As Hitler’s monstrous campaign against the Jews became clear, one Australian took it upon himself to secure a path of escape. Critchley Parker was a man of vision, sadly halted by fate.
As we know by now, this country has a rich history of deliciously crazy and inspiring mavericks. You would be hard-pressed, though, to find anybody as eccentric, nonconformist and courageous as Critchley Parker Jr. If he had got his way, there might not have been a state of Israel or a conflict in the Middle East. Instead, poor Critchley Parker lies in a forgotten grave in a desolate corner of the Apple Isle, on the spot where he died from starvation and exposure. This makes him the tragic hero Australian history seems to revel in. The Burke or Wills of the South, the Leichhardt of Port Davey. Let me introduce you to Australian Maverick number fourteen: Critchley Parker Jr.
But first a bit of background. When it became clear in the late 1920s that Hitler was serious in his wish to exterminate the Jews, all manner of initiatives were taken to get as many people out of harm’s way as possible. One of the most lateral thinkers was a Polish writer and journalist called Melech Ravitch. When he looked on the map he saw Australia as this enormous continent with almost no inhabitants. He also realised that the immigration rules that were part of the White Australia Policy could suit Jewish, mostly white, migration. So in 1933 he got on a ship and set sail. His focus was on the Kimberley, where at the time only 7,000 white people lived (nobody counted the black people). To Ravitch, this was a great opportunity, much better than Israel, the place his Zionist colleagues preferred. At least ‘the Northern Territory is a land which will not be taken from any original population whatever’, he wrote, ignoring Aboriginal people. ‘In that respect, one’s conscience can be quite peaceful’.
His principle in life, he said in a later book, was ‘when in doubt, do the courageous thing’.
Ravitch’s stories ended up in newspapers in Europe and a book. They made an enormous impression on the newly founded Freeland League, an organisation that was, more and more desperately, looking for a Jewish homeland. So in 1938, they met with Australian representatives to the Evian Conference in France, where countries came together to discuss the issue of the Jewish refugees. Australia agreed to accept 15,000, but in the end, only 5,085 were allowed into the country. Undeterred, the Freelanders sent Dr. Isaac Nachman Steinberg to Australia, to see if he could negotiate. Steinberg was a Russian-born Jew, Lenin’s first Commissar of Justice before he had to flee the increasingly repressive leader of the Russian Revolution. In Australia, Steinberg went to the Kimberley and openly fantasised about ‘Jewish poems about the kangaroo’. He also talked to anybody who would listen: the WA premier, publishers, union bosses, clergymen. They loved what they heard because it sounded like a win-win: the Kimberley would be populated with white folks and Steinberg would have a place to send around 100,000 Jewish refugees.
But then the war broke out and everybody stopped listening. And this is where Critchley Parker Jr. comes in. During his speaking tour, Steinberg had met a Jewish journalist called Caroline Isaacson, who worked in Melbourne for The Argus and The Age. Critchley was her friend and although she was married, probably also her lover. She gave him ‘an affection he had not known before’ and in return ‘he wanted to do something for her no one else could do’. Critchley was not a likely candidate to help out Isaacson and Steinberg. First of all, he was not Jewish, and his father, a rich publisher, was one of those men who can’t help but suck the life out of their sons. It had turned the boy into a ‘delicate’ young man, great at his studies but awful at anything physical. Parker Sr. was a fanatical fly-fisher, though, the author of the lovely named book Record of fish killed at the Great Lake. Because he did most of his fishing in Tasmania and liked mixing with the great and good, he counted the Tasmanian Premier among his friends. That was handy for his son and his mates, because now the people in the NT didn’t want to listen anymore, Tasmania seemed the logical alternative. It was, especially in the South-West, almost as empty and desolate as the Top End, and after some negotiations with Robert Cosgrove, the then-Premier seemed not against the idea of part of his state becoming the ‘new Jerusalem’.
Soon, the trio had a letter from Cosgrove, in which he wrote that his ‘government accept in principle…the proposal that a settlement of Jewish migrants should be established in Tasmania’. Unfortunately, fate struck a second time. Not long after everything seemed to be going swimmingly, the war in the Pacific broke out. Australia itself appeared under threat and again the plan for a Jewish homeland was put on the back burner. But Critchley refused to give up and in March 1942 he organised a trip to the area that was going to house the new ‘Paris of Australasia’: the land from Recherche Bay to Port Davey and from the Antarctic Ocean to the Banks of the Gordon River, about the size of Puerto Rico. He packed his bags and a leather diary that Caroline had given him and set off to survey the boundaries and thus, he hoped, keep the dream alive. The walk was to take a few weeks, but after a couple of days, the weather turned. In his diary, Critchley spoke of ‘hail, rain and violent gales’ and three times he climbed Mount McKenzie to light a fire to signal for help. Because of the fog, there was no response and in his attempts, Critchley had used all his matches. Wet, sick with TB, without a means to cook or light a fire and too weak to walk or swim, he took to his tent and his diary, to wait for help and start composing his blueprint for the new country.
Parker envisaged a great university, with scholarships given to all colours and creeds. The plan was to become self-sufficient as soon as possible, by establishing a canning industry, make goods from wool and cotton and even produce whiskey.
To start off with, its name would be Poynduk, ‘swan’ in the local Aboriginal language, to signal the new nation’s ‘principles of racial tolerance and international brotherhood’. To strengthen ties with the outside, non-white world even further, Parker envisaged a great university, with scholarships given to all colours and creeds. The economy of Poynduk would be based on the system of the USSR, with 35-hour working weeks, a month’s vacation on full pay and lots of recreational facilities for the workers. The plan was to become self-sufficient as soon as possible, by establishing a canning industry, make goods from wool and cotton and even produce whiskey. French Jews could help fur, leather and flax industries to prosper, Dutch Jews would help out with their knowledge of dykes and drainage and Germans would, of course, build freeways. There would be the finest medical facilities, schools, hydro-electric plants for power, kindergartens and parks. Le Corbusier would be the architect of choice and every year Poynduk would host the Tasmanian Games. Not just for sports, but also for readings of plays and poetry, music, art, weaving and pottery. A shipyard would be built for steamers to take passengers on cruises to the Antarctic. ‘I desire’, Critchley Parker wrote in his diary, ‘that their whole life will so amaze the people of Australia that the little settlement of Tasmania will be the leaven which will completely change the economic and financial system of Australia’.
It is thought that Critchley Parker Jr. made it another 54 days before he died. In his last days, he wrote letters to Steinberg and his beloved Caroline, telling them that ‘to die in the service of so noble a cause is to me a great satisfaction’. He wanted Caroline to know that ‘if this joint existence cannot be in the flesh, let it be in the spirit and I will ask you to live on…to reach that perfection which we had dreamt of for us both’.
When he was found by a man and his dog in September, five months after he died, his remains were sticking out of his sleeping bag and the tent had been blown away. Steinberg tried for another six months to keep the idea alive, but in 1944, Prime Minister John Curtin dismissed any plan for block settlement of refugees and that was the end of that. Caroline was devastated and dedicated the rest of her life to the Jewish cause. She visited Israel in 1961 for the trial of Adolf Eichmann and met Golda Meir, who asked her to set up an Australia-Israel Association. Caroline’s son Peter, who had been very close to his mother’s lover, became a fighter pilot, who gained fame by flying his Lancaster under the Sydney Harbour Bridge to promote war bonds.
His principle in life, he said in a later book, was ‘when in doubt, do the courageous thing’. Critchley Parker Jr. would have been proud.