Pinchas Goldhar was born in Lodz, Poland in 1901, and migrated to Melbourne in 1928. Anxious, with good reason, about the survival of Jewish life and culture in an increasingly anti-Semitic Europe and a resolutely monocultural Australia, he became
‘the first to publish a Yiddish literary book, the first editor of a Yiddish paper, the first Yiddish writer to be included in Australian anthologies, the first to translate Australian writers into Yiddish and was certainly one of the founders of a literature written by “New Australians” before the term New Australian even existed.’ (H. Brezniak, quoted in the Preface by Serge Liberman. p.vii)
Held at the Kadimah Leo Fink Hall in Elsternwick, the launch was an impressive affair. MC was Renata Singer (wife of Peter Singer the philosopher and an author in her own right) and the speakers included Professor Bill Rubinstein and Arnold Zable, with readings of the story ‘Drummond St’ in both English and Yiddish. There was also a performance by the Melbourne Yiddish Choir.
Louis de Vries from Hybrid Publishing told the extraordinary story of the book’s gestation. Although, as Professor Rubinstein had told us, these stories represent a distinctive moment in Jewish and Melbourne life, and although no less an authority than Nettie Palmer admired them, they have not been available as a collection in English until now. Two previous attempts to publish them were aborted when the publishers died unexpectedly, so de Vries was pleased to break the jinx!
As Arnold Zable explained in a very moving and powerful speech, Goldhar’s stories are not nostalgic for Europe. They are about the universal immigrant experience:
His stories are poignant and touching, featuring mainly Polish-Jewish protagonists who wrestle with the strange ways of their new home, but resonating for any migrants or refugees who have come to Australia. Often told with bitter irony, the stories express the loneliness and isolation of the immigrant, for whom cultural differences seem insurmountable, the longing for familiar Jewish life, and his sense of uprootedness and disappointment in his adopted homeland. (Preface by Serge Liberman. p.vii).
I meant to listen respectfully during the Yiddish reading, but it was too hard to resist reading the first story. It’s called ‘Cain’ and it was all I could to suppress a tear as I read it. It takes the form of a letter to his family, from a Doctor Hermann Lowenstein who committed suicide in a Dresden concentration camp. He tells his wife Klara and his children not to say Kaddish (the Jewish mourning ritual) for him, because he will always bear the mark of Cain after he was forced by the Nazis to brutally beat another prisoner.
From the moment that the Nazis broke into our house in the middle of the night and dragged me from my bed, my life has been suspended in a web of uncertainty. Suddenly, I began a new life. I became a new man. Dr Hermann Lowenstein ceased to exist. His books, his laboratories, his high moral principles and ideals disappeared without trace as if they had been sucked into a vacuum. A new being was created in my body – not a person, but a creation of fear that trembled at the sound of every scream, cowered before every stare, became a slave to every superior. My entire persona was ruled by only one thought – to live, to live, to live! (p.19-20).
In his anguish, he tells them that because of this they must forget him and obliterate his memory without trace.
Well then, I just had to read the next story, ‘Café in Carlton’. This is a story that should be read in every secondary school in Australia. After witnessing the transformation of Hulka, the quiet, harmless stamp-cutter who lived next door into a Nazi empowered to smash windows and terrorise his Jewish neighbours, Mendel is forced to abandon his ruined hotel and is deported from Poland. But when he has made his way to Melbourne, the careless anti-Semitism of the street urchins terrifies him again:
But even in far-off Australia, Hulka’s laugh haunted him as, deep within him, still lived the terror of the Granadierstrasse. When he opened his restaurant in Rathdowne Street and saw for the first time the word ‘Jew’ scribbled in chalk, his heart missed a beat.
It’s started all over again, he thought, and bowed his head in resignation. He had worked so hard to arrange the restaurant so that it would not look Jewish. He had put a potted plant in the window and hung out a menu card that advertised only Australian dishes: ham and eggs, roast lamb and plum pudding. He had decorated the tables with paper flowers, he did everything just as he had seen in Australian cafés. (p.41)
Shamelessly, I also read the novella ‘The Last Minyan‘, a story which encapsulates Goldhar’s fear that his culture would be lost to assimilation. It’s very poignant too. It reminded me of those churches I’ve visited where the only worshippers are a pathetically small group of old ladies, and it’s not hard to see what will happen when they die out.
As the speakers said, Goldhar died in 1947 so he did not live to see the postwar transformation of Jewish society in Melbourne, nor the establishment of the state of Israel. But despite his pessimism about the future of Jewish cultural life, they were quite sure that he would have been pleased to see that Yiddish, among many other aspects of lively Jewish culture, is thriving in Melbourne, and I am proud to live in a city that has transformed itself from an assimilationist monoculture to a city that welcomes all forms of diversity.
The stories are collected from various issues of the Australian Jewish News, Oystralier Leben, Dertzeilungen (1939), the Second Australian Yiddish Almanac (1943), Tsustayer Zamulbukh (1944) and Collected Writings (1949), over a period of time starting in 1931. They have been translated by Tania Bruce edited by Pam McLean, Judah Waten, Andrew Firestone, Joshua Goldhar, R.Z. Schreiber, and Naomi Kelly. The book also includes illustrations by Noel Counihan and Yosi Bergner, an Introduction by Pam McLean from Deakin University and an afterword by Pinchas Goldhar’s son, Joshua Goldhar.
Author: Pinchas Goldhar
Title: The Collected Stories of Pinchas Goldhar
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2016
Source: Personal copy, purchased on the night for $25
Available from Hybrid Publishers or from Fishpond:The Collected Stories of Pinchas Goldhar: A Pioneer Yiddish Writer in Australia