A Jewish dream for Tas­ma­nia

It was Critchley Parker jr’s vi­sion to turn Aus­tralia’s rugged out­post into a safe haven for Jews dur­ing World War II — an idea he died for. re­ports

The New Zealand Herald - - FRONT PAGE -

He was the son of a min­ing mag­nate who, in re­sponse to the Nazi Holo­caust, tried to es­tab­lish a Jewish home­land in a wild and re­mote part of Tas­ma­nia.

Critchley Parker jr con­vinced the Aus­tralian state’s Premier of the mer­its of his out­landish plan.

And he es­corted the leader of an or­gan­i­sa­tion seek­ing a safe haven for Euro­pean Jews on a tour of the is­land.

But three years be­fore the end of World War II, the young dreamer’s ob­ses­sion got the bet­ter of him.

Parker be­came stranded in the in­hos­pitable wilder­ness he en­vis­aged as a ‘‘Paris of Aus­trala­sia’’, and even­tu­ally — aged just 31 — suc­cumbed on a moun­tain-side to hunger and ex­po­sure.

Al­most seven decades on, his tri­als and mis­ad­ven­tures have been largely for­got­ten.

But Parker’s story is set to be rekin­dled by award-winning au­thor Richard Flana­gan, who is writ­ing a novel based on the re­mark­able events.

‘‘The his­tor­i­cal record presents us with an enigma,’’ says Flana­gan.

‘‘Parker had a Kerry Packer-type fa­ther; a min­ing mag­nate-cum-me­dia mogul, a man of strongly held opin­ions full of machismo and blus­ter.

‘‘But his son was some­one who got sea­sick on the ferry from one side of the Der­went River to the other.’’

Flana­gan, the Ho­bart-based writer of best­sellers like Gould’s Book of Fish and The Sound of One Hand Clap­ping first heard about Parker’s ex­ploits at one of his lo­cal pubs.

A stranger he got talk­ing to had read the 1946 book The Un­promised Land by Isaac Stein­berg, the founder of the Free­land League which be­fore the es­tab­lish­ment of Is­rael had been seek­ing a safe haven for per­se­cuted Jews.

He told Flana­gan how Stein­berg had trav­elled Dow­nun­der in 1940 to ex­plore the fea­si­bil­ity of a Jewish home­land in the Kim­ber­ley re­gion of north­west­ern Aus­tralia.

But on a visit to Mel­bourne the fol­low­ing year, he met the ec­cen­tric Parker, who de­scribed his vi­sion of an al­ter­na­tive site in the iso­lated south­west of Tas­ma­nia.

With a team of ex­perts in tow, Parker and Stein­berg toured the area around Port Davey and dis­cussed the plan with the is­land’s lead­ing de­ci­sion­mak­ers.

‘‘My Gov­ern­ment ac­cepts in prin­ci­ple the pro­posal that a set­tle­ment of Jewish mi­grants should be es­tab­lished in Tas­ma­nia,’’ wrote Premier Robert Cos­grove af­ter the visit.

But Flana­gan says Parker and Stein­berg never hit it off.

‘‘They were like a Don Quixote and San­cho Panza pair­ing, re­ally, and that is what is so fas­ci­nat­ing,’’ he says.

‘‘Stein­berg was a quite bril­liant, hard­ened man but he was com­pletely un­pre­pared for some­one like Parker, who didn’t make sense to him.’’

The pair had met at the home of prom­i­nent, and mar­ried, Jewish jour­nal­ist, Caro­line Isaac­son, with whom Parker was be­sot­ted.

Flana­gan be­lieves Parker was des­per­ately try­ing to demon­strate his love to Isaac­son, and prove him­self to his fa­ther.

‘‘He was mo­ti­vated by the most fun­da­men­tal things within us all. He had not known love and he wished to know it.’’ But Parker ul­ti­mately be­came a vic­tim of his own ob­ses­sion.

The moun­tain­ous land­scape of his own promised land boasts spec­tac­u­lar scenery and lit­tle else. Rain and windswept, and ham­pered by poor soils, it re­mains un­scarred by hu­man habi­ta­tion to this day.

When Matthew Flin­ders, the Bri­tish naval cap­tain who first sug­gested the name Aus­tralia, sailed past, he de­scribed the land­scape as the ‘‘most dis­mal that can be imag­ined’’.

By con­trast, Parker saw an An­tipodean utopia — which he called Poyn­duk, a lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal word for ‘‘swan’’.

He talked of res­i­dents liv­ing in apart­ments de­signed by the post­mod­ern ar­chi­tect Le Cor­bus­ier.

A flour­ish­ing so­ci­ety, sup­ported by a Soviet-style planned econ­omy, would be­come wealthy from min­ing, and the man­u­fac­ture of per­fumes, leather goods and fash­ion ac­ces­sories.

Parker dreamed of coastal high­ways mod­elled on Ger­man au­to­bahns, and Olympic-style sports events.

‘‘There seems no rea­son why Port Davey should not be­come the Paris of Aus­trala­sia,’’ he wrote dur­ing his fi­nal days, stranded at the foot of Mt Macken­zie.

When he set out to ex­plore his pro­posed colony in 1942, Parker had agreed to send a smoke sig­nal to the area’s only in­hab­i­tant if he got into trou­ble.

But when bad weather set in on the third day he is be­lieved to have ac­ci­den­tally used up all his matches try­ing, in vain, to raise the alarm.

From in­side his tent, and seem­ingly re­signed to his fate, Parker doc­u­mented his grand vi­sion for pos­ter­ity.

He sur­vived for weeks on wa­ter and aspirin, and con­tracted pleurisy.

It is not known how long he had been dead when a dog found his rot­ting corpse in­side a sleep­ing bag four months later.

For some, Parker’s legacy be­longs in the ranks of hap­less Aus­tralian ex­plor­ers like Burke and Wills; best re­mem­bered for their doomed quests.

But Flana­gan was struck by his es­sen­tial good­ness.

‘‘ Re­al­ity is made by dream­ers rather than re­al­ists,’’ he says.

‘‘And I don’t think his vi­sion was any more in­cred­i­ble than those which have shaped so many na­tions and coun­tries.

‘‘It is re­ally quite ex­traor­di­nary that he had this beau­ti­ful dream dur­ing a pe­riod of world his­tory when what was be­ing en­acted on the other side of the world by the Nazis was the most ter­ri­ble night­mare, which came from their own crazed but ter­ri­ble dreams.’’

Stein­berg’s at­tempt to form a haven in the Kim­ber­ley was fi­nally re­jected in 1944 by Prime Min­is­ter John Curtin, who said Aus­tralia could not ‘‘en­ter­tain’’ such an exclusive set­tle­ment.

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