First published in Onya Magazine, on January 27th, 2012.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed an incredible man – Siegmund Siegreich. Siegmund, or Sigi, was a Holocaust survivor. He was 15 years old when Germany invaded Poland – 15 when he was placed into a concentration camp. The next six years of his life were spent enduring endless humiliation, beatings, starvation, serous illness, not to mention seeing family members and friends killed, shot, and left for dead right in front of him. When I sat to talk with him, at 88 years of age, the pain of his ordeal – one that he managed to survive – was evident every time he spoke about it. He, along with his wife and two daughters, cried their way through the interview.
It was one of the hardest but most incredibly special moments of my life. Made more so by the fact that Sigi was probably the biggest gentleman I’ve ever met – he was so kind, graceful and intelligent. He was humble and proud and strong.
His book, The Thirty Six, written almost six decades after his time in war-torn Poland, changed my life. I read it almost entirely in one sitting. I cried, nearly threw up, felt rage, felt sadness and felt love. I often think of what I learnt from that book, and I often think of Sigi, and his gorgeous face, and the love he had for his family.
I thought of Sigi today. As a man who lived through every horror imaginable, I wondered what he’d think of the protests in Canberra yesterday, and the burning of our flag. I wonder what he’d think of so much hate being spouted – from protestors and commentators alike.
Sigi was a man, who was only a boy, when he saw his father die. And his mother. And uncles. And aunts. And cousins. And neighbours. He was a boy who had to sleep through the bitter cold, in a lavatory shed, in his own faeces, where the stench of urine penetrated his every pore. I won’t even go into the torture he was subjected to. To type it would make me sick. Of the Holocaust, he said, “People may think the world knows enough about it, but to understand the enormity of it all would shake humanity to the end of time.”
When I asked Sigi if he hated the Germans for what they did to him and his family, he replied and said, “No, I do not. You cannot hate an entire race of people, for the mistakes only a handful of people within that race have made…
“I have seen the devil in men, I have seen my family members shot, I have seen them smile, wave and walk off, never to return, I have been starving, frightened, frozen, petrified…but I have seen the beauty in people. I have felt love and I know there is good in the world…
“Hate is a waste. We just must never forget what has happened, so as to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
In 1971, Sigi migrated to Melbourne, with his wife and both daughters, sponsored and backed by a friend of his.
“We finally set down roots in a truly free and democratic country, where our family has prospered and multiplied.”
Now, I’ve got no doubt the Aboriginal community are in need of more assistance – more help, support and education.
And we’ve somehow wound up in a place where no one can offer a suggestion or a thought without being branded as a racist, or radical.
I’m not a racist. I’m not radical. I believe in equality, and fairness, and in doing what’s right.
Taking land off the Aborigines was not right. Stealing Aboriginal children was not right. There are so many things about our Australian history that are not right – I spent an entire year in Year 12 studying everything about Australia, and in many cases shaking my head.
But I also know that the actions taken by a minority in Canberra yesterday were not right. Nor was the action of burning the Australian flag. I am reminded of words I heard from Sigi, “You cannot hate an entire race of people, for the mistakes only a handful of people within that race have made…”
And I think how true that is.
I am sorry for what happened to every Aboriginal when white colonial men settled this country.
I am also sorry for Sigi, and everything he endured, and did for decades and decades afterwards. I am sorry for what his children endured, and continue to. And what his grandchildren endure, and will continue to.
I am also sorry for my parents, who migrated to Australia at such a young age and had to endure years and years of racism, bullying, misconceptions and harassment – all because of the sound of their surname and the contents of their lunch box.
My parents never gave up. They never gave in. They made something of their lives. They gave me and my brother and sister a life, and a very good one. They taught us to be equal and fair and to do what’s right.
Sigi never gave up. When every single thing in his life went against him, when everyone he loved was taken away from him, when he was buried face down in a dirt pit, hiding under the body of a dead Jew to avoid being shot himself, he did not give up. When he was made to dig his own grave, he did not give up. He fought and gripped onto life because he knew that life was worth living.
Australia – the country and its people – never offered any sympathy, or compensation, or assistance to my parents. They didn’t do so for Sigi and his family, either. And I’m not drawing comparisons between racism in a Richmond primary school and the Holocaust, I’m drawing a point; that maybe, perhaps, it’s time someIndigenous people got up, stood tall and proud and made a life for themselves. A life in a country that can offer them so much, a life in a truly free and democratic country.
I imagine that doing so will be difficult. Painful. Frightening. But there are many people who have done it before, including people from their own race. And I’m not suggesting some Indigenous people forget, or leave behind, or move on from the past; I’m suggesting they use it to spur them on to do great things and build the life they so very much deserve.