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Zubrzycki, Jerzy (George) (1920–2009)

by Tony Stephens

from Sydney Morning Herald

Jerzy Zubrzycki, by Loui Seselja, 2007 [detail]

Jerzy Zubrzycki, by Loui Seselja, 2007 [detail]

National Library of Australia, 42200758

Jerzy Zubrzycki helped defuse one of Hitler's V2 rockets, advised Pope John Paul II on possible ways to "build a society worthy of man" and is widely regarded as the father of Australian multiculturalism.

He believed that his native Poland had erred grievously before World War II by not embracing the various ethnic and religious groups. Coming to Australia, he drew on the folly of war to help shape multiculturalism in what had been an Anglo-Celtic society. He grew concerned that the bipartisan policy was sometimes used for political purposes but he remained a passionate supporter of its principles.

Jerzy Benedict Zubrzycki, who has died at 89, was born in Krakow, one of three children of Jozef and Zofia Zubrzycki, who had a horticultural estate. This was the city where Copernicus had published his theory on the solar system and young Zubrzycki grew up in an intellectual atmosphere.

At the John Sobieski state school he studied ancient civilisations, especially the works of Plato and Aristotle, learning that the abiding concern of the ancients – "What does it mean to live the good life?" – was timeless. He wrote in 1998: "The lesson we learned was that human goodness is not simply a matter of the will or intention … but is vulnerable to whims of fortune. From then on, we knew that virtue, like a plant, must be nurtured."

Karol Wojtyla, later John Paul II, and Zubrzycki attended a students' summer camp together in 1938, seeking solutions for a world on the brink of war. They were influenced by Jacques Maritain, a leftish French philosopher who tried to apply the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas to modern problems, leaving room at the apex of the sciences for Christian theology.

Aged 19 and a second lieutenant in the army, Zubrzycki fired some of the first shots of World War II on September 2, 1939, defending a Polish border post against invading Germans. He was captured by the Germans soon after but escaped, joined the Polish resistance, carried coded messages to the British in a hollow of his shaving brush and ultimately fled to Britain, where he joined a doctor, an alpinist, a safe-breaker and others training in sabotage work for the Special Operations Executive – the group Churchill said would "set Europe ablaze".

One of his riskier tasks was to help recover an unexploded V2 rocket bomb. It was loaded into a DC-3 which sank into a muddy Polish airfield. When the Allied commander wanted to know why happy Poles were scraping mud from the aircraft's undercarriage, Zubrzycki said: "That is not mud, sir. That is Polish soil."

He had fallen in love with Alexandra Krolikowski when he was about 16. She was deported with her mother by the Russians to Kazakhstan. The women were separated but met again in a confessional queue in Tehran, a meeting Jerzy Zubrzycki put down to providence. The couple married in 1943 in a Catholic church in London, the only building on the block left standing after the Blitz.

After the war he graduated M.Sc.Econ at the London School of Economics, then the "hotbed of socialism". His teachers were Karl Popper, the philosopher who argued for piecemeal social change, rather than revolution; historian Richard Tawney, who argued that the Protestant work ethic fostered an efficient workforce; Harold Laski, the political scientist who thought socialism necessary to stop fascism; and Friedrich Hayek, the economist who opposed government intervention. Zubrzycki took his PhD at the Free Polish University, London.

He retained his Catholic faith but two of the greatest influences on his thinking were men who lost their faith – Max Weber, the German sociologist and political economist who opposed Germany's war goals and related Protestantism to capitalism, and Emile Durkheim, the French founder of sociology who emphasised the plurality of human societies.

He worked for the Foreign Office in London until the Zubrzyckis came to Australia in 1955. He recalled in 2003: "Canberra had a population of 25,000, many unmade roads and not much else to offer, except this budding new university." Focusing his work on postwar settlement, he became founding professor of sociology at the Australian National University and helped move Australia away from the old integration and assimilation policies, where migrants were expected to conform to Anglo-centric norms, towards cultural pluralism. This became multiculturalism under Gough Whitlam and his immigration minister, Al Grassby.

Zubrzycki judged Arthur Calwell's 1945 speech in Parliament, where he unfolded an unprecedented plan of taxpayer-funded immigration, to be a landmark in Australia's history, an act of statesmanship. Zubrzycki said: "All Australians except the original ones are ethnics." In 1982, he wrote a government booklet, Multiculturalism For All Australians, and was told at public meetings: "Go home to Poland!"

He served Liberal and Labor governments from the 1960s to 1990s on advisory bodies on immigration and multiculturalism, warning against repeating the mistakes made by not paying enough attention to the settlement needs of the Lebanese who arrived in the 1970s, the results of which, he said, were seen in the second generation's problems and the 2005 Cronulla riots.

Appointed an officer in the Order of Australia in 1984, he became emeritus professor at the ANU in 1985. He was a founding member, and the only Australian, on the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, set up by John Paul II to assist in the development of the church's social and moral doctrine.

Jerzy Zubrzycki is survived by Alexandra; children Tom, the documentary film-maker, Anna, actress and teacher in theatre studies in Poland, John, a journalist, and Joanna, a senior lecturer in social work; and eight grandchildren. His funeral service will be held at St Peter Chanel's, Yarralumla, ACT, at 10.30am today.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 May 2009

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Additional Resources

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Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'Zubrzycki, Jerzy (George) (1920–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/zubrzycki-jerzy-george-18400/text30053, accessed 21 September 2017.

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