A Homeland in the Southwest

Where can you go when the world turns against you? The farthest corner of the farthest island?

Critchley Parker (1911-42) was the son of a Melbourne mining magazine publisher, Frank Parker. Frank had been a very visible and public figure in his day, playing a major part in the conscription debate and election campaign of 1917. A fervent pro-conscriptionist, Frank displayed inflammatory posters in his windows and used his magazine, now the Australian Statesman and Mining Standard, to attack anti-conscriptionists and Irish Catholicism.

Rather unexpectedly Critchley Parker, a young upper middle class Anglo Saxon Christian, became a friend of the Jewish people by seeking to find a Jewish homeland in Australia. This was not as strange as it may seem.

The Kimberleys in the remote, NW corner of Australia had already been seriously considered as a possibility for a Jewish safe haven. In 1933 Dr Isaac Steinberg and his London-based Freeland League selected the Kimberleys as a place to purchase agricultural land; this was where 75,000 Jewish refugees from Europe could be reset­tled, a few years before the Holocaust even emerged. This effort became known as the Kimberley Plan and was based on the Australian governments officially-declared need to populate The North. Alas that possibility faded when the Australian Federal government later decided not to support the idea.

Critchley Parker believed a better alternative could be found in Port Davey, a rugged part of SW Tasmania. If Tasmania is the most isolated part of Australia (and the world), Port Davey is one of the most isolated parts of Tasmania. But perhaps that was the very appeal of the place to Parker.

Why did Critchley Parker get involved in a struggle that was not his own?

Helen Light (1) suggested three motives:

1] a genuine concern for the refugees,
2] a keen interest in Tasmania’s economic development and
3] his attachment to Caroline Isaacson, a journalist on Melbourne’s most important newspaper and a Jewish activist.

In 1941 Parker finally met Dr Steinberg, the Russian politician who had initially arrived in Australia to discuss the Kimberley Plan. (Pictured) Together Parker and Steinberg set off to explore the area around Port Davey in Tasmania, without detailed plans but with great enthusiasm.

On arrival, they approached the state premier, AG Ogilvy Robert Cosgrove(1939-47) who graciously welcomed the proposal; an official visit for Parker, Steinberg, Isaacson and a team of experts got underway.But 1941 was not a great year for radical proposals. The war with Japan was looking hopeless and Britain, as it turned out, could not even defend Singapore. Worse still, the Americans were not likely to become involved in World War Two at that stage. Any notion of an Australian Jewish Settlement was not given high priority in late 1941.

The issue for Jews was beyond desperate by 1941. The Germans were already well along the path of the total extermination of Jewish communities throughout central and eastern Europe. So in March 1942 Parker set out to survey his proposed homeland site in Tasmania’s remote and rugged south west. The area around Port Davey is some of the bleakest coastline in the world. There are still no roads, no towns, no people – just sheer peaks, gorges, wild rivers and wild weather. It was, and is a vast landscape.

On this journey, staff dropped him at the foot of Mount MacKenzie and told him to light a fire if he needed help. After two days, when the gales rolled in, Critchley returned to his tent and signalled for help. In doing so he used up all his matches. No help came. He retired to his tent, totally alone, and existed for three weeks on water and aspirin. He tragically died, but the notebooks and letters that he had in his tent survived. The documents included his hopes for Jewish settlement in the area, probably to be modelled on Russian collectivism.

The only writer I can find who thought Critchley Parker’s dream to save Jewish lives was not valuable was Pip McManus (2). She said Parker was a wealthy eccentric with an abiding passion for the development of the Tasmanian frontier, a deluded romantic bent on fulfilling his own neo-biblical prophesies of a New Jerusalem. Parker disregarded the advice and aspirations of his colleagues and perished, as the result of his own obsessive failings. She saw Parker’s plans to create a safe homeland for his (McManus’ word) Jewish refugees, devoid of conservationist values, as more suited to a script from a reality TV survivor programme.

The plans were doomed, as indeed were contemporary Jewish attempts to peacefully settle the Holy Land. Tasmania and Israel were both Unpromised Lands.Other Christian Australians, if they know the story of Parker at all, read it as a brave but hopelessly romantic Australian explorer who died tragically a la Burke and Wills eg Wilson’s Blogmanac (3). Jewish Australians, if they know the story, see Parker as an amazing human being. He was a Christian who went to extraordinary lengths to rescue Jewish lives from the German crematoria during the worst years of WW2.

The case is well argued in Philosemitism blog and in The Age’s Saturday Review (4).In Parker’s story, Helen Light teased out all the elements of the Tasmanian story – promise of a haven, wild landscape, dream and vision, conflict between the establishment of a settlement and concomitant industry, and its inevitable impact. A great adventure and a tragic end. I would add desperate and romantic energy in the face of an impending Holocaust on one hand vs benign neglect on the other.It is interesting that in these hideous days of pushing asylum-seeker boats back out to sea, Tasmanian politicians proudly champion those seeking asylum in their state.




Port Davey