Margie Fischer’s parents fled from Vienna to China to escape the Holocaust. After 10 years in Shanghai they came to Australia as refugees
In 1942, at about the time Franklin D Roosevelt was declaring that 'no man and no force can abolish memory', the Fischers were settling in Shanghai, having fled Nazi-occupied Austria. They carried the memory of who they were and where they had come from in stories, customs and recipes, and in their few possessions – furniture and books and clothes – but perhaps most importantly they carried it in a small sheaf of documents and photos. For refugees, Margie Fischer reminds us, documentary proof of who you are is precious.
In a hybrid family slideshow and dramatic monologue, Margie offers her audience a very personal reflection on memory and identity. After the death of her mother, it was Margie's responsibility to clean out the family home. Margie, reading from her notebook at a podium, looking and sounding something like a Penguin Club member on speech day, begins with her family's European and Asian history, before inviting us into the house where she moves room-by-room sorting through the material remnants of her grandparents, parents and brother – all now dead.
The relationship between memories, places and things is always at the fore, with grief only as a background. Margie is determined to dispose of as much stuff as she can, to take as little with her as possible, but she is fascinated by the stories contained in each object, even seemingly everyday objects. At nights and between rooms she writes about her experience, about the many possessions she is selling, giving away, dumping, burning and even, in the case of her mother's cat, euthanizing, thereby preserving something of their spiritual and historical significance, even as the thing itself passes on.
The few remaining belongings of Margie's brother – who died at the age of 22 – things that her mother had preserved as keepsakes, are typical. There are photos, some of which she keeps. Most she burns, not because they are painful, only because it feels like the right way of disposing of them. There are two rings that ex-girlfriends gave him. These she keeps. There is a model ship her father gave him when he was living at home and undergoing treatment for the cancer which killed him. This she gives away to strangers. Then there are some bangles – he was a surfie. She wavers over these last, but finally decides that 'they have to go'.
Margie tries hard to maintain the unsentimental air of an historian, though her attitude toward preserving historical records would probably make most historians blanch. Almost in passing she mentions burning the love letters her Jewish parents wrote one another while courting in pre-war Austria. Still, many of her most interesting reflective passages do have the kind of sheen and polish that you can only achieve at emotional distance, and there is a feeling that the insights she has gained into herself, her family and memory generally have been won by rising above – so to speak – material things.
The land which does not value documents must be a happy one. It's a good bet no one ever fled persecution in East Linfield. Margie's instinct in cleaning out her parent's house is typically Australian. What's the point in cluttering up your life with old junk? From that point of view, Margie's story, with her dry, almost monotonal delivery, can be frustrating. On the other hand she has created a wonderful record of not only the contents of the house, but also the significance of that contents.