Australian Biography

Victor Smorgon - full interview transcript

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Let's begin at the beginning, and would you tell me when and where you were born?

I was born in 1913, 2 January, 1913. It was one of those little village in the Ukraine, [which] at that time was Russia. Now the Ukraine, as you know, is an independent state. And the name of the place was Heidelberg, which was a German settlement, which [had] farmers living round there, and my family lived there.

Your family was Jewish. What was it like for a Jewish family in a village in the Ukraine in 1913?

In 1914 it was reasonably good. It was ... the big problems were in the big cities where the revolutionaries were working. So the army and the bandits and whoever there were, and the politicians, were concentrating in those areas, so the villagers were left alone. So I don't remember ... [there was trouble] during the revolution later, but not at the time I was born. At that point it was quiet. It was quiet, there was no disturbances. It was later that, when I was about three, that the disturbances started.

And what kind of disturbances were they?

Well, they were ... They were usually armies or hooligans or bandits roaming round the villages, killing, raping, stealing anything you got in the house. And they would ... a lot of the villages at that time were Jewish, and so Jews were supposed to have all the gold, so there was the gold, you know, the perception of people, generally anti-Semites, was that Jews had everything. And they had the wealth, and where is it? Where is the gold? And of course, by that time it was already used up if there was any. It was used to make a living or start a business or something like that. So there was none of that. And by 1914, there was very little of that type of Pogroms. There were a lot before, of course, and after.

What kind of work did your father do?

My father was a butcher, together with his brothers and his father in that village. And so was his probably four or five generations before that were butchers. And if you saw the film Fiddler On the Roof, it was exactly like that, the village that I lived in, I remember as a child. And so he was ... each brother would have a horse and cart and go round different districts to the ... round the village, and round, ten - fifteen miles around it, and sell meat to the peasants, to the German settlers there. Those settlers were there for about two or three hundred years. They weren't just new immigrants, they were actually well settled. They were brought there by the Tzars at one time to develop Ukraine, develop all the fields, all the food, which ... Ukraine is very wealthy and [has] beautiful black soil and they were very rich because they were able to produce things. The Russians themselves were just slaves to the royalties, to whoever owned the land, and most of the land was owned by nobility.

So what language did you speak growing up? Was it German?

Well, the first couple of years that I was born there you spoke German.

What kind of language did you speak as you were growing up?

Well when I was very little, up to age probably aged three, I spoke German and Yiddish and a little bit of Russian. But then, as I grew, started growing up and started talking Yiddish or mostly Russian. And so really Russian was the main language from about age of two to three or four or something. Something like that. And then I had all the brother and sisters, so it was easier too. And they already spoke Russian, so I just picked it up very quickly.

How much influence on your life was there from the fact that it was a German community?

None at all, because they were very friendly. My father and uncles had German friends. They used to visit one another. They used to deal with each other. They borrowed money from the Germans. They weren't borrowing money from the Jews, the Jews were borrowing money from Germans. Every time you needed [something] because you got to work, you got to make a living. Then you sell the wheat back to them. So you had to make money to pay back. I mean very often my father used to talk about certain friends, certain German friends of his, German village friends. Not village, but German farmers, who would lend him any time any money he wanted because they always trusted him, trusted the Smorgon family. They established their name very early, probably several generations before. They were known as honest people who paid their debts.

So the situation was that there were German farmers and then the Jewish people sort of ran the businesses in ...

Well, the little businesses there like bakers, butchers, sausage makers, knitters, tailors, everything you saw on the film in Fiddler On The Roof. Exactly like that. There was the milkman, there was the man who makes dresses, bought himself a machine. And that was the tradesmen. They are tradespeople actually. Boot makers.

Now, was your father reasonably prosperous throughout your whole childhood? Throughout your childhood, was your father reasonably prosperous?

Well, in a sense of the times yes. Not in the sense of the times later, it's ... all the Jews, all the village people were more or less equal. There was no seniority from one was wealthier than the other. If he was wealthy, he might have had twice as much, which is that means nothing. And some people saved up more than others, depending on the familles, how many members of the family and what they did. But there was no wealthy people there.

Was there a period of ... what effects ... What effect did the revolution have on your lives?

Oh, the revolution had a real tremendous effect on the total life of the villagers, and particularly Jewish people. Because the first thing that the revolutionaries did was free the country of the system of people having to be locked away in villages and all the Jews just ran out of the villages. Not all of them but most of them. And went for all sorts of little businesses that were in much bigger towns. Very similar to what's happening today in Russia. And they became ... some of them became very big businesspeople, some middle class and that's where it started, to answer your first question, that's what ... with the wealth. My father was like me, or I'm like him - always entrepreneurial, always had new ideas and always would start something new and the first thing he did is start a flour mill outside of the town where we lived. And then when the Communists came, he ... they allowed him to buy that mill. They had enough wheat for one shift, but they had to employ people for three shifts by law. So money doesn't last very long when you only produce one third of what you should produce. So he went broke. And then he went round to his friends, and because of his name, they all leant him money and he just start all over again. And he particularly went to all the women, all the wives, whoever had the bit of jewellery, and said, 'Give it back, we've got to sell it to pay our debts'. And everybody did that. Everybody gave: took their wedding rings off, took everything off and sold it to pay debts. And that carried through to Australia eventually, to the people who knew us in those times in Russia. From then, Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy in Russia. That would have been about 1921. And then things started getting much better. Business became normal, you do any business you like, you could do whatever you wanted to. As far as I was concerned it was no different to what it was here. It was free during that period. But in 1926-27, Stalin came into power and he destroyed all that. They started moving out all the farmers, particularly because they were German, because they couldn't be Fifth Column, so they were the first ones to go. They were either murdered right on the spot if they didn't move, or they were sent off to Siberia. And anybody who resisted anything that Stalin wanted was killed. They didn't mess around with courts or justice or democracy. They just simply killed. And they can't move again. And that's when my father knew ... you heard my sister speak, to tell the story how our father ... she went to school and she was about fifteen or sixteen, and school started because everything settled down slightly and the teacher said that, 'You have to report everything that you hear at home to me, and I have to report it to the commissar and he will re-educate your parents how to be real Communists'. And that's when my father decided it's time to go.

Going back to the village, do you have any early memories of the fights that took place between the Red Army and the White Army during the revolution?

Yes, very much so. By that time my I'd be about five, six, and we were hiding. Children were put in cellars when the fighting was on. It wasn't continuous fighting like for months. It was two or three days and then they won, either the Red Army or the White Army. The White Army were the royalists, the imperialists, the Red were the revolutionaries. And Bolsheviks were the majority of the revolutionaries. The Mensheviks were the minority of the same group. They fought as well. So there was about four or five different groups were fighting. So they've come in, into the town. We lived in a double storey house, and we could see all the fighting from ... approaching to town as either one, either the Whites or the Reds, were advancing and the flags, once it was over, the shooting was over, everything stopped, become silent. People start coming out on the streets. If you wanted to put a white flag or a red flag depending which particular army won. And then our game, the children's game, was to collect the empty shells. You know, it was 'How many have you got?' sort of thing. Like kids play today with marbles. And so it was, you just accepted it because that's the way of life.

Were the villages ever themselves under threat?

Yes, they were destroyed. Anything in their way was destroyed.

Were you frightened? Do you remember being frightened?

I don't remember being frightened myself. No, I wasn't frightened. Not that fear in the meaning that you have of frightened. It was just fun, it was ... you ... After it's over you go out and play and you see dead soldiers in the street without taking notice of it. It was normal.

Did you see anybody actually getting killed?

Yes, a number of times. You see it, very much like it is today in Europe and Eastern Europe - all over the world as a matter of fact. The ... usually you were ... you could walk on one side of the street and everything's peaceful. On the other side of the street they're fighting and you got to pass through it, so if somebody falls over you know he's dead. But you accept it because that's where you live. It's not that bad. [Laughs]

Tell me the story of your seeing someone being taken off to be shot.

That story - I was probably six. And there was ... we were living at a village or little township - not the village I was born in, it was a little bit bigger. Probably had about 2,000 people. And there was a crowd walking through a street with a horse and cart with two men tied up together by chains to the what it's name, and they're singing. They're singing Russian songs, revolutionary songs or whatever they were. I'm not sure what songs they were. And the cemetery was ... we used to have a tannery, and my father had a tannery in that town, and the cemetery was just behind that and so we children weren't allowed to go into the cemetery, but we were round the corner at the factory. And we heard two shots. But what impressed me mainly was the fact that they were singing. I couldn't understand how they could face that, they know they're going to be shot and they're singing the songs. And now I understand it, because I understand what they mean by when dedicated to something you really believe in and you accept it because that's part of the thing that you're doing. But it wasn't sad in the sense that you cry. You just accept it. You just ... you're impressed with the fact that ... what impressed me was the fact that they were singing.

Was your own family ever a victim of anti-Jewish feeling?

Continuously. Almost everywhere. There was always that right through the Jewish life in Russia, in Europe, everywhere else except possibly Australia.

Was there ever an incident where you, as a small child, saw your family being attacked?

At the time of the revolution, but that's not because ... well, partly because we're Jewish, because Jews were precasted to be rich. So therefore ... and by that time my father and mother had a little ... within the house, they had a drapery shop because Jews were already not allowed to go out of town. And Father was away, and a mob - I don't remember who they were - but there was a mob of men, a hundred people, surrounded the house and demanded to my mother to ... I would have been about ... my sister was six months. I was two and a half and they demanded gold, demanded anything so they'd come into houses, start pulling everything apart looking for gold. And they didn't find any. My father wasn't there. Father was the personality that would have quietened them down - would have given them something and they would have gone away. My mother couldn't handle them and that's when she broke down and become paralysed.

What happened?

Well, nobody knew what happened, but eventually before she left Russia, about four or five years after we did, she stayed with her brothers, and her brother took her to one of those health healers. And they put her on a table and went through the ... went through the thigh and he found a lump. He just broke the skin with his nail and picked up that lump, a clot, which was stopping the blood from going to the system. And after that she started getting better and became well. She could remember everything from the past, but if you said something to her today, or she asked you a question when she came to Australia, and you ... she'd ask the same question the next day. She forgot that she asked it. She'd lost part of her memory through being paralysed. But she was completely paralysed. Her eyes were the only thing that worked. And my father took her to every possible doctor they had in those days. He only had his horse and cart and she'd go with him, 100 kilometres or something. And every doctor said they don't know, there's no cure, they don't what to do. Don't forget that was ... they didn't have the science that they have today. Today that would have been done very quickly, wherever you lived. But they'd put you in helicopter and bring you to hospital. But those days they just didn't have conveniences in the hospitals and the doctors were not well educated. They just didn't know what it was. And she lived like that for about twelve, fifteen years and then she became good and then we moved to Australia. And you can imagined what it was like for her. But that's another story.

Now, going back to the incident when it actually happened. Do you remember it?

Yes, I remember it vaguely. My sister remembers much more - she's four years older. And so she felt much more about it than I do ... I did. But I remember bits of it that I remember - parts of it. I remember more about the ... around about the same time I was also, had an accident. I fell over some of our samovar. You know what a samovar is? The Russians have it for putting the charcoal in the middle ... it's a sort of a kettle with a pipe in the middle, and underneath that there's charcoal and the charcoal keeps the water hot. And it's put on the table. Russians are great tea drinkers. So it always stands on the table, you can always ... instead of using Coke, drinking that Diet Coke, they have a cup of tea, usually very weak tea with a lump of sugar which you suck through the tea as you drink it. And so anyway, I fell over about two gallons of boiling water and I fell over that and all the water went over me. And again, my father was away, and my mother picked me and she's already partly sick, part of her paralysis started, and she hugged me and wrapped me up but whatever the clothes were, left scars. So I'm all covered in scars, oh about more than a third of my body is covered in scars. Every time a doctor sees me, he says, 'You shouldn't be alive'. When my father took me to the hospital, which was about thirty, forty kilometres away, the doctor said to make arrangements for the funeral because according to what they learned at the time, that if your body's more than a certain percentage burnt, you die because you proabaly can't breathe. And he came back about three days after. He says 'He's still alive. Come back later. I'm still waiting'. I'm not in a hurry to let that happen.

And you were about ...

And I remember very much about that. I was about three, around about that age. It all happened at the same time, that my mother started getting sick. Because it wasn't an immediate paralysis, it was gradual, it took about six months. But then she became completely immovable. Just her eyes were the only thing that worked. Her eyes worked but no other part of the body worked.

How did she eat?

Well, she got fed. I don't which way they fed her but she was obviously being given some food.

And could she talk to you?

No, she couldn't talk, she couldn't express herself, couldn't say anything. She was just eyes was the only part of the body that worked. So she'd cry, and you'd see the tears and she'd look at you and you'd know that she was looking at you. And you were, again, there was nothing much you could do. And so my father tried very hard to ... because theirs was a love marriage. Usually the marriages at that time were organised by the parents. But theirs was - as you heard before - was a real love affair and so it wasn't a question that he didn't love her. But he had four children to look after. And he had to have maids, had to have people, we could always afford it but nobody would stay with four young kids, well, particularly my brother and I. We were really really ... That's why I understand the kids of today who are homeless and run round the streets. We used to be like that.

So when your mother was completely paralysed, was it just because of the intensity of her fear when the house was invaded?

Yes. Well, we presume that. I mean there's a lot of other things. It's not just one incident. There's many of these incidents. You'd see it, you'd look out from ... you'd see it from your window that somebody's being ripped apart, killed, and all this sort of thing going round you. It's not just one incident that makes it. It's a series of incidents that happened at that time. It's happening today in Bosnia, where the Christians are killing the Muslims and Muslims and are killing Christians for no reason. And then because one of - the minute they kill somebody they grab the house and then they always come back and want the house back. And same old story. It's just intolerance of each other.

So what happened to the children with your mother paralysed?

Well father always organised somebody to look after us. But we were so badly behaved that they wouldn't stay very long. So he had to keep on going and getting new ones all the time. Until he met this woman who was educated from ... she came from ... lived in Siberia. She was also Jewish but she was ... didn't know anything about Judaism. She was brought up like my kids are brought up. She was Jewish but she didn't practice it or know very much about it. But eventually ... so she's then accepted my father, who bought her for a bottle of oil for her mother, so her mother could survive all through the years when starvation was on. You know, part of it was that a lot of people were dying from starvation. Some didn't. We did. You heard my sister tell the story about ...

I haven't heard anything.

There's ... my father bought ... sold a piano to buy a cow so we could have milk. With milk you can trade the milk for bread, for anything, for whoever had some food, and the cow was stolen, and I remember that very vividly. We were all asleep and we woke up and there's no cow. And father, my brother and I went out ... it's winter, it's January and my father and I and my brother went and followed the footsteps of the cow for about a mile. And oh, those days it was miles, not kilometres. And then it stopped. Obviously the cow was put on a sled and moved away and we never found it. So we were left with the food that was put away for the cow, which is sunflower seeds which are pressed out ... the oil's pressed out from it and the cake itself is left. And that's what we were left with to eat. My father was ... it was not a question of not having enough money to support the family, but a question of being able to get it. Transportation particularly, particularly in that part of Europe, in that part of Ukraine. And so about a hundred odd kilometres away you could get wheat or bread or flour. So there's no transportation, so you'd go on a horse and cart, borrow some, or get a lift with somebody, go out and buy it, come back, bake the ... in those days every household would bake their own bread, and bake the bread from the bag of flour, because how much can one man carry, about forty or fifty pounds, or twenty kilograms. And he'd bring that back and he would then divide it up, not only amongst his immediate family ... [INTERRUPTION - PLANE]

Were you ever hungry as a child?

Yes, I was . I was always hungry. I always liked food, and was always big. And I probably needed more - my brother's very thin and my sister is very thin, but I was always round and thick, big bones and big and so I was hungry. But I was hungry mostly because of the lack of food. I must tell you the story about the cow, but we were not the only ones. There were many people because of the revolution, because of destruction, many people were starving. And in 1921, it was cannibalism that was practised. Many people had been caught killing their own child, like a mother and her older daughter would kill a younger child to eat. None of us know what we will do when we are hungry, really hungry. And many times. It happened that my uncle went to a bazaar - usually every village and town has a bazaar - selling sausage. And when they cut the sausage in half, a child's nail came up. And the man was raped right ... was ... what's the word - lynched right on the spot. Because he was caught, obviously he'd used humans for flesh. But there was many stories like that at that time. So we weren't the only ones that were ... We were probably better off in many respects than most other, than a lot of other people. But the ... my father sold a piano to buy a cow, so that we had something to barter with. And with the cow in the house, it lived actually inside the house, in the bathroom and it was stolen. It walked away, we don't know how. But my father and I followed the footsteps of the cow for about a mile and then we stopped and obviously it was taken away on a sledge and we never saw it again. So we were left with the food that was left for the cow, was put away for the cow. Which is sunflower seed cakes which were pressed for oil. It's still done today the same way. And that cake has some nourishment in it, including all that rough stuff, all the seed outside, and you break it up and powder it up and mix it with water. Put it on a hot stove. You know Russian stoves are flat. And that was your breakfast, lunch and dinner. And when my father used to go out to get the flour. Because there's no transportation, he had to walk and sometimes get a lift from somebody and go and get a bag of flour, which weighs about twenty kilograms, bring it home, get it baked. Everybody would bake their own bread, and divide it not only amongst just his near family, but his brothers and sisters. They all had to have their share. And I ate mine and then you had to wait until next time he goes away again, which is about two days after. But I used to finish my bread immediately and go back to what was called the mukuha, where these sunflower seed cake are.

What did it taste like, the sunflower seeds? They were just the husks.

Delicious when you're hungry. It really is. No, it was quite nutritious. It's a ... you accept it, you must think in terms of if there's nothing, something is better than nothing and that becomes the important thing. You don't think about caviar or sausage or meat pie. You just see what you've got and that's what you eat.

[end of tape]

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