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Jewish Lives | Writers Stephen Sedley


There is no Jewish literary tradition in New Zealand, just writers who were or are Jewish, as writer Stephen Sedley explains.

These Jewish writers come from diverse backgrounds. Their Jewish roots are reflected in their writing in subtle ways.  Joel Polack was from a Dutch-Jewish family and came to New Zealand in 1831. His two books, New Zealand and Manners and customs of the New Zealanders, both published before the colonization of New Zealand, were influential in the debate about European settlement of the country. That the author of these books was Jewish is only obliquely evident from the text, but his reference to ‘Englishman abroad, without the pale of the protective laws’ might suggest an anxiety about being accepted as an Englishman, his overstated descriptions might cast doubts about his speaking position as someone outside society.

Julius Vogel wrote Anno Domini 2000 in his retirement. This is usually regarded as New Zealand's first science fiction novel. One of the principal characters, the Emperor’s spy-master and adviser, came from an ‘ancient Jewish family’, had ‘Semitic features’ and described himself as coming from ‘a race of money-lenders’.

Hocken image 3.jpg

Portrait: Vogel, Sir Julius 1835 – 1899, c/nF406/12. Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago. Photographer unknown.

Benjamin Farjeon, a writer who lived in New Zealand for some years, and started his literary career in Dunedin, published 64 novels and a number of plays after his return to England. Some of these had Jewish subjects.

Polack, Vogel and Farjeon were undoubtedly Jewish, they lived in New Zealand, but were really expatriate Englishmen. Unlike them, Charles Brasch (see heading photograph above: Charles Brasch, C K Stead and Janet Frame, 1966) was born in New Zealand, where he lived most of his life. He was one of the generation of poets who sought a New Zealand voice in literature distinct from the literature imported from England. Apart from his significant body of poetry, Brasch’s great contribution to New Zealand literature was as editor of Landfall, a journal that did much to shape the New Zealand literary landscape. Brasch was a cosmopolitan Jew, at home in Italy and France, Australia and New Zealand. His Jewish identity is vested in his poetic tributes to grandparents, cousins, and godchildren.

Karl Wolfskehl was a towering presence among the European intellectuals who found refuge in New Zealand in the late 1930s. He fled Nazi dominated Europe and arrived in New Zealand in 1938, a place he considered the Thule, the mysterious far distant land of the South. His poetry, in German, was inaccessible to most New Zealand readers, and his subject matter too distant, so he exerted little influence on New Zealand writers. But he kept writing, and his poetic output did not diminish. Exile and homesickness were his frequent subjects.

Karl Wolfskehl on roof-top 1945 (private photo).jpg

Karl Wolfskehl, Photograph by Lily Inge Byttiner, 1945. Courtesy of Holloway Press, University of Auckland

Karl Wolfskehl, Photograph by Lily Inge Byttiner, 1945. Courtesy of Holloway Press, University of Auckland

Other New Zealand Jewish writers include Glasgow born George Joseph, a prolific, successful commercial novelist, John Caselberg, a writer who wrote ‘against the grain of what was fashionable and critically acceptable’, German born Peter Dane, an academic and prolific poet, the multi-talented playwright, Joseph Musaphia, historian turned novelist, Ann Beaglehole, who used her experience as a Hungarian refugee growing up in New Zealand as the subject of her novel, Replacement Girl, Julian Novitz, whose Jewish background clearly influenced his novel, Holocaust Tours, and South African born Gigi Fenster, whose novel, Intentions Book  revolves around a clearly Jewish character. 


Book cover, The House of White Shadows by Benjamin Leopold Farjeon published by British Library Press.


This abridged version of the chapter titled Reflecting the World: Jewish Writers by Stephen Sedley, was created for JoM with (new images and) the kind permission of the authors of Jewish Lives in New Zealand: A History, edited by Leonard Bell and Diana Morrow, and published by Random House in 2012. 


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