A Passionate Life: Portrait of My Grandfather

Monday, 1 December 2014
My latest article on my grandfather, who led an amazing life and was the patriarch of our family

Portrait of Saba

Painting of my grandfather, Berl Dov Gross, by Polish-French artist Jacob Markiel (1911-2008)
DECEMBER 1, 2014 · 7:00 AM

by Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)
“Retain integrity without succumbing to authority.”
So my beloved Saba advised me on my 18th birthday. “Don’t let anyone interfere with your endeavors to develop an independent way of thinking,” he told me. “Think first; afterwards argue or act. Don’t lose your countenance under duress.”
Saba (Hebrew for grandfather) was my mentor and anchor, who encouraged me to strive for excellence and showed me that I could do anything to which I set my mind. He taught me to be humble, ethical and empathic and encouraged me to stand up for what I believe in and not be afraid to admit I had made a mistake, learn from it and move on.
After all, that was the way he always behaved. Saba underwent many transformations in his long life, from Jewish scholar to Zionist rebel, laundryman, world traveler, benefactor, thinker, writer and friend to many. He lived throughout as if he was on an insatiable intellectual quest. As he wrote to me, “life is full of exciting curiosities, joy and deep feeling for the world’s mysteries”.
Saba was the second son born to an Ultra-Orthodox family of textile manufacturers and fur merchants in the central Polish town of Zdunska Wola near Lodz. He was named Berl Dov Gross – one of about 50 Berls in the Gross family! His birth date was given as 16 December 1906, although a question mark always remained over that date, the family joking that he had changed it to make himself slightly younger than his future wife Chana.
His mother died while giving birth to him, and his father then married her younger sister, who sadly would not prove to be a good stepmother to Saba and his older brother. This second union would produce three more sons and a daughter, all of whom were to perish in the Holocaust. Indeed, Saba’s father would be the last Jew to have a full religious burial in Zdunska Wola.
Years later, a study of local Jewish cemetery records would reveal that Saba’s mother had actually died in 1905, proving the family’s suspicions to be correct all along.
He had had good reason to make himself younger than he really was, helping him to escape Polish military service and immigrate to the then British Mandate of Palestine in 1925 – one of only a few members of his extended family to escape the subsequent reign of Nazi terror.
For many years, Saba would beg his family to flee, but no one would listen. Tragically, when they later turned to him to help them escape, he was no longer in a financial position to do so. It was a heavy legacy, which he bore stoically but did not allow to hamper his zest for life and all it had to offer.
The family belonged to the Gerrer Hasidic movement, then probably the largest and most important Hasidic group in Poland. While Hasidism generally promotes spirituality and joy through Jewish mysticism, the Gerrer Hasidim emphasize religious study and the objective service of God. Forbidden to learn anything but sacred texts as a child, Saba nevertheless managed to sneak secular books under his bedclothes, learn violin, and even find a tutor to teach him mathematics and other worldly subjects.
Although he rebelled against his religious upbringing, it would stand him in good stead in later life, enabling him to cite Jewish textual sources with ease. He would often recall being taken as a young boy to another town to meet the Rebbe or leader of the Gerrer Hasidim, describing a crowded room where he and other boys literally hung from the rafters to see what was happening.
As an adolescent, Saba became a member of a local Zionist movement and announced his desire to join the pioneers in Palestine. His father would only agree on condition he enter into an arranged marriage. His bride Chana was from the nearby city of Lodz, and the young couple was married in 1924 and left the following year for Tel Aviv. Chana’s parents and sister also decided to follow their lead and move to Palestine, only to make the fateful decision to return to Poland when their money ran out soon afterwards.
Arriving in Tel Aviv without a trade, Saba learned about textiles and proceeded to combine study, both secular and religious, with work. He and Chana would come to have two children, Naomi (my mother) and Moshe. A generous man, Saba was happy to share the little he had with those less fortunate. His strong individualist moral convictions and sense of justice, however, also placed him on a collision course with the powerful Histradrut or Labor Union, finally resulting in him returning his membership card.
He set up his own laundry business in Jaffa, but it was destroyed by fire during the Arab riots of the late 1930s, which were protesting against Jewish immigration and land transfers. Thus, the family was left without a source of income, but as Saba would later reflect in a letter to a friend, he would come “through the hardest years of 1929-39 unscathed, not having bowed at any time to any person”.
According to family legend, Saba had no option but to go down to the harbor, where he found one ship departing for South America and another for Australia. It was July 1938, and fortunately, he chose the vessel heading for Melbourne, promising his young family that he would send for them as soon as he could.
War, however, was to intervene, and it would be several years before he could afford to purchase even one ticket for a family member to join him. Meanwhile, back in Tel Aviv, Chana was forced to resort to housecleaning to feed her children. Having arrived in Melbourne without a word of English, Saba worked hard whenever he was able. When unemployed, he spent his time reading in the public library and listening to records in a local music store. He would then, at times, feel obliged to spend his meager income on classical music records instead of food.
Eventually, he managed once again to establish his own laundry business, sweating over hot machines and lugging heavy sacks of laundry up and down stairs. A recent letter from the daughter of one of my grandfather’s former employees vividly describes the tough work and conditions: “It was extremely hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. No such thing as heating or cooling and the dust from the washing was thick on all the beams… They were happy times but you had to work for what you got.”
After the War, Saba was finally able to bring his family out to Australia, starting with his teenage daughter Naomi. By then, he had begun to travel overseas, and over the years, he would visit exotic places before it became fashionable to do so, such as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Pacific Islands and even Dutch Guiana (Suriname) by freighter, maintaining a travel schedule that would exhaust someone half his age. He reveled in the adventure of being an independent traveler of modest means, although as he grew older, the advent of mass tourism with its package tours and controls disillusioned him considerably.
In 1946, he spent the entire year in China, shortly before Mao Zedong came to power, only returning to Australia when his family and friends lied to him that his factory had burned down. While in Shanghai, he assisted European Jewish refugees with their emigration to Australia. In Melbourne too, he would help newcomers from Poland and Israel to become established.
He and Naomi enjoyed a warm relationship and were well matched intellectually, spending long hours in discussion. Saba was a handsome man, and many, upon seeing her on his arm, found it hard to believe they were father and daughter.
Eventually, his son Moshe joined Saba in the laundry, and by the late 1950s, had taken over management of the business. Chana by then was living in Melbourne too. Although separated from Saba since 1938, they never officially divorced. He had a home built for her in Tel Aviv and continued to support her in Australia. For the rest of her life, Chana would live with Moshe and his wife Yona, helping to raise their growing family.
Now free to focus on his intellectual pursuits, Saba moved to London for a while, where he eventually set up house with a Hungarian-Australian artist. The relationship would last for some years during which they traveled widely, but by the late 1960s, it was over, although they remained friends.
Fascinated by the ancient world, Saba spent about thirty years studying Israelite society and in particular, Abraham and Moses. The result was his book, Before Democracy, in which he attributed the Israelites’ survival to their tribal way of life based on family and individual responsibility. He controversially argued that their transition to a centralized monarchy was an ill-conceived and retrograde step “but a stone’s throw away from despotism”.
Reluctant at first to have his life’s work published, Saba preferred, as he wrote to a friend, to “preserve my integrity and end my life as an individual who refrained from partaking in the rat race of publish or perish”. He ended up, however, battling unsuccessfully to have the book published for several years. Finally offered a contract, he withdrew his work before it had seen the light of day, refusing to make the major changes the publisher required.
In the end, he never found the “daring publisher” he hoped for, and the family ended up self-publishing the book, although sadly, by the time it appeared, he was too ill to appreciate it fully.
Saba endured several bouts of ill health, which on occasion left him scarred, but not beaten. He was like a cat with nine lives, rebounding from each episode with renewed vigor. Eventually, however, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease – the same illness, which tragically, would later come to afflict Naomi too. “I am losing my ‘I’,” he told his daughter, by which he meant he was losing what made him whom he was as a person.
My last memory of my brilliant Saba is of him sitting in the middle of his room, endlessly twisting a rubix cube around in his hands. He passed away on 8 July 1994. To this day, I still regret that I did not learn more from him about my Jewish heritage while I had the chance.

Almost ten years earlier, he had given me a pair of silver candlesticks from Israel as a wedding gift, fondly expressing the hope that I would remember him each time I lit the Sabbath candles.
Every Friday evening and on numerous other occasions, I remember him as my beloved Saba, my teacher and my friend, from whom I learned to question, to reason and to explore. In my mind’s eye, he remains the invincible hero of my youth, strong and independent, hoisting his bag onto his shoulder and striding away, as he did when we bid each other farewell at the airport for the last time.
May his memory be a blessing.
Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, she previously worked in publishing and now serves as vice-president of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. Her work has appeared in online publications including the Jewish Literary Journal, Jewish Daily Forward, Times of Israel, Eureka Street, Alzheimer’s Reading Room and Online Opinion, as well as The Jewish Writing Project. You can read more of her work at shirasebban.blogspot.com.au

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We Are All Boat People

By Shira Sebban – posted Monday, 21 May 2012

We Australians are a caring lot. We are so worried about asylum-seekers risking their lives on leaky boats that we want to dissuade them from taking the dangerous ocean voyage in the first place.

If they actually make it to Australian waters, the Opposition wants to turn the boats around “when safe”, while the Government’s ideal would be to resurrect the Malaysia deal and send the “queue jumpers” to the back of the line.

Both parties agree that offshore processing should be resurrected as a deterrent to the ever-increasing “illegal” hordes encroaching on our shores. The only problem is they can’t agree on precisely where that processing should occur.

Meanwhile, the true motives of boat people are questioned. Are they genuine refugees or merely economic migrants, daring to pick and choose where they would like to live? After all, they seem to be able to afford the exorbitant fees charged by the people smugglers.

Those who manage to reach our shores are routinely placed in mandatory detention, where they can languish for years – thereby hopefully discouraging their fellow countrymen from following their example. As for the relatively lucky few, who are now, if begrudgingly, being processed onshore and released into the community, how dare they get “preferential treatment”, enjoying such luxuries as television and a microwave when Australian pensioners are so badly off? Not to mention the jobs they could eventually take away from Australian workers…

The more I read of how much we care, the more puzzled I become. Surely, the solution is obvious: Why not simply improve the efficacy of “legal” channels used by “genuine refugees” to reach Australia “legitimately”? As a start, we could increase the speed at which the 16 million or so refugees languishing in camps around the world are processed. After all, to quote the Coalition: surely we want “to give Australians the confidence that only those invited to come to our country will enjoy the safe haven of our nation”?

But what about those who can’t seem to wait for an invitation and simply show up? Shh… don’t tell anyone, but there actually isn’t an orderly and polite line of refugees waiting patiently somewhere out there, preferably outside an Australian embassy or consulate.

The world according to refugees is chaotic and desperate, as it always has been. And usually it is only those with an urgent need to flee some immediate danger, who would be prepared to ignore any deterrent to make that dangerous journey on a leaky boat themselves or to send their children to freedom, an entire village scrounging around to pay for the “lucky” one or few … I should know: my family history is full of stories of boat people, as I’m sure, is yours.

My father’s father was fortunate enough to be allowed to settle in Toronto, Canada, after escaping the pogroms of Ukraine, arriving on Ellis Island in 1913 as a teenager with his widowed sister and her three children. No one “invited” them to come. A few years earlier, his future wife and her family had docked in Halifax in Novia Scotia after fleeing the Polish township of Lodz. While they would struggle with poverty during the Great Depression and my father would have difficulty finding a job in the Toronto of the 1940s due to his foreign-sounding name, they grasped at the opportunity to make a better life for themselves – still the aim of the majority of boat people to this day.
In 1925, my mother’s parents had the foresight to leave Poland for Palestine, thus avoiding the fate of much of the rest of the family, which was decimated by the Nazis some 15 years later. Then, on the eve of World War II, when my maternal grandfather was unable to find work to feed his young family, legend has it that he went down to the harbour in Tel Aviv where he found two ships, one destined for South America and the other for Australia. Fortunately, he boarded the ship bound for Melbourne where he settled in 1938, finding work as a laundryman. Today, he would be called an economic migrant, who left his home in search of a better life elsewhere. What shame is there in that? Isn’t that how your family progressed too? How many non-indigenous Australians can say they have been here since time immemorial?

Australia may have proven to be a safe haven for my grandfather, but the society he encountered was very closed. The White Australia Policy was in full swing, and 1938 was the very year when Australia’s Trade and Customs Minister Thomas White spoke against large-scale Jewish immigration at the Evian Conference, stating that “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one”.

After World War II, however, my grandfather, like many others, took advantage of the gradual opening of Australian society and the start of the waves of post-war immigration to bring out the other members of his family by boat, beginning with my mother in 1946.

Others were not so fortunate. Who remembers the MS St Louis today? I recently retraced the infamous “Voyage of the Damned” during a visit to New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. The story of the ship dispatched by the Nazis on 13 May 1939, carrying close to a thousand hopeful German Jewish refugees, only to be rejected first by Cuba and then by the US and Canada, remains seared in my memory.

After 40 days spent largely hovering off the coast of “the free world”, all avenues in the endless rounds of complicated negotiations were seemingly exhausted, and the “ship of shame” returned to Europe. Hitler had apparently been right: people seemed largely indifferent to the fate of those “filthy parasites”, despite the fact that they had paid the equivalent of thousands of dollars attempting to satisfy visa requirements. While several European countries were persuaded to provide the refugees with temporary shelter, close to a third would eventually perish in the Holocaust.

A memorial to the victims of the St Louis, erected last year in Halifax and known as the Wheel of Conscience, blames their rejection on hatred, racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The passengers had been expected to “wait their turn” as the US, increasingly resentful of refugees, who were seen as competing for jobs made scarce during the Great Depression, did not even fill its restricted quotas – a fact only officially acknowledged 60 years later.

Sure, Nazism on the whole is dead and gone and those asylum seekers we reject today are not going to share the fate of those poor souls of yesteryear. But most of those who reach Australian waters are eventually found to be genuine refugees, even if they do not arrive with the appropriate documentation.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. To deter those who, according to the 1951 UN Convention and its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, have the right to seek protection from us and all other 147 signatories, is to ignore our obligations as a democratic nation. We would be returning people to a situation where they run the real risk of persecution, or transferring our responsibilities to a third country, usually among the world’s poorest. Sadly, refugees have come to be seen as a “burden” rather than as people who can make a real contribution to their adopted home.

We do not choose our families or where we are born. As my own story shows, a quirk of fate can mean the difference between a life of freedom and the chance to acquire prosperity and a life of misery and subjugation. All we can do is to make the best of the cards we have been dealt. Human effort is the key to survival and improvement.

This point was brought home to me recently when my family celebrated Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom, with a Ukrainian couple and their teenage son. Although they had managed to find a new home in Sydney 20 years ago, this was the first time they had participated in such a celebration. “The Soviet Government tried to make us like everyone else,” the father told me. “They destroyed our synagogues. We did not have any Jewish libraries or books.” He was born near Kiev, the same city as my paternal grandfather, who had escaped to Canada about a century ago. Had he not done so, my own life experience could have been very different.

As I write these words, I sit surrounded by more than a hundred children of diverse creeds and cultures – a microcosm of modern Australian society – attending a chess competition in an RSL hall in Lidcombe in Sydney’s west. The room contains so many of the best elements of being Australian: Friendly rivals united by common interests, learning new skills and aspiring to improve. I cannot help but feel pride every time I come here.

Surely whether born here or only recently arrived by boat or by plane, we all share aspirational goals to make our way in this still relatively “lucky country”, which has given our families such a precious opportunity. Let’s not deny that opportunity to others.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that we should shoulder all the world’s refugees on our own. Nor should those people smugglers and others, who take unscrupulous advantage of the vulnerable, escape prosecution.

But even now, with the onshore processing of asylum seekers, the “floodgates” have not opened, despite fears to the contrary. In 2010 – the year when the largest number of boat people reached our shores – there were around 6500 unauthorised arrivals. Last year saw a total of about 4500 boat people, roughly half after the Government announced onshore processing arrangements last October. So far this year, about 40 boats have arrived, carrying around 3000 passengers. Compare this to the vast numbers who arrive here by plane or who access Europe or the US by boat. Australia is just too far away or too hard to reach by boat other than by the truly determined and desperate.

What I am asking for is a little kindness and understanding for those less fortunate than ourselves. After all, there but for a quirk of fate go I… and you… and indeed, the majority of Australia. And if you were that desperate, wouldn’t you want someone to extend a hand to you, as indeed was extended to your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents?
About the Author

Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She is also a director on the board of her children’s school.