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Labor pains

By Barry Cohen - posted Tuesday, 9 November 2004

It’s a sepia-toned family portrait taken in the late 1930s of Mendel and Mindel Kozerwoder and their children Itzek, Charna, Malka, Mania, Yidel, Moishe and baby Faigele.

There’s nothing unusual about it but it is very precious to me, for they are all members of my family who, with one exception, perished in the crematoria of Chelmno and Auschwitz. Clasped in the hands of my great-uncle is a photograph of my grandparents, Moishe and Zelda Kozerwoder.

Itzek, the only survivor, gave me the photograph after I returned from a visit to Poland where I went to the villages of Pajcczno and Dzialoszyn from which my grandparents departed in the late 1890s.Their travels took them to England, South Africa (where my father was born) and finally to Australia, just after the outbreak of World War I.The photo is the only image I have of the many members of my family who were murdered by the Nazis. Each time I look at it my emotions range from gut-wrenching pain to seething rage. It has ensured that I belong to that school of Jewish resolve whose motto is “never again”.


There is nothing special about what happened to my family and me. Many Jewish families suffered the same fate. I became aware of the Holocaust in 1944 as the allied armies swept across Europe and liberated the death camps. I was only nine-years-old but I can still recall the pain I felt as I watched the newsreels of the emaciated survivors and the mountains of corpses.

Shortly afterwards I was sent to boarding school to prepare for my bar mitzvah. There was a noticeable shortage of synagogues in the country town of Griffith, NSW, where I was born and where my father was the local dentist.

My introduction to anti-Semitism commenced on my first day at school. The school sergeant refereed three fights between classmates and myself who called me “a dirty f....g Jew”. I was lucky. Bloody noses and black eyes were nothing compared to what happened to those members of my family who did not have the prescience to depart Europe as my grandparents had done.

It didn’t, however, make it easier to ignore the taunts and the occasional vicious remark that came at the most unexpected moments and from the most unexpected quarters. Like most Jews in a predominately Christian society, I developed a defence mechanism to cope. Humour was one weapon. Knowing the history and roots of anti-Semitism was another: So too was the pride in seeing the survivors of the Holocaust recreating a Jewish nation for the first time in 2,000 years.

The survivors of the camps, a million Jews expelled from Arab countries, and idealists from all over the Diaspora overcame the combined Arab military forces to ensure that not only did Jews have a safe haven but one that was free and democratic. Israel has remained that way in stark contrast to its Arab neighbours.

Australia is probably the least anti-Semitic country in the world, but what happened to my family made a deep impression on me. I became obsessive about discrimination, be it fighting for civil rights in the USA, against apartheid or the appalling treatment of our Indigenous people.


I was, however, an armchair critic mouthing off endlessly about what the government should do.

Then a friend hit a sensitive nerve. “What are you doing about it?” he asked. It wasn’t difficult to decide. I knew the enemy was on the political right: Nazis, fascists, conservatives, whether from the extreme right that led to the Holocaust or the social exclusion practised by the genteel middle class.

In 1964 I joined the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Not that the Labor Party of the early 1960s was a beacon of light, for there were many ALP members still steeped in the White Australia philosophy and indifferent to the suffering of Aborigines. But those who spoke up about such injustices were almost all from the ALP.

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First published in the Australian Jewish News on October 22, 2004

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About the Author

Barry Cohen was Minister for the Arts, Heritage and Environment in the Hawke Government from 1983 to 1987. He currently runs an animal sanctuary in Calga, NSW.

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