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