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Verstandig, Mark

VERSTANDIG, Mark

Nationality: Australian (originally Polish: immigrated to Australia after World War II). Born: 1912. Education: Studied law, Jagellonian University, Kraków, graduated 1936. Family: Married Frieda Reich in 1940. Career: Involved with the Revisionist Student Organization, ca. 1920. Lived in Germany following World War II; moved to Paris, 1949, then to Australia. Textile manufacturer, Melbourne, until 1973. Also worked as a Yiddish broadcaster, public speaker, and journalist. Contributor, Ibergang and Unzer Welt newspapers, Germany.

Publication

Memoir

I Rest My Case. 1995.

* * *

Mark Verstandig was born in 1912, the youngest son in a Hassidic family of seven children. His father owned a substantial country estate, Sadkowa Gora, with a second home in the shtetl of Mielec in western Galicia, near Kraków, Poland. While his father had substantial assets in land, his cash income was limited.

Verstandig received his first years of education in the local cheder and Talmud Torah, then attended gymnasium, where he excelled. At the age of 17 he became a Betar activist. He attended the Jagellonian University in Kraków to study law but for much of his time was involved in the politics of the Revisionist Student Organization. One of his responsibilities was to provide for the needs of revisionist notables on visits to Kraków. He frequently skipped classes and crammed to pass exams, although he showed outstanding ability, winning essay prizes and receiving a commission from one of his professors to prepare a comparative analysis of Hebrew and Roman law. He continued this task after graduation in 1936 and would have earned a doctorate but for the outbreak of war.

After graduation he returned to Mielec to practice law, establishing good contacts with non-Jewish practitioners. In the first years of the German occupation he continued to work clandestinely with the approval of local practitioners and judges. He married Frieda Reich in December 1940. Following the deportation of the town's 10,000 Jews and the shooting of thousands, including his father, he spent more than two years in hiding, for some time in Warsaw separated from his wife, then hidden by peasants in the neighborhood of his home. The substantial wealth of the two families, reliable contacts, sound judgment of risk, and good luck enabled Verstandig and Frieda to survive. With the exception of his brother, who escaped to Russia with his wife and children, all the close relatives of both families were murdered.

After liberation Verstandig worked for a period for the Soviet authorities in a legal capacity; following the Kielce pogrom he escaped to Germany with his wife and became prominent in the politics of the Sheyris Hapleyta, his name recognized across the world. After moving to Paris in 1949, he visited Israel but, recognizing the difficulties of establishing himself in the new nation, he opted to immigrate to Australia, attracted by what he perceived as its nonpolitical culture and opportunities to forget the nightmares of the past. After leaving Poland he gave up the prospect of continuing law, and he and Frieda retrained themselves for work in the textile trade. Settling in Melbourne, he quickly built up a flourishing business, within a year of his arrival employing some 100 workers and reputed to be producing the best leather jackets in the country. He continued to diversify and prosper but did not find the work of accumulating wealth satisfying and retired at the age of 61, having provided for his old age. As a matter of principle he never applied for compensation from the German state.

An accomplished writer, Verstandig had long experience in journalism, beginning in his university days. In postwar Germany he joined the editorial board of Ibergang, published by the Federation of Polish Jewry in the American zone, and contributed to that paper and to the revisionist Unzer Welt, at one stage journalism providing his major source of income. In Australia he was a prominent representative of the revisionist interest, regularly the main speaker at the Vladimir Jabotinsky Yahrzeit celebrations and writer for the Yiddish press. After retirement he lessened his involvement in sectional politics, shifting his attention to cultural and welfare pursuits.

His autobiography was written late in life, in part as a legacy for his grandchildren. He states that he was initially reluctant to write because he had not been in a concentration camp or ghetto, but this reluctance was overcome by his daughter. The text is clearly aimed at a general readership and seeks to add to the record of a world laid waste, to present his understanding of issues that he views as inadequately covered in the existing literature.

On display is the persona of a man of principle, committed to a lifelong quest for justice, blessed with superior intelligence and education, self-assured, of independent means and outlook, who invariably succeeded in what he set out to do. The book brings a lawyer's discipline to the detailed description of events and analysis of the factors motivating human action and the impact of major religious institutions, political movements, and governments. He draws not only on his own direct experience and those told to him by his broad network of friends and acquaintances but also has made a limited study of historical work and documents deposited in the Yad Vashem archives and other institutions. While the writing of history based on documentary sources intrudes rarely in the book, it indicates the author's effort to be fully informed.

I Rest My Case stands at the forefront of memoirs dealing with the structure of Jewish life in pre-Holocaust Poland and survival in hiding. It has been described as "cool, precise, densely detailed," "enlivened by a sharp sense of humour," and, in the words of the leading Australian commentator Sam Lipski, as "a major work of sociological and historical significance … [that] transcends the academic to become memorable journalism and literature."

—Andrew Markus

See the essay on I Rest My Case.

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