It’s lovely to have a book signed by an author and although I couldn’t get to the book launch because of another launch, a friend kindly picked up a copy of Ros Collins’ latest book, Rosa by Hybrid Publishers.
The blurb announces the memories of Rosa are presented ‘with a deliberate overlay of lies and licence.’ The boldness of this statement, a little confronting, especially since the book is labelled Memoir – defined in the dictionary as a narrative or biography written from personal experience.
However, as a teacher of Life Story writing, I’ve lost count of how many times class discussions have debated the concept of truth in relation to the reliability and perspective of our memories, coupled with the attendant fear of causing hurt to someone still alive or even tarnishing the memory of someone deceased.
A memoir is considered ‘Creative Non-fiction’ and who is to say the emphasis is not on the word creative, which can be interpreted as ‘having the quality of something imaginatively created’ or ‘containing misleading inventions designed to falsify or conceal the facts’!
… memoirs depend on memory and, despite being the subject of philosophical investigation going back as far as Plato and of plentiful scientific research since the mid-nineteenth century, memory remains an elusive topic. How does it work? Can our fondest memories of childhood and loved ones really be reduced to molecular activity in the neurons of the brain? Will medical science one day be capable of eliminating the traumatizing memories that can paralyze us, and implanting happier memories in their place? Are memories the cause of the biographical continuity that bolsters our belief in personal identity? And how accurate are memories even among the healthiest of us? Does it make sense to base our present-day attitudes and emotions on recollections of our past experiences?
Robert Atwan, Creative Nonfiction, Issue #55, The Memoir Issue
In her introduction, Ros uses softer words to explain how Rosa differs from a previous book about her life, it is ‘much more personal… freely written’ and she admits to ‘taking liberties with the truth’.
There is still a lot of family history included in Rosa – she revisits Solly’s Girl (2015), a book that was as ‘accurate as my memory would allow’ and written as a companion piece to her now-deceased husband’s Alva’s Boy (2008). An acclaimed writer, Alan Collins wrote short stories and books about his Bondi childhood.
Ros Collins writes to entertain as well as inform and her conversational style with well-researched detail has produced wonderful stories revealing scenes of Anglo-Australian-Jewish life probably unfamiliar to many readers, and which I found fascinating.
‘Memoir with a little fiction, or fiction with a little history? It’s hard to say, Memories with licence.’
Although of a different generation, there were historical references, organisations and events I recognised. They triggered memories, especially involvement with the labour movement and the Australian Labor Party and various campaigns in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
The divisiveness of the Vietnam War, the election of the Whitlam Government and the opening up of educational opportunities for older women, which Rosa took advantage of. ‘The Palestinian Debate’ which still causes angst and the trade union campaigns to improve conditions for Victorian teachers that raised the ire of Premier Henry Bolte.
Rosa ticked several boxes in the list of why I read books: for enjoyment, to be immersed in a different world, to learn something new, to encourage me to seek more information and to reflect on the human condition.
Ros is a woman of many accomplishments with several great achievements as a qualified librarian, yet, there is no pretentiousness when she explains her journey to becoming a director of a Jewish community library at fifty-seven and her vision of a national Australian-Jewish library.
With dedication, commitment, and tenacity she created the successful ‘Write Your Story’ program whereby the eclectic members of the Jewish community can access funds and help, and write their memoir.
‘Most memoirs -so far, more than 140 have been published, the largest such series in the world – are related to the Holocaust; eventually, as generations pass away, the stories will become more Australian, less European.’ (p122)
Her involvement with the community library for thirteen years followed by twelve years cataloguing the Yiddish library:
‘She brings the boxes of shabby books home to catalogue… A little pamphlet, held together with rusty staples; cheap yellowed paper, crumbling to pieces; no cover; a grey, grainy author’s picture.
… a first-hand account of how his village was destroyed during the Holocaust – most of the Jewish community died, locked up in the synagogue and then set on fire – he hid in a barn.’
Ros is reduced to tears translating the story for her husband – such is the power and importance of recording and sharing stories.
‘I couldn’t even find the village in the atlas, it’s been erased by some thoughtless publisher. It’s Yiddish, only a few people will ever find out what happened; there’s just my catalogue entry to provide a link.’
Her husband responds, ‘Libraries are important. This is your contribution.’ (p124)
Ros has catalogued and encouraged the recording and publication of so many stories of the Jewish diaspora and so it is fitting and fortunate, she decided to share her own life story and reflections – albeit with several references to her husband’s story and books. She has added a creative flair to her memories.
The deep love and respect Ros has for her parents, husband Alan, her sons and several close friends mentioned in Rosa shines like a beacon. There is no malice in any of her memories but there is a theme of regret.
Ros repeats several times how she wished Alan had been more open and honest about his feelings – not for her but the damage done in his childhood and the guilt he carried because his mother died in childbirth. Ros also regrets not having a closer relationship with her own mother.
‘The missing mother. Rosa had always been aware, but when she first read his stories she’d never put it all together in her mind, never ‘joined the dots’, done the whole ‘lit-crit’ exercise. Perhaps it would have led them to deep and meaningful discussion and enriched their relationship if they’d talked about his emotions, but then, she reflects, he’d only have turned it into a quip, slid away from the subject with a bit of banter. (p156)
We learn about their unconventional courtship in London and Rosa’s decision to migrate to Australia as a ‘ten pound Pom’, their determination to build a home – physically a house and financially a business but also emotionally with children – three sons, plus later, a teenager, ‘the Boy’, a fostered child described but not named.
‘The six-year-old and the five-year-old took the view that they had now acquired an older brother, but for the three-year-old, the Boy represented an heroic Superman figure; their relationship became very special and the rift, when it came, was all the more painful.’ (p89)
A family disagreement and period of estrangement always difficult to write about, the temptation to omit or embellish to justify an action. In Rosa, it is deftly handled although Ros did give herself a ‘memory with licence…’
The use of dialogue to good effect, the attention to detail and use of senses to describe food, flowers and situations – techniques writers keep in their toolbox – Ros uses all of them to produce a good read.
Italics for non-English words and terms but also for emphasis and reflections in her voice. There is a flitting backwards and forwards to weave all the family stories and people together along with their place in history without rupturing the fabric of the overall story, which is why I believe others writing their life story could use Rosa as a template.
Our memories don’t all come in a linear or chronological fashion and from my experience in writing class piecing together short stories is a natural way of collating memories and weaving the threads together.
Ros is a proud secular Jew yet is determined her grandchildren will know the family history but does not want them to be weighed down by the Holocaust.
Throughout the book, the workings of family, worship, differences in synagogues, sects, customs and the politics of ‘those of Jewish persuasion‘ Alan’s wry remembrance of the phrase often used in the past, are explained and placed in historical as well as an Australian context. The knowledge and explanation of beliefs and practices, I found invaluable.
‘For many non-Jews, the Shoah, the Holocaust, is just another part of the war: Hitler had plans for something called the ‘The Third Reich’, and, by the way, he also intended to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews.
For Jews, the Holocaust is the war and Israel is our miracle: In every generation from Pharaoh to Hitler they have tried to destroy us; never again!’
Remembering is a solemn duty, as is recording and researching. Jewish literature wrestles with stories of survival, heroism and of course the complexities of the Middle East. Museums and memoirs multiply. Al, fifth-generation Australian and Rosa, second-generation English and ‘more British than the British’ do not exactly fit the norm for Melbourne Jewry, which is home to one of the largest communities of Holocaust survivors in the world. She thinks: We’re a perfect example of how deeply embedded the history is in our psyches even though neither of us was directly involved. (p117)
Ros relates a speech husband, Alan made at a Shoah commemoration event at Melbourne’s Holocaust Museum where he painted a picture of 1930s Sydney and his father:
‘a devout xenophobe with a particular focus on Jewish refugees who told him; ‘not to mix with them’, ‘Jew-hating out-of-work Australian labourers’ and ‘well-meaning policemen who called me Ikey.’
The older audience members nodded sadly in remembrance. (p118)
The more we share our stories and make a habit of listening to others the more tolerant society we will become – I hope!
Ros explained Alan finished his talk, given over 30 years ago at the Holocaust Museum thus:
So I write about what I know which is what it is like growing up and living and dying in this country where thank God, patriotism and zealotry are negligible and when a letter arrives with OHMS on the envelope it doesn’t contain an imperative to pack your bags. (p73)
Ros reflects in 2018 that she ‘doesn’t quite share his belief in the fundamental goodness of Australia, and long ago she cast off her allegiance to England…(p73)
Considering incidents of antisemitism and some appalling statements and decisions from our political leaders, there is documented evidence racism is on the rise, and as a migrant myself, I worry about the direction Australia is headed.
Therefore, a book like Rosa that ‘flings open the windows and doors‘ and invites us to learn about a world of cultural habits and rituals often misrepresented, misunderstood, or unknown is one to grab for the bookshelf.
In the final chapter, aptly titled Rose Garden, Ros discusses the Jewish section of a cemetery and thoughts sparked by physicist/musician/celebrity Brian Cox’s remarks on television …
…belief in some form of afterlife ‘feels right’ or more precisely, the alternative, that after death we are nothing but a bag of chemicals from which ‘nothing has left, yet what is left is not longer me’ somehow ‘feels wrong’…
The central question is, can you build a time machine? The answer is yes, you can go into the future… Going back in time, or returning to the present, would be slightly trickier, however…(p183)
Rosa harks back to childhood and a fascination with Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and repeats a conversation she had with a grandson.
‘Where will you go when you die, Grandma?’
‘Well I’m not absolutely sure because no one comes back after they die, but I think I shall go on a journey.’
‘A long one?’
‘What will you take with you?’
‘I think I can take my memory. Clever people now think it might be possible to travel through time – backwards and forwards.’
‘Oh, I’m sure you can Grandma, I once read a story like that.’
‘So did I, darling! (p185)
Many of us can identify with this conversation, fear of or concern about dying common.
The conundrums, worries and questions of life wax and wane as we live and age, but writers continually reflect on the significance to the big picture, as well as the importance of those near and dear. Who do we love and how much do we matter to them and they to us?
It doesn’t matter what your background, race or religion as we near the end of our life most of us have failing health, increased vulnerability, and wonder how and in what manner we will die – and then what?
Rosa explores the distant and not so distant past, the present, and voices curiosity about the future. Ros has written a wonderful legacy and future descendants will understand their family’s Jewish history, current festivals and rituals, even if they choose to rationalise like she often did: The significance lies in the fact that we are together around the table, never mind the calendar.
Ros Collins was born in 1938 and after supporting her husband’s writing endeavours began to write short stories and now has two books to her credit – an inspiration indeed!