Recently I finished reading an acclaimed book by Simon Montefiore called ‘Stalin The Court of the Red Tsar’. This book describes in dreadful detail the Stalinist regime in the USSR with all its horrific purges, murders and gulags. But after reading ‘Sasha and Olga’ by South Australian author, Eva Chapman, I got first-hand what Stalin’s psychotic policies did to ordinary people. Sasha and Olga are Eva’s parents who grew up in the Ukraine in the Soviet Union in the 20’s and 30’s and came to Australia after the Second World War as refugees.
Only the pitiless will not be emotionally moved and affected by this well-written book. Only the most cynical will not be moved to tears. In Sasha and Olga, Eva Chapman has described her parents with their full range of human foibles.
This book has four major themes. Firstly how Sasha and Olga survived the Stalinist purges and the Nazi holocaust to come to South Australia as refugees; secondly, the experiences of a migrant family living in Adelaide in the 50’s and 60’s including her mother’s mental illness and experiences in Glenside Mental Hospital; thirdly, the disintegration of Eva’s family and her 30 years estrangement from her family and fourthly the reconciliation with her father after 30 years and her journey of discovery to find her relatives in the Ukraine.
This wonderfully written book is a must read. To read how ordinary people coped with the unmitigated horror of famine, political persecution and the purges of Stalin’s USSR of the 20’s and 30’s and then the appalling barbarity of the German invasion and occupation, followed at war’s end of the displaced in refugee camps is overwhelming. To learn how such battered survivors came to live in a staid and boring Adelaide of the 50’s, haunted all the rest of their lives by what they had experienced should not be ignored by any Australian.
Australia of the 50’s could be a cruel place for refugee migrants as most Australians were blissfully ignorant of what these so-called New Australians had been through. Fortunately for Sasha and Olga they did not arrive in Australia under our current refugee policy as they would have been incarcerated in some so-called detention centre, little different from the camps they left in Europe, or worse, ended up on some remote Pacific island.
Eva Chapman’s account of her family estrangement and her rapprochement with her father in the last few years of his life are as personally moving as anything I have read.
Eva’s beautiful mother Olga slowly being destroyed by mental illness is a tragic and poignant account. Her incarceration in Glenside and the treatment she received as a patient is sickening. Despite all the social progress of the Dunstan decade at the time the treatment of the mentally ill at Glenside is a stain on all of us. I hope the South Australian Minister for Mental Health reads this book and makes sure that Glenside is no longer the horror it was in the 60’s and 70’s.
Eva’s descriptions of her visits to the Ukraine and her ultimate success in finding her relatives, like the rapprochement with her father, is the most optimistic part of her life’s history. Her relatives who are all overwhelmingly poor if not poverty-stricken are amazingly generous and warm-hearted to their long-lost cousin or niece. As Eva points out, despite their poverty, her Ukrainian relatives are more generous and openhearted than those of us in the affluent west. She has found her roots which makes so much of her family’s pain now more bearable.
The personality of Sasha Levkowicz, Eva’s father, in the end is the one to which the reader keeps returning. He arrived in South Australia in the early 50’s as a penniless migrant. He died fifty years later a millionaire. Despite his wealth he could never forget the privations of his childhood and as a result lived a life of great frugality. Every morning he would remove the plastic wrapped around the Advertiser and save it to wrap up the food for his pet cat. Through his life he would go to the Central Market late on Saturday so that he could buy the cheapest vegetables. Partially deaf he bought a hearing aid for 50cents at an auction which he used for the rest of his life. Even in the year 2000 all his household appliances were the original ones bought in the 50’s and 60’s.
It is remarkable that we had living amongst us in South Australia a family who had terrible tale to tell; we should all be grateful that Eva Chapman had the dedication, honesty and courage to write this family’s story and thereby enrich us all.
(Chris Schacht was former ALP senator and now heads an Adelaide political radio programme every Monday morning)
6th May 2006