St Kilda's Cakes
01 February 2004

One institution which has remained unchanged over the last half century is the cake-shops of Acland Street, with their delectable displays.

A slice of 'Polish cheesecake' in the window of a cake-shop in the seaside suburb of St Kilda, Melbourne, roused my interest. St Kilda, once the resort of choice for Melbourne's elite, has an atmosphere of decaying grandeur. Its bars and restaurants change hands rapidly, but one institution which has remained unchanged over the last half century is the cake-shops of Acland Street, with their delectable displays.

Having lived in Poland in the early Nineties, I asked the shop's owner if he was Polish. He replied that he was born in Poland but had left with his parents in 1950, first to Israel and then, in 1967, to Australia. It was another reminder to me that Poland's Jewish culture-all but vanished in Poland itself-has survived in Melbourne.

Polish-Jewish dialogue
In fact, Melbourne has one of the world's highest percentages of holocaust survivors. There is also a large Polish population. This has enabled a Polish-Jewish dialogue, which would be more difficult in Poland itself.

During last year's Melbourne Writers' Festival, the Australian Institute of Polish Affairs brought together in conversation local Jewish author Arnold Zable and Eva Hoffman, the author of Shtetl (Houghton Mifflin, 1997), a history of Poland's Jews. Their conversation struck me as deeply humane-sensitive to the moral complexities facing the men and women on both sides who were caught up in the Nazi extermination programmes and forced to make terrible choices. Above all it was a conversation permeated with compassion and a search for understanding rather than naive moralistic judgements. Those of us in the audience were forced to ask ourselves, 'How might I have acted in these circumstances?-recognizing that it was impossible to be sure of our answer.

Vietnamese journey
Another important population here are the Vietnamese, who came in the Seventies and Eighties. My friend Jimmy remembers his journey as an 11-year-old with 30 others in a small boat. When the boat's engine broke down in the middle of the night, Jimmy's older brother dived overboard to fix it-quite possibly saving all their lives. It is estimated that as many as 40 per cent of the Vietnamese boat people died en route either through drowning or at the hands of pirates. Those who did get here are now an essential part of Australian life.

Thich Phuoc Tan, Abbot of the Quang Minh Temple, is one of those spiritually radiant people whose inner joy is infectious. When he was a child, he recalls, his mother would send him to the local temple 'as her representative'. The pride of this responsibility meant that he took Buddhism more seriously and eventually embarked on a path which led to monasticism. 'Now,' he tells me with a twinkle in his eye, 'I use the same trick with my novices.'

Politician's apology
In a message to a group of 'Stolen Generation' Aboriginals, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser makes that most rare and precious statement by a politician-an apology. Acknowledging that they were removed from their families 'under policies which were cruel and misguided', he goes on to say: 'I wish that, when I was Prime Minister, I had understood better the impact of these policies on your lives. From my heart, I wish to apologize to you for the wrongs which have brought such pain to you and your families.... I am doing all I can to help create a country in which these things can never happen again....'

Friends recently visited a small country town in New South Wales where there is 85 per cent unemployment and where alcoholism and other contributing factors mean that the average life-expectancy for Aboriginal males is 33. Against this background, Fraser's statement is visionary: 'We need Aboriginal leadership. Those who have suffered can help create a compassionate country. Those who have experienced racism can help overcome racism. Those who know both Aboriginal and white Australian cultures can help build respect for our different cultures. If we can do that, Australia will become a country at peace with itself, and will contribute to peace in the world.'

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