Dictionary of Sydney

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Guiterman, Rosine

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Guiterman, Rosine

Rosine Guiterman was a Jewish activist, teacher, poet and humanitarian, with apparently inexhaustible reserves of energy, whose commitment to social justice informed her professional and personal life.

From London to Sydney University

Rosine Guiterman was born Rosine Lion in London in 1886 and came to Australia with her family in 1893. [1] Determined to be a teacher, she enrolled in Arts at Sydney University, where her interest in Shakespeare brought her to the notice of Sir Mungo MacCallum, Sydney University's foundation Professor of Modern Language and Literature. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1908 and in 1911 gained an Master of Arts in English and recognition as a poet. She was the first woman to win the coveted Sydney University Prize for English verse with her poem ' Sic Vos Non Vobis' ('Thus do ye, but not for yourselves').

Rosine was active in the Sydney University Dramatic Society, developing skills she would put to good use in her later commitment to theatre in Sydney. She also joined the Sydney University Women's Social Service Society and served on its committee from 1908 to 1910, including a term as secretary from 1908 to 1909. She was instrumental in the Society's foundation of the Sydney University Settlement, which continues to provide social welfare services in the Chippendale and South Sydney area. [2] During this period she became a close friend of Jessie Street and other early social activists. [3] Rosine's commitment to social causes endured throughout her life.

Travels abroad and marriage

In 1911, Rosine set off for London. David Guiterman, a businessman, boarded the ship at Colombo and by the time the ship reached England Rosine and David were engaged. David Guiterman was a committed socialist, with progressive ideas on religion, politics and human morality, and introduced Rosine to explicit political ideology.

From 1911 to 1912, Rosine Lion, with her sister, a trained kindergarten teacher, travelled extensively in France and Germany, teaching as she went. She then returned to Australia and Rosine and David were married at the Great Synagogue, Sydney on 10 September 1913. Their twenty-nine years of married life, in spite of much trouble, were happy.

World War I and social repression

The Guitermans' married life began with very bright prospects, as David had been appointed to represent a German firm doing good business in Australia. However, the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 led to social repression, and this had marked effects on people of German ancestry. [4] The Australian Government confiscated the assets of David's firm, and David's money, and things became very difficult indeed for the newlyweds. Although Guiterman was American, he was of German ancestry, with a German name, and found it impossible to get another job. Rosine was ostracised by many former friends and even urged to leave her husband 'at least for the duration of the war'. It was strongly suggested that David Guiterman should change his name, but this he proudly refused to do. Both David and Rosine were unalterably opposed to war as a method of settling international disputes and did not fear to say so. It was Rosine's first experience of taking an unpopular stance, and the start of a lifelong fight for social inclusion, tolerance and human rights.

Despite their hardships, David and Rosine had two daughters, Gertrude and Pauline. Gertrude would inherit her parents' socialist views, marrying John Williamson Legge in 1940. The Legges were active members of the Australian Communist Party. [5]

Teaching career

The Guitermans' straitened circumstances meant that Rosine began to teach again. In 1916 she became a tutor of English and drama with the Workers' Educational Association, an association that would last until 1930. In 1917 after the birth of their two daughters, Rosine began teaching part-time in schools. She taught continuously until 1950, including at SCEGGS Darlinghurst. Her main subjects were English and History but she also taught French and Latin. During this period she made many school broadcasts which were well received by both teacher and student listeners, and influenced three generations of students with her love of the theatre. From 1940 Rosine also worked as a private coach, giving her final lesson ten days before her death.

Rosine Guiterman and the theatre

Rosine was a co-founder of the Workers' Education Association Drama League, which was formed in 1925. [6] She was active in the left-wing New Theatre in Sydney, founded in 1932, which enabled her to combine her theatrical skills with her social commitment. She acted in many plays, including taking the leading role in Chekhov's The Schoolmistress, and developed a reputation for innovative Shakespearean productions. In 1938 she was the subject of an Archibald Competition painting by Joseph Wolinski. [7]

Working for refugees

The rise of Fascism and anti-Semitism in Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933 caused great concern amongst Australian activists. In 1936, Rosine produced a Doris Lessing play to raise funds for the German-Jewish Relief Fund.

Mrs Rosine Guiterman is producing Lessing's play, 'Nathan the Wise,' this evening at the Maccabean Hall. A prologue will be spoken by Miss Amalia Lessing, a lineal descendant of the author, and by Mr Arthur Mendelssohn, a descendant of Lessing's dearest friend, Moses Mendelssohn, whose character and ideas are expressed in the play. Miss Grace Barrow has designed the costumes and settings after a beautiful production she saw in Zurich. The proceeds of the performance will benefit the German-Jewish Relief Fund. [8]

During the latter part of the 1930s, any German Jews who could possibly do so escaped and many came to Australia. The Guiterman home, and David's office door, was ever open to newcomers in trouble. The Guitermans once calculated they had supported 600 to 700 refugees.

Many German children were coached in English by Rosine and shepherded through the Education Department, to ensure that they were graded according to ability and were not held back by their imperfect English. The Guitermans helped refugees gain necessary medical or hospital attention.

Peace, international relations and Aboriginal rights

In 1949, in the wake of World War II, the Australian Peace Council was formed with the object of replacing war with international cooperation. Rosine Guiterman identified herself and applied herself to the cause with great energy. She joined other progressive causes, including the Australia-China Association and the Union of Australian Women. She was an active member of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, which later brought about the 1967 referendum that changed the Constitution to allow the Federal Government to make laws relating to Aboriginal Australians. Rosine contested the official government policy of 'assimilation', urging the adoption of the term 'integration' to signal support of Aboriginal people's group identity. [9]

Writer, poet and unashamed Communist

In 1949, despite her full-time work as a teacher and social activist, Rosine found time to write a book, Harriet Newcomb and Margaret Hodge: A Short Account of Two Pioneers in Education, to commemorate two early feminists and educators. The same year she published an article celebrating the centenary of the birth of the American poet Emma Lazarus. [10] Lazarus is best known for her 1883 sonnet, 'The New Colossus', which contains the famous lines 'Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free' and was read at the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty in New York, and later inscribed upon its base. Rosine documents how Lazarus, while still in her early twenties, travelled to England and became good friends with the poet Robert Browning, who was delighted with Emma's poems of indignation about abuses and wrongs in society. [11]

In 1953, despite the censure leveled at activists during the Cold War by the conservative government of RG Menzies, Rosine protested the impending executions of the American Communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, with an impassioned attack on the Sydney Morning Herald headline: 'The execution of the Rosenbergs will end a two years' legal battle'. [12]

Rosine's commitment to her family, to social action, to the theatre and to teaching resulted in a full and active life. Her energy seemed inexhaustible. On the day before she died, when her sight and physical strength had almost failed, she wrote a letter setting out clearly and concisely all details for the next function of the Peace Group of which she was the then President.

Further reading

Guiterman, Rosine. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosine_Guiterman

Rosine Guiterman. Memorial service and poem, Sydney eScholarship Repository, Sydney University Library, http://hdl.handle.net/2123/9193

Ron Witton. Rosine Guiterman: A Forgotten Australian Activist. Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal. 21, no 4, (June 2014): 612-632



[1] The material for this article, unless otherwise referenced, is drawn from an anonymous document, apparently produced shortly after her death for a memorial service. Rosine Guiterman. Memorial service and poem, Sydney eScholarship Repository, Sydney University Library, http://hdl.handle.net/2123/9193, viewed 19 March 2015

[2] 'History', The Settlement Neighbourhood Centre, http://thesettlement.org.au/History, viewed 19 March 2015; Roma Williams, The Settlement: a history of the University of Sydney Settlement and the Settlement Neighbourhood Centre 1891–1986 (Sydney: University of Sydney, 1988), http://thesettlement.org.au/file/view/TheSettlement_1891-1986.pdf/347390822/TheSettlement_1891-1986.pdf, viewed 19 March 2015

[3] Marilyn Lake, Faith: Faith Bandler, Gentle Activist (Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin: 2002): 69–70

[4] Gerhard Fischer, Enemy Aliens (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1989); John Docker, 'Dilemmas of Identity: The Desire for the Other in Colonial and Post Colonial Cultural History', Working Papers in Australian Studies, 74 (London: Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, University of London, 1992): 13

[5] As mentioned by Gloria Garton in Joyce Stevens, Taking the Revolution Home: Work Among Women in the Communist Party of Australia: 1920–1945 (Melbourne: Sybylla Co-operative Press and Publications, 1987): 225–226

[6] Marilyn Lake, Faith: Faith Bandler, Gentle Activist (Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin: 2002): 69–70

[7] Archibald Prize 1938, Art Gallery of New South Wales, http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/prizes/archibald/1938/

[8] 'Music and Drama', The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 November 1936: 12, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article17289315, viewed 19 March 2015

[9] Marilyn Lake, Faith: Faith Bandler, Gentle Activist (Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin: 2002): 69–70

[10] 'Emma Lazarus Centenary', Unity: A Magazine of Jewish Affairs, 2, no 4 (Nov–Dec 1949): 8–9

[11] 'Emma Lazarus Centenary', Unity: A Magazine of Jewish Affairs, 2, no 4 (Nov–Dec 1949): 8

[12] The full text of her attack, written in verse form, is quoted on the last two pages of the anonymous document documenting her life. Rosine Guiterman. Memorial service and poem, Sydney eScholarship Repository, Sydney University Library, http://hdl.handle.net/2123/9193