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Weekend Reading : John Curtin and Primo Levi.

March 6, 2011

John Curtin

My reflection on wartime PM John Curtin, Labor’s fondly regarded leader (see below ) led me to reopen Graham Freudenberg’s Churchill and Australia. You can read about this fine history under the book review section.

I was reminded that the famous “call to America” comment of December 1942 was not in a speech but a New Year message written by the PM at the request of Keith Murdoch and printed in the magazine of the Melbourne Herald. It was not an appeal to Roosevelt at all but a warning to the Australian people about where they stood at the start of the Pacific war. Murdoch, then in London, publicized it with an article in the Daily Mail and a letter to The Times which set Churchill off – he described Curtin’s thoughts as “misbehaviour”.

Bearing out my surprise at how often Curtin was incapacitated by ill-health, comes Freudenberg’s discovery that in January 1942 – while the Japanese were close to taking Singapore then being defended by an Australian army – the PM just vanished. Off to Perth. For a fortnight. Away from the centre of action in Canberra and on a four day journey across the continent by train. Writes Fredenberg : “My personal speculation is that Curtin made the judgement that unless he could get away for a spell, he would break down completely.”

While the great justification for Curtin is his stand to get the 7th division back and not to see it flung away in Burma, he and Evatt handled Churchill very, very ineptly. Fredenberg makes this point . His thesis – at once admiring of both Curtin and Churchill – should be looked at by anyone exploring Australian leadership. But thank God Curtin was there and not Menzies who would have obligingly consigned that Australian division to Burma, as the Brits wanted, without supplies and to certain imprisonment at the hands of the Japs.

From his return to Turin in October Primo Levi had to talk. That is, about the Auschwitz experience. And this is a major reason to read a biography even when you have learnt the story of his survival from If This Is A Man and The Truce, the writings I have described as the most important of the last 100 years. See below for my address last week on Levi at Sydney’s Jewish Museum.

Primo Levi

Writes Carole Angier in her biography, The Double Bond Primo Levi : “…for all this weight of grief and memory he could think of only one remedy. He did not even think of it – he was driven to it, by instinct: the one instinct he still obeyed, and it saved him. He had to talk. He had to tell what the Lager was, and that it had existed; he had to make it known, to understand it, to make others understand it.”

He was ecstatic when it was translated into German in 1960. This was his main aim : ” to make my voice heard by the German people, to reply to the SS man who laughed at the truss, to the Kapo who cleaned his hand on my shoulder, to Dr Pannwitz, to those who hanged The Last One, and to his heirs.”

Read the book and you will understand these references. Understand, and have them etched in your brain as they have been in mine since I read it first in the early 1980s.

I was thrilled to be told at the Jewish Museum that after I recommended If This Is a Man in My Reading Life there had been a rash of purchases.

I am honored. That is my little contribution to his memory. Flowers on the tombstone in Turin.

One Comment
  1. Bob Carr permalink
    March 7, 2011 6:51 pm

    Dr Pannwitz would have made a potentially interesting subject for an interview, him and Primo.

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