Australian Biography

Zelda D'Aprano - full interview transcript

Tape of 10

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Zelda, were your parents born in Australia?

No. No.

Where were they born?

Both my parents were born in the Ukraine. And my father, at the age of five with his parents, migrated to Palestine as it was then, and my mother, who was orphaned at the age of six, eventually too was sent across to Palestine, to relations, so she arrived there when she was eight. And they grew up there and met, married, and came to Australia in 1923 as migrants.

And how was it that they got married and decided to come to Australia? What was the reason for choosing Australia?

Well my father, too, at an early age was orphaned. He had three younger brothers that he was responsible for at the age of 14, and my father had an aunt and an uncle already in Melbourne. And he felt that this was a better place, better country, to come to for more opportunity. Not only for his own family, but for his orphaned brothers as well.

And your parents were Jewish … Did they come out and were they very much involved in the Jewish community in Melbourne?

Yes, they were originally. Well, they didn't know the language. In fact, they only knew how to speak Hebrew and didn't know how to speak Jewish. And when they came here they found that Jewish people only spoke Jewish and not Hebrew, so then they had to learn Jewish. But they did — because of their lack of English — associate with the Jewish community.

When your parents came to Melbourne, where did they live?

They lived in Carlton. This was the Jewish area at the time and they settled there.

And what was the household like?

Well, I don't know where they originally lived, but I can only remember growing up in this little cottage in Fenwick Street. And it was a two-bedroom cottage. So with my father's brothers and us eventuating, it soon got to a stage where someone had to go. So the brothers had to leave there. And we grew up in this two-bedroom cottage.

Were your parents very political?

Not originally, no. No, when they came here, they were Orthodox Jews. And Mum was very religious and so was Dad. But I don't know what it was that prompted my mother to start questioning religion, and she did with a tremendous fervour. And she finished up adopting communism. And it was very dogmatic communism I must say. But her belief system hadn't changed whatsoever, as far as concern about human beings, justice, honesty, truth. This is what she was when she was religious, and this is what she was, the same person, when she became a communist. Mum was illiterate. She only spent six months of her life at school in Palestine. And so she couldn't read or write English. And very poorly could she read Jewish. And so, she relied mainly on her own human experience, the experience of what she saw and other people were having, and her common-sense. And so she just sort of changed from one allegiance to another, without changing herself at all.

Now, she was a woman in a situation where she was looking after a household with a husband, his brothers, her children, and she was doing this without much in the way of resources. Do you think she was a good mother to you?

Oh, when we were very young Mum was a wonderful mother. In fact, she went out of her way to make sure that we had the basic necessities, and that's what it was in those days. We weren't talking about luxuries. And she was very loving and very warm and extremely affectionate. Unfortunately, because of her own background and poverty, she reached the stage where she lived for us only. And as we got older and wanted to make decisions of our own, and she felt she was losing us, this threatened her terribly and she just didn't want to let go. On the one hand she realised we had to live our own life, but on the other hand she really didn't want to let go. And she could be very difficult at times.

That was when you were grown up?

That's when we were growing up and wanting to make our own decisions, yes, yes.

And what about your father, what was he doing?

Well, Dad was a coach-builder and wheelwright. He was a very hard worker and worked for others, and during the war he went into what they called a Labour Company , because he was stateless. And enemy aliens and stateless [people], even though they volunteered for service in the army, they wouldn't put them in the fighting army, but they put them in what they called Labour Companies. And so they worked on unloading one train onto another train at Albury and Tocumwal, because of the different gauges in Victoria and New South Wales. They used all these men to do all that work and they got the same pay as the army did, which was I think five shillings a day. And that's what he did when the war started. But see, prior to that, during the Depression, he was put on three days work a week. And we really knew what it was to struggle, and we knew what it was to be poor.

Could you describe that to me, this poverty of a worker's family, living in Carlton in Melbourne during the Depression? Could you describe to me what it was like — what you mean by being poor? Give me a picture of the detail of what it meant for everyday life, what you had and what you didn't have. Were you hungry? Were you cold? Those sorts of things.

Well, this is very difficult to describe, because you don't really know you're poor if you don't know what rich is. And this was prior to TV and we didn't even have radio. And we lived in Carlton, which was a poor area. So there was nobody rich around us. So you didn't know what rich was. And it was only when — as a little girl — I started to go and see films, and I saw Shirley Temple films, and they lived in big houses, that you realised that this — well, I thought anyway — this is what Mum must mean when she talks about rich people. Because otherwise how do you know what rich is? And it was only through these films that I saw alternative living. Also, too, I remember once my parents went to a social evening, and I'll never forget — I don't know how old I was — but the house was in Fairfield, and today it would be considered just a normal house, but in those days, for me, knowing this little cottage and only little cottages, it was a grandiose house. And the man, the host, was an artist, and he had these big paintings on the wall. And they had nice furniture. And I can remember as a little girl being so impressed by what I saw around me. I've never forgotten it. And that was the only house, as a child, that I saw, that I thought, they must be rich. And of course, when you see the other side, then I realised we were poor, when Mum talks about poverty and why so many people are poor. And others are so wealthy, you know. And so I began to look and question and I realised that we were poor. I mean, if we had to have a new pencil for school, we had to show Dad our old pencil and how short it was before we could afford a pencil. And when you got a hole in your shoe, only one shoe could go to the boot repairers and get a patch on it, not a whole sole. But it would get a little patch over the hole. And you had to stay home, because you only had one shoe. So you had to wait until the other shoe returned. So all these things. And knowing that we were clothed in hand-downs, and yet there was a family, a friend of mine, who I went to school with. They were even poorer than we were. And I knew the difference, because I could see what happened in their house, and we gave them our cast-offs. And so I knew that they were poorer still. And I think most poor children know what it is to be poor.

Were you — did you have … [INTERRUPTION] So, in the household, were you ever hungry?

No, I cannot remember ever being hungry. We didn't have luxurious food like desserts. I think the only dessert we ever had was stewed apples or stewed fruit. In the main we ate good food, but not luxuriously. We used to buy all our groceries on tick — that's putting it on the account and then sort of paying for it when you've got money. And we did the same with the meat and we did the same with the fruit and vegetables and everything else. But no, I cannot say we ever went hungry.

When you say your father was a coach-maker and a wheelwright, was that on the old horse-drawn — and there were still those around?

Yes, they were. And in the main they did the Carlton & United Breweries wagons. And they were only a stone's throw, where he worked, from the brewery. And I can remember as a child going there and the brewery wagons. But there were many horse-and-carts. All the vegetable growers, the Chinese vegetable growers, used to always have horse-and-carts. And it wasn't unusual. I remember as a child, horse-and-carts in the street. And people going around collecting the droppings of the horses and putting on their gardens. [laughs] But next door to where Dad worked was the farrier. And so while Dad was working on the carts and fixing those, the farrier was shoeing the horses. And I used to be fascinated as a child to go round and watch Dad work and then go round and see this man whose name was Bill, I used to remember, shoeing the horses. And I used to feel sad because I used to think it must hurt the horses when they knock the shoes on. And the smell. I can even remember the smells that came from it when the hot metal went onto the hoof of the horse.

So what happened to your father's work when cars came in in a big way?

Well, that's a whole change of life took place there for Dad, because this was after the war, and the vehicles, motor vehicles, took over. And so he went into house repairing. People were interested at that stage in repairing their homes, because for the first time there was full employment. And so he started working on people's homes and, again, it was very hard work, because he did it himself.

Now, back in your childhood, who did you play with?

In the main, I played with my brother's peer group. And I was happy being alone too. I could be on my own for hours and I'd sew and I had one doll. I only ever had one doll. And I would sew and make clothes for this doll. I made an eiderdown for my doll. And I could remember I was doing all these things, I was quite happy alone, and being creative. I loved making things. Also too, I'd play with my brother a lot. He was two years younger than I was. And I can remember trying to get the cat and putting it into a box to sleep or in a little pram trying to wheel it around. And I can remember my brother and I dragging all Mum's groceries and what have you out of the cupboards and playing shops. And somehow or other we'd always finish having an argument and running off and leaving all this stuff around. And Mum used to get very upset when we did that. She didn't mind us taking all the stuff out, but she'd say, 'As long as you put it all back again.' But of course in most cases I don't think we did.

Now, you say that you played with your brother's peer group. Were they little boys in the main?


So you grew up playing with boys?

Yes. In the main, yes.

And what sort of games did you play with them?

Well, there was no money of course, so we used to play a game called Chuck the Tin, and Tic Tac. And these were all games we made ourselves. And Chuck the Tin was — I don't know how they flatten them, but they used to get little tobacco tins and flatten them. And there were techniques developed, you know, how you had to throw them. And there were four lamp posts arranged in our street. And when you chucked the tin you had to run from one lamp post to another, and you had to get there before someone got the tin. And if you didn't, of course, you were out. You were the one who had to chuck the tin. Ah — and so you'd go from lamp post to lamp post. There was another one, Tic Tac, and I remember we cut the end off Mum's broom to make the Tic Tac, because you had to get a little piece of wood and whittle the two ends. And then you'd put that down and you'd hit one end with a stick, and as it flew up then you had to hit it. And hit it as far as you could. And again, it was the distance and how far and which one won the game. And we had all these sorts of games and we'd play for hours. Also, where we lived, we used to go walking. We used to walk great distances, and we used to walk round the back of Carlton, round the back of the cemetery and across to the Melbourne Zoo, all round that area. And then we'd walk all the way back. And there was never any money involved and yet we were never bored, never bored for a moment.

Did the boys treat you as their equal?

Well, that's interesting. I think they accepted me. I can't ever remember being the captain of a pirate ship or any of the leading characters in the games. Perhaps I was, I can't recall. But the fact that I was even amongst them, they did accept me. Yes.

Were there any other children in the family apart from you and your brother?

I have a sister who was four-and-a-half years older. But that gap sort of separated her from us. And she had her own friends. I can remember being very affectionate towards my brother. I thought he was beautiful. And I always used to hug him and kiss him until he started to cry and run to Mum for help. Mum used to make me leave him alone. But he was such a dear little boy.

Now, what were your parents' expectations for you?

Apart from learning the piano accordion, which I did, there were none. There was no such thing as going on, as far as education was concerned. That was never discussed, it wasn't a choice. We were workers, and there was never any discussion about further education. Dad was a book reader but, of course, Mum being illiterate didn't read. But Dad used to read to Mum. But we weren't book readers. I loved comics, I loved reading comics. And I can't remember ever reading anything else, like any of Dickens' works. There was nothing like that at all.

Traditionally, Jewish immigrants have placed a tremendous amount of emphasis on education for their children, but that didn't happen to you?

In the main it didn't happen to the Jewish children in the Depression years either. They just couldn't afford it. I, in the fifth grade, became part of what they called a special tutorial class. And they picked the most gifted, talented …

… Bright kids?

Bright kids in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth and put them all in the one room. And we each had our own row. And I can only remember one girl ever going to university from that group, and possibly one boy. And I'm not sure about the boy but people just didn't have the money. In those days you had to pay for education at university. And there — working-class people just accepted their lot. You accepted that this was your station in life, sort of thing, and that you just have to go on doing that, and that's how I felt. I knew at a very early age that I was an economic burden on my parents. And I was very anxious to get out and go to work so that I would relieve them of this financial burden.

But you were picked out and selected for some special tuition, presumably in the expectation on the part of the school that you might go further. In fact, when did you leave school?

Well, I left that school, I didn't like the teacher; he was very sarcastic. I remember at one stage there, I had the measles and, after coming back, I think it was three weeks you had to stay away, and when I came back and walked into the room, he made some very sarcastic comments and he really upset me. Of course, I disagreed with him politically at that stage. I already had political views.

These came from your mother?

Yes. And this was a teacher's way of getting back at me. So I pleaded with Mum to let me leave there. And so she let me leave there and I went across to what was called the Brunswick Girls' School (Domestic Arts). And that's the sort of school that trained young girls to be good housewives. And when I got there, to an extent I was considered to be brilliant, but I knew I wasn't. It was just that the standard was lower, and I was well aware of that. But it didn't worry me, because I didn't intend doing anything anyway. And I can remember, you know, we had to learn to cook and we had to learn to sew and laundry and even, I was reminded recently, about how to bathe a baby. And I can remember we had this doll and we had to sort of bathe the doll and all this sort of thing. And this was all in training to be a good housewife-mother. And I left school before I was even 14 years of age, just before I turned 14, and I went straight to work.

When you say you disagreed with the teacher politically, how — I mean you were quite young, and he was your teacher. Can you remember what form the disagreement took?

I think it was about the war, and Russia not being in the war. And so I stood up and defended the Soviet Union against what I considered at that stage were this teacher's ignorant comments. [laughs] Yes. Because I think it was Russia and Germany signed a non-aggression pact at the time. And so I was very loyal, as a child can be.

Do you think that was the first time in your life when you spoke out about a political conviction and got into trouble for it?

I think it possibly was. And that's why I've never forgotten it. [laughs] Yes, I think it possibly was, yes.

Now, when you left school … [INTERRUPTION]

… Did you have any doubts that leaving school, before you were even 14, was the right thing to do?

I had no doubts whatsoever because I didn't know if, that, there was an alternative. And I recall one of my teachers at the domestic school, a Mrs Campbell, and she pleaded with me to stay at school. And she asked me to go home — she said, 'Now, I want you to go home and tell your parents that I think you should go on to further education and do science.' And I knew it was an absolute and utter waste of time. But she more or less ordered me to go home and do this. I mean it was just like, you know, asking me to be the Queen. It was impossible. But anyway, I went and I thought I'll have to do it. And so I went home and I told Mum what Mrs Campbell said. And Mum just laughed and she just said, 'Oh, be an absent-minded professor' and that was the end of the whole thing. It just didn't go any further. The whole thing wasn't treated in any serious way whatsoever. And I knew. I mean, I myself didn't even take it seriously, because it just wasn't a part of my experience, my environment or anything. And so off to work I went.

And where did you go to work?

I went to work round the corner [from] where we were living, and it was a little shortbread factory. And I'll never forget this experience, because it was my first experience of full-time employment, and one of the things I had to do was put this jam in between two little biscuits, or one and press the other one to it, and they sort of came in a pair, stuck together with this jam. And I was horrified to see this man open up this four-gallon drum one day, and there was this sickly green concoction in it that I didn't know what it was. And he poured this red liquid into it and then stirred it with a stick, and it all became red. And this was the jam that I was using to stick the shortbreads together. And it was cheap melon jam and they put this red dye in it so it looked like raspberry jam or something like that. And these were the sort of methods that were used. It was a pretty sleazy little place. And they used to distribute these shortbreads all over Melbourne but it came to an end. I wasn't there very long when the army took this place over and used it as a 'hot box kitchen', that's what they called it, for food for troops around — I don't know where — but I had to supply food for the army. And so I was out of a job, and then I went into another grocery, what was known as a grocery packing firm, and finished up puddling around with flour and, goodness, custard powder. It was all packaged by hand at that time, you know. These terrible, boring, dead-end jobs. And even though I was glad to get the money, I very rapidly found myself getting very, very, bored and discontented with that work environment.

You knew that you couldn't go to university, although that had been suggested, but why was factory work the only option for you? You didn't think about working in an office or a shop or in some other environment?

I felt that — I had such a low self-image —I suppose looking back I didn't even feel that I was high enough in the status (or whatever your situation) that was necessary to go and work as a clerk; I never thought that I ever had those capabilities. It just wasn't there for me. You know, that's why I see so many of the kids today, I know exactly where they're at. And the work was terrible. I didn't see any other position as being something that I could do.

Now, what was happening in your mind at the time? Were you reading and thinking at all? Or what were you reading and what were you thinking about at this time that might be your future?

[Laughs] The reason why I'm laughing is because my reading material at that stage were love yarns. And …

True romance?

Oh no, no. Oh, no, that was too expensive and too sophisticated. I went for two little cheap magazines. One was called The Oracle and one was called The Miracle. And I used to just lose myself totally in these cheap little tawdry romance magazines. And it was a great escape. That was my escape. And if I went to see any films at all, they were always that very romantic — and at that time, you know, the war was on — very patriotic, romantic types. I didn't like the violent, killing-type films. And that's where I lost myself. Absolutely lost myself. And because life there was pleasant and everything was lovely and romances always finish up at the stage where they never marry. I don't know what they do today, but they never married there, so it was just total romance. And this to me was a far more pleasant world than the world that I knew.

And what was the fantasy? Was it that someone might swoop out of the sky and lift you up and save you from your life in the factory?

I don't think I fantasised to that degree. And see, I never read a book, a real book, until I was 21. So it was all this romance and later on it just sort of became women's magazines. But I didn't see any prince on a white horse, and so I started to get depressed. And I found at 15and-a-half, I just didn't feel that there was sort of much for me in life. And I can understand the suicide rate. Not that at that stage I ever contemplated suicide, but looking back it was a very, very, bleak feeling that I had. It's as if you haven't got a future. And I suppose what mattered more than anything, too, was to get a job with the most money possible. And so I used to put my age up. And I was able to get away with it until we had to have identification cards. And then everyone had to have an identification card during the war. And luckily Mum and Dad, because of their lack of English, our birthdays were all wrong and when I put in for an identification card they didn't know [how old] I was, because the date that I said was my birthday, turned out it wasn't at all. So it was quite some time before I got an identification card. In the meantime, I put my age up. And was able to earn a little more than I was. And buying things was another compensation, a tremendous compensation. If you could buy yourself what I would have called 'nice things', having nice things was very important. And trying to look as nice as you can was also very important.

So you were focused …

… So there you were, a young girl, working in a factory, thinking about what nice things you could buy and dreaming of romance, and your mother was involved with the Communist Party. What did you think of your mother's political activity at that time?

[end of tape]

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