I had hoped that the ascendancy of Kevin Rudd as prime minister had brought about the end of the demeaning debate about ‘boat people’ in this country, but alas, our new political leaders seem just as willing to demonize refugees as ever. It’s very discouraging.
I should declare my bias, I suppose. When my family migrated to Melbourne, we soon moved to Caulfield in Melbourne, which was home to many Jewish refugees in the 1960s and 70s. The people in our street were mostly Holocaust survivors although our next neighbour Mr Kuperholz had fled Stalin. I liked these people. They were hard-working, generous people who had somehow survived with their spirit and sense of humour intact. One way or another they made a valuable contribution to Australian life and we would be the poorer without them. So I don’t have much patience with the idea that it’s ok to ‘feel anxious’ about refugees and even less with pledges to turn the boats back to sea. For humanitarian reasons and because Australia as a developed nation should take its share of refugees however they arrive, I think we should have a mature and honourable response to people who flee war and oppression. I’d like to see our political leaders show some integrity on this issue instead of pandering to ignorance, prejudice and irrational fear.
Presumably the people at Text Publishing think so too. They have taken the step of republishing this book, Between Sky and Sea, which has been out of print for over 50 years, because it addresses the issue of asylum-seekers being denied a port to land at.
It’s a simple story really. A rickety old Greek freighter is carrying a group of Jewish refugees from the Nazi invasion of Poland, but it’s denied entry at a succession of ports. Supplies are running out, and internal tension wracks the ship. These people are traumatized after suffering enormous losses and they fear that no one will take them in.
There are children on this ship, as there are children on today’s ships. Imagine this:
A small girl [approached] the group of children. In her hand she held a white bread roll which some sailor, who had taken pity on her, must have given her. To the children who hadn’t seen such a thing for weeks the piece of baked dough gleamed so white that it must have come from fairyland. They were drawn to it and they stopped their play and circled around the child with the roll like moths round a lamp at night. They drew nearer and nearer, stretching out their hands and begging for a little piece. The child broke off crumbs with a mean little hand and distributed them among the outstretched hands. Her eyes shone with pleasure and she was full of self-importance. She played the role of a patron, pinching off tiny pieces with two fingers. But the children demanded more an more. Then she noticed that there was hardly anything left in her hand, and she didn’t want to give anyone any more. Helplessly she sat down on the floor and clutched to herself, with both hands, the remains of the roll. Then the others fell upon her, tore the piece of roll out of her hands and quickly disappeared. (p107)
The story of Ida and Nathan is heart-rending. Both had lost their spouse and children when they fled the bombing, and they are bound together by the trauma which at the same time makes it impossible for them to love anyone. They are haunted by memories and guilt, and they fear loving again because the risk of loss is more than they can bear. For Fabyash – brash, assertive, cocky – it is the losses that he suffers aboard the ship that bring him undone.
And in the end, a shocking climax.
Between Sky and Sea won the Australian Society of Literature’s gold medal for book of the year in 1948. It’s an important book which deserves to be widely read. I wish our political leaders would read it.
Author: Herz Bergner
Title: Between Sky and Sea,
Translated by Judah Waten
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2010, first published 1946
Source: Review copy courtesy Text Publishing.