From Backyard of Mars: Memoirs of the “Reffo” Period in Australia (1980)

The Hungarian journalist Emery Barcs arrived in Australia in August 1939, escaping the climate of rising fascism in his homeland. He would later be briefly interned as an ‘enemy alien’, but things began promisingly:

It was still pitch dark on Friday, August 25, the fourth morning of our arrival, when I stood in front of the newsagent’s opposite the Coogee tram terminus, impatiently waiting for the shop to open. Bundles of newspapers tied with string lay on the ground: among them the Daily Telegraph with, I hoped, my first article written for an Australian publication. I decided to kill time by walking along the promenade.

Stepping out fast to beat the pre-dawn cold, I thought of my meeting with C.S. McNulty, editor of the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday afternoon. At that time there was no sign of Mac’s later corpulence: he was a slim man of slightly less than medium height with a rather conventional face, but with exceptionally alert eyes behind a pair of thick spectacles. His movements were fast, as if he were always in a hurry. He quizzed me about the situation in Europe and agreed that if rumors about an understanding between Hitler and Stalin were true, war would be inevitable. He thought that a Nazi-Soviet agreement was improbable because the two political systems were so profoundly opposed.

I reminded him of the co-operation between Nazis and Communists in Germany to bring about the fall of the democratic Weimar Republic, then I told him that years before, Potemkin, at the time Soviet Ambassador to Rome, had remarked to me in an unguarded moment that ‘Stalin never leaves an insult unavenged.’ Wasn’t the action of the Anglo-French in ignoring Stalin at the time of the Munich conference an insult?

As we were talking, a smallish man with a big mop of curly dark hair bushy eyebrows and flashing eyes rushed into the room. Without even looking at me he said in an unusually clear, rather high-pitched voice:

‘Germany and Russia have just announced an agreement on a non-aggression pact.’

‘Blimey!’ ejaculated McNulty, ‘We were just talking about this.’

The small man looked at me questioningly and McNulty introduced us: ‘Brian Penton, our news editor,’ he said, then explained who I was. The name meant nothing to me, but I felt sure that I had seen that superbly intelligent, reckless, sensuous and more Mediterranean than Anglo-Saxon face somewhere. Then it came to me: a Greek satyr, of course.

Brian Penton Esq. by Sir William Dobell, 1943 (Packer Collection)

Brian Penton Esq. by Sir William Dobell, 1943 (Packer Collection)

‘Why not write an article for us?’ said Penton, after McNulty had told him what I had just said about Stalin’s revengeful nature. ‘Bring it in early in the afternoon for Friday’s paper.’

This meant putting ‘Operation Martha’ into motion immediately and not the following week when I had planned to write my first article for the Argus. When I delivered it to Brian Penton he told me to see the Features Editor, Mr Pearl.

‘The eminent Dr Barcs, I presume,’ said Cyril Pearl, I thought with a whiff of sarcasm as he greeted me with a warm smile. He looked about my age. He was slim, wore thick spectacles, a green shirt with a yellow tie and a suit that seemed to have been thrown on with a pitchfork. With his sensitive, intellectual face and his clothes he could have melted smoothly into any of my old haunts on the Paris Left Bank. He was extremely courteous, even friendly, but everything he said contained a touch of disconcerting irony; I wondered whether this was a sign of self-defence or aggression. After glancing through my article he asked me to write another for the following Monday’s paper.

Cyril Pearl, by William Pidgeon, c.1945. (National Library of Australia)

Cyril Pearl, by William Pidgeon, c.1945. (National Library of Australia)

Walking back to the Coogee terminal in the grey dawn I decided that my second piece for the Telegraph (which I also intended to send to Mr Knox) should be about the dangers of the Soviet-German pact to the small nations of Eastern Europe.

The newsagent was just cutting open the bundles of newspapers when I entered his shop. I bought a Telegraph. On page eight I found my article with a flattering by-line. To see my name in print was nothing new to me, yet this was different, and I walked back to the boarding house with the heady feeling of an athlete who has won a race which seemed so impossibly difficult at the start. Even before I reached the door doubts began to assail me. Had I diagnosed the situation correctly? After all, the world was still at peace. Hitler was still only rattling his military hardware and shouting himself hoarse about the ‘just claims’ of the Third Reich. Stalin’s propaganda hailed the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement as a vital contribution to the preservation of peace. The two dictators were now friends, even if only for the sake of convenience. Yet my article suggested that war was inevitable and that within hours the Nazis would attack Poland. ‘Stalin,’ I wrote, ‘Must know that if Germany defeats Poland he ought to fight against the Germans who yearn for the corn factories of the Ukraine.’

Later that afternoon we went to Repin’s Pitt Street café which the Hungarians had chosen as their meeting place because they served two cups of coffee and a biscuit for sixpence, and because one could sit there in off-peak hours and talk as long as one liked. The Szalays were there, and George told us with mock resentment that Martha had driven him out at six in the morning to buy a Telegraph. She was elated that only very minor changes had been made in her translation.

Yushnij, the illustrious compere of Blue Bird, the excellent White-Russian vaudeville group which toured the globe between the two World Wars, used to refer to certain people as ‘world famous in their own families’. When many of my fellow Hungarians came to our table to congratulate me on the article, I too had the feeling of this sort of glory. ‘At least,’ said George, ‘Your example shows that not all Australian doors remain closed when you knock on them.’

Emery Barcs, Hungarian-Australian, 1905-1990