- This Crazy Thing a Life: Australian Jewish Autobiography
Richard Freadman's book on Australian Jewish autobiography encompasses much more than this area of study. Since a high proportion of Australian Jews are Holocaust survivors or their descendents, this book is also a study of Holocaust autobiography. As such, it raises key questions about the reliability of Holocaust testimony, and deconstructs the position of postmodernism in relation to this question. Thus, this book is a thought-provoking volume, and while there may be some who will not agree with Freadman's conclusions, there is no doubt that he has produced an erudite and challenging work.
Freadman has undertaken a thorough survey of Jewish Australian autobiographies, including 270 individual volumes and 300 essay-length narratives. The book is divided into three parts. The first defines terms, provides historical and literary background, and ends with a detailed discussion of postmodernism. The second consists of a discussion of seven individual autobiographies from what Freadman describes as "the most accomplished authors," as well as the Makor Library's "Write Your Own Story" project. The third part consists of a selection of short abstracts chosen to illustrate the breadth of subject matter and diverse writing styles of a range of authors.
In his introduction, the author notes that he is "not an historian but a literary scholar and autobiographer." Despite this rider, this book is as important for historians as it is for scholars of literature. Australian Jewry is largely informed by the Holocaust because the small Jewish community of 1933, consisting of only 23,000 people, took in over 37,000 pre-war Jewish refugees and post-war Jewish Holocaust survivors. Settling mainly in Sydney and Melbourne, they more than doubled the size of Australia's Jewish community. Indeed, Melbourne has the highest percentage of Holocaust survivors of any city in the world outside Israel. This preponderance, particularly of survivors, strongly influences and informs Australian Jewish writing, and is clearly reflected in Freadman's choice of authors. His statistical survey of post-war autobiographies notes that 74 percent are Holocaust memoirs (15). These publications have proliferated in recent years, as survivors age and want to insure that their stories are not lost to posterity. The imperative to provide testimony of their experiences before it is too late is thus a driving force behind these works.
Freadman's writing is most powerful when he writes about specific autobiographies—for example, his analysis of the description by second-generation author Anna Rosner Bray of her visit to a doctor in Melbourne with her mother, a story Bray counterposes with her mother's memory of medical [End Page 489] inspections in the camps (22–23). Similarly, Freadman's discussion of Jacob Rosenberg, Holocaust survivor of the Lodz ghetto and author of East of Time and Sunrise West, allows Rosenberg's voice to speak about his attitudes toward his own writings as well as about his Holocaust experiences (87–112). In a moving and effective manner, Freadman discusses some of Rosenberg's vignettes, both in terms of their content and literary devices, such as his use of "white spaces":
Jacob Rosenberg is anything but a bitter writer, and yet—it would be hard to imagine a more calculated affront to scriptural authority, or to the canonical Jewish notion of the Chosen People, than the substitution of Hitler for God in this inversion of Genesis. Something similar, though less confronting, occurs in Sunrise West, where Hitler becomes the new Pharoah precipitating another Exodus—at least for those who aren't slaughtered. The last vestiges of his father's "God-intoxicated" agnosticism seem to have been swept away by the Holocaust. What then is left? How might we characterize the Jewishness that Rosenberg still so clearly espouses?(102)
These are just two examples of the powerful, emotional, and challenging writing style of This Crazy Thing a Life.
Freadman does not shy away from difficult and complex topics. He analyzes gender issues and sexual relationships, including same-sex partnerships—for example...