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Wanda Court

The Top Paddock
Sheila Fitzpatrick

Professor in the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Catholic University

13 October 2021

Growing up in Melbourne in the 1950s, Sheila Fitzpatrick lived in an apartment surrounded by so-called ‘displaced persons’ from Europe. The music of their languages, and the strangeness of her own monolingualism in this environment, contributed to her learning Russian and becoming a historian of the Soviet Union.


Wanda Court in the 1980s. Photograph by the author.

‘Flat 3, 22a Clendon Rd’ was my home as a child in the 1940s. It had a nice ring to it, but when I went to school I found out that it was the wrong kind of address, even though it was on the (very edge of) upper crust Toorak. It was one of a block of six flats, built in the late 1930s. Real Australians, it became clear to me, did not live in flats.

Observation of my own extended family bore this out. My maternal grandparents lived in a comfortable two-storey brick house in Glen Iris. My aunt, her returned-soldier husband, and their baby lived for a while in the top floor in Glen Iris before moving out to their newly-built one-storey brick house in the new suburb of Ashwood (between Burwood and Ashburton). Two unmarried great aunts shared a modest house in East Malvern, still with an outside lavatory and an icebox, but at least with a bit of garden in front and a larger garden at the back. The girls at my private school in Malvern generally lived in family houses like my grandparents and had fathers in business who voted Liberal.


The author with her father Brian Fitzpatrick, 1943. Photograph courtesy of the author.

My father, Brian Fitzpatrick, was a bohemian socialist, freelance writer and political gadfly, who despised suburban living. That—as well as lack of money to buy a house—is no doubt the reason he chose to live in a flat, as did his friend, Robin Boyd, then just back from the war and starting to make his way as an architect. Until 1948, when Robin built a house to his own design in Camberwell, the Boyds lived diagonally opposite us, on the Armadale side of Malvern Rd, in a flat in a pleasant ‘modernist’ block—white-painted, two storeys, flat roof, some trees around—designed by another influential architect, Roy Grounds.

Who designed our block of flats is lost to history. It was two-storey brick, with just a touch of Art Deco curves; and the most notable feature was the name, written in cursive script on the front: ‘Wanda Court’. Wanda was the wife of Mr Vavjeneski, who lived in Flat 1 during my early childhood and was a chocolatier with a shop in The Arcade in the city. I have no clear memory of her, but I remember him: a small European-gentlemanly figure who swelled up alarmingly when, at the age of about 5, I unwittingly insulted him by cockily calling out ‘Bonjour, Madame Vavjeneski’. Apart from being Monsieur and not Madame, he was in fact Polish, though he probably also spoke French.

This is the only occasion I can remember where I tried speaking a foreign language to one of the neighbours, but unidentifiable foreign languages were all around us at Wanda Court. When I asked the neighbours where they came from, their responses were confusing. Not only did they seem unable to give a straightforward answer to a simple question, they also had a strange habit of disputing other neighbours’ answers (‘not Russian for sure; maybe Polish’, ‘that’s no Viennese accent, whatever she says’). The most accessible of the neighbours in my early years were Mrs Russell, who used to scrub her washing on a washboard over a basin in the backyard (perhaps she didn’t like the copper-and-mangle laundry upstairs to which each flat had access one day a week), and her grown-up daughter Vera, who had long hair which I remember her drying in the sun, spread out over the same washboard (can this be right?). Despite the English name, Mrs Russell had a strong accent which I assumed to be Russian, since she said—in the most straightforward answer I ever got—that she had been a dentist in Omsk. She did not say what had uprooted her.

In fact, most of the other residents of our block of flats throughout my childhood were Jewish refugees, arriving in Australia either just before or shortly after the Second World War. The main languages around, as I later established, were Russian and Polish, with a bit of German, Yiddish and French thrown in. The Segals arrived separately from Poland in 1947, she from Vienna via London, he from Warsaw via a DP (‘displaced persons’) camp. They met and married almost immediately on arrival, and moved into Flat 1, Monsieur Vavjeneski having sold Wanda Court to Mrs Siegel’s brother-in-law. The Fondas, probably the best-off of Wanda Court’s renters, were of complicated Russian and Polish origin, arriving via Belgium and Palestine a few years later. Mrs Russell’s husband, whom I had thought Australian because of the absence of a foreign accent, turns out to have been an English Jew with lifelong connections to Japan, where Vera was born. How Mrs Russell got to Japan from Siberia is not known, but most likely via China. The last arrivals to the Wanda Court were the Lewitts, coming from Poland via a DP camp in Italy, whose beautiful daughter Hadassa had been chosen, as a child, to raise the flag of Israel’s new Embassy in Rome in 1949.

It was a strange feeling, to be monolingual in such an environment, as if I and my parents were lacking one of the basic senses. Vis-à-vis the broader Australian community, the European-Jewish-migrant character of Wanda Court made us all outsiders, but within the smaller community of the flats, the outsiders were the Fitzpatricks. At the age of about twelve, my escape was to climb the Tree of Heaven growing in what I remember as a small rubbish dump in the backyard and sit mournfully in its branches. These happened to be on the level of the Levitts’ upstairs flat, and they once complained that I was spying on them: something I was too self-absorbed, not to mention too short-sighted, to have thought of doing.


The author with her mother Dorothy Fitzpatrick and brother Pat (David) with apartments designed by Roy Grounds in background, 1949. Photograph courtesy of the author.

There were eight children in the flats at various times in the 1940s and 1950s, and half of us left Australia as young adults to spend the rest of our lives (or, in my case, most of it) abroad. Three out of the four ended up in America, the fourth (my brother) in Ireland. I assume we all left, in part at least, because we felt like outsiders in Australia. When I came back to live in Australia in 2012, Wanda Court was still there, although it had lost a 6-foot strip of land where the Tree of Heaven once stood. In the years away, I had become much better equipped to be a spy: for one thing, I had learned to speak Russian. I tried my Russian on Mrs Fonda in a chance encounter in the eighties; she fell on my neck and talked for hours (in Russian, of course) about the happy days of her youth, sharing a communal apartment in revolutionary Moscow with Countess X. I knew Moscow by this time, though not the countess. I had even married a ‘displaced person’ from Riga, who could not give me a straightforward answer to the simple question of what was his native language. If it were only possible to re-take the home movie of my childhood in Wanda Court now, how well I could fit in.


Some names have been changed at the request of family members.


Further Reading

Fitzpatrick, Sheila, My Father’s Daughter: Memories of an Australian Childhood, Melbourne University Press, Carlton Vic., 2010.

About the Author

Sheila Fitzpatrick is a historian of modern Russia and immigration. She is a Professor at the Australian Catholic University, Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney and Distinguished Service Professor Emerita of the University of Chicago. Her recent books include On Stalin’s Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics (2015), Mischka’s War (2017) and White Russians, Red Peril: A Cold War History of Migration to Australia (2021). Her next book, The Shortest History of the Soviet Union, will be published early in 2022. She is currently writing about Soviet and Baltic ‘displaced persons’ after the Second World War.

In this story

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Professor in the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Australian Catholic University

The Top Paddock

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