Two generations of Amnesty
Dora Eisenberg’s story could easily be something you’d read in a book that you wouldn’t want to put down. Having fled from pre-war Poland to Palestine thanks to a “decisive football goal” and settling in Australia some years later, Dora reveals her incredible story. Fifty-seven years after Dora and her daughter Masha first encountered Amnesty International, Dora shares with us how she continues to defend human rights at the age of 102.
When Dora thinks of the past 55 years as an Amnesty supporter, her thoughts go back to her mother and the fundamental values of kindness, fairness for all and simply not thinking only of yourself.
Dora has much reason to muse about the values instilled in her own upbringing in the early 1900s. “We were outcasts in our own country. We didn’t live in specifically Jewish areas because we wanted to be like everyone else and of course this was very hard. Eventually we tried to immigrate to Palestine but the British had very tight controls on who could enter.”
Masha first learnt about Amnesty during a working holiday in London. The year was 1961 and the Manchester Guardian, (today, the Guardian) reported on the launch of Amnesty International. The following year, after returning to Sydney, Masha joined Amnesty as soon as it was formed in Australia.
“I wrote letters. That was my thing. Dora joined not long after and we both have been supporters ever since. It made sense to us. Amnesty’s values are also our values. When I was growing up, social justice was a strong value. It wasn’t in any way radical or something that only left wing people believed in. They came from both my parents and all the readings that I did as an adolescent simply confirmed and built on that.”
Dora and Masha are both all too familiar with the complexities and ramifications of social injustice. When Dora recalls how she left Poland, she is immediately reminded of just how lucky she was to have had such an opportunity.
“As a girl, I was quite the tomboy. I played games with the boys because I didn’t think that girls had to limit themselves. My best friend Joshua later became the love of my life. He gained entrance into the Hebrew University in Palestine. He was an excellent student and even better footballer!”
Joshua won a decisive goal for the British in a match which allowed him to “negotiate” immigration papers for Dora. Masha often jokes about how she was really the product of a football game.
Both Dora and Joshua faced many challenges as they started a new life in Palestine.
“I am thankful that I managed to escape the persecution of the Jews in Europe. My family wasn’t so fortunate. After the war, we were very disturbed at certain aspects of the new Israel. In our hearts we knew we had to leave. In 1956 we emigrated to Australia as a family. We managed to get through the Suez Canal just before the Suez Crisis.
“Australia was a new start all over again. It was difficult in the beginning. As I look back to all that moving, first from Poland to Palestine (which later became formed as Israel) and then to Australia, it makes me think of what home means, that sense of where you belong.”
Dora identifies herself fiercely as being an Australian of multicultural background. After retiring from paid employment at age 75, Dora found even more time to participate communally. Until age 99, she variously volunteered with the Smith Family, a special needs kindergarten and the cancer support services at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. In 2009, Dora received an Order of Australia (OAM) for volunteering and community service.
Masha has been dedicated to writing letters for Amnesty International campaigns, even helping form a letter writing group during her years as a social worker. The journey of fighting for equal human rights is a layered experience not only for those who are facing human rights abuses but also those fighting to defend the human rights of others. There are many success stories which we cherish but also those cases which do not end well. Masha recalls working very hard on a particular case for Nigerian human rights and environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who campaigned against the indiscriminate petroleum waste dumped in his homeland in the Niger Delta. Following several arrests without charges, Saro-Wiwa was ultimately accused of murder and denied a fair trial. His execution in 1995 sparked international outrage and saw Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth.
“I cried about him. I was against the death penalty even as an adolescent and I do not believe retribution has any value. You’re meant to write in the same way about everyone but sometimes you just feel a connection to a particular case. It felt personal when he was executed. It was like someone close to me was killed. But moments like that reinforce your belief to keep going. It also reinforces your knowledge that a successful outcome is like a drop in the ocean because the world is large and unfortunately our propensity for injustice is great. So it never stopped me writing.” Twenty years on, 2015 saw a landmark human rights victory against the main offender Shell, which was ordered to pay over $90 million in compensation to the people of the Niger Delta region.
Indeed Masha makes a strong point that we keep on going despite stories of tragedy and those of success. Both Dora and Masha are determined that their voice for Amnesty will be heard even after their time in this world and they want their values to live for generations to come. In many ways, this echoes the words of Amnesty International founder Peter Benenson, who said that our work is only complete when the last prisoner of conscience has been freed, the last torture chamber closed, and when the universal declaration of human rights is a reality for the entire world’s people.
Charles Rozario is on the staff of Amnesty International.
For more information about leaving a gift in your will to Amnesty International, please contact Charles on 03 9412 0730 or visit www.amnesty.org.au/bequests