Debesa, the story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez by Cindy Solonec

‘As I read through my father’s diaries, I often wondered how he ever managed to fit everything in .’

Debesa is a rich family history set in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia. Ms Solonec starts her family history in the 1880s, when her maternal great-grandfather, Jimmy Casim arrived in Fremantle from India. He moved north, met, and lived with Nigena woman, Lucy Muninga on Yeeda Station near Derby. Her father, Francisco (Frank) Rodriguez, arrived in Fremantle on 17 August 1937 as a Benedictine novitiate. He met Katie Fraser, formerly a novitiate at a convent for ‘black’ women, in 1946 and they married later that year. Not everyone supported their marriage. In Australia in the 1940s interracial marriages were opposed by many.

But from 1946 until Katie’s death in 1994, Frank and Katie worked together. They worked hard, raised a family, established their small sheep station at Debesa and remained connected to their own cultures.

‘Regardless of the overriding thrust by governments that all Australians would eventually live an Anglo-Australian way of life, our parents continued to embrace their respective cultures.’

This is an uplifting story of love, of cultural difference, of devotion and hard work set against a background of social challenge and change. Ms Solonec writes of two mutually respectful people working together to provide the best they could for their family and their community. An inspirational story drawn from Frank Rodriguez’s diaries, research and family interviews conducted by Ms Solonec.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Vandemonian War by Nick Brodie

‘The secret history of Britain’s Tasmanian invasion.’

I read an article by Nick Brodie which led me indirectly to this book. I was curious. I grew up in Tasmania, and colonial history was rarely touched on during my education during the 1960s and early 1970s. The Tasmanian Aboriginals are all dead, we were told, the race is extinct. Questions about how and why were neither encouraged nor answered. I moved away from Tasmania in 1974 and have since learned more.

‘The Vandemonian War was the British Empire’s best kept secret. Invasion was called settlement. Ethnic cleansing was called conciliation. Genocide was naturalised as extinction. Even Van Diemen’s Land was renamed Tasmania.’

What had Nick Brodie discovered, and how does it change our understanding of history?

‘My discovery of the truth about the Vandemonian War started with a certain manuscript volume in the Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office in Hobart. It is labelled ‘No7/Records relating to the Aboriginals’, and has the archival designation CSO1/1/320 (7878).  It comes from the records of the Colonial Secretary’s Office, and contains hundreds of pages of inbound correspondence only a tiny fraction of which has ever been previously examined, analysed or cited by historians.  These letters detail military and paramilitary operations against Aboriginal people in the interior of Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s and 1830s.’

Until I read this book, I had (mostly) believed that while individuals and small local groups had killed Aborigines, that the colonial government had tried (however ineffectually) to protect them. It is confronting to read that was not the case, that the military and paramilitary forces deliberately drove the Aboriginal peoples from the lands they had occupied for centuries. This was no accident.

I finished this book with very mixed feelings. It is never comfortable having to revisit what was taught as truth and is now exposed – via the colonial records of the time – as inaccurate and incomplete. Documented fact, not an issue of interpretation.

‘Unearthed after nearly two centuries of established history, the Vandemonian War allows us to see that a society can be led to do almost anything – and then come to believe it did not do it at all.’

Uncomfortable, but important reading.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Historic Tasmania Sketchbook by Patsy Adam Smith and Joan Woodberry (text) Max Angus, Frank Mather and Arthur Phillips (drawings)

‘There is only one reason for Tasmania retaining so many splendid buildings: they have been lived in by people who appreciate them and are determined to preserve them.’

I have a copy of the 1977 edition of this book. Whenever I get homesick for Tasmania, I browse through the sketches and reacquaint myself with some of the magnificent nineteenth buildings I recognise. But it isn’t just sketches of buildings contained in this book, there’s a sketch of Kelly’s Steps between Salamanca Place and Battery Point, and of the iron hull of the ‘Otago’ (remember Joseph Conrad?) on the east bank of the Derwent.

I am pleased I was able to visit the Church of St John the Baptist (consecrated in 1850) last time I was in Buckland (page 58). And the Morris Store building (now housing the everyday IGA) in Swansea (page 54) is superb.

While some buildings are in private hands, others are part of the National Trust including Franklin House (Launceston); Entally (Hadspen)and Clarendon (Evandale). And a visit to Richmond would not be complete without walking through the historic village, over the bridge and up to St John’s Church in Richmond (built in 1836).

On each page, there is a reminder of Tasmania’s colonial past: from the prosperous estates and mansions owned by the wealthy to the buildings of Port Arthur associated with convict transportation. I walk along St John Street in Launceston, past St John’s Church (page 186) where my grandparents were married in 1918, past the Dorset Terrace (page 164) where I’d love to live.  Launceston also has many beautiful civic buildings, built during its prosperous past: the Albert Hall (page 150) (where I sat examinations during the early 1970s); the Town Hall (page 168) and the Custom House (page174).

The book is divided into four parts:

Nineteenth Century Tasmania

Hobart

Launceston

Port Arthur

Superb sketches by Max Angus, Frank Mather and Arthur Phillips are accompanied by text by Patsy Adam Smith and Joan Woodberry.

If you are interested in Tasmania’s colonial past, this book (if you can find a copy) is worth exploring.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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It’s not just about the rise in anti-Semitism: why we need real stories for better Holocaust education in Australia (from The Conversation)

Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, Poland. Shutterstock

Jan Lanicek, UNSW

On January 27 communities worldwide commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz — the largest complex of concentration camps and extermination centres during the Holocaust. This is the first year the International Holocaust Remembrance Day will be marked nationally in Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg will address the event, which demonstrates the importance the government ascribes to Holocaust commemoration.

In October 2019, after two cases of serious anti-Semitism in schools (one where a Jewish student was forced to kiss the feet of another student) Josh Frydenberg urged schools to deliver more history lessons about the Holocaust. He said:

If they [bullies] understood and comprehended the atrocities of the Holocaust, they would be as insulted as anybody, including me, about these recent attacks.

Federal and state governments have provided funding to Holocaust museums, and Holocaust education is mandatory in years 9 and 10 in NSW and Victoria. It is also part of the history curriculum nationally.

Although the Holocaust is a universal symbol of evil, there is some feeling among Australians it has no direct historical relevance here. In 2016, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra unveiled a small exhibition with several stories connecting Australia to the Holocaust. But there was some opposition.

The Memorial director Brendan Nelson, commented that

One regular visitor to the Memorial told me emphatically that she was opposed to this exhibition. “This has nothing to do with Australia and the Australian War Memorial”, she said. She told me that she would never walk through it.

With the passing of most of the last survivors, it seems the horrors of the event are being lost with the younger generations. Surveys conducted by the Claims conference (an international organisation that aims to bring justice to Holocaust survivors) in 2018, showed 31% of Americans (41% of millenials) believe substantially fewer than 6 million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during the Holocaust.


Read more: Many young people still lack basic knowledge of the Holocaust


And almost half of Americans couldn’t name a single concentration camp during the Holocaust, despite the fact there were possibly more than 40,000 at the time.

Teachers need to consider new ways how to make Holocaust history relevant to new generations globally, and in Australia.

How the Holocaust is relevant to Australia

My historical research has brought to light personal stories connecting Australia and Europe during the second world war.

Between 7,000 and 10,000 Jewish refugees reached Australia shortly before the war. Most of them left behind relatives, often elderly parents, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and friends, who perished in the Holocaust.

In 1939 Mayloch Ruda from Warsaw, Poland migrated to Australia with his two daughters — leaving his wife Chana and three other children, Pola, Frania and Guta behind. This was a typical migration strategy, when the breadwinner left first to establish a new home overseas.

Mayloch applied for Australia to admit his family, but it was too late. The war closed almost all emigration routes from Europe. His wife and three daughters were soon imprisoned in the largest Nazi ghetto in Warsaw.

Mayloch and his two daughters remained in an intermittent contact with their family through the International Red Cross. The last message they received from Pola in November 1942 was delayed by almost six months:

We are in dire material conditions. Mother lost her sight. We plead for any help, as soon as possible. We all live together. We are waiting for help and the news.

Mayloch contacted Jewish humanitarian agencies to send his family food parcels, but it is doubtful they ever arrived. Most of the Jews from Warsaw, very likely including the Ruda family, were murdered in Treblinka.

After the war, the Rudas and others tried to locate their relatives, and if they survived, bring them over to Australia.

Another surviror, Max Heitlinger, who arrived in Australia in 1939 from Vienna, expressed these feelings in his memoirs.

I knew it was the end for all of them. I still wake up at night and cry in desperation and self-accusation.

Despite the immense interest in the history of the Holocaust in Australia their efforts and strategies have remained largely unknown.

The Holocaust is about human rights more generally

The idea Holocaust education could help combat rising anti-Semitism is not new. Surveys conducted in the past 15 years, however, suggest “Europe is experiencing rising levels of antisemitism […] alongside a growth in Holocaust education”.

The authors of the surveys write that for Holocaust education to be effective, the curriculum should also consider “the pre-existing cultural capital of students and the specific history of Jewish communities, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust in the country […] where the subject is being taught”.


Read more: New research shows religious discrimination is on the rise around the world, including in Australia


UNESCO recommends education about the Holocaust include elements such as a fostering critical thinking, education about global citizenship and an integration of gender perspectives to help unmask bias.

Stories like the above, of migrants in Australia separated from family, offer possible avenues for teachers to present the Holocaust as part of our history.

Using these stories is also crucial for understanding the diverse experiences in Australian multicultural society.

Photos of Holocaust victims and survivors from the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Up to 10,000 Jewish refugees came to Australia before the war. Many left behind relatives. (Photos of Holocaust victims and survivors taken from the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington) Shutterstock

Stories of separated families still happen today. Sadam Abudusalam, an Australian citizen, was separated for three years from his Uyghur wife Nadila and their child, who were left behind in China. The Chinese persecution of the Muslim Uyghurs was recently characterised by the Trump administration and the president-elect Joe Biden’s team as a case of genocide. Thankfully, Sadam was reunited with Nadila and their child in December 2020.

The study of the Holocaust offers immense opportunities to educators at all levels, but proper training is necessary for those who teach the subject.

But while the Australian government has mandated Holocaust education, the recent fee shake-up in universities — where fees for most humanities courses have risen – will unfortunately put learning about it in-depth out of reach for some students. And this includes prospective school teachers.

Australia must make it easier for students to learn about the history of our world so they can better teach it to school students.

The study of the Holocaust, as the ultimate example of genocide, allows teachers to raise the universal message of human rights abuses and mass violence. If we relate the Holocaust to our past and present context, we can facilitate a better understanding of the Australian place in the world and its relation to gross human rights violations around the globe.

Jan Lanicek, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History and Jewish History, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

On the Town by Dianne J.E Cassidy

‘Life as a prostitute in Launceston was nothing if not eventful.’

In her preface, Ms Cassidy writes: ‘This book does not, and cannot, in any way mention all of the brothels and prostitutes operating in Launceston in the 1800s. It merely tries to bring to light some of the more notorious characters living at that time so that their lives and tales are not lost to history.’

Ms Cassidy draws on public records (usually from newspaper accounts) to write about the experiences of women who ‘lived on the town’ in nineteenth century Launceston. This is a part of Tasmanian history about which I know little, in part because most accounts of the time focus on the historically well-known figures. Newspaper accounts only provide a partial story, of course, but those records have enabled Ms Cassidy to provide a social history of the lives and times of some of the women involved. I found the photographs interesting as well: some of the buildings that formerly housed brothels still exist.

As I read through Ms Cassidy’s book, I was drawn to parallels with elements of Dickensian London: the poor trying to survive however they could; violence; and the role of alcohol. And, of course, the moralistic judgments made.

This book is a valuable addition to the history of Launceston, especially as it covers people and events generally ignored in historical accounts.  And when I next return to Launceston, I will visit some of the graves at Carr Villa, and I will walk around central Launceston in the streets where some of these women walked.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Road to Station X by Sarah Baring

‘When I was seventeen my parents sent me to Munich in Germany for further education and to learn the language.’

Little did Sarah Baring then know how important her knowledge of German would become.  Sarah Kathleen Elinor Baring (20 January 1920 – 4 February 2013) was an English socialite who worked for three years as a linguist at Bletchley Park, the principal centre of Allied code-breaking during the Second World War.  In 1938, she was enjoying her life as a debutante.  But when war broke out in 1939, she wanted to do her bit for the war effort.  First, after leaving a position with Vogue, she worked as a telephonist at an Air Raid Precautions Centre, then she worked in a factory and helped build airplanes.  But then, because Intelligence were seeking German-speaking staff, Sarah, and her friend Osla were tested and then selected for employment at Bletchley Park.

‘You are to report to Station X at Bletchley Park.’

In this book, Sarah Baring provides a firsthand account of life in the UK during World War II.  While I was most interested in her account of working at Bletchley Park, the book is made more interesting by the context she provides. Food rationing and accommodation shortages presented challenges, but Ms Baring mentions this as a matter of fact and as something that applied to all.

I have been reading a lot about World War II recently, and Ms Baring’s firsthand account provided a different and interesting perspective.  I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a well-written personal account of life in the UK during World War II.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Sapere Books for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive by Philippe Sands

‘It is said that a line divides fact and fiction, the real and the imagined.  Where it lies, and how it shifts over time is not always so clear.’

In this book, Mr Sands provides an account of the life of Otto Wächter and his wife Charlotte both before, during and after World War II. As an SS Brigadefuhrer, Freiherr von Wächter was the governor of Galicia and presided over a territory where hundreds of thousands of Jewish and Polish people were murdered (including the family of Mr Sands’s grandfather).

At the end of World War II, Wächter, indicted for mass murder, went on the run.  The last sighting of him was on 10 May 1945.  With the help of his wife Charlotte, he spent three years hiding in the Austrian Alps.  Then he made his way to Rome where, hiding in a monastery while attempting to join the Ratline to reach safety in South America, he died in 1949. How he died (whether by deliberate poisoning or as a result of swimming in the highly toxic Tiber River) is one aspect of this book.

Mr Sands spent time with Horst Wächter, the second son (born in 1939) of Otto and Charlotte.  Horst Wächter allowed Mr Sands access to family archives and photograph albums, as well as his mother Charlotte’s diaries.

I found this a challenging and uncomfortable read.  I could find nothing likeable about either Otto or Charlotte Wächter.  While I could understand that Horst Wächter would have little memory of his father, I find it difficult to accept that the son found it so difficult to acknowledge the father’s criminality.  Simply following orders is no excuse.

Challenging and uncomfortable, but an important part of the history of World War II.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Dancing in My Dreams: Confronting the Spectre of Polio by Kerry Highley

‘Most Australians born before 1960 can remember the widespread vaccination campaigns that were initiated against polio with first the Salk, then Sabin vaccines.’

I do remember the vaccination campaigns against polio, I remember standing in a queue in Launceston, Tasmania with my father and my brother to receive the Salk vaccine.  This memory sticks in my mind: my father was not a man who did much standing, and he was never a man who enjoyed queuing.  My father was a polio survivor.  He contracted the virus in 1951, not long after his 21st birthday.  He struggled to walk again, and he never recovered the strength he lost.

Before I read this book, I was aware of the work of Sister Elizabeth Kenny.  She was viewed as a hero in my home: treatment based on her methods is what got my father walking.  But I did not know her methods were considered controversial.  I read with interest (and sadness) about the ‘more orthodox’ methods used and supported by Dr Jean Macnamara in which limbs were not mobilised.  I read about the resistance Sister Elizabeth Kenny received to her methods (especially in Australia), and I read about the backgrounds of both women. 

‘Elizabeth Kenny shook the complacency of the medical establishment which firmly believed that muscles affected by the poliovirus remained frail and vulnerable for a lengthy period , and that gentle movement of limbs in the early stages of paralysis was dangerous.’

Many of those who survived polio were left with degrees of disability: June Middleton in Victoria, Australia (1926 – 2009) spent more than 60 years in an iron lung, while many survivors who walked did so with the aid of calipers.   The world was even less accommodating of disability then than it is now.

I also read about the development of the Salk and Sabin vaccines.  And was reminded of the need for vaccine development ‘to hasten slowly’ when reading about a defective vaccine in the USA in 1955 which resulted in 40 000 cases of polio, leaving 200 children with varying degrees of paralysis and killing 10.  I hope that those working on a vaccine for COVID-19 are mindful of these lessons.

While this is a book about a particular disease and the people who suffered from it, there are lessons relevant to all pandemics.  Polio vaccination remains as important today as it did when my brother, father and I queued in Launceston sixty years ago.

‘There remains no cure for polio.’

My thanks to Janine Rizzetti whose review of this book led me to read it. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Under the Rainbow: the life and times of E W Cole by Richard Broinowski

‘Like the rainbows he used as trademarks, Edward William Cole lit up Victorian Melbourne with his Book Arcade and the ways he promoted it.’

In the 1960s I was fortunate enough to discover ‘Cole’s Funny Picture Book’.  I loved it: the wonderful absurd illustrations, the fantastic machines, the rhymes, and the cautionary tales.

In this book, Mr Broinowski tells us about the creator of that book, Edward William Cole (1832 – 1918).  As I read the book, I found myself wishing that I had been able to visit Cole’s Book Arcade.  I know that I would have loved it.

But back to the beginning.  Edward William Cole was born in rural Kent, UK, in poverty in 1832.   We do not have a lot of detail about his early life: his real father is unknown; his stand-in father was transported to Van Diemen’s Land for the theft of a handkerchief.  What brought Mr Cole to Melbourne?  Like so many others, the lure of gold.

Once in Melbourne, he tried several different jobs.  But it was not until a woman sold him a job lot of books (which he sold alongside the pies he then sold from a barrow) that he started on the path that made him famous.  From a small collection of books to a mini book arcade: Mr Cole sought and made the most of opportunities.  Mr Cole’s insatiable curiosity and marketing genius served him well.  He advertised for a wife (and found an ideal match), established his wonderful book arcade with its live music, menagerie, tearooms, and curios.  He encouraged visitors to browse.

The narrative is accompanied by photographs, a reminder of what was once quite probably the most famous store in Australia.  Mr Broinowski writes of the challenges Mr Cole faced, of how he saw (and created) opportunities.  He was a strong advocate for education, a strong opponent of the White Australia Policy and showed far more religious tolerance than many of his era.

This is a delightful book.  The story of a man who started with very little and achieved so much.  We may not know all the facts about his early life, but we don’t need to in order to recognise his genius. 

And now, I want to try to locate a copy of the ‘Cole’s Funny Picture Book’ I remember.

Recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2020

Bedlam at Botany Bay by James Dunk

‘Madness has blurred edges.’

In this book, James Dunk writes about madness in the newly established colony of New South Wales.  Who determined who was mad, and how were they treated?  Picture this: a penal settlement, where people have been transported halfway around the world, under strict control, in an utterly foreign world.  Doubtless some of those transported were (already) mad, but the conditions surely increased the likelihood that more would become so?  But, as James Dunk writes:

‘Madness was largely overlooked until it became too disruptive, at which point masters, commandants and magistrates made decisions – summarily, perhaps, or in  consultation with the governor and the colonial secretary, but with little reference to medical opinion.’

The history is uncovered by reference to correspondence between governors and colonial secretaries, by judicial and medical records, and by letters.  There are glimpses of individuals on these pages, lives largely hidden away in most colonial histories.

Attitudes to insanity varied from the enlightened to the cruel.  Many in authority were suspicious of those they thought were feigning insanity.  Yes, Governor Macquarie established the Castle Hill Lunatic Asylum in 1811 (in a building previously used as a granary and a barracks) but it was hardly therapeutic.  An amateur botanist was in charge, it was served by a succession of disgruntled convict doctors.  How did the residents feel as the building disintegrated around them?  It operated until 1826.

The first real asylum opened in 1838, the Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum at Gladesville on the Parramatta River, opened fifty years after the First Fleet arrived.

‘Insanity has always occupied an awkward place in criminal law, since it complicates the relationship between action and responsibility.’

Reading this book made me think about the history of how society responds to mental illness: how we treat people and try to look after them.  It’s another aspect of our history, another dimension of our society.

I added this book to my reading list after it was short-listed for the NSW Premier’s History Awards in 2020. It was announced as the winner of the Australian History Prize on 4 September 2020.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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