The only life to be found in Sydney on a late Sunday afternoon was down at Circular Quay.
That’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Sydney, like Melbourne, is a 24/7 city these days, as hectic in the suburbs as it is in the CBD. But this novel by Alan Collins begins in the Depression era, when trams still trundled the streets and you could rent a room or two in a guest house at Bondi for two pounds in advance. Like Amy’s Children, The Boys from Bondi shows us that Sydney’s past is indeed a foreign country: they do things differently there.
Alan Collins (1928-2008) spent his childhood as an orphan in Sydney, and his writing is strongly autobiographical. The Boys from Bondi is first in the Jakob Kaiser trilogy now packaged together as A Promised Land? and it traces the story of Jakob and his little brother Solly from 1935, when the family’s reduced circumstances brought them from a house in Bellevue Hill to rooms at ‘The Balconies’ overlooking Sydney’s famous bay. His father and step-mother Carmel don’t cope very well with the transition, and when Father ‘fell off the cliff’ in despair, the boys are taken into care at the Abraham Samuelson Memorial Home.
The Kaisers were non-observant Jews but Jakob is proud to mark his entry into adolescence by making his bar mitzvah at the Home. However he treasures the mezuzah as a remnant of his family home more for sentimental than religious reasons, and is mystified by the bigotry he encounters from both Jews and non-Jews, a theme which pervades the book. Once apprenticed as a printer at Grayson and Roberts (where anti-Semitism is routine), he is sent to board with Mrs Rothfield who warns him off Gentiles, but before long he meets Peg from the Eureka Youth League, whose lively company dispels these prejudices.
There is further tragedy in Jakob’s life and his emotional burdens intensify but Collins does not dwell on them. The war which has brought barbed wire to Bondi Beach is only a backdrop to Jakob’s emerging identity and his need to reconcile the Jewish and Gentile aspects of his life. Against expectations, this short novel ends on an optimistic note, leaving the reader wanting to find out what happens next.
Going Home continues the trilogy, covering the post war years. The focus of Jakob’s emotional life is Ruti (Ruth) but their relationship is complicated by Ruti’s mother’s expectations for her daughter. Ruti is at university and she’s expected to marry well, and a tradesman printer with no family is not part of the plan. Political issues also create conflict, because although both are interested in working on a kibbutz in what is not yet the state of Israel, Jakob is interested in the Eureka Youth League and socialism whereas Ruti is a Zionist. Occasionally the novel strays into too much explanation about the political backdrop and it falters a little in the middle, but the dramatic focus is restored when Jakob makes unexpected choices and things turn out in an unpredictable way. The latter part of this story in Palestine is compelling reading.
The trilogy concludes with Joshua. Here the focus is on the next generation and the uncertainty and conflicts of the 1960s. It was interesting to view the Vietnam War conscription issue through the lens of a young man cherished as the last remnant of a family lost in the Holocaust. His adoptive family doesn’t want to risk a life so precious in a foreign war, and he is opposed to killing of any kind.
Joshua’s back story is a bit confusing, possibly deliberately so to make the point that it’s not easy for a refugee orphan to know his own personal history, but although it is clarified in the concluding pages, I found what seemed like a puzzling chronology a distraction. In Joshua, Joshua (the character) is 19 (p 294) in 1967 (p 296) - and therefore subject to the draft when he turns 20 either later that year or the next, by my reckoning giving him a birth year of 1947 or 1948. The book doesn’t deal with how his birthdate was established in Australia given the postwar chaos of his birth, his birth mother’s refugee status and her death. There must have been thousands of people in this position, without the personal documentation that those of us lucky enough to have stable, secure lives take for granted. Presumably whatever papers they were eventually issued with were adequate for the purposes of the draft.
However, on p 361, the text says ‘his real parents, both dead: one in a concentration camp grave in Poland, the other at the bottom of the Mediterranean.‘ How can this be? The camps were segregated so Joshua could not have been conceived until after liberation. The camps in Germany were liberated in April/May of 1945 as the Allies advanced, but Auschwitz in Poland was liberated by the Soviets in January 1945, although thousands of survivors subsequently died of disease in the aftermath and in the displaced persons camps afterwards.
These dates make Joshua’s conception and birth a bit tight for a young man aged 19 and facing the draft in 1967. This is because in Going Home it was January 1948 during the birth of Israel (p 233 and p 251) when Joshua’s birth mother had left the displaced persons camp and drowned off the coast of Haifa. Joshua was then two (p 244). His earliest credible conception date if his father was in a Polish camp could possibly be is January 1945 (when Auschwitz was liberated) making his birth no earlier than October 1945 and him no older than two years 4 months of age in January 1948; conversely, to be two years of age in January 1948 he could have been conceived no later than April 1945 (when Buchenwald in Germany was liberated) and been born no later than January 1946. By my reckoning, he must have been born between October 1945 and January 1946, making him 20 years of age in 1965 or 1966, not 19 in 1967.
But it is crucial to the story that Joshua is ‘the last survivor of an entire family that had perished in the Holocaust.’ (p 273). I think that Collins wanted to invest this character with this iconic status in order to emphasise the fragility of the surviving Jewish refugee community in Australia and their persisting fear of losing any remnant of any family.
Boys conceived by a parent lost to the Holocaust or in its immediate aftermath (i.e. conceived in 1945 and born in 1945-6 at the latest making them 20 in 1966 at the latest) could have been at risk of being sent to Vietnam, especially if they had deferred their service until after finishing university. The draft was legislated in Australia in 1964, amended in 1965 to allow service overseas, and used for the first time in 1966 to send troops to Vietnam. (See Wikipedia). The Jewish community in Australia, rebuilding from pitifully small numbers and traumatised by the loss of entire families must have felt terrified by the prospect of any further losses. Whatever about these disparities with the dates, A Promised Land? reveals an aspect of Jewish-Australian identity that I had not thought about before.
I thought this was a very interesting book, and I’m looking forward to reading others by this author in due course.
 ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. Discuss.
In my youth, like thousands of other secondary school students, I wrote an essay on this topic which uses the opening line from The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. I’ve never forgotten it.
Author: Alan Collins
Title: A Promised Land?
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press)
Source: Review copy courtesy Ros Collins, Executor of the Estate of Alan Collins.