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Emil and Hannah Witton

(Emil Witton 1919 to 2008)
(Hannah Witton 1919 to 1993)

Emil and Hannah Witton

Source: Courtesy Emil Witton

As the world was about to erupt into war in 1939, Emil and Hannah Witton fled Germany and found refuge in Australia. Their experience of Hitler's racism made them acutely aware of racism in their adopted country. Emil recalls that it was through Rosine Guiterman, whom he described as a kind of guardian angel for refugees newly arriving in Sydney, that he learned of the position of Aboriginal people in Australian society. Tribune, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia, also provided stories and pictures of Aboriginal distress which made a deep impression. In an interview in 1996 Emil spoke of this period of his life.

You know that I came from Germany in 1939, had very strong feelings about being second-class citizens. As a Jewish refugee in Australia the beginning was very hard. I was four years in the Australian Army. As a matter of fact the thing you might be interested in, the very first indication of what was going on in Australia in regard to Aborigines came from a woman, Rosine Guiterman, who in Sydney (you'll probably find more out about her if you are interested) was a kind of guardian angel for all refugees who came. She helped them, looked after them and solved problems that they had and as my whole family got involved with different things we were at her place a couple of times. Her daughter and son-in-law (I don't remember their names) were at that time - and that is in the early forties, beginning of the war - members of the Communist Party. That's probably where I read the Tribune for the first time and that was the first time I heard anything about treatment of Aborigines in Australia and it made a deep impression. From then on nothing till the late fifties when Hannah was at a Newport weekend at a WEA [Workers' Educational Association] or New Education Fellowship weekend where Faith Bandler spoke. A few days later I met Faith, whom I have admired ever since, and her husband Hans. This started a lifelong friendship between the four of us. Hannah joined the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship very soon after that, I did it later and eventually we were both on the executive.

What was my full time job? I owned a printing business, a very small little printing business. I had learned as a compositor and printer overseas, in Germany, and worked as a member of the union, worked as a compositor, from '39 to '42 when I joined the Australian Army, came out of the Army in '46 and by that time I was naturalised. I was in the Army for four years - two and a half years without being an Australian citizen. You are the next generation, you don't know that anymore - Australia had companies of foreigners. Full army, all rights, privileges and duties of an Australian soldier, except that we couldn't get out of the units we were in, and we couldn't rise above the rank of corporal except in very few circumstances. And what we did was Australian Employment Company - I don't know if that's of any interest but, if you are, just as a side issue we were called employment companies - and we did load and unload anything you can think of, or dug trenches or amused ourselves, otherwise we were well treated, no question about that. There were difficulties at times but most of the time it was okay. And then, at a later stage, after we were five years in Australia, we could get naturalised, at that moment we could join the AIF [Australian Imperial Force], if that means anything to you, to be sent overseas, then we could get out of the unit, and I was to be sent for jungle training when the atomic bomb fell on Japan. That was the end of my saving of the Fatherland (laughs). I went back into printing, starting my own printing business with my brother.

In the late 1950s Hannah met Faith Bandler at a Workers' Educational Association weekend and learned about the newly formed Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship (AAF). Hannah joined and Emil followed soon after.

It struck them that having been enemy aliens when war broke out - later friendly aliens - they had been naturalised and had become full Australian citizens five years after arrival, when Aborigines, whose forebears had lived in Australia for thousands of years, were not.

Through the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship Hannah and Emil met Ken Brindle from Redfern and became involved in campaigns such as the one to remove section nine from the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Act, which prohibited Aboriginal people from drinking alcohol. They visited Aboriginal reserves in New South Wales and became aware of the power exerted by the Aborigines Welfare Board over reserve-dwellers' lives.

In 1960 Hannah and Emil attended their first annual Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) conference. They were regulars for the next eleven years, with Emil being elected treasurer in 1969. Hannah and Emil were active in the campaign for a referendum, explaining the need for constitutional change at Rotary, RSL [Retired Servicemen's League] and other meetings all over Sydney. As an owner of a printing business Emil also helped with the printing of campaign material. Emil resigned from the FCAATSI executive in 1973.

Emil recalls the changes in FCAATSI over the period of his involvement.

Well the main change in the atmosphere was that the beginning - late fifties, early sixties - was dominated completely by white people of all different kinds of political persuasions who pontificated about what should be done and what should not be done. There were quite a few clashes between the ones who knew what was best for Aborigines (you know exactly what I mean) and the ones who wanted to find out what Aborigines want, need and are fighting for, and that showed up quite a few times. Then over the years, in the beginning there were very few Aborigines and the ones that were there were very quiet, very reserved. Over the years that changed absolutely and completely, and it came then eventually to the point that some Aborigines wanted to exclude whites, more or less, from any kind of policy discussion and making of policies.

Every Easter conference, health, living conditions, houses, education and so on, those matters came up over and over again, what to do in order to improve it and to inform the members, the delegates, on what was going on in different parts of the country, mainly in the parts with a high Aboriginal population. And that's where it came over the years, while in the beginning those reports were rather from the newspapers and people who had been visiting. Then over the years more and more black people came to the conferences and started talking. In the beginning it was a heck of a job to get one of them to open their mouth. People were shy. But after five years the shyness had disappeared and they were very forceful and at times very determined. Then to get the reports of how things really were from their point of view and not from white observers, what they had seen and heard and so on.

Both my wife and I had come from a socialist background at home, not our parents but our affiliation with other youth groups. I would have to go into the German situation, the Jewish-German situation there - unless you're interested we'll leave that out - but basically both of us had all our lives been socialists and from that point of view it wasn't restricted to Aboriginal matters. Slowly over the years we got into Australian politics in some way or other. Hannah and I all our lives (by the way, I don't know whether you know, my wife died three years ago) both were members of some kind of organisations in some way or other. So politics belonged to it, whatever we did. We weren't interested in soup kitchens, we were interested in changes of living conditions, laws, and so on.

Emil comments on two of the people who made a great impression on him during the FCAATSI years.

[Joe McGinness] - a wonderful person (laughs). I met Joe only after being in the Sydney group for quite a while. I remember the very first time he came to - it must have been the Sydney conference, when I picked him and another two up from the airport and took them to our home. As a matter of fact, you'll find a remark about that in the book there. [Faith Bandler, Turning the Tide, p. 157.] We lived in Cremorne at that time. We had morning tea or something there and talked and he impressed me from the very first moment on and it has been a very nice friendship, the few times we have met over the years. Last time I saw him in Canberra was when we were all invited to, 30 years after the referendum.

What a wonderful person she [Kath Walker] was. I had met her first while at the early conferences, at the one where she and Garry Shearston sang 'Aboriginal charter of rights' - put to music by Garry Shearston. And I remember there was a kind of performance by Islanders and, when that was finished, she and Faith gave a performance - behaved like little girls on stage (laughs). It was absolutely lovely. Kath has stayed at my place, at our place, several times and having dinner with just Kath and Hannah and I. And then we invited Garry Shearston, who at that time played at the theatre here, and I think we sat till two o'clock in the morning.

Source: The extracts on this page are from an interview with Emil Witton conducted by Leanne Miller and Sue Taffe on 6 November 1996

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