Footsteps: The Empty Country

Leah Kaminsky

Australia

“Nowhere have I felt as safe as in this wilderness.” 
From the diaries of Melekh Ravitch, 1933

In 1933, my father spent his 18th birthday hanging upside down in a cell in Vilna’s infamous Lukiskes gaol, urine poured into his nostrils by the guards. His crime — releasing pigeons on May 1, red ribbons tied to their little Bolshevik legs. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Shirley Temple celebrated her fifth birthday by signing her first movie contract, filming of the Bride of Frankenstein started, and the original King Kong movie was screened at Radio City. The board game Monopoly was invented, the choc-chip cookie came into being, the first-ever drive-in movie theatre opened in New Jersey, and construction of the Golden Gate Bridge had just begun in San Francisco. Walt Disney released The Three Little Pigs and the cartoon wolf was born who, three decades later, would lurk under my bed at night, ready to reach out and drag me into its lair. President Roosevelt was busy telling everyone: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

In Britain, the first sighting of the Loch Ness monster was reported, a diagram of the London Underground was displayed to the public, and the Marquis of Clydesdale led the inaugural flight over Mt Everest. In the Subcontinent, Gandhi started his three-week hunger strike in protest of the treatment of the lower castes. Back in Europe, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, and construction of Dachau, the first concentration camp, was completed. Massive book burnings were staged by the Nazis just two weeks after the Gestapo was established.

That same year, a Yiddish-Polish poet, named Melekh Ravitch, left his wife and two children behind in Poland and set sail to “the furthest corner of the world” – Australia —  where newspaper headlines were excitedly announcing that windscreen wipers had become compulsory. Ravitch undertook an arduous and outlandish trip across the Australian outback, accompanied by an Italian postal truck driver and a young aboriginal guide, determined to find a homeland for German Jewish refugees, having seen the writing on the wall in Europe.

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The dry twigs crackle in the campfire. Melekh Ravitch writes in his journal about the brilliance of the stars in the sky above the Australian desert, and his longing for his home and family back in Poland. The Italian postal truck driver sings songs about his own village back in Sicily. Ravitch looks up from the page he is scribbling on to watch Angus, a 15-year-old Aboriginal youth busily scraping a stick in the sand, diving in and out of the scrub as he follows animal tracks. Throughout the country, a generation of the boy’s peers are being forcibly removed from their families, in a government-sanctioned plan to assimilate them into white society – a step towards what would become a silent genocide. Earlier that day, Angus had asked Ravitch to buy him from his father for forty shillings, but seemed to forget this idea when the Yiddish poet offered him a bag of candies instead.

Ravitch writes: “I’ll have to give you a small geography lesson: Australia has the appearance of a human head in a reclining position… it lies with its nose facing the heavens.”

The great southern continent seems to be sleeping, while the world turns.

Melekh Ravitch’s real name was Zacharia Chana Bergner. His pen name was derived from a combination of his favourite Yiddish poet, Melekh Chmelnitzky, and Yanko Ravitch, the protagonist in a story written by another well-known writer of the time, Shapira. Born in 1893 in Radymno, a town in eastern Galicia, he grew up a secular Jew, leaving home at the age of 14, to start a life of constant travel. He moved from Lemberg to Vienna, where he worked in a bank. With the outbreak of the First World War, he served in the Austrian army but was injured on the front. In 1920, he was the first to translate the works of his acquaintance, Franz Kafka, into Yiddish. By 1921, having moved to Warsaw, he befriended writers who were part of an influential circle of Yiddish expressionist literature. At the time, Yiddish was the most widely-spoken language by European Jews, until the Holocaust almost entirely destroyed an entire thriving culture. Later, having become an activist, essayist, playwright and poet, he served as the secretary of the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists of Warsaw, which placed him at the centre of a flourishing Yiddish literary life, a vibrant world that was soon to vanish. Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote of Ravitch in his memoir:

“Ravitch believed with absolute faith that the world of justice could come today or tomorrow. All men would become brothers and, sooner or later, vegetarians too. There would be no Jews, no Gentiles, only a single united mankind whose goal would be equality and progress. Literature, Ravitch felt, could help hasten this joyous epoch.”1

At the time, every country had strict quotas for the immigration of Jews, especially Palestine, which was then under British rule. One night Ravitch woke from a nightmare in which the village where his family lived was ablaze: “I am running from the flames with my brothers and sisters.  One by one we fall, until I am the only one left running”. His premonition of the forthcoming demise of European Jewry came to him through a voice in the dream: “You must leave, take your family and run, run now, go, go now”.  The next day, whatever was left of his naïve vision of a global utopia was totally destroyed when his 12-year-old son Yosl ran to him in tears: “Papa, papa they’ve smashed Uncle Hertz’s shop and now it’s on fire”.

With the rise of Nazism in Germany, hatred against minority groups surfaced rapidly. Racist laws and violent attacks against Jews were starting to escalate at an alarming rate throughout Europe. The reality of Ravitch’s dream left him deeply unsettled. Working as a fundraiser for Yiddish schools in Poland had provided him with ample opportunity to travel and witness the “forlorn, pitiful scattered Jewish villages…” He imagined an outlandish, but impassioned alternative for Jews who were no longer welcome in countries they had lived in for hundreds of years: “If it were possible to find somewhere on this planet a land which would take in a few million Jews, then the problem of the Jews would disappear from the issues of the world: it would melt away like snow in springtime.” He helped establish an organisation called ORT-OZE, appealing for help from Jewish communities in India, Australia and South Africa, raising the idea of mass immigration. The Joint British Committee for the Reconstruction of East European Jewry, headed by the Right Hon. Lord Rothschild, gave its full support.

Ravitch’s son, Yosl Bergner, who later became a renowned painter internationally, says of his father: “His official task (was) to raise money for the impoverished educational facilities of the old country. Yet this private meshugas, the inspired madness, with which he was afflicted, was an uncontrollable urge to explore yet another corner of the globe, for he was at heart, in the grand tradition, a wandering Jew.”

He approached officials with his plan to search for an alternative homeland for Europe’s Jews: “Send me somewhere,” he begged, to which they replied “We’d like to…but there is nowhere left.” He floated the idea of Australia. “We went to look at an old world map. But we couldn’t scratch Australia out from underneath — because that piece of the map was covered by a large overlay of Warsaw. So they said to me, “you see that it’s hard to get to Australia and there aren’t any Jews there anyway.” So I went to the administration of the New Folkspaper and asked if there are any subscribers to the paper in Australia.  They replied there are two.  One hasn’t paid for a long time and we must stop sending it to him.  The second pays right on time and his name is Bornshtein.  When I heard that I ran back to the school organisation to tell them what I’d learnt and that is strongly want to go to Australia even if they won’t send me.  Why? “Because I had discovered a subscriber to two editions of the Folkspaper there. The argument stopped immediately. They only asked me to correspond with the above mentioned subscriber — which I did.  In the beginning of 1933, I was in Australia… this obsession for the subscriber of the Folkspaper was a total turnaround, the lives of my nearest and dearest and my own life would have a totally different face today — if not for Australia and if not for that obsession.”

Ravitch set sail on the Ville d’Amien, one of only 10 passengers. Looking back on this many years later, he saw the tragic “historical sin” of this giant empty vessel, which could have saved the lives of so many who were soon to perish. The journey would take a biblical 40 days to reach the shores of Australia, but three days before its arrival, the ship was delayed. Ravitch spent the time tending to the broken wing of an albatross that had plummeted from the sky: “that was the first Australian I met. And a tough one he was. Those… hours were among the most beautiful I had ever experienced… I felt something that I never felt before. A new world… a tough world.  The world of the southern part of our planet.”  Sea birds flocked around the Ville d’Amien as it finally approached the wharf, and Ravitch was struck by the waiting crowd “standing under an autumn sun of a different kind… instead of the birches, there could be seen on stretches of coastline not so far from the wharves, the ghostly greys of eucalyptus, the muted greens and pastel blues of the southern continent.”

After brief visits to Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane fundraising for Yiddish schools back in Europe as part of the official purpose of his trip, Ravitch set out for the Northern Territory, a sparsely-populated and inhospitable vast region. He was armed with a letter of introduction from Albert Einstein. He also carried journals in which he would record his maverick journey. In black-and-white photos, he is wearing high-waisted trousers, a bow tie, a sola topi hat and kangaroo-hide boots: “in shoes like that one can leap over the Australian sand as though one was a kangaroo… I set off to explore the new land for Jews.” A Kodak Box Brownie is slung over his shoulder.

When I was a young girl, back in 1975, my father took me to meet one of his old buddies from the Australian army, who happened to be Ravitch’s son, Yosl Bergner. That Box Brownie camera from the photos was the first thing that caught my eyes as I stepped into his Tel Aviv studio, and the story of Ravitch’s incredible travels was to capture my imagination from that moment on.

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Ravitch was an avid recorder of everything he did. His archives are extensive, filled with hundreds of notebooks, piles of letters and treasure trove of articles he sent back to a Yiddish newspaper in Poland between August 1933 and April 1934. His writings meander along with poetic thoughts and a cornucopia of rich descriptions about everyone and everything he encountered. He was a dreamer and intelligent observer, with an acerbic wit, who was unafraid of cynical self-reflection. He published a long report of his travels in the Australian Jewish Almanac, With Regard to a Project to Settle Jews in Northern Australia — A Wild Journey to a Wild Land.

He set out by train in October 1933, leaving from the southern port city of Adelaide, journeying towards the inhospitable centre of Australia. Over a thousand miles away, at the end of the line, he reached the town of Alice Springs, with a population back then of only 500. “Even though it travels just once a fortnight, there were no more than two paying passengers on the whole train… you spend four days on a small, slow and narrow train… the biggest stations here are no more than little stone buildings, not far from towns populated by only several tens of people, whose plight you can only understand if you have seen them…newspapers, mail and food are simply jettisoned from the train.”

He describes the oppressive heat of the outback, with a cloudless sky, relentless burning sun and hot winds “dusting everything with fine sand… At every station they take on fresh water, poured into special sacks, which hang between the carriages.” He came to see those sacks as “Australian holy objects”, symbolic of the lack of water in the continent and one of the main reasons it was underpopulated. “The water is cooled by the wind, except that it is full of sand and scratches your teeth.  But the heat is so strong that not only would you drink sand but you would swallow whole stones with the water, if you had to.  The sand isn’t the worse thing — often… you notice little worms in the water, so you drink it with worms too… Here there is no choice.” He points out a lake in the distance to a fellow traveller, who disappoints him by telling him it is a mirage. “Because of those mirages,” writes Ravitch, “not one wanderer has made it through the desert. The further you chase such a mirage, the further the ‘water’ runs away from you.” The glass bottles thrown out from the train window soon disappear — “the blacks come and take them away.  And then, a very interesting thing happens to these bottles. They are taken back to pre-historic times. The blacks in Australia don’t use metal, only stone tools.  So they discovered that glass is just as useful as sharp stones. [They] break them and use the pieces as knives [tying]  them to points of their [spears].”

He jots down, in Yiddish, his observations along the way, which include farblongeter camlan (feral camels), kanguru gayog (kangaroo hunting) and a naches tsu zehn vi ehr fligt mein boomerang (a thrill to see how my boomerang flew). Arriving in Alice springs at night, “immediately the wilderness (and) lack of civilisation envelope you. Firstly, there is not electricity and absolutely no lighting in the streets. Everyone walks around with lanterns, black and wild heads staring curiously at the few passengers.  Here you stay overnight in a hotel before carrying on with the journey.”

The 1933 census states the total population of Australia at the time as 6,629,839 people — an eerie figure closely mirroring the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Of those described as “Asiatic Jews:, there were 199 “full-blood” and 17 “half-caste”. Among other minorities designated as “persons”, were “Afghan”, “Arabs”, “Asiatic Turks”, “Negros”, and “Siamese”. Indigenous Aborigines were not officially included — unsurprising at a time when the White Australia Policy classified them as “chattle”. At a conference organised by the Australian Federal Government in 1937, forcible assimilation into white society for “part Aboriginal” people was adopted as policy. Those not living a tribal life were to be educated in the main by missionaries and all others were to live on reserves. Ethnocentric slogans of “populate or perish” led to policies in which preference was given to European immigrants, to mitigate the risk of having Australia overrun by Asians, induced by the wartime anxiety of Japanese expansionism.

In keeping with the colonial attitude which was the status quo of the day, Ravitch writes: “The blacks in Australia cannot be regarded as the owners of the land, because they belong to the very lowest level of civilisation.” Always one to look for an innovative alternative, he comes up with a naive solution to allocate several thousand square miles of land to Aboriginals, teaching them “to plough and sow, and thus the Aboriginal issue would be solved.” In a collection of his writing Iber Oystralye (Across Australia), published in 1937, Ravitch’s observations and run contrary to the racist colonial nature of his initial declaration. Despite the attitude being in keeping with the blinkered views of the time, overall he showed deep empathy towards the plight of indigenous Australians, at a time where talk of eugenics had become fashionable amongst then highly-esteemed scientific circles.

“Those who didn’t manage to get slaughtered are slowly degenerating… under government protection, living on a small reservation on the periphery of Sydney… on the shore of Botany Bay, where Captain Cook, discoverer of Australia, landed his ships in 1770. They live on the spot that was the cradle of the continent in its white form, and simultaneously the death of the continent in its black form.” The horrific irony of parallel genocides taking place – one of Ravitch’s own people back in Europe, alongside that of the Aborigines he wrote such impassioned words about, doesn’t pass him by.

Between Alice Springs and the next town of Birdum, lay an 800-mile stretch of desert. Ravitch had to hitch a ride on a large mail truck that travelled this route once a month, taking five days to cover the distance, before he could catch another train which would take him the remaining 300 miles to the Northern coastal town of Darwin. His companions on this part of the journey were an Italian driver and a 15-year-old Aboriginal guide, named Angus, whose “maternal grandfather kills kangaroos with wooden spears [while] his paternal grandfather lives in London”, seemingly unaware of his grandson.

“You can’t travel more than 150 miles a day,” Ravitch writes, “and even that takes every last bit of strength. Our Italian chauffeur/driver is one of the very best in all of Australia; on top of that he has the strength of an ox. There is no official road for the whole 800 miles. Sometimes it’s sand, sometimes its raw stones, sometimes hills… you have to snake your way through bush and… you have to sniff the right way with your nose — like a dog.”

Ravitch was awed by the Australian desert, often overly-romanticising it: “Nowhere have I felt as safe as in this wilderness.” He muses about how benign the ‘wild’ creatures are: “such little bears, that children play with them, [and] birds that laugh”. Only the white ants drove him to distraction: “They can eat everything and everyone.” He sleeps in a bivouac by night, listening to the haunting chants and traditional instruments of indigenous peoples as they sit around small campfires in the distance, frightening to his unaccustomed ears: the hollow wailing of the didgeridoo, the clapping together of sticks and the whoosh of the sacred bullroarer as it is twirled in the air. “The music sounds more like ghosts rather than music to keep ghosts away.  There can be no talk of sleep here.”  He is often fearful: “It’s true that we are travelling in a truck, but we are no more than three and there may be a hundred of them. People keep warning that they kill the whites, eat them up and I am a vegetarian and don’t believe in eating meat let alone being eaten.” As they drive closer to these purported cannibals, or “fressers” as he jokes in Yiddish, a vastly different image comes into sharp focus: he encounters a pitiful group of “exhausted black desert wanderers, that can barely stand on their own two feet”.

10 days later, exhausted and ravaged by mosquitoes, Ravitch reaches the port city Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. He had spoken to farmers, workers and travellers along the way, learning about the hidden treasures of the rugged terrain he had traversed – gold and iron ore. “I already know the land flowing with milk and honey — it was not — but it could become one… there wasn’t much water, but you can dig almost everywhere and get water. And if there is water everything will grow here.” He met with an “administrator of the region” in Darwin, who told him there was room for resettlement of a million people in the Northern Territory – as long as, in keeping with the White Australia Policy, they were not people of colour, or, according to the term used at the time, the “Yellow Peril”.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Jews are prohibited from being newspaper editors. The Nazis pass a law which allows beggars, the homeless, alcoholics, and the unemployed to be sent to concentration camps.  Jews are denied national health insurance, banned from the German labour front, and prohibited from becoming lawyers. The German public approved Hitler’s new powers with a vote of 90%.

Upon his return to Poland, it wasn’t long before Ravitch set out again, this time spending time in Hong Kong, while he decided whether his next destination should be America. Instead, he returned to his beloved Australia, hoping to settle and gain citizenship there. With the help of some influential friends, the premier allowed him stay. He was grateful “that 7 million people, on the fifth continent, who could take a 100 million, moved over a little bit and let in another person, and, this name, is my name.” In 1936, as he waited for his daughter Ruth, a talented dancer, to arrive, he gazed at the Sydney Harbour Bridge, imagining it to be a giant musical instrument: “And in my heart it all played a song of joy, of longing , of beauty, of new life, of a new world, a new continent, a new coming.” The following year, his 16-year-old son, Yosl, arrived in Melbourne. Ravitch embraced him, telling him his duty as a father was done. “I can now go on my own way. I brought you to this beautiful world and with that I have opened the door to… the Australian continent, the youngest, the most beautiful of all”.

Ravitch continued his peripatetic wanderings, eventually settling in Montreal in 1941, where he lived out his days until his death in 1976. He imagined a time when the war would end and “Australia’s big day in the world will begin”. It would be then that he could again “take up writing quiet poems… that touch the horizon.” Throughout his life, Ravitch continued to have a widespread influence on the writers and artists of his day, as well as on future generations. In particular, his wide-ranging observations about Australia of the 1930s, the awful plight of aborigines in the Northern Territory, as well as his premonition of the forthcoming demise of European Jewry by Nazi Fascism during World War II, were prescient, to say the least.

At a personal level, his journey has intrigued me since Ravitch’s son, Yosl Bergner, told me about it all those years ago, when I was a 15-year-old sitting mesmerised by the black and white photos taken back in 1933 with the same Kodak Box Brownie I held in my hands. Ravitch’s story spoke to me about issues I have grappled with my whole life – my identity as the child of parents who came to Australia as traumatised refugees of a war-torn Europe, my struggle with a search for where ‘home’ really is, as well as a call to adventure — daring to dream big.

Supported by the Trade Unions and the Anglican Church at the time, the outlandish proposal that Ravitch envisaged — to establish a Jewish colony of refugees in the middle of Australian desert — eventually missed being passed in parliament by only one vote. Although Australia did eventually open its doors to millions of immigrants, it was too late for those Melekh Ravitch was trying to save. His ghost has haunted me since that fateful day my father dragged me into Yosl Bergner’s studio. Recently, with asylum seekers once again trying desperately to reach Australia’s shores, only to be turned away, or interred in offshore detention centres, Ravitch’s story has even more urgent relevance.

There are so many stories to tell about Melekh Ravitch, but as Yosl puts it: “I’m still pregnant with father. Once I start talking about him there’s no end to it.”

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I am indebted to Yosl Bergner who made his personal archive available to me, and has told me many of his father’s stories over the past four decades.

 

Leah Kaminsky is a Contributing Writer for Panorama.