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Black Sheep of the Family
New Zealand, where I was born, holds its general election this Saturday. Prime Minister Helen Clark and her Labour Party are expected to cruise to victory over the opposition National Party and more than a dozen other smaller parties, including the Christian Heritage Party, the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, Outdoor Recreation NZ and the Mana Maori Movement.
Candidates include the world’s first Rastafarian Parliamentarian and the world’s first trans-sexual Parliamentarian.
And those who thought that Communism was about as relevant today to life in the West as, say, Gary Glitter, may be surprised to learn that there are even two Communist candidates in the election. One of them is my younger sister Janet, Communist League candidate for the electorate of Maungakiekie, in south Auckland.
Every family has its black sheep.
Actually, my father was a Communist too. Growing up in Vienna in the 1930s he became at the age of 19 Austrian national leader of the Red Falcon underground Communist group, before being forced to flee when the Nazis occupied the country. He arrived in New Zealand in 1940 as a Jewish refugee, and became prominent in many left-wing activities and in the trade union movement.
Here are two excerpts from a private memoir that he wrote before his death in 1994, about his activities in pre-war Vienna:
Every Sunday, weather permitting, our group would go for a trip into the Vienna Woods. They were outside the city boundaries and thus outside the jurisdiction of the police. Gendarmes were few and far between and the Woods were always full of underground groups, Communists, Socialists, Nazis and whatever. We had our own regular spot, a little clearing, and first thing after arriving the food was collected from those who could afford to bring some (many couldn’t) and handed to the fatigue party for equal distribution at meal hours. Mornings were usually taken up with political study, lectures and discussion. Afternoons were devoted to sports and games…. In the evening we sang and at the end of the day we had a regular break-up ceremony when the whole group stood in a circle and sang the Internationale, all three verses, finishing with a shouted Rotfront that would have raised any roof. Then we marched back in orderly ranks, still singing our fighting songs, “Die Arbeiter von Wien” or “Roter Fliegermarsch”. As we marched singing towards the town, people on all sides would cheer us and in the semi-darkness many joined our ranks and joined our singing. We usually dispersed at the train terminus but sometimes, forgetting caution, we would go on marching and singing right into the suburbs.
Although I never again worked for the GRSV [United Red Students’ League], I knew its members and they usually gave me advance notice of their “actions” so that I could clear my house of incriminating material in case the police made random arrests. They had teams of chemical and technical students developing ideas and manufacturing mechanical devices, and their “actions” were usually of a high standard. I was present when the famous German physicist Nernst spoke at our Institute and a shower of leaflets denouncing Nazism descended on the audience. They fell out of a gadget with a time-mechanism which had been fitted to the banister of the balcony seats. Another favourite device was to write slogans with fluoric acid on glass windows. They generally remained visible for a long time, but when “Long Live the Soviet Union” appeared on the huge glass door of our Institute on 7 November 1937 the doors were boarded up. Another time a red flag unrolled slowly during one of the compulsory lectures on Catholic Doctrine of the State, which all students had to attend. It had been rolled up in the neon lighting tube above the blackboard and the time-mechanism consisted of an acid which slowly corroded the supporting string. The professor called in the policeman who always stood guard outside this lecture, to remove the flag. This he did, but as he was not supposed to leave, he then stood outside until the end of the lecture with a red flag in his hand, much to the amusement of students who passed by.
After my father died, Prime Minister Helen Clark (then opposition leader) described him as a “remarkable man….His commitment to economic and social justice, and to peace, was a shining example for all of us”. You can read more about him at the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (enter “Herbert Roth” in the search engine). And I have a chapter in my book about our sometimes strained relations.
My mother? She was for many years active in the New Zealand feminist movement, before moving to a retirement village near us here in Melbourne three years ago. On her study wall is a plaque naming her as the first honorary life member of the Women’s Studies Association, for her contributions to feminism. She turns 81 this Sunday, and when she’s not surfing the net she continues to write columns for feminist publications in New Zealand.
Meanwhile, I’m a pro-American, evangelical Christian.
The black sheep of the family? Yep, it’s probably me.
July 23rd, 2002