Australian Biography

Victor Smorgon - full interview transcript

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There was a lot of starvation and deprivation during those years of the revolution in Russia. Did things get better for you?

They did during the NEP, which was about two years before we left, where it was quite normal. Things were normal. People started new businesses and everybody was working. And it was very normal.

What does NEP mean?

NEP meant New Economic Policy, which Russia is trying to introduce now again. Except it was easier at that time because they didn't know about Communism. So for Lenin to introduce that system was easier, because there was no other system. And then that was destroyed by Stalin. Then when Gorbachev came in, he wanted to restructure it. And now, Yeltsin came in, he wants to do ... go really democratic. It's very hard to do that because the people - every time I visit my relations - they have enough to eat, they live very poorly on our standards, but on their own standards, they live quite well, from their point of view. They never saw anything else. They never saw any other type of living, so they were ... some were better off than others. Some of them were smarter than others. They deal on the side, and everybody dealt in Russia on the side, on the black market. And you can get anything you wanted to, as long as you knew how to get it. And a lot of people did or if they didn't, they just remained workers, and pretty much the same as in Australia in a different sense, in that the smarter people - not necessarily smarter - but the people in business want to do something, they go ahead and do it. Well they were doing that same thing at that period. At that period my father started a tannery in the town we lived in, together with his brothers.

A tannery to make leather.

A tannery to make leather. And you know, one ... meat leads into hides. And he had the ability to talk the people into selling things. And my uncles tried to do it on their own, and they weren't successful. But they had a plant. My father didn't have a plant. He went to all the butchers and he said, 'I'll buy all the hides from you', and he made a deal with them. So my uncles were left without any hides. So he said, 'Well, let's make partnership'. So that's how they got together again. And so ... because the brothers thought that they could do it on their own but they didn't have that ability to do it on their own. So then when my father decided to leave, I remember working in that plant after school. My brother and I used to run round there and watch the workers and watch the whole process and it was quite profitable. Father was always able to make some money. And when a Communist friend of his saw him one day, he said to him, 'We know that you're leaving. In the big capital cities they're already chopping off the heads of the heads of the firms. You go and go. Go now'. So Father gave the keys to the workers and he had everything - all the papers were all ready - and we left the next day. We left everything behind and went on to Moscow. From Moscow to Berlin. Or rather, Riga first. And then Berlin. Then Marseilles. And then on the ship, a cattle ship to Australia.

Why do you think your father read the signs when so many other people didn't?

Because he had the sense of seeing it there. He had the ability to see it, because not everybody has visions. Not everybody understands everything. A lot of other people have the same visions, have the same ability. They want to get out but they couldn't find a way to find out, to go, how to leave. But my father, like I, persisted about doing things. He was like that. So he kept on talking to all these ... to anybody he met. And then he found out that his sister - her husband had an uncle in Australia. First of all he wrote to his relations in Canada. They said, 'No visa', like Australia is today, you couldn't get into Canada. The relations in America, in USA, in New York in fact - I met them later, many years later - and the same thing, they couldn't get a visa, because the people were not allowed to come in. So then he started talking to his sister, and found out that her husband's got an uncle in Australia. Asked her to write to him. And so she wrote him and he organised for her to go first with her family. And they went there first. They arrived about eight months before we did. And that's when, with persistence he got here. That uncle ... that uncle of the uncle couldn't get any more visas, because he was a kind man, he signed for so many people and the government said to him, officials said to him, that, 'You can't have any more visas. You can't even support the ones you already signed for', and the next Sabbath, as usual, he used to go to synagogue, and he sat next to a man that he didn't know, just started talking. And he was telling him the story about these distant relations in Russia. There's twenty of them and they want a visa and it was refused. He says, 'Give me their names and I'll sign for them', which he did. That's how we came to Australia. So you know, it's persistence. It's the will to do it and finding ways of doing it, that you succeed. Whether it's business, whether it's this sort of escaping, whatever it is. But you got to see it, you've got to have the vision, you have to have the will to do that. And he had all that. He organised for everybody, not only for himself. The whole family that you see on that photo.

So Australia was the place of last resort.

Not really. Australia was the only country that ... we could have gone to New Zealand, probably if we had somebody there. We could have gone to South Africa. There were several places that you could go to.

I asked that question because ... I asked that question because America always seemed to be seen by people who were thinking of emigrating at that time, as being the place to go.

It was before that, in the early century - late last century and beginning of century, up to about 1920. But not after that. But then they got too many. Millions of people arrived at that time, including some of my relations - my father's cousins that he wrote to later. And they all came at round about 1900 and 1905, 1910, 1920. During Japanese ... particularly Jewish people. But there was a lot of Poles and Irish and every nationality you can think of because poor Europe was completely poor everywhere and America was the golden country and everybody wanted to get there. And they did, because they were allowed in. But that's stopped. That's stopped now again. Same as Australia.

Before we leave this period of your childhood that was spent in the Ukraine, what are your memories of your father from that time? How do you remember him as the father of your childhood?

I remember him as a person that always loved ... he loved me. I have no problems. I didn't feel, oh that there was no mother. But he looked after us. He cared, he cared where we were. He fed us, or produced the means to feed us and there was a very natural father-son relationship, with me. My sister was very angry with him. But that's another story. That's her story but both my brother and I were around my father all the time.

Why was your sister angry with him?

Oh, I don't want to go into that. Let her tell the story.

When ... what about your mother? What are your main memories of your mother from that time? Your mother: what kind of a person did she seem to you?

She just didn't mean anything to me. I just ... I wasn't conscious that she was sick. Just I probably neglected her. I remember when she was taken away, when she was ... and she was crying. I couldn't understand why she was crying. And I was about eight or nine, eight. And you know, I wanted to play, not to go and see my mother off. Because she was sick all the time, so we had very little to do with her. Because she couldn't answer, she couldn't talk. What I remember, before we left, about two years before we left, my brother and I went to see her, because she lived in another town with her brother, before that with her mother. Her mother, by the way, died from starvation in 1921. And so she lived with her brother. And so we went to visit her. By that time she started already to moved and she was able to talk, she was able to ... she'd recovered slightly. But she was still very sick. And she cuddled us and she hugged us and she'd you know, like any mother does. And we were ... we slept in the same bed, and you know it was ... in Russia it's normal because there's only one bed anyway. And it was just, you loved it, it was your mother. But I had no special feelings about my mother. My brother and sister, they're older, they have different feelings. They are much closer to her than I was.

Why did she move back to live with her own mother?

Well, because my father arranged it. Because father had to reorganise his life and you can't have two wives in the same house, or two women in the same house. So he had to ... that's why my sister's angry. She was older, she understood it better.

So who was the new woman?

Well, the new woman was the one you see on the ... you know, I'll show you on the pictures later: my stepmother. He eventually married her to come to Australia. He had to marry her. But he promised my brother and sister that he will bring her to Australia, because my older sister, and Eric, they didn't want to go out to Australia unless he promised. They didn't want to stay in Australia with[out] mother and I was too young to understand that. And I learned all that later. And my father said, 'I'll give you my word that I'll bring her over'. But the problem was that you couldn't get a visa out of there. That's another story you can ask me about later.

Could we get this story straight, because you hadn't yet told us about the relationship that developed between your father and the governess, and the effect that had. So could I just ask you about that again. When your mother became ill and was unable to look after you, and eventually you got an educated governess to come and mind you, how did things then go on in the household. Did she manage to tame the wild children?

Yes, eventually. I must tell you a story about that. I was always bigger than my brother, although he's older. You see in the pictures ... as you will see in the pictures. And so anything I wanted I just grabbed ans took and we always fought. We were wild like street kids today. Really wild, you know, pulling out a knife on somebody didn't mean anything. You'd just run around, you'd do whatever you wanted to do. I can relate to today about people in the street.

That was you?

That was me. That was me and my brother. And so when she came into the house and took over the management, and she said that, 'You've got to be polite. You've got to learn to be polite'. We said, 'Okay'. She said, 'Now you've got to say please'. So yes, okay, we'll say please. So the next time I wanted something from my brother, he didn't give it to me. I grabbed it and he went complaining to Auntie - we called her Auntie Vera. Or Vera Smorgon[?], which means, you know ... her father's name was Smorgon[?], same as my father. And you know, Russians have these double names. And I said ... he said to Vera, 'Victor ...'. My name wasn't Victor then, it was Abrussia. '... and he took it away from me'. So she called me and she said, 'Why did you take it away'. I said, 'I said please and he didn't give it to me. You said say please, you get it'. I learned that you have to do more than that. So gradually we became more and more civilised and quietened down, because life became more normal. We had proper meals, we had proper food and proper sleep, and there was no more running around and that stopped. Besides that, we got older too, which helped. So life became much more ... maybe not as exciting, but much more normal. Our father was also more strict with us. He said, 'You've got to do what she says'. Otherwise there was an uncle, the youngest - one of the younger brothers, who was, used to never, ever touch me. I was scared of him. And somebody would say to me, 'I'll tell Uncle Abram', and I'll do whatever's necessary to do. And he never, ever touched me. His granddaughter is my ... his granddaughter is my granddaughter. That's right, yeah. His wife's ... his child ... his daughter married another man, and they had a child and it became my grandchild, through that relationship.

Right, right. So did you like your stepmother?

Well, there's that feeling of both. It was a feeling of anger at times, not because we didn't like her or anything, but she was strict and she had no sense of humour. And I like to talk to people with a sense of humour and my father had a lot of sense of humour. And, but with her it was very difficult. And she's, you know, very straight, very correct and tried to teach me music, which I didn't particularly like ... [ROBIN COUGHS]

Did you like your stepmother?

Yes and no. I had great respect for her, but then I have ... but she was very strict with us. When she was strict with us I was angry, and didn't always do what she wanted me to do. And so there was clashes of personalities. She had no sense of humour and I liked a joke and I'd drop of funny line and didn't get any response, and it gets very awkward. But she'd order me to do things and I didn't like doing what she wanted me to, and I'd have arguments with her. But basically I liked her. I liked her very much. She brought us up. She looked after us for over thirty years, and when she died ... when she died at ninety-one, she lived on her own, we still considered her as family. But her brain started going from about eighty on, eighty on, when she became eighty. And I was always the leader as far as she was concerned. And she, whenever I'd visit her - we used to visit her about once a week - and very often I'd bring the grandchildren to see her. They would look on her as grandmother there. She has always been part of the family. And she accused me of changing her name. And I said, 'When did I change your name?' She says, 'I get letters spelled S-M-O-R-G-A-N'. I said, 'That happens to me too'. She says, 'No, no, you changed my name because you don't like me, because you're embarrassed about me'. I said, 'No such thing. I have great respect for you. Why am I visiting you if I felt like that?' But she never accepted it. In her mind it was a fact that I changed her name. But then at the end of her life, and she was ninety-one when she died, I happened to be in America at the time, and she asked my sister to ask me, before she died, to ask me to forgive her everything, whatever I held against her. I had nothing against her whatsoever. But I was very sorry that I wasn't there when she died because I did have a great respect for her. She brought us up and she was a very nice woman.

Your father lived with her without being married to her for a while. Did that bring any criticism from the village?

Well, the people who knew were her brothers and sisters and my father's brothers and sisters, and his brothers and sisters were always very kind to my mother. They always considered her as their relation, their sister-in-law. Even when she came to Australia, they always looked after her. As far as Auntie Vera is concerned, or Vera was concerned, my aunties and uncles, they were normal to her. It's their brother's wife, so you know, it's a sort of double situation where there's two different personalities. They're never together. It was always arranged whenever the weddings were on, my mother sitting one end of the table, my father sitting with his wife at the other end of the table. But she never ... when she came to Australia, my father wanted to see her to apologise, to make peace. And she said ... so she wouldn't talk to him. But I know she loved him very much. She always used to ask me about him, how's his health was, how is he. And that love was there 'til the end. It didn't stop. But she was very hurt because, as a woman, in those days ... today probably it's a lot more natural, but in those days to see your husband live with another woman, and to her ... he had to have her to look after his children but in the first place it didn't enter her mind that situation. We of course ... Later when we grew up we understood that: why father did it, why he left, why he remarried. And it's natural. He didn't marry her straight away. That took a while. Took a while before they lived together, took a while before they ... the only reason they got married is because we came to Australia. Because he had to have - couldn't have two wives on the same passport.

So he divorced your mother?

He divorced my mother, both legally and in the Jewish way, and the civil way, to make everything correct. And otherwise you have trouble here. And when he came here, there was some people who accused him of - who knew him from Russia - of not ... his wife's not Jewish. But her name was Feldman. We knew she was Jewish. So [coughs] he then got the papers to Australia, from Russia, to show that they were legally married, and that she is Jewish. And they didn't get married in a synagogue, but by a rabbi, and so then they all ... [He had a] butcher's shop, a Jewish butcher's shop. So rumours start very quickly and you lose business. So you have to straighten those things out. And he sent people to his friend, his name ... who came to Australia about five years before we did, and he became a rich man. Rich: he was probably worth about £10,000. In those days that was rich, very rich, and we had nothing. So he knew father, knew the woman, so he told everybody that she is Jewish, stop worrying. So that quietened down. But that's a side story. It's not really important.

Do you think that your father felt guilty at all about your mother?

Yes, I think he did. And he felt guilty all his life about that. But there's more stories about my father. Let's not get into that.

So he decided to come to Australia and organised a way to get out and to get to Australia. What was the actual journey like for you?

Well, the journey was in the first place, we got on a train. We'd never been on a train before. And but ... then we got a Russian train, which is totally different to the European trains. And in Riga we changed the trains to go to Berlin, to Germany. And [cough] we stayed there for a couple of days. And we went to the famous street there and to us it was all wonders. And one of the things, in the trains, they have bottles that you probably know that have liquid in it for soap. And he said to us, to all of us, 'I'll give you whatever it was, if you find out where the soap is'. So I went in and started touching everything, and found out it was soap so I got that shilling or ten cents or whatever it was at the time. There was quite a friendship between my father and his children, except for my sister, who was friends but was angry at the same time. And from then on, everything was completely new to all of us, including him. The first time when we got to Berlin, we went to a cafe to have a meal and we were given the soup, ordered soup. He didn't know what it was. Nobody knew what it was. And later he found out it was oyster soup. It wasn't kosher so it didn't matter. It was the first time that I'd tried oysters. I didn't know oysters existed. Then there were so many other foods that we suddenly discovered. And the fourteen there's so much space in the mind to absorb so many things - no problem in absorbing it. Particularly ... I remember particularly later on [cough] when we got to Colombo and the boats were going on the Suez Canal [sic], and they were selling bananas and father bought the whole bunch of bananas. We never saw bananas in our lives before. Suddenly we had bananas. What are they? We start eating it, they're nice. And everything was a new experience. And it still is, to this day, whenever you come across something that you haven't seen before. That certain feeling of excitement about it, when you discover something new.

Do you remember what you felt when you first arrived in Australia, and what it was like for you?

Well, the ... When we arrived in Fremantle - there was many experiences before that - but particularly in Fremantle, the Jewish community picked us up from Fremantle, and took us into Perth. All the Jewish passengers that were on that boat. And they had an afternoon tea or lunch or whatever, the table was laden with food. I hadn't seen that before. It was a table full of food. I knew it's a Russian custom, by the way, but I came from an era where there was no food to put on the table. And everybody was so nice. And the first time I ever had a ride in a car, which to me, in itself, was a great excitement. Just sitting in a car and somebody's driving it, and you're sitting in it and you're moving. Fremantle from Perth is round about ten, fifteen miles. So you know, it takes a while. And then we were brought back to the boat. And they did that to every boat that arrived, the Jewish community there. That was the first welcome. And so you'd see ... you didn't see Australians at first, only saw Jewish people in the first place. And then in Melbourne again, when we arrived in Melbourne, there was the relations that were already here. And these people that organised the visas for us, the uncle of the uncle and his children. And we were taken to my auntie's place. And then they had the house ready for us, which we moved into, all excited about meeting the cousins again and all that. It was all very exciting. And then you settled down after a while. That's normal.

Where was the house?

It was in Carlton, up in Lygon Street, near Ames Street, A-M-E-S. And it's sort of, like it goes up steps, high. And my cousin, who was here before me, he learned to dance the Charleston. It was the fashionable dance. And I tried to copy, but I'm not a good dancer. So I was very envious that he could dance and I couldn't. But he already spoke a bit of English. And he ... he spoke good English and he told me two words to use. They were both swear words. And one was Russian, one was Jewish. I won't start repeating them in this. The first two English words I learned was swear words.

Did you use them?

Definitely, I still use them.

Now, what happened then, did you go to school?

Well then, yes, I went to Princes Street High School. Not Princes High School, Princes Street School, in Carlton. I was there for about three months and there was ten immigrant boys, who were all round about my age, fourteen, fifteen. I'd just turned ... I was born on the second of January. We arrived in March, so I would have been fourteen, fourteen-and-a-half, and they were around about the same age. And there were ten of us sitting right across in line this way, and the teacher is there. All the kids in front of us and the back of us - the kids are all ten year olds, because none of us had learned English. And from time to time we'd make a noise and the teacher would call somebody ... one of us out and smack with a strap. And one particular fellow was pretty big, and when the teacher called him up, he started fighting the teacher. After that, the teacher didn't touch us. He got a hiding from that fellow.

So how did you get on in class without English?

You just ... you didn't learn anything. You just talked Russian to all ... they all spoke Russian. Some were Polish. Polish and Russian is similar, so we could communicate very easily. And so you really didn't learn anything at all until we shifted to Carlton itself. That was North Carlton. And we ... that's where the butcher's shop was at. And then we lived in a ... I went then to Faraday Street State School. And at Faraday Street School, they put me next to a Jewish fellow, who didn't speak Russian. He spoke Yiddish and I didn't speak Yiddish at the time. So I had to learn English and it didn't take long to learn English, to understand it. I already had the sound of it in my ears and all that, but I didn't have the words. I never learnt the words. And got into the usual fights, which kids do. But at that school ... I met my own age group in that school. They weren't these little kids that were in first school and at the end of that year, my father decided that I should go to the workman's college, which is now called RMT. What ...

RMIT.

RMIT.

But it was called the Working Man's College then?

Yes, in those days. And my father decided I should take bookkeeping, typewriting and shorthand. And as you know, shorthand, most of the time you've got to know how to spell. I didn't know how to spell, so I couldn't write shorthand. Couldn't learn shorthand. Typing was easy, I just copied whatever was necessary to copy. And the bookkeeping was simple. On one side of the page all what you bought, the other side you put all the expenses and you add the two together, at the end you got your loss or a profit and that's the first stage of learning about bookkeeping. So that was easy. So most of the time I had nothing to do. I learned to play some sport with the students. At that time I spoke a little bit of English. And I used some word ... I remember I used some word. I don't remember the word, but it was German and in 1927-28, it was only about ten years after the First World War. And they thought that I was German, so they started - not hitting me, but teasing me about being German. I said, 'I'm not German, I'm Jewish, I'm Russian'. They insisted on German because I used the German name. I don't even remember what the name was. But then I learnt to play cricket and learnt to play football and I didn't like either of them. I was not a sportsman. And ... but during the other times, during the rest of the day, there was nothing to do so I used to go around, roam round the city. Because if I went back to home, I'd have to work in the butcher's shop and I was lazy. So I didn't want to go back 'til four o'clock, when school usually finishes. And I used to go round the city and I saw ... I got down to Flinders Street, or Flinders Lane, actually. And there's a group of people, about thirty or forty people going together, so I followed them. And we came to the end of ... turned into one lane and went into a shed, and I see a lot of chickens - fowls in cages. And a man there picks out a pair of fowls and he says, '[GARBLED LANGUAGE]', and I don't know what he's talking about. And gradually I found out that it's 'Two bob, two bob, two pennies, two and threepence'.

You'd walked in on a chicken auction?

Yeah. There was two places like that, I found out later. So then I saw an opportunity - my first opportunity of going into business. Because after school I used to go to the butcher's shop to work with my father and my uncles and there was a Jewish woman we used to buy live fowls at Victoria meat market and bring to the ritual slaughter man. He killed kosher, and then they'd pluck them there or take them home and pluck them. So I thought if I plucked them myself, bought them and plucked them and sold it to them, save them the job and I could make some profits. So I asked my father would he lend me two pounds. He said, 'Yes'. And I want the horse and cart, and I asked my uncle can I borrow the horse and cart. He said, 'Yes'. So at the back of the yard where we lived, I found bits and pieces of wood and built a cage. And next market day - it usually used to be on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I went on the Tuesday I went to buy my first purchase and I picked out a cage of birds that were good. The Jewish women like all fowls very fat and they make soup out of it. They make a number dishes out of them.

[end of tape]

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