Saturday, February 22, 2020

Building a life while building a nation – the Jennings Germans

In the great nation-building effort after World War 2, much of the Australia we know today was established – including the features of it we most admire. Waves of immigrants who came to Australia seeking a new life after a war that devastated Europe were central to this achievement. While this might have occurred almost 70 years ago in a previous century, it holds many insights for us today as we attempt to make Australia a modern, forward-looking country that can thrive in the contemporary world. An exhibition in Canberra looks at part of this history – the Jennings Germansand illuminates our future.

There’s an old saying: You never know your luck in a big city and it’s true to a degree. One of the great pleasures of living in cities – whether they be big ones or smaller regional cities – is the unexpected surprises around stray corners. The other day I was walking past the Canberra Museum and Art Gallery when I glimpsed a small sign about an exhibition that looked interesting

While palaces like this one at Potsdam, just outside Berlin, would not have been part of the everyday experience of German tradesmen, it was part of a broader culture that would have been very different to life in Australia.

I went in to ask about it and was promptly invited to the opening a couple of days later. The exhibition was ‘Building a life ­– the Jennings Germans story’, which tells the story of the 150 German tradies recruited in Germany straight after World War 2 to join the vast nation-building exercise happening across Australia.

Like the end of the earth
In their case they came to Canberra. At the time it must have seemed to them – as with the immigrant workers on the Hydro dams in the centre of Tasmania – like the end of the earth. Yet they went on to build untold numbers of houses – in fact, I’d love to know how many people still live in Jennings homes.

‘At the time it must have seemed to them – as with the immigrant workers on the Hydro dams in the centre of Tasmania – like the end of the earth.’

The opening was packed and enthusiastic, a sign of how much of a presence their descendants, friends and neighbours have in Canberra still. There were also pretzels and beer – always a fine thing. I found it particularly impressive because by sheer chance over 20 years ago, I was adopted into a shared German (and Austrian) family heritage – something I like to describe as Austr(al)ian.

This strange and distant country
The exhibition touches on so many crucial topics – migration and cultural diversity; the importance of immigration in helping build skills in Australia, our great nation-building era, with the Hydro Electricity Commission in Tasmania (with which my father was centrally involved) and the Snowy Mountains Scheme here – and of course Canberra itself. Initially there was a great deal of suspicion about bringing workers from Germany, understandable given the war years. However, as the new immigrants settled here and came to be a positive and productive presence, Australian views of them softened – as did their views of this strange and distant country.

Some years back I went to Tasmania with my mother to attend the launch of an oral history of the Hydro Electricity Commission schemes, to which my father had contributed. It was held in Tarraleah, in the remote Central Highlands of Tasmania. I met one of the Hydro workers who had originally come out from Berlin and who remembered my father. He had gone back to Berlin at one stage for a visit, but realising that his home had now shifted to Tasmania forever, he returned to settle for good – as did the bulk of the Jennings Germans, most of whom stayed not only in Australia, but in Canberra.

The exhibition is a powerful reminder of the grand days of nation-building in Australia and an encouragement to keep constructing the diverse, creative and forward-looking contemporary Australia we all deserve. It's on till 18 July so if you live in Canberra or are visiting, don’t miss it.

Postscript: Canberra has often been seen as a fairly mono-cultural ‘white bread’ community, but as the annual and long-running National Multicultural Festival, held only last weekend, demonstrates, there is much more to its story than at first might appear – much like Australia generally.

See also

‘indefinite article’ on Facebook – short arts updates and commentary
‘Short arts updates and irreverent cultural commentary about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age’, 'indefinite article' on Facebook.

Out of the ashes – art and bushfires
‘While the current bushfires raging across much of Australia are unprecedented in their scale and severity, they are a reminder of how people have responded after previous fires, rebuilding communities and lives in the affected areas. They have also focused attention on the impact of the fires on creative practices and business and on how those in the arts and culture sector can use their skills to contribute to bushfire recovery into the future’, Out of the ashes – art and bushfires.

What is art good for? Understanding the value of our arts and culture
‘With arts and cultural support increasingly under pressure, arts and cultural organisations and artists are trying to find ways in their own localities to respond and to help build a popular understanding of the broader social and economic benefits of arts and culture. Much work has been done in Australia and internationally to understand, assess and communicate the broad value of arts and culture. The challenge is to share and to apply what already exists – and to take it further’, What is art good for? Understanding the value of our arts and culture.

Creativity and culture in change: Change in creativity and culture
‘A vast transformation of contemporary culture not seen since the breakdown of traditional arts and crafts in the industrial revolution is under way due to the impact of the digital and online environment. Artists, culture managers and cultural specialists today are confronted with radically different challenges and opportunities to those they faced in the 20th Century. There are a number of strategic forces which we need to take account of in career planning and in working in or running cultural organisations’, Presentation at ‘Creative and Cultural Futures: Leadership and Change’ – a symposium exploring the critical issues driving change in the creative and cultural sector, University of Canberra, October 2018, Creativity and culture in change: Change in creativity and culture.

See also – indefinite articles in a definite world
‘If you are losing track of the articles I have published to my 'indefinite article' blog over the last few years, this is a summary of all 133 articles up until mid July 2017, broken down into categories for easy access. They range from the national cultural landscape to popular culture, from artists and arts organisations to cultural institutions, cultural policy and arts funding, creative industries, First Nations culture, cultural diversity, cities and regions, Australia society, government, Canberra and international issues – the whole range of contemporary Australian arts and culture’, See also – indefinite articles in a definite world.

Crossing boundaries – the unlimited landscape of creativity
‘When I was visiting Paris last year, there was one thing I wanted to do before I returned home – visit the renowned French bakery that had trained a Melbourne woman who had abandoned the high stakes of Formula One racing to become a top croissant maker. She had decided that being an engineer in the world of elite car racing was not for her, but rather that her future lay in the malleable universe of pastry. Crossing boundaries of many kinds and traversing the borders of differing countries and cultures, she built a radically different future to the one she first envisaged’, Crossing boundaries – the unlimited landscape of creativity.

Taking part – Arts involvement in a divided Australia
‘The arts and culture sector has long suffered from a shortage of high quality, useable research and statistics. This makes what is available doubly important as we argue the case for the central relevance of arts and culture and the broader social and economic impact of involvement. New research demonstrates the positive scale of involvement, views on importance and trends in participation in Australia’s arts and cultural life, especially hands on involvement. It also shows a worrying decline in engagement and recognition in recent years and points to the need for a more strategic view by government’, Taking part – Arts involvement in a divided Australia.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

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