The newest addition to the Text Classics is Herz Bergner’s Between Sky & Sea, a dark and compelling tale of a group of Jewish refugees on board a dilapidated freighter charting a course for Australia. Fleeing terrible scenes of destruction in Europe, they are bound by a deep sense of loss and the uncertainty of their fate. Arnold Zable’s introduction (extracted below) highlights the chilling parallels between Bergner’s tale and the sinking of the SIEVX off the Australian coast, giving the reader pause to reflect on the continuing plight of asylum seekers throughout history and across the globe.
‘Beautifully written with extraordinary insight into the frailties of humanity, Bergner’s tale is as much a version of the past as it is a vision of our present.’ Australian
Between Sky & Sea was first published in 1946. It went on to win the Australian Literature Society’s gold medal for book of the year, but soon lapsed into obscurity. Its republication marks the resurrection of a lost classic of Australian literature, a novel ahead of its time, a work that speaks to the future while it honours the past.
Written in Melbourne during the final years of the Second World War, Between Sky & Sea depicts the voyage of a group of traumatised Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s terror. The Greek freighter has been at sea for weeks, drifting helplessly in search of a port. The novel presents a microcosm of life in all its facets, from the crippling effects of trauma and the irritations of living in close quarters, to poignant acts of humanity and compassion.
Herz Bergner arrived in Australia in 1938. He was born in the Polish town of Radimno in 1907. His family settled in Vienna during World War I, and returned to Poland in 1919. During the interwar years, Warsaw was the hub of Yiddish cultural life in Eastern Europe. Bergner’s older brother, the writer Melekh Ravitch, was the long-serving secretary of the Yiddish Writers’ Association. Almost every Yiddish writer of note spent time in its legendary premises. Bergner’s stories first appeared in Yiddish periodicals in Warsaw in 1928. Houses and Streets, his first collection, was published in 1935. Herz Bergner served his writing apprenticeship when Yiddish literature was at its creative zenith.
But this was also a time of impoverishment and political turmoil. Hitler had come to power and the storm clouds of war were gathering. Bergner seized the opportunity to emigrate. He settled in Melbourne where there was a small but active community of Jews who maintained Yiddish as their mother tongue. In 1941 he published The New House, a collection of short stories set in Warsaw and Melbourne. The stories reflected Bergner’s recent experiences and those of his immigrant readers. He writes of their journeys and the challenges of adapting to a new life.
The work is distinguished by its empathy, and by the resilience Bergner finds in his characters despite the perils they face. He does not idealise his ill-fated refugees, but depicts them as fallible individuals. He writes with irony, psychological insight and compassion.
The Holocaust was a demarcation point for Yiddish writers. Between Sky & Sea was one of the earliest fictional accounts of the brutal and inconceivable events of the times. The writing is propelled by a sense of urgency. Bergner wrote the novel in Melbourne as the news was filtering through that a catastrophe was taking place in the Jewish communities of Europe. His people were being enslaved and murdered, or forced into flight. And he was well aware of their plight. In January 1942, Bergner published an essay pleading the case for increased European migration to Australia. Once flourishing Jewish communities, he pointed out, were being wiped from the face of the earth.
Bergner would have known of the ill-fated voyage of the St Louis, the ocean liner that left Germany in May 1939 with over 900 Jewish asylum seekers on board fleeing from the Third Reich. The ship was turned back from Cuba and not permitted to land in the USA and Canada. The refusal prompted several passengers to attempt suicide and led to a near mutiny. As the St Louis sailed back to Europe, a group of passengers took over the bridge and occupied it until their rebellion was put down. Through intense negotiations and the support of the captain, Gustav Schroeder, the passengers were able to disembark in Antwerp before the ship returned to Germany. Nevertheless, 254 of the passengers perished in the Holocaust.
The refugees on Bergner’s fictional Greek freighter undertake their voyage several years later, while the war rages. They are trapped between sky and sea, and within the terrors of their recent past. They have lost entire families and witnessed the destruction of their communities. They have wandered through many lands and are tortured with guilt at having been spared the fate of those left behind.
With each day at sea they edge closer to despair. Their meagre rations of food decrease. Quarrels erupt. Malicious gossip takes hold in the idle hours. Those who succumb to disease are buried at sea. The passengers no longer know where they are. They are an unwanted people, and endure racist taunts from some of the crew.
When typhus breaks out on board, a seaman hisses: ‘Human beings? Important people? You have been thrown out of everywhere and no one will take you in. All doors and gates are closed to you. We can’t put in at any port because of you. Everybody is afraid you’ll get your feet in and never go away.’ The language is apocalyptic. There can be no compromise, no soft landings. The sea is a malevolent force, the sun an inferno, the boat a mobile internment camp. It is a voyage of the damned.
Between Sky & Sea...remains as relevant today as it was when it was first published. As I write there are millions of people on the move in search of refuge from oppression. Many languish in camps for years on end, while others are en route, prepared to risk all to gain landfall on firmer shores. Theirs are perilous journeys enacted anew in each age. Some make it and some don’t.
Yet the work is distinguished by its empathy, and by the resilience Bergner finds in his characters despite the perils they face. He does not idealise his ill-fated refugees, but depicts them as fallible individuals. He writes with irony, psychological insight and compassion. He presents a broad range of characters from the orthodox to non-believers, and exposes their flaws and obsessions, their hopes and uncertainties. He puts a human face to their suffering, revealing both their vulnerability and fierce will for survival.
And there are moments of redeeming humanity, acts of unexpected kindness. A Greek passenger returning to work in Australia, accompanied by a bride from his home village, converses with one of the refugees: ‘You and me one fate,’ he says, as he points to himself and nods to the Jewish passengers. He identifies with their trauma and sees himself as a brother in adversity.
Between Sky & Sea deserves its place as a significant Australian novel due to its literary merit and because it remains as relevant today as it was when it was first published. As I write there are millions of people on the move in search of refuge from oppression. Many languish in camps for years on end, while others are en route, prepared to risk all to gain landfall on firmer shores. Theirs are perilous journeys enacted anew in each age. Some make it and some don’t.
On 19 October 2001, 353 men, women and children, asylum seekers fleeing Iraq and Afghanistan, drowned when their fragile fishing boat, now known as SIEVX, sank en route to Australia. There were just forty-five survivors. Bergner’s fictional account of the fate of the passengers on board the Greek freighter is chillingly similar to survivors’ descriptions of the SIEVX sinking. The two disasters, sixty years apart, one imagined, the other real, encapsulate the universal plight of asylum seekers. They highlight the fraught nature of the journey, and the desperate measures that people take to escape oppression.
The sinking of the SIEVX was the biggest postwar maritime disaster off Australian waters, yet it has been readily forgotten. This new edition of Bergner’s novel is a timely reminder of the desperation that drives people to risk their lives in search of freedom. It highlights the luck involved in whether one survives the journey. But it is also a matter of government policy: at the time of the SIEVX sinking the Howard government was advising its navy personnel to force boats of asylum seekers back out to sea. Like Bergner’s characters, they were consigned to live in limbo, their goal so tantalisingly close, yet agonisingly out of reach, the sea an insurmountable barrier.
The sea is a recurring image in Bergner’s work. In an earlier story, ‘Ship-brothers’, he dwells on the moment of farewell, when a group of Jewish immigrants casts off from Europe for their voyage to Australia. It is the point of no return. The story foreshadows some of the themes of the novel published five years later.
Translated by Judah Waten, the English edition of Between Sky & Sea preceded the 1947 publication of the Yiddish language original. Bergner was anxious to reach a wide audience. It was first published by Dolphin, a venture set up in 1945 by Judah Waten and the painter Victor O’Connor, with the aim of printing affordable editions of Australian books with progressive themes. Dolphin was one of the few outlets for Australian literary fiction at the time. One of its earliest publications, Southern Stories, featured Judah Waten’s translation of Bergner’s short story ‘The Boardinghouse’.
Waten spoke of the translation process and his friendship with Bergner: ‘We worked together on translations. I didn’t just translate away on my own. Every Saturday we got together. And when you translate, you sort of looked into a word. It’s like performing some kind of surgery.’ Bergner was, says Waten, ‘very odd because he wanted every word translated, and if the number of words came out fewer in English he wasn’t very happy. He never really mastered the English language.’ Herz Bergner continued to publish Yiddish novels and collections of short stories until his death in Melbourne in 1970. Just one other novel, Light and Shadow, and several short stories were translated into English. Between Sky & Sea remains his masterwork.
Arnold Zable, 2010.