Monthly Archives: April 2020

‘Lost Letters from Vienna’ by Sue Course


2019, 250 p.

When I finished this book, it seemed to me that it spoke much about legacy.

First, there’s the legacy of family heirlooms, letters and stories that filter through from one generation to the next.  Sometimes they are dispersed amongst many members of the family, or more often, deposited with the family member who cares about them most (often much to their own children’s chagrin when faced with the problem of what to do with them). Some families are richer in such legacy than others, and that is certainly the case with Sue Course’s family. If you’ve seen the furniture from the Viennese apartment of Jakob and Melanie Langer and the Gallia furniture in at the National Gallery of Victoria, then you’ve seen the physical legacy of this large, wealthy Viennese family that, as part of the diaspora during the Nazi era, ended up dispersed across the globe.  Then there are letters, and these lie at the heart of this book, written between these separated families over the years and eventually relegated to the top of a cupboard in a modest Melbourne suburban home where they sat undisturbed for 31 years.

When her favourite aunt died in 2000 , the now-retired Sue Course assuaged her grief by cleaning and clearing.

So there I was, getting into the cupboards, pulling out old bags, books, hats and clothes, my husband Laurie’s briefcase, missing since 1962, and there was the cookbook I was looking for in 1965. Squashed in behind all this were hundreds of letters and war accounts, some handwrittten and some typewritten, and all written in German.  The cardboard box collapsed as I removed it from the cupboard, the letters dropping like shot birds falling from the sky.  I began leafing through the skin-thin airmail papers. My German was rusty; I could read it but not scan it. However, what I could determine was that the letter I was holding was written by my mother, Hertha Langer, in 1938, and that others were from her parents, Arthur and Sofie Kary, from that year forward. I was completely overwhelmed. (p.2)

On both her maternal and paternal side, Sue’s family were wealthy industrialists, owning multinational corporations. On her mother’s side there were the Bohm family, who owned one of the biggest hat manufacturing companies in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the Kary family who were the biggest manufacturers of silk textiles in Europe. On her father’s side, the Gallia family were influential in the gas lighting business and keenly involved in the Secession art movement in Vienna. There were writers, musicians; her great-aunt is preserved in a Klimt portrait. Four generations of Sue’s family lived on the Ringstrasse, in a palatial building divided into large apartments for members of the family.  Her parents were secular Jews, and Sue herself was baptised in an Anglican Church in Vienna, just as described in Elon Amos’ The Pity of It All. But in March 1938, when the Nazis invaded Austria to unite it with Germany in the Anschluss, all this changed.

Sue, who was at that time four years old, and her family escaped early, in September 1938, bound for Australia. Others went to America; others again to England and France. Others stayed, resisting the inexorable stripping away of the privilege they had enjoyed. Theirs is not a story of cattle trucks and concentration camps (although one uncle did end up in Thereseienstadt). Through contacts and planning, the family was able to deposit money in branches of their enterprises in other countries, so that when they finally admitted defeat, and submitted to the wealth-stripping of the Nazi government, there was sufficient money placed elsewhere that they could start again in a much more straitened, safe but hostile environment.

The stories of different groupings in this tightly-woven family network are told in fairly short chapters, arranged thematically whilst moving forward chronologically.  Several members of the family might be dealt with in the same chapter which I found at first a little disconcerting, until I realized that I was listening to someone tell family stories, which often jump between generations and family branches.  The family tree at the start of the book was a welcome addition, and I found myself consulting it frequently. Of course, because she knew it best, she spends quite a bit of time on her Melbourne family, which was probably most distant from the rest of the extended family and most removed from European culture. It’s a perceptive, and faintly damning account of suburban life in the 1950s and 60s, in a society that was wary and hostile towards ‘foreigners’, from the perspective of a family that had known -and no doubt expected to continue to enjoy – a much more privileged and comfortable lifestyle and significance.  As Sue becomes a nurse, marries an English academic, has children and becomes a 1950s housewife, the book becomes a picture of suburban life and changing roles, especially amongst women. She is surprisingly candid in some places, more diplomatic in others. The shift to the 1970s and 80s is a change of direction in the book, and one that moves away from the letters and the family diaspora into the realm of memoir. That brings its own problem of how to finish a memoir- something which could perhaps have been avoided if she finished her book with the arrival of the NGV furniture in Melbourne.

But there’s a second aspect of legacy in this book, too. Sue Course does speak about her work with the Darebin Parklands, but probably only a resident of Alphington/Ivanhoe would know just how significant this work is.  For all of my childhood, the stench from the Alphington tip permeated the suburb, drifting in through train windows, and lying heavy over the Darebin Creek. Through Sue’s work, and that of other Darebin residents, that blighted place is unrecognizable today with trees, billabongs and grasses.


There’s a subtle irony that Sue’s own legacy will be bushland, while her extended family’s legacy has been beautifully worked woodwork. Both legacies have moved into the public realm, in different ways.

Sue is not an academic; she was a nurse. Her telling of the story of her family is told through relationships, with an increasingly suburban, Melbourne-based perspective as the book moves on. Cultural historian and  environmental lawyer Tim Bonyhady, who is Sue Course’s cousin, also wrote about their shared family heritage  in his book Good Living Street. I haven’t read his book (and I want to, once I’ve let this one settle for a while), but I should imagine that they are quite different books.  For a family whose sense of place in Vienna and its bourgeois society was ripped away from them, their granddaughter is very much interwoven into a less constrained, less affluent and less illustrious community in suburban Melbourne. Using the family letters, she paints a rich picture of a Vienna world that is lost, but she also paints a domestic picture of a family re-establishing itself in a newer world, very close to my home.

Sourced from: A friend

My rating: 7


I have included this as part of  the Australian Women Writers Challenge



My non-trip in the time of coronavirus # 18: Amazon River Cruise

Well, if I ever do this trip with my son, daughter-in-law and grand-daughter, it won’t be before 2021 (if that) and Baby Nina will be two years old. Which means that we can (perhaps) risk malaria to go on an Amazon River Cruise.

So, we’ll catch a bus to Juliaca Airport and then a flight to Iquitos which will have two stops along the way. My daughter-in-law will love it -all those takeoffs and landings!  There are no roads into Iquitos. The main form of transport within Iquitos is via“motocarro”, a motorcycle with a small, rickshaw-like passenger cabin in the back.

The main reason for going to Iquitos is to embark upon an Amazon River Cruise. I could only find one tour that allowed children under nine years old, so Maniti Eco Lodge it is!  Three days and two nights should be right, I think .

We drive from Iquitos to the port town of Nanay (Bellavista) then travel the 70 km by boat on a two-hour trip. We’ll visit Monkey Island, look for pink dolphins and maybe swim with them in the Amazon River (as if….), go for a nocturnal hike, and sleep in our bungalow by kerosene lamp. Next morning we’ll watch the sunrise over the Amazon, go by boat on a morning wildlife observation trip, go fishing in the afternoon to catch piranhas (in the same river that the pink dolphins are in!), go on a sunset canoe excursion with the opportunity to touch and hold a caiman (what’s a caiman?- of course, an alligator!). Another night in the bungalow, another early morning jungle hike, then back on the boat for a 2 hour trip back to Nanay.

Hmmm.  My Nana-Antennas are quivering. This is no place for a toddler.  No place for a Nana either. Nup. It’s time to come home.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-24 April 2020

cowboyHeather Cox Richardson. In her Tuesday video (14th April) she talks at length about the history of the American Postal Service which I gather is a topic of some controversy at the moment. In the Thursday 16 April American History video she looks at Reconstruction and the rise of the cowboy in the west. I never did understand cowboys and now I do. This is really good. Access it through her Facebook page

In Our Time. Melvyn Bragg can  be an annoying twat, and is particularly on this program about the Scottish Covenanters in the 16th and 17th century.  As presenter, Bragg just rushes his guests through at breakneck speed, so much so that I barely understood a word. Just as well I’m doing a free online Future Learn course on the Highland Clans.  I’ll come back and listen to the In Our Time program once I’ve finished.

Saturday Extra (ABC) Some interesting segments on Geraldine Doogue’s Saturday Extra program recently. She interviews bestselling historian Tom Holland who writes big fat history books where his name is in a font the same size as the title- something that makes me wary. He has a recent book out called ‘Dominion’ which I must confess does interest me, especially after hearing her interview with him on Christianity’s Modern Legacy.  She also spoke with medical historian Howard Markel about the history of vaccines Part I and Part 2. 

Rough Translation. I’m trying not to listen to much coronavirus stuff on podcasts. There’s enough of it in the newspapers and on the television news. But I was interested in The Coronavirus Guilt Trip which looks at how shame and stigma is being used to combat coronavirus. The first story, from America, sounded too precious and first-world-problemish for me, but the second and third stories were really interesting. The second story was from South Korea, where NPR’s correspondent explains the app that is being used there: a very obtrustive app which reveals far more information than I think Australians would be comfortable with on a publicly-available page, where you can see where the infected person lives, where they worked, when they worked, where they visited etc.  The third story was about Pakistan, where retrenched craftsmen and workers have begun assembling on a street corner with their tools, in order to distinguish themselves from beggars.

My non-trip in the days of coronavirus #17: Lake Titicaca

Puno doesn’t look the most prepossessing town in Peru.  Like all other Peruvian cities, it has a Plaza de Armas, and taken from this drone footage, it has more high-rises than I would have imagined. I wonder how they would stand up in an earthquake- do they have earthquakes there? Oh yes, they do-  they had a magnitude 7 on 1 March 2019.

But the real appeal of Puno is that it is the gateway to Lake Titicaca. You can do a tour which includes a night on Taquile island in a homestay. I must say, viewing all these videos from the comfort of my desk, that there is a much stronger emphasis on the tourist economy here than other places that I’ve been to. I know that people’s livelihoods depend on the sales they make, but it seems to have such a distorting effect on the economy.

So how would I feel about a homestay? Here’s an interesting article about the experience.  I think I’d probably do it- I don’t envisage that I’d be coming back here.  Do they speak Spanish, I wonder? Or Quechua?

My non-trip in the days of coronavirus #16: Cusco-Puno

Would I really subject a 15 month old baby to a 10 hour rail journey? Probably not. But as I’m not really doing this, let’s enjoy the train trip from Cusco to Puno

or if you want a 3 minute video instead (although it is travelling in the reverse direction)


My non-trip in the days of coronavirus #15: Machu Picchu

The reality is that if we had gone to Peru in April 2020, we would have had to miss this whole Machu Picchu leg because we were advised that we shouldn’t take 15 month-old Nina to such a high altitude area.  But given that we didn’t go…… let’s go now.

You could hike for four days…or you could catch the train. I’d catch the train. There’s a few options, but I think I’d go on the Vistadome with the windows in the roof.

Why are all these people called ‘Cody’ and ‘Rory’? Here’s Cody, rudely interrupted by advertising exploring Machu Picchu. What I liked was how he showed the train trip up, waiting for the bus, then puffing and panting to be one of the first people on the peak (my eyes are rolling). Anyway, he got some good shots.

And a slightly more formal National Geographic video. I just can’t imagine what Hiram Bingham would have thought when he saw it for the first time.

Movie: The Invisible Man

Another pre-coronavirus movie. Sigh. Why did I ever take sitting in a movie theatre for granted?

This was really scary!  A spooky story interwoven with domestic violence and surveillance.  Although I must say that I would really like to see a film where Elizabeth Moss isn’t the victim: where she’s the baddie instead.

4.5 out of 5.

My non-trip in the days of coronavirus #14: Q’enco and Maras

I’m still working up to Machu Picchu- leaving it to last.

Quite close to Cusco are the ruins at Q’enco.  It is one of the largest huacas (holy places) in the Cusco region, and like other huacas, it was built amongst naturally occurring rock structures. It is believed that sacrifices and mummification took place there.  ‘Q’enco’ or Q’inqu  is a Quechua word meaning ‘maze’, but it was the Spanish conquistadors who named it that: it is not known what the Inca actually called it. The name refers to the zigzag channels carved into rock where it is thought that the priests poured the sacred chicha, which they drank during the sacrifices.

Close to these ruins are eucalypt forests- yes, eucalypts! Apparently there are very few native trees left in Peru. Eucalypts were brought from Australia especially during the agrarian reform programs of the 1960s and 1970s. They were first promoted as a source for mine supports,  and then as a source for fuel and building materials. They have since discovered that eucalypts dry out the soil and are highly flammable (we could have told them that), and there are now reafforestation projects to replace the eucalypts with Queuña and Chachacomo trees, native to the area.

Well, this is all rather close to Cusco, so let’s venture a little further afield to the Maras Salt Mines, about 40 kms out of Cusco. There are over 5,000 salt ponds, some unused and some owned by families. There is a subterranean spring  which is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels that run down onto the ancient terraced ponds, none of which is more than 30 cm deep. As the sun evaporates the water, the salt precipitates on the walls and floor of the ponds.

The ponds are owned communally, and new families tend to get the outlying, disused ones at first. The size of the pond assigned depends on the size of the family. Last year tourists were banned from walking around the ponds because of people throwing contaminants into them, and now they are restricted to an observation deck.

My non-trip in the days of coronavirus #13: Sacred Valley

The main tourist destination from Cusco is Machu Picchu but I’m going to spend a day or so exploring the Sacred Valley instead.  I would probably go on a one day tour, I guess.

First stop, after about an hour’s travelling is the Mirador de Taray.

From there, we would go to Pisac, which is famous for its markets. For the vegetarian in the family, there is a Potato Park.  Why not? Big banana, big pineapple…although I think this is just a Potato Park. It covers 10,000 hectares, and they have 600 varieties of potatoes, many of which are endemic to the area. It’s a local conservation project, formed by Six Quechua communities joining forces. You can have lunch and guess what’s on the menu? However, I think I’d pay them to stop playing music at us. I confess to only lasting about 2 minutes through this video. It’s like listening to a Grade 3 student learning the recorder.

There are ruins above Pisac, and this young fellow is climbing up to them. He thought that he would avoid the taxi fare.  I would take the taxi, myself.

Yep, that would be me, one of the tourists hopping on and off a bus at the main site.  My, he looks quite peaky by the end.

Then on to Urubamba- and here’s our Aussie narrator again!

Had enough ruins yet?  On we go to Ollantaytambo, which is at a slightly lower altitude. During the Inca empire, it was the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti, the 9th ruler of the Inca state, who conquered the region and built the town and ceremonial centre. He created the Inti Raymi celebration that we ‘saw’ yesterday. At the time of the Spanish conquest, Ollantaytambo served as a stronghold for the Inca resistance. In 1536 their leader Manco Inka defeated a Spanish expedition, blocking their advance from the high terraces. But knowing that his position was untenable, he withdrew .  There lots of water being piped around the city – generally a sign of wealth and display.

This one is a bit longer, and beautifully photographed.

Back home, I think, going past Chinchero where there are plans to build an international airport to attract visitors direct to Machu Picchu without having to go to Lima first. They are expecting six million people a year to use it by 2023, and there is opposition from historians, anthropologists and scientists who argue that the plateaus and valleys are lined with ritual lines, that the soil is not suitable for an airport, and that it would affect the water supply for Cusco. But contracts have been signed with South Korea, and it seems that it will proceed….well, it would have if not for coronavirus.  There’s a market here  in Chinchero, too. Given that I’m not a great souvenir shopper, I’d probably give this a miss.

Enough ruins for today?  I think so.

‘A Distant Grief’ by Bart Ziino


2007, 191p & notes

In the time of coronavirus, we have seen funeral services stripped back to just ten people. It’s a cruel thing. Just those few people, sitting far from each other, unable to hug or comfort- those most human of responses to pain and grief.

A cruelty of a different sort was exerted on the families and loved ones of soldiers who died over in Europe during WWI (and the following war).  After some hesitation in the early months of the war, it was decided that none of the soldiers who died in British Empire troops would be repatriated to their home countries: not English, not Canadian, not South African and not Australian soldiers.  Apart from the practical difficulties of locating and shifting the remains (if any) of individual soldiers, this was seen as an expression of equality and solidarity amongst the countries of the Empire, with no soldiers seen as any more important than the others.  It was a big call. There was serious dissent against the policy in Britain by the 1920s.  I would imagine that for British families, it would have seemed to be merely bureaucratic inflexibility that prevented bodies being transported a relatively short distance. Canada was unhappy with the policy, especially when America managed to ship back 70% of their dead. (p.83)  But Australian families had few expectations that the bodies of their soldiers would be sent home. It hadn’t happened during the Boer War, and a recognition of the logistics involved meant that there was little public agitation for it to occur in WWI either.

Instead, the role of interring and marking the graves of Australian soldiers fell to the Imperial War Graves Commission. With the exception of the soldiers who fell at Gallipoli,  it was decided that each soldier should have an identical headstone marker, 81cm high, 38 cm wide and 8 cm thick. They were generally of white Portland stone and engraved with name, rank, unit, date of death and age. A religious emblem could be included if desired, and next of kin were permitted a personal inscription at their own cost. Where the identity was unknown, the headstone reads ‘A Soldier of the Great War. Known to God’. (p.3)

The Imperial War Graves Commission asked for 10 years to finalize the burial of WWI soldiers, and this book, which draws on the archives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, tells the story of the Commission, and the way that Australian reactions to death were defined by distance. Certainly, these deaths were of individuals – loved, mourned individuals- but without individual bodies, mourners had to take on more communal responses to their loss.

Chapter 1 ‘Imagined Graves’ examines the imaginative way that bereaved loved ones tried to understand soldiers’ deaths and make some connection between their lives on this side of the globe and the grave on the other. As Ziino writes:

Imagination, of course, could not function in a vacuum. From the first news of death, grieving Australians sought knowledge of what exactly had become of loved ones. They needed that knowledge to give substance to the mental images they were already developing. Relatives wanted to know that the last moments of life had been painless or that the dead had received the particular blessings of their faith. Ultimately, they wanted confirmation that the body had been buried and identifiably marked- an essential part of their imagining. Mourners wished that they had been there to palliate soldiers’ dying, to make the break between life and death personally- this was an important part of coming to terms with death. At home these people were removed from all but the fact of death, and detail was required to give structure to that event. (p. 15)

In the absence of a grave, ceremonies of farewell and release were carried out through the ‘In Memoriam’ columns of newspapers – sometimes for decades afterwards. Other families treasured photographs and relics of the dead that made their way home, while soldiers still serving at the front often served as a conduit between the front and the family by writing to and visiting bereaved families after the war.

Chapter 2 ‘The Sacred Obligation’  shows the way that Australian families, realizing that it was unlikely that they would visit the European cemeteries, turned to others to care for the war graves. The state stepped into this space. Public memorial services were held in Australia, while over on the front administrative responsibility was initially vested in the Directorate  of Graves Registration and Enquiries, and turned over to the Imperial War Graves Commission which came into being on 21 May 1917.

Chapter 3 looks at ‘Gallipoli and Australian Anxiety’. As the first large scale ‘Australian’ battle of WWI, there was particular concern that the bodies of fallen soldiers lay for three years in ‘alien’, non-Christian soil where there were no brother soldiers or officials to act for relatives. While the war was still underway, there were attempts by the British government to gain access to the cemeteries on the peninsula that the Turks had created. Not surprisingly, the attempt was rebuffed, but an Australian presence was quickly established at Gallipoli after the Armistice.  There was not, as they had feared, widescale desecration of the graves, although wooden crosses had been removed by Turkish soldiers for firewood. Almost immediately there were attempts to make a claim on the cemeteries, a difficult legal point of  sovereignty. It was decided that the cemeteries on Gallipoli would not have cruciform shapes visible from beyond their walls, and that the headstones would take the form of a low sloped stone, rather than upright headstones as in other Commonwealth War Cemeteries. Australians had to accept that Australian graves would rest on Turkish soil, which gives some context for the words purported to have been said by Mustafa Kamal (Ataturk) – an issue of recent controversy.

Chapter 4 ‘Agents for the Bereaved’ turns its attention to the Western Front and the way that families wanted an ‘Australian’ presence and identity on the former battlefields. The Australian Graves Service was established, with its headquarters at Australia House in London. It oversaw (rather than conducted) exhumations and concentrated on identifying Australian remains and maintaining records for the bereaved at home. They provided photographs of the grave for the families at home, and were seen as an ‘Australian’ presence even though there were serious questions asked about their behaviour. When it was disbanded in 1921, with its work subsumed into the Imperial War Graves Commission, there was dissatisfaction back in Australia not only amongst families, but also the RSSILA (forerunner to the RSL) and different public bodies.

Chapter 5 focuses on the Imperial War Graves Commission itself, and the way that its role changed over time. At first, it held itself aloof both physically and emotionally, from the bereaved of the Empire. It was essentially a political body, and as time passed the  Commonwealth War Grave cemetery, with its row upon row of identical headstones, came to have a different meaning for generations who had not known or loved the individual who was buried there.

In Chapters 6 and 7 focus returns to Australia, and the ways that Australians expressed their grief. Chapter 6 looks at the memorials erected, the photographs cherished and the nature of the 66-letter inscriptions that families were allowed to place on the gravestones. As returned soldiers began dying in Australia, the question of ‘official’ headstones in local cemeteries arose.  Lost sons began to be commemorated on their parents’ gravestones and horticulture began to be linked with commemorative spaces. The 1991 repatriation of an unknown Australian soldier in 1991 reminds us that grief carried across generations, although now it was imbued with other political and nationalistic themes.  Chapter 7 ‘Pilgrimage’ looks at the personal journeys that some families were able to make to the grave of their loved one. Most Australians at first accepted that would never make the trip to see it, and especially immediately after the war, the Government actively discouraged trips to the politically unstable Gallipoli. Those who travelled often had a keen awareness that they were doing something unavailable to most Australians, and many felt a personal obligation to share their experiences with other families through photographs and letters. A formal pilgrimage was organized in June 1929. And as we all know, a pilgrimage to ANZAC Cove has become a rite of passage for young Australian travellers- one that I find rather problematic, especially with recent Australian governments’ obsessions with creating memorials on other people’s land.

This book is an academic monograph, but a very human one.  The argument of the book is the juxtaposition between administrative efficiency and personal grief, and this is reflected in Ziino’s use of his sources. As well as the bureaucratic archives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and other bodies, Ziino draws on personal letters and communications in family archives, and the human stories found in newspaper articles.

As he points out in the conclusion, if physical distance marked the Australian experience of battlefield death, it is now a chronological distance that shapes our response.

Australians are no longer so distant from the graves of their dead. Modern transport has telescoped distance and made travel to the battlefields possible for thousands of Australians who now undertake such pilgrimages. Yet distance remains important to Australians’ relationships to the Great War. While it has contracted physically, distance has lengthened chronologically. Today’s generation is reconceptualising the legacy of that war…These modern pilgrims are expressing grief, but the nature and meaning of that grief is not the same as for those who endured it first hand. Time and further conflicts have intervened in their memory of war. (p. 190-1)

Source: My own copy