Arrived in Australia: 1939
From: Vienna, Austria
Reason for leaving:
Risk of persecution by Nazis
More information — Wikipedia: Anschluss
Where he comes from:
Gus grew up in Vienna, Austria and has clear memories of the first seven and a half years of his life. He remembers the extraordinary tension he experienced when Hitler’s “Anschluss” (annexation of Austria into Greater Germany) took place in 1938. Being half-Jewish and half-Catholic, he was surrounded by school friends and a country that was pro-Hitler, and a family that clearly opposed and was threatened by the movement. He also has many positive memories of his childhood, such as spending summer holidays at a family lakehouse, playing at the back of the belvedere, and the excitement of Christmas with the crunch of fresh snow. He started to experience anti-semitism just before the war started – prior to that living in Austria was very pleasant.
How he got to Australia:
Although only his father was Jewish and the rest of the family were Catholic, staying in Austria was too dangerous and the family (parents and three boys) travelled on a 20,000 tonne Dutch boat called Marnix to seek asylum from the Nazis in Australia. His grandparents took out a mortgage on their house to pay for the expensive and long journey. They were not able to take any money out of Austria and were very fortunate to be helped by generous people along the way. Tragically, Gus’s paternal grandmother died of starvation and cold in a concentration camp in Teresienstadt. Thousands of Jewish/Jewish extraction people came to Australia in 1938-39. They were the first big wave of European immigrants to Australia, which at that time had only about 6.75 million people.
[In Australia] people across different socio-economic classes are friends and are valued for who they are, not for their veneer. In [1930s] Austria that would have been unheard of.
Everything in the early days seemed to be about life before and after immigration – from a little Jewish boy in Vienna to one trying to become an Aussie in Sydney. Although they were very genuine asylum seekers, Gus’s family experienced an interesting mixture of love and hate. There were some people who wholeheartedly accepted them and extended the Australian “fair go” values to them, but a minority, including their neighbour, regarded them as “undesirable people”. The first biggest challenge was to learn the language and Gus recalls “the noisy wall of silence” that surrounded him - he could hear the shrieks of his classmates, but could not understand them. Having the adaptability of a child and a good friend who taught him to surf and “be an Aussie”, Gus started feeling at home after only 6 months.
Education and work history:
From grade 3-11, Gus went to a Jesuit School in Milson’s Point. He received a Commonwealth Scholarship to study medicine at The University of Sydney and in 1952 took a year off to conduct research. This year changed his life, because he met Australia’s leading scientist and Nobel Prize Laureate Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet and “got hooked” on research. He completed a two-year residency at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and moved to Melbourne in 1957 to complete a PhD under Sir Burnet. In the late 50s, Gus also did locums in Footscray and occasionally worked for the Footscray Football Club. In 1959 he took an Assistant Professor position with another Nobel Prize Laureate, Joshua Lederberg at Stanford University. When this posting was completed, Gus returned to Melbourne to take up his life-long work at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute – where he was the Director from 1965-1996.
Gus’s accomplishments are world-renowned and his research in immunology has benefitted people around the world. He has received countless awards, including a knighthood in 1977, a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1989 and was the Australian of the Year in 2000. To Gus, his most significant achievements relate to his research and the esteem he receives from the international scientific community. His honours include being a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences; A Fellow of the Royal Society of London; Member of the Academie des Sciences, France; the Robert Koch Gold Medal; the Albert Einstein World Award of Science; and the Emil von Behring Prize. He was publishing in the esteemed journal Nature right up to his retirement.
Gus retired from The Hall Institute in 1996 and since then has been continuing his long-term involvement with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 1997, he became the Chairman of the Strategic Advisory Council on the Foundation’s children’s vaccines program. Together they are immunising the world and he loves the work.
Gus met his wife Lyn, a speech therapist, while still at university. They got married when they finished studying and have remained so for 54 years. They have four children and nine grandchildren.
Gus and Lyn are “mad” subscribers to all forms of art. They are often seen in Melbourne’s arts precinct, catching a ballet performance, attending the symphony, opera or theatre. They enjoy reading contemporary novels and biographies and spending time with their big family at their weekender near Cape Shank on the Mornington Peninsula. Here they go to the beach with their children and grandchildren, enjoy golf, play with the dogs and generally “muck around”.
What he likes about Australia the most:
Gus loves the traditional things about Australia - “the fair go” and the tolerance in our society. Migrants from all over the world have made their home here and the vast majority of Australians have accepted them very lovingly. He believes this acceptance has increased greatly since 1939 when his family arrived. He also loves the larrikinism. People across different socio-economic classes are friends and are valued for who they are, not for their veneer. In [1930s] Austria that would have been unheard of - even today its society distinguishes between the “big” and the “little” people. He also loves the opportunity for universal tertiary education afforded to everyone through the HECS scheme.
What he misses about Austria the most:
Some of the things Gus misses include the Austrian music - from the Vienna Boys’ Choir to the music at mass - German literature and elements of the picturesque countryside. But in totality he cannot say that he misses Austria “at all”; Australia is his home.
Hopes and dreams:
Gus is concerned about the two billion people living in underprivileged conditions in the developing world. He says: “In a rich world, that’s not right and it need not be like that.” His hopes are that the developed world works in strong partnerships with the developing world to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. He is also concerned about Indigenous Australians, where the problem is not one of money, but of history and the destruction of a former way of life without putting in place a viable alternative. Gus believes we need to work in partnership and strongly listen to Indigenous leaders, particularly the women. He hopes that Indigenous people can find satisfactory employment but still hold on to their culture.
“I have a wider concern: I call it for shorthand, democracy fatigue” says Gus. In Australia and much of the industrialised world, people have lost confidence in the political process and authority. People don’t trust or esteem politicians and it is increasingly more difficult and undesirable for top-level intellects to go into politics. Australia has a fair governance system (the judiciary, free press, separation of the powers, electorate representatives, etc.) and this needs to be cherished. People have also lost trust in other authority structures, including churches, doctors and scientists. Gus acknowledges that such authority figures make mistakes but constant mistrust and bemoaning will lead to a very confused and rootless society. Educational structures that teach people how to think, but to also respect consolidated bodies of knowledge are needed. Good quality journalism is essential to honesty and quality, but unfortunately the standards in this field are also slipping. Gus’s final message to fellow refugees is: “I wish the other asylum seekers well and I hope the other asylum seekers have as good a go in life as I’ve had”.