Cover of book: Vera: My Story

Vera Wasowski with Robert Hillman
Vera: My Story

Vera Wasowski’s life has been extraordinary. As a small child, she witnessed the vilest acts of cruelty yet somehow survived Poland’s Lvov ghetto under the Nazis. As a young wife and mother, she immigrated to a life working in television at the ABC, in thrall to art and beauty, with “the Great and Good” of Australian public life on speed dial. 

It takes more than remarkable events and famous friends to warrant a memoir, though there are fascinating insights into Australian politics in the ’70s and ’80s. The real strength of Vera: My Story is Wasowski’s voice, or rather, her two voices. There’s a marked change in tone once she arrives in Australia as an intellectually and sensually driven woman, as distinct from the traumatised child. 

Wasowski’s co-author is Robert Hillman, a fine novelist and experienced biographer, and he stands in for the reader to allow a natural and intimate style. (“… as I explained to you, Robert; please keep up!” Wasowski says when there’s some confusion about husbands.) In lesser hands, this technique runs the risk of self-consciously unpacking the creative process, but not here. Reading Vera, you might actually be in some smoky bar while this 80-year-old tells you what’s what. 

“Listen,” she says, “do you think that our talent for murdering each other in very great numbers is what we should proclaim as a great hallmark of our species? Do you think that kicking a football up and down a big patch of greenery makes us special? Okay, football makes us special in a certain way, I admit, but can you see the point I’m making? … If you walk past a theatre where Waiting for Godot is playing and you think, ‘Too busy for that’, what hope is there for you on earth?” 

Or this, on her time among nuns in a Catholic school: “Slapping thrills them. Maybe it is a substitute for sex. You’re a woman in your sexual prime, and there’s no man around to kiss you: you have to do something.” 

Wasowski lives in Byron Bay now, where she feels safe, where Hitler “… would be shouted down, told to shut up, told to fuck off … God bless it”. There’s some repetition as she weaves her story, but meandering is part of the conversational tone. Wasowski is the grandmother we all wish we had. It’s a privilege to spend time with her.  LS

Black Inc, 240pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 4, 2015 as "Vera Wasowski with Robert Hillman, Vera: My Story".

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Reviewer: LS

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