Australian Biography

Faith Bandler - full interview transcript

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When you were growing up on the north coast of New South Wales, was your family discriminated against at all because of your colour?

I'm sure my family was discriminated against because we were black, I have no doubt at all. But the discrimination never emerged, we were always very involved in different local activities and I have grown up anyhow always feeling quite comfortable wherever I am. And if someone who is white has a problem with my blackness then that it is their problem, it's not mine and they have to deal with that. And I guess that's how I have grown. I'm sure that people discriminated against us.

What was your family's relationship with the township?

My family had a good relationship with the township. There is no doubt about it. We had a splendid relationship. People knew us and we knew them and it was hard, during the latter years of the Depression, which are very vivid in my mind. It was terribly hard, because no-one was working and one of my brothers continued to work and he actually was feeding the household. But it was a time when I think the family came closer to the poor whites, because I can recall the whites coming to our place for their supply of fruit and ... well not vegetables so much, but particularly fruit and the fruit just grew. You know you'd throw a seed out of the window and the next morning it would be a tree. [INTERRUPTION]

So, could you describe the way common hardship drew the people of the town together, the poor whites and the ...

I believe my family and other island families as well came very close with a lot of the white families who were suffering as we were in the latter years of the Depression. I truly do. And, like we had a wonderful orchard of all kinds of fruit and vegetables, more so fruit and though the poor white families, who were really battling, had lost their jobs, the working-class whites found their way to our place often. And they would come and sit under the trees and perhaps eat the persimmons or the mangoes or some of my mother's mulberry pie. I recall those days. The roads were filled with young white males who had left, walked from Melbourne to Sydney and from Sydney to the north coast and they had nothing, absolutely nothing. And they - I think they told each other about our place, because often two would come and my mother would give them a piece of damper or bread if she had it and they would cut her some wood but one thing she used to say is, 'You know, they should be eating fruit', and sometimes she would give them a knife and a spoon and tell them the pineapples were ready, they could cut the top off a pineapple and scoop it out with a spoon and eat them and they often did that. But she always said to us, 'Make sure they don't take the spoon and the knife', and so we would hang around you see till they'd go. So we had very strong links with whites, very strong. So much so, if I might say this, that today I never think of myself as being black or white or brindle or whatever. I think of myself just as a human being.

Your mother had her methods of maintaining her dignity within the township and insisting on certain standards of greetings which you have described to us, what about your father? Did your father similarly have a certain standing in the town that he insisted on being maintained?

My father demanded respect, he really did you know. I can only tell you what my brothers have passed on to me. They worked with my father and they were very close to him. And I shall tell you this story. My father was very comfortable on the north coast of New South Wales because his brother had settled there. His brother was my uncle, Uncle Charlie, and the story that is very vivid in my mind regarding my father's battle for his dignity is that he and his brother, my Uncle Charles, went into town with the sulky for the weekend or the week's supply, usually of flour because flour was bought in large bags for us and also sugar and other things. And they were driving home and they had to drive past a cemetery and there was a young couple visiting, I suppose, their departed in the cemetery and the woman apparently had never seen blacks before so closely and she called out to her husband and says, 'Come quick, come quick, here are two black men coming'. And my father overheard this. So he pulled his beautiful horse to the roadside and he got out and he took his pants down and he turned his behind to this couple and said, 'Yes and lick my black arse'.

What did your mother think of this story?

Well, nothing was told to my mother for a long time, but my uncle had told the story to my Aunt Kate and Aunt Kate took this, because she had been enslaved on the canefields, she was used to this kind of thing, but my mother wasn't. And she was appalled, absolutely appalled.

So you were telling us about how you came down to Sydney. You came to Sydney when you were a young woman to make a life of your own and it was about this time that war broke out?

Yes.

So, what did the war bring for you?

Well, the war brought to me a lot of sorrow. I hated the war. I was - I never got used to the idea of picking up the Sydney Morning Herald and reading off the deaths of so many hundreds. I never got used to that. But the war also brought ... in a way it divided my family because some of my brothers worked for ... helping the boats off the coast of North Queensland. They worked there. And one of my brothers joined the Army and died on the Burma Railway. So it brought a lot of sadness and I, at one stage, felt I should be doing something, so I joined the Land Army and I can tell you, that was an experience in itself. There were the bright days and the bright nights and the cheerful days but the work was heavy and the work was hard. [INTERRUPTION]

What did you do in the Land Army? What was the work like?

The work was hard in the Land Army, extremely hard. Perhaps I think of it being much harder now, because I find my own garden just so hard. I find it difficult. But of course I was young and physically strong, just so strong, I was. The work was hard. We were moved from one town to another to harvest the fruit or the vegetables or whatever it might be. We were paid poorly, less than the males who were working there or who were managing us. It was camp life with camp discipline. It didn't suit me one iota.

What was the camp life like?

Rough and ready. The first camp I went into was in the town of Young to pick the cherries and the month was November, I think. It was so long ago, I've almost forgotten. But we were camped in the showground and we had a straw palliasse and that was it. And there were these ablution blocks and we were up early in the morning to harvest the cherries until late afternoon. You picked the cherries into huge clothes baskets. And it was tough living in a country showground pavillion. This huge pavillion and there we all just slept on a palliasse. Forget about privacy of any kind. There was nothing, absolutely nothing. We just got used to being naked in the presence of so many others. What did it matter? And one of the lovely things that happened there, I can recall ... there was often a concert given by some of the locals on a Saturday night. It was beautiful. They'd come out to the showground, give us a concert and the local farmers would have us for afternoon tea on Sunday with real scones and clotted cream. And I was shown great hospitality. [INTERRUPTION]

So there were some good times when you were in the Land Army. What were the good things you remember?

Well, there was good companionship. There were good people in the towns. They were good to us but we were good to them. And I suppose that is all I can say as far as good things are concerned. You know I can recall going away without leave to have a great weekend somewhere or other, in Sydney to see my brother play football or to go to the Army camp over at Kapooka, outside of Wagga or something like that and have a whale of a time. Of course one couldn't be kept locked up for doing these wicked things because you had to take the fruit off - they were in a hurry - so one knew when to strike. But I was moved around, together with my sister, from Young to the Riverina, to Bathurst. And there in Bathurst, we were camped in the great Stewart Castle, Mount Pleasant, and there we cut the asparagus for Edgells. I didn't cut an awful lot because the season was just ending as I got there, but I was put to work on picking tomatoes and harvesting cabbages by the millions and you worked from sunup to sundown. And it was hard work, it was extremely hard. I think the sad thing about the Land Army girls' part in the war [was] that there was never any acknowledgement afterwards. They weren't considered a force, they merely filled in while the men were away. When the men came back from their jobs, the women were forced to go find something else.

So, how was that explained, how long were you actually in the Land Army?

Three years.

So when it came to an end, that had been your livelihood, such as it was. What were you given, some retraining or were you given the opportunity?

Nope. No-one was given anything after the war, at all - nothing, virtually nothing. I think one of the good things about spending those three years in camp with the other women was the friendships that had developed. And I have a couple, to this very day, to this very day, and shortly I am going off to London and I will look one friend up and we have been friends since then.

Did any of you think of getting together, as you did later in your life - you've become very good later in your life about forming movements to get what you wanted - did anybody think about getting together to make sure that the Land Army women got some recognition?

Not to get recognition, they got together as a club to have some social life and to be together and I think that has been very good. But I think that what happened ... we all, I became very involved after, in one thing or another, after the Land Army and there weren't any others exactly like me. So no-one did anything about any form of acknowledgement. Personally I don't think it's too late and if the present government has half a heart they ought to have a look at it.

Because you don't get service benefits or anything?

None whatsoever, no service benefits of any kind.

So then what happened to you? What happened next?

Well, you know - incidentally, I found being in uniform very hard to take during the Land Army days but we had to wear uniform and when we were on leave we were subject to all the disciplines that the Army was subject to. I guess we broke out more often but nevertheless it was a tough life and discipline was there. So when the war was over, I came back to Sydney and I remember getting a job working in a shirt factory. It didn't worry me a bit. You know, I think there is a place for monotonous work. I remember the great dancer, Margaret Barr, a great friend of ours. Margaret actually helped Hans and I to build a house that we lived in and she only died last year or the year before. But Margaret did charring for women up here and she said, 'I have to, I work my dances out, I create my dances when I'm charring'. So there is a place for it.

So you worked in a shirt factory?

Yes, and then I worked, I served a short apprenticeship making clothes, making dresses and well, after that I became rather politically involved in what was happening in the world and ...

Was it about this time that you met Hans?

Yes, he changed my life. I can't think about that area awful much, because he just changed my life, this man. He really did.

In what way?

Well, you know, I mean, I didn't have an awful lot of lovers in my life, I can think of two who were really very beautiful, but when Hans came, I thought this was absolutely wonderful and ...

What did he see in you?

I don't know. I really don't know what he saw in me. I think he saw a rather wayward woman. He certainly saw a very independent person. It was about this time that I got involved with the Margaret Walker dance group. She had created a lovely dance that revealed the discrimination against Aboriginal people and then she took that, she made up her mind to take that dance to a festival in Berlin. So I went off to Europe, as a dancer, would you believe. It's crazy isn't it. [INTERRUPTION]

Music has always played a big part in your life. Tell me about your love of music and where it began and how it developed when you came to Sydney as a young woman.

Well, there was always singing in the house that I grew up in and the boys played mouth organs and my mother sang and she used to dance when she'd sing, in the kitchen, around the table. Well I just loved music.

What music did you hear in your house as you grew up?

Well, we only ever heard classical music. There was - my mother wouldn't have anything else around the place. Mind you, all the Robeson records were bought and Tauber and Crook and Melba and so on. So, you know, it rubbed off very strongly onto me and I came to Sydney and I met a woman by the name - a man and a woman by the name of Paul and Bobbie Williams. She is Norma Reid, the pianist today. Paul came from Vienna and he was a singing teacher and I'd been singing around the place a bit, not knowing awfully much about it, but I wanted to understand what singing was about. I wanted to learn to have the physical experience, so that I would be able to appreciate, perhaps, the recitals more when they brought a singer out. So I went to Paul and he gave me lessons. He was a great musician. And he taught me German and no lieder was sung in English - unheard of. And I loved those lessons in Potts Point, or at the Cross really in Tusculum Street in the Cross. And they were wonderful occasions. So Paul ... and I went to Paul regularly and I wasn't a good student, because I didn't practise. I just wanted to know what the voice could do and how the voice functioned. And so this went on for quite some years and it was at this stage, of course, that I met Hans.

And he shared your love of music?

Yes, but in a different way. Hans is a listener but he grew up in Vienna and after school he'd pay an Austrian schilling to go and stand in the Opera House to hear an opera. And he was there until his student days, until the Nazis went in, in '38, and then of course the SS called and arrested him and took him to the Dachau Concentration Camp, where he was for, I think, 9 or 12 months. And he had an aunt who managed to bribe the SS and get him out. And from Vienna he went very quickly to London and then he came to Australia. But of course that's his story and it's sad and terrible but really it has its joys also. But I met Hans in 1951 and I met him at a concert. You see I was subscribing to the concerts and he was also subscribing, and I changed my seat and somehow or other I was sitting near this nice bloke and someone introduced us at interval. But he was about to go to Tasmania and I was about to go to Berlin, so we said we would see each other possibly, sometime, maybe in the dim, dark future. There were no affairs then, you know. We were just nice friends and so I went off to Europe and I went actually through Western Europe as well as Eastern Europe and I went to see the Dachau Concentration Camp. And I saw Europe, five or six years after the war and it had a very deep impact on my life. I couldn't believe as I walked around Berlin or Warsaw, Budapest, I may well be walking over so many bodies buried beneath the rubble; terrible, just dreadful. Anyhow I came home and Hans came back from Tasmania and in 1952 we got married.

What was he like then?

What was he like? He was lovely, he was. He had been living as a bachelor at North Sydney and I was living at Balmain at the time. And when we got married I moved to North Sydney and North Sydney was lovely then, it was a village. It's so ugly now, but it really was lovely. And we knew everyone, everyone knew us. It was marvellous. I had my daughter while we lived there and she had her first two years in North Sydney. When she would cry, Hans would put her in the pram and walk her around the streets to see the butcher and the corner shop.

You had a lot of interests in common with Hans too, or did he bring some of the those interests to you that you hadn't had before?

No, I truly believe that Hans and I had common interests. Like we both enjoyed the concerts and we do to this very day. This season we have changed from Saturday to Thursday after all those years. Well, we had that in common. And we had similar politics, there was no question about that. And we were very, very outspoken about our beliefs, our political beliefs.

Now you'd had this experience of going to Europe and the impact of post-war ... [INTERRUPTION]

Your trip to Europe had had a tremendous impact on you and really changed your life and your view of the world. Could you tell me a little bit about that and how that had happened?

My trip to Europe had a tremendous impact on my life. I can recall first going by boat from here, from Sydney to Naples in this huge delegation of people who were going to a cultural festival, and more strange a combination of people I have never been involved with since. There were dedicated Christians, there were dedicated communists, there were quite a number of people from the trade union movement and there were dancers and there were singers and it was wonderful, absolutely wonderful. And we were on this boat together for nearly five weeks from Sydney to Naples. And I guess what struck me - I remember being in the streets in Naples and seeing the bullet marks in the walls and I'd never seen such before - and going through Europe, going through Italy, where Italy was a very poor country. They were experiencing the Marshall Plan and Italians were eating spaghetti out of tins. And I recall going, having to be hidden from the Italian Police because we were going to go to a place behind the Iron Curtain, and that was East Berlin. And being taken to a mountain outside of Genoa, called Cogaletto, high mountain in the bush, in the mountains and we were all taken up there and put into tents and we were half hidden there. And there was very little to eat, very, very little to eat and I know that the Italian people who were taking care of us, went without, in order for us to eat. And then one day news came through, saying that this dance group had to get to Berlin even if no-one else got through. This was in the midst of the Cold War. And so, I recall, Margaret Walker saying, 'Well, Faith, we have to go ahead'. And I said well, that was okay. Well we were taken down from the mountains and we were put on a train to go from Genoa to Milano, and we changed from there, for another train to go to Zurich and this was all very new to me. I thought it was absolutely wonderful to see these places. But the marks of the war were deep and people were poor and people were hungry. So in Genoa they said to us, 'Now we are going to put you very quickly onto a plane and you will go to Vienna and from Vienna you will go by train to Berlin'. So we danced our way through. No sooner would we stop for a night and Margaret would get her piano accordion out and get us rehearsing. So we went over to Vienna and it was not the Vienna I envisaged. I recall the West Bahnhof being badly bombed and the Opera House but once again we were taken out of the city and camped outside, where the young Austrian people took care of us. And one day they said to us, 'Well now you're getting on the train, you're going to Berlin', and I can't remember how long that lasted but it lasted an awful long time and the train moved along at about 5 kilometres an hour, sometimes 10 maybe. Every now and again, we'd get off to go and get a drink of water. And this was Europe after the war. There was nothing. It was flat, absolutely flat. I think of it now and I often wish to God that these people who are so enthusiastic about getting into the Army and the Forces of any kind would do well to see what happened after the last war in Europe. And I went into this, what was once a great city of the world and there was hardly a thing standing and the Humboldt University was there but badly bombed and we were housed there and we were fed there but we were very aware that as we ate, others were going without. And so, you know, then one day, someone came along, I can't remember who, but said, 'Would you like to go to Bulgaria?' Bulgaria, I'd only ever read of Bulgaria, and so I said, 'Yes, of course'. So Margaret's group divided up and I went with three of the dancers by slow train from Berlin through to Bulgaria and there was nothing standing. I saw the ravages of war - it was terrible, dreadful. And I arrived, the three of us - there were about five of us - and we arrived in Sophia and we were met at the station by thousands, it seemed to me, of people who were sort of welcoming us. And one day someone said, 'We'd like you to go and see some of the children's kindergartens'. Child-minding centres, I think they were because the women were going back to work. And so I was taken out, right through Bulgaria it seemed, to the Valley of Roses. But there were these old castles that were once, of course the property of the wealthy people, and they had been converted into kindergartens, schools, and child-minding centres and I went into one and they said to me, and I said to them, 'Where are the parents?'. And they said, 'Well, the parents were killed by the Nazis and they cut their heads off and they put them on sticks. This is what they did to the men and then they made the women go along and identify them and here are their children. Because this is what war is about.

You must have been one of the very few Western people at that time who travelled through Eastern Europe?

Well, I was not supposed to go, as far as the Menzies Government was concerned. We were in the midst of McCarthyism. It's hard to describe to the younger generations how we suffered during that time. People with independent thoughts, people with politics that the government didn't agree with. You didn't have to hold a ticket to the Labor Party or a ticket to the Communist Party to be persecuted and that's what the people of today in Australia ought to remember.

But, hang on, weren't you part of an official cultural delegation?

No, it wasn't official. They just got themselves together in spite of the restrictions on movement in the country. [INTERRUPTION]

[end of tape]

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