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Bereson, Itel (1927–2016)

by Barry York

Itiel Bereson was a writer of history textbooks and a brilliant teacher. He was at once "old school" and innovative.

His sheer passion for history, depth of knowledge, charisma and energy were experienced by thousands of students for nearly three decades from the 1950s, in places as diverse as Wedderburn, St Arnaud, Upwey, Brighton, Melbourne, Glen Waverley, Northcote and Essendon high schools.

I was privileged to be one of his modern European history students at Northcote High in the late 1960s. My lasting memory of him is of a human whirlwind in a black flowing academic gown, entering the classroom with all the drama and excitement of a Shakespearean actor.

It was almost impossible not to become an enthusiast for history after being taught by such a passionate and brilliant teacher.

At Northcote High, he was placed in charge of an experimental mini-school to assist migrant students between Years 7 and 10. He used current affairs to stimulate the students to learn, with English and maths as core subjects. The results were very positive.

In 1977, he became principal at Reservoir High and in 1983 spent a year in Canada on an exchange with the regional Director of Education there. He retired from the Victorian Education Department in 1986.

From 2008 to 2011, he was president of the Victorian Secondary Schools Past Principals Association. He also involved himself in giving talks on history to adult groups such as U3A.

His first textbook, England: Yesterday and Today (1967), sold 60,000 copies. He wrote Inquiry Australia: reviewing Australian history through maps, charts, graphs and commentary (co-authored with Simon Rosenblat) in 1985. Nineteen other books covered topics such as racism in Australia, civics and citizenship and Australia's wealth, resources and industries. Decades of Change (1989) was followed by a series for primary schools – nine in all, one volume per decade. Such was the esteem in which he was held that he was invited by publishers to write most of the books.

His texts reflected the experience of a classroom teacher who understood the diversity and different levels of his students. His love of geography, which he also taught, is reflected in the innovative and generous use of maps in his history texts. He sought to express complexity through clarity and his books drew heavily on charts and diagrams to achieve this.

He was born Itiel Berezinski in Cape Town, South Africa, on October 10, 1927 to Orthodox Jewish parents from Bialystok, Poland. His father was principal at the Cape Jewish orphanage in Cape Town which took in child victims of Ukrainian anti-Semitism rescued by Itiel's godfather, Isaac Ochberg.

Itiel learned early in life about racism, and later came to despise the system of segregated oppression of black Africans known as apartheid.

He was educated in Cape Town and completed a year of university studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg. In the mid-1990s, he returned to South Africa for a 50th anniversary class reunion at Sea Point High School. This was post-apartheid South Africa and Itiel wept on seeing a black student as head prefect.

His texts reflected the experience of a classroom teacher who understood the diversity and different levels of his students.

In an interview for the Australian National Library's oral history collection, recorded by Garry Sturgess in 2015, there is a point where Itiel shows Garry a family photo, taken in 1932 in Bialystok. Itiel and his parents visited the family there when he was six. There are 23 individuals in the photo. One by one, Itiel talks about them. And then, again counting one by one, identifies the 12 who were killed during the Holocaust.

He says in the interview: "The Holocaust affected me enormously… it left an enormous impression, as a matter of fact I would say it was responsible for me being what I am.  Yet, I cannot claim to be a survivor of the Holocaust." 

The horror of violent anti-Semitism, and his father's influence, led him to embrace Zionism. But he was also a globalist, having joined the World Federalist Movement in South Africa after the war. His attendance at political meetings while studying history at university brought him to the attention of the South African police.

He moved to Melbourne with his parents in 1947, where they joined two uncles who were from Bialystok. He enrolled at Melbourne University and joined the Communist Party. He saw the party as being on the right side in the struggle against colonialism and racism, though disagreed with the line that the Jews were not a nationality.

He let his membership lapse in the early 1950s after becoming disenchanted, and later joined the Labor Party. He had many different political affiliations in his lifetime but all basically stemmed from a humanist philosophy.

He always wanted to be a teacher and had been inspired by a "brilliant history teacher" at high school in Cape Town. Itiel completed his Bachelor of Arts – a double major in history – and Bachelor of Education at Melbourne University.

He regarded teaching as "an amalgam of understanding of the growth of youth and also the impartation of knowledge", and saw himself as "a storyteller… an investigator into a certain area of history, and (a poser of) questions about it". He wanted his students and readers to "realise that their lives were part of history". 

His last book, published in 2010, was the official history of Northcote High, which he co-authored with Robert Bridges, Hector Gallagher, a former Director of Education, and Gary Israel. 

In addition to research and writing, he loved to travel, listen to music, attend theatre, enjoy the garden and discuss the latest political events with friends. Above all, he loved his family and always supported their interests. At the funeral service, Rabbi John Levi said: "His friendship and his smile were precious and his loyalties spanned the Jewish community."

His last years were completely involved in writing a history of anti-Semitism covering 2000 years. The book was almost ready for publication at the time of his death on December 17. Of this book, he said: "The best hope is that people will realise that hatred is something that grows out of society and evolves, that it can be prevented by individuals."

He is survived by Maureen, his wife of nearly 60 years, children Ruth, David and Miriam, and grandchildren Sidra and Isaac.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 April 2017

Additional Resources

Citation details

Barry York, 'Bereson, Itel (1927–2016)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bereson-itel-27076/text34645, accessed 15 September 2019.

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