Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Birman (1913–1989)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published:

John Birman (1913-1989), adult educationist, was born Chaim Jojna Birman on 11 February 1913 in Warsaw, Poland, eldest of three children of Abram Birman, clerk, and his wife Helena, née Abramczyc. Educated at the Lyceum Gymnasium and the Free University of Poland, Warsaw, where he studied social and political science, he became a freelance journalist. In 1933 he married Laja, a bacteriologist. Concerned about the international situation, he migrated to Australia. His wife stayed behind, intending to follow later. Arriving by ship on 6 December 1938 at Fremantle, Western Australia, he disembarked in Melbourne, travelled on to Sydney, and found employment as a timber-presser. He was befriended by members of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, who gave support when he received news that his entire family, including his wife, had been killed in the German invasion of Poland in September 1939.

On 5 January 1942 Birman enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Posted to the 17th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery and sent to Papua in May, he met Major Charles Rowley, who secured his transfer to the Australian Army Education Service. He returned to Australia in October 1943 and proceeded to Western Australia, where he worked under Major Fred Alexander, soon proving himself a resourceful aide and beginning a lasting partnership. His varied experiences included persuading the Royal Australian Air Force to freight a small grand piano by DC-3 to Noonkanbah for a concert. He was naturalised on 23 September 1944. Discharged as a sergeant on 11 April 1945, he became readers’ adviser at the State Library of Tasmania, Hobart.

In 1948 Alexander, professor of history and director of the Adult Education Board, University of Western Australia, attracted Birman back to Perth as assistant-director of the board, with the status of lecturer. Under Alexander’s inspiration and Birman’s management, the board ran courses during the year and an annual summer school, and organised events as diverse as a lecture in 1949 by (Sir) Anthony Eden (Lord Avon), concerts given in co-operation with the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and screenings of European films. The AEB helped to bring Musica Viva to the State in 1950 and next year sponsored a season of John Antill’s ballet Corroboree, performed by the National Theatre Ballet Company. Profits subsidised country tours by classical musicians. Promoted (1952) to senior lecturer, Birman studied part time at UWA (BA, 1956). On 5 September 1952 at the Collegiate Chapel of St George, Crawley, he married with Anglican rites Frances Wendy Blake, a librarian. He was appointed executive officer of the AEB in 1954 and deputy director in 1975.

The AEB’s summer school activities paved the way for the first Festival of Perth, in 1953. Featuring a series of three Beethoven performances and a production of Richard III, directed by an Englishman, Michael Langham, it set a precedent for future annual university-sponsored festivals. In 1954 Birman was appointed executive officer of the festival committee. He was to run the festival every year until 1976, except for 1957 and 1964, when he was overseas on study leave. A stocky figure with crisp, wavy, dark brown hair which greyed early, and an engaging grin, he brought to his task imagination, intelligence, energy and a lively appreciation of the cultural needs of Western Australia. Some, including officers of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, were worried about his left-wing ideological tilt; others thought his genially cynical pragmatism at times tactless.

The number of people attending the Festival of Perth increased from 29,000 in 1953 to 154,000 in 1966, and to 330,000 in 1976. If this in part reflected the city’s growth and prosperity, it also owed much to Birman’s entrepreneurship. He obtained support from the State government, the Perth City Council, the Art Gallery of Western Australia and commercial promoters, and in 1966 the festival entered into partnership with the Adelaide Festival of Arts. Several much needed performance venues were constructed, among them the Playhouse (1956) and the Octagon theatres (1968). Birman was always in the thick of negotiations, using, as appropriate, charm, cajolery and devastating bluntness.

In 1966 Birman was made head of the UWA’s Extension Service (which had separated from the AEB), and in 1972 he was appointed director. Next year he was named a Western Australian Citizen of the Year and in 1976 was appointed OBE. Inaugural president (1976) of the local branch of Musica Viva Australia, he was responsible for setting up a university FM radio station, which started broadcasting in 1977. He retired on 31 December 1978. In thirty years, largely due to his drive and managerial skills, Perth had advanced from a cultural backwater to a lively and diverse centre of the creative arts. In 1980-81 he published a history of the festival in Studies in Continuing Education. Survived by his wife and their three sons, he died on 23 August 1989 in Perth and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (1963)
  • B. K. de Garis (ed), Campus in the Community (1988)
  • West Australian, 13 Jan 1973, p 22, 30 Dec 1975, p 7, 26 Aug 1989, p 22
  • M. Adams and R. Hoare, taped interviews with J. Birman (1981, State Library of Western Australia)
  • series A6126, item 601 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Birman, John (1913–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Birman, Chaim Jojna

11 February, 1913
Warsaw, Poland


23 August, 1989 (aged 76)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.