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Lily Brett: Dad Max, Manhattan, and me




Caroline Overington
Associate Editor, The Australian

They say nobody is ever too old for another adventure, and so it proved for Lily Brett’s father, Max Brett, who moved from Melbourne to Manhattan 10 years ago, when he was 89.

“People always want to know how he is,” says Brett, the acclaimed writer, who made the same move when she was in her 40s, “and I say, well, he’s about to turn 100. Isn’t that amazing? He’s one of the oldest Holocaust survivors, one of very few left, and he’s one of an even smaller group that has a great sense of humour. His everyday memory is slipping a bit, but his long-term memory is good. And, of course, he still remembers the Holocaust. I don’t think you ever forget.”

That may be true of individuals and their families but, 70 years on, has the world forgotten?
“Oh yes, I hear sometimes that the Holocaust was a long time ago,” says Brett, 69, visiting Australia this week to deliver the keynote address at an annual Holocaust commemoration hosted by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. “Or else some people will say it never happened. We have to keep fighting that and reminding people of the danger of bigotry, the danger of racism, of hatred, especially now when so many politicians want to find a way to exploit our fears.”

Brett makes no bones about the fact “the defining characteristic of my life, the most identifiable thing about me”, was that she was born to Holocaust survivors.

Her parents, Max and Rose, were confined for several years to the Lodz ghetto in ­Poland before being sent to Auschwitz.
“They lost almost everyone,” she says. “Brothers, sisters, grandparents, uncles, aunts, everyone.”

The horror was unspeakable, and then came confusion.
“It took them six months to find each other again, after the war ended,” says Brett, who was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1946, “and another two years ­before they could leave ­Europe.”

They travelled, like so many other thousands of European Jews, to Melbourne, “and that migration to Australia of Jews from Europe, between 1948 to 1952, was what ­really made the Australian Jewish community”, says Brett. “Before that, Australia had very, very few Jews. A handful. A few more than that, but the bulk of Australia’s Jews are postwar, and they are all Holocaust survivors because no Jew who was in Europe (during the war) had a ­picnic.

“We were unlike any other community,” Brett says. “We lived very close by each other. Nobody had any money. Everyone had a catastrophic past. Very few of us had relatives. My own family started off in one room in Brunswick, and then in Carlton. And we were out of place. We even looked out of place. I look at the kindergarten photograph of me, in my first year, and we don’t look like Australian children. We look like European children. All the girls have bows in their hair. We are wearing cardigans. The bright sunshine is at odds with the melancholy expressions on our faces. We were new. We were so small. We didn’t yet belong. And at home our parents were scared. They worried about a knock at the door.

“My mother screamed in her sleep two or three times a week. I thought everybody’s mother did. My mother had lost everything: her culture, her language, her siblings, her parents, her profession. She wanted to be a pediatrician (but) she was working behind a sewing ­machine in a factory. And that is a complicated past to grow up with.”

The impact of her parents’ suffering has long been apparent in Brett’s writing. Her poetry and novels are infused with sorrow, yet also dark humour. They have won many prizes for their depth and delicacy (Brett’s most recent novel, Lola Bensky, won France’s Prix Medicis Etranger, in 2014; her other awards include the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 2003).

In person, Brett presents as her literature personified. She is characteristically early for the interview, saying “nobody who comes from a background like mine is ever unprepared for anything”.

She is tall, with sad eyes that somehow make her more beautiful, and her handshake is soft and downward-pointing. Her ensemble, though, is marvellously theatrical: she wears a long coat and a sculptural hat, squished down firmly over springy curls.

Brett’s professional story is enviable: she started as a rock music journalist, working alongside Molly Meldrum, ­interviewing stars such as Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison. Her early published works were well-­reviewed and are still much admired. Then, at 43, she upped stumps and moved with her husband, Australian artist David Rankin, and their three children to New York. “We didn’t know we were moving for good,” she says. “We thought we were just trying it out. But the children adapted very fast. The youngest was 13. She went into a New York high school. The others were already college age. One is now in Miami, one in San Francisco, one in Manhattan. And my grandchildren are American and very proudly Jewish.”

Brett adores her adopted city the way one adores a person. She was there during the terrorist attacks on September 11 “where we heard those rumours — totally false — that there were no Jews in the towers because they had all been warned to stay home. But we also saw so many people helping. And after those attacks, we couldn’t come home. We wanted to stay to protect the city, like you would protect anyone you loved.”

Brett’s problem, as the years went on, was that her mother had died and Max — to whom she always had been so close — was getting old. Rather than do the obvious thing — move home again — Lily asked her father to join her in Manhattan. “He likes to tell everyone he arrived in Melbourne with one suitcase, and he left Australia with one suitcase,” she says. “And it’s been wonderful. He moved into an apartment next door to (her daughter) Gypsy, like a hotel, with an interconnecting door. He would feed her little baby and she bought all his clothes at Gap. So he was the hippest old guy with his summer polo shirts.”

Gypsy has moved to San Francisco, but Max Brett remains in New York.
“He used to walk two miles every day, and he did weights, and had a personal trainer,” says Lily Brett.

“But then he broke his hip playing ball in the hallway with some of the other kids from the building, who adored him. Now he has aides, people looking after him. But he’s mentally independent. He has a rabbi who visits him regularly, who lives in the hope of instilling a small shred of religious belief in my father. But my mother walked around the house saying: there is no God.”

What does she think?

“Part of the collateral damage of my childhood is my lack of ability to believe in a god,” she says. “I envy people who have faith. I wish I could be one of them. But the truth is, and this is what I will say in my keynote speech, for children like me, our proximity to a catastrophic past shaped how we were and who we became. And it’s a critical thing to understand.”

Brett’s contribution to Holocaust scholarship, in essays, poetry and novels, is important. She has also recorded the verbatim testimony of both parents for the archives, which is perhaps why the literary community was agog when her younger sister, Doris, came out with a book of her own in 2001 saying she didn’t remember their childhood as traumatic and that she had never heard her mother scream or weep.

Max sided with Lily. An existing rift between the sisters widened, and has not healed. Lily has no plans to see Doris while she is in Australia, saying: “Every family has its difficulties, and this is one of ours. There are some very sad things in everybody’s life, and you know, in a way, you can’t dwell on them. And I’m glad my dad doesn’t dwell on this one any more, either.”

As for her speech, Brett says her central message is that which her parents passed down, “which is that racism is dangerous. That bigotry is dangerous. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about Jews or anyone else, we cannot allow bigotry.”

“And hatred of other people has become acceptable again. And it is becoming acceptable. Look at Donald Trump,” she says. “The way he talks about Mexicans, and Muslims. His tactics are the same as any despot in history. It’s the politics of hate. That’s how people operated in the Nazi era, and when politicians do that it makes other people think it is acceptable.

“I have heard Australians — people I like enormously — talk about asylum-seekers in a way that makes me want to cry,” says Brett, “because we were refugees. And if you look at any community that has taken refugees in, they have enriched those communities.

“The postwar ­migration made Australia. I remember my mother saying (Australian) bread tasted like cotton wool. And she was not fussy. When you’ve been in Auschwitz, you’re not really looking for a five-star meal. Then it improved because of refugees.

“And yet there seems to be no way to stop the fear people have. 

“So when I heard Trump say: ‘We can’t let any more Muslims in (to the US)’, I thought: ‘What era am I living in?’ And ‘Where have we heard this before?’ ‘Have we learned nothing at all?’ We mustn’t forget. That is what I want to say.”

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