My father was for me a kind of guru. Guide, sage, an abstraction of all-knowing goodness- his belief became my moral philosophy, his views were scrupulously embraced as a pathway to leading an honourable life.
His was a voice form beyond the grave, my devotion to his principles was self-imposed. But my fidelity to his philosophy did not follow immediately after his death nor was it all-encompassing. He died when I was only 11 years old and at that time, I was very worried he wouldn’t go to heaven.
I went to a Methodist school as well as weekly Sunday school, so I was extremely religious and even before I read his spiritual testament, that wonderful tract that he produced for his children- my Bible, my Torah, my Koran- I feared that he did not believe in God. ‘Our Father who art in heaven’ was fine. But would my father go to heaven too?
We lived in a modest brick house in Camberwell with a spacious garden and a large, thick pineapple shaped tree in the front. At the end of our street was a park alongside a creek and then, a little across the little bridge was Willison railway station. You could see the train approaching from the distance and if you got to about halfway across the park and you ran the rest of the way you were able to reach the station in time to catch the train.
I knew my father had a weak heart, but this didn’t deter me from darting ahead of him like an eager puppy and yelling “Hurry up! I can see the train coming! We’ll miss it”. “Never mind. No need to run’ he’d call calmly, “We’ll be first for the next one.” That’s the kind of wise man he was.
Anyway, the day he died I had come home from school and was walking up the path to the front door just as Dr. Weiss was leaving and instead of his friendly greeting, he just passed without looking at me, so I already suspected what had happened.
For weeks I had anxiously watched a kind of throbbing in his throat which I’d been told related to his speeding heartbeat, and I dreaded it would all get too fast and then everything would kind of crash to a stop. Lately he’d often been so short of breadth and, because my mother was at work, I had been the one to help him apply the oxygen mask attached to a large gas bottle kept by his bedside.
This day my mother was at home and when she asked me if I wanted to see my father’s body. I refused, which I later regretted,
But I was extremely concerned about his future, so I asked if he had a smile on his face. When she told me that he seemed contented it wasn’t good enough for me since my theory was a smile would indicate that he had converted, or perhaps repented at the last moment, and so had been forgiven by God thereby securing his place in heaven.
The next day the Funeral Director came, and I squirmed in embarrassment when I noticed his censorious frown and disapproval of my mother as she was telling him that she wanted no service, no preacher and no flowers. I knew she loved him so why was she being so heartless? At last, after what seemed to me an interminable time, she went and fetched a letter to show the man. I still have it. All it said was “I wish to be buried without clerical assistance,” signed Paul Schneer. Okay I reasoned to myself, no preacher is what he wants, but why has she asked for no flowers. My poor father!
“Jewish people don’t have flowers at funerals,” my mother later told me. That’s awfully mean I thought.
The same anxiety (pride? vanity?) prompted my response about two weeks later when I was asked to post the ‘thank you for your condolences’ cards. We had forty eight of them, which I thought was quite a lot, and I rode my bike to the mailbox and slowly, meticulously posted the letters, one at a time, with a pause between each, pleased that so many people had mourned my father’s death and glancing around in the hope that there would be plenty of by standers to notice.
After the funeral my mother summoned my older brother and myself into the loungeroom and handed us each a type-written document. She told us our father had left this for us and we should read it there and then. So, this was what he had been typing so intensively for the last couple of weeks before he died.
And this is how it begins:
To you, my beloved Ilse, I say: I love you more than my life, and your love made my life worth living. I thank you for the lucky years of my life.
But to you, my children, growing up in a rapidly changing world, I would like to clear a path through the thicket of prejudices, so that you may acquire a free and conscious mind.
Without a firm outlook you will find it difficult to make your stand in the world. Living in an English country you do not enjoy the harbour of the British born and the security of tradition. Although fled from the terror of Nazi Europe you are no Jews. The teachings and customs of the Jews are as strange to you as those of the Eskimos or Gypsies. But you are no Germans or Britons or Australians neither. And that is your difficulty. But with the proper outlook it can be a great help to make you free and conscious citizens of the world.”
And this is how it ends:
“This is all that I have to say to you. If you will succeed to get a job which gives you satisfaction, if you will understand the pleasantness of life and if you will live as free citizens in a free world, then your life is well lived. That’s what I wish to you. And if you like to honour my memory then read my testament once a year at the anniversary of my death.”
What is a spiritual testament? A legacy of the soul?
Here was a succinct dissertation concerning my father’s hopes and fears for humanity and how one might deal with these in a principled way. These deliberations were ordered under the headings of Nationalism, Religion, History, Socialism, Education and Human Fellows. The later contained a section on marriage and parenthood and spoke poignantly of how much a father comes to love his children through the ongoing practice of teaching them.
Recently I resurrected this epistle which has been lying dormant inside a file marked PERSONAL containing old letters, school reports, references from employers, a letter from my daughter when she ran away from home aged fifteen (she came back), appreciative notes from former students and so on. As I read the testament once again, I was amazed at the number of mistakes in grammar and spelling (both typographical and genuine errors) but above all at its brevity- less than eight tightly packed half pages. I had known it was short but, over time, its impact had expanded its contents in my imagination. Further, now visualised another aspect- a desperately ill man urgently grappling to convey thoughts in a foreign language so that his young children would comprehend his meaning.
I can’t remember how much I understood that first day. I know I felt my heart sink when I realised that the chances of my father coming to God on is death bed were fairly slight. I know that this was my main torment and why I cried as I came to grips with what I was reading. As the months, then years went by I eagerly scrutinised his reflections over and over again. The first year I bought a small blue autograph book which I ruled up carefully and decorated with a flowery border. Onto its pages I transcribed each word in my own handwriting, painstakingly correcting the spelling mistakes and using footnotes for those references to famous events or people with which I was unfamiliar and which I’d looked up for an explanation.
I showed this to anyone who might be interested and, no doubt, to many who were not. I began to remember parts off by heart. I was ashamed for my brother who never seemed to read it, Perhaps, also, that was why I hit Mary Briggs over the head with a schoolbook when she said she would never marry a Chinese.
In spite of all this reverence, it took until I was seventeen to convert to my father’s faith- atheistic humanism- and then another thirty years to understand that he was a child of his time just as I am a child of mine. My father was a secular mid European Jew born at the end of the 19th century. He was a product of the Enlightenment and a believer in the ultimate power of reason and science to progressively lead humanity to a better world. Like many others of his generation, he believed in the possibility of the brotherhoods and equality of all men and so he was a socialist and an assimilationist. So, when we arrived in Australia, he Anglicised my name from Gusti Marguerite Schneer to Margret Sheer (the Margaret misspelt because you couldn’t hear the second A).
My father contended that labels such as Jewish and Chinese were superficial, imposed by others, lacking any basic substance and therefore need not, perhaps should not, be appropriated by the person characterised in this manner. In our present day language, he believed that ethnicity shouldn’t matter and was therefore unimportant. In the modern scientific age, he argued traditions hindered progress and old rituals had to be discarded because they simply no longer made any sense. In the 1940s the idea that cultural traditions of an oppressed minority constitute the very essence of their dignity and identity as human beings was not yet in vogue. The concept of cultural diversity or multiculturalism came in my lifetime not his.
So, am I Jewish? When I tell people I’m Jewish, which is only when its relevant or useful, I know they look at me differently. They think I’m clever of a lefty or good at business or that I know what Yom Kippur is, and that annoys me. When the elderly Holocaust survivors whom I visit as a volunteer ask me “Are you Jewish?” I answer “Yes” because they are old, and they mistrust outsiders. But inwardly their questions irritate me because what I really want to say is, “Does it matter, why are all of you people so racist?”
Yet contrary to my father’s aspirations, being Jewish is part of my personal history. Why else would a picture flash into my brain of my father reaching for a globe of the world (I must have been about six) and pointing to Vienna. “Here is where we are”, he says (in German) and then moving his fingers over the round surface to the opposite side, he finds Australia “and there is where we are going”. And when I ask why he says, “Because there is furthest away from here”.
So, I cannot help feeling that to deny my Jewishness would be to betray all those who, unlike my father, did not leave on time and were so brutally murdered. It is as if it is an act of defiance- you treated us with hatred and contempt, you tried to get rid of the likes of me but he we still are and proud of it.
None of us have married Jews: not myself, my brother, or my children.
My children’s father is the son of Irish Protestant immigrants, and my second husband is an agonistic fourth generation Anglo-Protestant Australian. My daughter has married a man born in Holland- a non-believer escapee from his fundamentalist Dutch Reform Church parents who do nothing but read the Bible on Sundays and still condemn women who wear slacks. One of my sons has married a lapsed Catholic, daughter of a couple whose lives revolved around the Church. My other son has married the daughter of an Anglo mother and a half Catholic, half Jewish Viennese-born father. Both her parents were at one time in the Communist Party, but the father was also member of the High Church of England. So eager was he to reconcile the values of the Church and those of the communists that he was the driving force behind the plan which brought out the notorious Red Dean of Canterbury to Australia in the fifties.
And so it goes. In the end what matters most is what you do and why you do it, not what others call you or indeed what you chose to call yourself. Free citizens in a free country. God bless Australia. And my father too!