Michael Gawenda, former editor of The Age and former refugee from Poland
Michael Gawenda is one of Australia’s best known and most distinguished journalists. His story begins in Lodz, Poland, where his mother and father worked in the city’s thriving textile industry. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, his parents, who were both Jewish, were forced to flee to Siberia with their two daughters. It was not until the war ended in 1945 that they could return to their home, hoping to be reunited with the families they had left behind. They were devastated to discover that few of their family members had survived.
No one on my father’s side survived … My mum found her brother and sister, but no one else.
Michael’s parents decided to leave Poland along with the tide of other Jewish refugees.
They wanted to leave and start afresh. That is the experience of refugees throughout the ages and everywhere, and we forget that a lot of refugees have had a hard time.
The family found refuge in a displaced persons camp in Austria, where Michael was born in 1947.
When he was three, Michael’s family arrived in Australia. They spent their first year in Australia living with their father’s cousin above Melbourne’s first cabaret restaurant.
I found that to be a wonderful time. I loved seeing the people. People were very kind to a little boy in a cabaret restaurant and I loved the place. That was a good time in my life.
The process of adapting to life in Australia was difficult for Michael’s parents, who had to learn a new language and find different jobs to support their family, while dealing with their trauma.
My father found a job in trade and my mum too. It was a time where migrants worked in factories. I must have learnt English pretty quickly but it was difficult for my parents who at that time were almost 50 … The trauma of a new place is enormous and the sacrifices that refugee parents make are enormous. Most have experience in industries but they end up doing jobs that they never thought they’d do.
A year after their arrival in Australia, Michael’s family moved into a small communal house close to the cabaret restaurant. By this time their family had expanded from six to nine people, with the addition of his oldest sister’s husband and first child and his second sister’s fiancé. They lived in this cramped environment for six years, until Michael, his parents and the youngest of his three sisters moved to Fitzroy. His father bought a milk bar to support his family.
I don’t think my father ever wanted to own a milk bar. He was a dreamer. But he was doing something he hated so he could make some money to give us an education … [My parents had] given up their roots and home and come to this strange place where they were determined to make a life for their children.
Michael attended a local primary school with students from many different cultural backgrounds, learning the values and traditions of other migrants.
It made a difference attending a multicultural school. The teachers had to cope with children from all nationalities.
After primary school, Michael moved to a selective boy’s high school, where for the first time there were other Jewish students. From high school he went on to university where he studied economics and politics.
After graduating from university, Michael moved to Papua New Guinea to work as an economist. However, after working in the field for a year, he decided he did not want to continue in economics. He returned to Australia where, in 1970, he was offered an internship at The Age newspaper.
I never really wanted to go into the economy and politics area. I probably did it because of my dad. I was offered the internship at The Age because I was always sending in articles that were never published.
It was not long before the newspaper began to publish Michael’s stories. The internship was the beginning of a successful and fulfilling 37-year career at The Age, where Michael worked as a feature writer, news writer and foreign correspondent in London and Washington.
Michael won his first Walkley Award in 1982 for a feature article on public housing. He spent a month living in a commission house to research the story, motivated by the desire to help refugees living in public flats.
I did it because at that time, there was a high rate of suicide in those flats and no one could understand why. It was a big deal for me writing this piece because these flats were full of refugees and that was one of the things that attracted me to do that story.
Michael would go on to win to two more Walkley Awards throughout his career.
In 1997, Michael became editor at The Age. While reporting and writing remained his true passions, he nonetheless excelled in his new role and was promoted to editor-in-chief in 2003.
Michael wrote his first novel, American Notebook, in 2007. In the same year, he was appointed inaugural Director of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Advanced Study for Journalism. He is currently working on a memoir which will focus on Australia in the 1950s and 1960s.
While best known for his achievements as a journalist, it has been the events in his personal life – his journey to Australia, his marriage and the birth of his two children – which Michael considers to be the most important in his life.
The biggest moment of my life was when my first daughter was born. That was a profoundly big moment. I reflected that night on the journey that my family had taken and life’s amazing journeys.