Monday, January 30, 2012

Robert Binet - a 20th Century Life

"So do you see it as accidents or fate that shaped your life"
"Yes definitely?..[pause] well you gave it a bit of a help here and there"

Born in Hungary in 1933, when storm clouds were already beginning to gather in Europe and Hitler was beginning to crystallize ?with hysterical abandon what was alive in every German listener and reader? (Erikson, E (1963, 1977) Childhood and Society (2nd ed.). Triad/Paladin: St Albans, Herts, p 297), Robert Binet was to be shaped by some of the major cataclysms of the 20th century - the Holocaust and the Cold War, before beginning a new life as an immigrant to Australia.

Early life and childhood

Robbie was the second child, his sister had been born seven years prior. Robbie's father, Miklos Binet, lost his office job in Budapest because of legislation which excluded Jews from universities and many jobs. He had to work in a factory making bakelite electric plugs, and he brought work home and the whole family helped him in order to make money to survive, ?but life was still bearable.

Hungary entered the war on the German side, and Hungary's ultra nationalist right wing government continued to enforce increasingly severe anti-Jewish policies. Jews were used as slave labor for the Hungarian Army's Forced Labor Battalions. In 1941 Robbie's father, who had been conscripted into one of these brigades, said goodbye to his 8 year old son. "It was first time I saw tears in his eyes" recalls Robert, and that image has stayed with me my entire life. He was never to see his father again. Beaten and tortured by Hungarian soldiers, Miklos died on a forced march to the Ukraine, in the winter of 1942.

Until late 1944 the approximately 400 000 Jews in Budapest remained relatively unscathed, and it was Jews living on the periphery of Budapest who were targeted.
In 1944 Budapest's Jews were ordered to move into certain houses that were marked
with a Star of David. "For us little kids it was fun, I was 11, we didn't know what was going on"(Robbie believes it was his childish incomprehension that spared him from some of the trauma of the destruction all around him.

"Somehow my mother managed to get hold of some Swiss papers for us, that we were
under the protectorate of the Swiss government. Swiss papers were less valuable than
Swedish ones, because the Germans, who depended upon some Swedish industries for
their war effort, would not interfere with Swedish subjects." Although Robbie's mother did not have Swedish papers, she did manage to get them into a block of flats that Swedish diplomat, businessman and humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg had rented, a big apartment building that was so full there was no room to sit down in, never mind to lie down in, but to get into the building was a matter of life and death.

When the Arrow Cross party came to power in October, death squads began daily
beatings and shootings of Budapest's Jewish community. Arrow Cross thugs helped
Adolf Eichman re-activate the deportations, sending some 80,000 Jews out of the city on slave labor details and many more straight to death camps.

Robbie?s sister had married her childhood sweetheart at 19, 'a wonderful beautiful man I remember him very clearly. He was a young printer, a social democrat - and a Jew. Ten days after they were married he was taken by Hungarians who handed him over to the Germans never to be seen again. we don?t know if it was Auschwitz or somewhere else."

By December 1944 the Russians were encircling Budapest. The Germans blew up all the
bridges across the Danube and withdrew. Inside Budapest it was 'open season' and
young thugs were free to kill Jews anywhere they could find them. "The Swedish house
became overcrowded, and we had to find somewhere else to hide. She (Robbie's mother)
took the stars (of David) off us and somehow hid us amongst Christians. She was forever going out to forage for food, and whenever she heard the raids were on she moved us somewhere else. We survived by the skin of our teeth, twice we were lined up ready to be marched away, and told to wait, and twice the Hungarians never came back. My mother, who knew what awaited us, must have gone through hell."

"I watched the Russians coming in from the balcony. They were allowed to rob and rape and pillage but we were euphoric. My mother dressed my sister to make her look ugly and diseased. The Russians gave me bread, stopped me from dying of hunger. So anyway, we survived, I returned to school, but unfortunately my mother passed away in 1948."

Post War

"The losses I experienced during the war made me determined that it shouldn't happen
again, and I would join any movement that would stop it. Robert and his sister were going to immigrate to Israel, which was desperately seeking young people to come and help consolidate the Jewish homeland. However in 1948 the communists came to power and sealed off the borders, "and so - for better or worse - I never went."

He finished four years of high school, then went to trade school and became a turner and fitter (in that system your chances were better if you were a worker?). At 19 he went into the new Hungarian army, and became a 'communications and politics? officer, the 2nd in command of 120 people. "I loved it, the girls loved the uniform, it was hard yakka (= work in Australian slang) at first, the basic training, I thought about girls and I wanted to serve communism. I thought it was a fair system, that would create an equal world where there would be no more wars. I was very young. I thought I liked the idea of everyone sharing everything"

This might have been an idyllic period, or at least one of relative happiness, but Robert had to use his army pay to support his family. His sister had remarried and his brother in law was sent to jail and did a year's hard labour, accused of undermining the communist economy." After the brother in law was released he had to work in a steel foundry, where he got horribly burnt. By then the young couple had a son, and Robert maintained all three of them.

Stranger in a strange land

In 1956 the Hungarian Revolution broke out and Robert was able to leave the army. The Voice of America was urging to come to the West, although Robert, who had seen the excesses of the communist system, needed no urging.

There were hundreds of thousands of Hungarian refugees who flooded into Austria.
Robert wanted to get far away from Europe and its wars and cold winters and Australia seemed about as far away as one could get. It was a good fit, because Australia wanted emigrants - at least white European ones? - and so Robert and his wife (he had married in 1955 aged 22) immigrated to Australia.

The young couple knew no-one, neither friends nor family, but a chance meeting at the airport with a Hungarian man at the airport who was waiting for someone else led to that man (a more veteran immigrant) "adopting" them. This man took them to a Jewish hostel for new immigrants in Crows Nest, and over the next few weeks helped Robert and his wife find employment. The families became friends, shared picnics, walks, even holidays, and Robbie watched his benefactors daughter - seven at the time - grow into a young woman, little guessing he would later marry her.

Love and all that

Robert always had an eye for the women. He describes a Quantas staff member on the
plane which first brought him to Australia (55 years ago!) as a "dinky di ozzy girl pretty, freckled, red head." Clearly something in him resonates and responds strongly to the feminine/female archetypes.

His first marriage lasted 16 years. The struggles of emigration kept them together
although "we weren?t really suited." He married her because she was beautiful - "the root of all evil." But she turned out to be an alcoholic, was depressed, and attempted to commit suicide several times. "I'd be called home and she'd be flat out on pills. Eventually they performed a lobotomy on her. They half-cured her. She calmed down, but never 100%. It was a difficult time for me. We had huge clashes. I think in the back of our minds we still loved one another. We cared about each other and stayed in touch even after she left."

There were no children from his first marriage: "We were too busy trying to make a life for ourselves here, get established." And anyway, as it turned out, his first wife was infertile.

His second marriage was to someone much younger than he, who he had known since she
was seven years old (see above). She had had an unhappy first marriage, and she divorced at the same time as Robert did. They decided to get married, and she converted (via Reform) to Judaism. His relationship with his own Jewishness was rekindled during this second marriage. And suddenly, already in his forties, having children became enormously important. Two girls were born, one in 1977 and one in 1979.

This second marriage lasted for ten years, and they separated in 1984. "I didn?t notice anything, that she was unhappy. She said she had missed out on the experience of being a single adult person. But my version was that the age gap began to be significant."

"The separation was peaceful, cultured, because of the children?.but I held a grudge for a long time. The girls unanimously said they wanted to spend half the time with each of us, so they were three days by me and three days by her and we shared all the child rearing and all the expenses."

Erica is Robert?s current partner. She is 9 years younger than him, also a Jewish ?
Hungarian. They have now been together for ten years. He says he is very content in the

Working Life

Robert worked briefly as a fitter and turner in Hungary before going into the Hungarian

When he came to Australia he found employment as a worker in a Holden factory,
assembling cars. After a year or two he went to ICI chemicals, also as factory worker, and
enjoyed the job. He would have stayed there, but his wife, who worked in the same
factory as lab assistant, was lonely. She worked day shifts while Robert often had night
shifts and on weekends. When he was at home with days off she was at work. As a result
they hardly ever saw each other. She pushed him to leave the factory and become a taxi
driver. He enjoyed driving, and agreed.

It was difficult for him to learn his way around Sydney, but he enjoyed the flexible hours
and freedom that this new job offered. During his second marriage being a taxi driver
allowed him to fetch his girls from school, and then fetch his wife, who worked at
Readers Digest in Surry Hills. All in all he worked as a taxi driver for some 25 years,
eventually owning his own cab. But this part of his working life was brought to a sudden
halt in 1990, when he had a stroke. After the stroke he could no longer remember how to
find his way around Sydney, and had to look for other work.

He worked as a cleaner in a building for a year or so, and then as a salesman in a shop
seeing Opals. He worked there until they closed the shop and then he retired.

"I never thought about money. My sister told me we were bad business people and I
believed her. I ignored any business opportunities that came my way. I would have
gone into business earlier, it would have made my retirement easier, less worries now, I
might have been able to give my girls more, fly Erica (his current partner) to see her son
in Israel once a year."

Concluding thoughts

How did the war impact on him?
It turned me from a kid who did not eat a lot to someone who eats a lot.[laughter]

Fears for the future?
Anti-Semitism is back again in many places ? including Hungary - and it makes me sad,
I've been there and seen the terrible results it produces.

Did he get wiser as he grew older?
I'd like to think so but its not for me to judge.

"By July 8, 1944 437,402 Jews had been deported in 151 trains, according to German
military governor, SS-Brigadefuhrer Edmund Veesenmayer?official German reports. One
hundred and thirty six trains were sent to Auschwitz, where 90% of the people were
exterminated on arrival. For most of this time period, 12,000 Jews were delivered to
Auschwitz in a typical day, among them the future writer and Nobel Prize-winner Elie
Wiesel, at age 15. The devotion to the cause of the "final solution" of the Hungarian
gendarmes surprised even Eichmann himself, who supervised the operation with only
twenty officers and a staff of 100, which included drivers, cooks, etc."

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