RENATE KAMENER ORATION
RENATE KAMENER – Renate bat Reuven v’Théa
b: 8/06/33, d. 12/03/09 (early am)
We are gathered to show our great love, admiration and appreciation of a remarkable and special woman – Renate Kamener – adored daughter, loving wife and life-partner, wonderful mother, supportive sister-in-law, welcoming mother in law, generous and giving
colleague and trusted and valued friend.
Each of us craves to do some tiny thing to help you Bob, Larry and Marty, in this time of deep sadness – to repay in some miniscule way
the gifts that Renate has given us over the years, and we hope you get some small consolation from the great love that flows to you at this service, at this time, and over the coming months.
I am so grateful that I had the chance to know Renate, and encounter a little of her work just a bit over the past six years, and most appreciative of the information and insights that the family have shared with me which has enabled me to put together this brief summary of a remarkably full and productive life – and clearly, a life of great and recognized service to humanity. I would also like to acknowledge Larry’s wife Petra, and sons, Joshua who you have heard from already, and Mishka who will read a poem for us later, and Marty’s wife Steph, Bob’s sister Rosalie from Israel, and sister Arlene and brother in law Gerald from Sydney, and Ruth Faigenbaum from Zimbabwe and nephew Leslie Benson from Britain, all of whom have made special journeys to spend precious time with Renate and the family. Renate bore the inconvenience, indignity, pain and anxiety of the past 18 months with typical courage, accepting her reduced abilities and freedom, forever an optimist, lovingly, philosophically and wisely. Even in her dying, she taught and demonstrated in her natural and genuine way, how to live. I saw it and I realize I was privileged – and the boys value and cherish every hour of these past difficult days, a real tribute both to mum and to dad, and indeed to the loving family of which Renate was the centre.
Renate was born on 8th June, 1933, in Breslau, Germany, to Rudi who was a lawyer and Thea, who was a secretary, a loving and cultured couple whop were overjoyed with their new child. However, the mention of Germany in 1933 will immediately ring alarm bells for many of you as the year that Hitler became chancellor and began to put into practice his anti-Jewish rhetoric, and indeed Rudi lost his job and had to survive by giving unofficial legal guidance, though a family play they have from the period shows that many still considered Hitler to be somewhat of a bumbling buffoon and an object of derision. Luckily, the couple realized the danger and, since Rudi’s brother had already emigrated to South Africa, in 1936 Rudi and Thea and their only child, Renate, now 3 years old, were able to follow him to Johannesburg. Unable to get work there in the legal field, Rudi put his hand to various things including working for the fund for German Jewry, and eventually got involved in importing textiles. Renate remembered a comfortable, privileged and very cultured upbringing there, including regular horse riding with her father and opera and music. She was very close to both her parents, and as the first child of the generation of central European immigrants with which the family naturally mixed, she was indulged and adored, and, when recalling these childhood days recently for a family recording, she fully recognized how lucky and how happy she had been. Her father had managed to bring her grandparents out to join them in 1938, and all their immediate family survived the tragedy that was to engulf Europe. At the same time, she remembers being embarrassed in her early days at school about her parents being German, and also conflicted by the accusations that as a Jew she was a Christ-killer.
Despite the initial challenges, she did well at from school and went on to get a BA in Humanities and during this time, whilst recovering from having her wisdom teeth removed about 1950, she first met Bob, who was then a medical student. The relationship blossomed, but her parents didn’t initially approve since they considered it would be marrying out - Bob’s background being a Lithuanian Jewish one! Indeed they sent her off to Britain for a year, during which the relationship developed by long and heartfelt letters, which, to Renate’s frustration, Bob did not keep!
She became a teacher, and she and Bob became part of a small group working against the apartheid system in South Africa, which I am sure they recognised had worrying echoes of the Europe they had escaped, and tried to work out a better future for their adopted country. They bravely sold papers in townships they were not supposed to enter. They provided shelter when one of the group was pursued by the authorities, and when he eventually ended up in the notorious Fort prison in Johannesburg, Renate would visit him there – which she and Bob remembered as one of the riskiest and scariest things she had ever done. In 1956 they had got married, and three years later, their first son Larry, was born. It was a difficult birth but he was greeted with great joy and delight, though his parents were well aware of the challenging atmosphere, and had further opportunities to contemplate their situation when they went to Philadelphia for 18 months where Bob had a scholarship and Renate enjoyed being a young mother. After they returned, Marty was born, to add to their delight in their growing family but also their concern about the suitability of the environment for bringing up children. Eventually, disillusioned and deeply frustrated with the situation and their ability to change it, the risks of jail and the development of the apartheid laws, and despite a deep love for the country and its people which has always remained, they decided it was time to leave. Looking at the globe, Australia seemed the obvious choice, not least because it was sunny and English-speaking, and once Bob had found a suitable post (Chest physiologist at Rehab Hospital?), they set off for Melbourne and settled in Ivanhoe. Bob’s father had previously died but the remaining parents stayed in Johannesburg, and such a move was much rarer in those days, and was perhaps more difficult and traumatic than they had anticipated, and probably more difficult for Renate than for Bob who was kept very busy in his new position. The kids were placed in school and kindergarten and Renate got her first Australian teaching position. Despite an ambivalence at least about a traditional concept of God, as one might expect from many intelligent people who had been through what they and their families had, Bob and Renate were proud of their Jewish heritage – membership of the community was important, and they signed up at the Eastern suburbs progressive congregation, and in due course the boys celebrated their Bar Mitzvahs, Larry being only the second one to be held in the new Leo Baeck Centre that they had just moved into in East Kew.
In 1968 (Bob decided to become a GP and) they moved into the Arts and Crafts house in Kew that most of you will know so well, and which was always full of friends and visitors and meetings and talking and music and poetry, and Renate moved to teach at Swinburne technical School – a challenging environment, especially trying to teach humanities to youngsters who were convinced they weren’t interested! Yet, in her characteristic way, she rose to the challenge, at the same time rising through the system until she was effectively acting as Head of Humanities. Not only was she a great and inspiring teacher, and indeed I believe that at least one of her students from those days is with us this afternoon – but she was also a brilliant team-builder, and a very strong, well qualified, highly intelligent and educated group of teachers developed, a group which created innovative courses to help the students, many of who came from challenging backgrounds, to succeed in the transition to the workplace.
These colleagues became true friends, and remarkably, the group has stayed together even through moving and retirement, and still meets monthly. Renate missed her first lunch with them just a couple of months ago, but would hope, and more than that, would have absolute confidence, that they will keep on meeting and supporting each other, a group of individuals who have each had a significant impact in their own way, partly, perhaps, because of the influence and support from each other, gently and skillfully nurtured by Renate. And the amazing thing is that this was not a one off, but clearly her great gift and skill, an ability to inspire self-confidence in people and to develop deep and individual relationships with them – a gift that she gave freely and naturally both to her colleagues, to her friends, to Bob, to Larry and Marty, and to her extended family, every single one of who was precious and special to her.
Indeed, Renate had an extraordinary way of getting groups to cohere and galvanise around things they had in common, rather than focus on their differences. She would find common points of sunshine, and fulfilled a similar function for the spreading family, for whom she was always the heart and the centre of gravity as they spread from South Africa to Australia, Zimbabwe, Britain, America and Israel. One might almost say that she was compensating for growing up as an only child by growing more and more new families, but perhaps it is more accurate to say that, as an astute observer and self-analyst, and someone who had experienced very low periods in her own life, she intrinsically understood how important it was to the health of the individual and the world to be part of a close, trusting and loving extended family group.
Renate drew into her circle and into the house all sorts of people and related to people of all ages and all traditions – indeed one of those many groups was the Easter Egg group, though Passsover was one of the festivals that the family themselves always marked in her innovative and meaningful way. An enormous number of people, and I am sure, many of you here this afternoon, would count Renate as one of the most important people in their lives, and hence will now be aware of the gap that, so much magnified, faces the family. A couple of years ago, at their 50th wedding anniversary, they constructed a family tree, showing all the many groups and connections she had built. Very important is her work to try to bring peace to our world – Bob and Renate were early members ofg the local Friends of Peace Now here in Melbourne, which developed into the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, of which she was a lynch-pin as Vice chair for almost the past ten years, always modestly arguing that she didn’t know enough to be its Chair! At the start of the second intifada she was involved in establishing a Muslim/Jewish group, Salaam Shalom, which, despite the various challenges, continues to meet. Her remarkable input and persistence and vision was formally recognized when, at the end of 2008, she attended Government House to receive a prized Award for Community Service to Multiculturalism from Premier John Brumby, and of which I know that she was rightfully and justifiably most proud.
A woman of worth indeed – a healer of psychological wounds, selfless, warm, loving, caring, inclusive, positive, a natural catalyst, immensely proud of her husband Bob, her wonderful sons Larry and Marty, her daughters in law Steph and Petra, and her grandsons Joshua and Mishka.