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Lewitt, Maria

LEWITT, Maria

Nationality: Australian (originally Polish: immigrated to Australia, 1949). Born: Maria Markus, Lodz, 1924. Family: Married Julian Lewitt, ca. 1944; two sons. Career: Worked on a poultry farm and as a seamstress and machinist, Australia. Cofounded and operated several businesses, including a bakery and a milk bar. Awards: Alan Marshall award, 1978, for Come Spring; Ethnic Affairs Commission award, 1986, for No Snow in December.

Publication

Novels

Come Spring: An Autobiographical Novel. 1980.

No Snow in December: An Autobiographical Novel. 1985.

Other

Just Call Me Bob. 1976.

Grandmother's Yarn (for children). 1985.

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Critical Studies:

"Triumphantly Living" by Nancy Keesing, in Overland (Australia), 103, July 1986, p. 75-76; "Survival and Exile in Maria Lewitt's Come Spring and No Snow in December " by Susan Ballyn, in Commonwealth Essays and Studies (France), 12(1), Autumn 1989, pp. 73-80.

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Maria Markus was born in 1924 in Lodz, Poland, the younger daughter of a prosperous middle-class Jewish family. Her paternal grandparents immigrated to Lodz from Lithuania in the mid-nineteenth century. Her father, Borys, qualified in Leipzig as a chartered accountant and subsequently managed a family-owned textile factory. He met her mother, Lydia, while on business in Moscow during the Bolshevik Revolution.

Lydia Wagin's father was an officer in the Imperial Russian Army. Though she converted to Judaism, she remained Russian to the core. Maria's autobiographical Holocaust novel, Come Spring, depicts her mother as a spirited woman who saved her daughters and other Jewish relatives and friends. Maria and her older sister, Eugenia, grew up in a cultured home with books, music, and governesses to look after them. Most of the pupils at the private high school they attended were Jewish. Even in her sheltered existence, Maria was exposed to rising anti-Semitism during the interwar years, which took the form of street demonstrations, poster and leaflet campaigns, economic boycotts, and unfettered public and private displays of prejudice. In September 1939 her father joined in the defense of Warsaw against the German invasion. Shortly after his return to Lodz, he was beaten to death in his own home by a soldier in the SS.

When Lodz, renamed Litzmannstadt, was incorporated into the German Reich, Lydia fled with her daughters to Warsaw. Maria's novel describes the increasingly wretched conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto from 1940 to 1941. In 1941 her mother's sister, who was married to a Polish aristocrat, helped to get them an apartment outside the ghetto. They stayed in Warsaw until they were threatened by szmalcowniki, thugs whose occupation was blackmailing and denouncing hidden Jews. They were forced to move to her aunt's isolated village home outside Warsaw. Maria's uncle was a proud, eccentric, and impoverished aristocrat who detested Jews but could not condone murder. For two years, while dying of cancer, he sheltered his wife's family and turned a blind eye to four other extended family members who were hidden in his cellar.

A romance blossomed between Maria and one of the family group hidden in the cellar. Julian Lewitt was the son of her father's business partner. They married after the war, and their son Joe was born in 1945. Their wartime dream had been to leave Poland and Europe. In 1947 they reluctantly separated from their decimated family, joining the general exodus of surviving Jews after the Kielce pogrom of 1946. The Lewitts landed in Melbourne, Australia, in January 1949, after a year in Paris, where their infant son was treated for tuberculosis.

They initially lived and worked with the relatives who sponsored them on their poultry farm in Reservoir, a northern outer suburb of Melbourne. Julian, who had qualified as a textile engineer in Bradford before the war, took factory jobs. Maria finished garments by hand and later worked as a machinist while she looked after her young son at home. Despite the uncongenial work, they regarded Australia as a land of opportunity and freedom. They later started small business ventures, beginning with a milk bar and then a cake shop. Their younger son Michael was born in 1953.

Apart from the separation from her beloved family, the greatest grief Maria experienced in migrating was her exile from her native language and literature, which she could not share with her children. She had grown up with the classics, especially Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and the Polish writers Julian Tuwim and Stefan Zeromski. She recalls scribbling even before she learned to write. When she was fed up working as a machinist, she scribbled notes on garment labels. During the war she kept a diary and risked denunciation during weekly trips to change library books. She learned English from her son's schoolbooks, graduating to works she had already read in Polish translation, such as the plays of George Bernard Shaw and the novels of John Galsworthy, Pearl S. Buck, and some French authors.

In the 1960s Maria enrolled in creative writing classes at Monash University. She was commended for short stories about her wartime experiences that were also short-listed for a number of prizes. Overcoming her anxiety about her inadequate English, she began her autobiographical novel, Come Spring, which won the Alan Marshall award in 1978. It was published in Australia in 1980 and in the United States in 1982.

Preceding Schindler's List, Come Spring was one of the first books to raise awareness of the Holocaust in Australia. Maria made a conscious effort to preserve its authenticity as testimony by restricting herself to the experiences and limited understanding of her adolescent protagonist, Irina, who, like Maria herself, is only 15 when the war begins.

Maria's second novel, No Snow in December (1985), focuses on the core themes of migration, the pain of displacement, and the loss of language, status, and self-worth balanced against the gains of political freedom, tolerance, material prosperity, a good education, and a future for one's children. Although she has not written much poetry, her poem "Smugglers" is used for educational purposes; its powerful yet easily grasped central metaphor is the hidden "baggage" of the past imported by immigrants.

—Felicity Bloch

See the essay on Come Spring: An Autobiographical Novel.

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