Professor Emerita Joan Beaumont reviews Sandra Goldbloom Zurbo’s My Father’s Shadow: A Memoir, (Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2023). ISBN 9781922979186
Samuel Goldbloom (1919-1999) was a prominent figure in Australian left-wing politics during the Cold War decades. A professed socialist, he was also a covert and deeply loyal member of the Communist Party. Other radicals progressively lost faith in the Soviet Union as the excesses and anti-Semitism of the Stalinist regime were exposed, and Moscow crushed any signs of democratic reform in Eastern Europe. But Goldbloom remained uncritical and faithful to the cause until the Cold War ended in the late 1980s.
Throughout this time he also played a leading role in peace and anti-war movements, being a founding member, first secretary, and president of the Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament, and an Australian representative on the World Peace Council. Though not religious, he believed ‘we are Jewish because we are Jewish’. A member of the Jewish Council to combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, he still managed to support the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
This memoir by his daughter, Sandra Goldbloom Zurbo, has an intrinsic interest, in that it gives us an intimate insight into what this man was like in the private sphere, his home and family. For much of Zurbo’s early life, Goldbloom was a powerful influence on her politically. She was ‘in his thrall’, and for a time followed him into peace activism and the defence of the Soviet Union. She joined the Communist Party, and attended peace conferences in Indonesia (where she danced with President Sukarno when only sixteen), Russia (where she dropped off to sleep during a two-and-a-half hour speech by Khrushchev) and Finland. When a North Korean delegation visited Australia, she typed their speeches and introduced them to the wonder of Tippex. She met many famous people in her home, including the ALP leader Dr H.V. Evatt, the renowned paediatrician Dr Benjamin Spock, the African-American singer, Paul Robeson, and the Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell. All this exposed Zurbo to a world of global politics far more exciting than the insularity of the Australian society around her.
Far less positively, Sam Goldbloom was often a difficult, demanding and even brutal father. Zurbo struggled when writing this memoir to know how much she should reveal of the private man whom many Australians knew only as a political radical. But she has no hesitation in concluding that she was confounded all her life by the mixed messages her father conveyed. She feared him as much as she loved and admired him. He was both loving and brutal, generous and punitive, fun and demeaning.
Goldbloom’s withholding of intimacy from this devoted child was damaging enough but he also inflicted on Zurbo humiliating physical and emotional abuse. She was beaten (with slipper, belt, ruler or hand) for ‘crimes’, such as stealing her parents’ cigarettes, going to a place that that she had been banned from visiting, or — even worse – answering back. She was castigated as stupid, stupid, stupid, when she gave the ‘wrong’ answer to a political question.
Especially painful was the fact, as Zurbo recalls, her father reserved his violence for her, sparing her two sisters. After years of therapy, she concluded that her father was taking out, on her, his frustrations and anger towards her mother and, most likely, his own mother.
Much of this book concerns Zurbo’s struggle to reconcile the contradictions in her father, and also in herself. Her strong respect and love for her father was in constant tension, even in her later years, with her pain, anger and rage. A significant portion of this memoir thus documents her response to his ageing, terminal illness and death. She also tackles the difficult issue of his father’s extramarital relationships. She even confronted one of his lovers at his memorial service!
This is not so much a book for readers interested in the politics of the times, though these infuse much of the episodic memoir. There is a memorable account of the Vietnam War moratorium in Melbourne where Goldbloom gave a rousing speech to a huge crowd and spruiked the cause to winkle donations from the crowd. Zurbo also documents well the feverish anti-communism of the 1960s. Both she and her father and were under surveillance by Australia’s security agencies, living with the threat of phone taps, being tailed in the streets, and suspecting betrayal by those they trusted. Friends and colleagues shrouded their phone in double-knitted tea cosies to muffle the sound of conversations.
Still, when Zurbo finally accessed the ASIO files at the National Archives, she found them curiously lacking in information and full of errors. Little was recorded about her father’s overseas travels and nothing was said about his potentially compromising philandering.
So much of the political commitment that made Goldbloom suspect to Australian authorities became anachronistic when the Cold War ended. The Soviet Union, the idealised state around which his whole political life had been based, simply disintegrated. When Zurbo ventured to probe his reaction to this, Goldbloom said with a gesture of disbelief; and sorrow, ‘It makes me wonder what my life has been about, Wasted’. His sadness remained for the rest of his life.
Still emotionally engaged with the man who had shaped her life so powerfully, Zurbo says, ‘Poor old coot. Poor Dad’. It is a sad epitaph for a man who, for all the personal flaws attested to in this poignant memoir, modelled for his family and contemporaries a life of unwavering political commitment.