Deep Feelings Down Under

By Donna Jacobs Sife

I have just returned from a tour in Tasmania. For two weeks I travelled the state in my little rented car, presenting up to three performances a day at different schools. Usually. at the end of the day. I was exhausted and booked myself a room at the local pub ( in small towns the pub is usually very quaint, cheap and the coolest place to stay), had a meal quietly somewhere, went to bed and waited till dark. It was largely an exercise in hard work and solitude, and an opportunity to observe a part of Australia I hitherto knew nothing about.

Initially, I was struck by how very mono-cultural Tasmania is. I am not accustomed to telling stories to a sea of white anglo-saxon faces. In New South Wales, multiculturalism is so much a part of the demography, I was quite taken aback by the absence of mixed colour and culture in Tassie. It still feels quite colonial, in an eerie sort of way.

My program had certain clear themes. Freedom and oppression, self worth, celebrating the human spirit, racism. One story I tell is from the Holocaust. It is a true story of a miraculous escape. I tell them I am Jewish. "Hands up if you know what a Jew is" I would ask. I would see a few hands every now and again. And more shocking than that, I asked every high school I was at "hands up if you know what the Holocaust is?" Not once, not even in the church schools did a hand rise up in response. Some teachers were shocked, one or two were deeply embarrassed. . "Perhaps it is semantics" I tried to reassure them, "perhaps they know of it by a different term."

I did a lot of walking. In gorges, up mountains, along rivers. It is very beautiful, but nowhere was a there a hint of any previous indigenous presence. Very few Aboriginal place names, no mention of who was there before ‘us’, how they had lived, what had happened to them. I asked the kids "do you know what happened to the Aboriginal people in Tasmania?". They did not know that Tasmania had virtually wiped out all the indigenous people by 1900. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was shame that motivated such silence.

One day, I travelled to a little town called Oatlands and popped into the local tourist centre. There, I struck up a conversation with a local farmer, who was an avid historian of the area. I told him what I did for a living, and what I had observed in my travels. He was deeply moved, almost to tears. He spoke with great emotion and authority about the history of the Aboriginal people in the Oatlands area, and promised to make copies of a journal written by a missionary in the late 1800’s by the name of Robinson. He thought I might find the information interesting. One part of the journal describes the abduction of the aboriginal women by the local sealers. The men from the tribe go to retrieve their women, only to be shot and killed. Let me quote to you one small extract of that journal:
"This information was the occasion of general lamentation and there was not one aborigine but wept bitterly. My feelings was overcome. I could not suppress them: the involuntary lachryme burst forth and I sorrowed for them. Poor unbefriended and hapless people! I imagined myself an aborigine. I looked upon them as brethen, not as they had been maligned, savages. No, they are my brethren by creation. ..........They have been represented as only a link between the human and brute species, and nothing more false could proceed from the lips of men - they are equal if not superior to ourselves."

In my program to the schools, I sing a song of a true story of a young white girl who is told never to go near the "camp of the black fella". One night her mother’s gown catches light, she goes up in flames, in desperate need of help, but the little girl cannot forget her mother’s tales of "the devil drum and the evil eye." In her fear, she waits until morning. Her mother dies. I introduce the song with that extract of Mr. Robinson’s journal.

I am overwhelmed with the cruel disregard Senator Herron and our Prime Minister have displayed over the issue of the Stolen Generation. I wonder if they had the capacity to "imagine themselves as an aborigine" as did the wonderful Mr. Robinson, they would be so cavalier in their dispensing of the issue of a stolen generation.
I have been reading Exodus. In Exodus 3:3, Moses stands at the burning bush, "and Moses said "I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt". The language is strange here, especially the word for "turn aside". Why would Moses turn aside when he is granted this vision? The Rashi reads - asura mikan l’hitkarev sham - To go away from here and go over there.

Surely this is what is required of us. Slaves we were. Slaves we still are. Of prejudice, of fear, of greed. I want to get up from where I stand, and move to somewhere else. Closer to where you stand. I want to step into your suffering, your fears, your losses, and feel them as if they are my own. The seder requires that we understand that it is not our ancestors that were slaves, but us. So that we can "turn aside" from our own position, and step into another one. So that we can ‘remember’ the hunger, the deprivation, the oppression that we suffered for four hundred years.

Because if we can remember it, then we can know it in another.

"Oh, may all, created in Thine image, recognise that they are brethren, so that, one in spirit, and one in fellowship, they may be forever united before Thee. Then shall Thy Kingdom be established on earth."
Union Prayer Book, 1940.


┬ęCopyright Donna Jacobs Sife 2019