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Waten, Judah Leon (1911–1985)

by David Carter

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Judah Waten, by Jacqueline Mitelman, 1981

Judah Waten, by Jacqueline Mitelman, 1981

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an14514854

Judah Leon Waten (1911-1985), writer and political activist, was born on 29 July 1911 at Odessa, Russia (Ukraine), eldest of three children of Romanian-born Solomon Waten, merchant, and his Belarusian wife Nehemia (‘Nehama’), née Press. Memorably re-created in Waten’s story ‘Mother’, Nehama was a profound influence on her son. When Judah was an infant the Watens migrated via Palestine to Western Australia, arriving in February 1914. Solomon first had a drapery shop and later became a hawker and ‘bottle-o’. Judah was educated at Midland Junction State School and Christian Brothers’ College, Perth.

In 1925 the Watens moved to North Carlton, Melbourne, and Solomon became a travelling spectacle salesman. Judah attended (1926) University High School, where the school magazine described him as ‘Judah the eloquent’ and ‘our red, roaring, radical revolutionary’. He joined the Communist Party of Australia while still at school. In 1927 he invited Arthur Calwell to address the Melbourne CPA on the question ‘Can a Labour government abolish the capitalist system?’ but Calwell declined. The following year Waten was arrested for distributing an inflammatory anti-war leaflet on Anzac Day.

Waten lived an unsettled life, pursuing politics and literature rather than regular employment. From February 1927 he was a student teacher but was dismissed after four months. He was a frequent speaker at Yarra Bank and at factory or unemployed meetings. Stowing away to New Zealand in 1929, he was briefly editor of the New Zealand Communist Party’s journal the Red Worker. In October 1930, with other young radicals in Melbourne, he published a magazine, Strife, which proclaimed itself ‘an organ of the new culture, destructive and constructive’. A Commonwealth Investigation Branch official later noted his ‘Bohemian appearance and tendencies’.

By early 1931 Waten had completed a novel called ‘Hunger’, written in the style of proletarian realism. In March he left Australia for Europe accompanied by Bertha Laidler, daughter of Percy Laidler. He published short pieces in avant-garde magazines in Paris. In London, having failed to find a publisher for his novel, he joined the National Unemployed Workers Movement and became co-editor of its newspaper, the Unemployed Special. He was arrested in November 1932 for a speech ‘attempting to cause disaffection’ among the police and was sentenced to three months in Wormwood Scrubs prison.

Waten returned to Australia in June 1933 and resumed political work but was expelled from the CPA in July 1935 for ‘petty-bourgeois irresponsibilities’. He was a regular at the Swanston Family Hotel, a meeting place for young artists, journalists and radicals, including Brian Fitzpatrick, a lifelong friend. In 1935-36 he travelled with Noel Counihan through country Victoria and New South Wales to Brisbane, living off the proceeds of Counihan’s portraits of local identities. Counihan, Waten and Bertha Laidler went to New Zealand in May 1939 and were active in the Peace and Anti-Conscription Council until Counihan was deported in June 1941. Waten rejoined the Communist Party in New Zealand with the approval of the CPA.

Back in Melbourne Waten met Hyrell McKinnon Ross, a Victorian-born schoolteacher and left-wing activist. He was again expelled from the CPA in 1942, with Hyrell, for advocating a government of national unity to defeat fascism. From 1941 he was employed at the General Post Office and then, despite being under security surveillance, in the Commonwealth Taxation Office (1942-45). On 19 September 1945 at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, he married Hyrell. The Watens lived at Box Hill, Victoria, from the early 1950s until Judah’s death.

After World War II Waten became publicity officer, then secretary, of the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism. He had earlier met the painter Yosl Bergner and the Yiddish writers Pinchas Goldhar and Herz Bergner, both of whose works he translated and published through Dolphin Publications (1945-47), a small firm he established with the artist Vic O’Connor. Waten and O’Connor edited Twenty Great Australian Stories (1946). The Jewish Council became increasingly controversial because of its perceived communist sympathies and was disaffiliated by the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies in 1952. Although he remained vocal on Jewish matters, Waten left the council after he was awarded a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant for 1952. His ‘second literary career’ had begun in the 1940s, when Goldhar encouraged him to write stories based on his own experience as an immigrant child. These stories were published as Alien Son (1952), his best-known and most critically celebrated work.

In August 1952 Stan Keon named Waten in the Federal parliament, charging that the CLF was being used to fund communist writers. Waten’s award had earlier prompted Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies to recommend that all names put forward to the CLF be investigated by security agencies, as the case was ‘scandalous and embarrassing’. The novel Waten wrote on his CLF grant, The Unbending (1954), featured moving portraits of a Jewish immigrant family in Australia interleaved with a political story of the conscription debates and industrial disputes during World War I. It was published by the Australasian Book Society, a left-nationalist publishing venture co-founded by George Seelaf, as were Waten’s next two novels, Shares in Murder (1957) and Time of Conflict (1961). In 1957-58 Waten was the ABS's Melbourne chairman.

At a point when many intellectuals were leaving the CPA following the Soviet intervention in Hungary, Waten rejoined in 1957 and began writing regularly in the communist press on cultural matters. While on good terms with mainstream literary figures such as Vance and Nettie Palmer, he came into conflict with others when communism or the Soviet Union became an issue. In 1958 he joined Manning Clark and James Devaney on a Fellowship of Australian Writers tour of the Soviet Union. He criticised Clark’s subsequent book Meeting Soviet Man (1960) for being too critical of the Soviet Union, but the two became close friends.

Waten returned to the theme of Jewish immigration with Distant Land (1964), published by both the ABS and the mainstream publisher F. W. Cheshire. Season of Youth (1966) was a portrait of the artist as a young man, while So Far No Further (1971) focused on second-generation migrant children of Jewish and Italian Catholic families. In 1965 Waten visited his birthplace, the journey inspiring From Odessa to Odessa (1969)––part autobiography, part travel book, part eyewitness account of the Soviet Union. Subsequent books included The Depression Years (1971), a photographic history; Bottle-O! (1973), a children’s book; Classic Australian Short Stories (1974), edited with Stephen Murray-Smith; a collection of short stories and memoirs, Love and Rebellion (1978); and his final novel, Scenes of Revolutionary Life (1982).

As a critic Waten penned some of the earliest essays on migrant writing in Australia. From 1967 he reviewed widely for the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. He was awarded an Australia Council writer’s fellowship (1975) and posthumously the Patrick White award (1985). He served (1973-74) on the Literature Board of the Australia Council and was appointed AM in 1979.

In his parallel political career, Waten was elected to the national committee of the CPA (1967-70) but developments following the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia affected both political engagements and personal friendships. Judah and Hyrell resigned from the CPA in 1972 and joined the pro-Soviet Socialist Party of Australia. From 1979 until Judah’s death they wrote a column for the SPA’s newspapers. In 2000 Manning Clark’s son Andrew asked the question:  ‘How can a man who was so charming, intelligent, urbane, canny and capable, and a great writer, be a life-long communist when the scales were being pared back from communism's edifice, exposing the gulags, liquidations, and show trials?’  Clark's explanation was Waten's ‘fierce sense of political commitment’ but it would also be necessary to add his deep loyalty to the Soviet Union, something that went beyond politics alone.

Waten was an imposing physical presence; his tall and heavy build is captured in a portrait by Counihan. A great talker and storyteller, he was widely liked and respected even though his political positions were often divisive. His significance to Australian literature as a Jewish-Australian writer, a communist writer and a writer on the migrant experience remains considerable despite the limitations of his restrained realist style. Survived by his wife and their daughter, he died at Heidelberg on 29 July 1985 (his birthday) and was cremated. The Judah Waten National Story Writing Competition was established in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hetherington, Forty-Two Faces (1962)
  • J. Sendy, Comrades Come Rally! (1978)
  • J. Beasley, Red Letter Days (1979)
  • D. Carter, A Career in Writing (1997)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1952, vol 218, pp 717, 728
  • Southerly, vol 31, no 2, 1971, p 83
  • Overland, vol 86, 1981, p 16
  • A. Clark, Address at the Judah Waten National Story Writing Competition, 2 November 2000 (http://www.manningclark.org.au/html/Paper-Clark_Andrew-Judah_Waten_national_story-writing_competition.html, accessed 4 April 2011, copy held on ADB file)
  • National Library of Australia. S. Lunney, taped interview with J. Waten, 1975
  • National Archives of Australia. PP302/1, item WA1111, A6119
  • National Archives of Australia. items 101 and 819, A463
  • National Archives of Australia. item 1969/2107
  • private information and personal knowledge

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Carter, 'Waten, Judah Leon (1911–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/waten-judah-leon-14884/text26074, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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