Jewish Ozzies' Inter.Net
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At 6 pm on Tuesday, 30th September 1997 the Hon. Justice Marcus Einfeld will launch - LAST WALK IN NARYSHKIN PARK - the latest book by award-winning author, Rose Zwi at the Sydney Jewish Museum.

"If you grow up under the shadow of the Holocaust you are automatically concerned with issues like human rights. And if you are a writer, you feel the need to bear witness" is how Rose Zwi explains her motivation for writing about civil rights abuses and the immigrant experience.

In 1926 her parents left Zhagar, a predominantly Jewish town on the Lithuanian-Latvian border, to seek a new life, first in Mexico where Rose was born, and then 1930 they settled in South Africa.

When Rose started school she could hardly speak English. Her friends were also the children of immigrants who played amongst themselves to avoid the verbal abuse of "non-Jewish neighbours whose insults ran from bloody Jews and Bolshies to Christ killers."

At home she internalised her parents' experiences so that "Der Heim", Lithuania, became her "Home" as well. She shared her father's grief at having left his family to perish, the pain in the Yiddish songs about starving orphans walking barefoot through the snow and the hazards of exile into strange places. She also became familiar with the "bittere gelechter", the ability to laugh at one's foibles and difficulties and to emerge resilient, eager for life.

Nevertheless she was acutely aware that if you were white you were automatically privileged. The Jews, for once, were not at the bottom of the social pile and there was a moral obligation to help alleviate the lot of the black people. For Rose staying in South Africa was only acceptable if your presence there enabled you to actively combat the racism.

In 1949, despondent about apartheid, Rose made aliyah to Israel. She lived there for three years, married and moved briefly to London but in 1953 she returned to South Africa. It was there that her three children were born between 1954 and 1958.

While a "mature" student at the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg), from which she graduated in 1967 with a B.A. Honours Degree in English literature, Rose became active in civil rights organisations.

Between 1979 and 1981 Rose worked as book editor at Ravan Press which published "Staffrider", a monthly magazine which published prose and poetry of black township writers all of whom belonged to a non-racial writers association. Through these writers, many of whom became close friends, Rose began visiting black townships where poetry readings were held. It was illegal to enter black areas but she was prepared to break the law as a protest against apartheid.

Rose came to Australia from South Africa in 1988 at a time when the political situation there seemed hopeless. Apartheid was entrenched and there was very little that an individual could do and civil rights organisations, such as the Black Sash to which she belonged, were under threat. Eighteen months later Nelson Mandela was released from jail!

She became an Australian citizen in 1992 and in 1994 won the Australian Human Rights Award for Literature for SAFE HOUSES, the novel she had started writing in South Africa but completed in Sydney. It is the story of three families, two white, one black set against the background of turbulence in South Africa when there seemed little hope for the toppling of apartheid.

This was not the first literary award for Rose. Her first novel, ANOTHER YEAR IN AFRICA (published in 1980), about Jewish immigrants from Lithuania who settle in South Africa in the late 1920's won the Olive Schreiner prize for prose in 1982. The first of a trilogy it was followed in 1981 by THE INVERTED PYRAMID about the children of the Jewish immigrants prepare to go to Israel hoping to create a new and better society. The final part EXILES published in 1984 is set in Israel.

During the course of the trilogy Rose also wrote THE UMBRELLA TREE. Written against the background of the 1976 uprising in Soweto it had been awarded Mofolo/Plomer prize for an unpublished novel in 1982 but was not to be published until 1990, after Rose had left South Africa.

All the while writing, Rose's work included short stories. STONES won Thomas Pringle award for best short story published in South African literary journals in 1989, but she and her family had already left South Africa the country where she had spent almost all her life.

In 1992 Rose, now an Australian, had moved on from dealing with those injustices to ones which are with her no matter where she is. Rose's forebears, maternal and paternal, were Jewish Lithuanians.

From the 14th Century to the 20th Century, there had been a continuous Jewish presence in Lithuania. As a result of the Nazi genocide, 95% of the Lithuanian Jewish population was massacred, with the help of the local population. Had her parents and her mother's family not emigrated from Zhager in the mid-1920's they too would have perished.

So it was that Rose traveled to Lithuania, Israel and the U.S. to look for information about her father's family who had been massacred in October, 1941 in Naryshkin Park in Zhager, the shtetl (town), where they were born.

The Park had been a meeting place for friends and neighbours, a rendezvous for lovers, a retreat from everyday cares. Dressed in their Sabbath best, they strolled along its paths into the beautiful gardens and woods, or posed on the grassy verges for photographs, looking straight into the eye of the camera, unaware that they were sitting on the site of their grave.

In writing LAST WALK IN NARYSHKIN PARK, Rose questions how could it be that people, who had lived side by side for generations, could turn on their neighbours or stand by as they were massacred?

"My spirits do not demand revenge for murder most foul; they ask only for remembrance; memory is vengeance. If they are forgotten, they are doomed to wander through history, over the killing fields of crazed ideologues and war lords, grieving for the massacre of other innocents, despairing at the hatred and destruction. Remembering may not be enough, but to forget is unconscionable."

The Melbourne launch of LAST WALK IN NARYSHKIN PARK will be on Sunday 19th October at 4pm at the Melbourne Writers Festival where author Mark Baker will do the honours.

Geraldine Jones

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