By Carmel Shute
A big crowd gathered in Clifton Hill on 30 January to pay tribute to veteran Melbourne communist, Olga Silver (18/12/1916 – 23/1/2015), who died at the age of 98 after a long illness.
Olga was born a year before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 but her life was very much shaped by it. Her father Norm McKissack, a train driver based in Whitfield in northern Victoria, was a socialist who later joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).
Olga met her future husband Charles (Charlie) Silver in the Friends of the Soviet Union, an organisation which she helped form in the mid-thirties in Melbourne. They both became active, long-time members of the CPA. For much of her life, Olga worked for different CPA organisations. She went on to outlive the result of the Russian revolution – the USSR – by 24 years. Was it all fated? After all, Olga was named after a ballerina, Olga Petrova, much admired by her father.
Olga would have scoffed at such an irrational suggestion – her politics were forged by the politics of her time. Social being determined her consciousness. And, as it turns out, Olga Petrova was not Russian as her Norm presumed. It was the stage name of the English dancer, actress and vaudeville star, Muriel Harding, who toured Australia in 1913.
Olga, the eldest of the four children of Norm and Mabel McKissack, was born during the darkest days of the Great War. Australian troops were mired on the Somme. The people of Australia, including her dad Norm, had just waged a bitter campaign against conscription and would soon face another war.
She started school in Whitfield, walking three miles each way with her brother Bruce from the small farm the family lived on. She later attended Benalla High School and Bright Higher Elementary School.
Olga finished school at the height of the Depression but, through a relative, managed to get a job at the Railway Refreshment Rooms in Melbourne where she threw her lot in with the left, becoming involved with the Eureka Youth League and later the Communist Party.
Olga was active in the Movement Against War and Fascism and remembered walking from the railway staff hostel in the city to the West Melbourne stadium in 1935 for a rally in support of Egon Kisch, the Communist Czechoslovakian writer and journalist, who famously jumped from the ship on Station Pier after being refused entry to Australia by the Lyons Government. He was an early illegal maritime arrival.
At the age of 19, she married Charlie, a dark-haired and rather dashing communist schoolteacher. They had four children – Peter, Lloyd, Michael and Bronwyn. They were both grief-stricken when Peter died of leukaemia in 1955.
When the Menzies Government banned the CPA in June 1940, police raided their house in Hawthorn. In the mid-1940s, when the CPA had been made “legal’” again, Olga helped Graeme Bell to organise performances of his jazz band at Eureka Youth League Hall in North Melbourne.
In the fifties, ASIO noted that Olga was “active in Mothers’ Club”. As secretary of the Glenferrie Primary’s Mothers’ Club, Olga organised the sprucing up of the nineteenth-century school, carpeting the infants’ hall, and installing combustion heaters in the rooms. This sort of political work, making real changes in ordinary people’s lives, was to be one of the enduring characteristics of Olga’s life. She read and thought a lot and always contributed to debates, but was never an ego-driven speech-ifyer.
Between work, politics and family, Charles and Olga lived a packed and passionate life. At their large Edwardian house, Olga created an impressive garden and threw wonderful Christmas garden parties for the Hawthorn CPA Branch. Olga was a mainstay of the annual Tribune Fair, churning out bottles of much sought-after lemon butter and potting much of the stock for the plant stall.
As Olga’s children started in high school, she took up more and more voluntary work, distributing the CPA weeklies, the Guardian and then the Tribune.
From 1970 to 1990, Olga had paid work at the CPA’s International Bookshop. For nearly a decade, she ran the second-hand shop, perched on the 6th floor of 17 Elizabeth Street, 4 floors above the main shop. When the bookshop expanded to take up all the second floor in 1979, Olga moved downstairs and became part of the staff of the main shop. As her co-worker Ken Norling recalls,
By then the International had become something far more than a traditional Communist Party bookshop. It still supplied Marxist classics and Soviet publications but Kathy Gleeson and others had transformed it in the early seventies into a centre of the women’s liberation movement, and then under David Hudson’s management in the late seventies it became Melbourne’s biggest seller of gay literature.
Many of Olga’s contemporaries would have found this new stock, and the customers it brought, confronting. Women’s liberation was challenging enough; selling countless copies of The Joy of Gay Sex certainly wasn’t something life in the Communist Party had prepared you for.
Olga may have been a sixty-year-old granny by then, but she wasn’t fazed by any of it. She now found herself pricing endless copies of gay potboilers instead of endless copies of the speeches of Nikita Kruschchev, and she loved it.
Over this period, Olga was also an active member of the Australia Vietnam Society. Olga’s stoicism was formidable. When faced when an impossible situation, she’d always utter “Ah well” and just get on with it.
Besides her kindness and good sense of humour, what everyone admired about Olga was how she was up-to-the-minute in her attitudes and politics. It was often said that we would have had socialism in Australia had there been a few more Olga Silvers. She always fought the good fight.
Photographs have been taken from a slide show created for Olga’s funeral by her daughter, Bronwyn. You can see the full slide show here.