A promised land Down Under

The ‘Kimberley Plan,’ would give 20,000 kilometers to Jewish settlements in northwest Australia. The first stage of the plan was to absorb 100,000 Jews, mainly from Eastern Europe.

A group photo of Limmud FSU Australia participants. (photo credit: LIMMUD FSU)
A group photo of Limmud FSU Australia participants.
(photo credit: LIMMUD FSU)
“Why didn’t my father set up a Jewish state in Australia?” Yosl Bergner answers the question, “There were too many flies.”
Zekharye-Khone Bergner, better known by his pen-name, Melech Ravitch, was a well-known Yiddish writer and poet on the Jewish-Polish scene between the two world wars. He is described by Yosl Bergner, his 95 year-old son, as “A good but bland writer.” But in addition to his literary work, in Ravitch’s fevered brain lurked a feeling of impending doom. In his book, “I Forgot the Most Important Thing,” which Yosel Bergner wrote together with Ruth Bondy, he quotes a poem by his father in Yiddish written before the Holocaust.
On the banks of the Wisla, Jewish graveyards will flourish Over the markets, in the town streets Along the length of the cities As anti-Semitism increased, Ravitch lost all belief in a Jewish future in Europe. “Get out of here,” he would entreat his fellow writers in Warsaw. One of them, Uri Zvi Greenberg, said that the future for a writer was in Palestine and in Hebrew. Another, Yitzhak Bashevis Singer, left for New York and ended up with a Nobel Prize for literature.
In addition to flourishing poetics, Ravitch’s public activities brought him in touch with the so-called “Territorialists,” who maintained that if Zion could not be brought about in the Holy Land, then a refuge should be sought wherever possible. One summer morning in 1933, with financial backing from Jewish intellectuals, with a supporting letter from Albert Einstein and with an official permit, Ravitch left his wife and two small children in Warsaw and – clean-shaven and sporting a neck tie , set out in search of a New Jerusalem.
According to the “Kimberley Plan,” the possibilities of which Ravitch had hastened to examine, 20,000 square kilometers of land were to be allotted for Jewish settlement in the Kimberley region of North West Australia. This area, the size of present-day Israel, was situated in the desolate extreme outback of the vast and under-populated continent.
In the first stage, it was planned to absorb some 100,000 Jews, mainly from Eastern Europe, who would learn to till the soil. History had bestowed upon Ravitch’s shoulders the mantle of a kangaroo messiah and had made him the hope of those seeking a homeland. But Yosl says that his father had very little hope or optimism. Yosl remembers someone who always foresaw the worst. Once he went with him to a performance of Tom Sawyer in Yiddish. On the stage was a black actor who was chopping wood with an axe, “My father had an anxiety attack and called out to the actor to take care not to chop off a finger.”
Yosl Bergner, Israel Prize winner for the arts, is sitting in his studio redolent with the smell of oil paint. Above him is an old Kodak camera which his father had used to photograph in the non-Promised Land. He is wearing gray work overalls and tries to paint every day. He tells me, “I paint my thoughts, I paint between the thoughts, I paint so as not to die.” He shows me a series of paintings of depressed people based on his father’s Australian odyssey. Aboriginals as black as tree trunks. Aboriginals with heavy faces in heavy overcoats. “I painted them because they were oppressed exactly as were the Jews.” he says between heavy breaths. His brushes gave them a voice long before white Australia asked their pardon. Before we leave, he admonishes me and Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU, “Don’t let the flies defeat you!” Because of a shortage of time, this was a hurried visit. Not to Kimberley in the footsteps of Ravitch, but just two days around Alice Springs, from where he had set out. Ravitch had arrived in Alice, as the inhabitants call it, by train from Sydney. We have arrived by plane from Melbourne. As the plane began its descent, we see yawning emptiness beneath us. The blazing desolation sits in the seat behind you and scorches the nape of your neck. When we descended to 6,500 feet above ground, the temperature on the cellphone showed 27 degrees centigrade. You think about the bewigged women, the long beards and the streimels surviving in 40 degrees below zero – how would they have managed in 40 degrees above zero? Maybe it was that differential of 80 degrees that eventually put paid to the Kimberley Plan? That is, as if nature had said, “Hey, wait a minute, think again. Maybe there is a more suitable place to choose as a homeland.”
From left to right: Gil Hovav, presenter (Israel), Shailee Mendelevich, a volunteer from Sydney, chair of programming committee of Limmud FSU.
In his Atlas of Jewish History, Martin Gilbert says there were 20 different proposals for settling Jews in remote corners of the world. , from Curaçao in the Dutch Antilles, Grand Island in New York State, Cyrenaica in Libya, Saskatchewan in Canada. The Australian story is especially dramatic. When it was taking place a chain of unstoppable circumstances was already in motion. The train of fate had already left the station. Melech Ravitch arrived in Alice Springs when Hitler was already ensconced as German Chancellor. In Rome, Mussolini was already imposing his fascist doctrine and Stalin in Moscow was already persecuting the Jews. The global march of evil forces you into a fatalistic “what if” way of thinking. The Kimberley plan could almost have been the answer, almost a hope, almost a salvation.
At one o’clock in the afternoon, Alice Springs is one the point of fainting. The MacDonnell Range strangles you from the west and the wind from the east is treacherous. Instead of modifying the heat, instead of giving life, it sucks the life out of you. A row of dusty eucalyptus trees provides a beggarly scrap of shade to some aboriginals. When Chesler tries to photograph them, they signal their anger. The eyes of the men flash sparks. The women are indifferent, some of them pregnant with tee shirts that don’t cover their stomachs.
The aboriginals account for just two percent of the 22 million Australian population. It is only 45 years ago since they were officially declared to be part of the “human race.” And only 25 years ago, when their legal rights to the land on which they had settled 40,000 years, before was recognized. Only at the beginning of this century did the white Australian government admit that 100,000 children were part of a “lost generation,” after they had been forcibly removed from their parents by missionaries. Even today, after an official Conciliation Commission in Melbourne, they are still a lost generation. Alcoholism, unemployment, a high drop-out from educational networks, illness – especially of the eyes, are eating away at the community. If a Jewish community had come into existence then, would the Aboriginals have become the Palestinians of that time? Melech Ravitch set out in a colonial solar topee hat, with chest-high pants held up by suspenders and wearing kangaroo skin boots. In a truck driven by an Italian immigrant, he made his way across the dusty continent. When he stopped over in an Aboriginal encampment, a child asked him for some candy. At that moment he might have thought about Yosl left way behind in Warsaw, and he picked the child up in his arms. Consumed by feelings of guilt, he said, “Your murderer is holding you and the candy is poisoned.” Afterwards he took the child with him and made him his assistant.
On checking before we left for Australia, I had been assured there were no Jews in Alice. When I inquired about a synagogue, people laughed in my face. But in a coffee bar over an avocado salad, I meet Elly Polin. She and her husband Ted Steinbrecker, are the only Jews in town. “You can certainly call us the Jewish Center of Alice Springs,” she laughs. She had never heard of Melech Ravitch or his mission. She dismisses the idea of attempting to establish a Jewish state here. “With our lack of restfulness what exactly would we do here?” She arrived at the end of the world with her husband, an engineer who works at a nearby American base. “Ted got a small contract and we got a large adventure.” Elly, 44 years old, was born in Chicago and grew up in Philadelphia They have two children, Ely and Lyndsey. The children learn by radio broadcast every Sunday and their classmates are spread out over hundreds of square kilometers. In order to trace back some religious antecedents, Elly recalls her great-grandfather who was a cantor. Her parents belonged to a Reform congregation but “we only went there on holydays such as Passover.” Elly and Ted try to retain some degree of Jewishness and she insists on blessing the challah on Shabbat. She says it is impossible to keep kosher here but they do not eat pork. Every Friday, she bakes challot, lights candles, fasts on Yom Kippur and hosts a Pesach seder meal. Another Jewish woman who has left Alice in the meantime, joined their seder this year and she invited the non-Jewish friends of her daughter Lyndsey On the wall of their home is a plaque in Hebrew calling for “Blessings of light, happiness and peace be on this house.”
On the kitchen cabinets are Shields of David and there is a shelf of Jewish books in the living room. And a mezuzah on the doorpost. She teaches the children Hebrew from a book called “Through Wisdom,” Her son Ely loves a book called Harry the Engineer and the Rosh Hashanah Journey. She tries as much as she is able to pass on to them some Jewish education.
Don’t the children miss America?” “When we lived in Virginia, I could send them to a Jewish summer camp. The family talked to them about Jewish subjects. Here, I know that if I don’t do it, nobody else will.”
Where do you pray” “In nature. The desert is our synagogue.”
What about the loneliness? “This morning I spoke to my mother for an hour by skype. Two years ago my parents came for a couple of days and we all flew to Melbourne.”
In 2017, Ted Steinbrecker’s contract expires but the children are dying to stay on longer. Elly is no dreamer: she wants to go home. I ask her if the real Israel – not that of Ravitch - would be an option. She answers, “Certainly an option, but only for a visit.”
Alice Springs is at the geographical center of the continent. An official delegation in 1877 declared it to be the trigonometric point from which all geographical measurements, height, latitude and longitude were to be calculated. One of the measuring points is Telegraph Hill which got its name from the telegraph station on top which linked Darwin in the far north with Adelaide in the far south. It is more than likely that Ravitch came here He felt that he had been sent to seek out Australia just as Moses sent the ten spies to reconnoiter the Promised Land. The journalist within him felt the need to report back to his Yiddish readers in Warsaw. Some of his stories may well have been transmitted from the point on which we are standing.
It can be either dawn or dusk – the reader is free to choose. In the west the sun is setting; in the east the moon is commencing its nighttime shift. Behind us is an aboriginal cemetery in which a wallaby is frolicking. Primordial quiet envelopes you, but it is shattered in the middle of the night. From the hotel courtyard you hear the shouts of the aboriginals who cannot control their alcohol content. Some of them mount the hotel steps and try the door handles of the rooms. The shouts are not just those of drink but also of protest. The protests of generations that have condemned them to their misery. You are not in any way guilty nevertheless you are consumed by guilt.
Melech Ravitch saw all this but brushed it off. Clean-shaven and spry in his necktie he had himself photographed with aboriginal women. The business deals suggested by the men amused him. What did they not try to tempt him with? They will provide him with a ship laden with pearls; they will build him an ice factory, they will dig him a gold mine. “But Ravitch was only interested in a small plot of land which would be a land flowing with milk and honey,” wrote Adam Rovner, in his book, In the Shadow of Zion. Ravitch felt that this was the time; that this was a moment that would not return. The Australians wanted to cultivate the wilderness. They hoped that dense settlement in the area would fend off the threat of Japanese invasion from the direction of Darwin. The “White Australia” policy would allow potential Jewish settlers to be granted visas. It was with such messages that Ravitch regaled his readers: the land was wonderful, miracles could be achieved there. The tropical weather was easy to bear and if the water supply could be properly dealt with, agriculture would flourish.
The journey from Alice Springs to Uluru destroys any lingering doubt in your mind about flourishing agriculture. It destroys any illusion that this is a bearable climate. It is easier to believe that the climate here does not behave in accordance with the laws of nature. Summer in the middle of January. Winter in the middle of June. From the windows of the bus you see skies that are alien to you. The stars form a different pattern. Bizarre trees, dwarf eucalyptuses with only the crowns above the ground. Crazy birds whose plumage matches their surroundings. To say nothing of the strange animals that bounce across the landscape rather than run. If humankind wants to begin all over from scratch, this is the place. 250 years have elapsed since white men first arrived here, yet the place seems still seems virgin and untouched. Primitive, exhausted, waiting for salvation from a deep sleep. Among all the colors of the Australian Outback, the eye is caught by a yellow-purple mobile caravan. Chabad emissaries attempt to reach every Jew spread out across the vast expanse of the desert. The story of the desert Chabadniks began 30 years ago in Melbourne. Three young rabbis armed with two maps set out to discover Jews in the wilderness. They looked for a few and found hundreds. Today, their caravan is armed with GPS, computers and cameras. They provide 7,500 Jews with kosher food, prayer books, tefilin (phylacteries), Shabbat candles and more. The Chabadniks arrange meetings, Hanuka lightings, Purim meals, weddings and Bar Mitzva celebrations.
In one of their excursions, Rabbi Yehezkel Tov-El and Rabbi Eli Edelist, came across Dwayne Phyllis, a didgerido player, the long tubular wooden wind instrument developed by the aboriginals. Tov-El and Edelist met him in Uluru. But after 450 tortuous kilometers from Alice, we arrive only to find that Dwayne has skipped town. A “very important performance” has been arranged for him outside the Northern Territory. He is really very sorry. But we can call him on his cellphone at any time we wish. But since then Dwayne’s cellphone has been as silent as a dumb wombat. He told the rabbis that his mother had married an aboriginal. He had said, “She rarely spoke about her Judaism but I know that if your mother is Jewish then so are you.” So, as a Jew he asked them to hold a Bar Mitzva ceremony for him at the age of 44. He knows very little about his mother’s story, only that the family had fled from France, maybe during the Nazi occupation.
Urulu as it is known to the aboriginals or Ayers Rock as it used to be known to white Australians, is one of the biggest monolithic rock formations in the world. A vast piece of sandstone rearing up from the desert overwhelming its surroundings, 348 meters high and nine kilometers in circumference. At dusk it is revealed in all its glory - red skies, red sand, red rock. “Ho the Red Rock” – if the Jewish state had been set up here we could always have gone to Petra and returned unharmed. And maybe some version of Gershon Salomon would have found elements of holiness here and The Uluru Mount could have been created in order to ignite a different historical controversy.
Some 30 years ago, the monolith was returned to aboriginal ownership. The Dreamtime world of the aboriginals tells of Lungkata, the blue-tongued lizard who climbed to the top of Uluru and fell and is buried on its slopes. The green paths and ravines that striate the sides got their colors from Lungkata’s skin. After Lungkata, the wind blew another 44 climbers to their death. The local aboriginals tell this story as they are strongly opposed to people climbing the rock.
Because of the sacredness of the site to the Anangu and Pitjantjatjara people who own the rock, photography is not permitted on the far side which is folded and creased like the indentations of a brain. Secret ceremonies, separate for men and women, take place here.
For all the holiness of Uluru it actually emphasizes the discrimination against the original owners of the land. Their welfare associations receive 25 percent of income from tourist entry fees, but only 15 percent of the 1,000 hotel workers in the area are aboriginals and then only in cleaning and maintenance jobs. Of the 450 aboriginals employed over the last five years, only one achieved a managerial position.
In 1934, Ravitch nearing the end of his Odyssey, published an article in the Yiddish magazine, Die Freiland, maintaining that the ambition of establishing a “Jewish Uganda,” a “Jewish Angola,” a “Jewish Australia,” was not a fantasy. But the Polish Jewish intellectuals barely read the magazine and the article withered on the stem. Ravitch did not give up. In 1936 he wrote passionately, “All Jews should leave Poland and take the headstones of their dear ones with them.” In 1937 his articles were published in a collection called The Length and Breadth of Australia.
But by the time the book was published, Ravitch had abandoned his dream of mass rescue and was more concerned with the individual rescue of his family. He brought over to Melbourne his wife, his daughter (who lives there to this day) and young Yosl. Faced with the Holocaust and the objections of the Australian government, the Kimberley Plan was buried once and for all. The Australians concentrated on trying to absorb immigrants into the general society. They believed that the establishment of a Hebrew or Yiddish speaking enclave would lead to similar demands from other minority groups.
Of the Kimberley Plan only the flies buzzing around our heads were left. Just as Yosl Bergner had predicted at the outset of our trip, the flies were the victors.
Limmud FSU takes place in Australia for first time
Some 400 young people, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union, participated in the first Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union) to take place in Australia. The event took place in the attractive Mantra Lorne resort on the Great Ocean Road, an hour or so from Melbourne. In addition to the many presenters, an exhibition of the paintings of Yosl Bergner, entitled “A Jewish State?” was shown. Among the speakers was David Southwick, the member for Caulfield in the State Parliament of Victoria. Caulfield is the main Jewish area of the city and Southwick, Jewish himself, is very aware of the growing Moslem threat. He says that for the first time, Moslems are participating in pro-boycott demonstrations in Australia. A special fair with the participation of the local Jewish youth movements, Hashomer Hatzair, Beitar, Habonim-Dror, Netzer, Bnai Akiva, Heneni and the Scouts, took place during the event.
Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU, expressed great satisfaction with the number and quality of the participants and said that the second Limmud FSU in Australia would take place in Sydney in February 2016. “With double the number of participants.”
Translated by and edited by Asher Weill