Jewish Ozzies' Inter.Net
The electronic voice of the Australian Jewish Community
by Philip Mendes
Part Seven: Ukrainian/Jewish Relations and the Nazi War Crimes Bill
Helen Demidenko's novel was inspired by the Australian Nazi War Crimes Bill passed by Parliament in December 1988. The passage of the Bill and the subsequent prosecution of two alleged Nazi war criminals - one of them being a Ukrainian pensioner living in Adelaide - provoked tensions between Australian Jews and Ukrainians.
The official Ukrainian viewpoint - as represented by the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organizations - was that Nazi war criminals found living in Australia should be brought to justice. However, concern was expressed about the admission of Soviet evidence, and the possibility that allegations against particular individuals could lead to group defamation.
However, some Ukrainians endorsed the campaign against the Bill led by the right-wing Captive Nations Council, the conservative Melbourne Age journalist Michael Barnard, and the arch-conservative National Civic Council's News Weekly journal. Some of their key arguments are repeated in Demidenko's book: that Ukrainians and other Eastern European collaborators were driven by their suffering under Stalin to seek whatever allies were available; and that the War Crimes Bill should also address the crimes of Jewish communists who collaborated with Soviet puppet regimes in war time Europe.
Such arguments provoked anger in the Jewish community, and accusations that the Ukrainians and other Eastern European communities were unwilling to "confront their own pasts and repudiate their own mass murderers". Ukrainians responded with familiar accusations concerning Jewish prominence in the Soviet State apparatus. Similar tensions emerged between Jews and Ukrainians amidst the passage of Nazi war crime bills in Britain, the USA, and Canada.
Helen Demidenko's book revived the simmering Jewish/Ukrainian antagonism. The initial spark was provided by the respected Jewish historian and Holocaust survivor Jacques Adler who described the book as "an apologia for genocide". Adler added that "No Holocaust survivor's testimony has indicated any substantial evidence of Ukrainian compassion, humanity or active assistance".
Adler's critique provoked a reply from Stefan Romaniw, President of the Australian Federation of UkrainianOrganizations. Romaniw insisted that many Ukrainians had saved Jews from the Holocaust. Romaniw also denied that the Ukrainian nationalist government of Petliura had committed anti-Semitic acts.
A further contribution by George Jaworsky, the Director of public affairs for the Association of Ukrainians in Victoria, argued that Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust was "the almost inevitable consequence of a history of mutual conflict between the two communities that went back for centuries". Echoing Demidenko's thesis concerning Jewish responsibility for the Cheka's attacks on the Ukrainian peasantry, Jaworsky concluded that "We are all victims of history. All our hands are stained with blood".
Jaworsky's article infuriated the Jewish community since it implied that there was a Jewish tradition of hatred and violence towards Ukrainians that matched the 350 year old record of Ukrainian violence towards Jews. The President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Isi Leibler, described Jaworsky's thesis as "outrageous". Leibler called on the Ukrainian community to join the post-war generation of Germans in acknowledging their history and repudiating without qualification the crimes of their forefathers.
At this point, the Ukrainian communal leader Stefan Romaniw initiated talks with Mr Leibler in an attempt to defuse the row. The meeting led to improved relations between the two communities. Mr Romaniw publicly endorsed the former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk's statement accepting responsibility for Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust. And Mr Leibler praised the "impeccable behaviour" of the current Ukrainian Government towards its Jewish minority. Arrangements were also made for a representative of the Melbourne Jewish community to attend the Ukraine National Day Celebrations.
In the long run, the Demidenko affair may possibly strengthen, rather than fracture relations between the Australian Jewish and Ukrainian communities.
Part Eight: The Demidenko Debate
Helen Demidenko's thesis provoked criticism from numerous public commentators. The initial criticism came from journalist Pamela Bone in the Melbourne quality daily The Age. Bone accused Demidenko of attempting to shift the blame for the Holocaust from the perpetrators to the victims.
Further criticism was mounted by prominent conservative commentator Gerard Henderson who called The Hand That Signed The Paper a "loathsome book... that would give comfort to racists and anti-Semites". Henderson said the novel contained "an amoral and historically inaccurate message".
Another conservative commentator Robert Manne offered a more detailed historical refutation of the book's thesis. Manne described the book as characterized by its "moral vacuity, vulgarity, historical ignorance and overt anti-Semitism". Manne emphasized that Demidenko's erroneous identification of Jews with Bolshevism had "provided the Nazis and their East European collaborators with their warrant for genocide".
On the Left, Political Science lecturer Peter Christoff argued in the marxist journal Arena that the novel "with its uncorrected historical distortions, its silences, omissions and moral relativism... serves as a subtle hand-maiden to overt anti-Semitic revisionism". Christoff claimed that in Europe the book would never have been published, let alone secured a national literary prize. Christoff attributed its success in Australia to the "naivete and ignorance, moral complacency and Anglocentrism of the judging panel".
Former Labor Party Minister Barry Cohen called the book "one of the nastiest anti-Semitic tracts in recent memory". Cohen asked how Demidenko's defenders would react if an Anglo-Celtic writer produced a similar book justifying the massacres of Australian Aborigines because some Aborigines had murdered white settlers. Cohen argued that the Demidenko debate gave credence to the belief that "anti-Semitism appears the only form of racism that is now respectable".
A number of prominent leading literary figures also criticized the book. The editor of Southerly magazine Ivor Indyk called on the Miles Franklin judges either to strip Demidenko of her award or to stand down. Indyk argued that Demidenko "had been guilty of systematically deceiving members of Australia's literary community. Not to revoke her award would be to condone this kind of behaviour as acceptable in an Australian author".
The Age theatre critic Guy Rundle called the Demidenko affair "perhaps the most shameful literary deception of recent times, a shameful use of the tragedy of lived history for self- advancement. It has revived discredited and mendacious hypotheses about the background to Eastern European anti- Semitism and complicity in the Holocaust, and caused unimaginable pain to the survivors of the Shoah, their families and communities". Rundle called the literary community "amoral... for failing to acknowledge some fundamental truths about the relationship between history and literature"
The editor of Australian Book Review Helen Daniel lamented the damage done to the credibility of the literary community by the Demidenko affair. Daniel claimed that the community was seen "as condoning anti-Semitism in the cause of literature", and suggested that the Miles Franklin Award had "become a laughing stock". The Arts Editor of The Age Louise Adler said that she was "firmly convinced that if the victims of history in the novel had been either gay or black the book would never have seen the light of day".
Demidenko's supporters - including much of the literary establishment and numerous newspaper columnists - tended to confine their defence primarily to asserting Demidenko's right to literary creativity and freedom of speech, rather than defending the historical accuracy of the book.
Broadcaster and Miles Franklin judge Jill Kitson argued that the book told us about many Australians who "carry some kind of dead heart of shame or guilt" about the actions of "the past generation or generations". Kitson suggested that the book actualises what Hannah Arendt called the "banality of evil". Kitson admitted that "whether the book might be regarded as anti-Semitic was not one of the things that concerned our discussions. We were much more concerned about its literary qualities... the fact that it was anti-Semitic or not anti-Semitic was taken as read. It was not something we felt should come into our discussions".
When confronted with the revelations of Demidenko's fabricated Ukrainian identity, Kitson responded that "the author's background... is not what the judging of a literary prize is about". Kitson suggested that the revelations made the book "an even more extraordinary feat of literary imagination".
Marion Halligan, Chair of the Literary Board of the Australia Council, defended Demidenko's "right to her material. Again, a bit of imagination's needed; what would you do if, growing up, you discovered your relations were not only Nazis, but concentration camp guards? Writing a book seems an excellent way of trying to understand it, for both writer and reader".
Morag Fraser, editor of the Left-liberal Jesuit weekly Eureka Street, offered a qualified defense of the novel, suggesting that it did provide some insight into the "cultural pathologies that spawn violence".
Prominent journalist Kate Legge argued fictional novels should not be subjected to tests of political correctness. Legge defended Demidenko's right to "artistic freedom". Her colleague at The Australian newspaper Frank Devine accused critics of Demidenko of "pedagogic bullying". Devine said Australians wanted to "think and talk about important questions" instead of being censored by "ideologues and careerist demagogues". Another journalist Roy Eccleston called Demidenko a "dissenter" from political correctness. Eccleston argued that Demidenko's novel provided grounds for "debate and disagreement, not condemnation".
Brisbane journalist and friend of Helen Demidenko Andrew Stafford criticized the "sheer virulence of the attacks upon her (Demidenko's) character". Stafford claimed that "Aside from the media war, she's been spat on in the street, threatened repeatedly with rape and death, and had dog shit sent to her through the post".
To the extent that they did defend the book's thesis, Demidenko's defenders appeared to do so primarily for reasons of historical ignorance rather than hostility to Jews. Australian culture remains highly insular and parochial. Most Australian literary figures are not intimately familiar with the long history of European anti-Semitism or the central role within it played by the "Judeo Communist" thesis.
Some commentators were, however, clearly influenced by anti- Semitic assumptions. One example was the Melbourne University academic Judith Armstrong. Armstrong endorsed Demidenko's account of Jewish Bolshevik atrocities against Ukrainians. According to Armstrong, the Jews controlled Ukrainian business prior to World War One. Then following the Bolshevik takeover, Stalin used Jewish communists to crush Ukrainian nationalism via collectivization and famine.
Other exceptions included letter writers to The Australian who referred critically to the "power of the Zionist lobby" in their defense of the book. Demidenko's friend Andrew Stafford suggested in reference to alleged links between the Holocaust and the Ukrainian famine that "Jews are just as capable and, at times, as guilty of racism themselves". The journalist Frank Devine attacked Jewish communal leader Isi Leibler as "representing the unacceptable bullyboy face of anti-anti- Semitism" for his vigorous criticism of Demidenko.
Following Demidenko's exposure as a fraud in August 1995, prominent literary figures accused her critics of conducting a campaign commensurate with the attacks on Salman Rushdie. Patrick White's biographer David Marr claimed that pressure was being placed on Demidenko's publisher "to withdraw the book from bookshops. It's Satanic Verses time". Thomas Shapcott, the Director of the National Book Council, spoke of "lynching parties and pious (if belated) stress on moral correctness and political responsibility to the terrible facts of history".
Miles Franklin Award judge Dame Leonie Kramer claimed the episode "calls into question Australia's claim to be a tolerant and fair-minded society". Kramer condemned the "sustained and vitriolic attack on the book and its author", and alleged that Demidenko had been subjected to a fatwa like Salman Rushdie".
None of these defences, however, addressed the central argument of Demidenko's critics: that Demidenko's alleged multicultural background - now found to be bogus - had been a key factor in attracting first prize from some award judges. Now that Demidenko has been exposed as an Anglo-Australian, it was only reasonable to expect that the panel's selection criteria should be open to re-consideration. And contrary to the above allegations, none of Demidenko's critics had ever called for her book to be censored or banned. They had only argued that her historical errors should be acknowledged and condemned.
Part Nine: The Fabricated Identity of Helen Demidenko
When Helen Demidenko received her Miles Franklin Award, she claimed to be of Ukrainian origin, wore a Ukrainian peasant blouse, and made part of her acceptance speech in Ukrainian. In an earlier speech to the Sydney Writers Festival, she spoke about her grandmother's poor English, her childhood involvement in Ukrainian youth organizations, and her embarrassment at her parent's foreign behaviour and appearance.
Yet in August, Demidenko admitted to being a fake. Her real name was Helen Darville and she did not have any Ukrainian ancestry. She said she had taken the name of Demidenko "in empathy with the characters I was creating... This was my creative world... The persona adopted for my writing took over my life - this is the way I write".
Since her public confession, Demidenko has retreated into the privacy of her family and maintained her silence. According to a recent investigative article, she blames her old high school teachers for exposing her real identity and believes everything would have been all right if they had kept their mouths shut. She has displayed no further remorse for fooling the entire Australian literary community.
In the words of Michael Heyward, author of a book on the famous Ern Malley literary hoax, "Demidenko doesn't seem like a hoaxer at all. If she were she might have issued a statement explaining her motives, because every untruth has a motive: she might have said that she wanted to highlight the sentimental evaluation of multicultural writing or that she wanted to expose how non-literary factors influence the ways we receive books or that her use of the work of other writers was a kind of puzzle for readers - would they see that this original Ukrainian voice wasn't Ukrainian at all? None of this has happened".
Analysis of Demidenko's public utterances and background would suggest that she is a compulsive liar and little more. For example, she claimed at various times to be a tutor or lecturer in the Queensland University English Department, a student of topology in mathematics, a physics tutor, and even a lawyer. She also claimed to have been a model, a champion gymnast and a ballerina.
She claimed her brother Iain, who works for an agricultural supply company, was a tattooed bikie called Jan. She claimed most of her father's family (from Scunthorpe in England) were killed by Jewish Communist Party officials. At one stage, she submitted an article to the university newspaper which was found to be plagiarised from the work of a prominent Australian writer.
Yet, most young Anglo-Australians with vivid imaginations don't manage to write award-winning books about historical events that took place 50 years ago in Eastern Europe. Helen Demidenko's ability to do so despite her lack of intimate familiarity with Ukrainian culture and history prompts a number of serious questions regarding her motivation and sources.
Firstly, why did she write the book? In her initial presentation as an Irish-Ukrainian, Demidenko claimed that she had written the book to explain the historical motivations of those Ukrainians who had collaborated with the Nazis. She also said that she had experienced as a Ukrainian-Australian a considerable deal of personal unpleasantness as a result of the war crimes trials. Demidenko added that most of her own father's family, including her grandfather, were killed by Jewish Communist Party officials in Vynnytsya.
But, now we know Helen Demidenko is not of Ukrainian origin. We also know that her real name is Darville, and that no members of her family were ever killed by Jewish communists.
Demidenko's former boyfriend, Paul Gadaloff, alleges (perhaps with some personal malice involved) that Demidenko's novel was inspired by anti-Semitic motives. Media commentators Gerard and Anne Henderson have pointed out the similarities between Demidenko's Jew=Communist thesis and the propaganda issued by the anti-Semitic League of Rights. A former President of the Queensland Young Nationals has recalled Demidenko as a vocal apologist for alleged Nazi war criminals. And Demidenko's former friend Natalie Jane Prior says that Demidenko "has some sort of strange hang-up about Jews". Yet, to be fair, Demidenko has denied that she is anti-Semitic, and has "condemned without reservation the perpetrators of the Holocaust".
Perhaps we will not be able to uncover Demidenko's true motivations unless and until we can identify her sources. After all, most young Anglo-Australian writers are not familiar with the intimate details of Ukrainian-Jewish history described with such intensity in Demidenko's book.
Demidenko originally claimed that she gathered her material from oral history interviews with Ukrainian family friends. Yet, it is highly unlikely that an Australian teenager who speaks little or no Ukrainian could conduct competent interviews on such complex matters with elderly Ukrainians who may speak little or no English.
Demidenko's ex-boyfriend Paul Gadaloff who apparently studies Russian language and history claims to have helped Demidenko with her research. His assistance with translations is acknowledged in the Author's Note of her book. Gadaloff says that much of Demidenko's material came from a book titled "The Black Deeds of the Kremlin, a White Book" which contained a series of affidavits from Ukrainians who survived the 1930s famine. However, according to Mr Gadaloff, this book does not make any reference whatsoever to Jews or Jewish involvement in the famine. Nor, he claims, did any of the primary sources they encountered refer to Jews.
We are left with a tentative and somewhat conspiratorial conclusion. Firstly, that Demidenko acquired knowledge of the Ukrainian anti-Semitic thesis regarding Jewish responsibility for the famine from an as yet unrevealed source. Secondly, that Demidenko chose to promote this thesis for reasons having little or nothing to do with her own family background and formative life experiences.
Demidenko's novel subtly distorts the historical context of Ukrainian/Jewish relations. The long history of Ukrainian anti-Jewish violence predating the rise of communism by over two centuries is ignored. The myth of Jewish power and control over world events used by the Nazis to justify their extermination of the Jews is perpetuated.
Yet perhaps what is most worrying is not the contents of the book nor the obvious prejudices of the author, but rather the support granted to the book's thesis by a number of Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian Australians. Further, the reluctance of numerous literary critics and newspaper columnists to accept that the book's literary merit is marred by its crude racism suggests a wider indifference to and/or tolerance for anti- Jewish prejudice.
Nevertheless, many prominent Australian political and literary figures did condemn the book's historical revisionism and anti-Semitism, as did the official representatives of the Australian Ukrainian community. On balance, the book's reception does not necessarily suggest that there is a revival of anti-Semitism in Australia.
Rather, it implies ironically that many Australians do not know or understand the subtleties of racism, anti-Semitism and genocide. Demidenko was able to successfully fool Australians not because they shared her prejudices, but rather because they were fascinated by her description of events and horrors from which they had been geographically and culturally sheltered. They may well be less trusting in their reception of "imaginative displays" of "migrant experience" in the future.
(Philip Mendes is an Assistant Lecturer in Social Work at Monash University and the author of "The New Left, The Jews and the Vietnam War 1965-1972". Lazare Press. Melbourne. 1993).
Copyright © Philip Mendes