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Living Water
to Light the Journey

Chapter Seven

Living Years, Living Heroes

I just wish I could have told him in the living years.

The Living Years

Mike + The Mechanics


How quickly we neglect the lessons we have all learned. Any book on child raising will tell you that kids learn by example; that so much character development comes from watching and imitating others. Children need role models to follow and to teach them about life. The title of a book I possess sums it up: How to Be a Hero to Your Kids.


So why do we so easily slip into the kind of behaviour—little untruths, petty cheating, swearing—that we want our kids to avoid?


I struggle to be a hero to my three sons, always wondering if I’m giving them too much discipline, or not enough. Am I trying too hard to be their friend, their mate? Should I perhaps follow the advice of my Korean brother-in-law, who tells me it is important that children fear their father?


Writing a book like this does not mean that I have any magic formula for raising perfect kids. I surely make all the typical parental blunders, as I am confronted with problems that more often than not seem to fall into the cracks between the planks of guidance provided by all the child-upbringing manuals.


I recall with embarrassment some slips in my behaviour.


When we lived in Tokyo the law required everyone with a television set to pay a licence fee. This fee was quite high. The government relied on people’s honesty for payment of the fee, and, in a very honest country, some 90% of television owners paid up.


The rest were not prosecuted. Instead, inspectors regularly visited their homes, politely but persistently requesting payment. For some foreigners this visit became a kind of a game, as we pretended not to have a television set, or not to understand any Japanese.


I remember one time the inspector came to our door, asking (in Japanese) that I pay the fee. “TV, no! TV, no!” I shouted at him in my best broken English, until he gave up and went away. Grinning I turned back inside, and saw my young son watching me intently. I knew he was too young to understand what I was saying. But still I blushed with a deep sense of shame, knowing my son had been watching me lie so blatantly.


On another occasion, after we had come to live in Melbourne, I was with my second son in a store, when he tried to hand me a five-cent coin he had just found lying on the floor. “Keep it,” I whispered to him, knowing that no-one cared about a five-cent coin. But this confused him. He had been brought up to hand to us or to another responsible person any property, like money, that he found and which he knew did not belong to him.


He tried again to give me the money. I just smiled at him. And then, when I saw his renewed confusion I was suddenly overcome with shame at having, effectively, told him to steal—which, of course, was the exact opposite of everything my wife and I normally try to teach him. Obviously I should have encouraged him to hand in the money to the shopkeeper, who probably would have told him to keep it as a fitting reward for his honesty.


But children need role models to provide more than moral guidance. They need to learn how to develop their emotions as well. As Professor William Damon wrote, in The Moral Child:


Sharing emotional reactions means demonstrating them when appropriate, describing them clearly, and answering children’s questions about them candidly….The parent may not wish to expose the child to demonstrations of the parent’s guilt, anger, fear or uncertainty. Such exposure, however, is exactly what children need in order to learn ways of dealing with their own moral emotions.


I marvel as my wife, Younju, freely displays her emotions with our kids, and helps them learn what it really means to be happy, to be sad. I wish I could display my emotions like her. I wish I had more emotions to display, instead of too often being so bookishly withdrawn. So shy and reserved. So fearful of confrontation. So much like my father.



As a child I struggled to find heroism in my father. He was a quiet person, and, to me, a reserved and distant figure who seldom seemed to open up. And with so little communication and guidance from him, the end result was that  I was often left wondering if I was meeting his expectations for me. It started me on a period of drift and uncertainty, and was a big factor in my subsequent flitting from one spiritual experience in Japan to another.


I was living in Tokyo when Mike Rutherford, bass guitarist with the British pop group Genesis, recorded The Living Years as Mike + The Mechanics. It told of a son’s struggles to communicate with his father, and it felt like my own story.


It was not that mine was a bad father, he just seemed unwilling to open up about himself, to share his thoughts, or to take any interest in my own. I don’t recall ever really arguing badly with him; we just ended up not talking much. I assumed he had his own traumas that he was hiding.


He was born in Vienna in 1917 into a well-off Jewish family. His father was an engineer, his mother a beautiful young woman from Poland. But he shared with me so few scraps of information about his childhood that I learned little more.


Of course I did know that the 1930s had been a time of political ferment in Europe, with growing hostilities between extreme-left and extreme-right factions, and some of my father’s relatives became deeply involved with the Communist Party. One day a cousin from Poland turned up at my father’s Vienna home, on the run from the secret police and needing a hideout. After he left, my father—then aged about 16 or 17—found a wad of revolutionary tracts left behind, stuffed into the back of a bookcase. He read them all in an evening and became an immediate convert to the Communist cause.


(In 1975 my father made a trip back to Europe and sought out this cousin, only to learn, to his amazement, that he had become a Franciscan priest and was living in a monastery in Bordeaux. My father visited him and tried to talk about their past, only to be rebuffed with, “That was all a long time ago.”)


As the Nazi threat grew in Europe, my father was active in various underground groups, first as a schoolboy, and later as a chemistry student at Vienna University. Then, in 1938, the Nazis took over Austria, closing all the borders, except that with Germany. Right after the annexation my father apparently took a train into Germany, then another to the Swiss border. In darkness he fled across the frontier.


He resumed his studies in France, but, being an Austrian, was arrested there as an enemy alien once full-scale hostilities broke out. His mother had fled Vienna for London, and had already arranged to have my father’s young brother smuggled into Palestine with other Jewish children. Now she arranged a visa for my father to travel to New Zealand as a refugee.


He arrived in 1940, carrying little more than some books, a pair of skis and a gloomy Kathe Kollwitz print of starving peasants huddled together. (That powerful, depressing print governed our living room, so much so that when my exuberant, Russian-born aunt—an army psychologist—visited us once from Israel she felt compelled to rush to the nearest furniture store to buy us a brilliantly coloured lamp to brighten the room.)


My mother, though from solid New Zealand Anglican stock, had also moved into left-wing politics, and this dominated my upbringing. Politics was our religion. There wasn’t an anti-nuclear rally we didn’t attend—and, frequently, organise as well. As a primary-school boy, while other kids made model toys with their carpentry sets, I was hammering together protest banners for the latest demonstration outside the American ambassador’s residence.


Though a librarian, my father’s main interest was trade union history, about which he wrote books and articles. Bookshelves occupied most of the walls of our house, and these were crammed with bulging files of newspaper clippings.


When we moved from Wellington to a new house in Auckland and I at last got my own bedroom, my father built a bookshelf across a whole wall of the room, and then, without consulting me, filled it with a big part of his collection. Whenever I had school friends visiting, it was with embarrassment that I explained that the collected works of Lenin, the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital in several languages, The Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels, and the letters of Rosa Luxemburg, among many others, were not mine.


An overwhelming childhood memory is of my father arriving home from work on the bus at the same time every evening, eating dinner and then setting to work on his files, often clipping newspapers and journals, sometimes banging away with two fingers on his antique typewriter. He seldom explained what he was doing.


While other Dads came with their sons to watch school sporting fixtures, my father was at home with his files. But he did take me with him at weekends to the homes of retired trade union leaders, where we spent hours in dusty attics and garages sorting through bundles of decaying leaflets, strike posters, newspapers, and minutes of union meetings.


I recall only one occasion when he displayed much emotion. He was deputy librarian at Auckland University, and when his boss retired he assumed he would be promoted to the top job. Instead, the university hired a much younger man, from Britain, for the post. I was doing the dishes in the kitchen with my father when a friend phoned with the news. My father took the call, then came back into the kitchen and went on with the washing up, while I dried. I glanced up at him and saw, to my huge discomfort, that he was quietly crying.



It is natural for kids to try to make their parents into heroes, and my brother and I sometimes tried to find out more from my father. We would ask, for example, for details of his escape from Vienna, via Nazi Germany, into Switzerland. It sounded dramatic and dangerous. But we quickly learned that virtually all areas of his past life were off-limits, and that he did not care to talk about them.


There were colourful hints now and again. Once, I got a map of Vienna from a library, and he showed me where his family’s home had been, and the route he took to school, past the clinic of Sigmund Freud. There was also his photograph album, which we sometimes looked at. It was full of sepia-tinted pictures with crinkly edges, and showed smiling, confident family groups at lakes and mountain resorts around central Europe. Many of these people—my distant relatives—apparently perished in the Holocaust. Others settled in Israel.


Once, I enquired about a particular photo of an attractive young woman, and my father said that she had been his girlfriend in Vienna. When I asked more about her, he said simply that she had died, and refused to disclose more. The next time I looked at the album, I found that the photo had been removed.


As I have said, he had little to say to me about himself, and he showed little interest in anything I did. I moved from home at the age of 20 to flat with other students. After I graduated, with a law degree, I spent a year as a reporter on the Auckland Star, then left New Zealand for work in Britain and, later, Asia, returning home only infrequently on holiday.


I felt most comfortable communicating with my father by letter, with the occasional meeting when he travelled abroad. I tried a few times to reach out, to “say it loud, say it clear” (in the words of The Living Years) that we didn’t see eye to eye. But he didn’t know what I was talking about.


I even considered sending him a copy of the recording of The Living Years, but I doubted that he would listen to it. Once when I went back to New Zealand on holiday I had given him a beautiful coffee-table book about Zen Buddhism, with which I was then enamoured. He didn’t even open it, but just commented that he would try to find a library that might want it.


I still do not know why he would not talk about his past. Perhaps there was guilt over the fact that many of his revolutionary colleagues ended up in Dachau, while he went on to a comfortable life.


Certainly, there were family strains. His father had died when he was 17. I spent six months working on kibbutzim in Israel, and met for the first time my many distant relatives who live there. One of them whispered to me that my father’s father was rumoured to have committed suicide, perhaps because his beautiful young wife—my grandmother—was taking lovers.


My grandmother was a domineering woman. During the couple of years I spent as a journalist in Britain, before I travelled to Asia, I spent a lot of time with her.


She lived in a large, dark apartment in London’s West Hampstead with her second husband, a South African Jew. Layers of Persian carpets covered the floors, shelves of books about art and philosophy lined the walls, and display cases of European and Asian ornaments were everywhere.


I marvelled at her cultured ways, and admired her passion for learning and the manner in which she so easily made friends with such interesting people. Even in her eighties, and still startlingly handsome, she was working occasionally as a German tutor at a prominent London language school. (She told me she had lied to them about her age.)


She treated me and many others as children. And she had a habit of dispensing great quantities of love to me, and then abruptly withholding it. When I visited, she would sometimes lie on the antique sofa in her living room and ask me to sit beside her while she held my hand.


We had a big celebration for her 90th birthday. I flew over from Tokyo, my father arrived from Auckland and my uncle from Tel Aviv. The party was organised by a prominent member of the London Jewish community who was later made a member of the House of Lords. At the celebration I met many European Jews living in London who seemed to know my family intimately, yet of whom I had no knowledge. Two weeks after the party, my grandmother died peacefully in her sleep.



In any case, it seemed that my father carried demons with him. Once, I took my wife and young sons from Tokyo to New Zealand on holiday, and we stayed with him at his small flat in Auckland. One night, my wife and children were sleeping, I was in the kitchen reading a magazine, and my father was watching television in the living room. Suddenly he came into the kitchen and stood looking at me, a glass of wine in his hand. (When I was growing up he virtually never drank alcohol, and just a glass or two of wine was enough to make him red-faced and tipsy.)


“You know something?” he said in a hoarse voice. “The Nazis taking over Austria was the best thing that could have happened. What sort of future did I have there? I was studying chemistry. But Austria was full of Jewish chemists. I wouldn’t have got a job. Instead I came to New Zealand and made a really good life.”


I looked at my father in amazement. His eyes were glazed and his voice slurred. I had never in my life seen him even remotely drunk, or heard him talking like this.


He went on. “And what about a little Jewboy like Hansi [his brother]? He didn’t have any skills. He would have been nothing in Vienna. But he became an engineer in Israel, and a senior officer in the Israeli army. He went to Singapore as a military adviser. And when he retired from the army he got a top job with El-Al Airlines and travelled the world. We should be grateful that the Nazis took Austria and persecuted the Jews.”


Suddenly my father, who had seldom opened up to me, was opening up far too much. I was stricken with embarrassment. I smiled. Then I yawned and yawned, and rushed to bed.



I wasn’t there that day in 1994 when my father passed away, and the fact that no one else was there either did not ease my guilt. He died in his sleep, and it was several days before someone broke into his flat and found the body.


To my surprise, newspapers throughout New Zealand published generous obituaries. The New Zealand Herald wrote:


Mr Roth, an Austrian-born Jew who came to New Zealand in 1940, held what is believed to be the country’s most comprehensive private collection of trade union and labour archives. As well as being a compulsive gatherer of material at his Mt Eden home, he published several books and was the official historian of at least six trade unions….Not content with simply chronicling the life of the labour movement, he took an active part in it and was among marchers in the annual Auckland May Day parade last month. The chairman of the Trade Union History Project…described Mr Roth last night as unquestionably New Zealand’s leading historian of trade unions. The convener of the Auckland Council of Trade Unions, Mr Bill Anderson, remembered him as a modest but very powerful figure who would be a great loss to the labour movement. Although Mr Roth took a clearly socialist approach, Mr Anderson and others said he was unchallengeable on historical facts, on which he was widely consulted.


Historian Kerry Taylor wrote an obituary for the Sunday Star Times:


Bert Roth will be remembered by most people as an historian, by others as a librarian, and by a few of us as a warm and generous friend. He was also many other things in his richly textured life. Bert was a lifelong socialist. His politics, and Jewish ethnicity, made him take flight from fascism in Austria in 1938 and, after a period in France, he arrived in Wellington during April 1940. Seeing red flags hoisted, he assumed there was a working class demonstration, but they were merely advertisements for the DIC store’s sale—an early lesson that New Zealand was different from Austria….Bert was a collector of gargantuan proportion. The “Roth Collection” of labour archives and publications grew from early 1950s into a treasure trove for historians. Unlike some collectors, Bert shared his treasures, responding positively to the endless stream of inquiries for assistance. Invariably he found something to help out. This unbounded generosity with his time and resources is an important part of his legacy. Some of us, as historians, owe a huge personal debt to Bert for encouraging and stimulating our work. Over recent years I spent countless hours with him, not only reading the documents he had collected, but also listening to the stories he told, gleaned from the many activists he had befriended over the years. He had a brilliant memory for detail and for amusing anecdotes. My experiences are not unique. Bert’s generosity will be warmly remembered, as will his wit, wisdom and sheer enthusiasm for New Zealand labour history. The message of so much of Bert’s writing is that people, whether working collectively or individually, can make a difference. His life served to make that argument even more convincing.


Condolences arrived to my mother from many people, including political leaders, with a hand-written letter from the Governor-General. Helen Clark, later to become Prime Minister, called him a “remarkable man….His commitment to economic and social justice, and to peace, was a shining example for all of us”. The leader of the New Zealand Alliance Party, Jim Anderton, described him as one of the “unsung great New Zealanders”.


As the eldest child I inherited the family photo albums and some of his papers. And as I was sorting through these I found that at some point he had written a 21-page memoir of his life as a teenager in Vienna, which he had titled “Work in the Underground”. I read it in amazement, and with a swelling lump in my throat, as I discovered a new, heroic father I had never known.


It told how as a teenager he had worked actively in the Communist underground, fighting the growing Nazi menace, and regularly harassed by the police. It told of his work with various revolutionary groups, notably the underground youth organisation Rote Falken (Red Falcons), a kind of Communist boy-scouts organisation with a large membership.


The leaders of this body were continually threatened by both the police and the powerful Catholic Church, which used to denounce them with the words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel: “If anyone causes one of these youngsters who trusts in me to lose faith, it would be better for that person to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around the neck.”


At the age of 19—far younger than previous leaders—my father assumed national leadership of the Red Falcons, before losing the position shortly after, in factional fighting. The memoir hints at this being good fortune; for when the Nazis took Austria the leaders of the underground Communist groups were among the first to be rounded up and sent to the concentration camps.


Here are three short excerpts from the memoir:


Every Sunday, weather permitting, our group would go for a trip into the Vienna Woods. They were outside the city boundaries and thus outside the jurisdiction of the police. Gendarmes were few and far between and the Woods were always full of underground groups, Communists, Socialists, Nazis and whatever. We had our own regular spot, a little clearing, and first thing after arriving the food was collected from those who could afford to bring some (many couldn’t) and handed to the fatigue party for equal distribution at meal hours. Mornings were usually taken up with political study, lectures and discussion. Afternoons were devoted to sports and games, but even the games had a political flavour—instead of “Der Kaiser schickt Soldaten aus” we played “Der Lenin schickt Soldaten aus”. In the evening we sang and at the end of the day we had a regular break-up ceremony when the whole group stood in a circle and sang the Internationale, all three verses, finishing with a shouted Rotfront that would have raised any roof. Then we marched back in orderly ranks, still singing our fighting songs, “Die Arbeiter von Wien” or “Roter Fliegermarsch”. As we marched singing towards the town, people on all sides would cheer us and in the semi-darkness many joined our ranks and joined our singing. We usually dispersed at the train terminus but sometimes, forgetting caution, we would go on marching and singing right into the suburbs.


At six in the morning our doorbell rang. It was a detective. “Were you the leader of the Hilfszentrale group in Dobling?” he asked. I said yes, and he then asked me for the membership list. We had never kept any of course but I said he might find it at the head office, which had long been closed. “Never mind,” he said. “Get dressed. You can tell all this to the Commissioner.” The local police station was only a few minutes’ walking distance but the detective took me to the tram stop. “Where are we going?” I asked. “To the Ottakring station,” he replied. This made it worse, because Ottakring had the reputation of beating up left-wing political suspects….At last the interrogation started. I was questioned by the notorious Amler, assistant to the Commissioner. “You were a member of the VSM,” he started. It was not true and I denied it. “Gretl Reuss has given evidence,” he pretended to read from some paper, “that Herbert Roth was a member of the VSM.” Gretl was a member of our group, daughter of the German actor Leo Reuss, but I now knew that he was lying, for although Herbert was my first name, I was always called by my second name Otto, and the name Herbert was not known to any of my friends. I asked the inspector why he was trying to pin something on to me which he knew was untrue, and he got annoyed and started shouting, and then changed the subject….His final question was, “Why was the Hilfszentrale banned?” Looking as innocent as possible, I replied, “I don’t know, I read about it in the papers.” Whereupon he again lost his temper and told me to get out and never show my face again.


Although I never again worked for the GRSV [United Red Students’ League], I knew its members and they usually gave me advance notice of their “actions” so that I could clear my house of incriminating material in case the police made random arrests. They had teams of chemical and technical students developing ideas and manufacturing mechanical devices, and their “actions” were usually of a high standard. I was present when the famous German physicist Nernst spoke at our Institute and a shower of leaflets denouncing Nazism descended on the audience. They fell out of a gadget with a time-mechanism which had been fitted to the banister of the balcony seats. Another favourite device was to write slogans with fluoric acid on glass windows. They generally remained visible for a long time, but when “Long Live the Soviet Union” appeared on the huge glass door of our Institute on 7 November 1937 the doors were boarded up. Another time a red flag unrolled slowly during one of the compulsory lectures on Catholic Doctrine of the State, which all students had to attend. It had been rolled up in the neon lighting tube above the blackboard and the time-mechanism consisted of an acid which slowly corroded the supporting string. The professor called in the policeman who always stood guard outside this lecture, to remove the flag. This he did, but as he was not supposed to leave, he then stood outside until the end of the lecture with a red flag in his hand, much to the amusement of students who passed by. This “action” however caused an argument within the GRSV as the flag had carried only the hammer and sickle and not the socialist three arrows.


It is exciting and at times heroic story-telling, and I still do not understand why my father never shared it with me when I was growing up. They are just the kinds of exploits that would rouse a kid’s excitement.



There is more. In 1998, Maurice Gee, one of New Zealand’s top writers (described once in the Sunday Times in London as one of the finest writers in the English-speaking world), published his latest novel, Live Bodies, a work that went on to win the prize for best novel at that year’s New Zealand literary awards. It is a moody, fictional account of the life of a Vienna-born Jew in New Zealand named Josef Mandl, and Gee acknowledged that early chapters owed much to my father’s papers, now in a Wellington library.


Thus, Mandl was once a leader of the Red Falcon youth movement and he is involved in much underground Socialist activity. At times (as Gee acknowledged) Mandl is quoting directly from my father’s memoir, with group meetings in the Vienna Woods, a red flag hidden with a time mechanism in neon lighting during a compulsory university lecture on Catholic Doctrine of the State, and confrontations with the police. (Late in the novel, Mandl admits to disappointment with his son, who is involved in dubious real estate transactions.)


To ensure that readers do not think Josef Mandl is really my father, Gee has actually made my father into one of the characters in the book, in a brief appearance as a daring young revolutionary in Vienna.


Meanwhile, I have been left ruefully recalling a typically witty remark by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: “The nice thing about being famous is that you can bore people and they think it’s all their fault.” I thought I had worked through all the problems of my relationship with my father. But now, occasionally, I can’t help imagining him musing: “The nice thing about being famous is that you can be a distant dad and your son will think it’s all his fault.”



There is still more. After he arrived in New Zealand, in 1940, my father spent a couple of years working in factories and on farms, and then joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force, where he became a weather officer. Each morning, he released a balloon with a transmitter attached, to monitor weather patterns. When the balloon burst, a parachute opened and carried the transmitter to earth. A label on the transmitter asked the person who found it to turn it in to the nearest post office.


On a couple of occasions, according to my father, short-sighted farmers saw the parachutes drifting down on their acreage, and, assuming it was the start of the much-feared Japanese invasion, grabbed shotguns and blasted the transmitters to pieces.


On his discharge from the military my father was entitled, like virtually every other serving New Zealand soldier in World War II, to some medals. But as an idealistic Communist, a believer in world peace and world government, he refused to accept them. On a few occasions, as children, my brother and I urged him to claim them. “Go and earn your own medals,” he snapped at us, and it became another off-limits area of conversation.


After he died, I wrote to the New Zealand Ministry of Defence and asked if the medals were still available. By return of mail I received them—the New Zealand War Service Medal, the War Medal 1939-45 and the Defence Medal.


Coin and medal dealers have told me they are among the most common medals around, with minimal value for collectors. My father once said the soldiers called them EBMs—Every Bugger’s Medals.


Never mind. I keep them in a drawer of my desk. My three boys sometimes ask to see them. They ask questions about them; they pin them on; they take them to school for show-and-tell. They are too young to understand the horror of war. They only know that heroes get medals. They have a special hero. It is their grandfather.




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