Bert Fagin 1926 – 2005: A life dedicated to working class struggle

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Bert Fagin. Photo from “In and Out of Port.”

Bert Fagin was a subscriber to the Freedom Socialist Bulletin and a visitor with his friends to big events at Solidarity Salon. We first met him at an FSP forum exploring how radical Arabs and Jews could work together to win lasting peace in the Middle East. Bert was a generous man who won our respect for his lifelong commitment to fight for a better world. An FSP delegation joined with friends and comrades in September to celebrate his life and say farewell. We publish this tribute by his friend, Sigrid Borke, who also interviewed him for a collection of oral histories called In and Out of Port.

Bert Fagin was born in 1926 in Aldershot, England of secular Jewish parents. From 1933 onwards, many Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s regime lived in his home. Much political discussion, particularly around issues of socialism, took place.

Young Bert took part in these discussions and quickly developed an interest in communism. He distinguished himself by being expelled from his school, at age fourteen, for selling the Young Communist League newspaper.

Towards the end of WWII he gained a diploma from Loughborough College. He was called up to serve in the army where he initially trained in the parachute regiment and became a sergeant and physical training instructor at nineteen. He was sent back to Airborne Forces as a trainer for the “paras.”

Bert loved the army but took a discharge in order to make his way to Palestine to fight for the establishment of the state of Israel. He served in an English-speaking commando unit set up by Moshe Dayan. He started having doubts about the project when he was sent into the villages. “I got this feeling, this is not my country, this is their culture, what the hell am I doing here.”

After 18 months in Palestine, he was severely wounded in action in the Negev Desert, sustaining serious damage to an ear and an eye when a mortar shell went off. At the end of his hospital stay he requested a discharge and returned to England.

Home was difficult because of political differences. He worked briefly in London and decided to emigrate to Australia. In Australia he had a variety of jobs — blacksmith striker in Brisbane, nurse in Melbourne and miner in Wonthaggi. He worked in the mines after he met with miners’ union leader Wattie Doig. Doig and his wife Agnes treated Bert like a son.

It was in Wonthaggi at a fundraiser that he met Bill Bird, Branch Secretary of the Seamen’s Union. This was to cement the rest of Bert’s working life. Bird organised for him to get away to sea and join his first ship, the Taroona.

The militant Seamen’s Union suited Bert’s politics and temperament perfectly. Seafarers, by the very nature of their occupation, are internationalists. The struggles that the union engaged in were vital to the world. The union opposed the war in Vietnam and refused to carry ammunition to be used against the Vietnamese.  It supported international and national struggles. It defended Greek trade unionists jailed by the military junta. It battled apartheid in South Africa. It supported struggles for Aboriginal rights in Australia. Bert, and his union, were also part of the successful fight to free Tramways Union leader Clarrie O’Shea who was jailed in Melbourne for refusing to pay anti-union fines.

In 1959, when Italian seamen were on strike around the world, Bert was knocked over while attempting to stop a truck breaking through a picket line at Port Melbourne where some Italian ships were berthed. He recovered to continue the fight.

After Bert’s retirement, all his activities were devoted to supporting workers and refugee rights, opposing imperialist war and, of course, trade union activities.

I first met Bert in January on the Webb Dock picket line at the beginning of the Howard Government’s brutal attempt to smash the wharfies’ union. He never missed a single day on the picket lines until the unions walked back victoriously on to the docks in May 1998.

My most endearing memories of Bert are meeting up at a rally or demonstration. He would greet you with open arms to give you a hug and a kiss of welcome and then we’d catch up on each other’s news.

Bert was one of the most modest and principled people one could ever meet. His lifelong dedication to socialism and a better society never wavered once.

During the final weeks of his life, the dedication and love for him was evident, particularly from his close friends who made sure he had someone with him day and night at the hospice until he died on 1 September 2005.

The simple service and celebration of his life was fitting as he had adamantly insisted in his will that there be nothing of god and he wanted people to know that he had worshiped Aphrodite. Paul Robeson songs and The International were the final goodbye to Bert.

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