The Immigrants Who Enriched Australia

The disturbances caused by the fascist and communist takeovers in Europe and by the consequent Second World War led to a number of talented immigrants settling in Melbourne during and after the war. In 1939 Professor Arthur Schüller, a renowned Austrian radiologist, arrived at St Vincent’s Hospital to work in its neurosurgery department. From Brno, the capital of Moravia, where he was born in 1874, Schüller had moved to Vienna and graduated at Vienna University in medicine with the highest honours in 1899. His greatest achievement was to be the first person to successfully x-ray the brain, surrounded as it is by bone impermeable to x-rays. As a result he became “without any shadow of doubt the father of neuroradiology”, as his biographer wrote. He was awarded a Doctor of Medicine degree under the auspices of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, a distinction given by the Emperor only twice during his sixty-eight-year reign. Schüller was a tall, handsome man, with an imposing presence. After the First World War he was appointed chief neurologist at a Vienna hospital while continuing his medical research which led to many path-breaking publications. In addition he and his wife Margarete were accomplished violinists. By the 1930s he was “famous everywhere in the medical world”.

Schüller was too old to operate at St Vincent’s, being sixty-five when he arrived, but for the next two decades his advice during operations and elsewhere was invaluable because of his vast knowledge. It was only half a century after his death in 1957 that the full story of Schüller’s life was revealed. He and his wife, neé Margarete Stiassni, were Czech Jews. They had converted to Catholicism, a prerequisite for those aspiring to high places in the Austro-Hungarian empire. When Hitler invaded Austria, Professor Schüller was able to leave, but his wife tried to escape east from Czechoslovakia with their two sons in front of Hitler’s invading armies. She succeeded but the two boys were taken by the Nazis and murdered. Margarete was eventually able to escape via a tortuous route. Schüller could have obtained a position anywhere in the world, but chose Australia as the place furthest from Europe.

It is not clear how much of this tragic saga the St Vincent’s medical staff knew at the time. Understandably the Schüllers found it difficult to settle here. Margarete worked humbly as a domestic help, perhaps to expiate her guilt at having surrendered their two sons, and Arthur suffered depression in his last years.

Fr Ernest Worms was a German Pallottine priest on the Kimberley mission from the 1930s to the 1970s. While serving there, both as parish priest of Broome and working in the field, he devoted his time to studying the Aborigines, and became through his extensive writings a leading anthropologist and scholar on Australian Aboriginal customs. In the middle of his Australian career, for the decade from 1939 to 1949, when the German Pallottines were interned in Melbourne, he was appointed rector of their headquarters in Studley Park Road, Kew, almost opposite Archbishop Mannix’s residence, “Raheen”. This break from active missionary work enabled him to consolidate his research interests.

Ernest Worms was born in 1891 in Westphalia, Germany. He was severely wounded in the First World War, which interrupted his studies for the priesthood. After ordination in 1920 at the age of twenty-nine, he studied languages under the Berlin university scholar Dr Herman Nekes, a fellow Pallottine priest who became his mentor. Fr Worms was appointed to Broome and the Kimberley mission in 1930 under a fellow German, Bishop Otto Raible, head of the Kimberley Catholic Vicariate. Worms’s area of study ranged beyond the Kimberley into the northern half of Western Australia, including remote desert communities. His first interest was the structure of Aboriginal languages, which provided an entry point into their customs and rituals. Many of his early findings were published in German journals.

His second field of interest was the more difficult one of religious beliefs. Worms was ahead of his times. He did not try to banish Aboriginal beliefs from his charges and impose Christianity on them holus-bolus. Instead he saw both Aboriginal and Christian belief systems as variants of the basic structure of all religions, as understood from his anthropological studies. This was unusual at the time because many influential anthropologists, such as Sir James Frazer and Sir Baldwin Spencer, were secularists who dismissed religious beliefs as akin to magic and superstition. Worms was able to reconcile native and Christian religious behaviour rather than putting them at odds. The missionary must, he believed, move towards the spirit world of Aborigines to understand and be accepted by them; the missionary must have “a fine feeling into their sensitive minds”. Patience and strength were needed. He believed that the earliest tribes in Australia had a notion of a supreme being, whereas the beliefs of later arrivals may have been altered by other religious systems.

Worms was tall, thin, suntanned and fit, with a wide face, high cheekbones, flaxen hair and the reserved and serious demeanour of a dedicated scholar. His personality and reverence for the Aboriginal tribes were reminiscent of Patrick White’s fictional German explorer Voss. After returning to the Kimberley for a decade at the end of the war, Fr Worms became Rector of the Pallottine House at Manly in Sydney. He died in St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, in 1963, aged seventy-two. His two major books, on Aboriginal languages and religion, were published in German, and translated for their English editions after his death.

The biggest Catholic group to migrate to Australia after the Irish were the Italians, some of whom had arrived during the gold-rush decades. They continued to come here in the inter-war decades because of lack of opportunities in Italy. One of Bob Santamaria’s interests when Catholic Action began was to look after the needs of the community from which he derived. In 1938 the distinguished Jesuit priest Fr Ugo (Hugo) Modotti, a native of Venice, came to Melbourne at the invitation of Dr Mannix as chaplain to Italian communities in Australia, basing himself at the Richmond parish. Fr Modotti had studied at the Gregorian University in Rome before being posted as a missionary to India, where he completed his Jesuit training. For sixteen years he was, among other positions, attached to the long-standing Syrian Catholic Church in south-west India.

The main problems Italians faced in Australia were internment during the war, irregular church attendance, and difficulties of assimilating into the wider Anglo-Australian community. An administrative problem was whether Italian Catholics should form their own separate organisations, or mix in normal parish life, a forerunner of a dilemma which would resurface with the much larger immigration influx after the war. Fr Modotti was instrumental in arranging for the Italian Cabrini Sisters to come to Melbourne to take over a hospital. Archbishop Mannix wrote to Prime Minister Curtin in September 1943 praising the work Modotti and the Labor MP Arthur Calwell were doing to alleviate Italian difficulties.

Fr Modotti’s Australian mission was caught in the crossfire between Mannix and the Apostolic Delegate Archbishop Giovanni Panico. The Italian Panico accused his fellow countryman Fr Modotti of being a fascist. However, one of the first things Modotti had done in Australia was to forbid Italians wearing black shirts at religious functions. Modotti had in addition become friendly with Arthur Calwell, and when Calwell publicly regretted that Mannix had not received the red hat of a cardinal, Modotti was accused, without evidence, of being behind the Calwell statement. After Modotti returned to Italy in 1946 to recruit more Italian priests for Australia, he was never allowed back here, presumably vetoed by Panico.

The outbreak of war in 1939 meant the Vienna Mozart Boys’ Choir was stranded in Melbourne. Mannix used the opportunity to establish a boys’ choir at Melbourne’s cathedral based on these Austrian singers, with some additional boys from the nearby St Patrick’s College and Parade Christian Brothers College. However, the director of the choir, Dr Georg Gruber, was denounced to the authorities as a Nazi sympathiser, interned at the Tatura camp and deported back to Austria in 1947, where he was cleared of the charge. Fr Percy Jones became choir director in 1942, a position he retained over the next three decades.

One former choir member, Otto Nechwatal, set up a religious supplies business in Elizabeth Street, then later ran an Austrian restaurant. Another, the baritone Stefan Haag, developed a career as an opera singer and was later director of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust.

The great wave of post-war immigrants included a number of artists. Two sculptors from central Europe who worked in wood and metal flourished in their new homeland. The Bavarian sculptor Hans Knorr arrived in Australia on the Dunera refugee ship and spent the war at the Tatura internment camp. In Melbourne artistic circles he met and married the writer Hilda Dent, of Methodist background, who converted to her husband’s Catholicism. Hans Knorr’s sculptures were first exhibited at the Catholic Centenary Exhibition in 1948. The Knorrs lived for a time in the Dandenongs in a rented house on the farm of the Austrian lady who had come out as the female guardian of the Vienna Mozart Boys’ Choir. Hilda Knorr recalled in her memoir rumours that their mysterious landlady had had a close relationship with Dr Gruber, or that it was she who had informed on him to the authorities, or both. Eventually the Knorrs set up their Emerald Gallery, one of the first private art galleries outside the city, which became a weekend meeting place where people from Melbourne cultural circles mixed with the locals.

By the 1960s Hans, having extended his range into bronze, ceramic and metal sculpture, was widely recognised, with a number of exhibitions and many commissions. St Bernard’s Church in East Coburg, for example, has a Madonna, Stations of the Cross, baptismal font and statue of St Bernard at the front, all by Hans Knorr. The Knorrs formed an artistic partnership, Hilda, the mother of their six children and gallery organiser, finding time to write two novels, a book of short stories, occasional journalism, a study of her husband’s output, The Sculptures of Hans Knorr (1976), and a memoir of her life with Hans, Journey with a Stranger (1986). Together they wrote Religious Art in Australia (1967).

Leopoldine (Poldi) Deflorian grew up in the Austrian Tyrol near the Austrian-Italian border, and trained as a sculptor in Vienna and Hallstadt. Her first husband died on the Russian front. She then met and married Leo Mimovich, a Serbian who was in a prisoner-of-war camp near Salzburg. They migrated to Victoria, and after a stint at Bonegilla migrant camp, settled in Melbourne where Poldi, known as Mrs Mimovich, worked commercially as a wood carver, then set up her own studio at home in Kew. Her sculptures in wood and metal casting reflected Central European and Catholic themes, and like Hans Knorr, her style became more modernist, free flowing and impressionistic as time passed. Mrs Mimovich’s work is often seen in Melbourne churches: Our Lady of Good Counsel church in Deepdene has a Hans Knorr statue and a Mimovich wood-carved Stations of the Cross. In 1977 Henry Rohr published Sculpture of Leopoldine Mimovich. Mrs Mimovich published a book of drawings tracing her life, Memories Guide My Hand (1985).

Miloslav Dismas Zika had received a Doctorate in Psychology and Fine Arts from the Charles University in Prague before the Second World War. In 1941, during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, he married and protected his Jewish fiancée Heda Schaefer, who had converted to Catholicism. In 1942 he was sentenced to forced labour in various camps in Czechoslovakia and Germany. After a Czech communist government came to power in 1948, the family escaped to Austria, and arrived in Melbourne as refugees. Mila Zika was employed as a foundry worker and stained-glass painter, and in the Victorian public service, before setting up his San Damiano Art Studio. He designed the unique polychrome Clare’s Catholic Church in North Box Hill in the mid-1960s, one of the first to break away from the standard rectangular shape. It was semi-circular in order to involve the congregation more closely in the ritual of the Mass, in line with the reforms of Vatican II. Mila Zika inserted, following medieval tradition, the Latin text “Dismas made this” into his art projects.

From 1966 he lectured in Art History at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and in 1969 was appointed Head of the Art Department at Christ College, Chadstone. Heda Zika taught Biology and German at Our Lady of Sion College in Box Hill, run by an order of religious sisters whose mission was reconciliation with Jews. One son, Paul, became an artist and a senior academic in Visual Arts at the University of Tasmania; in 1994 he returned to his ancestral haunts in Prague, producing a series of art works based on the monstrances of Prague’s Loreto Convent. Another son, Charles, who was awarded the Daniel Mannix Scholarship in 1971, became a Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, specialising in late-medieval European studies.

Helga Girschik was the daughter of an Austrian Catholic father and German Protestant mother. During the Second World War the family fled Iran, where the father was working as an engineer on construction projects, and escaped to Australia on a refugee ship. They were interned at the Tatura camp, where they lived for the rest of the war, before moving to Melbourne. Helga was enrolled as a boarder at the Academy Mercy Convent in Fitzroy in 1947. At Melbourne University she completed an Arts degree, and was a member of the university Newman Society, but preferred the approach of the philosopher Dr Max Charlesworth. She married James Griffin, a Catholic Worker contributor, academic and author of a favourable biography of John Wren and an unsympathetic one of Daniel Mannix. Helga’s life up to her marriage is recounted in her autobiography Sing Me That Lovely Song Again, the title presumably referring to her husband’s fine tenor voice.

This is an extract from Patrick Morgan’s forthcoming book The Mannix Era: Melbourne Catholic Leadership 1920–70, to be published by Connor Court. Patrick Morgan’s most recent Quadrant article was “Tom Wolfe, a Man in Full” in the July-August edition

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