Australian Biography

Victor Smorgon - full interview transcript

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What's been the Smorgon family's history in industrial relations?

Well, there's ... We were in so many different industries it's very hard to answer that question. The one that we were mainly in most of our life was meat, and that was horrible. Not that that was ... We had a very good relationship - personally had a very good relationship with the union head, the union representative. You've probably heard of him, Wally Curran. He is a sincere Communist, and he wants to destroy the present system and he says so, and he's sincere about it. It's not something he tries to do for the workers, it's his idea to change the system, go to the Russian system. I say to him, 'The Russian system destroyed itself'. 'No, that's only because they had the wrong people. The idea's right'. I said, 'Yes, there's nothing wrong with the idea. The Christian idea is the same, the Jewish idea is the same, almost every religion is the same, and Communism is helping people. But the Russians never practiced it. Russia and Communism became a dictatorship not a democracy as we know it'. But he wouldn't have it. And his habit was very simple. If he was in a bad mood, he'd come in, and we had about three or four thousand people employed, all working in one place, and he'd call a strike. Because he wants to do harm, he wants to stop. And he's punishing the workers much more than he's punishing us. Because the workers miss their pay. And he doesn't give a damn, because he wants his idea to change the system. The only way you can change it is to destroy capitalism. So in that field we always fought him, and publicly he would have a meeting in the yard. We could hear it all, and abuse us to hell, what horrible people we are, what harm we're doing as capitalists. We're exploiting all the workers, we don't pay enough. We don't give the right conditions and all that. 'You should demand more money and all that'. And then he would finish up passing a resolution, after about half an hour of talk or an hour of talk. And he says, 'All those in favour of this resolution this side, and you bludgers that don't like it you're on this side'. Now who would go on the other side when somebody called them a bludger? So he just controlled it that way. He placed his own people into our ... not only into our place, in all meat works. And he was destroying it. He set out to destroy the industry, and he did, he destroyed it. In Victoria the industry was destroyed, as a meat industry, because you just couldn't afford to pay the prices to farmers to grow the cattle that needed to produce the meat. And he was ... I blame him. He probably blames me that there should be another system. But in that field our relationship was not good. It was a relationship, a relationship from point of view of communication was okay, but because he was such a dedicated idealist, that he wanted to destroy, not to create, and we had many discussions, friendly discussions.

But in the steel industry, or the paper industry, we had no problems whatsoever. We had wonderful relationship with paper industry. Also union, but a different union. That union was not a Communist union, it was just a working man's union. And there was only a national strike once or twice in the times we were in paper. National one, not just at our place. We'd talk. If anything happens, somebody's unhappy, they call the union. The union starts talking to us. We sit down around the table with the union. We straighten out whatever it is that person or persons are complaining about and do whatever, settle, compromise both ways and go on working. But they don't stop, they keep on working. But this man pulled everybody out of work first, and then, 'Go home'. That's when I talk about the bad meat when you ask me that question about whether I had any problems about, psychological problems, if you like, or hygienic problems. Yes we did at that time. Every meat works still has it today. Nothing changes in the meat industry. He is slowly destroying it. He's not an official any more, but he still has the power.

If you were a worker, would you like to be employed by a Smorgon company?



Because Smorgon's been always fair to their workers. If a worker needs ... The other day somebody ... one of the workers came up to me and he said, 'My wife's family lives in Yugoslavia and she's got a sick mother. I don't have enough money to pay for her fare. Will you lend me $2,000?' 'Of course, come into the office. I'll fix it up'. We always did that, to everybody, to anyone that needed something. A certain respect, a certain communication. And they know that we do these thing so they come to us, so they have no bad feelings about it. That doesn't mean that the union ... the union starts bargaining about the conditions and all that, and they want more money all the time. And we say, 'Okay', same as we did in the meat business. We say, 'You want more money, no problem. Get everybody to pay the same wages as we do and there'll be no problem. But how are you going to sell the meat? You won't be able to sell the meat, so we won't be able to employ you'. But in these cases ... In the paper mill there was never any problems. It was always peaceful. And in the plastic industry it was peaceful. We work with the union today. We don't have many people, but still we're very friendly with the person that's in charge of that particular union. He comes to visit about once a month and my grandson usually handles it. And in the steel mill, when he worked in Tasmania, he used to make deals with [the] union to work the steel mill operation. Not the steel mill itself, not the steel mill, but the IRC, which produces the product from our steel. And he made peace, and then other people came to him and he was very young, he was twenty-two, twenty-three, and other people came to him and asked him to help them to do the union, because he was able to communicate. Does that answer your questions?

Is there any aspect of working for the Smorgon companies that you wouldn't have liked as a worker?

Probably. I can't think of any, because I'm a Smorgon, but probably would be, because you can't exactly put yourself in the position. I probably could have when I was about twenty or twenty-one or something, not today. It's hard to put yourself in a position where you're a worker suddenly instead of being an owner. So I can't really answer that question honestly. I can pretend but ...

How important has it been to your life that you were born Jewish?

Very important, because I believe that we all belong to something. It's not necessarily religion. And Jewish is not a religion to me, Jewish is a nationality to me. And Jewish is a religion some people practice, same as any other religion, and religions themselves I have no problem with the concept of religion if it's practised, but very few people practice it anyway. So I just don't believe there is such a thing as an upper, something that governs you. What governs you is what you're born with. That's what governs you. And maybe you can interpret that any way you like, but it's a ... I'm basically I'm agnostic. Yet I'm Jewish, definitely.

Do you go to synagogue?

Yes, I do, about twice a year, mostly because I want my children to know who they are, what they are. That's because of the children I go. And now the grandchildren, the great grandchildren all go to the same synagogue, but only high holidays. But I feel like a hypocrite because I don't believe in it but I have to do it for the sake of other people. I don't believe but they might believe. Or they might learn to believe. Some of my children believe in God, some people don't. Some of them don't.

Do you wish you believed in god?

No. I'm too much of a realist to believe in him. It's ... I do believe, and I would have been very comfortable to believe in something, because it was ... it takes a lot of pressure off you, because it's not my fault, it's God's fault. I don't believe that. I believe it's my fault if I do something wrong.

The Jewish tradition has a lot of elements to it, and belief in God is one, which you don't accept ...

But I accept that a nation has its own, its own ... not policies, that's the wrong word, but its own customs, it's our culture really. And I believe that culture, and what I was brought up in, what I know about, what my children believe. And of course, the anti-Semitism helps people like me to stay that way. Because fifty years ago, six million people were killed. Their sin was that they happened to be Jewish, not because they did anything wrong. And there's all those babies that was murdered. Murdered today in other countries. Where's God to help them? I mean, why is it done? Why do these things happen? Obviously there's nobody there to help. You've got to help yourself and you help those people that can't help themselves. That's possibly why we're conscious of ... with our philanthropy - what's the word?


Because we feel it is important to help other people.

What effect did news of the Holocaust have on you here in Australia?

Very severe influence. It made life very hard to understand why. How can intelligent people like Germans, who are probably considered most advanced in culture, most advanced in literature, the most advanced in every aspect of life ... And here one man takes over and murders for no reason whatsoever, because he happens ... he doesn't like Jews. He doesn't know the reason why he doesn't like Jews. He just something ... and a lot of it is influences by the religion itself, other religions, particularly the Pope never stood up for the Jews in the Holocaust time. Today, fifty years after, they're apologising a little bit. It's the same ... It reminds me the same as the black people [who are] expecting to get - to give [sic] a blessing. [They] say apologise and I think Howard did a very good job by apologising personally, but he can't apologise on behalf of me, or you or other people. He can only apologise for himself. He wasn't responsible for that. It was governments before that that were responsible. And at that time the people thought ... They didn't do it because they thought it was the right thing to do ... the wrong thing to do, they thought it was the right thing to do. They were trying to help those people. They weren't trying to harm them. But in the end, from a nationalistic point of view, of course they harmed them. They took away the children from them, which is cruel by itself. But they thought that they could educate them better and they'll pass it on to their ...

Can we come back to the Jewish community here in Australia during the Holocaust. During that period, what did the Jewish community in Melbourne, to which you belonged, did they ... what did they do?

Well they couldn't ... they didn't know very much. Nobody knew very much 'til straight after the war. You heard rumours, but you know, nobody knew about it. In Europe they knew about it, but in Australia it wasn't publicised. The Allied Forces weren't, or leaders, they weren't anxious to publicise the fact that the Jews and other people were being killed in numbers that they were being killed at. It wasn't comfortable for them either because there would have been an outcry to go quicker and destroy that cancer that's there and so nobody talked about it. So we knew very little about it. We knew about the war, that was publicised, but not the Holocaust itself. That was a terrible surprise for not only Jewish people, for the whole world: that educated people with culture, with all sorts of sophisticated knowledge of things, are able to destroy a whole nation of ten million people. And if they would have won the war, they would have destroyed probably two or three hundred million people: anybody that was slightly black, or slightly Jewish.

Did you do anything to help the Jewish refugees after the war?

After that, yes, many things.

What kind of things?

Well, mostly by helping to bring the immigrants to Israel. I went on a special trip about six, seven years ago, to Russia, to gather my relations. And we, as a family, had arranged for them to ... I know many people in Israel in high places, and we had to get a visa in the first place, so I went to see a friend of mine there that was in charge of bringing people into Israel. And I said to him, 'I'm going to Russia to get my Russian relations to come to Israel. Can you help me?' He said, 'Give me their names, I'll give you a permit now'. I said, 'I don't know their names yet. I don't know whether they want to come or not.. And luckily, I was very happy that I had one of my grandchildren with me, because she saw it personally. She was actually in Mexico and she heard I was going to Israel, and then to Russia and she said, 'Can I come?' She phoned me and said, 'Can I come with you?' I said, 'Come straight away, and it'd be beautiful for you to get the experience of the whole thing happening'. And we went to Russia, and we went to see mostly my father's people. My mother's people were already here. My father's people, the Smorgons: men were Smorgons and women were another name, but the females were also born Smorgons. And I thought I'd get about a dozen people. I finished up with forty-seven people and we said to them, 'We'll pay for the fare across. We'll pay for the twelve months living. We'll get you living quarters, pay rent for the living quarters. We'll buy you second hand furniture, with [a] TV'. You got to have TV today. And we had ... One of my nephews has cousins there who took on the job to settle them down in Israel, to do all this for us. We paid her to do that. And about forty-seven people. But the majority of them were half Russian and some of them were 100 percent Russian, because they'd all intermarried. It's a third generation from the days that we were there. And some of them I remembered, some of them I knew. They're old people by then, but I knew them.

How many times have you been back to Russia since you left?

Oh, I would say every ... roughly about twenty times.

The first time you went back, what year was that?

1960-something, two or three.

What was it like for you?

It was a very ... it was a hard time. I really can't explain it really. A sad time. When I arrived in [?] where most of my mother's people are, and my uncles were still alive, and I hadn't seen the uncle for about thirty-odd years. And we kissed the Russian way on the lips, which I wasn't used to any more. And the first thing my uncle said to me is, 'When you get to the hotel, don't talk'. I couldn't understand what he was saying. 'When you go to the hotel, don't talk'. But then he told me several times and then next morning he picked us up and brought us to the houses, to the one house, the one [where] there's four families, and entertainment and all the food and all that. And eventually we found out that one of them was a ... worked for the KGB. And he asked for leave from the general ... you know it's all part of the army ... from his boss, because he doesn't want to meet his capitalist relations. He says, 'Don't do that, I'll lend you my car, and you can have as much money as you like, buy anything. Commandeer any food you like, and show them how well the Russians live'. So when we arrived there's lots of food, caviar, and all sorts of goodies. And then next morning that same man picked us up. He now lives in Melbourne here. And he put us in this car, and there's four of us. There's Loti and my nephew, George Kastan, my sister's oldest son and his wife. And he kept on looking in the mirror. I didn't notice. Loti noticed it. He kept on looking in the mirror all the time to see whether he's being followed or not. And later I realised what it was all about. He was worrying that he was being followed, because he knows the system. And then later, on several other occasions when we were there, they'd take us out to a picnic, and there's always cars following us. And they'd say to me, 'See that car there, they're watching us. That car there, they're watching us, that one, watching us'. And we went into certain ... one of them had a bit of, what we call a dacha, a little hut outside the town and he wanted to show it to me. And he was pulled up. 'What are you doing here? We were in a bus with about fifteen people. And at any rate he told me that, 'The KGB, they don't want you to see it'. They're like spies and they're constantly worried about spies.

Did you go back to the township that you grew up in?


Was it the same?

My daughter asked me to do that, Ginny, in Sydney. And she said she'd like to see where we came from. So I said, 'Well no problem, we'll organise, get as many people as can come, and we'll go back to the village'. And the first time I tried, I couldn't get - they wouldn't let me in. Because I had to go to Donetsk, which is about sixty kilometres away from the town that we lived in. Not the village. Well I went to the village, [but] that village was destroyed. It was called Heidelberg. But there was hundreds, thousands of those type of villages. But we saw ... I had a relation there who remembered me as a child. She remembered me as a young boy, and she's related to my auntie, so she's my auntie's niece. So she was showing us around and she said, 'Your village is destroyed. I'll show you another one right here exactly the same'. She knew them both. And she ... and we went to different homes in that village and everybody loved us. Because the main thing at that time when we went to find the town that we lived in, which is called Mariupol - it's a bigger town - I wanted to find the house where we lived in. And I knew that there was certain area, I remembered the street, but I couldn't find it. And I kept on asking people, 'Where is that street?' because I'm looking for family, where my father used to, and grandfather used to live. Eventually ... and we obviously had to look for somebody older and not anybody young. So somebody said, 'There's an old man in that cottage over there, he might know, because he's about eighty'. And that's about seven, eight years ago. And so we knocked on the door and he came out. I've got some pictures of him in one of the books. And he ... I told him who we are, that we came from Australia and my grandfather used to live around here, and my father and my family and I was part of it. And he says, 'What's the name?' I said, 'Smorgon'. That's how it's pronounced in Russian and I talked in Russian. And he said, 'They are just around the corner'. So he took us round the corner. He said, 'That house is destroyed', but the house next to it was not destroyed but the house we lived in was destroyed. And he started describing the house, just as I remember it. Exactly as I remember it. And he then told us ... and that was very important from my point of view, as far as my family was concerned, because there's a mixture of nieces and daughters and granddaughters. And he said that the day that the Germans walked in here, they came into this yard, gathered 157 Jews and they killed them right on the spot. And when you hear that there on the spot that it happened it has an entirely different meaning than when you read about it in a book because it becomes so much more real and so much more horrible to know that happened. And then he took us into his hut and he was growing his own vegetables, and he was doing all sorts of things. He told us that his first wife was Jewish and when the Nazis came in, he sent her away to her family in the village, another village, where the Germans weren't in, and she pretended to be non-Jewish. It's easier for a woman to be not Jewish, to pretend to be non-Jewish. You know why. So she survived until she died for other reasons, and he remarried. And his wife, and Russians are very hospitable people, and they offered us tea and all that. And then he took us to his neighbours and introduced us to the neighbours. And I remember that we used to have a tree with mulberries I think they're called ...


Mulberies. And I said, 'There's a tree somewhere here'. He said, 'That's it there, the tree's around here. Here it is'. There's the tree that I used to climb to pick the berries from. And it brings your childhood right back. It's a wonderful experience. And that experience passes on to the children with ... my children and grandchildren. And then we always carried some gifts, and the gifts we carried were these small calculators. You know, ten dollars each or something, and we had dozens of them, and we gave them out like confetti. And to them it was something wonderful. But the Russians will not accept anything unless they give you something, even if it's a little lolly or something like that. And they gave us one of the cassettes of one of the famous Russian singers because I gave her son, who was about fifteen or sixteen, one of those little calculators, which none of them had ever seen in their lives. And I showed them how to work it, and I told him, 'You can translate it from English into Russian and work out exactly, you know, arithmetic. You know how to do it'.

The idea of family has meant so much to you, and a Smorgon, the Smorgon name is so important. Was it a disappointment to you that all of your four children were girls?

No, not really, because ... In fact I'm saying that in that Smorgon book, that I was fortunate that all my other brothers and cousins had boys. And they're all about the same age as my daughters. So I had boys during the day who I worked with. They used to come in from school, every school holidays they'd come to work, and I'd pay them. There was a refrigerator full of ice-cream, of chocolate covered ice-cream. I forget the name of them. And they could have as many as they liked, and they get two shillings a day pay. Very early, at the age of seven they start. And so they loved coming there. That's the bribe that you bring them into the family. They eat with us around our table. They're free to ... and they grow up become ... if they want to go to 'school' there ... if you want to go 'school' ... Most of them started at fifteen, sixteen or seventeen. Two of them got formal educations, others didn't. And they wanted to work, because they got used to working there. And the first job they had was a dirty job. I made sure they had a dirty job. I used to say maybe they won't like it, particularly the part where there's manure around. And they still loved it. And we used to make them have a bath before they go home, otherwise their mothers won't let them come back the next day. And they loved it, and then most of them went through that sort of school. And as they started working they were given jobs, and they were treated completely equally. They don't all appreciate it. Some of them think this one was too dependent and that one and so on, depending what job was available at the time. There's no perfection in this world. You can't do everything right.

So you've sort of answered my question, because you have nephews that you ...

The nephews were replacement sons.

Yes, but was it never a possibility that the girls might have been part of the business?

Well, the always accuse me ... yes, it could have been a possibility, but I never pushed them to come into the business. If they would have expressed a wish to be in it there'd be no problem whatsoever. But they liked to play there. They used to come with me on Sundays when they were young kids and would climb the piles of paper, or run amongst the sheep and all that. They loved it but they didn't want to go into that industry. They had their own ideas of what they wanted to do. And I didn't ... I certainly didn't push them like I did the boys. With the boys I did. I pushed them. I kept ... every time I'd see them, 'When are you coming to work?' And you know that was my style of getting them into the business.

What was the difference, Victor?

I must tell you, one of my granddaughters did come to work. In fact, Peter's daughter. And she ... I made a deal with her. I said to her, 'Work here for three years. If you like it, you have a job forever. If you don't like it, leave, otherwise you're only going to embarrass me, because you're taking advantage of being here when it suits you'. When three years was up she said, 'Papa, it's not for me. I don't want to work in this atmosphere'. She wanted to do something else. And so I said, 'Okay, no problem'. But she went through all the departments, the same as the boys did. With her contemporaries, did the same thing.

But none of the girls got the work in the holidays and the two bob a day and the ice-cream.

They could have. Some of them did in the holidays, but they worked in the office, not in the dirty part of the place. They all came at some stage, about twelve, thirteen. And then their interests were moved away from that to other things. But I've been accused all my life by my daughters that I didn't encourage them to come to work, which is true. I didn't encourage them, but if they wanted to, there'd be no problem whatsoever because our policy was always that women were welcome. It's not a decision just by me, it's a decision by the whole group of us. I mean we talked about it, we discussed it. We decided, when the question came up what about girls: we've got all those boys, what about the girls? We said, 'Okay, if the girls want to join it, let them join it'. One of them insisted that his wife should be working. That we objected to. We said, 'Wives have nothing to do with our business. Don't mix wives with business. That creates problems, it creates jealousies'. So we never had any wives working for us, or with us.

[end of tape]

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