10 March 2014

His name was Fred

This Wednesday, we will be farewelling my Great-Uncle Fred.

He caught a lot of fish in his time did Uncle Fred.  He liked to fish.  And he had a great laugh on him.


But the most important thing he taught me is a very valuable lesson about casual racism.

See, when I was young, I thought his name was Uncle Fritz.  Everybody called him Fritz when they talked of him, or to him.  And it was fondly. Nobody disliked him.  

And then one day, probably when I was nearing double digits and we were visiting him and my Great-Aunt, he said to me that he'd prefer it if I called him Fred and not Fritz.

Why?

Because it's my name.  

Not Fritz?  Is Fritz your second name?

No.  My name is Fred.

So I said to my folks, Uncle Fritz wants to be known as Uncle Fred now.

Why?

Because it's his name.  

And we started calling him Uncle Fred.  Both when we spoke to him or about him.  

It probably didn't happen that seamlessly. He'd been one name to us for a long time, but see, Uncle Fred was German.  Defected to the Russians I think just as soon as he could.  He was only a boy at the time, not yet 18 and it was towards the end of the second war where soldiers on both sides were getting younger and older as those of the 'right age' were decimated and a generation lost.  As I understand it, he lost his entire family in the war and went first to America and then came here to Australia, where he eventually met my Great-Aunt and blah blah.  

And he was called Fritz because he was German.  And that stayed happening for years.  Even in the family.

Absolutely no malice intended probably.  Like a lot of the casual racism in Australia both then and now, people aren't necessarily being intentionally cruel, but it doesn't mean that we aren't being awful.

Uncle Fred had every right to be called by his own name and I'm glad we had that conversation.  No matter where he started, he was a person first and a proud Australian second. And there is no political bias in that statement - he and I were on opposite ends of the political spectrum in every way I think know.  But he was a good man and he was loved and he will be missed, particularly by his wife, daughter and grand-children.

And almost thirty years later, that one conversation and that huge lesson still resonate with me.  

Thanks Uncle Fred. Happy Fishing.