OBITUARY: News Weekly
Jerzy Zubrzycki MBE CBE AO - A champion of human freedom and dignity
, June 13, 2009
John Ballantyne, editor of News Weekly, pays tribute to
Jerzy Zubrzycki MBE CBE AO
(January 12, 1920 - May 22, 2009).
The 89-year-old Professor Jerzy "George" Zubrzycki, a close personal friend of John Paul II and Bob Santamaria, died in a Canberra hospital on May 22.
Professor Zubrzycki (pronounced Zoo-britskee) was a Polish-born Australian sociologist of international distinction and a widely recognised Catholic intellectual. He is best known as the Father of Australian Multiculturalism; yet he was no admirer of politically trendy ideas but was an unswerving believer in traditional Christian values.
He was born in January 1920 in the southern Polish city of Krakow. There he attended the same high school as Karol Woytyla, the future Pope John Paul II, who was born 50 kms from Krakow in Wadowice four months after Zubrzycki's birth.
Zubrzycki remembered the hardship of the 1930s global Depression which hit his family's farm particularly hard. But, despite this, he enjoyed an excellent schooling which included the teaching of the ancient classics.
When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, Zubrzycki, then only 19, was sent straight to the front to fight the Germans. He was promptly taken prisoner, yet miraculously was saved by a Jewish shopkeeper and his family from being sent to a German prison camp.
He joined the Polish underground resistance. He said: "It was responding to the great tradition for generations of Poles that whenever they were under some domination, be it Russian or German, we join the underground and try and do something about it."
He eventually made his way to England, arriving there in June 1940. He served with the Polish Parachute Brigade and the Polish section of the Britain's clandestine Special Operations Executive (SOE), whose task it was, in Churchill's famous words, to "set Europe ablaze".
After the war, Zubrzycki graduated from the London School of Economics with an economics degree, majoring in population studies. He then completed a PhD at the Free Polish University in London.
He arrived with his family by sea in Australia in January 1956 to take up a research fellowship in demography at Canberra's then recently established Australian National University (ANU).
The nation's capital was then still quite primitive, with its population of only 25,000 surrounded by sheep paddocks. Many of Canberra's roads were still dirt tracks, and new ANU staff had to make do with prefabricated timber houses for their accommodation.
Nevertheless, Zubrzycki worked at the ANU until his retirement in 1986. He and his colleagues pioneered the collection of advanced population statistics for Australia, covering not only fertility but also people's ethnic origins. This contributed greatly to public policy-making. In 1970, Zubrzycki founded the department of sociology at the ANU.
Ever since he arrived in Australia in 1956, Zubrzycki lamented Australia's lack of special services to help European migrants, who were not of Anglo-Celtic, origin, to integrate. There was no teaching of English, and no recognition of the overseas qualifications of migrants, who were forced to perform low-paid, menial jobs. "There was no equality of opportunity, at that time, in Australia for non-British migrants," he recalled.
During the 1970s, Prof. Zubrzycki played a leading role in the development of multiculturalism policy - a concept that Canada had pioneered to integrate its English- and French-speaking inhabitants - and was an adviser to prime ministers from Gough Whitlam onwards. He described the Howard Government's policy of putting refugees in detention centres as "a disgrace to Australia".
Part of Zubrzycki's passion for championing the cause of immigrants and refugees dates back to his wartime experience of being rescued from German captivity by a Jewish family. He saw the value of human life and dignity as transcending race, nationality or creed. About the terrible evil he witnessed in wartime Poland he said, "It taught me one fundamental thing: that human dignity is priceless. Full stop."
Throughout his long and eventful life, Zubrzycki's deeply-held Catholic beliefs sustained him so that he never succumbed to despair. He described his Christian faith as "a readiness to accept anything". For a person praying, "it's really up to God what he wishes me to be, and to do. A readiness to accept anything that comes next, and therefore not being afraid.
"The phrase actually 'Do not be afraid' is [John Paul II's] frequent phrase, so I reminded myself of that."
Good moral conduct, Zubrzycki believed, is not something that comes automatically. He remembered, from studying the great Greek tragedies at high school, the sentence from Sophocles: "Virtue, like a plant, has to be nurtured."
In 1994, his long-time friend John Paul II made him a foundation member of the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences, a Vatican research institute whose purpose, in the then Pontiff's words, was "to engage the church in a dialogue with social sciences". Zubrzycki and his fellow foundation members would meet John Paul II once a year in the Vatican.
Prof. Zubrzycki was involved in a number of organisations, including Lifeline, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian Family Association of which he was a distinguished patron.
Jerzy Zubrzycki is survived by his Polish-born wife, Alexandra (whom he married in 1943), four children and eight grandchildren.
Peter Thompson interviewed the late Jerzy Zubrzycki in the 'Wisdom Interviews", Big Ideas
, ABC Radio National, May 25, 2003. Transcript is available at