Nationality: American (originally Australian: immigrated to the United States, 1989). Born: A displaced person's camp in Germany, 5 September 1946; lived in Australia from 1948. Family: Married David Rankin in 1981; three children. Career: Music journalist, Go-Set (Australia), mid-1960s. Awards: Mattara poetry prize, 1986, for Poland; C.J. Dennis prize for poetry, Victorian Premier's Literary Awards, 1987, for The Auschwitz Poems; Steele Rudd award, 1992, for What God Wants; New South Wales Premier's award for fiction, 1995, for Just Like That; Commonwealth Writers' prize, 2000, for Too Many Men.
The Auschwitz Poems. 1986.
Poland and Other Poems. 1987.
After the War: Poems. 1990.
Unintended Consequences. 1992.
In Her Strapless Dresses. 1994.
Mud in My Tears. 1997.
Just Like That. 1994.
Too Many Men. 1999.
Collected Stories. 1999.
Things Could Be Worse. 1990.
What God Wants. 1992.
In Full View (essays). 1997.
New York (collection of newspaper columns).2001.* * *
Lily Brett is at the forefront of an increasing number of Australian descendants of Jewish Holocaust survivors who have felt the need to write about the anguish of having been born after the war to parents traumatized by their experiences during that time. What distinguishes Brett's work is that it encompasses a range of writing—poetry, short stories, novels, and autobiographical essays—all of which in some way grappling with her parents' experiences of the Holocaust as well as testifying to the legacy of its continuing effects on her. Of all the writing being produced by other Australian children of survivors, hers has gained the most international recognition, most recently in Germany and Austria. Some of her work has been awarded important Australian literary prizes, the most notable being The Auschwitz Poems (awarded the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards C.J. Dennis prize for poetry in 1987) and her novel Just Like That, which was awarded the New South Wales Premier's award for fiction in 1995. Her novel Too Many Men was also short-listed for the Miles Franklin award, Australia's premier literary award.
Like many of the new second generation writers, Brett was only able to begin to articulate a desire to know about the Holocaust, about what had happened to her parents, to the rest of her extended family and to Jews more generally, when she was approaching middle age. It was only then that she was able to look at what had been impossible to face before. And what she has discovered through her writing are the many ways in which the effects of the Holocaust's devastation of her parents' lives, and in particular her mother's, were transmitted to her as their daughter. It would not be too far-fetched to say, then, that the writing that came out of that desire to finally confront the horror that had indelibly marked her (especially her body), and whose effects she had known or registered in less conscious ways throughout her childhood, functions simultaneously as a memorialization of her parents' traumas and losses and as a way of working through the demons of the horror, anxiety, and guilt that stalked her as a child and arguably have continued to do so as an adult. It would also not be stretching the point too much to suggest that Brett's writing (as well as, significantly, the prizes she has been awarded for it) functions moreover as the belated gift of a daughter to a mother: a replacement for the prize that was irremediably denied her mother when the Nazis marched into Lodz in 1939—a university education and a professional career—and a replacement for the prizes that Brett had refused to her mother throughout her childhood and adolescence—the successful education and career that her mother had wanted for her daughter.
Such complex and awful complicity with the Holocaust's devastation of the lives of their parents is a theme that reverberates in the works of many of the second generation. What is most noticeable in Brett's literary relation to the Holocaust, however, is the extent to which she (perhaps no more than others) appears to be captivated and captured by that event. Given that so many of the same Holocaust themes and scenes are repeated in Brett's writing, it seems that her writing serves also to keep her fixated on and fascinated by the Holocaust, so that she can remain, like her heroine Esther in Just Like That, "ablaze with Hitler and concentration camps and what happened to the Jews."
See the essay on In Full View.