Nov 2010 Journal

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A nice Jewish refugee boy

Bookish, left-wing and fervently agnostic, the Feiths, my mother’s family, more than anyone else shaped my future attitudes.

My aunt Ida, the oldest of the four siblings, was also the most forceful and the family’s mouthpiece. The second, Rosa, my mother, sadly died when I was a small child. Siegi (short for Siegfried) was generally considered a Sonderling (an eccentric) mainly because he never wore an overcoat, even on the coldest days. He was said to speak 12 languages including Esperanto.

The youngest, Arthur, 13 years Ida’s junior, was born in Dresden and went to school in Berlin and Vienna, where the family finally settled. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Arthur, a bright lad of 20, was working in Manchester and had no desire at all to fight for Kaiser and country. He preferred to be interned on the Isle of Man and remained an anglophile for the rest of his life. Eventually he returned to Vienna and married in his thirties. After the Anschluss he and his wife Lily emigrated to Melbourne with their only child, eight-year-old Herbert.

Throughout his scholastic career Herbert, or Herb, as he preferred to be called, was an outstanding student. He read politics at the University of Melbourne and, on graduation in 1951, went to Indonesia as a volunteer for two years to work for the civil service on local pay and conditions, and Indonesia was to become his main interest and his passion. He met his future wife, Betty Evans, while still at university. Between 1957 and 1960 he completed his doctorate at Cornell University in the United States, where their second child, Annie, was born.

I saw Herb briefly at the beginning of 1939 in London, where the family spent a few days on their way to Australia, and then not until 1950 in Sydney, where, at the time, I lived with my new husband. Herb charmed us both with his warmth and modesty.

Herb started his academic career as a lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne in 1962 and in 1968 was promoted to the chair of politics. However, he didn’t at all enjoy being a professor, and in 1974 demoted himself to reader. When I asked him years later if he had ever regretted that decision, he said the only thing he regretted was that he had not taken it earlier.

Status and material possessions meant nothing to him. When some Asian refugees needed chairs he gave them all his, or rather the family’s - by that time he and Betty had three children. ‘We’ve got garden chairs,’ he told my uncle, who wanted to know what they were going to sit on. Arthur wisely bought each of his three grandchildren a house before he died and arranged for the rest of his estate to be held in a trust to which Herb had only limited access.

Herb and Betty devoted any time they could spare of their busy lives, as teachers and parents, to campaigning tirelessly for peace and human rights.

My cousin’s unworldliness had its downside. Anecdotes about his missing flights and appointments abound. On one occasion, three of us were awaiting him eagerly at Heathrow. When he finally arrived, before we had time to greet him a woman from Amnesty International had seized him. ‘Ah, Dr Feith!’, she beamed. He had forgotten to tell us he had committed himself to going to Oxford first.

After his retirement in 1990, he and Betty spent part of each year as volunteer teachers in Indonesia. Throughout the nineties I went to Melbourne fairly frequently and got to know Herb better. His self-effacement and genuine concern for others never failed to impress me.

On 3 November 2001, his 71st birthday, I tried to talk to him on the phone but Betty told me he was in Indonesia and wasn’t expected back for another few days.

Twelve days later, on 15 November, while cycling home (he had given up his car for ecological reasons), he was hit by a train at a level crossing and killed instantly. Over 600 people from across the world attended his funeral.

His is the story of a nice Jewish refugee boy who not only made good but also did good. I miss him very much and will be thinking of him on 3 November of this year, which would have been his 80th birthday.

Edith Argy

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