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Bandler, Hans (1914–2009)

by Tony Stephens

Hans Bandler bore witness to two great struggles of the 20th century: the war against Nazism in Europe and the equal rights campaign in Australia for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples.

As a Jew in Vienna before World War II, Bandler was ordered to scrub street walls and pavements, while caustic soda was poured over his hands. He was incarcerated in the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald.

In Australia, he married Faith Mussing, an Australian South Sea Islander who became a leader of the successful 1967 referendum campaign that changed the constitution, included Aborigines in the census and is often referred to as the first stage of the reconciliation movement.

Bandler, who has died at 94, was born in Vienna to Elsa Blumenthal and Ludwig Bandler, a typesetter. After the marriage ended when Hans was a toddler, he and his mother moved in with his maternal grandparents, and his aunt, Fritzi Blumenthal, although his father still took him on excursions. Both his grandparents had died by the time Hans was 12, and his mother had moved to Bulgaria and remarried. He never saw her again and his aunt continued to care for him.

Graduating in mechanical engineering, he worked with an engineer and taught English as a sideline. He had joined the student Labour Club and the Socialist Youth Movement. His Jewish origins and political activism made him a target when Hitler went to Vienna in March 1938.

The Germans took over the firm for which he worked and told him Jews could not work there. Failing to find work anywhere, he approached foreign consulates with a view to emigrating, while improving his English by guiding visiting doctors, including Australians, around the city.

Bandler was taken to Dachau in June 1938 and transferred to Buchenwald in September. Watching people die instilled in him a fervent love of life and an indomitable will to live. He was appalled by racism, injustice and inequality.

Fighting for her nephew's freedom, Fritzi Blumenthal sold much of what she owned, including paintings and furniture, went to the Berlin SS headquarters, bribed officials and guards and bought documents. Hans was finally released in January 1939, on condition that he leave Vienna within a week.

He flew to London, to be met by a penfriend, Olive, and from where he organised for his stepbrother, Bernard, to get out of Vienna. Olive, who had studied at Oxford University, arranged for Bandler to address the Ruskin Society on the horrors of the concentration camps.

Arriving in Australia, with the help of Australian doctors he had met in Vienna, Bandler pursued a new life. He took jobs washing dishes before working on the design of a Holden car assembly plant in Sydney. When his Austrian qualifications were not recognised, he enrolled in a civil engineering diploma course at the Sydney Technical College.

Wanting to contribute personally to the fight against fascism, he tried to enlist in the army but was told he was an enemy alien. His application to the RAAF was similarly rejected. He finally joined the Ministry of Munitions and became an Australian citizen.

Bandler met Faith Mussing at an Australian Peace Council musical evening, where she was a speaker and he, a member of the Sydney Film Society, screened documentaries about Aboriginal culture. He had a spare ticket to a Sydney Symphony Orchestra concert and asked her to join him. She already had a ticket and they attended together. Music proved a binding force.

He worked with the Hydro-Electricity Commission in Tasmania, where he was tracked by ASIO, before joining the Sydney Water Board in 1952 as a design engineer.

Bandler had been married, briefly, in Australia but the 1952 Youth Carnival for Peace and Friendship brought him and Faith together again. He was helping to build a huge map of Australia for the carnival, featuring scientists' visions for the future of the continent. It was called Australia Unlimited.

They met at concerts at Sydney Town Hall and he showed Faith a block of land he had bought in Frenchs Forest, and architect's plans. He started to build in his spare time; soon she was joining him. They married in 1952, with Margaret Fulton providing the wedding breakfast.

Bandler loved water – damming it, piping it, making it potable, conserving it, reading about it and writing about it. He worked as a senior design engineer on the Warragamba Dam, responsible for the inside of the dam, with its complex network of tunnels and corridors.

He walked and camped in the Australian bush, particularly the Blue Mountains, and became an ardent conservationist, taking a postgraduate course in environmental studies at Macquarie University in 1973 and a master of science degree in 1978.

He published on environmental engineering, lectured overseas and became a potter.

Hans Bandler is survived by his wife, Faith, his daughter, Lilon, her husband, Stephen Llewellyn, and their daughters, Olivia and Nicola.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 February 2009

Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'Bandler, Hans (1914–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bandler-hans-19329/text30793, accessed 23 November 2017.

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