True or not true? Two biographies

My Wollongong Library reading has lately included two very different biographies. Least controversial first:


Of course I knew about “The Father of Federation” – or thought I did! I had even stood outside the “witches’ houses” in Annandale where he died, and of course knew of his connection with Centennial Park, the Education Act, and (more controversially perhaps) his anti-Chinese immigration activity. But in truth I knew very little, so I am obliged to this very readable account of his life.

So here are 10 facts you may not know about the man, Sir Henry Parkes:

  1. Born into poverty in 1815, Parkes was the youngest of seven children. He had very little formal education after the age of eight.
  2. Parkes came to Australia in 1839, aged 24, as a penniless English immigrant with wife Clarinda and a daughter born at sea two days before they arrived.
  3. In the 1840s, he was briefly Sydney correspondent for the Launceston Examiner, and contributed occasional poems and articles on political and literary topics to the Sydney Morning Herald.
  4. In 1854 Parkes was elected to the New South Wales Parliament, the start of half a century of almost unbroken – and predominantly unpaid – parliamentary membership.
  5. Financial ruin was never far from Parkes’ doorstep, and he sometimes lost his seat due to bankruptcy.
  6. He rose to become Premier of New South Wales five times. Though not great at personal finance, his administrations were all sound, leaving the State in good shape on each occasion.
  7. Parkes implemented a wide range of social reforms, and presided over the major achievement of his era: the introduction of a public education system.
  8. Parkes was married on three occasions, and fathered 17 children!
  9. Parkes died quietly on 27 April 1896 and his grave is in Faulconbridge, the Blue Mountains, NSW.
  10. His image appears on the Australian one-dollar coin of 1996; and on the Centenary of Federation commemoration Australian $5 note issued in 2001.

The last of his children, Cobden Parkes, a WWI veteran and architect, died as recently as 1978! Sir Henry fathered him at the age of 77.

See also Who was the Father of Federation? We talk to Stephen Dando-Collins on Sir Henry Parkes.

…To mention merely a few of his numerous achievements, Parkes introduced the ground-breaking and highly controversial Public Schools Act which provided for the establishment of state schools, run by state-trained teachers. This had a huge impact on the funding and curriculum of religious schools. “The Church schools particularly on the Catholic side never forgave him”, says Dando-Collins. Parkes also reformed the health system by contacting Florence Nightingale in London and asking her to handpick a team of four trained British nurses to be sent to Sydney to establish what became the foundation of a nurse training scheme in New South Wales. He also petitioned against convict transportation, actively supported women’s suffrage, was a pioneer of mental health care and established the Royal Commission into Rabbit Destruction to tackle Australia’s rabbit plague.

Aside from his stellar political career, Parkes was a fascinating man. “The personal side of the man intrigued and surprised me”, says Dando-Collins. Before coming to Australia as a free immigrant, Parkes had a tough start going to work at a young age when his father was sent to debtor’s prison. He had many different jobs, married three times, fathered seventeen children and took a mistress late in life who was many years his junior. He was a poet, journalist and editor and ran the Empire, a newspaper he established in direct competition with Fairfax. He corresponded with Dickens, Tennyson and Mark Twain and as a failed businessman, went bankrupt three times with debts in total of approximately twenty million dollars in today’s equivalent…

Next a book that has proven very controversial: Mark Kurzem, The Mascot (2007). Sadly the author – also gay, by the way — died in 2010.

My partner, the writer, film-maker and academic Mark Kurzem, has died aged 52 from complications related to diabetes. His most enduring achievement was his voyage into his own and his father’s past, detailed in an award-winning documentary, The Mascot (2002), which he wrote and co-produced, and a well-received 2007 book of the same name.

Both told the story of how Mark’s father, Alex, had concealed his true identity from his wife and children. In the late 1990s, Alex had revealed to Mark that he was not, as his family had believed, the lost son of Russian pig farmers who had been adopted by a well-intentioned Latvian family after the second world war. Instead, in 1941, in a ­village in what is now Belarus, he had witnessed the mass murder of his mother and siblings, and other ­members of the local Jewish community.

After this massacre, he had run away into the woods where he was later found by a group of Latvian soldiers belonging to a Nazi police battalion. These soldiers, under the orders of their sergeant, eventually adopted the traumatised boy, dressed him in Nazi uniform, and declared him their “mascot”. Alex went on to witness further atrocities and even ended up in Nazi propaganda newsreels. Mark’s book examined the cost of this loss of identity in relation to his own family history…

I instantly thought of Europa, Europa and almost inevitably of the notorious The Hand that Signed the Paper hoax. I thought too of my Latvian classmate at Sutherland in the early 1950s and his mother and father, whom I came to know.

It is a good read, no doubt about that. However, shaped as it seems to be by its origins as almost a “Who Do You Think You Are?” episode, with the emphasis on the search, it admittedly blurs and simplifies. But is it true? Well some say this could be the last word on that.

Mr Kurzem was recently told he would continue to receive compensation after the ombudsman found in his favour. But, while the ombudsman was satisfied he was a Jewish Holocaust survivor, the report fell short of confirming his identity.

In his [sic] international bestseller, The Mascot, Mr Kurzem said he was a Russian Jew who survived the Holocaust by working closely with an SS extermination squad.

He claimed he was a member of the Galperin family, and that the Nazis gave him the name Kurzemnieks, which he had later shortened to Kurzem.

Mr Kurzem, 77, claims that as a five-year-old he watched the execution of his Jewish mother and siblings before becoming a child mascot for an SS unit in war-torn Europe.

His memoir was turned into an award-winning 2004 ABC documentary, and a French company is making a film about his life.

The ombudsman’s report said evidence presented by Mr Kurzem’s doubters was “purely circumstantial”.

“None of these pieces of evidence, nor all of them together, can negate the feasibility of the story,” the report said.

It said Mr Kurzem was eligible for compensation even if he were wrong in his belief that he was a Galperin.

The ombudsman was satisfied Mr Kurzem was Jewish; was separated from his parents during the war; lived under a false identity for at least 18 months, and; that his life had been in danger.

That 2013 Herald-Sun story does confuse father and son: the latter, Mark, wrote the book about his father, Alex. But note “…while the ombudsman was satisfied he was a Jewish Holocaust survivor, the report fell short of confirming his identity.” So see also this 2012 piece on J-Wire: “The Mascot” – Truth or Fiction?. On the other hand ALEX KURZEM – MAKING PEACE WITH ILYA GALPERIN is more accepting, as is Jeffrey Shallit. That last one has a quite amazing – indeed hair-raising – comment thread.

What do I think? I think Mark Kurzem believed the story he eventually tracked down partly with his father and partly independently. I think there is a core of truth there, but it has probably been distorted over time, I suspect. But as I said, it is a good read, and certainly informative about conditions in Latvia and Belarus during WWII, not to mention about immigrant life in Australia in the post-war period and the way migrants adapted/integrated into Australia.