Mark Baker

7 October 1959 - 4 May 2023

What can I say about Mark that hasn’t already been said so powerfully, so eloquently.
I was but a fly on the wall of his life, and not even all his life, just bits of it.
Nevertheless, he chose me as one of his friends.
Maybe it was because I knew him from a non-Jewish, partly Polish-Catholic perspective.
Maybe, I hope, he valued our friendship for what it was: a deep and true one, and certainly for me, one of the most significant in my life.

When I was at the end of my third year at Melbourne university, I was considering something in Polish history for an Honours topic.
A stroke of fate directed me to Mark’s office – probably the suggestion of another lecturer, based on the fact that Mark was completing his PhD on 19th-century Jewish history on Polish lands.
Nevertheless, I was sceptical: I’d never studied Jewish history and had never heard of Mark.
But all that changed after one visit to his office.
I knew immediately he was different, not only because he had imported his own impressive-looking desk and chair into the room, and had equally impressive maps and paintings on the walls.

Unlike other academics, Mark was animated; he didn’t have that serious, muted air about him.
He asked me loads of questions – was I born in Poland, where were my parents from, where had I grown up, did I mix in Polish circles? Where did I live? When I told him Edithvale, I swear he didn’t know where it was, and I knew at once that his Melbourne was not the same as mine. And the working-class Polish Catholic world I’d grown up in was a complete novelty to him.
When I told him about my thesis idea- Polish civilians during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, he said four words that were to change my life.
“What about the Jews?” he asked. “Huh?” I replied.
He didn’t elaborate; just went to his bookshelves, pulled out a handful of books, and told me to go read them and come back when done.
Two weeks later, I was back in his office, having read the books and been paralysed by them. They were primarily about the Holocaust in Poland, but also about so much more: the gulf between Poles and Jews; the arguments that had broken out between scholars the world over, debating the guilt of Polish complicity, comparing Polish suffering with Jewish during the occupation, deliberating over whether more could have been done by the non-Jewish population to help their neighbours.
These words called into question my very identity, for I’d grown up with a father who had fought in the Armia Krajowa, the Polish Home Army, had received Poland’s highest military decoration for his bravery during the Warsaw Uprising, and had taught me about Polish-Catholic victimisation by the Nazis. He’d never mentioned the Jews, not because he was an antisemite, but because they didn’t figure in his world view.
Mark’s books changed all that. When I walked back into his office after the two weeks, I told him I couldn’t go back to just Polish history, without the Jews, ever again.

I had been so affected by the truth of the Holocaust, the simple fact that every Jewish person was doomed to die, whereas every Polish person was not, that I wanted to change my thesis topic. He helped me formulate one where I’d explore Jewish and Polish interactions inside and out of the Warsaw ghetto. I’d go to Poland and do interviews, work in archives.
Before I left, Mark told me, ‘There’s someone you have to meet before going’. He made a phone call in front of me and arranged for me to meet Sonia Wajsenberg, a Holocaust survivor. I was incredibly nervous before my first visit to her apartment, but I needn’t have worried. She was enchanting, erudite, honest, and welcoming. I ended up visiting her countless times over the years to come. She became a true friend. Mark had known what he was doing when he introduced us, a foreshadowing of the countless others I met because of him.
Mark gave me an article before I left. I’d told him about my fear of flying, so his inscription read, ‘take a Valium and read this on the plane’. It was a newly written piece about the Polish-Jewish debate and set the tone for my life’s work.
I remember I eagerly wrote to him weekly from Poland, updating him on my research, telling him about the earth-shattering stories I was hearing, the people I was meeting. I think he wrote back once, something short and funny. Letters were not for Mark.
It was only the internet, several years later, which would make him a far more reliable correspondent.
When I returned, Mark threw me into the Jewish world. I couldn’t say no to him then, and I never could throughout his life. Because he made everything seem like it would be beneficial, important, and even fun (a word only Mark could use in almost any sentence and mean it).
Despite my inexperience and trepidation, I was privileged to meet and sometimes translate during their guest appearances for him, some of the great Polish and Jewish scholars: Władysław Bartoszewski, Adam Michnik, Jan Karski, Dovid Katz, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, and so many more.
Mark also made me go to their talks at the Holocaust centre or Kadimah, and there, I witnessed in action the great arguments of the Polish-Jewish debate; shouting matches, accusations of antisemitism, collaboration, indifference, on the one hand, and protestations of helplessness, “we did what we could”, OR “we have the highest number of Righteous in the world”, on the other. The arguments were heated, often vitriolic.
Mark laughed at my shock. “Good”, he said, “I wanted you to see this, so you understand the depth of hatred some Survivors feel for Poland”.
I came to realise, over the years, that this hatred needed to be respected, could not be questioned, because THEY had lived through it.
The second generation was another story though. Ten years later, a group of us, with regular participation from Mark, started a dialogue group for second-generation Poles and Jews, to try to bridge the gaps in understanding between us. The great Sue Hampel was at the core of this group, and thanks to her, The Australian March of the Living became about more than just visiting death camps, and came to include interactions with Polish groups who were also interested in dialogue.

I began tutoring for Mark during my Masters, and it was then that, for the first time, I was witness to the magic that happened in his lectures. Students sat mesmerised, and swore afterwards in tutorials that he was the best lecturer they’d ever had.
Mark invited Holocaust Survivor speakers too, whose raw testimonies underpinned the emotional gravity of his courses. I realised that his lectures were less about facts per se than they were about concepts. I often asked him if he could also try to mention dates, chronology, geography, to be more specific. He assured me he would, but then didn’t anyway. He’d apologise afterwards, saying his lecture was ‘crap’, or “too emotional”, that he’d “got carried away”. No, I said then as I often would later, you’d veered completely off-track, but your lecture was brilliant.
He commanded his audience like a conductor a symphony; he knew the right ebbs and flows of language, words, intonations, mixing English with Hebrew and Yiddish and sometimes Polish too – once the music of his words started, he had to let it take its natural course, as though he himself was under its trance. He was powerless to the power of his eloquence, his mind, his intellectual impulses. That’s what made him such a great speaker. You never knew what you were in for. But you knew you were in the presence of an exceptional, extraordinary, human being.
And all this at just 31 years of age, before he’d even finished his doctorate.
Our friendship grew when I think he realised that I was not then, and never became, one of his worshippers, who’d ask no questions, and not challenge him, albeit in my simple, limited, ways.

Mark was surrounded by obsequiousness, flattery, fawning, but also by those who were angry – either at him, or about some issue in the community they wanted him to fix. He never cut them off, gave them his time, was always polite and even kind to them, but it didn’t stop him from jokingly complaining about it afterwards. Nudniks, meshuggeneh, prostaks – he called some of them.
He always made me laugh. I will forever remember going with him by car to Lygon Street during a lunch break (he never walked there of course!) and when we exited the car he put a jacket or something over a copy of The Jewish News he had on the back seat.
“Do you think that’s weird?” he asked, “that I cover it up in case anyone looks inside?”
Or, despite being religious as he was back then – the many times he’d put on or take off his kippa, to suit the company he was about to have.
Or the way he’d look at me with THAT smile over lunch with others and embarrass me by asking about something completely irrelevant to the meeting. “How’s your animal rights going?” or “So, Krystyna” [saying my name in what he thought was a Polish accent], “do you feel guilty about what the Poles did?”
I learnt, in time, to answer back, in my own biting way.
I swear when we had these mock arguments in company, others must have thought we hated each other.
Over time, he learnt he could trust me – to give an honest opinion about something he’d written or said; to express his frustration about some aspects of the academic world.
But he also trusted me with deeper things. Despite me feeling like the “token Polish person” as I sometimes called myself to him, I think he understood my pessimistic view of world, my obsessions, passions, my depression. We had similar characters despite our differences, each crazy in our own way.

He was contradictory, changeable, unpredictable, in the words of one of my favourite poems, always ‘curious enough to change’.
He was a trendsetter, an influencer, long before it became a thing. He was the first person I knew to have a mobile phone, to learn how to use email, to buy a laptop; to get into digital photography; to think of the idea of online learning; the first to drive a blue Mini convertible, and then a Tesla (which we all knew he regretted because of his feelings about Elon Musk).
He laughed at himself often, because he knew his weaknesses. His superficiality knew no bounds. He was often exasperating, and childish, wasting time at important meetings with gossip, which he loved. He’d tell me things about the Jewish community because I knew no one in it, and he knew it fascinated me, the intricate relationships and institutions forged by people like his father, who came to Australia from the ashes of Jewish Europe with one sewing machine. He also sought gossip from me. I told him stories about people in my life, and my own secrets I have told few other people.

He certainly thought me odd for my animal rights advocacy. “Can you believe she goes to duck shooting, to save ducks?!” he said to others, as though this was the most amazing and ridiculous thing one could do. “She’s so brave!”
But it was he who was brave. He may have been scared of insects, but he often drove himself to places in the middle of nowhere, just to be alone, to write, to concentrate – something I’d never have the courage to do.
But his bravery was not just superficial. We all know he was fearless. I wonder who remembers him getting kicked out of a John Howard event in 2001, when he single-handedly held up a sign comparing the Tampa with the St Louis, the ship that sailed from Germany in 1939, with 900 Jewish refugees on board, that got turned away from Cuba, the U.S, and Canada, and sent back to Europe.
He was loved, of course, because he did so much for others, whether deliberately or indirectly through his own work and interests.
His phone call to Professor Colin Tatz organised my participation in a Teaching the Holocaust and Antisemitism seminar at Yad Vashem. Not only did those 4 weeks immerse me into Israel in a way no other trip there could have but I met some of the Greats of Holocaust history at that seminar, astoundingly some of them the authors of the books Mark had first given me to read: Yitzak Gutman, Ezra Mendelsohn, Yitzak Arad, Efraim Zuroff.
Then came another trip to Poland for my PhD research, and Mark asked me to stay on for an additional year to be his research assistant for The Fiftieth Gate. That enabled me to travel around Poland and Ukraine, gaining experience in various archives, looking for documents for the Bekiermaszyns from Wierzbnik and the Krochmals from Bołszowce.

Then Mark, Johnny and their parents came to Poland, the first time for the two brothers, and the first time back since the war for their parents.
I had the privilege of being with them as we travelled around the country.
Mark returned, later, by himself, obsessed with trying to find what he believed could be a half-sister of his mother. I remember us with Darek – my future husband, zooming around from Warsaw to Szczecin, searching in vain for this woman whom Mark was never to meet, if she existed at all.
Darek and I returned to Australia together and, remarkably, Mark and Kerryn hosted our wedding party. We didn’t have much money and Mark insisted we swallow our pride and agree to the party at his house. They hired a klezmer band, made the food, made it an unforgettable occasion. I looked at the album the other night and sobbed: so many smiling faces, so many of them no longer with us: – it is too much to bear.
Mark trusted me to edit The Fiftieth Gate, and when it came out, it became a bestseller. People would approach him and ask how they could find similar documents he’d found for his parents, and he’d send them on to me. That’s how Lost Histories started – my research bureau I’ve had for more than twenty years now.
Mark always had work for me if I wanted it, whether it was at university where I ended up lecturing for a while, or even working as an editor at Generation.
Generation had regular financial crises and Mark, as we know, charmed and persuaded donors with his ideas and ambitions for the Journal, and they usually gave in to him.

But the Journal would not have survived as long as it did without Mark regularly topping up its bank account with his own money.
I must have taken his worries about this to heart– I still have dreams about Generation going broke.
I was happy, always, to remain on the outskirts of Mark’s life, but there were times, many times, when he and Kerryn brought me into their world. I even stayed with them in Israel once. It was there that I saw first-hand the depth of Mark’s attachment to the country, especially when he drove me to a lookout, his kids in tow, and we stared at Jerusalem before us. Mark pointed at Gabe and said, ‘don’t you think he looks just like me?’ I think I only truly understood then, for the first time, the way his family, his children, his people, and this complex, beautiful country before us, were in his soul.

When Kerryn got sick, I apologized to Mark for something I’d often teased him about: that he had never known true sorrow or hardship. How could he write about it with depth in the fiction he longed to write, I had asked him, if he’d never lived it?
I repeated my apology to him several times since his diagnosis. He had now suffered more than any person should have to in their time on earth.
Mark’s response to my apology was to smile (of course) and say, ‘don’t apologise, it’s true. I HAVE been spoilt. Even now I can say I’ve been lucky. How many people get to be as lucky as me?”

What a paradox. The luckiest person was also the unluckiest. One sorrow after another; unrelenting, unstoppable. What a tragic irony that his best writing is in his death memoir as he called it- because it is written with death visible before him. The ultimate suffering.
Another thing I apologised to Mark for recently: for teasing him about his so-called “ADHD” for decades. It wasn’t ADHD, it had dawned on me; it was just him being pulled in all directions; always the most popular, in-demand person in the room; always so full of ideas and impulses that it was a miracle he’d managed to focus sufficiently to fulfil so many of them.
It was also incredible that, despite being the one who could never sit still, he’d nevertheless always managed to prioritize what was most important and was the crux of his life: his family.
When he started to feel pain in December 2021, I began to worry. I hated the thought of him suffering after all the anguish he’d endured already. Couldn’t he be left in peace?
But the waves of hope came, and with each new diagnosis, relief.

I remember telling anyone who’d listen about psychosomatic pain which, I’d learnt from Mark, was debilitating and difficult to treat. And that diagnosis made perfect sense for Mark: his eternal smile hid his inner conflicts; his anxieties had always been buried deep within him.
But then finally, finally, FOUR months after the pain had started, the source of it was properly diagnosed, and I sobbed when we spoke over the phone – for him, his family, for the intellectual universe, for his community.
But selfishly, I cried for me too. He was so integral to my life. We weren’t in touch as often as we’d once been, but he was still one of the very few people I could turn to for depth and understanding.
Selfishly, I could not imagine my world without him.
Over the next year, we all rode different waves of hope – me in my own, isolated, lonely, way.
Mark was finally able to slow down, but only because the cancer had forced him to.
He spoke the unspeakable time and again, much as I and countless others didn’t want to hear it: he was going to die, and soon, he just needed some energy and time, to memorialise, to get online, his legacy, a word he first used diffidently. “What was it all for? What’s going to happen to it all when I die?” he asked. And then, answering his own question, “it will just disappear unless I do something about it”. Once more, Mark took matters into his own hands.

An image that will never leave me, so fresh because it’s only a few weeks old, is of him standing in a long line at Officeworks, immediately after his daily treatment, Generation in hand, insisting on being the one to stay in that line despite my wanting to do it – he should go and rest in the car. No, I’m fine, he said, go look around. So I, ridiculously, pretended to look around while he stood in that line for half an hour, to make sure that Generation was scanned, again with his own money.
In the shadow of catastrophe, in relentless pain, Mark became the best he’s ever been. He focused on what was important.
He cared for his poor mother.
His attention span became stronger. He asked even more questions. He told me he needed to be there for friends who were sick, just as they’d been there for him. He texted me during my own health scare to make sure I was ok. He even asked several times (for goodness’ sake) about a parrot I was trying to save.

Once, when I picked him up for an appointment, I thanked him as I always did for asking me– because he had so many people desperate to spend time with him. “No no”, he said, “I asked you to come because I wanted to ask you about …..” and, incredibly, it was an issue to do with ME! I couldn’t believe it. We are NOT going to talk about me, I said, all I want to know is about your treatment –, how you feel, your pain, what hope there is.
“Don’t worry so much”, he smiled, “now tell me…” and he’d seek out details about a development in my life, going into depth about it, providing meaningful advice such as “always take care of your kids, don’t neglect them, that’s the worst thing you could do”, and sometimes even using his cancer as a bribe. “I am dying of cancer”, he’d insist, “You have to do this for me” – about something in my own life he wanted me to fulfil.
Mark, I have to believe you can hear all this.
This cannot be all there is.
We WILL get to talk, text, whatever you want, again.
You know how much you were loved, how much love surrounded you from birth and, a million times over, at death. It’s true that, in the end, love is all we have.
And I, this person who was truly just at the right place at the right time, who by chance got to meet you and whose life was shaped by you, enriched by you, whom you taught so much, always made laugh, who never did anything without thinking “what would Mark think of this?” – I thank you. Because you didn’t have to give me so much of yourself, you could have left me in that limited place you found me in, but you took me along for your stupendous journey, and I will be forever grateful.
You were, as someone posted about you recently, the most ‘irresistibly alive person” I’ve met.

Krystyna Duszniak
Spoken at Shira, Melbourne, 7 May 2023

Mark, centre, with his brother Johnny (far left), his parents, and me, in Wierzbnik, Poland – his father’s birth town, 1995