A Failure of Memory? Revisiting the Demidenko/ Darville Debate

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Date/Time
Date(s) - 26/05/2017
12:00 pm - 1:00 pm

Location
E561

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* Last seminar of the semester by the history department

A Failure of Memory? Revisiting the Demidenko/ Darville Debate

Avril Alba, Sydney University

Appeals to Holocaust memory are typically made with the express goal of harnessing its analogical power to illuminate other instances of racial or antisemitic persecution and to highlight the injustice at hand. Against this backdrop, the curious Australian case of Helen Demidenko/Darville, the author of the novel The Hand that Signed the Paper provides a startling exception. Beyond the bizarre nature of the literary hoax enacted by Helen Demidenko, the supposed descendent of Ukrainian peasants who was subsequently unmasked as Helen Darville, the daughter of middle class English migrants, perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the episode was its use of antisemitic and racist tropes to provide the scaffolding for a book that claimed to explore and explain the history and memory of the Holocaust. Had the work been judged as political scientist Peter Christoff declared it to be—“a shallow, immature and ultimately anti-Semitic novel”, summarily dismissed and never heard of again, it would barely have rated a mention in its time and even less so would it be worthy of retrospective analysis. Yet the fact that Demidenko/Darville’s The Hand that Signed the Paper was awarded three of Australia’s top literary awards means that the Australian literary establishment received it very seriously indeed and, as such, it remains of interest with regard to its significance in and for Australian cultural and political history. In this paper, I revisit the ‘Demidenko/Darville debate’ with the express aim of delineating and unpacking its import as a refraction of Australia’s racial and identity politics at the time, revealing the somewhat shaky foundations upon which the nascent Australian multiculturalism of the 1990s rested.

Dr Avril Alba

Avril is Senior Lecturer in Holocaust Studies and Jewish Civilisation in the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies and Acting Director of the Masters in Museums and Heritage program at the University of Sydney. She teaches and researches in the broad areas of Holocaust and modern Jewish history with a focus on Jewish and Holocaust museums. Her monograph The Holocaust Memorial Museum: Secular Sacred Space was published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2015. From 2002-2011 Avril was the Education Director at the Sydney Jewish Museum where she also served as the Project Director/Curator for the permanent exhibitions Culture and Continuity (opened 2009) and The Holocaust (opened 2017). With A/Prof Jennifer Barrett and Professor Dirk Moses she is Chief Investigator for the ARC Linkage Project Australian Holocaust Memory, Human Rights and the Contemporary Museum.