A version of this article originally appeared in Plus61J, an Australian-Jewish publication.
Growing up in a Jewish household in suburban Sydney, Australia, Denise Langman always knew she was adopted. Her parents made no secret of the fact they first met her as a 10-month-old at the Scarba Welfare House for Children in Bondi, a Victorian Italianate mansion where nurses wore starched white caps. It was the same orphanage, run by The Benevolent Society, where the Langmans had adopted Denise’s non-biological brother, Larry, only six months older than her, whose Norfolk Island lineage includes Polynesian and Caribbean bloodlines.
As her mother Norma, who was unable to have children of her own, liked to tell them, an official from the home rang up and said, “We’ve just got a little girl who looks very much like your little boy you adopted — if you want her, come and get her.”
“My parents told my brother and I when we were fairly young that we were not directly from this family, but because they loved us so much they decided to adopt us.” Langman gives a warm chuckle. “Isn’t that cute?”
Langman’s father Leo, a Polish-German émigré, had escaped Europe before the war was in full swing, thanks to an architectural scholarship from a Jewish welfare agency — his mother and sisters perished in the Holocaust. He never qualified as an architect, instead joining other Jewish migrants in schmattes, or the rag trade, supplying coats to the military.
Larry describes his parents as “very much of their time”; aspiration propelled them from Neutral Bay on the North Shore to Dover Heights in the east. They were culturally Jewish, active and well-connected in the community, but not religious. For a while, Norma kept kosher, until she decided it was too much work.
Langman, now 68, is emphatic about one early memory. At the age of six, she says, she saw Aboriginals on the TV and felt a stirring of recognition.
“I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, I look like some of these people. I saw the resemblance: high cheekbones, big lips, big eyes. I had very long eyelashes then.”
Leo and Norma received no information about their daughter’s birth family, and vice versa. Such was the nature of “closed adoption,” which prevailed in Australia from the 1920s to the 1970s; authorities issued adoptive parents an amended birth certificate, retaining the child’s place of birth but citing them as parents, with the original certificate sealed forever. Before 1965, the Scarba home did not even keep records on individual children.
But later, when she was on the cusp of adolescence, her parents revealed a conversation her father had had with a staff member at the Scarba home about the infant Langman.
“Dad had asked someone, unofficially, ‘She’s an Aboriginal girl, isn’t she?’” Langman says, “and they said, ‘Yes.’”
This confirmation of her earlier hunch meant little, though. “I thought, ‘So I’m an Aboriginal, so what?’”
As far as Langman was concerned, she was Jewish, and it was this identity that she set out to explore with singular determination. It was this identity that shaped most of her adult life, taking her to Israel, gifting her a new nationality — until, in late middle age, she embarked on an astonishing journey into the past and arrived at a new future as Aunty Deni, First Nations elder, traditional owner of Uluru. Says Langman, with more than a hint of melancholy, “I spent too long looking in the wrong place.”
In one sense, Langman’s Jewishness came looking for her. At Rose Bay primary school where, in contrast to now, Jewish students were few on the ground, she encountered occasional anti-Semitic taunts. “And I would go ‘boom’” — she makes a punching action with her fist — “and hit them in the nose… They learnt they had better not come to me again saying anything about my being Jewish.”
As she grew older, she thirsted for knowledge about Jewish peoplehood.
“I started questioning my mother, ‘Who were the Jews?’ She was stuck for an answer and said, ‘Why don’t you ask the rabbi?’… She said, ‘Read the Bible.’ But I said, ‘No, thank you very much.’
“I wanted to know from a history point of view, not a religious point of view.”
Langman now sees this period of Jewish questing as a displacement of her primal longing for information about her origins. “I wanted to know who were my parents. But the only way I could ask that question was through my Jewish identity.”
She persisted with the questions: At the Jewish Moriah College, where she spent a year in her early teens, she “drove the scripture teacher mad, always asking why, why, why?” Her engagement won her the scripture prize, but it wasn’t enough to keep her in school past the age of 15.
She figured she would learn more about life from outside the classroom. (“I know now that was not such a good idea” she says wryly.) Her parents acquiesced, assuming she would eventually take over the schmatte business. Langman had other ideas.
In 1972, aged 23, she went to live in Israel together with comrades from Habonim Dror, a Labor Zionist youth movement. Their departure was noted with an upbeat piece in the Jewish News. The Hebrew term for when Jews uproot themselves to the land of Israel, aliyah, encapsulates ascension, a journey to a higher spiritual realm.
Langman felt she was doing something meaningful in returning to the Jews’ ancestral homeland and partaking in this modern chapter in Jewish self-determination, which she saw as a necessity after the Holocaust. She also wanted to escape her mother, whom Langman describes, without bitterness, as “dominant”. Brother Larry, now a retired I.T. specialist living a sea-change in Coffs Harbour, says Norma failed to appreciate her daughter’s independence of mind even though she too was “a remarkably independent woman”.
“My mother had a lot to learn about bringing up children,” Langman reflects. “She wanted to do it correctly but I suffered a lot from that because I was a radical kid.”
As an equally radical adult, Langman craved the freedom to explore not only her socialist-Zionist ideology, but also her burgeoning homosexuality. In Israel, she became a member of Kibbutz Yizre’el, near the town of Afula in the country’s northeast, where she relished agricultural labour. Cotton was her favorite.
“I said (to the kibbutz chiefs), ‘I’ll work outside, but not with children.’ And they said, ‘Every woman has to work with children.’ And I said, ‘Not this one.’”
When, almost seven years later, the kibbutz started hiring and firing workers, she saw it as selling out on socialist ideals, and left. She worked as a cleaner in Haifa, drifting about. Eventually she headed for cosmopolitan Tel Aviv in search of the lesbian community.
“I thought my identity was going to be there because I was a lesbian. And it was there.”
A photograph from that era shows her at a rally holding a placard with the Hebrew words, “No to Violence Against Women.” She fell in with a leftist crowd. She worked in the jewelry business. She changed her name from Denise to Deni. In retrospect, Langman was halfway to where she would end up.
Then, in the late 1980s, after both her parents had died, Langman had a phone conversation with Larry that changed the course of her life.
Norma had begged her children not to go searching for their birth mothers until after she was gone, Larry reminded her. Well, now she was gone. Plus, the law had changed; adopted children were now entitled to access their birth records. An organization called Link Up was helping the Aboriginal Stolen Generations — the so-called “half-caste” children forcibly removed from their families under the assimilationist policy in force from the early 1900s to the late 1960s — reunite with their blood relatives.
Larry nudged his sister; maybe the time had come to explore her past.
At Link Up, case managers might be handed a photograph and amended birth certificate as seeds from which voluminous files invariably sprout. So it was with Langman, whose now-digitized folio comprises more than 200 pages, one page being the most critical: her original birth certificate, unearthed from the vault.
It bears the same date of birth as her amended certificate and the same place of birth — Sydney’s Royal Hospital for Women in Paddington — but different names. She was born Rosalind Fay Liddle, to mother Ruby Fay Liddle, aged 21. Her mother’s place of birth: Alice Springs, Northern Territory.
To which Langman naturally thought, “Ruby Liddle, who is that?”
In pursuit of the answer, she spent long hours hunched over faded documents with a magnifying glass.
Link Up referred the Langmans to “Uncle” Bob Randall, a high-profile Aboriginal elder and songman hailing from Tempe Downs station — near Kings Canyon in central Australia — a man of near-legendary charm and nous. Uncle Bob, the child of an Aboriginal mother and the white owner of the cattle station where she was a housemaid, was stolen from his family as a young child and incarcerated at the Methodist mission on Croker Island in Arnhem Land, in the far north.
An obituary in the Economist — he died in May 2015 — told how his family had usually smeared him with mud to make his skin darker, but on the day of his violent removal he had taken a dip in a waterhole and washed it off.
Uncle Bob met with Larry, who was acting as a proxy for his sister. And so between Uncle Bob’s revelations and the faded documents, Langman stitched together a loose account of the life of her mother, Ruby.
Like Uncle Bob, Ruby was reportedly born at Tempe Downs, the daughter of a Luritja woman called Unyanu and, in some correspondence between white officials, “Onions.” Ruby’s father, Langman’s grandfather, was the Scottish pastoralist William Liddle, who owned the Angas Downs station to the south.
Unyanu, Uncle Bob explained, was among the Aboriginal women who herded Liddle’s sheep and later, when hungry dingoes forced him to switch to cattle, tended to his homestead.
Liddle fathered children with five or more Aboriginal women, including at least three sisters from the same family.
Like Uncle Bob, Ruby was stolen from her family. She was officially 11 when this happened, although in May 1940, a medical officer called PJ Reilly at Alice Springs Hospital cast doubt on her recorded age when he requested Darwin’s Director of Native Affairs “set her down as 15” so she could be legally released from school at the “Half-Caste Institution” and employed in his private home as a servant.
Anecdotal evidence, Reilly wrote, suggested the girl — referred to as “Ruby Onions” — was more than 14. “The girl… herself, is obviously well advanced into adolescence, with prominent breasts and other secondary characteristics,” he continued.
“Furthermore, Ruby has such defective eyesight that by my order she discontinued attending school some time ago.”
The bureaucrats granted Reilly’s request to amend Ruby’s official age and release her from school, but it is unclear whether she started work at his home; because by the time of the bombing of Darwin in February 1942, she was together with Uncle Bob at the Croker Island mission.
The two were among the 95 Aboriginal children evacuated from the mission and taken on the seemingly interminable journey south, to Sydney. The dramatic exodus is the subject of a memoir by missionary Margaret Somerville, and a subsequent docudrama.
After the war, the Commonwealth Department of the Interior granted approval for Ruby to remain in Sydney where “she is to make her home” in Wollongong with Miss Lucy Craigie, a headmistress at the Home Science School and “lady of high standing.” Later, Uncle Bob told Larry, she worked as a maid, landing in a well-to-do household in, of all places, Dover Heights. Larry recalls the father of the house described as “working with BHP, or something like that, a metallurgist”.
Ruby fell pregnant out of wedlock, gave birth to a baby daughter (Langman) and gave the child up for adoption. (Uncle Bob said news of this “white baby” had travelled back to Ruby’s Aboriginal relatives.) She later married another man, and some of her Aboriginal relatives think there may also have been a second husband, although no names have come to light. She went on to have a comfortable life, at least for as long as her husband lived. So comfortable that somehow her story made its way into the Aboriginal rumor mill, and, to this day, from the red centre to further north, Ruby Liddle is the subject of romantic myth.
When I started to research this story, one person told me that, according to this myth, the father of her child was a prominent white man who made sure she was “taken care of” even after the child was given up. “He loved her.”
This same person told me that Ruby was educated at, and became the principle of, a posh girls’ school — a rumor that presumably mutated from the fact that her first guardian, Miss Craigie, was a headmistress — and no Aboriginal girl reached such heights back then unless a white guardian angel looked out for her. “They say,” my informant continued, “that her father was [Sir] Robert Menzies. Seriously. Or someone like that.”
“It is believed that her father is [Sir] Robert Menzies,” a descendant of William Liddle told me. Langman believes that this account in which she’s the former prime minister’s secret Aboriginal love-child stems from nothing more than an unexplained photograph of Sir Robert in her Link Up file.
One thing was true: Ruby was living in a retirement village at Wollongong, south of Sydney. Uncle Bob said he visited her often; perhaps Larry would like to meet her?
“She looked a very solid Aboriginal build,” Larry recalls when we speak. “According to Bob, she was a remarkably cantankerous person and in that respect I have to say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” he chuckles down the phone.
He glimpsed Ruby’s cantankerousness when he asked a clumsily-worded question about why she had his sister. “And she said, ‘Don’t be stupid. You have children because you get pregnant.’”
Larry is incredulous when I mention the Ruby rumors. A posh girls’ school? No way: Ruby bought and sold flats later in life, but that’s all. She married an engineer, Larry believes. She raised money for the local footy club. She made no mention of Robert Menzies.
“She took up a very ordinary life, which I suppose is what she sought. But then maybe I’m romanticizing it.”
Before Ruby died, she relayed the following message via Larry to Langman in Israel: She was not prepared to give her daughter any more information about her past. “That, of course, shook me,” Langman recalls. “She insisted she was not one of the Stolen Generations, even though she was taken away from her family, community, everything at age 11.
“I was stumped. I thought: where do I go from here? I was already 50. I said to myself, ‘I’ll give her three years.’”
So three years later, Langman rang her birth mother from Israel. Ruby, while still prickly, was now also ailing from dementia. “I didn’t want to embarrass her and I really didn’t know how to speak with her… she remembered that she gave birth to me, what my name was, we had a nice conversation — sort of. The whole time I was thinking, she has a nice voice.”
The two went on to have four elliptical and “strange” conversations. “I asked her about my father: she said, ‘We don’t talk about that.’” (Which still doesn’t mean he’s Robert Menzies.)
“She kept on asking me: ‘Why are you calling from Israel?’ and I kept having to remind her. She was adamant that Israel should not give back any of their land.”
Langman grins at the memory. “Her brain was working like an Indigenous person and not like a white person, so she knew the value of land to the people. That’s mainly what we talked about. She kept saying, ‘Don’t give back the land.’”
Meeting in person was never on the cards. Langman wondered during these telephone chats if she should call Ruby “mother,” but she did not feel an emotional tug toward this fading, nicely spoken woman. A few months after their last phone call, Larry called Langman to say Ruby had died. He represented his sister at the cremation, a solitary presence at the back of the church.
After Ruby’s death, Uncle Bob revealed a startling fact: He was Ruby’s half-brother; the Scottish pastoralist William Liddle had fathered them both. He explained that he hadn’t wanted to “confuse” Langman with this information while she was searching for her mother: But yes, he’s literally, biologically, her uncle.
For Langman, this knowledge was a joyful turning point. So in 2002, after three decades living in Israel, Langman returned to Sydney, thinking, “Now it’s my turn.”
And four years after that, Link Up funded her trip to central Australia — Uncle Bob having since moved to the remote community of Mutitjulu, at the eastern end of Uluru, part of his traditional lands. At last, Langman was meeting her family.
She met Uncle Bob. She met other grandchildren of William Liddle. This included Ian Conway, from Kings Creek Station, near Kings Canyon. Conway is accustomed to meeting lost descendants of his virile ancestor, referring to him, with an affectionate chuckle and a clever play on words, as the “common fiend,” his DNA being the thread that unites them. “I’ve accepted Deni as a member of the family and welcomed her,” he says. “That’s the Aboriginal way.”
Langman met three children of Milton Liddle, another of the pastoralist’s offspring, at a steakhouse in Alice Springs. “When I first went into the restaurant, all three were just looking at me: Apparently I look very much like my mother. They were very loving.”
She met her “Aunty” Bessie Liddle, a prominent and senior elder.
Now the still “radical” Langman threw herself into black activism. She railed against the N.T. “emergency” intervention, the package of welfare, land and law-and-order reforms passed in the last weeks of the Howard government in 2007, in response to allegations of rampant child sex abuse in Aboriginal communities.
In 2012, when the Gillard government introduced its Stronger Futures legislation, a tweaked version of the Howard government’s emergency response, Langman penned a heartfelt letter that was read out in Parliament by Greens senator Scott Ludlam during debate on the bill.
“I can only ask those politicians who don’t care for their fellow human beings,” Langman wrote, “’do you feel good about what you are doing to the First Nations People today? Does this power you have over our lives make you a better person?’” But most importantly, “‘Will you tell your grandchildren what you did to the First Nations People this day and how you destroyed the lives of so many First Nations People and caused their deaths prematurely?’”
She signed the letter as Deni Langman, Traditional Owner of Uluru.
“She didn’t really write that (letter) to be published or go any further,” explains Cathy Gill, a decade-long comrade of Langman’s from Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS). “But overnight people forwarded it to the senators. Her whole purpose now is to do what she can to help her people.”
When I visit Deni Langman in Sydney in March 2018, she’s eager to publicize the group’s recent forum promoting a treaty with black Australia, featuring young indigenous speakers, none “from the Government’s chosen few as their agenda is decided upon by the Government.” She also speaks about taking Australia to the International Criminal Court over black deaths in custody.
Nearly every year since that first family reunion, Langman has returned to central Australia, as thirsty for knowledge about her Aboriginal heritage as she once was about Jewish history. But the process is almost painfully slow. Early on, her caseworker warned her not to “rush things,” as elders would share their secrets in good time — “just wait to be told,” was the advice.
“But I don’t believe that,” Langman says. How else is she going to find the truth without asking questions? Through this remark I glimpse the imprint of three decades in Israel, a directness that shrugs off pieties about what constitutes “culturally appropriate” behavior and its opposite.
I first met her in May 2017 at Uluru, where she was one of a motley crew of activists, including white fellow travelers, replenishing ties with elders and country, some frantically mobilizing ahead of the National Indigenous Constitutional Convention that produced the pivotal “Uluru Statement from the Heart” calling for a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution. Langman was also there to attend a memorial marking the two-year anniversary of Uncle Bob’s death. Everyone referred to her as “Aunty Deni”.
One day, we found ourselves part of a group round an open fire at a bush camp in Umpiyara, about a 15 minutes’ drive, down dirt roads, from Uluru. The area forms part of Uncle Bob’s traditional homelands. We watched prominent elder “Nanna” Barbara Nipper, crossed-legged in the red dust, skinning and roasting kangaroo tails on the flame, branding a beautifully curved piece of wood, filing bark off a branch, weaving and singing.
Nanna Barbara’s late husband, Nipper Winmati, appears in a famous photo brandishing the title deeds to Uluru when the rock was returned to traditional owners in 1985. For hours, Langman sat on a plastic chair, batting flies and baking in the still-formidable late-autumn heat. She is uncertain on her feet.
At some point Langman’s grandmother, Unyanu, came up in conversation, how she often carried her sickly baby, Ruby, Langman’s mother, long distances on foot to a nurse. At the mention of Unyanu, Nanna Barbara looked up from her tasks.
“Unyanu,” she said to Langman. “Yes, I knew Unyanu — she was my sister-in-law.”
Cries of delight from others in the group at this newfound connection.
Langman nodded. She’s not the demonstrative type (“Are you crying?” she asks during our interview, her tone gently mocking), but at this moment I sensed her elation.
Though Langman is also hard of hearing, she didn’t miss a beat when, the following day, we talked for hours in a hotel room, the afternoon fading majestically into dusk.
“Does any part of you still feel Israeli or Jewish?” I asked.
She answered without hesitation. Well, Jewish, not really. She sees that as a religious identity, and she’s no more enamored of Judaism now than she was as a rebellious adolescent. But Israeli, absolutely.
“I loved Israel. I still love Israel. It’s here” — she jabbed at her chest — “in my heart.”
Soon after returning to Australia, she attended an Israel solidarity rally when the country’s civilians were under attack from relentless suicide bombings during the Second Palestinian Intifada, or uprising. She’s proud of her Israeli nationality despite encountering occasional hostility in activist circles where many are reflexively pro-Palestinian.
But she remains a leftist. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a “bastard,” she says. Unlike her birth mother, Langman believes in giving back Jewish ancestral lands in return for peace; she also has empathy for the Palestinian experience of dispossession. She subscribes to two states for two peoples, just as she’s reconciled two nations inside her own heart.
“I’m Israeli and I’m Aboriginal… I’m a person from two great nations; I belong to two peoples.”
On this trip, Langman told me, she hopes to reach her mother’s birthplace at Tempe Downs station. She says she’s seen a document that attests she’s part-owner of that community. (The pastoral lease for Tempe Downs was purchased on behalf of the Luritja people in 1993.)
At every mention of the subject, her friends responded with a tender protectiveness.
“I really hope it works out for Deni,” said Gill from STICS, during a phone call in this period. Her voice choked suddenly. “Going home means so much for her.”
But the obstacles seemed to be mounting: It was hard for Deni to find out who still lives there, hard to make contact. A fortnight after leaving Uluru, I heard second-hand reports that “everyone” at Tempe Downs had decamped for a wedding somewhere else so Langman could not complete her journey this time.
Almost a year later, Langman, though injured from a recent fall, is determined as ever to reach her birth mother’s homeland.
“And that’s where I hope I’ll die,” she says.
The day after our chat in the hotel room last year, Langman told me to bring my notebook to the Kulata Academy Cafe — staffed solely by indigenous trainees — in the Yulara town square near the Ayers Rock Resort. There was something she had forgotten to tell me the day before: how much she regretted not delving into her past sooner.
Rather formally, she said: “Because I was stolen I lost my language, which is very important for me. And I’m being told I was destined to be a law woman of the land.
“But my Aunty Bessie told me I’m too old to be a law woman, and because of my hearing I can’t learn the language… Me and Bessie had a cry over this.”
Some weeks after Langman’s statement of regret at Yulara, I called Aunty Bessie, the senior elder, in Alice Springs. Describing herself as “older than everybody,” she confirmed the tearful conversation Langman had told me about, although her account is more textured.
“I say, why she didn’t come back as a teenager, not bloody gone overseas and turned into a white person? Why don’t they come and look for their family when they’re a young person, why come when they’re old?
“All the old buggers are dead and gone now.”
We hung up without discussing Langman’s response to the idea that she was now too old to learn about the traditional ways.
“Well,” Langman had told Aunty Bessie. “I’m going to try.”