Agnes Nieuwen­huizen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Be­cause of the fraught sit­u­a­tion in Hun­gary in 1944, three-year-old Va­lerie and her 18-month-old brother Steve (Ist­van) were rushed on to a packed Red Cross train to join rel­a­tives in Switzer­land. They were sup­pos­edly un­der the care of two nuns who largely ig­nored the scream­ing baby as bombs rained down. Va­lerie Mur­ray, wife of poet Les Mur­ray, be­lieves Steve was trau­ma­tised for life by this ex­pe­ri­ence.

It was a year be­fore the sib­lings were reunited with their mother in Zurich, and longer be­fore they were joined by their father, who was trad­ing on the black mar­ket to raise money. In the mean­time, the chil­dren were passed around among rel­a­tives.

Mur­ray writes in the pref­ace of her mem­oir Flight from the Broth­ers Grimm: “Both my brother Steve and I were born dur­ing World War II in Hun­gary with a Swiss mother (al­beit with Ger­man an­tecedents) and a Hun­gar­ian father un­be­liev­ably named Gino Morelli … We came from a cock­tail of Euro­pean back­grounds.”

The Morel­lis were not Jewish but, be­cause of this “cock­tail of back­grounds”, found them­selves state­less and in need of a new home. Hun­gar­i­ans came to Aus­tralia in four waves start­ing in the 1830s. By far the largest in­flux (15,000) con­sisted of DPs (dis­placed per­sons) who came be­tween 1948 and 1952, fol­lowed by those who es­caped af­ter the Hun­gar­ian up­ris­ing of 1956.

The Morelli fam­ily ar­rived in Syd­ney in 1950 when Va­lerie was nine. My Hun­gar­ian fam­ily ar­rived in Mel­bourne in 1949 when I was 10. We too were state­less and I too had a younger sib­ling I was of­ten left to care for, though I was not left alone for a week at a time as Va­lerie was while her par­ents went ski­ing. (To­day this would be il­le­gal.)

Steve had been packed off to board­ing school. Like me, Va­lerie was scared wit­less by the pop­u­lar ra­dio pro­gram In­ner Sanc­tum with the creak­ing doors and ter­ri­fy­ing ad­vanc­ing foot­falls. While Va­lerie’s ed­u­ca­tion and wardrobe were care­fully at­tended to, she was iso­lated and had too much re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Chil­dren’s emo­tional needs were rarely con­sid­ered and Va­lerie suf­fered panic at­tacks and de­pres­sion for sev­eral years un­til she found friends and gained some in­de­pen­dence and even part-time work. I feel a great deal of em­pa­thy with young Va­lerie and her brother.

Mur­ray has self-pub­lished this mem­oir. Close to the end of the book, she notes an ex­as­per­ated com­ment from a friend when pre­sented with a mem­oir, “Not an­other bloody mi­grant mem­oir!”

Hun­gar­ian im­mi­grants, along with those from many other na­tions, have made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to Aus­tralian so­ci­ety and many have com­pelling sto­ries to tell. It’s im­por­tant these are recorded and avail­able to younger gen­er­a­tions who may be ig­no­rant of Aus­tralia’s rich im­mi­gra­tion his­tory. Flight from the Broth­ers Grimm By Va­lerie Mur­ray Books Un­leashed, 184pp, $20

Per­haps Hun­gar­i­ans like talk­ing about and re­flect­ing on their ex­pe­ri­ences more than oth­ers. In a chap­ter ti­tled Mo­ti­va­tion, Mur­ray writes: “It’s a matter of re­spon­si­bil­ity to me and all the peo­ple in my life … but also, I hope, an act of un­bur­den­ing, of cathar­sis.” Later she adds: “I needed to re­cover as much of my back­ground as I could.”

The first third of the book reads as though in­for­ma­tion has been gleaned and as­sem­bled from fam­ily snaps as Mur­ray strives to piece to­gether the frag­ments of her early life as a cos­seted child in Hun­gary and then her more chaotic ex­is­tence in Switzer­land.

The his­to­ries of her par­ents, grand­par­ents and ex­tended fam­ily are some­what con­fus­ing

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