Monday, December 8, 2014

Some biographical notes about Emery Barcs

by Jim Andrighetti

The journalist Emery Barcs and the painter Desiderius Orban were part of a small colony of Hungarian emigres in Sydney at the time of their arrest. Barcs’ book, Backyard of Mars: Memoirs of the “Reiffo” Period in Australia,12 graphically depicts his odyssey from pre-war Europe to wartime Australia, where he was prejudiced against as a neutral alien, stigmatised as an enemy alien, then demoralised as a friendly alien. Extracts of his book had previously appeared in Quadrant.

Barcs was a foreign correspondent who had been expelled from Italy following his despatches critical of Mussolini’s domestic and foreign policies. Back home he fell out of favour with the Hungarian regime then siding with the Rome-Berlin Axis. The regime’s introduction of racial laws in April 1938 signalled the ethnic cleansing that would escalate in Hungary and other parts of the continent under Nazi rule. Hungarian society was about to be convulsed, freedom of the press suppressed. Life as an unbridled journalist was over for Barcs. He set his sights on pursuing his craft abroad, far away from the maelstrom of Europe.

Australia had fascinated Barcs since childhood. His reading of it in Jules Verne’s Les Enfants du Capitaine Grant fostered an arcadian image of this southern haven. He and his wife Vica arrived in Sydney on the eve of World War II. They settled in beachside Coogee and mixed among the cafe circle of their compatriots. The Australian Journalists’ Association admitted him as a member. As his European outlets dried up, Barcs increasingly relied on his freelance assignments for The Daily Telegraph, specialising in assessments of the volatile situation in Europe. When Australia followed Britain into the war, the Barcs reported to Randwick Police Station for manpower registration and “to sign an undertaking not to engage in anti-British activities”. Not long afterwards Emery volunteered for the 2nd A.I.F., but foreigners were not wanted. He met the same rejection in May 1940 when, as a neutral alien, he sought to enlist in the 7th Division A.I.F.

To supplement his income, Barcs took up the offer of foreign language monitor in the Telegraph’s radio room. This involved summarising German, French and Italian broadcasts. In February 1941 he was invited to be a contributing commentator in the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Talks Department. Barcs’ by-line was by now being heard and seen by the authorities, as well as the public.

In April, news of Hungary’s attack on Yugoslavia had ended any pretence of Magyar non-belligerency. Hungarians here faced the prospect of their reclassification as enemy aliens. By the end of the year the fate of a cohort of these Central Europeans had been sealed. Around midnight on 8 December 1941, after having just scripted a news commentary about the attack on Pearl Harbor for the A.B.C., Barcs was rounded up by the police and hauled off to Kingsford Police Station. He spent the night locked up in a cell with three Rumanian detainees.

Next morning they joined a bus load of other aliens headed west to be interned at Liverpool. Barcs was for a brief time the leader of some 30 Hungarians, organising them into working parties. Other nationalities in the camp included Germans, Italians, Rumanians, Finns and Japanese. He met up with internees who had been there for over a year, among whom were the anti-Nazi Germans and Austrians transported from Britain on the infamous HMT Dunera. The Dunera misadventure, its history and legacy, is documented in the archive compiled and presented to the Library in 1994 by former “Dunera boy”, Henry Lippmann. Barcs also struck up a friendship with Lamberto Yonna, the Italian businessman and sometime artist who had emigrated from Italy in the 1920s. Some of Yonna’s artwork, including watercolour caricatures of camp life, is held by the Library. A colour reproduction of his whimsical depictions of friend and foe appears in The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, its People and their Origin.13

Barcs’ brief stint in Tatura exposed him to the wondrous delights of the Grand Cafe and the Collegium Taurense which catered for body and mind respectively. Barcs was in compound 4D, a veritable Gymnasium, or grammar school, of Central European middle-class intelligentsia. Amongst them was the young German Dunera internee Henry Mayer, who, displaying a precocious intellect, gave lectures on sundry topics, a foretaste o the encyclopaedic knowledge he would share as an academic with colleagues and students. Barcs took up bookbinding under a master craftsman. As chores were remunerated, Barcs earned a shilling for gardening in the morning and lecturing on international politics in the evening.

Barcs’ impending hearing before the Aliens’ Appeals Tribunal in Sydney hastened his return to Liverpool. On one occasion he shared a lorry ride with a loquacious Gunther Bahnemann en route to the Tribunal.

"This youthful version of a modem M√ľnchhausen was still rattling away on his monologue when we arrived at the Supreme Court" is Barcs’ parting reflection on Bahnemann, whose surname is erroneously recorded as Bohman.

Barcs was released in February 1942 and in July was called up for service in the Citizens’ Military Forces. During the interim he went back to the Telegraph radio room, while also slotting in scripts for the A.B.C.. He was called up for the newly created 3rd Australian Employment Company, a non-combat unit largely composed of refugee aliens. Barcs’ description of this little documented unit adds to the history of the vital war-work it and other A.E.C.s carried out on the homefront. As a uniformed transport worker in the suburbs, Barcs fruitlessly pursued employment opportunities to aid the war effort commensurate with his qualifications. In contrast, his fellow compatriot in khaki, the painter Desiderius Orban, whose papers the Library acquired in 1986, seemed resigned to his lot and unperturbed by his manual duties. After a little over two years service, Barcs was discharged on medical grounds and re-entered civilian society to resume his journalistic career.

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