Monday, September 13, 2010

Consecration and 1 Year Anniversary

It will soon be one year since Peter passed away on 19 September 2009. I am not sure if any of you out there still have a link to Peter's blog but I thought it would be a good way of "closing the circle" to post the details of the recent consecration service held on Sunday 5 September and photos of the grave.

Photo 1: Peter's grave and the Ohel Chaim chapel in the background
(Apologies - I couldn't get the photos to rotate to be upright on the blog)
Photo 2: The text on the gravestone (known as a "ledger")

As is traditional, within a year of death the grave and headstone are erected and a consecration or "unveiling" ceremony is held. I have to say I agonised for many months about what text to place on the grave given that it is literally carved in stone and there forever, or until it falls down or is changed.

Photo3: Peter's headstone

I spent many hours with scraps of paper and words or lines in the kitchen or at my office desk as something might strike me. I visited the workshop of the monumental mason and in the end the need to have something finalised before the consecration date spurred me on.

I have to thank Dave and Kathleen for two things which contributed to finalising the text - the first was a Kaddish prayer I found on Dave's blog
(which I took as a framework for the grave text but with almost total rewriting to be relevant to Peter) and the second was sending the text to Kathleen and her thoughts about Peter - both of which allowed me to edit and adjust to what I think of now as something that "works" to both describe Peter and move people to reflection - both things of which Peter would have approved, especially the latter as he was often given to provocative discussion or writing in order to make people think. So thanks to both Kathleen and Dave.

The 5th September was a sunny, bright day in Sydney, however, as can be the case in early Spring, it was blowing a very stiff wind, which was unfortunate. About 20 people attended and I want to thank everyone who attended or attempted to (one person was stuck in traffic and missed the ceremony) given that I didn't realise it was also Father's Day and so many were unable to be there for that reason. The Rabbi led a very moving prayer and remembrance service by the graveside and to my surprise turned to me to say a few words, which I hadn't been expecting. I don't really remember too much of what I said, as I was quite upset all over again. I do remember talking about Peter's gratitude for his family's migration and a few other things.

Afterwards, we adjourned gratefully from the blowing conditions (wind gust from the west at about 50 kms per hour) to a small function room and about 15 or 16 of us had some refreshments and opportunities to talk with each other 1 and 1/2 hours.

Everyone kindly said how moving they found the text on the grave, heartfelt and appropriate, for which I was gratified. In fact the rabbi used it as the parting blessing and that made me feel that it was very suitable.

The next day, I received a call from Peter's relative in Sydney who said she had received a call from the family of the man who is buried beside Peter and they wished to convey how very moved they were by the text. So I hope you find it so as well.

I now feel that we have honoured Peter and his memory in a very personal and relevant way. I wanted people who read that grave to know more of the person who lay there than you can ever know from the brief factual information about name, birth and death date and to whom the person was related or married. I wanted people to know that he was a special to many but more than important to just me. He contributed so very much in everything he did and would have continued to do so for years to come if the effects of smoking and ignoring his health for so long had not resulted in his early death.

Since his death people have asked how I am and what I am doing. I have felt disabling distress and been sunk in a trough of despair. When people talk about the light going out of their life, I now know what they mean. I feel as if the great generator of life and love has been extinguished. I feel very numb punctuated, on occasion, by nausea that flows over me in huge heated waves if I think of the last few weeks and months we were together and the amazing amount of stress we were both facing. I wonder about the things I did and whether I contributed to Peter's early demise in some way (did I introduce the infection somehow?....) even though the cancer was gradually overtaking his system. I have been reclusive and sometimes stir in the early hours of the morning and remember something that I had forgotten about his treatment or about what I might have done and feel distressed again. I have lost enjoyment in so many things and I have suddenly crashed into the wall of my own mortality with a sickening thud!

However, I have found a perspective that makes things at work (to which I returned in January this year) a little easier to bear. I have become self-contained once more but miss Peter more than I thought possible. I want to engage with life again now but feel very reticent and often lack enthusiasm for anything much. What more can I say? Even though we were both independent people we had inveigled our way into each other's hearts and life. I cannot believe how fast the 16 years we were together passed and I am saddened that it was so short. However, I will remember, treasure and honour Peter all the days of my life.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Photos now added to Eulogy

After a couple of technical hitches, I have now uploaded some of the photos from the powerpoint throughout the parts of the Eulogy. So even if you have read the eulogy before, please revisit the 4 parts to see some great snaps of Peter throughout his life.

Thanks to those of you who have given me such wonderful feedback about Peter, his amazing life and the compelling eulogy. To paraphrase Peter: "The fact that there is anyone out there who is reading the blog and remembering is not only amazing but brings tears to the eyes."

Grateful thanks


Tribute from a Social Work Colleague - Eulogy

(Photo: Peter in 1983)

This is the text from the item :"Memories of Peter and Social Work" by Desley the National Manager of Social Work at Centrelink which formed part of the Memorial gathering on 15 October. For those of you who are outside Australia, Centrelink is the Australian Government department responsible for pensions, benefits and other services and used to be called the Department of Social Security up to about 1999.

I am very grateful to Desley for providing me with the text of her speech, as she was well aware that this is something Peter would have wanted to have, for his records and for posterity. I am also grateful as I learnt a few extra things about Peter, which was very precious as
he is not here to forge new memories with me so havingthe loan of someone else's memories is all I can have from now on. Thank you Desley.

"I feel very honoured to have been asked by Leanne to speak today about Peter's social work career - or at least the part that I know about.

I first met Peter when I became an Area Social Worker in the old Area South Queensland about 20 years ago. He was, at that time, the Assistant Director Social Work based in Sydney in what was then the department of Social Security. However, I did have phone contact with him for a couple of years before that when I worked in the Social Work Unit in DSS Queensland and one of my tasks was to manage a social work recording system which later became known as SWIS (Social Work Information System).

My impression of him, from the phone contact, was of someone with very strong views, a lot of knowledge about statistical analysis and even computers - which left me way out of my depth. He was also very god at identifying what was wrong with the Queensland system and how it could be improved! I was left thinking - Mmmm!! He introduced himself as a Hungarian Jew and often talked about his various investments and the decision-making behind them.

Peter was a man with very strong principles, highly ethical, an advocate for the disadvantaged and with a vision way beyond what the rest of us could comprehend. I remember him having a conversation with me in 1990 about the world of the future and how social workers would be and should be using computers. He researched and wrote prolifically about that in a time when we were still working with Wang "dumb terminals'. I laughed and said "No way, Peter!" We were still moving into an environment where we had to learn to type our own social work reports!! BUT how RIGHT he was! We couldn't imagine a workplace without computers now.

Peter was very committed to the social work profession and for many years was an active member of the Australian Association of Social Workers. He was passionate about high standards of professional practice and wrote prolifically about how to improve professional supervision. He developed a national training and professional development plan and I still have copies of these documents because they remain relevant today.

In November 2004, our Social Work service reached its 60th year milestone. peter sent me so many historical documents that he had kept over the years to ensure they were maintained for posterity. he also invited a number of eminent social workers who had worked in DSS to provide some comment on their time in the Social Work Service. While there was not a huge response, his passion remained and he was very keen to reminisce about the good and the bad old days. He was intensely loyal.

Sometimes Peter could be abrasive, dismissive and on occasion, disagreeable and he did not suffer fools gladly, but he could also be a lot of fun. He had a wicked sense of humour and took pleasure in stating the outrageous and being provocative, just to get a reaction. It usually worked and some of us needed a debrief after the odd teleconference where sparks could fly!

After Peter moved to the Social Work team in Canberra the dynamics changed there too. In talking with Margo and Jenny, who were around in the team at that time, they have many stories about the robust discussions which now occurred face-to-face rather than over the phone.

He loved Coffee lollies and kept a supply in his desk which he regularly offered to Margo and Jenny. he was the only one who liked them but they were too polite to tell him!! He used to try to bribe them with the lollies , completely unaware of their aversion to them.

If they went to his office to ask a question, they could plan to be there a long time, so they used to work out a strategy to get the other person out with a fake phone call. He loved to talk!!

Peter finally got his way when SWIS was computerised and he was heavily involved in its design and implementation. Not long after Centrelink was created Peter moved to the next stage of his career and into the IT world where he seemed to be in his element. Whenever I bumped into him he was very positive about the work he was doing. (It didn't make an ounce of sense to me - but then I guess you would expect that!!)
Photo: Peter in his office in 2003

He would also regale me with his and Leanne's travel plans as he loved to travel. I felt very privileged when they asked me to house-sit a few years ago when they went off for as few months travelling around Europe. I knew that he was keenly disappointed when he was first diagnosed because they had plans for another long trip which, in the end, could not be undertaken.

I went to see him in the hospice not long before he died and jokingly told him I needed his advice on SWIS. Despite his state of health, he immediately responded and told me that I was asking the wrong question about SWIS and I really needed to consider looking at the issues from a different perspective. He was as sharp as a tack! He then proceeded to take me to task about sending Centrelink social workers offshore in responding to (international) disasters. I had to justify how that fitted with the "real" role of social workers. I clearly gave the right answers because he then advised me that he was very suited to this role as he was such a well-travelled person. He said he would get well and I would obviously choose to deploy him. Sadly, this was not to be.

To the last he was incredibly positive and optimistic - a real fighter determined not to give in.

I really enjoyed working with Peter and respected him highly even when he was being difficult! We did not always agree but I found he was always prepared to listen, consider, provide advice and,occasionally, to change his viewpoint. He was a man of integrity. His legacy in the Social Work Service will continue.

I am grateful for the time that I had to work with him. He taught me much and we will all miss him."

Desley (15.10.2009)

I just want to add that Peter was very grateful that Desley had taken the time out of her very busy schedule to visit him that evening in the hospice. Later, he asked me whether I thought she was being honest when she said to him that he was widely remembered and had made a great impact on the Social Work Service in Centrelink. I replied that Desley would not have said it if it was not true and I thought that he underestimated the impact he had on a vast number of people and services throughout his life. He cogitated on that for a few moments and said that he hoped it was true because otherwise he had wasted his life. I told him that nothing is ever wasted especially the kind of work he had done.

I hope this is true, too, Peter.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Eulogy - Part 1

In response to many people's request, I have placed the eulogy for Peter on this blog. I have divided it into 4 parts so that it is more easily read and manageable as a blog post (scroll down to "older posts" and click there to be taken to the other parts of the eulogy). After the memorial gathering, many people said that they had no idea what a fascinating life Peter had led, how interesting he was or that they could hear Peter saying the things I had written and it's true - he was so honestly expressive and in many cases I have used his words, as he wrote them in his life notes which he left for me.

Others were kind enough to let me know the special memories they have of Peter and to repeat some of the things he used to say to them - many of them totally indicative of Peter's hard work and commitment, humour and provocative nature.

I hope you find some insights into him and like me, marvel that so much was contained in one man.

Peter George Garas
22 September 2009

Some of you here today will know more about aspects of Peter than I do, having shared various parts of his life. And so I will not, perhaps, be able to do justice to the memories and experiences you have of him through the different phases of his life, especially those with which I have no knowledge or have not shared. Please forgive me for any oversight you think this Eulogy contains. How to adequately acknowledge the life and contribution of someone is a challenge, however, Peter did leave me some documentation about his early years to supplement my experiences and I hope this summary does go some way to sketching an outline of his life.

Birth (1949-1957)
Peter was born in Budapest, Hungary on 25 January 1949 at the Love Hospital to Leo and Katalin Garas. He was an only child and very precious son who may not have been born if World War II had not ended when it did. His mother was the survivor of two concentration camps, Venusberg and Matthausen, who was one of only a hundred or so survivors of over 2,000 women who were set out from Venusberg and were shipped by train to Mauthausen in the last throes of the war. She suffered from typhoid at the time of the liberation of the camp and walked back from the camp to Hungary, via Czechoslovakia, once she was fit enough to do so.

His father was a veteran of World War I and was caught up in the ghetto in Budapest during the Nazi occupation. He was in hospital following a heart attack, at the beginning of the occupation, and had to leave hurriedly to avoid the mass killing of patients there. That his parents survived, married and had Peter was quite an amazing feat!

Peter's mother was an opera singer, a soprano, and his father was a singing teacher. They lived in Budapest and

Peter became a child actor at the age of four, working for the Hungarian National Radio. He got a number of small parts in children's stories and met his favourite characters from the programs. As a result of his work on radio, he was also offered a number of parts on the stage and appeared in two plays, one being the 'Kremlin Torony Óra' with the famous actor Pécsi Sándor. This play was about the Tower Clock of the Kremlin - some melodrama about the life and times of Vladimir Illyich Ulianov or Lenin.

Peter writes: “There are a number of recollections, which accompany this period of my life. I recall the bitter sorrow when a new director from Russia arrived and took away the lovely red boots which formed part of my costume and replaced them with a used pair of army boots several sizes too large. His rationale was sound - Russian kids simply did not have pretty red boots to wear at the time of the Revolution. I never forgave him anyway.

One night when Pécsi Sándor was ill, the understudy finally had his chance. Everything was going swimmingly until all of a sudden he experienced the most dreaded event in an actor's life. He forgot his lines. There was a pregnant pause, a silence that seemed to fill the theatre. Every eye was on me as my lines came after the ones, which he had forgotten. I remember looking at the understudy, waiting for my cue and not receiving it making up a joining line which led into my lines and the show moved on. There was a palpable sense of relief among the actors. When the curtain came down I found myself hoisted in the air, hugged by grinning people and escorted in full costume across the street to the nearby cake shop where I was treated to as much cake as I could eat. This particular show was on for something like three months. Three months of steady work. I was earning my keep at the age of four or five.”

Photo: Peter 1954
The photograph of Peter taken during this stage play shows his confidence and self-possession even at the age of 5 or 6, which were such an essential part of him for his whole life. John G, who is here today, remembers hearing Peter on the radio in those days as well has having known Peter and his family from then on.
Peter recalled his first day at school in the following words: “On my first day at school, I can recall all the warnings which my mother gave me about how to behave in the class. I cannot recall any anxiety at having to go to school, rather I recall a sense of excitement and adventure. I came home from school with a note from the teacher. I had been whistling in class and had been made to stand in the corner for having transgressed the rules. My mother, exasperated went through the litany of rules, which she had explained to me and asked me how I could possibly have been silly enough to whistle in class. Nonplussed I replied that she had told me not to talk in class, whisper, nudge other children, laugh out loud and a dozen other things, but had NEVER mentioned whistling. At six I was already a smart-arse!”

When Peter was 7 years old, they left the country and escaped over the border to Austria. He learned many years later that his uncle in New York, Louis G, had paid, through some nefarious sources, some people in Hungary to spirit them out of the country. Apparently it cost US$1000 per person to do so, lying in the back of a truck under a load of carrots.

Here is how Peter described it: “This was a memorable trip, which involved lying under a bed of carrots in the back of a truck, which left Budapest and headed towards the border near Györ. Here we stayed overnight in the local synagogue sleeping on the pews with most of the adults fearing capture while we children just sensed the excitement and wondered what it was all about. When we headed out from the synagogue it was pitch black. The only piece of transport for a large group of us was a single ox cart. This was reserved for the ill, the very small children and the frail aged. Naturally I did not qualify for any of these categories and as a result spent a considerably uncomfortable time scrambling over ploughed fields where the furrows seemed to grow with the time that passed as my tired little legs felt like they were climbing over mountains. As we travelled slowly over the dark and forbidding terrain, there were star shells being fired into the sky in front and to our left. The people guiding the party said that these were being sent up by the border guards near the Czechoslovakian border. In silence and with just a little more fear we trudged on.

Suddenly our entire party was bathed in light. In the darkness behind the lights we could make out people and a VW combi-van with a big Red Cross on it. An audible groan of relief escaped from the throats of each adult in the party - we had arrived in Austria."

After time in Vienna and a refugee camp in Salzburg, which were full of adventure for a seven year old, they travelled by ship, the “SS Waterman”, to Australia. They were meant to go to the USA but only Peter's father was allowed entry to the States as he was born in Vienna so, to keep the family together they chose Australia instead, which was more relaxed about country of birth. While this led to disappointments for his parents in terms of work and career options, as well as foregoing family ties in the USA, it ended being the very best thing for Peter.
Photo Above: Salzburg 1956
Photo Below: Katalin, Leo and Peter prior to embarkation with cousin Suzanne, Rotterdam

Unfortunately, Peter's parents were not able to get employment in their chosen professions and, as with many other migrant families throughout the decades, they had to take what work they could find which ended with Peter's mother working as a clothing finisher and the family undertaking piece work on costume jewellery and other items at night. Peter said: :”My parents made this a game for me. However for them, I suspect it was a life and death situation, earning enough money to stay alive.”

The family located around the eastern suburbs of Sydney, sharing with other families in the early period after their arrival. However, Bondi Beach became Peter's home from the time he entered high school and he stayed there for the majority of his adult life, purchasing an apartment in Sir Thomas Mitchell Rd around 1975.