Mosaic by Diane Armstrong

mosiac_USYesterday, 27th January, marks Holocaust Memorial Day.  It’s not a day that’s marked officially in Australia being overtaken by Australia Day or as Australia’s Indigenous people refer to it, Survival Day on 26th January.

Despite the lack of official recognition here it’s likely there are many people who remember this day with great sadness. Last week my blog post on The Voyage of Their Life talked about how some of the refugees and displaced people made their way to Australia in the aftermath of World War II. Among them were many Jewish people who had experienced the horrors and privation of the war.

I tend to read every book by authors I like, so this week I downloaded the e-book of another of Diane Armstrong’s books, one called Mosaic. Then yesterday Armstrong was featured in this weekend’s Weekend Australian magazine. Strange how these things run in cycles.

Synopsis: Mosaic is the story of Diane Armstrong’s Polish Jewish family back to the late 19th century and her great-grandparents and up to her life in Australia. It is essentially a family history of five generations told against the backdrop of war and terror. As a child Diane was called Denusia Baldinger but as the dogs of war came closer with their snapping teeth, her father moved them further east in Poland preferring to take his chances with the Russians than the Germany SS. In a wild throw of the dice he changed their names to the more Polish-sounding name of Boguslawski and their small nuclear family pretended to be Catholic. Although the villagers were suspicious, the family were saved from being denounced to the Gestapo by the support of the local Catholic parish priest who had “known” they were Jewish but continued to support them. Diane tells ultimately how over 60 of their immediate family were shot or gassed during the war.

 My thoughts:  Those of us who live in the safety and sometimes tolerant society of Australia, can not have the slightest real idea of what anyone experienced during the war, let alone what the persecuted Jewish people suffered. It’s one thing to know the facts, read about it and see vision on TV or movies or photographs. It’s quite another to get one’s head around how anyone could do any of these things to other human beings. Nor are these actions the sole preserve of the military but rather also ordinary people, sometimes former neighbours and friends. Mind boggling! We are a horribly flawed species who seem to find it reasonable to persecute those who we perceive as different for religious or economic reasons.

The author talks honestly (as far as I can tell) about her various family members, warts and all, including her own parents. If you believe it’s inappropriate to speak ill of the dead then you may not like this book but what she reveals of her family are people who have their own human frailties and quirks. It’s quite obvious she doesn’t have a lot of time for one of her more selfish aunts who did survive the holocaust yet seems to have learnt little from it. Armstrong also reflects in a very insightful way on the impact of these horrors on family dynamics: the secrets never mentioned, the non-verbal fears of living in hiding for years, the conflict between family members. These psychological scars continue to the present day and generations.

awwbadge_2013I think this is an excellent book which transforms the wartime horrors for the Jewish people from a scale that most of us can barely imagine, to a personalised family story which enable us to see at a micro level how these events impacted families and individuals. Some survived because of foresight, courage, or just plain luck, depending on where they lived and worked. Others died because they were geographically trapped or sold out, often from sheer greed and envy.

Don’t read this book if you’re looking for a chilled-out evening curled up on your lounge. Do read it if you want to learn more about the lives of one set of Australian Jewish immigrants and what they and their families experienced prior to arriving on our shores.

I give it 4 ½ stars for magic carpet factor.

This is review 3 in my Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge.

The Voyage of Their Life by Diane Armstrong

P1190434The Voyage of Their Life is a fascinating book written by Australian author Diane Armstrong who was a passenger on this voyage. It is predominantly a memoir but one drawing on the experiences of many of the hundreds of post-war emigrants on this traumatic voyage of the SS Derna to Australia in 1948. Having grown up with quite a number of “New Australians”, as we called them then, I’ve had a great interest in migration ever since. However this is not just a book about the actual voyage, rather Armstrong tells what brought them to make the momentous decision to migrate to a far corner of the earth, the randomness of getting a passage, and also what happened to them in the decades following.

Inevitably with so many passengers there are times when the cast of characters becomes bewildering but this doesn’t detract greatly from the book. Armstrong segues neatly from one person’s story to another for a connected person.  Virtually all of the passengers had suffered great traumas during the war years and I have no wish to get into the relative merits of each. Armstrong herself mostly manages to remain objective throughout though her own Jewish perspective is clearly stated and occasionally her sympathies are more obvious than at other points in the book.  The horror stories told by so many of the passengers were shocking but those relating to the younger children are particularly horrendous. My father’s oft-quoted phrase of “man’s inhumanity to man” remained in mind from beginning to end.

The voyage itself was a nightmare and a scandal. Greed and irresponsibility would be my synopsis of the effects and consequences of the journey, especially the greed of the Derna’s owner who cut corners and left people with disgusting daily living conditions. The irresponsibility of a doctor who paid minimal if any attention to the sick patients. The greed of not providing sufficient food or water for an old semi-derelict boat tottering its way across vast oceans. The irresponsibility of the man given charge over the migrants to ensure they were looked after. The greed of those who stole the passengers’ precious belongings either during the voyage or on arrival is just mind-boggling. If you have lost family and loved ones do your possessions mean less, or are they more important because they are the only physical memories you have? The greed and emotional betrayal by family who had sponsored their relatives often just to work as slave labour on their farms or in businesses. The sheer courage of the passengers in working beyond all these betrayals is remarkable.

I couldn’t help but reflect on the huge difference between the way these immigrants were treated in comparison with the government assisted passengers to Australia in the 19th century, when their well-being was pivotal and the process was generally well-managed with an emphasis on health.

Armstrong manages to trace many of the passengers in the current day to get their stories, as one link leads to another. It was a strange experience to recognise the name of one of the people I used to work with, who had been a passenger on this voyage. I wondered how successful Armstrong’s quest would have been without the added advantage of Australia’s ethnic broadcaster SBS to “spread the word”.

awwbadge_2013Most of the voyagers settled in Australia but for some their destination was New Zealand. Some worked hard to reacquire their professional qualifications so they could establish themselves and their families in their new country. Others worked incredibly hard at jobs that took no account of their prior experience and training. Some enthusiastically took on their new loyalty and citizenship while others seemed to feel lost between two worlds – the old and the new. The heaviest burden fell on the children to bridge that gap and fulfil their parents’ expectations.

The main flaw in the book is that it is mostly anecdotal, almost inevitably. The pre-migration lives of the emigrants would have been nigh impossible to check in primary records or documents, though Armstrong has had assistance from one of the agencies sending out the emigrants. The Australian government’s records are available, but mostly not online, and it’s not clear to what extent these were used in the research for the book, apart from one rather contentious character. (if you wish to find what’s available you can search http://www.naa.gov.au and use the search term “Derna”)

This is not the first time I’ve read this book and it certainly won’t be the last. Armstrong has provided an invaluable insight into the experiences of some of our post-war immigrants, a lasting legacy to an important part of her own life. Without them we’d likely still be living in an homogenous Anglo-Celtic Australia – just think of all the wonderful varieties of food we’d have missed out on, apart from anything else. Not to mention their contribution to the nation’s economy, culture and history.

I give it 4 ½ stars for magic carpet factor.

This is review 2 in my Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge.