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Helga GirsChik (36356)

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On 30 August 1941 my “German” family were the first persons to be “captured” in neutral Persia by a flank of the invading British Army and its contingent of Gurkha warriors. We lived by the main road from Baghdad to Kermanshah along which this group of invaders moved to secure essential supplies for the war and to rid Persia of its German workers.

The daughter of an Austrian born railway engineer, Rudolf Girschik, at six years of age I was the oldest female of only four children to be removed with her brother and parents from Persian soil and sent into internment by sea to a secret destination. Sixteen members of “families” were fortunate to remain together as families in an internment camp in Australia for five years. Numerous women and children in Persia were separated from their German bread-winners for an even longer period. Nevertheless, so debilitating was the internment even for many of us lucky ones that few of us talked about it for years.

Having experienced the internment and its ambiguities, both good and bad, I began to talk about it publicly as a teacher in north Queensland only in the mid 1970s. In view of the interest shown in the story by adult students, I then intended to publish a memoir. It took me years to find the courage to go more public about the raw, revealing personal element beneath the controversial politics and shame of being German during World War II.

In 2006 my published memoir was launched with the ambiguous title of “Sing me that lovely song again”. The publisher, Ian Tempelman of Pandanus Press, begged me to leave it thus. He obviously wanted to “normalise” the extraordinary element in my story as being simply an important component of the other fabric of my life. A number of ABC radio and TV interviews followed the launch, but only John Cleary was insightful about the influence of my Persian childhood on my later life.

This remained so until Professor Pedram Khosronejad turned up at my home so unexpectedly from Sydney and stressed that very same point, but over time deepened and extended it with me.     

When I originally answered the phone number this stranger had left, I heard the voice of the first Persian since my day of internment, over 79 years ago. He spoke to me with disarming candour, so typical of him, “I have been looking for you day by day for a whole fortnight”, he said. When he arrived in Canberra on 27/9/2020, to recruit me for his project and work with me during one weekend, he once again engaged a personal trigger: He had loved reading my memoir and thought I was an anthropologist because of the way I viewed the world.

Anthropology had been my favourite academic subject but by now he knows that mothers with large families do not become anthropologists or archaeologists, or artists. He was exactly on the same track as Ian Tempelman in asking of my story:  How is this unusual story “normal”? What is the variation in this life and the families associated with it on how Persia and the war affected them? This charming and clever man was not just hungry for information or in search of a dramatic tale. He was seeking relevant truths by the standards of his own discipline as a social anthropologist with a special interest in material culture and visual communication. Persons like me would became his protagonists within his interactive facilitations.

I soon realised I was to be one of a growing team of ex-German associates with an old link to Persia. We would be sharing knowledge collectively with him. Initiating me into the project on this late September weekend, when my first great-grand-son Louis, was also born, this significantly younger scholar became my brother in spirit with mutual warmth and respect. This accorded with his democratic scholarly ideals. Sharing with me in my home talk about the nature of the project, stories, poetry and  food, he spontaneously and casually cleared the table, washed up with incredible finesse, cooked me a delicious breakfast next morning and advised me on cooking Persian rice and how to reorganise my herb garden.

He gave me the sense that I had always known him, that I had never entirely left my blissful childhood in Iran with its strand of mysticism and popular wisdom. And he worked incredibly hard while he was with me, scanning numerous photos in five photograph albums from our time in Persia and discussing what and how I could contribute from my own archives to a secure institution for scholarly access.

He subsequently introduced me to John Wulff who has a totally different story to tell and who was the first member of our growing team. As a trio we conducted research at Tatura Museum, close to where I had lived imprisoned as a child. We three also spoke about this project with staff at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Nowadays our team continues to grow with shared knowledge and in friendship. A core of us protagonists now zoom fortnightly with our facilitator who also has a personal association with each of us. He also organised a family zoom to discuss my parents with two of their offspring, four grand-children a niece and a nephew—an anthropological exercise. 

As an innovative social anthropologist who uses pictorial means (photos, films, pictures) and material culture (letters, objects, textiles) in motivating frontline research, Pedram’s creative anthropology steers this project. It is an example of new ways of structuring information, the outer evidence of inner conditions of thought and experience.

We are not only turned inwards to re-examine our own experiences in the light of family archives, and are moved to draw on our existential encounters, but are led outwards to a new field of anthropological literature which includes theories and evidence about internment, detention, separation, imprisonment.

This project is only one of Pedram’s engagements as an Islamic scholar and editor, collector of photographs and of documentary films. Working in three languages, he is a teacher in dialogue with the profession and its research, worldwide. A cosmopolitan, he is undoubtedly in touch with its heart, his own homeland. We are fortunate to be exposed to some of that. Only the availability of the internet enables such work to occur across frontiers of cross-cultural investigations at much greater speed. An old person like me sometimes struggles with the technology.   

Among my friends hearing me speak of all this, is an erstwhile editor for a noted institution in Canberra. She was fascinated when I told the story of the evolution of this project. She hoped I would publish my story of it one day. And here it is in abbreviated form.

Being a member of this project has been a transforming experience in old age. It has given me the emotional radiance one experiences when one leaves one place to live somewhere else. I wish that all old persons could find such an opportunity to embrace their late phase of life with a rejuvenated spirit and open arms.

Thank you, Pedram Khosronejad.

"Written by Helga Girschik,  R. Girschik's daughter, 02/08/2020"

© 2020-2023 Designed by P. KHOSRONEJAD

                     Dr. Pedram Khosronejad | Adjunct Professor

     Religion and Society Research Cluster | Western Sydney University

Fellow | Department of Anthropology | Harvard University

                      P.Khosronejad(at)westernsydney(.)edu(.)au

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