Book of Life Stories

My Family – Elaine Brown

Presented at the South Australian Multicultural & Ethnic Affairs Commission forum dinner celebrating the Achievements of the Jewish Community in South Australia, 17 June 2001.

The most interesting part of preparing this paper has been looking back into my own past and working out over time why we did what we did.

My family have been very fortunate. I was born in Cape Town on 2 November 1942. That was a week after the battle of El Alamein had begun, and General Montgomery led the Australian, New Zealand, Indian and South African troops to victory. It was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany and soon my friends and family were to look forward to the creation of a Jewish State.

My father was a chartered accountant, born in Cape Town of Lithuanian Jewish parents. My mother, a librarian, had been born in Paris in 1917 but sent to South Africa as a child because her mother, who was the secretary to the French Ambassador to the League of Nations, feared the rise of anti-semitism in France. Ten years later, gran came to South Africa and mother and daughter were re-united.

As a teenager I worked in London for two years – then family pressure brought me back to Cape Town. I met my husband Gray and moved to Worcester, a bustling country town, a bit larger than Whyalla, in one of the most beautiful vineyard-country areas in the world. After three and a half years and two children, we moved back to Cape Town where we soon started a chain of decorating centers to provide us with an income sufficient to enjoy the fabulous lifestyle in that cosmopolitan city.

By mid-1977, the measures the government was taking to suppress opposition to Apartheid were becoming more and more vicious. Our wonderful country, which could have shared its immense wealth among all, chose to maintain it\’s economic wealth by discrimination, based on skin colour. We became the political polecats of the world.

Along with thousands of others I joined the Progressive Reform party which was the white political group promoting change.

In the meantime we were living in fear. Our idyllic life was being over-shadowed by a siege mentality. There were now guns at home, although to prevent the children playing with them they were carefully dismantled. I would have had to offer any intruder a cup of coffee while Gray assembled them!

In two years our son Elliott would have had to register for military service. He could be drafted at age eighteen – to fight a war in which I did not believe. It was time to go.

England had been our first choice, however a three week visit to Australia convinced us that Adelaide was a better choice.

The lifestyle was agreeable and affordable. Education was excellent. There were also old friends from South Africa, both Jewish and non Jewish. We did not come to Adelaide solely because of the Jewish community, but would not have come if there were no Jews here. As one of them put it them: ‘this is a great place to live but a hellava place to make a living’.

Also remember: Australians spoke English (sort of), drove on the same side of the road (most times) and played cricket (very well). And most importantly, had a greater sense of fair play than any other people in the world. After considering all the pros and cons for a year, we sold up and left. We were unable to bring much money so we brought two large shipping containers. In them were my mother-in-law’s concert grand piano – we lived on the proceeds for six months! and three years’ supply of clothing, non-perishable foods and detergents and all our household goods. Imagine Marianne Cookin’s surprise when she found 400 rolls of toilet paper squashed into our deepfreeze!

The children benefited from the great choice of schools – Norwood, Princes and Marryatville were wonderful training centers for life in Australia. We had come here for our children’s sake. We have been blessed with three effortless achievers who have succeeded in their chosen careers by also being dedicated workaholics.

In Adelaide our secondary goal – after our children’s futures – was achieving financial independence in order to create the lifestyle of our choice.

After a few years of uncertainty Gray and I were able to establish ourselves. Gray as a financial planner and me as a fashion accessory agent. Last year acquired a fashion agency business. The networks I have built up has enabled me to relay information at various levels in the fashion industry.

I also became interested in the Women’s International Zionist Organization (Wizo) because of its goals – caring for women and children of all faiths in Israel. I soon became the State President, which position I held until I moved on to become the President of the Zionist Council of South Australia. This role has empowered me with the ability to develop leadership training for Jewish youth in Adelaide.

Those Jewish youth training systems created opportunities for Australian youth to participate in first-rate leadership seminars interstate and overseas, and these special young people acquired skills which benefited not only their own Jewish communities, but the general community as well.

In conclusion – on looking back, one of the happiest days of my life was the day we left Cape Town and Gray sold his guns. He looked at me and said: ‘Elaine, you’ll never again live in a country where I’ll need a gun to defend myself against my fellow citizens’.

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