Twelve at a Dinner Table

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.

POSTSCRIPT:

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.

How to Recruit an Ordinary Australian, How to Torment Her, How to Drive her to madness 

Sitting watching Eva Orner’s movie, ‘Chasing Asylum’, I fully expected to be appalled. I anticipated I’d feel the old outrage. I feared I’d see things that would shock me.What took me unprepared was the vision of Australian workers on Manus and Nauru as they disintegrated before the camera. Three in particular found the courage to expose themselves before the slow, careful camera of Eva Orner. Two of the three were young women. The camera never revealed them full face, their names were not mentioned. Like their charges who subsist behind Boat Numbers, these are humans without names. Their voices told us what was happening to the people seeking asylum; but it was their hands that gave them away. Nail-bitten fingers worked continually. A writhing was seen, a slow dance of agony. Voices hesitated, speech fell away as the young women spoke. I watched these young people as they struggled to shed a burden that will never leave them. The third beanspiller was not young. A former prison guard, he was a man in his fifties, a man surely innured by his past experience. He spoke to the camera of what he saw. He recounted carefully and precisely his attempts to bring about change from within the system. How he spoke to superiors, how he complained of wrongdoing, how anonymous threats to ‘shut up’ mounted, until he feared for his life. Finally he fled his island. He returned home and lay low. For some time he did not speak of what he’d seen, what had happened to his detained charges, how he had been threatened and lived alone in fear. Finally he decided he could keep silent no longer: “I was brought up to know right from wrong. I couldn’t live in silence.” The man’s face worked as he spoke. He struggled for composure but grief and pain defeated him as he wept his honest tears.    

Elsewhere in my life I have a colleague, a mental health worker, who has been engaged in the repair of a wounded offshore worker damaged deeply by trying to protect and support detained refugees. Hired by the government, that worker can never safely return to the work that is his vocation, which is to care for vulnerable people. He is now counted among the vulnerable. Innocent casualties, these, like the mates of the former detention worker who told me of two fellow guards who attempted suicide, one successfully.

What are we doing? What have we done.? What price do we demand of our own people? How we disgust ourselves!

When, at some time in the next century, I become leader of this nation I will do some things urgently. Apart from what ever I do to abate our present cruelty, apart from preparing for the Next National Apology, apart from prosecuting the Prime Ministers and their Border Control Ministers for crimes against humanity – apart from all these necessary steps, I will seek out these whistle blowers and offer them honours in the highest echelon of the Order of Australia. But I will not be surprised if they decline any honour offered in the name of a nation that betrayed itself. 
Chasing Asylum is screening now. See it and learn where our taxes are going and what is being done in our name. 

http://www.chasingasylum.com.au/

Should Nurses and Doctors Accept Work in Australia’s Detention Centres?

In 2010 I worked in an Australian detention centre for short time that felt like a long time. The experience was the worst in my fifty years in Medicine. I signed a confidentiality agreement, sewing my own lips in the process. I saw no atrocity, no wrongdoing, other than torture by impersonal and meandering bureaucracy. Yet the suffering was general; it saw inmates, guards, nurses and doctors all resorting to self-harmful acts. I saw honourable people treating the detained with skill and humanity. I saw them constrained by employers and distrusted and insulted by patients, who felt sure that we too were liars. Yet we did some good. People, whether sick in body or in spirit, were treated with kindness and respect.

For six months after I returned to the mainland I was visited by dreams in which I sat on Tribunals without name, determining the fate of nameless individuals doomed by history and by Australian laws. Captive in these dreams, I doled unequal laws to defeated supplicants. I’d awaken and ask myself, did I really do that? But, inescapably, I knew I was implicated.

My island was a paradise of procedural propriety compared to today’s islands of Nauru and Manus. Doctors and nurses have returned from these places with distressing reports. Some have argued that, knowing what is now known, it is in unethical to work in these places; that the system tortures inmates; that participating is to become complicit in torture. More moderately, all clinicians and observers who return seem to agree that incarceration harms the inmate. The first law of medical ethics being, first do no harm, is not an ethical practitioner obliged to refuse to share in that harmdoing?

A new element affecting the work of a detention clinician is the outlawing of reporting wrongs seen in that work. Offenders face the threat of two years gaol. Nice systematic irony: to protect the liberty of Australians we incarcerate boat people; to protect the integrity of the system we incarcerate truthtellers. Interestingly, the flood of job offers to work in Detention that recruiters used to send to remote doctors such as myself has dried up. Someone, somewhere must have decided Australian clinicians are unreliable.

What then must a nurse or a doctor or a psychologist or a psychiatric nurse do? If offered, may we accept this work? Even if we are forbidden to speak of what we see?

I compare the situation to working with patients in places of dangerous epidemic disease. The first such case I read of was the cholera that broke out in eighteenth century Naples, where a young Swedish doctor left his fashionable private practice in Paris to work with the afflicted. He found himself working alongside a young nurse who was both beautiful and a nun. At any moment the disease might take them. The two work steadily on, afflicted by the losses and by the erotic fever that seizes them both. The drama of the two who risk all for strangers has never left me. The doctor, Axel Munthe, wrote of this in his memoir, The Story of San Michele.

We saw just such heroism played out by Australian nurses and doctors who went to Africa recently to save people from Ebola. We saw it, and -as a nation, as individuals – we prayed for our heroes and we applauded them.

Nothing new here: nurses and doctors work with AIDS, with multi-drug-resistant TB, with Lassa Fever. It is natural to the species to measure the need before the personal risk.

The second precedent is an unhappy one; during the twentieth century doctors working under dictatorships accepted orders, accepted payment, enjoyed promotion and protection, and participated in abuses ranging from imprisoning sane dissenters in psychiatric institutions, to ‘eugenic’ murder, to torture. And being bought, they shut up about it. If clinical ethics learned anything from these abuses it was the imperative to speak out.

In the light of history I see the duty of free citizens, clear and uncomplicated. It is to go to the camps, to do such good work as might be done, and to speak out.

I No Longer Know my Country

I Left Home a Few Days ago and When I Returned it wasn’t there

Australia is my home; it has been since adventurous forebears from England and France arrived in the 1840’s and 1850’s, and desperate forebears came in the 1890’s. Nowadays we might call these people economic migrants and queue jumpers.
I flew from my home country last Thursday and returned yesterday morning. I read the paper and I knew I was no longer at home. My home had gone. I might never get it back. What had changed?

Border Force to have up to 6000 armed officers

Border Force in Australia sbs.com.au

Border Force in Australia sbs.com.au

I read the headline. I didn’t understand it. This Border Force would be deployed not on the border but inside my home. Most of its officers would be armed, many already are ‘trained for use-of-force operations.’ I sat and I wondered: what ‘operations’ inside our borders do they contemplate? Against whom are they armed? Who is the enemy within?

In the home where I used to live people trusted each other. We were different and we were OK. Some of us were very different indeed: in the small country town of my boyhood a sole Jewish family lived, trusted and trusting. That family was my own. Trust was rewarded, we were neighbours, we became friends, we knew each other and we were citizens together.

In the home where I became a father I met a man who was extremely different. He was the son of a Muslim cleric who went on to become Mufti of Australia. The father worked for amity and respect between communities and became a Member of the Order of Australia. The son, a ratbag or scallywag or black sheep or white sheep, became my friend and danced at my daughter’s wedding with the then President of the Zionist Council of Australia.

All that took place in Australia, which used to be my home.

On September 11, 2001 the world changed. Three days later the Melbourne ‘Age’ reprinted an article by respected Israeli journalist and novelist, David Grossman. Grossman had witnessed the effects of terror within his own community. He wrote that terror’s greatest victim is trust between citizens. When you believe your neighbour might wish to hurt you, you cease to trust her; you cannot afford to trust. Grossman predicted in 2001 we would see that erosion of communal trust, that injury to community.

Grossman’s prophecy has well and truly come to pass. Ironically, in Australia’s case, the principal destroyers of trust have been politicians who promote fear recklessly. We have a government led by a man who acts like a boy who swoons at the sight of a uniform.
Little by little, day by day, our masters in government – as well as the odd mistress – attack trust. The headline in the paper on the day of my return to my homeland appears below another: Transfield to remain at Nauru;
and alongside a third headline: Yongah Hill detainee hurt after incident of self-harm

All of this is relegated to Page 8. In this country that used to so welcome the stranger it is no longer big news that a private corporation be rewarded (at a daily cost of $1500 per head) for its systematic unkindness to inmates. This is not news. This is policy. As is ‘turn back the boats’, the policy that hath made my name to stink upon the earth.
In this place that used to be a home a man who cut his throat in detention is hospitalised, then returned to that place of detention where he ‘is receiving appropriate medical and mental health support and care.’ In that place his doctors and mental health carers risk two years of gaol if they report on that ‘appropriate’ medical care. I know detention. I sewed my lips, I accepted overpayment and I worked as a doctor in detention.

But in the place that used to be a home nothing like this is news.

How we Killed Leo

Leo was an asylum seeker.  Let us put aside that weary term and see what Leo was and how we came to know him. Leo was a Tamil. That means he was born into that minority in Sri Lanka which gave rise to the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers rebelled violently against the Sinhalese majority, earning a reputation for terrorism.
A civil war was conducted over many years, culminating in a government offensive that put down the rebellion and targeted civilians. If I read the story right, both the Tigers and the government were guilty of atrocities.
Leo was a baby when, during the worst of the bombings, his father wrapped him in banana leaves and hid him in the jungle. The family fled to India when Leo was five. He lived there in a miserable camp for twenty years, visiting Sri Lanka once to see family. He was imprisoned and tortured. Why? I don’t know precisely, but the explanation would have to start with the fact he was a Tamil.
Leo became an asylum seeker, a boat person, a “queue jumper”, and made his way to Cocos Islands. After only four months of detention, Leo was resettled near Geelong.
That means the Australian authorities – Customs, Immigration, ASIO – found him to be a non-terrorist. They found that speedily.  Leo was judged not to be a risk to Australia.  He was given a Bridging Visa, which allowed him to work but did not endow him with Permanent Resident status.

We said, “Leo, although you jumped our queue, we are letting you into the country and out into the community. But you are a guest. We can tell you at any time to go back where you came from.”
In the last few weeks Leo learned that a couple of Tamil men with stories similar to his own had been taken back into detention. These two faced the prospect of joining the one thousand Tamils whom we have sent back to Sri Lanka where they face persecution. Leo knew that persecution; he knew it in his tortured mind and in his body.

How did Leo spend his time on the Bellarine Peninsula? He worked two days a week for an asphalting company, cleaning greasy trucks. In his spare time he volunteered in an aged care home, he donated blood, he helped bring aid packages to asylum seekers new to the community, he sent money every month to an orphanage in the refugee camp in India that is still his parents’ home.

Leo became an organ donor. Did he expect to die?
Mister Morrison, our Immigration Minister, declares Leo showed no signs of suicidal intent. We know Mister Morrison, a minister who acts as Ruddock spoke, with icy resolve. Only Morrison doesn’t speak to us much. We might judge from his record his capacity for empathy, for humanity. Our minister said Leo’s death “is a terrible and tragic incident and none of us can know the mind of a person in this situation.”
Here is where I can help the minister. I know the mind of a person in the situation of such parlous existence, endlessly uncertain what his fate will be, of having it determined by the opaque decisions of governments and ministers. I know it by the accident of my unusual experience working among detained people in Christmas Island. I know it too by the not unusual gift of empathy. I know Leo’s death was not an incident – far from incidental – it was our doing and it was in the statistical sense, predictable. We saw that with the Tamil man who burned himself to death a few weeks before Leo.

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Hungering, Christmas Island

Something is wrong, something is upside down. The hunger striker and I stare at each other from opposite sides of a scaffold that neither of us constructed.

I follow the protocols, which are wise and worthy. But it is all wrong, everything is upside down.

My job is to work to improve or protect health. I have to find a way, to create a language that the patient and I will share; to locate and level the place where we will meet.

This contract is not spelled out nor ever inked; elsewhere there is no need. The patient is here, I am here, we can get down to work.

But when I attend the hunger striker all of this is inverted and twisted out of shape. The person whom I attend is not a patient: the person gives no sign, has no wish for my attention.

The non-patient never called me; I am a part of the system that he imposed upon first; now the system imposes me upon him.

The non-patient and I have opposite wishes: mine is to protect life and vital organs, his to destroy them.

The generality of patients whom I see here in the Detention Centre come to see me on my own territory; I mean the clinic. But the starver is weakened, usually lying in his room in the Compound which is located behind high, stout electrified fencing. The nurse and I walk along long corridors without natural light. Serial serious doors unlock to admit us and lock again behind us. We emerge into sunlight in an expansive open area, surrounded by discrete bedrooms for two persons.

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