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Saturday, 15 February 2020

Eva Sommer: The Groundbreaking Female Journalist History Conveniently Forgot

It’s one year today since Eva Maria Sommer passed away, aged 84, at Concord Hospital in Sydney. Once lauded in the United States as “Australia’s top newspaper reporter”, Eva spent the last 63 years of her life almost completely forgotten by those in the trade. In March 1957 the California-based Western News Service acknowledged that Eva had “saved a stateless man from a life of permanent exile.”  Sadly, and ironically, in coming to the aid of a refugee immigrant, she condemned herself to a life of permanent obscurity.
        As evidence of the extent to which Eva was shunned, last November adjunct professor of journalism at La Trobe University Nick Richardson produced a book called 1956: The Year Australia Welcomed the World and credited a man, Lionel Hogg, with winning the first Walkley Award for best Australia news story. In fact Hogg won in 1957, and the honour of winning the first Walkley had gone to Eva a year earlier.
The 1956 Walkley Award winners surround Eva Sommer.
W.G. Walkley has his hand on her shoulder.
      Male journalists and editors around the country bristled at the boldness of a young woman - not long out of her teens and still serving a cadetship – in entering her own unbylined front page tabloid article for the inaugural Walkley Awards – which private sponsor W.G. Walkley said at the time he hoped would become the Australian equivalent of the Pulitzers. Lo and behold, the judges deemed Eva’s scoop the “best news story” of 1956. She had beaten one of the nation’s best known and most experienced journalists, Harry Gordon, whose freelance article about the coming Melbourne Olympic Games in the Australian Women’s Weekly was “highly commended” – but not good enough to beat Eva’s “Outcast”, which had taken up page one of the Sydney Sun on Wednesday, July 4. The male-dominated newspaper industry never forgave Eva her effrontery in entering and winning the first-ever Walkley, and quickly made her an outcast herself.
Harry Gordon, right, using a Hermes Baby portable typewriter to cover the Korean War, during which he managed to bypass American censorship and have his copy transmitted through Tokyo.
Eva, while three-quarters of the way through a four-year cadetship with the mass-circulation Sydney afternoon daily The Sun and its Sunday edition the Sun-Herald, collected the main prize of £500 ($17,000 in today’s money) from a £1000 pool. It was an awful lot of cash for a 21-year-old back then – one 16th of what Colin Bednall, managing director of one of the country’s largest newspaper groups, earned in a full year. With that sort of money, Eva could have bought herself 3½ hours of prime time television and given herself some self-publicity. Instead, she was shoved back into menial duties at The Sun, writing snippets about TV programme and movies.
Bearing in mind 1956 was the year British nuclear bomb testing started on Australian soil at Maralinga, the “Great Murray River flood” caused the then greatest catastrophe in South Australia’s history – and was covered extensively by Peter Golding for one of Bednall’s papers, The Argus – television was introduced and poker machines legalised, Eva’s achievement in producing the best news story of that year was truly extraordinary. The more so when it involved a boat person, a “Silent Man” whom authorities couldn’t identify. Eva got him talking, and found out who he was: a young Jewish survivor of a Nazi death camp, suffering from amnesia and a stowaway on an Italian liner.
Jakob Bresler 
Eva began her cadetship at The Sun in 1953, the year the newspaper was acquired by The Sydney Morning Herald. She had graduated from the Fort Street Girls’ High School with first-class honours in three languages in 1951, yet it took her two more years to get her foot in the door of The Sun. Writing to her friend, budding stage actress Olywn Barwin in 1951, Eva lamented her inability to realise her dream of becoming a journalist covering general news. “Mrs [Nelly] Cohen [principal of the Fort Street school] rang up a woman whom she knew who is chief of staff on the Herald, but they only accept women on the social or women’s pages and have no vacancies there. So I tramped to the Sun and Telegraph [then both owned by Associated Newspapers] of my own accord but they only take about three girl cadets a year (union rules) and usually select them from copy girls (the Sun does anyway) whom they first employ at the tender age of 15.” Eva had by then turned 16.
 Initially The Sun demanded no more of Eva’s array of skills than to write brief entertainment industry items. It was the type of lightweight “social pages” stuff she had scorned in her letter to Barwin two years earlier. But, as she had signalled in that letter, she was a woman, and in those days woman weren’t allowed to tackle the meatier tasks, such as police rounds. Eva still made the most of her opportunities. In early 1956 she was given the task of sniffing about for what stories that might be fleshed out from the crews and passengers of foreign navy ships and liners docking at Circular Quay. She could “speak the lingo” her editors reasoned, figuring she’d be safe enough on the dreaded “quay crawl”.
Eva Sommer interviews French midshipmen at Circular Quay in 1956.
The beat started out on a tame note – a fluffy page seven picture story about whether French Naval Academy midshipmen upheld “a reputation for naughtiness”. But just five months later Eva’s linguistic skills, her innate sensitivities and compassion, and her nose for a good yarn combined to unearth a major news story, one that gained international coverage. She found and revealed the true identity of the “Silent Man”, the mystery, mute stowaway on an Italian cruise liner. Her story, under the banner “OUTCAST!”, was headed “No rest for the silent voyager”, “No one will let Jan land”, “He still won’t talk”. In fact the seemingly obtuse “Jan Wadyer” was, as Eva soon found, Jakób Bresler, a 31-year-old Polish survivor from a Nazi death camp, a young man who had not just lost his voice, but his mind and with it his identity. Eva Sommer brought it all back, and restored Bresler’s life.
Given Eva has a significant place in Australian journalism history, it was sad that her death went unnoticed – there was a brief announcement in The Sydney Morning Herald, followed by an even shorter though fitting tribute from Deakin University journalism lecturer Jennifer Martin. Martin wrote, “Australia's first Walkley Award winner, for a brilliant story that saved a traumatised refugee suffering from amnesia from sailing indefinitely between Australia and Italy. Her reporting was rigorous and her words flew off the page, and best of all made lives better.”
        Bresler was born in Piotrków Trybunalski in central Poland on April 10, 1925. Before and during World War Two he had been imprisoned for eight years in the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp on Ettersberg Hill near Weimar in Germany. As a refugee from wartorn Eastern Europe, he was brought to Melbourne from Genoa by the Australian Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society on December 2, 1951. An automobile mechanic employed by the US Army in Munich in 1949, Bresner found work as a knitter in a factory in Melbourne, but in 1955 his post-traumatic stress had caused him to be admitted for psychiatric care. Suffering amnesia, and alone on his 31st birthday, Bresler boarded the Italian migrant liner the Surriento, which during the war had been used by US Marines as an attack transport ship called USS Barnett.     

The Surriento in Sydney Harbour.

          Bresner had no passport, paperwork or tickets, so he was deemed a stowaway and remained on the ship under partial custody – he did work in the galley - as it returned to Genoa, then came back to Australia. He had sailed 20,000 miles in three months by the time Eva Sommer met him in Sydney on July 3, 1956. All that while, Bresner had been refused entry to Italy or Australia by immigration officials, yet as soon as Eva made his true identity known, Australian Immigration Minister (and later prime minister) Harold Holt declared Bresner an Australian citizen and entitled to live here.
        It was only last month, while visiting the “Truth, Power and a Free Press” exhibition at the Museum of Australian Democracy (Old Parliament House) in Canberra, that I became aware of Eva and her journalistic achievement. A small text panel on a back wall of the exhibition gave a sketchy outline of her story. Naturally, I wondered whatever became of her.
        The answer, unfortunately, is “not much”, certainly not in terms of a long and successful career in newspapers. In most circumstances such a path would surely have beckoned – except there wasn’t a lot of encouragement for Lois Lanes in Australian newsrooms in the mid-1950s. But the fame she gained from her “scoop” in The Sun was widespread. The Courier-Journal in far off Louisville, Kentucky, headed its story, “Sydney’s Reporter’s Hunch Saves Exile, Wins Prize”. The article began, “Australia’s top reporter is a 21-year-old girl …” and equated the Walkley to a Pulitzer.
        Eva Sommer was born in Vienna in 1935 and arrived in Australia aged four. Her parents, Friederich (born Reichraming, May 1909) and Anna Auguste Sommer (nee Tagleicht), fled Europe just weeks before the outbreak of War World Two – her father had already been interned and mistreated by the Nazis, but had still managed to get out of Austria with friends, including with Anna’s sister Margarete. The Sommer family settled in Lewisham in Sydney and later moved to Bondi. Eva attended the Fort Street Girls’ High School and in 1948 qualified second for the Alliance Française de Sydney examination. She graduated with first-class honours in English, French and German in the New South Wales leaving certification examinations at the end of 1951. In the order of merit in each subject, Eva finished third in English and German and eighth in French.
        Eva’s empathy for the plight of Bresner stemmed from an experience her father had endured in 1941. One of Friederich’s fellow internees and a close friend in Vienna, the Romanian-born Israel Davidovici (known in Australia as John Denison) had arrived in this country with the Sommer family in 1939. Davidovici immediately enlisted in the Australian Army, hoping to return to Europe (his mother was still in Vienna) to fight against his former persecutors, the Third Reich. But delays in embarking led Davidovici to extreme depression, and on September 14, 1941, he jumped from the Manly ferry the Curl Curl and drowned. At the inquest, Friederich Sommer told the coroner Davidovici had been brutally treated by the Nazis and it affected his mind.
Eva’s father first worked as a potter in Australia but later returned to his true profession as an accountant. He died on New Year’s Day 1951, leaving Eva to be the sole income earner for her mother and maiden aunt. Anna died in November 1972. Bresner, by then known to friends as “Jack”, also died in Sydney, in July 1985, aged 60. After her Walkley win, Eva continued to work at The Sun until 1963, then for the ABC until 1968, and finally left journalism and became a clerk.

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