Jewish community helps Aborigines save history

September 28, 1991|By Kay Withers | Kay Withers,Special to The Sun

ADELAIDE, Australia -- Two nations, two tragedies, two survivors determined to retrieve the past and never forget it: A Jewish community and Australia's Aborigines are getting together in an unprecedented attempt by one people to help save another's history.

The Holocaust Remembrance Committee of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies and Tranby Aboriginal College in Sydney have embarked on a unique oral history project under which Jews, many of them Holocaust survivors, will teach Aborigines how to record their own near-extermination while they still can.

"A lot of the older people are dying," said Kevin Cook, general secretary of the college. "In the Morree area of New South Wales, for instance, there are people who witnessed massacres in the last 70 years. But just now there have been eight deaths in seven weeks in the Morree community. That testimony is gone."

Perhaps a half-million of this country's original inhabitants once roamed Australia. By the 1920s, they were down to only 100,000, decimated by the white man's bullets, his policies, his diseases.

"Tasmania had a policy of extermination, and there were massacres like that at Coniston in the Northern Territory or at Myall Creek in New South Wales, where women and children were killed over trifling transgressions," said Chris Anderson, who heads the anthropology department at the South Australian Museum, which has a huge collection of Aboriginal records dating to 1911.

"But probably 10 times as many Aboriginal people were killed by disease as by violence," Mr. Anderson said.

They died from European illnesses to which they had no immunity -- smallpox, tuberculosis, even the common cold. They died of malnutrition and epidemics in thecamps into which white police herded them. They dwindled as deprivation and despair cut their fertility rates.

In the last few years, white Australia has tried to redress at least some of the wrong. Efforts have been made to preserve the Aborigines' history and language and, to a point, their land.

So when the late Thomas Rona, a Sydney Jewish leader, left to the Aboriginal people a small annuity in memory of the Holocaust victims in his family, his lawyer, Roland Gridiger, in his words, "looked to a marriage of the two."

Through Tranby College, he sought out Aborigines who could be trained in the sensitive interviewing techniques used to record the recollections of Holocaust survivors. It took three years to get the project off the ground, but now submissions are rolling in from Aboriginal groups wanting to run pilot projects.

It is not easy. Aborigines are slow to warm to interviewers. They don't like pictures because of complicated courtesies involving the dead, and recording will mostly be limited to audiotape. It will take time.

"If you want to talk to Aborigines, you have to set up camp 200 yards away and wait for them to come to you," sociologist David Abrahams said.

But there is an underlying understanding. "There are parallels of being landless, homeless, with a common experience of discrimination and genocide," Mr. Anderson said. "There is always something to be gained from shared experience."

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