In 2010, Nikola Blavin, then a research student at Melbourne University, established a web site celebrating past asylum seekers who had contributed to Australia. Sir Gustav Nossal was the most illustrious, but Nikola was kind enough to include me.
When she left Melbourne University, the site turned into electronic compost. You won’t find it any more.
So, I have reproduced the interview here.
Country of Birth: Hungary
Year of arrival in Australia: 1957
Where he comes from:
Bob was born in Hungary, smack in the middle of the Second World War, while the bombs were falling. His mother called him Robert because she hoped the British would liberate the country from the Nazis. At the time, the Allies were fighting in Greece. Lucky she didn’t know the Russians would eventually do the job or he might have ended up as Boris or Ivan or Vladimir.
He spent about a year in the ghetto. They stayed alive, because his mother had more courage and intelligence than most people. Bob has honoured her memory by writing her biography into an award-winning book Anikó: The stranger who loved me.
His childhood was miserable. He found that he could forget about being unhappy only when reading, studying or running. The bane of his life was his stepfather, but being his mother’s child, he fought back. He was a guerrilla fighter, and won every battle. However, his stepfather won the war — by transporting Bob to Australia, for the term of his natural life.
How he got to Australia:
Bob has explained that after the Second World War, Hungary became a colony of the USSR and things got pretty revolting. So, in 1956, people revolted. For a few months, “the Iron Curtain had rust holes in it” and around a million people managed to crawl through and escape.
Bob’s uncle’s girlfriend worked as a dispatcher for a transport company that brought milk to Budapest. She organised two trucks on succeeding mornings. For a suitable gift, the drivers undertook to transport Bob’s family to the border and even provided contact with equally compliant border guards who guided their escape through the snow-covered minefields.
This was the opportunity his stepfather had been looking for. He got Bob onto the first truck with his uncle. When the second truck came the next morning, he paid off the driver, and sent him away. Uncle Peter had a friend in Australia, and this man sponsored him. He tried to unload the unwanted nephew to the Swiss, or the British, or anyone, but alas no one wanted the boy. Bob ended up tagging along to Australia.
Bob flew from Frankfurt in Germany all the way to Australia in a Qantas Giant Super Constellation plane. It was a modern marvel with three tails! … although it still had propellers on the wings. It spanned the mighty distance in only three days. As they arrived at Mascot Aerodrome in Sydney, Bob recalls how the air above the tarmac shimmered in the heat — something he’d never seen before. They disembarked and were welcomed by ladies handing out boxes of Minties. They wore very widely flaring skirts, and very little on top, which was “hugely interesting” to a 13 year old boy.
In those days, refugees were welcome in Australia. Bob and his uncle were housed in a migrant hostel, and although the accommodation was very modest, it was a good start for many thousands of newly arrived migrants. Bob attended the local school, which was challenging at first, because in the beginning he couldn’t even read the street signs. But he believes that the best way to learn a language is to live in it, and thrown in at the deep end, he still managed to pass all subjects in the first year. Bob continued to live in the Matraville migrant hostel for five years until he finished high school. After this he went to university on a Commonwealth Scholarship with a living away from home allowance. “Unlike now, you could actually live on that, if only just.”
Bob went to South Sydney Boys’ High School, which was a technological school, best known for its involvement in rugby. About half of the Australian schoolboys’ rugby league team came from it and some of Bob’s classmates ended up as stars of the South Sydney team.
From there Bob went on to Sydney University and later completed a Ph.D. at Monash University in Melbourne. Other than that, Bob had done LOTS of study in the University of Hard Knocks, and wrote some of his books while working at the University of Selfril Islands. (“Selfril Islands” is a bit of Strine. You need say it aloud to get it.)
Bob has done a great variety of interesting things in his life. He says: “I have retired three times so far, and have four to go.” [Note: this was true in 2010.] He first worked as a research psychologist, with the last job at the CSIRO from which he retired at 36 to build his house.
To learn how to build, Bob took a long succession of casual jobs in the building trade. A result was his first book, initially published in 1986 and still in print: The Earth Garden Building Book: Design and build your own house. This was also the start of Bob’s career as a writer. Since 1980, he has regularly published in Earth Garden magazine. He retired from building because he didn’t like the hurry, waste and lack of environmental awareness that rules the industry.
When the money ran out, Bob became a nurse. The lessons he learned in nursing enabled him to become a therapist. He retired from nursing when he tore a tendon in his shoulder while carrying a cup of Milo!
Currently, Bob juggles four occupations: a counselling psychologist, a writer, a freelance editor and one of the directors of the Australian Psychological Society. [Note: two more retirements since then.] This keeps him pretty busy and definitely not retired!
Alongside Bob’s many professional achievements is his role as a “professional grandfather.” “All the kids I meet, and even many I never have and never will, become my grandchildren.” Bob spends a fair bit of time on the internet providing help and answering desperate calls from young people. If you enter “I want to kill myself” into a search engine, some of Bob’s responses to young people usually come up on the first page.
Bob’s well lived life has brought him peace. Nowadays, nothing will get him depressed, angry or anxious for more than a few seconds. Being the cheerful and welcoming person that he is, many people pick up on this and smile at him when he walks down the street. “Maybe I look funny?” teases Bob.
Bob married Jolanda in 1967 and after 43 years she still laughs at his jokes. He is not so lucky with his three children who are more inclined to say “Oh Dad! Not again!” Like Bob, Jolanda is also a professional grandmother.
Bob’s children are “utterly wonderful people.” The eldest daughter Natalie trained as an accountant and won a prize upon graduation. She beat her Dad in the retirement game and not liking the feeling of being the link between clients and the Tax Department, she retired from her profession at 30. Since then, she has run a very successful service as a bookkeeper. “Actually, she is more like a counsellor.”
Robert travelled around Australia when he left school, and came back with more money in the bank than at the start, without ever going on the dole. Spending volunteer time on a crocodile farm in Darwin inspired him to do an environmental degree in Armidale. This took him to central Australia, his occupation being the teacher’s partner, and from there to Darwin. He built a successful practice relieving physical pain through a technique called Orthobionomy, and then… retired! “Yes I know, it runs in the family!” says Bob with a smile. Robert went on to start his own business selling automatic coffee machines in Queensland. Currently his successful business is up for sale.
The youngest child Anina completed a science degree in psychology. Bob was very pleased, thinking that she could start her own therapy clinic and offer him a job. But no such luck. Anina found her calling in research and has a wonderful position at Macquarie University. “Only trouble is, they have so far refused to move Macquarie University to Healesville, Victoria, where I live,” he jokes.
“Being a human on this planet. I am only a visitor.”
What he likes about Australia the most:
“It’s home. If you were born here, you are an Aussie by the accident of birth. Me, I made a deliberate and very strong choice. I am Aussie by preference.”
Bob loves the Australian flora and fauna and the kookaburras and other wildlife found in his hometown of Healesville.
The lyrebird with the lyretail is a wonderful kind of bird.
His feet are big, his voice is loud, with the funniest song you’ve heard.
He imitates other birds who live around his home,
and while he sings he dances around like a funny little gnome.
And all this while, his lady love walks unconcernedly by,
scratching for a grub or two, or looking at the sky.
But, if she likes the performance, an egg she’ll contribute.
She’ll hatch the egg, and raise the chick. The male bird thinks that’s beaut.
Hopes and dreams:
Since 1972, Bob’s dream has been to help save a future for his children and grandchildren, and this includes any “kid,” not just his offspring. “I am still working on this,” says Bob. He believes that there are only two kinds of people: conservationists and suicides.
“The more you give the more you get. We have it lucky. Others are far less so. Being selfish and creating a fortress Australia will lead to a besieged Australia. The refugees of today deserve the same kind of welcoming treatment as I got.”