Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Baba Schwartz and The May Beetles

by Joan London

Baba Schwartz, and her husband Andor, survived the Holocaust before emigrating to Australia.

Joan London
Photo: Abby London
Morry’s (Baba’s son) is a brave voice in publishing, and it is now hard to imagine our Australian culture without The Quarterly Essay, The Monthly, and The Saturday Paper. And without Black Inc, with their books, as beautifully presented and edited, and necessary, as The May Beetles.

One of my most intense and formative reading experiences took place when I was 11 years old and read Anne Frank’s Diary of A Young Girl

Up until then, I had never heard of the Holocaust, and knew only two Jewish people, a couple who played bridge with my parents. Anne Frank’s diary opened my eyes to mid-20th century history,  to the devastating, incomprehensible mass murder of millions of one race by another, a tragedy that could even sweep up a girl, my age, with my young hopes and aspirations.  

I could hardly believe when I got to the end of the book, that Anne Frank was not saved. It left me bereft, shaken, that in her world, that existed only 15 years before I got to read about it, and unlike any other book I’d read, evil had won.
Baba Schwartz
Photo: Caitlin Muscat

One of the privileges of having spent some time in Melbourne over the past few years has been getting to know Baba Schwartz, and enjoying her wise, calm, and generous company. The last time that I visited Baba was in her new apartment on the 16th floor, where I ate some of her delicious freshly cooked pastries, and where it seemed entirely appropriate that Baba should have such an overview of the world all around her. 

Baba has written a wonderful memoir, The May Beetles. A beautiful, generous, book, both in its  physical presentation – the irresistible cover photo of the girl with the dazzling smile, the quality of the paper, the endpieces which reproduce traditional embroidery that speak of a lost pre-war world – and then, most importantly, in the acuity of the memory that informs the book and the generosity of the spirit of the writing.  

It is, of course, also a horrifying book, with its account of a culture turning on some of its own people, their rounding up, deportation, and subsequent slaughter, made so vivid in the writing, alongside the reproductions of chilling old documents issued with ruthless Nazi efficiency.  

Baba writes: 
This life I am revealing – this father, this mother, this family – is the life I would wish for everyone. No harm in any of us, but a sense of the inexhaustible sources of delight in the world. Yes, if I could bestow a gift on others, it would be to live as my family had lived before the great darkness. (p.75)
Again and again she refers to the beauty and happiness of that old world, that lost way of life:
I recall the summer of 1942 more vividly and in more detail than any season during the years of growing danger. I recall the warm winds that carried the fragrance of blossoms. I recall flirting with boys with intense delight in the long evenings. The dusk crept over us by such slow degrees that the darkness settled without our noticing it…Each evening, as I entered our house, I hoped that tomorrow would be as enthralling as was today.
Thirteen years ago, Baba’s husband, Andor Schwartz also published a memoir, Living Memory, and both books constitute a profound witness of the devastation that overtook the Jews of Europe in the late thirties and early forties of the 20th century. These books are there for the record, in all their vivid, detailed testimony of that great darkness that must never be forgotten. 

The wall above the eternal flame in the Hall of Remembrance of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum quotes Deuteronomy:
Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children. 
The Schwartzs’ survival, and the subsequent remaking of their lives in this country, has been part of the infinite enrichment brought to Australia by postwar immigration.

Baba, a huge reader, is a natural writer, with the writer’s impulse to record, to witness, to interrogate. She has always been a writer.  

As she says in the preface to The May Beetles: I write all the time – diary notes, contemplations, poetry, recipes … And most recently, this wonderful memoir. 

Baba Schwartz will be talking about her story for the first time in the session 'I'm still here: Survivors speak', alongside Frank Vajda and Marcel Weyland, moderated by Rita Nash, on Sunday August 28, 10:00am - 11:00am at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. 

Book today at!

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