From the Heart 1

Warily opening the newspaper I came upon the following passage, quoted in an essay authored by Aboriginal leaders. I found it unusual.

 

“What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you. And you should take that a step further and recognise us for who we are – Aboriginal people in a modern world – and be proud of us. Acknowledge that we have survived the worst the past has thrown at us, and we are here with our songs, our ceremonies, our land, our language and our people – our full identity. What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.”

 

 

This cri de coeur from the pen of former Australian of the Year, Galarwuy Yunupingu, distils the Letter from the Heart, which is the statement of Aboriginal consensus on their future. There’s a Jewish saying, words that come out from the heart (will) enter the heart.

 

From Laurenzo Marques to Nyngan on Bogan

A man accosts me in the darkened lobby of the hospital in the small town where I’m working. ‘Shalom’, he says.
He gropes inside the front of his shirt and pulls out a silver magen david.
‘Shalom aleichem’, says I.
We swap names. For the purposes of this story, his name is Federico.
Federico looks not ancient, not brand new. He’s tall, compact, has an olive complexion and he bends forward as he speaks. His accent is not Australian-made. His English is arrhythmic.


‘What are you doing In Nyngan, Federico?’
‘I live here. Thirteen years now.’
‘Will you tell me your story?’
He does so.
 
 Before I repeat Federico’s story, allow me orient you to the remote, obscure town of Nyngan by referring you to my recent blog post (Nyngan on the Bogan).
 
Back to Federico: ‘I come from Mozambique. You know, was colony of Portugal. In 1976 Salazar dies. A bastard, Salazar. Like Franco, not a Jew-lover. Both of them, friends of Mussolini. Salazar dies, the blacks start to revolt and Portugal says, OK, we leave. They just run away, no negotiation, no transition. Then starts the war. A civil war. Massacres, the usual thing. First the Portuguese come to the coast in sixteenth century, they set up the port, Lorenzo Marques, a stopping place to their bits of empire in India. They go to India for the spices. They build their African colony by sending all their criminals, convicts. Like Australia. Like Australia, the same, those convicts become successful and they are comfortable. Portugal comes, butchers the blacks, in 1977 they go, then more massacres. Africa.
 
A nice place actually, Mozambique – for a Portuguese. But not now, not in ’77. In ’77, I know if I stay I will die. I leave my birthplace. My barmitzvah was there. In the synagogue, in Lorenzo Marques. Now I am in Portugal, a refugee, among all the refugees – from Mozambique, from Timor, from all places that Portugal runs away from. I cannot go back to Lorenzo Marques. Another Jewish refugee. History’s old story.
 
 
No-one can go to LM now. It does not exist: now the town is Maputo. And the big statue of that old colonist, Lorenzo Marques, they tear it down. Now in that square is a sculpture of a bird.   
 
 
My grand-grandfather comes from Portugal to Mozambique. Now my family, all gone, all scattered. Six brothers and sisters, some in London, some in South Africa, one sister in Norway. She was the last one of the six I have seen. She used to visit me here in Nyngan, every winter of Norway. Last time I visited her was before five years. That last time, in Norway. Family all scattered. The Jewish story. Always the same. You know.
 
 
You want to hear how I come to Australia? Things happen for a reason. There is a meaning. I study history, I research. There is a reason. I believe that. So in Portugal I am safe. My grand-grandfather was Portuguese so I have citizenship. But no future, a refugee. The Jewish story. Always the same. So I wander. I work in Vancouver, I leave, my visa has finished. I work in South Africa. Many Jewish there. I work In London, in Finchley Road. Again many Jewish. I work in Norway. In between visas I work on cruise ships. Eight years on cruise ships; you don’t need a visa. On cruise ships there are Jewish. Also Barbados, every one old, everyone rich. Some Jews there too. I work In Korea. That’s where the miracle happens that brings me to Australia.
 
 
One year before Korea in Vancouver I apply for Australia. A Mozambiquean friend in Australia advises me: be careful what you tell them when you apply in the Embassy. Don’t say the wrong thing. So the embassy woman, she asks me what I will do – she means work – in Australia. I say I have qualification. I tell her I am chef. I don’t know what answer is the right answer. I know from my friend they don’t tell you what they want and what they do not want, but if you say wrong, they close the door. I answer, I pay the application. It will take a few months, the application, she tells me. Another cruise. And another. A letter arrives from Ottawa. The letter is from Australian High Commission in Ottawa. I have immigration visa. But no money. To come to Australia I must pay. So I wander on cruises and I work and I save. And I know I will leave the ships one day and I will settle and all my friends on the ship, always they will be slaves. I pay for a flight from Korea to Australia. Maybe three hundred American dollars, I go to the airline office to pick up ticket, the day before my flight. But it is a public holiday in Korea. Office is closed. I have paid, I have visa, I have no ticket. My flight is tomorrow. Here happens the miracle. I put my face against the window. I see people inside, cleaning. I make with fingers – come here please – come to window, I must ask. They come, but no-one speak English. They find someone. I tell him I need my ticket, I point to the office where the woman sold me the ticket, they go in, bring the woman out. A miracle. A public holiday, in Korea, the office is closed but I have my ticket. Things happen for a reason, I believe it.
 
 
 
In Australia, in Sydney, I work in Bondi Junction. Again many Jewish. I am there some years. I marry there, my wife have lymphoma before we meet. Then she is cured and we marry. Have children. Since thirteen years I am in Nyngan. I come here, I come here for the peace. I work at the pub as chef. Then the manager closes the kitchen, leaves Nyngan, manages from the city. I have no job, but things happen for a reason. I believe that. I sit in this coffee shop and the manager of the biggest hotel comes in, says, Hello Federico. Come work for me.
 
 
Small town, you know, everyone knows everyone. Good people here. My wife gets a second cancer. We drive to Dubbo, we drive to Sydney, we drive, drive. Always long drives, costs hundreds of dollars petrol. And the people of Nyngan collect money for our travel. Good people in Nyngan. Nothing happens without a reason. But my son, he’s grown up, I tell him – get out of Nyngan, no future for you here, go see the world, go build your future. You know I believe.
 
 
Will you do me a favour, Howard? I want for my doorpost the Jewish sign, for the doorpost, you know. I google but I don’t just buy. Has to be real, you. Needs the writing inside, not just the box .   

Favourite Books

After he died, my brother Dennis’ lifetime collection of books was set out on tables and benches, in boxes and on shelves at our parents’ house, for family members to choose and keep. Revealed before us was a catalogue of the brilliant and searching mind of my big brother. Biographies, especially political, books on management, art books and book after book on music. And cooking books, books on sailing, on fishing. The study and the joys of a big appetite for life and ideas. Books of all sorts, but not much literature and very little fiction. 

 

Dennis always named his three favourite books as the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, Kahlil Gibran’s, ‘The Prophet’, and Siddhartha’, by Hermann Hesse. I knew and loved the first of the three, I knew and liked (and mistrusted) the second, and – as for the third – I didn’t know Siddhartha from Hiawatha. 

 

Dennis would read my writings, shaking his head, unhappy with my obliquity and my complexity. ‘Read Siddhartha’, he’d say, ‘And learn the beauty of writing simply.’ Dennis admired narration that was free of ornament and artifice. ‘You make me think too much,’ he said. I felt flattered and confirmed in my path. And I did not take up Siddhartha.

 

‘Ecclesiastes,’ I read religiously, every year, entranced by The Preacher’s philosophic quest, as he tastes and tests every idea and temptation, as he broods and takes up and sets aside every sacred and profane thing. And the rhythms of the text, whether in Hebrew or in English, have always entranced: 

 

To every thing there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 
a time to cast away stones,

and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to get, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

 

 

Dennis’ birthday falls on November 22. Each year on that day the stated gap between our ages would open up from two years to three. On November 22, 2016, Dennis would have turned seventy-three. But he never reached even threescore years and ten. He died aged sixty-three. Ten years later I pick up Siddhartha and read it, to mark his birthday and to honour the wishes of the older brother who always willed me to be better in the particulars that he selected. I read the work, too, to learn more of my brother’s questing soul.

 

I need to digress here, to my misgivings about ‘The Prophet’. I find it calming, pleasing, gently uplifting. It is as smooth as gravy, as sweet as the dulce de leche upon which my Argentine relatives were weaned. That’s my problem: ‘The Prophet’ lacks grit. You read and you wallow. As an essayist remarks in the New Yorker: ‘In “The Prophet” Gibran (mixed) a warm, smooth, interconfessional soup that was perfect for twentieth-century readers, many of whom longed for the comforts of religion but did not wish to pledge allegiance to any church, let alone to any deity who might have left a record of how he wanted them to behave. It is no surprise that when those two trends—anti-authoritarianism and a nostalgia for sanctity—came together and produced the sixties, “The Prophet” ’s sales climaxed.’

 

 

Raised as we all were, in a strictly Orthodox Jewish family, Dennis chafed against God the father and against our godlike father. He found the courage – indeed the compulsion – to rebel, but he never ceased to feel the pull and the lull of the old-time religion of his early nurture. He tried to relinquish Jewish restriction but the ritual would not let him go. Hence the enduring attraction to him of ‘The Prophet’, with its ‘anti-authoritarianism and its nostalgia for sanctity’.

 

Back to Siddhartha, another huge hit among those who were young adults in the seventies. When a book is so uncritically adored as this I start to feel uneasy. When I take up my newly purchased copy and discover that Paulo Coelho has written the introduction, my unease deepens. For – possibly alone among its millions of readers and adorers – I found the pretentious simplicism of ‘The Alchemist’ alienated me.

 

So you see, these works find me out as cynical.

 

But cynicism falls away as I read Hesse’s account of his searcher for enlightenment. Dennis sought enlightenment with his strong, rational mind. I recognise Dennis as the Buddha’s chastens Siddhartha: ‘You are clever…,’ said the Illustrious One; ‘you know how to speak cleverly, my friend. Be on your guard against too much cleverness.’

I see here Dennis, my too clever brother, the troubled searcher, endlessly testing his traditions, endlessly questing. This is the brother who embraced ‘Ecclesiastes’, in which The Preacher seeks but never finds a truth that satisfies. ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity.’ It is an honest quest, brave and lonely. That was my brother Dennis, brave and lonely, longing, as his son remarked at the funeral, ‘to love and to be loved.’

 

But unlike the monk Siddhartha, Dennis did love: most particularly he loved our mother, and he loved me. And I loved him, and I miss him still.

 

 

 

 

Jim is Dead

December 18, 1969. A large moon rises before me in the geriatric wing of the Royal Hobart Hospital. This is unexpected as we are indoors and it is noon. The moon shines across the room in my direction. Beneath the bright disc sits a white clerical collar. Just below the disc’s equator a set of white teeth smiles widely. The smile advances, a pink fleshy hand extends and a voice says, ‘Hello. I’m Father Jim. I’m a chaplain here. Call me Jim.’ The hand is warm and kind. I am a new doctor. Today is my first day in my first job. All around me old people drool and gibber in a manner to overwhelm a new doctor.

The moonfaced Friar Tuck is delighted to meet Howard Goldenberg. He says, ‘You’re new here Howard? Welcome to the Royal. I hope you’ll be very happy here.’

Fifty metres distant stands the weatherboard shack which houses the new doctor and his new wife. The new doctor says, ‘Jim, will you join my wife and me for lunch? We’re going to eat soon. Fish…it’s an Indonesian recipe.’ Jim would love to. Thirty minutes later Jim and his new friends Annette and Howard are seated in the shack eating a luncheon of fish bones and curry. Jim fossicks for flesh among the fine bones, eats up and does not complain. And Annette and I have made the first new friend of our married lives.

April 6, 2016. My Facebook-facing daughter forwards the following:

Dear Howard, I am sorry to have to post a message like this via Facebook but I am sad to say that your good friend Jim Smith has died this week, here in London. My name is John and I am his partner, Jim & I met you in North London when you were visiting your family, I think in 2014. Jim had a stroke last year and I was caring for him at home, he had to go into hospital with a pulmonary embolus and then had complications which led to his death on Sunday. I know he always enjoyed his conversations with you, if you have any special memories you would like to send me I can include them in a JimMemory book I intend to put together. I will let you know when the funeral is, if you would like to light a candle and say a prayer for him.

PS RIP Jim! He was quite comfortable and free of pain (he had some back trouble) at the last. John

Jim is dead. Faster than tears an image flashes before me. I see a black and white photo in a family album of a moon-faced man seated outside our rustic house in a village outside Melbourne. The large face is crowned with a white handkerchief knotted at its corners. Upon the lap of the large man sits a small child, our angel Raphael, aged not many months. A perfectly ordinary image: no collar, no ecclesiasticals, no pretence; just a man nurturing a child. The image says enough. A man, a child. Poignant as a Pieta the image drives me from my screen to Annette. My voice disintegrates as I tell her the news. I ring my daughter who is tearful too.

Father Jim Smith married hundreds of heathen nurses to hundreds of pagan doctors in his days at the Royal. All those unbelievers flocked to this man who seemed to personify something missing from the lives of those science-infested people. But around 1990 Jim quit marrying. He said, ‘I marry them, they make vows, then they divorce.’ He felt the losses, each by each, personally. ‘It’s as if their marriage meant more to me than to them’, he said.

Father Jim introduced us to his partner in goodness, Jim Turley. Now we had two Father Jim friends. The two – together with a non-priest – created what might have been Australia’s first refuge. They called it St Michael’s Priory and to it flocked beaten wives, beaten children, lonely people, people mad and broken. All were taken in, housed and fed, and where possible, repaired.

The Priory rested upon the slender incomes of the three and upon donations from parishioners, who brought laying hens, a milch cow, produce – and a pair of Nubian goats. The Jims took us down to shed and showed us two sleekly beautiful creatures. Their coats of Nugget Dark Tan shone on the backs of their aristocratic bodies. Shy, their slender faces darting, their small ears rising and turning to sound, they looked like deer. ‘Meet the Goldenbergs’, said Jim Smith. He was addressing Annette and me, not the goats: ‘This one is Ruth and this is Naomi. They’re pedigreed. We were told we should register them. You could register them by name, so we chose from the Bible. Then Jim and I said, “Ruth and Naomi are Jewish names. Let’s give them Jewish surnames”. So we called them Goldenberg, after our Jewish friends.’

Years later Annette and I gave our third child a Biblical name. She became Naomi Goldenberg, named after a relative at St Michael’s Priory in Hobart.

The Jims used to come to our shack in Gore Street, for Shabbat dinner on Friday nights. They’d stand silently in their yarmulkes while I’d recite Kiddush. Afterwards they’d make a fair fist of translating odd phrases from the Hebrew, to which they’d been introduced during their studies in Divinity. One Shabbat eve one of the Jims – I don’t remember who – challenged the second: ‘Jim, I don’t sense you are making any effort at all to convert the Goldenbergs.’ The other Jim confessed: ‘That’s true.’ And the second Jim nodded and admitted he too was remiss. And one said: ‘I don’t feel any call to change the Goldenbergs.’ That moment love shimmered before us at our Shabbat table: two men of God had each found grace sufficient to deny abstract vocation in favour of human feeling.

Eventually Jim Smith left the Royal, left Hobart, said goodbye to the Priory and to his celibate brethren. It might, for all we knew, have felt like dereliction. Today I picture it as burnout, as an escape from accumulating vicarious trauma.

Jim took a job in Melbourne as chaplain at Pentridge. There his parishioners were prisoners and warders. He sat and he listened to their confessions and to their unconfessions, their lies and their rationalisations. One godless murderer habitually visited Jim on the pretext of spiritual need where he simply craved intelligent conversation. That man had forced his way into a hairdressing salon where he splashed lighter fluid over his rejecting girlfriend before igniting it. The woman survived her horrible burns. Her hairdresser did not.

An equally godless, notoriously brutal warder used to seek Jim out in the Officers’ Mess. He’d ask Jim, ‘Do you mind if I join you?’ Jim decidedly did mind but avowed the reverse. The man, loathsome and unctuous, habitually chose Jim as his companion. Jim couldn’t say which of the two – the murderer or the officer – he liked less.

On one occasion the murderer made a singular confession: boastfully he declared, ‘When we want to punish a warder, we do. We have our ways.’ Jim, genuinely curious, asked –‘How?’ He regretted the question instantly. The prisoner said, ‘We piss in their tea.’

Some time later Jim went to the Officers’ Mess for lunch, took his seat at an isolated table and said, ‘Yes, of course’ when the warder asked to join him. Shortly a prisoner arrived to take their meal orders. Jim ordered his lunch, the warder ordered, the prisoner noted their requests, then asked, ‘Beverages, gentlemen?’ Jim requested tea, the warder said, ‘Same for me.’

Jim sat and enjoyed the warder’s conversation until a second prisoner arrived bearing their food and drink. This prisoner was none other than the murderer. He handed Jim his food, passed the officer his, then said, ‘Here’s your tea, Father.’ He walked around the table and, standing a little to the side and behind the warder, passed him a second mug. Winking hugely at Jim he said, ‘And this is yours, sir.’ Jim sat and watched and kept his peace.

Once again Jim and we were living in the same city. Often he’d would join us at our Shabbat table and at Passover Seder and he’d report on what he called, ‘my time in gaol.’

Later, with his usual genius for vocation among the desperate, among those who were losing and those who were lost, Jim became chaplain to Intensive Care at a major Melbourne hospital. In ICU something like one patient dies of every four who enter. The rates of loss are higher than in a theatre of war.

Eventually Jim retired. Amazing us all, since he’d been resolutely republican and a pronounced proletarian, Jim settled in Britain. Here he found love, a partner in John, and diabetes – the lot of many Friar Tucks.

Every Passover and every Jewish New Year a letter would arrive addressed and written in the child’s block lettering that was the Jim Smith calligraphy. The letters told us of the Jewish roots of Jim’s belief. They’d include clippings from the newspaper columns of ‘my favourite religious writer, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’, soon to become Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. In his long London epoch Jim read widely and deepened his sense of following a Jewish Jesus. His pleasure in our friendship grew deeper and eventually he crossed the world to attend our eldest daughter’s wedding in Melbourne.

Jim lived with John, sharing travel with him as well as musical theatre, which he loved. A man great in his levity, Jim radiated a softness that healed, attaching him to old friend and to new. When I visited my daughter Naomi (the goat’s child) and her husband and children during their domicile in London, Jim, frailer now, crossed the great city with John for a visit. It was Shabbat and space and time had shrunk. Here was Jim, here were his old friends, here were our tender little ones. Jim was still Jim. The spark of joy still shone. But I wondered if we’d meet again. The moments passed.

And now Jim is dead.

  

Walking with my Father*, after all this Time

Most Saturdays I walk with my father. Saturday is shabbat, when I go to shule (synagogue) in the morning and walk home alone afterwards. It is this walk that I take with Dad. It works like this: services at the shule of my choice finish around noon-thirty – precisely the time my family will be gathering at home. No-one wants to risk coming between a Goldenberg and her food at meal time; too dangerous. So just a few moments before the congregation sings the concluding hymn, Adon Olam, I duck out of shule and hurry homeward.

 
When it comes to a prayer or a song a Goldenberg is not one to short-change his Maker. So, striding like my father before me, I sing that song as I walk, feeling anew the melody I sang with my father through our decades of shule-going together. In fact, Dad and I shared two different melodies to Adon Olam, one of them quite beautiful, the other even lovelier – or should I say – slower, sweeter, more expressive of longing. We loved them both, I love them still, and so I sing – first one of the two, then the second.
 
When I was a timid child I attached myself devoutly to the final lines of this song:
Into His hand, I entrust my soul
While I sleep and when I awaken;
And while ever my soul remains with me –
The Lord is with me – I will not fear.
 
But of course I did fear. First I feared the wolves and the bears that would come for me in my bedroom from the grim tales of Europe; later I felt afraid of snakes, of adults who shouted at me, of the world. I felt safe with Mum and with my dreadnought father, and – more perilously – with my risk-taking brother Dennis. I did a lot of fearing and I seized needily at the comforting closing line of Adon Olam. I’d sing it to myself when I walked alone in the dark.
 
***
 
Dad sang sweetly, his light tenor voice rising high above the circumambient baritone drone of fellow worshippers. He’d look intent as he sang, for music spoke to Dad more truly than words. Dad always claimed he didn’t like poetry, but he loved song. Music reached Dad in his secret places of abiding anxiety, it inspired him and carried his hopes, his love of life, his belief in beauty.
 
It was late in Dad’s life that he surprised me, speaking once of Adon Olam: Whenever in my life I’ve felt afraid, that last line has come to me. As a child I’d sing it to myself when I was walking alone in the dark.
 
Now a man walks home alone. Approaching threescore and ten he walks, still vigorously, as his father walked. He sings softly as he walks. Adon Olam swells in his throat. His voice slows to climb the penultimate arc of old melody, he holds that high note, then allows his voice to fall, to slide peacefully, into peace.

The man walks home alone but never alone.
 
· *’Walking with my Father’ was a chapter title in my first book, ‘My Father’s Compass’ (Hybrid, 2007). That memoir recorded my life with my father that had ended with death at a great age, a few years earlier. It was that book in which I first went public with my (possibly regressive) ancestor worship.

We Don’t Know their Names

An internet friend sent me some thoughts last week about the writing of the 2014 Nobel winner Patrick Modiano and his preoccupation with the lost. At the same time I was steaming towards the end of ‘Kamchatka’, a novel of the Disappeared in Argentina. Modiano wrote of Rita Bruder, a young French Jewess who went missing from her safe haven in a convent during the German occupation of Paris. Modiano is driven to search out the child’s fate. He cannot let the past and the lost rest unpursued.

I found myself acutely vulnerable to my e-friend’s story of stories. Partly it was the menace quietly gathering in ‘Kamchatka’ of the inevitable disappearing of a loved one; but more, the Modiano quest brought home a long overdue quest of my own: my destined search for my mother’s lost cousins. My knowledge of the cousins in question is slight and fragmented. It shifts in memory’s half light, lacking solidity, its textures diaphanous with the partial attention I must have paid in early childhood to a story my Mum told me. Seventy years after their presumed deaths in Auschwitz I feel the weight of silence.

My mother’s parents died of natural causes in her early adolescence. Somehow the orphan never lost her faith in living or her relish in it. Failing her Year Ten examinations she left school, trained as a bookkeeper, went to work and saved. In 1939, at the age of twenty-one Mum travelled alone to France where she had good clean fun. She spoke of dining with the Captain and the young officers on the Dutch ship which took her to Europe. She spoke of the beauty of Bali, then a Dutch outpost, almost untouched. On my mother’s return to Australia her younger sister Doreen asked her: ‘Are you still a virgin, Yvonne?’ ‘Yes,’ came the reply, ‘But it wasn’t easy.’ Mum made friends with men wherever she went, two of whom would bob up in our Leeton home while I was still too young for school. The two men, to the best of my knowledge, never knew each other. Their visits were separate and apparently independent events. We’d form a threesome for picnics by the river, the respective Continental, Mum and Howard, her four-year old chaperon. The men’s mysterious names – ‘Syd Viberow’, ‘Romain Hudes’ – intrigue me to this day. Googling has not relieved my curiosity.

These matters I recall well. I recall the smooth Continental gentlemen basking with my young and attractive mother on the riverbank. On one of those picnics we ate kedgeree. On another was it curried hard-boiled eggs? Europe was – I am confident – earnestly wooing; Mum remained Mum, Plato on the riverbank. I mean platonic; Mum might well have enjoyed being admired, but assuredly she liked her good fun clean. My memories are scatterings. Atmospheres are clearer than some factual details. Mum’s prudent inclusion in the picnics of an attention-hogging four-year old was strategic.

More scatterings: In Paris Mum’s tight black curly hair excites the admiration of a German hairdresser who marshalled her best English to compliment her: ‘You have vonderful viskers, Mademoiselle’; Mum’s accounts of the anxious urgings of the family back in 1939, to ‘come home now! There’s going to be a war.’ Mum is in no hurry. She spends time in France with her young cousins. Eventually she sails for home: ‘We slept on deck that last week, half expecting every night to be sunk by a U-boat. We arrived in Fremantle on the day war was declared.’ More good fun.

Much less clearly come memories of Mum’s cousins. The names are feminine and French, that I recall. Or I believe I recall it. They must be the daughters of Mum’s mother’s cousin. In 1939 they are teenagers, while Mum is twenty-two.

Mum says nothing to us children touching her cousins’ fate. But she must have known. I know that from the international telegrams that sped across the world late in1944; from Melbourne to Paris, from New York to Paris, with mounting anxiety. From Paris silence. From Melbourne to New York, from New York to Melbourne, in tones of deepening dread, cousins ask for word. There is no word. “Oed’ und leer das Meer”, ‘empty and waste, the sea.’ I know Mum knew; I found these telegrams among her papers after she died.

Mum and Dad bring up their four children very Jewish in the Riverina. In Leeton we children never hear of the Holocaust. We are as far from Auschwitz as Jews can be. Only three hundred miles south of us, Melbourne, thronging with survivors, is as close to Auschwitz as Australia can be. At the age of nine and a half I am translated from the Riverina to Mount Scopus in Melbourne. There, in a classroom full of Jewish children I am one of very few with living grandparents. I experience myself as a Jew whose family was safe, intact.

I regret now that innocence. A child who sat at the side of his father every Ninth Day of the Month of Av, listening to Dad as he lamented the destruction of the Temple and the sack of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, knew nothing of Europe only a few years earlier. We sat on the thin, scratchy carpet of our dining room floor, the house lights turned off, a single candle our only light as Dad chanted the Book of Lamentations in its distinctive moaning and sighing melody. Dad translated and together we bewailed the ‘breach of my people’ at the hands of Rome. Sixty-plus years later I can feel that carpet itching my thighs. But the Third Reich never touched me.

Why was Mum silent? Assuredly she cared for ‘Sophie’ and ‘Josephine’ – names that lurk just beyond memory’s outer fringe, names that might even be true. Assuredly Mum knew. But she said nothing. No stranger to closer loss, Mum could and would speak of her beloved parents, tenderly but with a composure that unnerved this small child. Strangely disconnected from grief, Mum thrived as an orphan, much, much later as a widow, and even managed to live on in joy after losing her one lifelong companion, her sister Doreen; and after Doreen Mum lost her firstborn son. From her early years Mum knew loss but managed to keep sorrow a stranger.

At what cost, I wonder. I read Modiano and I understand the Nobel judges’ remark about ‘his art of memory.’ My mother practised her own arts of memory. Did she survive a life that was punctuated by loss by excision of sorrow? Perhaps what started as a young girl’s strategy led to atrophy and involution of the organs of sorrow. In that case my own memories of Mum’s account of Europe might be actually complete: do I in fact recall the entirety of the particles that Mum allowed herself?

I bless Mum for her faculty of joy. And now she is gone I must investigate my own faculty for grief. I want to find my cousins.

He Wished to be an Inmate at Auschwitz

“I was born in mitteleuropa. You would say ‘central Europe.’ I had a happy life. I still have a happy life.” The man’s smile is wide, unmistakeable through the oxygen mask.

“When the War came I was a boy. My father and his partner had a business, so although there was war we had enough. But then the Nazis came and claimed my country. The great German Volk needed more livingsroom.” A smile, no bitterness, the smile of a man who sees the joke that is nationalism, the extended joke that is human history.

“The Nazis made lists, they liked lists. They made one list of Jewish businesses. My father’s business partner was Jewish, so the Nazis found it necessary to confiscate the business. My father found work as a clerk. It was not much but we got by for a while until one day they took my father away. I was at school when they came for Father. My older sister had to stop her studies. Later she disappeared, then Mother. There was just me. I stayed at home until a friend of Father said to me, ‘They will come for you tonight.’ I ran and I stayed with a friend in the country.

“This was, I think, 1942. I was bigger, still a boy, but big enough to work, big enough to become a slave for the Nazis. The Gestapo found me and were taking me on the trolley bus to their HQ for questioning. The trolley slowed for a corner and I jumped and ran. I was fast and small and I got away.

I took a train to a town where we used to ski in the mountains. I knew that place, we had friends there.

“But the Nazis found me. They put me into slave camp.

Work I don’t mind so much. It is hunger that is bad. Hungry slavery, that is very hard. They give us only one hundred fifty grams of bread a day. You know how much is one hundred fifty?”

The man shows me how much is one hundred fifty with his hands. His thumb and forefinger describe the thickness of a slice for a slave of the Nazis, something under a centimetre. His right forefinger sketches the outline of the slice on the palm of his right hand.

The small hand and the fine fingers are pink and soft. The skin has forgotten and forgiven the slave years. As he speaks the man leans forward, his neck muscles and his upper thorax working hard between phrases as he sucks in gulps of oxygen. His ribs rise and fall with his phrases. When you listen no tide of incoming or outgoing air is heard. The lungs have been burned away.

“People said slaves at Auschwitz received two hundred fifty grams. Two hundred fifty! I wished I would be taken to Auschwitz.”

The smile has not ceased. Does he need the widened mouth to get a full insuck of air? – I wonder.

“They did transfer some of us, on a train. I did not know to where we would travel, I decided I would escape again. I went to the toilet and opened the small window. The train travelled passed through snow close to forests. As we climbed a hill I jumped. The snow was soft. I ran to the forest and joined the fighters. For more than one year we fought the Jerries.” Behind the mask the smile widens in happy recollection of fighting ‘the Jerries.’

“I knew that country from our skiing holidays. I went to a farmer I used to know and his wife left food for me in the forest. I fought against the Jerries. They never came looking for us in the forest. They were too frightened, they did not know those forests as we did.

“After the War I returned to my hometown. And my father and my mother were there. And my sister. Later I came to Australia and we” – he nods towards his wife – “ we found each other and married. That was in Brisbane. We have been together ever since.”

The man and the wife live in the last house in a street that ends at the foot of a mountain. Forests of dark green stretch up the nearby slopes. When I phone to arrange my visit it is the wife who answers. Her voice, clear and steady, speaks in distinctly Australian accents. I follow her directions and find a derelict-looking building in ancient rendered cement. I approach a tall grey structure with glassless window frames. Inside a clutter of ancient debris. And silence. Clearly the wrong place.

Walking back towards my car, I am startled by a steady, clear voice: “Come around the side. Be careful as you climb the stairs.”

The stairs are steep and uneven, the building high. Surely a barrier for any aged couple, certainly an impossible mountain for a man with no lung tissue. The voice guides me up a second flight and there, on a concrete deck, at an alarming elevation above the buffalo grass below, stands a tall woman in a long navy dress, her face deeply wrinkled, her smile of good, original teeth and outstretched hand bidding me welcome. The dress and the face arrest me; the dress rises from ankle height, a deep blue teepee speckled with small stars of wattle; the face a roadmap of antiquity charged with vitality, lit withal by that smile. A woman attractive enough to haul any man up those terrible stairs.

We sit and I listen to reminiscences of a life. The man pauses and works his breathing as his lung remnants fight for oxygen. The smile never fades, never loses its expressive energy. When memory slows the woman prompts him: “Tell Howard about…” “Did you mention the time…?”

We look across sunlit mountain forest as the man breathes and speaks. He says, “My life has been a happy life. It is a wonderful life, this is a wonderful world.”