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
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.