In Memory of Halina Strnad (21/04/1930 – 06/09/2022)
“Speaking out against oppression and injustice is the least I can do.”
Halina Wagowska was born in Poland and grew up in the city of Poznań, in which her loving parents (‘my fount of all wisdom’) had instilled within her a resilience and strength of character that would serve her well in later years. Despite the horrors she encountered in WW2 Poland, her fondness for her childhood memories ensured that even in old age, she displayed a stylistic tapestry on her dining room wall which reminded her of that childhood home city.
Halina suffered greatly through the Holocaust, losing both parents and spending time in the Lódź ghetto, then at Auschwitz and Stutthof concentration camps. After these horrors, she resolved as an adult to never let trauma or misfortune make her a victim.
Arriving in Australia after WW2, Halina became a Pathology Laboratory Technologist for the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, and then for Dorevich Pathology. She became active in a variety of community groups and issues, including the Australian Labor Party, Dying with Dignity, Gun Control, Homeplus Living Inc (a group to assist homeless students in Years 11 and 12), Towards A Just Australia Fund (helping indigenous youth) and others. Perhaps most significantly for Halina in terms of longevity, she became involved in local Humanist Societies for some decades, serving in many varied administrative capacities for nearly forty years; being recipient of their national Outstanding Humanist Achiever of the Year Award in 2002, and becoming an Honorary Life Member of Humanists Victoria in 2018.
Part of her dedicated activism in the Humanists was as submissions coordinator, where she researched and compiled many hundreds of submissions and/or letters to governments, authorities, senate inquiries, or other agencies on a variety of matters comprising the full spectrum of human rights: including indigenous and women’s rights, abortion, sex workers, environmental protection, refugees and asylum seekers, secular governance, homelessness, and many other social issues.
As a cultural Jew and Holocaust survivor, she wrote to a Jewish community newspaper some decades ago calling for the inclusion of an LGBT Jewish group within formal Jewish community networks; one of her last attempts at activism came early this year when she offered to participate (as a longtime supporter and ally of LGBT rights) within a Rainbow Humanist group marching in Melbourne’s Pride March – an offer which sadly was ultimately unable to be taken up due to understandable caution over public transmission concerns regarding COVID in crowded spaces.
Another of her activist enterprises was possibly inspired by her Holocaust background, wherein she had lived a life of great deprivation. Following the ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires of 2009, Halina thought of Victorians who had lost their homes and possessions, and she focussed on one item of need that might otherwise have been overlooked (“I thought of books – the great enrichment of life – and of the many thousands destroyed in the fire”). She organised a collection of books to donate to libraries, families and communities that had lost everything. Through the Humanists, she organised the subsequent collection, sorting and delivery of thousands of donated books. In order to cope with the volume and weight of these books, she organised for local liquor shops to deliver boxes that had formerly carried six bottles of wine, as she felt that each box best suited the desired need for collecting books without creating excessive weight or volume. She later joked that she had become known as the ‘wine box lady’ at those liquor stores, and had told them that she was flattered to be called a lady. (This was one example of her sense of humour, which also led her to decorate her home with jokes and a political caricature.)
Halina often stated that she felt her Holocaust testimony was an obligation that she felt compelled to honour until she died. Her numerous recollections of her experiences, including for the Shoah Foundation (which can be found on YouTube); as well as the two versions of her autobiography, People and Places in War and Peace (Makor Jewish Community Library, 2009) and The Testimony (Hardie Grant Books, 2012) will ensure that her commitment to this obligation will live on even after her death, as will hopefully the currently-incomplete documentary film that was being compiled prior to filming delays caused by COVID lockdowns and Halina’s own deteriorating health.
Halina frequently spoke at schools and universities of her Holocaust story, even though it was a hard venture: she often spoke about reliving the experience for days afterwards and revisiting past ghosts. Of her books, she noted that she used her maiden name of Wagowska because, “I am the only Strnad in the ‘phone directory. The use of my maiden name is to avoid enquiries about relatives lost in concentration camps. They are inevitable and impossible to answer.” While being willing to put herself out on public display for the cause of spreading the message, she was nevertheless an intensely private person, talking rarely about her adult family life and exhibiting a fierce desire to protect the privacy of those for whom she felt near and dear.
Halina often recollected the Bruno Dey Nazi war crimes trial in Germany in 2020, at which she had been an important video witness from Melbourne to testify about Nazi atrocities. She recalled the kindness of Melbourne police and her German lawyer who assisted her with video conferencing during this trial: she received the best in human nature while testifying about the worst. The same might be said about her own life of service to others.
One of her last activist roles in June this year was to inspire Victorian Parliamentary debate, when MP Will Fowles proudly spoke of her as a constituent whose story should inspire the Nazi Symbol Prohibition Bill 2022. She was invited to sit in the Parliamentary Gallery for the occasion and was greeted warmly on the day. The following week, she testified in another Nazi war crimes trial.
Despite the heavy nature of her burden to testify about the Holocaust, Halina was a kind and generous woman with a quirky sense of humour. She was also a gracious hostess for numerous lunches, to which she invited many friends and associates. It was my privilege to bring along varied friends to experience her trademark quiche and salad while she regaled them with jokes and words of wisdom; they often spoke to me afterwards of how privileged they felt to have shared the time with a genuinely warm and welcoming person who was also a hero and role model.
Nobody would have blamed Halina for misanthropy: hating or distrusting the most base instincts of the human species, or for living a life of self-imposed isolation and social distancing. And yet her life was the exact opposite of all these outcomes: she was vibrant, vitally engaged in humanity, and unashamedly an activist to make the world a better place, always exhibiting an optimism that she wrote about in her book: ‘mine is not a lone voice in the wilderness’. Having experienced the darkest in humanity, she was determined to live and spread enlightenment. She will be missed by her family and friends, and her legacy will live on in the human rights laws she helped to shape and encourage.
Postscript: Minor editing changes on 23 September 2022 include grammatical correction plus the clarification of Halina’s job description.
© 2022 Geoff Allshorn