The untold stories of Jews in Kokoda

In 1942, along a jungled trail over the rugged mountains of Papua New Guinea, thousands of Australian soldiers walked the Kokoda Track to fight for our country. Many of them were just boys of 18 years who had never fired a rifle, but were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend our country, our home.

I recently walked the Kokoda Track, something I’ve always wanted to do. The walk was a deeply moving experience, in addition to being physically and mentally tough. I’ve always enjoyed a physical challenge having done 100km charity walks in past years, and again the mental struggle to push through the pain and tiredness was a factor. However, when walking Kokoda I found there to be a great sense of gravitas when remembering those young soldiers, of which 625 lost their lives, who walked before me made my challenge as much emotional as it was physical.

Before embarking on the trek I wanted to know whether, like much of Australia’s military history, there existed a Jewish connection in Australia’s efforts in Papua New Guinea to prevent such a close threat to our borders. My preliminary efforts in searching various websites provided very little leads, besides Paul Cullen.

Paul Cullen was only the second Jew in Australian history to achieve the rank of Major General, the other being Sir John Monash. Cullen fought in Palestine in 1940 before leading men of the 2/1st Battalion to victory on the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. In one of the decisive turning points in the Pacific war, Cullen and his men defeated their enemies in hand-to-hand fighting at Oivi-Gorari which forced the Japanese to abandon their plans to take Port Moresby.

We began the journey from Port Morseby, Papua New Guinea setting out at 5am with 21 trekkers in total including my parliamentary colleagues Gary Blackwood MP and Tim Bull MP, and my brother-in-law Corey Rose.The conditions were harsh, the mountains steep and the obstacles varied. How soldiers with clothes for battle and heavy machinery on their backs were able to wade through the swamps and climb slippery rocks still astounds me. Like those soldiers before us, the local porters of PNG were remarkable. Referred to affectionately as ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ in WWII, the locals helped guide us and ensure we didn’t fall during the walk, many in barefoot.

Each night we camped in a village and had the opportunity to meet the locals. Coming from a 24/7 society where we are hooked into the internet at all times for our media and communications, I quickly began to appreciate their lifestyle is one which is based on needs and simplicity. We brought gifts for the children in each village such as books and pencils, and let them play with our cameras which made their day.

Our journey concluded at the Bomana War Cemetery in Port Moresby, the resting place of nearly 4000 soldiers who lost their lives from fighting in New Guinea during World War II. This gave me the opportunity to continue my search for the Jewish contribution in such a pivotal moment in Australia’s history. Through the torrential rain I walked each row, and found graves with the Magen David engraved: the final resting place of Jewish soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

One such grave belonged to Private Joseph Rovkin, who served as Private J Rorkin, a 16 year old Jewish boy. Having looked into his records, Joseph was born in Shepparton Victoria to a Polish father and later moved to New South Wales. Joseph made two attempts to join the Australian Military, once in September and another in December 1941, both times giving a false birthdate that had him at 19 years: four years older than his true age.

Soon after joining the military, Private Rorkin was deployed to Port Morseby with the 3rd Infantry Battalion in May 1942. Joseph lost his life due to a gunshot wound to the brain on 7 November 1942, remembered by his parents and sisters.

It never ceases to amaze me how the Australian Jewry has embraced and contributed to so many aspects of Australian life including defending our country at war. The battle in Papua New Guinea was perhaps the most significant for Australia in World War II, and just like today, the Jewish community played an important part of protecting our nation and freedoms.

The Kokoda Trail experience will stay with me forever, and I strongly encourage that everyone consider trekking through such an important part of Australia’s history. Kokoda also reminded me that I am truly blessed to be an Australian Jew: living in a nation built on the sacrifices of a multicultural community where we can uphold my cultural heritage while being a proud Australian.

State Member for Caulfield
Shadow Minister for Innovation
Shadow Minister for Energy and Resources
Shadow Minister for Renewables

Published in the Australian Jewish News, 23 July 2015

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