I was in Western Australia with Jo Vallentine when she handed me the book Blue Ribbons, Bitter Bread. “You must read this”, she said. So why is it special? Why should every Australian Quaker know of Joice Loch? Why is she particularly relevant to Quakers today?
A life packed with significance and lived with courage and service is such a wonderful read for me, especially as I can feel that life today is difficult and not hopeful. This book despite the tragedies gives us hope, sets up a model and inspired me to reach out a bit more and to try a bit harder.
On beginning the biography of this remarkable Australian by Susanna De Vries, I was appalled by Joice’s life of hardship and poverty as a youngster. She was born during a cyclone in Ingham, Queensland in 1887, and her childhood was spent on farms in Queensland and Victoria. She was one of two children and worked from early childhood as a farm labourer. Her schooling was compromised. It seemed as if she would never escape the “grind”, although she yearned to be a writer and journalist. Her father was strongly opposed to her reading books.
However, a supportive relative was Rowan Ellis, the famous and talented botanical illustrator who saw the potential in her niece. Perhaps we each need one person to see our potential and our gifts.
Joice entered a chaotic post-WWI world when she and Sydney Loch, an ex-Gallipoli soldier and Scot, married and left for London. It was to be a life of service expressed through the blue ribbon, the ribbon of service which she wore all her life.
They started married life in Ireland where as writers they were in the midst of its bitter war for independence. Their lives were always in danger and here they had their first experiences of bombs and guns among the civilian population. These experiences were to be repeated in Poland and later Romania and Greece. In Ireland she first met war:
A deafening blast followed, sweeping Joice off her feet. Her world spun around, then went black. When she regained consciousness she found herself lying face upwards on the grass surrounded by screaming women and children. Some had broken limbs, others lay still blood trickling from their mouths. The Black and Tans appeared, shooting wildly.
Sydney and Joice finally left Ireland to save their lives and returned to London where, although interested in Russia, they were also drawn to Poland.
An elderly Quaker friend in London suggested they might consider volunteering to work in Russia for the Quaker Famine Relief organisation. Joice wrote a firm note to Ruth Fry who directed Quaker Famine Relief units in Poland and Russia.
Would the Quakers be prepared to send to Russia a pair of liberal-minded authors who enjoyed a good bottle of wine and the odd pint of Guinness?
Miss Fry proposed that the Quakers would provide bed and board if they would work with Polish refugees and write about the crisis in the refugee camps. Typhus and malaria were rife in the camps and three Quaker workers had already died there.
Sydney and Joice left for Poland where tens of thousands of Poles were starving and dying by roadsides. Joice had to wear severe Quaker Grey and wear the Quaker star. She found this uncomfortable and scratchy and distasteful but it was a uniform recognised by peoples throughout Europe.
In Poland Joice began to organise relief. She had English Quakers send entire trains of food and blankets from London and she set up feeding stations for starving Poles.
She lived hard, and was often in great danger, and sometimes very hungry, working long hours. At the same time, she and Sydney provided in-depth journalistic articles to papers around to world to draw attention to the Poles and to earn money for their relief.
Joice wrote back to Quakers of refugees camping in their bough shelters or drainage ditches; food was desperately short. Gradually she and Sydney were seen by Quaker Famine Relief to be the strength of the movement.
This was the beginning of a long and intimate relationship among Joice, Sydney and Quakers until Joice’s death. However Joice never became a Quaker.
But it was the Quakers who almost unerringly and with great trust employed and supported the projects Joice and Sydney proposed. She attended Meetings and agreed with and lived Quaker principles. However there were moments when she used Quaker money for some projects that she felt it wasn’t necessary to mention in her reports. For example she purchased a printing machine and produced counterfeit visas and passports for thousands of Jews which helped them escape from Greece and the Nazis and to flee to Israel. She felt Quakers may not have agreed with her use of the printing machine.
Joice Loch is sometimes written of as Australia’s greatest heroine. She received honours and medals from Poland and Greece. She lived her values.
This book is a gripping read as it traverses tumultuous years in Europe where Joice engaged with the greatest tragedies and suffering. We need her name to become a household one when we speak of Quaker values and letting our lives speak with meaning and depth.
And what is the significance of such a biography of lived Quaker values? For me, it is the tenacity to those values and testimonies; it is the longer time frame I need when life presses down and there appears to be no relief; it is service which gives meaning to life; it is daily living our belief of “that of God in everyone” and finally, accepting a small part and limited vision when difficulties seem overwhelming and . . . never giving up.
Rowe Morrow, New South Wales Regional Meeting
Blue Ribbons, Bitter Bread by Susanna De Vries, published by Pirgos Press, 2001, 6th edition 2012. $29.95 paperback, $10.95 e-book.