Presenter: Good evening everybody, and welcome to the State Library of Victoria and to tonight’s program of Collection Reflection. I’m sure you’re all aware that tonight’s program is titled Rumours of hope and is a biography on Werner Pelz. Tonight’s guest is Dr Roger Averill. Roger was a Creative Fellow at the Library in 2009 where he expanded on his research of Werner Pelz; and Roger is a freelance researcher, editor, writer and now a published author, Roger, I believe?
Roger Averill: Yes, I have been published.
Presenter: And tonight we are going to have a conversation obviously about Roger’s work and his extensive knowledge of Werner. We’re going to tackle this probably chronologically in the first sense because it makes sense, and we have a number of things to go through and there’ll be opportunities at the end to then have a look at some of the items that we’ve brought along this evening from the Library’s collections. So, in that regard, Roger, I guess the first place to start is where it all began, which was his time in Germany, and his early life – which thankfully there are a lot of quite rich written records of.
Roger: Yes, there’s not as much as I’d like, being his would-be biographer! Most of what we know of his early life is still dependant on a memoir that he wrote in the mid-1960s called Distant strains of triumph. But Werner’s background is in itself interesting, and I think this is one of many of the collections that are around; individuals have this kind of phenomenon where they spark off and there’s all these other lives that orbit around that person. Of course, with him, the first of those are his parent’s lives and his father had been born into a very poor family. Werner’s grandfather had died when Werner’s father was one year old, and he had an older brother Walter and he was put into an orphanage. Ludwig, Werner’s father, was brought up by his mother who was by all accounts was a pretty miserable character, and he then served in the First World War for four years and somehow, probably through dubious means, ended up making some money during that. He was only an ordinary soldier but he came out with more money than he went in and Werner had thought when he was writing as a middle-aged person, writing that memoir, that it was through trading saccharine. There’d been a sugar shortage during the First World War and somehow Ludwig had got hold of some, and on the black market had traded in some saccharine. Therefore he had some money, so when he came out of the army in that incredibly turbulent time in German history, the German revolution and the creation of the, say you’ve got the Spartacans fighting in the streets … You know it’s an interesting thing for me, who’s lived this incredibly privileged stable life politically and economically. I’m now 46, so it’s been only the Whitlam dismissal is sort of the only point of reference that ... [laughs]
Interviewer: It’s not much by comparison!
Roger: ... it’s a pretty pale point of reference when you’ve got these Kapp Putsch, and you’ve got right wing and left wing fighting in the street. But with all that happening, somehow Ludwig not only survived the war but survived all of that. And with that little bit of capital that he had, he bought a cinema in a working class part of Berlin. Cinema was the medium of the time and he, with a couple of partners, made that a great success and they ended up owning 11 cinemas. By 1921, when Werner was born, Ludwig and his wife Regina were very wealthy and so Werner was born into great wealth.
Werner was my lecturer, teacher and supervisor in the mid-‘80s at La Trobe University, which is where I first met him. We became, and remained, close friends for the last quarter of his life, the last 20 years of his life. He had mentioned this wealth over the years and I guess I’d read that memoir at some stage too but I hadn’t fully grasped just how wealthy they were until I saw some photos which aren’t yet in this collection, but I am confident will get there in the end. They are in the possession of Werner’s son, who’s in England, and they were of this very done-up little boy as a two year old holidaying on Lake Garda in Italy, which they did a number of times. Then they moved, they had a quite palatial house on Milastrasse in Berlin and later moved to a mansion on Zoitnesee, the lake about 50 km south-west of Berlin. So he was born into incredible wealth. Ludwig’s empire survived the hyper-inflation but then was hit by the Great Depression and that wealth was eroded. That began a downward spiralling mobility. Ludwig reinvented himself as an impresario and was successful at that, but by this stage the Nazis had come into power. The people that he had made a name for and been crucial in getting them a national profile, one was a band leader and the other was a comic, no longer had to pay him. The Nuremburg laws that came in in 1935 said that you didn’t have to pay Jews.
By this stage Werner’s family were living in a very poor part of Berlin in a tiny little flat which they sublet. It’s one of the mysteries as to why they, this is a more general question, why more German Jews didn’t get out when early on the Nazi rule was encouraging people to migrate. I think people like Ludwig were so in love with German culture. They were not religious Jews – though Werner did after the Nazis came into power and reminded them that they were Jewish, do some study and was bar mitzvahed and he had to go to a Jewish school by that stage – but they just felt that these things would pass, I think. That wasn’t to be, as we know.
Interviewer: What did the letters between Werner and his parents reveal about their relationship?
Roger: This was one of the finds of the collection, that there were these letters from Werner to his parents and their letters to him. These were from a time in 1939, after Kristallnacht, and he’s finally trying to find a way out of the country with his youngest sister Yuta, or Yuti as she was known. He went to an agricultural training farm as there was a labour shortage in England of farmhands, farm labourers, and so this was one possible way out. A lot of the young Jewish Germans who went to these agricultural training farms also ended up in Palestine, but that would have been a bit earlier I think, so these were letters that Werner was writing were reporting on his daily routine at the training farm, and also later when he gets a position in Yorkshire. I’ll come back to it, but it’s curious the letters survived because his parents were murdered in the camps and his sister who also got to Gross Breesen, got to this agricultural training camp, but she didn’t get a position out. Werner was trying to get her out when he went to England but he was only in England for a number of weeks, and then war was declared and it was literally impossible, unless you were incredibly wealthy and well connected, to get out.
Presenter: The survival of those letters too was actually in part due to a maid, is that right?
Roger: Back when the Pelz’s had been wealthy they had a maid called Elma Orst. She was a young woman at that stage and they obviously treated her very well. She remained with them for six years until she got married, so during the time when they were well off. Then they fell on hard times. When Werner’s mother had heart trouble and she wasn’t particularly well, Elma came back and helped them. She acted as a de-facto maid, an unpaid maid, while they were living in these very humble flats, and at her own risk. She was not Jewish, and they were, and that was not the thing to do. The story is that she was the one who somehow gathered these letters and kept them. Yuti was in Auschwitz for four years and survived that, and she was on the death march, and as soon as she got back to Berlin, well was it Berlin, Hamburg I think, she found a way to contact Ami , as they called her.
One of the things that Hamish and I have been discussing for tonight was to try and get you the sense and flavour of the collection, and really which replicates the process which I have been going through in researching; rather than me talking about the book that I’m in the process of writing now, this will give you the things that have informed that, and are informing it. One of my great limitations – one of them; we were talking before about a technical thing, that’s another – is that I don’t have German, so that’s been a bit of a handicap. But fortunately I do have some good friends who are German, and one who has translated these letters between Werner and his parents. So this one was written on the 10th April 1939, and it’s from Ludwig. Most of them were written by Regina, Werner’s mother. This is on the second day of the Easter holiday break and they’ve moved to a slightly better flat than the one that Werner last lived in in Iranianstrasse in Berlin. They then had to sublet that flat so they’re down to one room, and they’ve got a balcony, and this balcony is the recurrent thing. It is the great joy of their life and it shows just how narrowed-down their lives have become. The fact that they can sit out on this balcony and get some sun on their backs is a great joy to them. By this stage it’s hard for them to go out and do much, so their lives are very confined. A lot of the terms of endearment and the way they refer to each other are very loving and they were a very loving family. Maybe it’s just me, but I think more generally what we think of when we look at those black-and-white photos, we think they’re formal, but these people would spend Sunday morning all in the same bed and they’d cuddle and talk, and it’s quite intense and physical, not that Victorian image that covers a long period of time in different cultures. They weren’t like that.
[Reads from the letter]
So my little boy, what would you think about an Easter stroll? How is it going for you? To walk with you, Mr Youngling, is amusing and brings its own benefits. It would be even nicer with our walk ending on the balcony. A million jobs await us. and now shall I do them all by myself? A new planter box must be made and painted, and a table and some other boxes made smaller, etc. The balcony shall become a little paradise, a retreat. I mistype so often today, I must write slower. After subletting the room our apartment is small again, just one little main room, but what would our apartment be without the balcony? It is a real joy. You will have some sympathy with that now. It must be terrific to work out in the open air, in nature. I am eager to hear how your work is going, how you are getting on being in a group.
Because you must remember, Werner, in those last years that he was in Berlin, his social world had been incredibly restricted so he’s grown up just with his sister and not many other kids.
Just now your lovely Granny has come, it’s terrible …
That’s being facetious.
… it’s terrible, these constant interruptions. I just wanted to be alone with you and then this miserable face emerges. I don’t know if I’ve written the word correctly but if it’s wrong you will correct me. A rare joyless human without interest, without the ability to read a book, without sensation, all she knows is herself and her digestion and even this knowledge is incomplete. Hunger will force her home. Sounds heartless, but you know how vexed the situation is, how desolate to have to talk about our kin. We want to forget them. The weather is too beautiful to be gloomy and I don’t want to complain; for that the weather is too good, the breakfast too good, the cigar too wonderful. All preconditions were here for me to savour this beautiful day, unfortunately my luck is never complete.
I think we tend to romanticise because we know what happened to these people and we think they must have all been wonderful, happy families. Not the case. Werner, who is a most forgiving character, one of the most forgiving characters I’ve ever met, he even admitted that his grandmother was very miserable.
Roger: Yeah. So this is a letter from Werner back to his parents in June 1939.
[Reads from the letter]
My dear Mammy and my dear Pappy. Together with Yuti (his sister), I sit here at our balcony writing to you.
So now they’re in Gross Breesen and his sister has joined him at this camp.
What she has told you I don’t yet know, and to reduce the risk of repeating everything she says … I don’t want to talk about work today but to continue one or other of the conversations which you have started without receiving a response. Firstly I have reflected on the article by Schwarzenky which you dear Papachen mentioned in one of your last letters. While tending the cattle I managed to read it and had time to think about the problem of migration. I don’t want to respond to the article itself, it’s just too true and maybe it is right that we don’t think too much on the difficulties we can expect in the new world, but I want to talk about the topic. Mr Schwarzenky fails to mention the sadness of migration. I don’t think many people feel the same way, but for me the day I leave Germany will be a very sad day. I leave because I have to, not because I want to. A new life starts, and that requires that an old one finishes. You are torn out of the earth where you have grown up and are planted in another foreign, maybe incompatible, soil. Friends and acquaintances are left behind, people whose language you know and whose ways of thinking you believe you know. I am still young and as a young plant survives transplantation, so will I, when the time comes to overcome this difficult disconnection from the old. But for many adults this disconnection may be very hard, I think. But there is still one consolation: the language and the thinking, the culture. I will hold onto them. Nobody can take this away from me. I will always be keen about the language; and Mozart and Beethoven, Goethe and Schopenhauer, will follow me to the ends of the earth.
I was going to read a bit more, but we probably ... in another letter to his mother, on her birthday, where it gives a sense of her character. So Yuti, his sister, has already written to her wishing her a happy birthday.
[Reads from the letter]
All I can do is repeat and affirm what she says. You do look so young in the pictures you sent us, so young you shall always be in your heart; and so strong that you can see the good in everything you experience and that you always say, ‘It is good this way’. For these reasons you will always be cheerful. What else can I wish for? Disease flees in front of a laughing face and that time flies until we are together again in America, Australia or New Zealand; sitting together around our table and celebrating another of your birthdays. You shall have uncounted numbers of these days. This, my Mamachen, is what I wish for you, and to give you a hug and to warmly congratulate you and to kiss you and Pappy many times. Your Werner.
So it was interesting to me that already in his imagining, Australia or New Zealand – this is even before he got to England – were on his compass in that sense.
Presenter: And so by 1940 he’d then been interned, is that right, Roger?
Roger: At the end of 1940 he worked on a farm in a place called Beverley up in North Yorkshire and we’re going to play a little bit of a tape, a recording of an interview he made in the last years of his life, and in that he talks about it and he’s very generous and laughing about what were pretty terrible circumstances. So he’s with this young farmer who ran an experiment, and Werner’s with this other guy, another German refugee. They were basically starved by this farmer, seeing how little he could give them and still get them to work ten-hour days. So they gave him an ultimatum and said ‘we can’t do it anymore’. And that night the guy gave them an enormous meal; and of course if he’d done that they would have stayed, if he’d done that all the time. And then they went to another place and actually that was worse. The farmer there, Werner thought he was stupid, this young fellow, but this other one was kind of malignant and malevolent. There was this notion of ‘friendly enemy aliens’ and enemy aliens in different categories, and he would have been ok except that he was within a 50-mile radius from the coast. There was a decision to intern German and Austrian Jewish refugees – well, all German citizens that were in England at the time – for fear of fifth columnists. And so Werner was put in a camp, originally in Beverley, and he was thrilled at that because they had lots of food to eat. Then they were put in a larger camp near Liverpool and there wasn’t so much food there, and then they went to Australia.
Presenter: So he opted to do that?
Roger: He was one of the few that did choose to come to Australia. I don’t know if he knew it was Australia, I think most of them thought it was Canada. He thought it was on the other side of the world, anyway; and he thought, ’well, they won’t lock us up there, we’ll be right there,’ and you’d be able to do something useful. He was put on this ship, the Dunera, which was an old troop carrier and they loaded many more people than were meant to go on that ship and it’s this is what Werner talks about in this little except.
Presenter: Yes I’ll just play it now.
Presenter: There wasn’t enough to eat and so then we were asked, would you like to go to Australia?
Presenter: Was the war still on?
Werner: Oh yes, all that was the beginning of the war, and so I volunteered to go to Australia.
Presenter: Did you know anything about Australia?
Werner: No, but I thought, I knew it was on the other side of the world and I had the feeling that they wouldn’t put us into another camp when we got there.
Werner: But they did, of course [laughs].
Presenter: What was the trip over like for you?
Werner: Now that was the Dunera, you may of have heard of it, it became a famous ship, they made a film of it, The Dunera boys. So it was a kind of troop carrier and they took us to Australia and they were under the impression that we were fifth columnists …
Presenter: Who’s this, the English or the Australians?
Werner: English, military English soldiers, and as far as we could find out they thought we were fifth columnists, you see.
Presenter: Do you think that seemed to affect the way they treated you generally?
Werner: Yes, oh very much so. There were lots of people afterwards who complained and thought it was terrible but when you thought it all happened in the middle of a war, you know, when people fought battles and so on, so I always felt that I was against making a fuss about it.
Presenter: You had a degree of understanding.
Werner: Yes. They did not really beat us, they did not really maltreat us. They pinched out clothes, and so on. So we came to Australia and that was, they treated us very well.
Presenter: Can you remember how long it took you to get across to Australia?
Werner: What was good was it was a quick journey because it was a troop carrier.
Presenter: Oh, ok.
Werner: It went straight there and you know it brought troops back, so it was six weeks I think.
Presenter: Oh, that was quick.
Werner: We had to go around Africa because the Suez Canal …
Presenter: So we get a bit of a sense there of Werner’ journey.
Roger: I wanted to play that because that interview is in the collection and it just gives a feel for hearing his voice. That was recorded in the last year of his life and that is interesting because Werner’s experience of both the trip on the Dunera and also, well, not so much the internment camp because everyone has a reasonably positive experience with that. The trip on the Dunera as he mentioned became quite controversial, and all I know is that he says that he didn’t ever witness some of the, atrocities might be too strong a word, but some of the rough handling and the beatings that some other internees experienced. He may have just been on a different part of the ship. Apart from anything, I think age is a big factor in how people experience something like that. Werner was 18 at this stage and I can remember when I was 18! You’re up for an adventure if things are a bit rough. He didn’t get seasick, he fell in the first night they were at sea – which was an incredibly rough night by all accounts – he fell in with the guy next to him who happened to be Felix Werder, who ended up being a composer and a music critic, and they were talking philosophy so Werner’s mind was elsewhere immediately [laughs]. They were stepping over, you know he talks about that in his memoir, they’re stepping over these prone characters who were vomiting and Werner was not one to be fussed by that, yet I can imagine the indignity of that if you happened to have been a middle-aged professor from Freiburg and having that sort of trip.
Presenter: And I think what’s interesting too, is that you get a sense through that recording of the way he reflects on it and the way he handled himself and the way, as you say, his mind was elsewhere. And actually some of the notebooks that he kept while he was interned aren’t that much about internment at all, are they Roger?
Roger: That’s right. And once again, as a book biographer that was a disappointment. There are, along with these letters in German, notebooks. One of them has ‘Camp A-14’ written on the front, and I thought, ‘Oh, fantastic.’ And I opened it up and there’s all these screeds of words there and I thought this will be wonderful, day-to-day life and how he was experiencing it, but not at all. It was all poetry [laughs]. So he was writing poems. There’s a few of them that are in English. This one is at least referring a little bit to the weather and the dust.
Raindrops drum down and wash the dust away that settle on this too, too brittle clay
But this is more the sort of thing that he was ruminating about
The time is out of joint, past and future crumble relentlessly, they are destroyed every second humbled by a million pestles in a million mortars. So life is only lived in the present, lived intensely, its emotional capacity ransacked, every opportunity looted for novel sensation, every experience exploited to quench insatiable sensuousness and no humiliation spared to satisfy insensate sexuality.
And I think this is Werner’s experience of internment, trying on all these different identities, philosophically. At one stage he was hanging out with the Hassidim Orthodox Jews; he was influenced by the communists; there was a strong communist group amongst them. Also, in his memoir, which is quite rare for the time, in this all-male environment, he talks about his fumbling sexuality. You know he hadn’t had much of a chance for that before he arrived there and as it turned out he discovered he wasn’t gay but he was very attracted to the sorts of experiences as we have read about in boarding schools. So he had these infatuations, and I think the kind of candour to have written about that in the 1960s was helpful.
Presenter: And so by 1942 he was released and his first decision was to head back to England.
Roger: Somewhere he says that he was under the illusion that he was European and that that meant something and that he wanted to go back. It’s still not clear to me whether he was a pacifist at that stage because, and later on as we’ll discuss, he started writing articles for the Guardian and some of these were discursive things, others were fictional, and many of the fictional ones were only lightly veiled autobiographical things. One of the characters in there had certainly tried to join the army. I think he hadn’t wanted to join the army. I think he went upon returning to England to the Isle of Man briefly. I know his friend who he’d met at the internment camp in Tatura, Peter Dane, he definitely did go to the Isle of Man. His memory was that Werner didn’t, that’s a little bit confused, but he wanted to go back to England and he went back to England, and strangely it seems from this distance he converted to Christianity and the details of that remain a little hazy. One thing we do know is that while he was in the internment camps in Hay and Tatura he read the Bible as literature, really. The Quakers were giving bibles out and Sydney University and SCM too, I think Melbourne University had provided books and amongst those were the Bible and Werner read it and was really taken with it.
In fact, that’s where we jump forward, when he reflects on this at perhaps the height of his media profile in England in around ’68. This was a television program that he was on, a series that was called Dialogue with Doubt and he was in conversation with John Mortimer. The topic they gave it when they published it as a book was Art and imagination. He’d just had a brief reflection on his childhood of being Jewish in Berlin at that time, and he says here:
[Reads from book]
I became a refugee. I came over to England and through various experiences – passing through a stage of asceticism and a belief in Oscar Wilde; a state of communism when I believed in Marx and Lenin – I suddenly came in touch with the Bible. I came to like it enormously and it meant very much to me. And then through a rather traumatic experience – when the news of the concentration camps came through, and I knew that my parents had been among those who were in them – probably from a kind of panic I fled into some kind of belief which had all the answers. This is very simply put. It wasn’t as simple as all that but something like that is probably behind it.
And then Mortimer comes back at him and says by being Jewish that he might have embraced the Jewish religion and Werner said
Yes, though it’s actually very strange that that never occurred to me. Somehow when I came to the Bible, although the Old Testament spoke to me most powerfully, the New Testament also spoke. I think that if in those days if I had met a really interesting Rabbi I would probably have become a Liberal or an Orthodox Jew. I happened to meet a Lutheran pastor and somehow, it was really almost by accident, I became Christian, but then I must admit that for a number of years it meant very much to me. I believed; and that gives you a wonderful feeling because everything suddenly does fall into place. The world becomes a much more ordered place and it releases an enormous amount of energy in you because you haven’t to ask any more questions, the answers are there. And then gradually the answers faded, the questions became more interesting, more and more interesting, and today of course I have reached the stage where I am much more interested in the questions than in any answers.
I don’t really know the details, but there was a Lutheran community that he became involved in and they were hoping to go back to Germany as missionaries to help the Germans with the reconstruction.
Presenter: So how long after he became a parish priest did he then begin authoring some of the books that he’s known for?
Roger: Pretty early on. He’d studied theology at Lincoln Theological College and then he became a curate or assistant curate, whatever the term is, in Manchester and then was given a parish to look after in Lostock which is north-west of Bolton. That was 1954 when he took up that position and then he started writing pretty soon after that, started writing these things for the Guardian. Someone encouraged him to send one off and he did, and it got taken up and then for the next ten years or so he did that regularly. And he wrote a book that was published in about 1958 called Irreligious reflections on the Christian Church, and that was his first book, that was a SCM book which he later disowned because it was too Orthodox [laughs]. That was in ’58 and after that he began collaborating with his wife Lotte Hensl. She became Lotte Pelz and she also was a survivor of the Holocaust. She was an Austrian Jew and she’d come over to England as well, and they started working on these books and the dynamic of that collaboration, I mean collaborations, always interest me. I think Werner did most of the writing but Lotte lent some polish and flair to some things, that’s according to their son.
Presenter: And so they co-authored the book God is no more.
Roger: Yeah. God is no more was the book that if Werner was known ... I mean it’s hard for us to imagine back into that early ‘60s time when these things mattered. And in that sense I think the secularisation that Werner was a part of within the church outran him. In a sense it became, in a very short time … as soon as you stepped out of the church it wasn’t really of much interest to people, you know, this thing about having a more radical understanding of and an irreligious understanding of the words of Jesus, seeing them as disturbing rather than as consoling. That didn’t really have a very big audience in ten years’ time, but at that time the Anglican Church was involved in what became known as the ‘Honest to God debate’, which was a book by the Bishop of the diocese that Werner was in, John Robinson, and these things were a bit of a hot topic, this liberalisation within the church and sort of a scandal, you know, these are priests and they don’t believe in this stuff and ...
Presenter: Well particularly with a title like God is no more, it’s–
Roger: Well that’s rather controversial, yeah.
Presenter: It is.
Roger: And so Werner quickly became a kind of, you know the way the media works, he was the renegade priest that they’d pull out and he had that kind of profile. Yeah God is no more, and then they wrote another book True believers, and by that stage Werner had left the parish and he had set himself up. He had a Rowntree Fellowship at that stage and so he was setting himself up as an independent kind of writer and commentator, and he wrote his memoir in ’64.
Presenter: And quite a character, I mean one of the other pieces that you mentioned to me is about this article called ‘My obituary’, where I suppose it highlights just how, I guess, he didn’t take himself that seriously in some respects.
Roger: He does. I think I like this article because it reveals the humorous side to him. There was always a very playful side to him underneath the seriousness, I mean Werner did think we should take life seriously. One of the things that he did in Lostock which fires my imagination if you think of 1954 Lostock – this is Lancashire, an old mill town pretty run down; the industry’s died; these phlegmatic characters that if the stereotypes hold and Werner and his wife, these exotic characters, turning up there – and Werner in his first sermon reputedly said, ‘I don’t want anyone to come to church out of obligation, out of habit, you only come if you want to come.’ And then the next week there was about three people in the congregation [laughs] but they snapped into action and they thought ‘we’ll write plays for them’ and so they got people involved in these performances.
Werner was very early in his concern for nuclear armaments and this is reflected in this article in a backhand kind of way. He started this Lostock group and it had other groups that sprang up in its name, which was a sort of precursor to the P&D movement. This was another find for me, I thought fantastic. This is the, I think it’s called the Bolton journal or Guardian or something, the local newspaper which Werner had obviously contributed quite a lot in trying to push his various barrows, mainly the anti-nuclear thing, and they had run this series called My Obituary where they got prominent people within the community to write their own obituaries, sort of a morbid idea really, and it starts, oh it’s the Bolton journal, and it’s 2021 and it’s the centenary of his birth … I won’t read that but that’s the framing thing for what he does, where he’s actually become posthumously famous and so he’s having a joke at his own sort of hubris and ambition, but then it says, ‘You might be interested to read the obituary that appeared in the Bolton evening news on October 3rd 1990, the day after his death by leukaemia.’ So this is the supposed obituary:
[Reads from newspaper]
We announce with regret the death at Bolton and District General Hospital of the Reverend Werner Pelz who has been curate-in-charge at St Thomas and St Johns Lostock for six years. Although he lived for the greater part of his life on the fringe of Bolton and never very fully entered into the civic activities of our town he has been a well-known figure nevertheless.
His photograph – which we are sorry to say, has remained the same since 1954, the year of his arrival at Lostock – has appeared regularly in the Bolton evening news in connection with appeals for refugees, protests against the hydrogen bomb, protests against certain aspects of British Foreign Policy and against television in general.
The Reverend W Pelz was born in Germany 69 years ago. He had to leave his country on account of the activities of a certain Adolph Hitler who had been dictator of Germany before and during the last but one war. He carried certain aspects of his Teutonic upbringing through the whole of his life and he took things very seriously, and if some of the plays he wrote were actually very funny it was probably due to the influence of his wife who was born in Austria, where people are much more lighthearted.
Yes, he did dabble in literature as well as in theology. He wrote numerous books and plays, none of which were very successful; the continental strain in them was too marked. His parishioners could escape from his impetuous efforts to make them think only by staying away from church and by not reading his parish magazine. It has been reliably reported by various witnesses that some of the people that now and again tried to join his Bible study group or his literary class suffered from insomnia for many nights after they were so disturbed by the intensity of the thinking that was going on in those little groups.
But though Mr Pelz’s view of the world in general, and of Britain and the Anglican church in particular, was rather jaundiced and often very pessimistic, it must be admitted that he was always very sincere in his opinions. He really believed to his dying day that TV was a bad thing, especially for youngsters, although it has by now been proved statistically that juvenile delinquency has dropped by two and a half per cent since the introduction of three-dimensional technicolour stereophonic transmission and the discontinuance of censorship.
It goes on, he’s imagining there’s been a third world war and the bomb’s been dropped and nowhere near as many people as he thought had been killed by the nuclear explosion. ‘His death has taken from Bolton one of the very few remaining old-fashioned and otherworldly characters whose ineffectiveness did not detract from his loveableness …’ So he’s having a big dig at his own … seeing himself in a prophetic kind of way and I think that’s quite –
Presenter: It’s quite lovely. I just want to jump ahead to the last little chapter in this rather amazing story, which is his move back to Australia, and what was the catalyst for that.
Roger: One of the patterns when you look at a life I guess is you have to try and make sense of it. Just talking a little earlier, one of the unpublished manuscripts that Werner wrote which was kind of a magnum opus of his later life was called The curse of abstraction and so of course when you look at a life you have to abstract and make patterns in a way. I guess you don’t have to but if you’re trying to write a book about ... one of the patterns is how Werner did see himself as marginal, he positioned himself or was positioned at the margins in whatever he did. So even in the internment camps he wasn’t one of the central players. He didn’t go off and do his matriculation, which was offered and would have helped him later on. He was too dreamy; he was off walking the perimeter fence and looking at the stars and writing his poetry. He was on the periphery of that and then he joined the church, sort of stumbled into that, and straight away rushed to the margins of the church and for someone who really didn’t have much faith he finds himself in the church.
So it was really after he’d drifted out of the church that he’d had these years of writing where he wrote different books. Another one called I am Adolf Hitler that he co-wrote with Lottie was a kind of an imaginative effort ventriloquising Hitler in the bunker just in the last days. And he did a PhD at Bristol University in sociology – and actually this is something he wrote for the La Trobe Bulletin at the end, so we’re jumping right to the end of his academic career which was only 15 years, but I read it again like the Dialogue with Doubt as it reflects back on it – he writes there, ‘I came to sociology quintuply marginal. Getting on for 50 I’d wasted a lifetime not doing sociology.’ He’s joking then because what he’d done was rush to the margins of academia and sociology and was very critical of them. ‘As an ex-parson, ex-theologian I had lost one faith and was in search of another. How un-academic’. So for Werner it was always about the search or the making of meaning and university was a place where he felt that should be enabled, so he railed against all parts of the university that didn’t enable that. ‘My mind shaped by German rather than Anglo Saxon philosophy was soft to the point of actually doubting facts. I still believed that literature, religion, the arts could directly contribute to sociological as well as any other understanding.’
So his PhD thesis was converted into a book and was published by Routledge and was called The scope of understanding in sociology and it was in that that he – and this was the remarkable thing about the man that I knew in his 60s and 70s and 80s – was his erudition. He’d read over so many disciplines and he’d brought that inter-disciplinary breadth to his teaching at La Trobe.
Finally I entered sociology at the top floor as a PhD candidate doing research before I had been researched. All this made me terrifyingly insecure. What did I know? Did I know anything? And out there were hundreds of students waiting for me to tell them. At least I could sympathise with their anxieties. On the other hand, as a latecomer, I had a rather pristine vision of my new discipline, high expectations but coupled with radical critique. Extraordinary luck had brought me to La Trobe. Our department was/is open, cosmopolitan, tolerant. I was left to find my feet in my own time, to develop my peculiar perspectives in my own way. From the start I loved lecturing, the sharing of a continuing quest. The tutorials and seminars even more.
This is one of the remarkable things about him. Most academics do the teaching part of it and the marking, well not all of them obviously, but there’s some reluctance in that that’s kind of not their real work, their real work’s the research. Werner as you’re seeing, because he’s an outsider within it, he wasn’t really worrying so much about getting his work published, he was really interested in the teaching.
For 13 years I learned at least as much from the students, many of them mature, as I had ever learned from the grand masters of sociology, philosophy etc. Trying to communicate the latter’s insights, theories, visions, hunches, I could make more sense of them and sometimes my students would make me wonder whether the great ones had actually made much sense. Gradually but inexorably I was driven to question certain basic academic assumptions and practises ever more radically.
And he goes on and he ends it, ‘In the meantime let me add more gratefully that I have never enjoyed my work more than at La Trobe,’ and that certainly, as one of his students, you know, it was like he’d found his vocation. He may have presented that way in his earlier selves and careers I don’t know. He and Lottie had broken up. Lottie was a very damaged character, perhaps not so much by the Holocaust but by what had preceded it for her. Her mother committed suicide and Lottie had discovered her mother with her head in the oven. She’d also been sexually abused and so she there’s this thing that these two when they met at the end of ’42,’43, there are these lost souls thrown together as refugees must often experience and there was an incredible spark intellectually and they had a symbiosis happening in one sense but Lottie was psychologically very traumatised. People had been begging Werner to leave her for years but he hadn’t, and he didn’t want to even at the end but he did, and he became involved with a woman who became his second wife, which was Mary Zobel. Then he and her and her three children came out to Australia which was a return for Werner, though he never really made much of that, at the end of 1973 for him to take up this position at La Trobe.
Presenter: He actually kept up quite strong correspondence with his son from his first marriage.
Roger: He did. Peter remained in England and Werner, that correspondence I’ve had access to it – and again like the photos, I’m quite confident will end up in the collection and will be a great addition to it because Peter’s kept all Werner’s letters through the ‘70’s and 80’s. There are some from the ‘90s in the collection already and they had a wonderful kind of relationship, in correspondence anyway, and Werner’s trying to convince Peter to come out. Peter had been quite damaged by his experience of growing up, as often happened with Holocaust survivors. Their parenting skills were not crash hot and it is one of the ironies that Werner and Lottie thought they were saving the world but their own son was quite neglected in many ways, and so he’s had to wrestle with that but his relationship with Werner ended very well. It is the letters – and Peter, his son, thinks this too – that is some of Werner’s best writing because letters have the qualities that he had in friendship and it was that in conversation where he would bring that incredible amount of experience and erudition but also a capacity to listen and to engage with what his correspondent has been talking about and just expressed himself very well.
I was going to read one of those letters. Werner retired at the end of 1986 and he moved with Mary to Healesville and he remained there until he died 20 years later in 2006. Werner, I don’t think wanted to retire from La Trobe but at that stage you had to when you were 65, but he took his never-ending curiosity and desire to learn and learn through teaching into the community at Healesville and was involved in U3A groups, numerous groups. In the last years of his life he was still, there was a film group and there was this one group, the Tuesday Group which I think had begun as a U3A group and it lasted for 19 years. I think it’s still going in his absence now. So he continued that work though I know that he often felt very frustrated that he hadn’t found the right outlet to make the impact he felt he should.
Now this is a letter from 1995 to Gabby and Peter. Peter Dane was a fellow that he met in the internment camps and he went back to England, and Werner and Lottie had a lot to do with Gabby and Peter in those post-war years. Peter had done the sensible thing and matriculated while he was in the internment camps and he went on and became a lecturer in English literature and spent some time in Uganda. He’s lived an amazing life, there’s been a film made of his life. He’s still alive, I interviewed him last year. He’s an incredible character. He then in the 60s settled in New Zealand and was a lecturer at the University of Auckland. They kept in touch and they were lifelong friends, sparring partners a little bit. This is the second paragraph of this letter.
Did I really once upon a time send you a joyful letter? I can’t remember. You say it was last July but if I did I am very glad for I suddenly realised just how misleading I often must be in my pessimistic, prophetic, doom-oozing letters. Sure, the world is a pretty troubled place and vast numbers of people are pushed into or kept in lifelong situations compared with which a life sentence in the first world spells sheer luxury. Not to mention the sufferings of people who outwardly seem to be well off. It is my trouble that throughout the greater part of my life I have been made and kept too much aware of the many kinds of pain we inflict on each other in a crazy society which is interested in anything except human concerns. But …
One. These troubles concern me so much because all the time I recognise the beauty of the earth, the marvellous potential of ordinary people, the numberless ways in which we could learn to help each other develop rather than stunt our capacities.
Two. I myself feel that I have remarkably little to complain of with any reasonableness. I have had undeservedly little pain in my life and the nearest I have come to genuine suffering was always through those near to me who suffered so much more than I. Most of the time I am very aware of this privilege, personally, and not forgetting the diverse drawbacks that are a universal human condition I have led a rich and joyful life. I have been granted a lively imagination, much time for thought and learning, good health, fitness and felt so often so bad about this world of ours precisely because so few in it seem to have been given the chances that were given to me and why.
So please let this one joyful letter stand for the many others I should have written. Not as an excuse but as a kind of explanation. I may add that for better, for worse, rightly or wrongly, I’ve always understood my life primarily as a task, not a gift; or rather, being quite appreciative of the gift I could never help judging my life in terms of the task that gradually grew to gigantic, unimaginable proportions which, in turn, made me judge my life as an ever more total failure. What, in the light of my understanding of the global situation, have I actually done about it and for it? What it anyway?
Of course all this is in some ways ridiculous, and some unconscious megalomania may receive its punishment in the process; but remember once upon a time, almost to the days of our childhood, the world denoted a much more manageable part or aspect of that which we now think of by this name. All religions enunciated an understanding of life in which the individual was a genuine part of, and therefore responsible for, her family, tribe, world. That understanding must still be an almost forgotten part of our soul’s makeup and it may be my luck or bad luck to be rather painfully conscious of that by-now useless or unemployable part of conscience. Does this make sense to you? At this moment of outpouring it does to me. But that too may be an illusion.
I think that sums up many of the themes and some of the conundrums that I’m trying to deal with in writing about Werner’s life.
Presenter: I suppose my last question is about you. What was the experience of the fellowship like, to delve deeper into someone’s life that you were so involved in?
Roger: Well it was wonderful. I’d never thought of writing about Werner’s life while he was alive. If I had he would have been pretty resistant to it, to be honest. I think though he would have been happy if I can do something creative with it. He was not without ego; he would have been flattered as well on some level I guess. That thought came to me as I started to write an obituary after he died and then spoke at his funeral and then there were a couple of generating things. One was that in sentiments similar to this expressed here, that later, towards a year or so before he died, he talked to me about how he felt. He didn’t mind dying but he felt that it seemed such a waste that the experiences and all the reading that he’d done would die with him. So he was trying to impersonalise that as something different from him and so one thing I thought well maybe by writing about his life I could give that another, you know, give that chord another strum or something.
The other was this sense of disappointment that he’d failed. So that was both this tension of, he’s one of the most humble people that I knew – and that may have been a function of knowing him in his later life – but then this underlying hubris, what was he expecting to achieve and that he was disappointed with what he’d done, because from most people’s perspectives he’d done quite a lot. I used to say, well you’ve influenced all these people teaching, and he had no truck with that.
To answer your question, the Creative Fellowship gave me the impetus to enact it and it’s been a great journey for me to trace through not only his life but about his ideas and how they developed, which is so central to his life because he was, as we’ve talked about, had these extreme experiences but really a lot of it he was living in his head. Which, again, it’s another one of these paradoxes which he would not shy away from, but he is against abstraction and yet he’s living in his head rather that reflecting on what is actually happening to him in any specifics. It’s been a great privilege to be able to immerse myself in that.
Presenter: I must say it’s been a great privilege to hear more about Werner’s life and it’s lovely to have you come along this evening and share with us his stories and his letters. Would you please thank Roger Averill, everybody.