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Book review: Melech Ravitch and Yosl Bergner in Australia

Anna Epstein has published a very readable and viewable book, “Melekh Ravitsh: The Eccent­ric Outback Quest of an Urbane Yiddish Poet from Poland (2019). She edited the stories and images to cater to my personal passions: art, history, Australia and the Jewish world! Thank you, Anna.

Zacharia Bergner (1893-1976), pen name Melech Ravitch, was a Yiddish poet, journalist and cultural activist. He translated the works of his loved fellow-writer Franz Kafka. In 1933, as Fascism spread across Europe, Melech waved to his family and left for Australia, with three goals. Firstly he wanted to raise fund for Yiddish schools in Poland, and later to create a Yiddish school in Melb­ourne. Secondly he was responsible to look for empty land in Australia, in order to re­set­tle German Jews under imminent threat from Nazism. Thirdly he wanted to get his family out of Europe, quickly.

After living in Melbourne, and visiting Sydney and Brisbane, Melech Ravitch crossed the Australian outback from Adelaide to Darwin. He set out for the Northern Territory, armed with a letter of introd­uction from Albert Einstein, journals to write in and a Box Brown­ie. Across the Central Australian deserts he took 90 Box Brownie photo­gr­aphs, annotated in Yiddish. Of course he travelled across the Australian outback wearing smartish clothes and shoes, complete with bow tie - perhaps because he wrote Yiddish articles describing Aus­tralia for a Warsaw newspaper.

Decades later son Yosl was inspired by these photos to make a series of paintings. I loved the photos in the book, but a complaint - I would have lov­ed more photos from Mel­ech’s time in Carlton (Melbourne) and around Darwin. And this raised another issue. How does the reader of a family biography know which information came from the father and which came from the son? And which was more reliable?

With raging anti-Semitism in Europe, the Freeland League for Jewish Territ­orial Colonisation formed in Lon­don in 1935. Its mission was to search for a homeland, if The Holy Land dream failed. An Australian pastoral firm even offered vast tracts of land for settlement in the Kimberleys, extending from North Western Australia. Mel­ech Rav­­itch was involved in a serious invest­igation of the Kimberley Plan which had seemed promising. It ended up not going any further, just as other poss­ible remote Jewish homelands (eg Ecuador, Uganda, Madag­as­car) had done. In any case Prime Minister Curtin, with bipartisan political support, formally rejected the Jewish Kimb­erley Proposal in 1944.

Ravitch's attitude to Aboriginal communities was mixed. In the huge Northern lands  there lived only 25,000 people, a small minority white. Yet when asked how the Aboriginal Problem would be resolved if a Jewish settle­ment was successfully created, he said “The blacks cannot be regarded as the owners of the land. A crazy idea! They are on the lowest rung of civilisation. They could be allotted a few thousand square miles of land and be taught to work the land.”

Melech Ravitch in the outback with his Italian driver and Aboriginal assistant
Photo dated 1937
Monash University
Melech Ravitch with a young Aboriginal woman in the outback
Photo dated 1937
Monash University

Yes his words matched horrid colonial attitudes of the time, but look at the sensitive photos Melech had taken on his trip, and the caring Yiddish he wrote. The look of dispossession in his Aboriginal subjects' eyes reminded Ravitch of the plight of the Jews back in Poland. Both were dispossessed peoples, linked in their dream of a better world.

Melech’s wife and his children, Yosl and Ruth (born in Vienna and raised in Warsaw), moved to Melbourne in 1937. 17-year-old Yosl was with his best friend Yosl Birstein. The teenagers travelled to Australia, ar­r­­iving when this country had not yet recovered from the De­p­res­s­ion. Like many others, Yosl belonged to the gener­at­ion of people up­rooted from home and forced to create a new home else­where.

With his family altogether, Melech Ravitch helped establish Mel­bourne’s first Yid­dish school, Peretz, in 1937 and became its first prin­cipal. In 1938 Melech travelled to Arg­ent­ina, Mexico and New York before settling in Montreal in 1941, where he became in­volved Yiddish literature, education and cultural activ­ities. Mel­ech seemed a poor husband/father, but he left a meticulously recorded legacy of his life here.

Yosl worked in unskilled jobs in Carlton fact­or­ies, while studying painting at Melbourne’s National Gal­lery Art School.. until the outbreak of WW2. Then he joined the Australian Labour Co. because he was ineligible for the regular army. He was stat­ion­ed at Tocum­wal, on the Murray River. Later, at the import­ant Anti-Fascist Art Exhibition in Melbourne (1942), he presented emotional paintings titled TocumwalAboriginal Man and Two Women.

After the war, Yosl once again worked in Melbourne. Yosl and his art friends focused on social real­ism with a fight for liberty and justice. He befriended Judah Waten, the novelist and short story writer who had come to Australia from Odessa in WW1. Waten’s story collection, Alien Son, became a classic in Australian literature. Waten influen­ced Bergner on many issues, possibly on Aboriginal matters, but his stories shared the experiences of Jewish migrant families in Austral­ia. NB I needed an index, Anna!

Yosl Bergner, 
The Alice Springs to Kimberley trip in 1937
120 x 139 cm
painted in 1990

Book cover
Yosl Bergner, The Dedicated Photographer, 1990,
100 x 91cm
from Melekh Ravitsh in the Kimberle

Did Yosl paint Aboriginal scenes against a background of oppression in Poland? His canvases called Vil­lage on Fire, Over the Ghetto Wall and Fathers and Sons, were clearly Polish. But the tacky clothes, depression, dark environment and hunger could have just as easily represented Aboriginals in Fitzroy 1941. A great discovery for me. 
Meantime, Yosl's sister Ruth had a successful career as a modern dancer, and a life­ relationship with Australian artist James Wig­ley. Wigley continued to paint, exhibiting at the Kadimah Cultural Centre along with Yosl Bergner, Vic O’Connor and Noel Coun­ih­an and associating with the Social Realist group. He contributed three paintings to the Anti-Fascist Exhibition in 1942.

Anna's book is available at Readings St Kilda, Carlton and online; The Avenue in Elsternwick; Thesaurus in Brighton; Jewish Museum and Heide.


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