Dear David, Joel and Shane and families:
Elaine and I would like to express our sincere condolences on the passing of your father and our friend.
Dad and I go back almost 70 years – he and I were in Betar together in our teens.
We renewed our friendship in the late 1960s when he and I shared a couple of apartments together in Toronto. He had a fabulous sense of humor and our relationship could better be described as equating to the Odd Couple, with me being the neat one. You can guess Dad’s role.
After his departure from Canada to live in Europe in about 1970, we saw you all and your parents in Melbourne – forgive me if I am wrong, in 1972-73. Our next get together with Dad was during our visits in 1998 and 2000 - and in 2016 when we stayed with Dad for a week, later vacationing with him in Cairns a month later.
We also had a great time together on a Caribbean cruise in during the early 2010s.
Why am I relating this? Because, on every occasion we enjoyed each other tremendously. Our meetings have been relatively short due to our domicile in the US and his in Melbourne - and we both were not good communicators when it came to emails or other forms of contact. Our daughter Sharyn had the pleasure of knowing Dad also and she expressed her grief to us today.
I am a few years older than Dad and we always kidded each other – he about my age and me about his relative youth.
Dad didn’t have it easy in the last months and we feel for all of you. I will remember him as a kind and generous person and it is a big loss for all of us.
Harry & Elaine Stuart
1945 - Jan 8 2021
Condolences to family and long life
Betty Mony Levy
On January 8, 2023, a post-consecration gathering was held to honor Henry.
Here are two contributions to his memory....
1. Video contribution from Harry Stuart (recorded Dec 31, 2022 in Florida):
2. The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met
by John Goldlust
As an adolescent, I found the reading matter provided in doctor’s or dentist’s waiting rooms rather drab. However, in a generally boring magazine called “Reader’s Digest”, I did discover one regular feature of interest. It consisted of a brief paragraph or two submitted by a reader about one special person they knew or had come across – often a relative or friend –who stood out as “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met.” Not long after first meeting Henry Burstyner I was pretty sure I had enough material to seriously consider sending in my own contribution.
One of my earliest encounters with Henry set the tone for the complementary roles we played for each other. Henry, then barely 16 years old, showed up to a Betar meeting at Toorak Synagogue driving a car. The story he told of how he came to be in possession of this vehicle was pretty elusive and unconvincing, but Henry just shrugged off the questioners, glossed over any inconsistencies and, afterwards, offered to drive a few of us home. Although we had grave doubts, both about the automobile’s provenance and Henry’s driving abilities – not to mention the possibility of being stopped by the cops with Henry driving a (possibly) stolen vehicle without a license – we were happy to “live dangerously” and gratefully accepted the lift home.
So it continued for the next six decades – while sensibly doubting the veracity of much that came out of Henry’s mouth, most of us were more than happy to go along for the ride. Because in hanging around with Henry, the journey was always going to be stimulating, unpredictable and, mostly, heaps of fun.
As far as our family backgrounds and recent experiences were concerned Henry and I had a great deal in common. Our parents were Jews from Poland who had evaded the Nazis early in the war by fleeing east and finding an unexpected but fortunate refuge inside the Soviet Union. Henry and I were born a few months apart in the last months of the war, before both families returned to Poland and then, a few years later, immigrated to Australia. Our families didn’t know each other but both came here with very little, and our fathers were employed as skilled workers in the garment trade. For both of us Yiddish was the language spoken in our homes. Even more fortuitously, we both barracked for Geelong and over the years Henry and I went to the football together a number of times to watch them play. Henry tended to be quite a vocal supporter, but also rather limited in the advice he would continuously be shouting out at the top of his voice. Three terse phrases were all that was needed to cover all situations on the field: “Grab him!” “Hit him!” and “Kick it!”
But an important contribution to why Henry and I became close friends was that in our personalities and our approach to the world we were complete opposites. I was living a quiet and somewhat sheltered life in middle-class Caulfield, attending a school where about a third of the students were Jewish, I enjoyed my studies, was an introverted, unadventurous kid, keen to lie low and stay out of trouble. When we first met (and for a quite a few years after), the Burstyner family was still living in the more working-class Northcote, where there were few Jews, and growing up there Henry had learned to be resilient, street-wise and tough-minded. While I was hesitant and analytical, Henry had little patience for schoolwork, but rather thought and acted spontaneously and intuitively. He was quick to read people and situations, and then adapt effectively in order to best pursue his own interests and needs. [A few of us were on the receiving end of this life-skill in the infamous Henry kidnapping caper at a Betar summer camp when, seeking to “teach Henry a lesson” by leaving him on a deserted country road after midnight only resulted in we, the kidnappers, spending several uncomfortable hours in police custody in the back of a paddy wagon and at the local Ballarat Police station. For more on this see the video “The Taking of Henry 1 2 3” on the 162 Smiling Faces website ]
Henry’s sense of daring and adventure often carried me along with him to do and experience things I would never have otherwise considered. As many of you have probably seen Mel Brooks’ film “The Producers,” in my relationship with Henry he was Max Bialystok while I was Leo Bloom. I doubt that, without Henry at my side, I would have been fronting up at the public bar in a Sorrento pub at the age of 16 and coolly asking for, and being served, a glass of beer; and even less likely, a few minutes after consuming the beer, would I have joined him in jumping fully clothed off the Sorrento pier into Port Phillip Bay. [See photograph 3 (1959) in The Past section of 162 Smiling Faces – should be in 1961 section, but Henry was never good with dates.] And of course, it was Henry’s idea, that instead of just hanging around at Point Lonsdale for the few days between junior and senior Betar camps, “why don’t we just see if we can hitch-hike all the way around Port Phillip Bay”.
Many decades later it was Henry who encouraged me to pursue a number of fascinating personal and academic projects that proved to be extremely rewarding and enriching. When, long after both my parents had died, I told Henry about a huge genealogical data base that included the current addresses of hundreds of my mother’s relatives – very few of whom I even knew existed – and idly mused about contacting and interviewing them, his response was “so why don’t you just do it?” And I did; and had a fabulous and informative time travelling all over the world in the process. More recently, when I doubted if there would be much interest in academic articles about the alternative war-time experiences of the many thousands of Polish Jews who, like our parents, had spent the war in the USSR, Henry insisted that this was both an important project and “if you don’t do it, who will?” Again, I have been gratified by the numerous positive responses to my work in this area by many descendants of the people I have been writing about and have Henry to thank for his support and encouragement.
In his political and personal values Henry leaned towards harder line “pragmatic” and conservative views while I still carried what he considered to be naïve, idealistic hopes for the possibilities of making the world a fairer, less aggressive and more egalitarian place. Over many decades, this made for continuous discussions and debates as we wrestled with the multitude of serious and weighty topics that needed resolution – the truth and value of religion, the meaning of existence, what is the best form of government, nature vs nurture, how to achieve world peace, the possibility of life on other planets – to all of which we were able to add absolutely nothing of any value to human knowledge, but we certainly had a great time endlessly waffling on about them.
But there are also the other, less public and not widely shared, aspects of Henry that I learned a lot more about during the 5 years he spent overseas between 1965 and 1970. While he was away, we shared an ongoing correspondence and I managed to keep about a dozen of his letters – some quite lengthy running to more than 10 pages – which reveal a more sensitive and insightful Henry, a keen observer of the people and places he encounters offering vivid descriptions of life on board the ship to Europe, and later, during his time in England, Israel and Canada. In the first letter written on March 18, 1965, a few days after leaving Australia, aged 20, we find Henry both at his most vulnerable and poetic:
Well, I’m on my way. It’s now three days since I left and I still don’t fully accept that I’m going. I can’t tell you how or what I feel, because I can’t gauge, perhaps it would be more correct to say I can’t perceive, what emotions I’m experiencing. So far, the only time I was sure was as the boat was pulling away from the pier and I heard you and the rest of the kids shouting and singing, and behind you the lights of Melbourne, fading with each wave. I looked around me. I was amongst hundreds of strange faces, above me was the sky creeping down all around me, below the black, foreboding, murky sea being pushed away, recoiling and splatting, sounding like cries of anguish. I stood there alone on deck and felt cold, stark fear.
Henry is true to his word in promising in this and subsequent correspondence “to supply a day-to-day report of life on a ship.” Impressions of “Ports of Call, People I met,” whom he generously describes as “the strangest bunch of kooks I’ve ever come across.” He includes succinct, dry, arch and often salacious descriptions of many fellow passengers and the uninhibited Bacchanalian atmosphere on board amongst the youthful travellers. As he astutely observes: “There seems to be a completely different set of morals and ethics on a ship. Almost all the younger set just sit and drink, and talk and drink, and flirt and drink, and drink. There is so little variation in the day that this is the most popular form of passing time.”
With his usual impeccable timing, only a week or so after Henry left Melbourne the very first “birthday ballot” was held to determine which Australian males born between 1 January and 30 June 1945 would be conscripted for military service, and even more ominously, probably shipped out as part of Australia’s contribution to the US military escalation in Vietnam. While Henry was now safely out of the country, his birth date – the very first day of the very first ballot – came up; mine didn’t. Just out of Singapore – 30 March, 1965 – Henry wrote to me: “I was heartbroken at hearing you hadn’t managed to fulfil your lifelong ambition of being able to serve your country: TOUGH!”
I never did get around to writing my article for Reader’s Digest and sadly, it has taken me another 60 years to actually put fingers to keyboard. Over this time, anecdotes and stories about Henry have cumulated exponentially – but unfortunately, there won’t be any more new ones. It was a very sad day two years ago when I lost my life-long friend, and his vibrant, quirky, mischievous self is surely missed by all who knew him. Despite coming across quite a few fascinating people over the years, for me Henry remains indisputably “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met.”
- John Goldlust