The year was 1938. In November a coordinated series of pogroms across Germany and Austria saw the burning of synagogues and the shops of Jewish people, and the beatings and murders of Jews on a huge scale. The Night of Broken Glass, Kristallnacht, broke more than glass. It saw the destruction of hope among those German Jews who remained hopeful that this madness would soon pass. In its place a realization, completely new, at odds with the eagerness of the Jew for acceptance: They want to kill us all. If we stay they’ll kill us.
Far away in Australia twelve friends enjoyed a convivial dinner. Long after they’d finished eating the friends sat and talked. A relaxed group,intimate and trusted. One pulled from his pocket a sheet of paper. This arrived in the post today. The stamp reads, ‘Osterreich’ – I think that’s German for Austria. The letter seems to be in German; no-one at work can speak or read German. We don’t know what to make of it. It is addressed to us apparently. That is, we think so. The first line uses our company name. The same on the envelope…
A hand reached across the table. A second voice spoke: Pass it here. I’ll have ago. I did German at school.
A brow furrowed. A quietness fell, the quiet of satiety and comfort among friends. Hey! This is horrible. Terrible – if it’s true. The German scholar translated. The quiet now took on an earnestness, an intensity, as twelve ordinary Australians grappled with facts that would unseat innocence. The reader’s voice slowed as she rendered the closing lines: Honoured Uncle Borer, Unless we can leave Austria, we will die. They will kill us. Unless you sponsor our admission to your country.
This story was told at my family dinner table towards the end of a recent Festival meal. At the table sat three generations of Jews, all but one of us born after WWII. We too had sat, sated, content, comfortable. It was the voice of my wife’s sister, Robyn telling the story. She continued: ‘This was a family that was desperate. Jews could still get out – if they had a visa. Australia would accept a certain number of Jews if they had a relative here who would sponsor them – that is if the family would guarantee their upkeep.
That terrified family in Austria recalled an obscure uncle somewhere in Australia. The only detail they recalled was the name the family had known him by, ‘Uncle Borer.’ Was Borer a first name or a family name? They were uncertain even of that. Where in Australia did Uncle settle? Was he still there? Was he alive? Would he help them?
Armed only with the ardent desire to live, the family somehow procured Australian telephone directories. They searched for the name Borer. Few were the families in Australia that answered to that name. But the family wrote to every Borer they found, explaining their situation and pleading for Uncle to save them. They never heard from Uncle Borer. But the Manager of a small Australian enterprise listed in the telephone directory under ‘White Ant and Borer Exterminating Company’ received a letter written in the German language, which he brought with him that evening to a dinner party in 1938.
No-one at that dinner table had relatives in Germany or Austria. None of them had friends there. The twelve absorbed the content of the letter. They contemplated its closing lines, they will kill us…and they heard the words that had reached them like a letter in a drifting bottle – unless you sponsor us.’
Robyn paused. Eleven of us, all Australian by birth, Jewish by heritage, reflected on our families’ stories of arrival. We knew by name those who sponsored us, we knew the dozens of families that our families had sponsored. The twelfth person among us, mother of Robyn and my wife Annette, was born ninety years ago in Danzig. She too arrived in1938. The matriarch at our table, Nana, our treasure, a brand plucked from the fire, was sponsored, saved. Nineteen Australian citizens, Nana’s descendants, are alive today. (A twentieth is expected).
Robyn resumed: ‘The manager of the borer company sponsored the family. We know that family, they are friends, but I never heard their story until now. And there’s one more thing – everyone at that dinner table sponsored Jews who needed to escape. Apparently forty people – or was it forty families – were saved by the borers and their ordinary Australian friends. Incidentally one of those twelve was a man named Harold Holt.’
Harold Holt! I remembered the prime minister from my student days. I remembered him as the conservative who sucked up to the USA in Vietnam. ‘All the way with LBJ’, was his catchcry. Harold Holt giving succour to asylum seekers was not how I imagined him. How old was he, I wondered, when he heard that letter to someone’s Uncle Borer?
At our table that night I looked around, mentally counting: twelve, yes we too were twelve. Would we, I wondered – would I – sponsor a family of foreigners as that twelve did? But as matters stand, we twelve Australian adults are all impotent under our present laws to sponsor anyone, not even those who have escaped to Manus or to Nauru.
So I looked him up in Wikipedia: “Harold Edward Holt, 5 August 1908 – 17 December 1967), was an Australian politician and the 17th Prime Minister of Australia from 1966 to 1967. He was born in Stanmore, New South Wales and won a scholarship to study law at the University of Melbourne. Holt went into business as a solicitor, during which time he joined the United Australia Party (UAP). In 1935, aged just 27, he was elected for Fawkner. Holt spent 32 years in Parliament, including many years as a senior Cabinet Minister, but was Prime Minister for only 22 months before he disappeared in December 1967 while swimming at Cheviot Beach near Portsea, Victoria, and was presumed drowned.
As Minister for Immigration (1949–1956), Holt was responsible for the relaxation of the White Australia policy.”
So here is one ordinary Aussie, aged thirty, a junior politician who acts and does a private good. Eleven years later, in his public capacity as minister for immigration, he recognizes the humanity of those humans whose skin is not white, transforming for the better a largely monochrome country.