Dr Serge Liberman OAM

Dr Serge Liberman OAM (MBBS 1967), author, editor, scholar, bibliographer and medical practitioner, died in Melbourne in December 2017, aged 75. For more than 40 years he was a leading light in Australian Jewish literary and multicultural spheres.

14 NOVEMBER 1942 – 22 DECEMBER 2017

Serge Israel Liberman was born on 14 November 1942 in Fergana, Uzbekistan (then part of the USSR), to Abram Jacob and Regina Liberman (née Minski), Polish-born parents made refugees by the war in Europe. A daughter, also born in Fergana, died there in infancy before Serge was born.

After spending time in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany (1946-47), and then in Paris (1947-51), the family of three arrived by ship in Melbourne in 1951. Serge learnt English, continued his education, graduated in medicine from the University of Melbourne in 1967 and began work in 1974 as a general practitioner, continuing until his retirement in 2013.

Alongside his medical career, he pursued his literary vocation. Over some 30 years he published six collections of stories: On Firmer Shores (1981), A Universe of Clowns (1983), The Life That I Have Led (1986), The Battered and the Redeemed (1990), Voices from the Corner (2000) and Where I Stand (2008).

During much of that period, he laboured tirelessly on his ground-breaking Bibliography of Australasian Judaica: 1788-2008, the updated and expanded third edition of which appeared in 2011. At more than 800 pages, this is a towering work for which researchers and readers will be grateful for decades to come: a compendium of meticulously organised information on all publications concerned with Jewish life, literature, history, culture and the arts in Australia and New Zealand.

Serge was an editor of the Melbourne Chronicle, associate editor of the multicultural journal Outrider, literary editor of The Australian Jewish News and Menorah, and vice-president of PEN Melbourne. He served on the editorial committees of the Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal and Gesher, the journal of the Council of Christians and Jews.

For his short-story collections, he was three times winner of the Alan Marshall Award and a recipient of the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, with three of his books set as study texts in a number of Australian high schools and universities. In 2015, he was honoured with the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his contribution to Australian literature as an author, historian and scholar.

Serge Liberman’s fiction is distinctive for its vivid, highly-charged prose and its ethical (at times metaphysical) intensity, and especially for its myriad protagonists drawn with colourful precision and a compassionate understanding of the highlights and shadows of the human spirit. The stories are thought-provoking, rich in penetrating insights and often extremely moving. Serge’s imagination was shaped by the world’s great authors, dramatists, philosophers, artists and musicians; and perhaps even more so by the greats of the Jewish and Yiddish literary traditions, which infused his writing.

His strong Jewish identity, and his history as a child survivor of the Holocaust growing up in an atmosphere darkened by a backdrop of devastation and loss, underpin many of the themes woven through the pages of his books. And while the Jewish experience, in its many guises, would remain his work’s centre of gravity, he regarded his stories as universal in their exploration of the elements and enigmas of our common humanity.

Serge was a kind, courteous, softly-spoken individual and a thoughtful, loyal and generous friend. Forever excited by ideas, he relished good conversation and was always willing to question, to seek out, discover, engage. Serious and studious, he could sport a correspondingly understated wit, while his humour could display an absurd, even wicked streak.

He was a person of supreme dedication and immense energy – which he needed, in order to combine his creative, professional and voluntary work with a thriving full-time medical practice. As a doctor, he was revered by his patients for his unstinting devotion and personal concern for their welfare. By nature a modest and humble man, Serge gave of himself freely and generously: the bulk of his editorial and scholarly work was done on a voluntary basis. He played a significant role in fostering Australian Jewish writing, not only through the publications he was involved with but frequently in less visible capacities.

Confronted in 2016 with a diagnosis of motor neurone disease, Serge fully understood its ineluctable trajectory; as a committed rationalist, however, he eschewed the consolation of any thought of an afterlife.

Throughout his illness he maintained an extraordinary outward demeanour: his characteristic ready smile, expressed by the merest crease around the lips, could warm the heart and lift the mood of any visitor who chanced to offer a joke or ironic aside. His dignity and grace in the face of his unspeakable predicament were an inspiration.

He was looking forward to the publication of his final book, a selection of nearly 30 of some of his finest stories under the title The Storyteller. He took an active role in choosing the stories and discussing editorial and other aspects of the project.

Serge Liberman died on 22 December at Gary Smorgon House, Caulfield. His staunch integrity, his caring, compassionate nature and his profound humanity were a hallmark not only of his work and his writing but of the life that he led, and of the way he led it.

He is survived by Anna Mow, his devoted second wife of more than 20 years, three children, two step-children and six grandchildren.

Alex Skovron
Melbourne writer and editor