Jewish Autobiography (UWA Press, 2007), surveying 700 works including books and shorter pieces. He says with a few exceptions, most survivor accounts he studied were simple, chronological narratives by people whose educations were curtailed by war, or who had not come from a literary tradition. Some featured aspects of traditional European storytelling or folktales. By contrast, many second-generation accounts were more self consciously literary and introspective. And central to these were questions about identity and ownership of family stories, and about what Jewishness is in a Diaspora community.

Andrew Riemer’s memoir A Family History of Smoking (MUP, 2008) grapples with Jewish identity in a work peopled with eccentric family members from pre-war Budapest. An academic and literary critic, Riemer came to Australia as a boy with his assimilated Jewish-Hungarian parents in 1947. His memoir, says the Sydney Morning Herald is, “not so much remembered as reassembled, reimagined from the half-truths, stories, legends, myths and innocent embellishments passed down through generations like family heirlooms” (John Huxley, SMH, 24/5/08). Riemer told the Herald he is fast becoming the “sole custodian” of family history.

There is a particular psychic pressure bestowed by such “custodianship”, because of the great imperatives to record an event like the Holocaust for the historical or family record. Embedded in survival stories are often lessons about life and death, about how to deal physically and emotionally with loss, about the rituals, beliefs and acts that have sustained individuals or communities. My grandmother often exhorted me to write her story, because, she claimed, she couldn’t. But in fact she left masses of writing: every letter she’d ever sent (in English or German, carbon-copied and filed, sometimes in triplicate); scrappy notes-to-self on the profound to the mundane; page-long recollections of life under the Nazis; lists of people killed in the Holocaust and cause of death where known; diaries detailing her Berlin childhood and her return there after the War. The sheer volume of what she wrote, and the many times these materials touched on the Holocaust, suggest how integral writing was to sustaining her self and her memories of what she had lost. My recent novel, Burning In (Giramondo, 2007) was partly informed by these materials and her stories, which have hovered in my imagination for some time. But rather than write about the Holocaust, I wanted to explore a particular instance of its aftermath: how the child of survivors deals with her mother’s chronic grief and discovers what silence has erased about her German past.

Academic and author Mark Baker describes some second-generation writing as “the literature of return”. Books by Arnold Zable, Lily Brett and Baker’s own literary memoir, The Fiftieth Gate (HarperCollins, 1997), often describe a journey and reconnection to a homeland and cultural inheritance that was severed by the Holocaust. For some, such journeys are an attempt to piece together stories that have been fragmented by their parents’ silence. “If you say that the human being is a narrative craving creature then wallpapering [over the silences]” goes against our basic impulse, says Professor Freadman. Much second-generation writing features “very particular emotional shadows and complications”. There is often “a feeling of colossal monstrousness [when confronting their parents’ experiences], a metaphysical dread”, Freadman says. And while some authors, like Zable, maintain in their work “a core of enchantment that has not been vanquished by the Holocaust”, other works such as Lily Brett’s “seem more encircled by [the Holocaust]”.

Both Freadman and Baker say that literature by the second or third generation in Australia continues to be haunted by the Holocaust and many of these works reveal that trauma is transgenerational. Authors Rose Zwi, Ramona Koval and Susan Varga have all explored these issues in their work and many others are anthologised in Kathy Grinblat’s Children of the Shadows: Voices of the Second Generation (UWA Press, 2002). Baker identifies a tendency to psychologise in the works of the post-Holocaust generation who’ve been raised in more introspective cultures than their predecessors were. This turning inward for answers is often a natural response when faced with the unknown sources of parental expressions of trauma, shame, displacement and loss.

Baker, himself the child of survivors, explored his parents’ experiences in The Fiftieth Gate and is writing a novel. Commenting on the characteristics of accounts by his generation, he says, “one is constantly mediating between personal entanglement with the survivors, yet at the same time wanting to transcend that dimension”. Second generation writers often struggle for the right form and language to express an event that has preceded and sometimes dominated their childhoods. Questions—about the limits of language and ownership of such stories—are frequently part of the narrative itself and in Baker’s memoir fiction and poetry was interwoven with factual account, highlighting the competing narratives that comprise historical material. Writers are also confronted by “the whole notion of unrepresentability [which is] a mystification of the Holocaust… [and] which clouds understanding”, he says.

Baker says that the identity of the Australian Jewish community was moulded “in the shadow of the Holocaust”, whereas in the United States, Jewish identity was largely shaped by late 19th century immigration. And though it appears that the Holocaust has become the “master identity of Australian Jewry”, recent critiques have broadened this “destruction narrative”, he says, citing essays in New Under the Sun: Australian Jews on Faith, Politics and Culture (edited by Michael Fagenblat, Melanie Landau, Nathan Wolski, Black Inc., 2006).

Journalist and author Antony Loewenstein says his work My Israel Question (MUP, 2007) and his print and online articles stem from a interest in “redefining or shifting the definition of what Judaism is…Judaism does not have to be interlinked with Zionism.” His Jewish identity does not define his self or his work—“I see myself as a human being first and a Jew second.” But his background has led him to fervently question what he perceives as a reluctance to openly discuss Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians among some in the established Jewish community and in the Western media. Loewenstein’s grandparents were assimilated European Jews who lost most of their relatives in the Holocaust and migrated to Melbourne in 1939. Because of their experiences he understands the strong emotional connection of Holocaust survivors to Israel. Yet “years of listening to Jewish family, friends, [and] community dehumanising Palestinians and Arabs” fired his interest in human rights. His work has raised the ire of many in the Australian Jewish community, which became, according to Professor Freadman, “almost universally Zionistic after the Holocaust”. Though he has received death threats and hate mail Loewenstein says he has also had support from non-Jews and Jews grateful that he has provided a forum for discussion.

A story from his maternal grandmother led to Vogel Award-winning Bernard Cohen’s short piece “Breitbart, the Strongest Jew”, published in Alan Jacobs’ Enough Already: An Anthology of Australian Jewish Writing (Allen & Unwin, 2000). Cohen has travelled to Poland and the Ukraine to research his maternal grandparents’ history, though none of his 4 novels have so far explored this heritage. When he does write about this research material, he says jokingly, “it might be seen that this is what I was meant to write about”. His identity as a Jew, and as a writer, is complex he says, comprised of “all the elements of my experience, including being brought up as modern Orthodox…plus all my personal history, attending state schools, the universities I went to…inner city life…”. Cohen’s novels are influenced by, among other things, European avant-garde writers working in a “strongly experimental modernist mode.” They have at times polarised critics, so he was pleased when his Polish grandfather, a journalist, recognised these European literary precursors in the work.

Cohen’s grandparents’ experiences have impacted on the way he teaches writing to young people, many of whom have refugee backgrounds. Having family killed in the Holocaust, made him very aware of  “how little space there was and how little capacity [his grandparents] had to tell their stories…how they’d lived with this locked up inside themselves.” As a teacher his role is sometimes to unlock stories from children who have encountered displacement and trauma, but struggling with English and a new culture, have had little opportunity, or means to express it. “I recognise the experience of being moved from a generations-long culture into a new culture and how challenging that kind of transformation is.”


First published in The Australian, August 16, 2008

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© 2015 Mireille Juchau. Homepage image © Wendy Ewald "Girl with Mirror". Author photo © Alex Craig.