EXILE: THE LIVES AND HOPES OF WERNER PELZBy Roger AverillTransit Lounge, $32.9
Nanjing Night Net

WERNER Pelz, the son of a Jewish entertainment entrepreneur in Berlin impoverished by the Depression and Nazism, travelled twice to Australia. In 1940, aged 18, he was one of 2500 or so enemy aliens, most of them Jewish refugees, transported from Liverpool on the infamous Dunera. He returned to England in 1942.

In 1973, after living in England and Wales for 30 years, he sailed out in comfort to take up a lectureship at La Trobe University, where he taught for 13 years. He died in Melbourne in 2006, aged 84. From Pelz’s voluminous writings, from the testimony of family, friends and colleagues, and from his own memories as pupil and close friend, Roger Averill has composed a loving but warts-and-all account of his professional and spiritual odyssey. In each chapter he interweaves the stories of Pelz’s life, his relationship with the author, and his dying.

In the all-male world of camps at Hay and Tatura, Pelz had sexual experiences that he wrote about later with a candour unusual among the internees. Also in the camps he began a conversion to Christianity that was completed after he learnt his parents had been murdered in Auschwitz.

Back in England, married to a Viennese, Lotte Hensl, he became a Church of England clergyman – the only German Jew to do so? – and was appointed curate successively to two Lancashire parishes, resigning after conflicts over his commitment to anti-nuclear activism. In the 1960s, he and Lotte co-wrote books contributing to a surge of interest in radical theology, most notably God Is No More, and Werner contributed to The Guardian a regular column of autobiographical reflections and gave radio talks on religious subjects. From these pulpits, he signalled accumulating doubts about Christianity and increasing commitment to a world view in which Jesus was a latter-day Jewish prophet.

Lotte suffered severe neurosis, never fully recovering from the shock of bearing a son, Peter, whose arrival in 1945 had put an end to both parents’ utopian hope of serving in the vanguard of a movement to transform postwar Europe. The marriage fell apart slowly, surviving only as an intellectual partnership until Werner and Lotte separated. Werner lived from 1970 with Mary Zobel, the English-born widow of a German Jew and owner of a cottage in Wales occupied by the Pelzes.

Averill writes that Pelz, at the age of 48, ”set about reinventing himself as a sociologist”, enrolling at the University of Bristol to write a PhD thesis revised and published as The Scope of Understanding in Sociology.

Mary and her three children accompanied him to Melbourne when La Trobe appointed him to a lectureship. She was unsettled in Australia, and would eventually be engulfed by depression, while Werner engaged in prolonged conflict with his youngest stepchild, Justin.

He did not talk much about his time as a Dunera boy, but he made a point of visiting Tatura and Hay. The desert-like landscape of Hay evoked, he wrote, powerful memories, which had left their mark on the subconscious.

In his last years, as Averill tenderly records them, he endured professional disappointment and personal anguish. Unable to find a publisher for what he regarded as his magnum opus, The Curse of Abstraction, he wrote hundreds of haiku on the themes of life and death, such as:

”Age was to bring peace,wisdom, respect. Instead itbrought terminal doubt.”

La Trobe, though, brought profound satisfaction. His colleagues in the sociology department he found ”open, cosmopolitan, tolerant”; his course on reason and emotion in society attracted huge numbers, and in and out of class he stirred many students to think for themselves. Averill writes eloquently about his Socratic capacity as a teacher. He is a sure-footed guide to the intricacies of Pelz’s thought and to its connections with his protean life. Like his subject, Averill is a truly creative writer.

■Ken Inglis is the author of many books, including Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, which won the 1999 Age Book of the Year Award.

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