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.