The Aunt’s Mirrors – A Memoir

by Damien Freeman

  • Brandl & Schlesinger 2014
  • ISBN: 9781921556463 (paperback)
  • RRP $27 (pb)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

Who Do You Think You Are? is a highly rated television series popularised by high flying guests who are assisted in delving into their genealogical forebears down the generations. Meanwhile is making billions for its backers as ordinary folk invest small amounts and large into testing their DNA against the generations that have gone before them. “Are you related to Royalty?” the adverts ask.

In this quest for identity comes a book that is not the product of genealogical investigation so much as the construction of the story of an extended family of which already fragments are known but much is still to be connected.

Damien Freeman came to his memoir The Aunt’s Mirrors during a two month house sit at his aunt’s home in Sydney’s Cammeray. She had also asked him to peruse some genealogical searches she had made with her mother, his great aunt, into their extended family. What emerged from Freeman’s research was a surprise to Freeman’s Auntie Wease, a surprise that he had found such a fulsome story. As he told a Sydney Institute audience in April 2018:

Ours was not a family that boasted about its forebears. Yet it had preserved fragments, and these fragments of memory told a story about what mattered to these people.  It was not some grand narrative, but it was an expression of value.

 In the mid 1800s, Damien Freeman’s extended family forebears found their way to Australia fleeing pograms in partitioned Poland, the third of the three major Jewish diaspora centres – that of Eastern Europe. One ancestor, however, migrating from England is found to be able to trace Auntie Wease’s (and Damien’s) line back to the days of Oliver Cromwell and the Sephardi Jews of Portugal who found safety in London.

Compiling stories from fragments is what historians do. Yet, this is an intimate story of what might be described as ordinary people. The book is in many ways an Australian version of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With The Amber Eyes – it follows the threads of a remarkable dynasty but one not containing figures of wealth and influence from Europe before and after the world wars. And it probes and challenges us to re-examine our own heritage and Australian roots.

Freeman’s connections are not with figures like Proust but with humbler figures like insurance broker Abraham Marcus Lowenthal, known as A.M. who, in 1926, as president of the Darlinghurst Maccabean Hall (opened by Sir John Monash) reduced its huge debt of £12,000 to £5,000. A.M. also supported and regularly advertised in the main Sydney Jewish newspaper of the day, the Hebrew Standard which today is the Australian Jewish News.

Freeman’s ancestral inheritance is rich in this so-called ordinariness, the ordinary that collectively becomes extraordinary as time and achievements pile on. As with the story of so many Australian families, this is the story of pioneering strength and ingenuity. It is the story of entrepreneurship and collective struggle with some fine outcomes.

Freeman, expressing this continuity and sense of community, writes:

 … families can have attachments to things – books, boxes, photographs, stories, recipes – things that have a shared meaningfulness for them but not others. These are the things that remind us that we form part of something that has a meaning in excess of our individual appetites; something that was meaningful for those before us, and which will continue to be meaningful for those who come after us.  … Sometimes it is only after one has let go of it that one realises how meaningful it still is.

In structuring his memoir, Freeman has ingeniously used various mirrors he found in different rooms of his aunt’s house. Each introduces a chapter and a new aspect or branch of the family’s generations. But the mirror as metaphor also dominates the themes of the book – “… ancestors serve as something of a mirror for looking at the meaningfulness of our own lives. We see ourselves – and more than just ourselves – in a particular light when we look in the mirror,” writes Freeman.

The cover of Freeman’s memoir expresses this dramatically in a photo taken of Auntie Wease as a young woman, dressed for a formal evening ball or dance. She is photographed from behind as she gazes into a dressing table adorned by three mirrors, two of them tilted so as to capture Auntie Wease in three different angles, while an admirer at the door (in the larger version) is not only caught by one mirror panel but the snap captures a fourth view of Auntie Wease.

From the outset, as Freeman traces the genealogical lines, what is striking is the importance of marriage to all the generations and the equal strength of women with men in the handing down of tradition and family connections. The family is key and the family strengthens women’s influence in this dynastic story.

Freeman writes of his ancestor Lewis Loewenthal, who married Matilda Lyons (daughter of Rachel and Abraham) at the York Street synagogue in Sydney in August 1859. The only words uttered by Lewis to be handed down the generations were ones he spoke to his new wife after their marriage: “You can put your plaits up now. You’re a married woman.” This, writes Freeman, “reveals a moment of intimacy, of mirth, but also affirms the importance of the moment of marriage – what our forefather said to his wife upon marrying her seemed an important thing to pass on.”

From settlement in Grafton, New South Wales and Beechworth, Victoria to Sydney and Melbourne, the Loewenthals, the Laskers, the Faders, the Wileys, the descendants of Mandel Brukarz and all their spouses span the decades in Australia. One darker individual manages a small time disgrace in Tasmania. In time, the Great Synagogue in Sydney binds many of them, as does their entrepreneurial spirit. Their rites of passage are recorded in family collections, some in family bibles.

Some are the beneficiaries of lottery windfalls, others are tailors, tinkers, milliners, collectors and sellers of bric a brac and antiques, commercial travellers, some build emporiums like the Lasker Brothers in Hunter Street Newcastle, another becomes a schools inspector, another a Master Mason of the Grand United Lodge of New South Wales and yet another the first manager of the English Scottish and Australia Chartered Bank’s new branch at Waverley in 1881. And then there was Joshua Brukarz, a jeweller who owned Sydney’s The Curio Shop and one of the eight men who attended the initial meeting to set up a fund to build the Sydney Synagogue.

Making their way means making a living. There is no alienation only the energy of making a new life away from the persecution of the old world. Yet it is much of the old world that sustains them. Their ritual Jewish patterns hold strong – although not all keep their faith. Freeman’s great aunt Ruth (Ar-ru) recalls that the recipe for the dumplings made out of unleavened bread (matza clice) used in the celebration of Passover while no secret was closely guarded. Newly married, Ar-ru’s mother showed her the recipe but also insisted that she come over to watch as she prepared the matza clice. Writes Freeman: “It mattered to her that Passover should continue to be observed by her family, even after her death, and that they should continue to roll their matzo balls as her mother had rolled hers.”

In this something ancient, something new memoir, the outlines of Australia’s “new chum” character unfolds. No matter that these are a tribe of central European stock released under the Australian sun. Freeman reflects on the Sydney sun as a transient pleasure that has played its part in helping his forebears to acclimatise to foreign situations until they become true blue in their own way. And yet, it has been the fragments of an old world that has held them together. He writes:

My family’s religion provided it with just such a way of life. These were the customs and attachments by which we lived in Grafton, Rylstone, and Beechworth, as we had in Glasgow, Schneidemuhl, and Warsaw. It was this faith and form of membership that allowed Granny to feel that her destiny was bound up with that of her community. And it was in this way that the ordinary, the everyday, and the unsurprising were rescued from the flow of time and remade as sacrosanct one last time in that hospital room.

Reflecting on his memoir at The Sydney Institute in April 2018, Freeman spoke of the “commitment to a shared form of life that was sustained by an entrepreneurial spirit and which found expression in ordinary everyday objects to which the family had a sentimental attachment” as a thing of the past. Our new age of the self seems to have eclipsed the notion of family inspired by the lives of his forebears.

Yes, the modern world throws up many challenges to traditional family life. Freeman recalls a discussion with his Cambridge tutor over the meaning of “family” in contemporary life. Can family be more than genes? His tutor thought so. But, as our own generations continue to dig for their forebears in new and commercial ways, perhaps the fragments we all take from our genetic collections give hope that the legacy of family and its contributions are not over yet.

Certainly, in this remarkable memoir, there is much for all of us to heed.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History