Michael Perkal joined U3APP in 2013, having recently retired from his work as a Forensic Science Chemist with Victoria Police. At that time, he was doing Tai Chi at St Kilda Park, where he met Teresa Martin-Lim. She was teaching Mandarin at U3APP, so Michael decided to join her class, as he had plans to visit China later that year. “Learning Mandarin was my first introduction to U3APP”.
Michael’s parents were born in Poland. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, being Jewish they escaped the holocaust and fled to Russia with Harry his elder brother (by 11 years). Initially they went to Ukraine. Michael laughed at the irony, as they lived in the Donbas region for a while, this being annexed by Russia currently. Michael was born in Magnitogorsk, an industrial city famed for its magnetite iron and steel, situated in the southern area of the Ural Mountains. His dad worked in an iron foundry at that time. They lived there only for a short time until the war ended in 1945.
His parents returned to Poland to search for members of his family. However, Michael’s grandmother died in the holocaust, along with his parents’ siblings who also “perished, unfortunately.” Having no living relatives Michael’s parents made their way to France, with baby Michael and his elder brother. Michael recalls attending kindergarten in Paris, where he learnt to speak a little French.
Michael was five years old when the family travelled to Italy where they boarded a ship to Australia having been sponsored by his father’s cousin. They had also contemplated going to America. The family lived in Grosvenor Street, East St Kilda for many years. Michael attended Brighton Road State School then Elwood High. His father was a machine embroiderer and was involved in a project that made embroidered chevron patches for the Australian military. They had a factory in Elsternwick then called Perkal Embroidery, an interesting piece of history.
At home, his parents spoke mostly Yiddish, having not yet learnt English at that time. They had been raised in Poland according to Jewish religious practice, however “the war sort of cruelled it all as far as religion goes.” In discussion with Michael about his experience at school, as a non-English speaking migrant he referred with some humor to being called names from time to time. “You shouldn’t be in this country ….go back to where you came from, sort of thing, but we managed to survive – that’s the main thing.” This type of name calling is still very current unfortunately.
Michael’s decision to study science, rather than humanities, the two streams offered at Elwood High, led him to complete a degree in chemistry. He reflects that he has always held an interest in “the workings of the world, the compositions of things,” and felt more naturally inclined towards the sciences. Michael worked with the Commonwealth Department of Air, then with Customs in Williams Street, Melbourne for 3 years, followed by 38 years as a Forensic Science Chemist with Victoria Police during which time he obtained the Master of Science degree in 1983.
Michael worked in the forensic area of illicit drugs. He recalls that one of the more memorable cases was the investigation of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club in 1982. They had a laboratory in Wattle Glen, where they made methyl amphetamine. It was raided and the forensic team located a lot of chemicals and equipment. Part of their job was to enter the premises after it was secured and prior to the police entry, to ensure their safety from harmful substances. They would take samples for analysis and prepare statements for the Court. In 1987 after a number of trials of the members of the club were completed, Michael and the police investigators each received a Chief Commissioner’s Certificate for this investigation.
Michael has presented evidence in court throughout his long career, including periods of up to 8 days in the witness box. Michael laughed as he recalled that as the years progressed, “we became used to giving evidence.”
It was an interesting job, with good social interactions. Remuneration was not huge, but the environment was interesting and, in a way, cohesive. Michael retired finally in 2013, “I pulled the pin and started going to the gym, Tai Chi and things like that … to widen my knowledge in subjects I hadn’t studied in the past.”
Michael married Christine Perkal in 1969. Her parents also came from Poland. Christine was 10 years old when she migrated to Australia. They have a daughter and a son and a 13-year-old granddaughter all living in Melbourne.
In 2014, Michael was asked to take on the responsibility for coordinating the U3APP Saturday Seminars which at that time were held in the hall at the Mary Kehoe Centre. He did this for several years. Amongst other memorable seminars, Michael referred to Father Ken Letts’ presentation, ‘There and Back Again: Twenty Years of Living Otherwise’ given in 2016. Ken Letts received the Chevalier (Knight) of the French Legion of Honour for his 20 years’ service in France. Currently Ken Letts tutors the class, French Discussion.
In June 2015, Michael organized the Seminar, ‘Two Daughters’ Recollections’ presented by Ms. Kathleen Kehoe FACN[Ret.] and Sister Mary Kehoe AM. Michael writes, “We as users of the Mary Kehoe Community Centre were privileged to hear a well-researched presentation by two of the younger daughters of Mary Kehoe”. They gave a history of the site and their mother’s work in supporting “the underprivileged and elderly citizens in the community… including introducing ‘Meals on Wheels’ to Australia.” Michael also organised a first time presentation of live music with ‘Hedy’s Trio and Quintet Concert,’ playing music by Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven.
Currently Michael attends numerous classes with U3APP. He starts off the week with Japanese for Travellers tutored by Helen Devereaux. Michael, Christine, and a few others are intending to travel to Japan next year together with Helen. He attends Greg Woodford’s class, “What is Earth”. Last year he tutored David Bourne’s class when the topic was biological forensics. Michael continues to study Mandarin with Teresa Martin-Lim and he attends the U3APP ukulele class and then yes … also, Ballroom Dancing with Christine. He enjoyed Philosophy classes with Maurita Harney, and values being enabled to learn about subjects he has not studied before. Michael is currently responsible for booking rooms for U3APP classes at all venues.
He continues with Tai Chi at St Kilda Park, and also attends a gym in Inkerman Street run by volunteers at PC/YC Youth Police Club. Michael likes to fill his days in this way. When asked what he likes to do when he is just relaxing, Michael laughed, “Well I like to play tennis and I like walking, that’s great fun!” He also organizes brunches with some old friends from Elwood High School and belongs to the Forensic Science Society. He enjoys being “socially engaged.”
Michael refers to himself as being politically, “slightly left of centre.” He values the era when Paul Keating was active. He reads books written by, and about politicians. He views the current world situation as being “a bit grim,” including the implications of climate change.
Michael surmises that U3APP has enabled him to develop many new interests as well as offering valued social connections. It has been, “almost life changing,” in respect to his involvement in a range of diverse activities. Michael has no plans to curtail these.
Michael’s life story weaves its way from Magnitogorsk in the Ural Mountains, to learning French in a kindergarten in Paris, and eventually, to settling in Port Phillip. His enthusiasm for languages and for a wide diversity of subjects and activities is unwavering. Michael’s contribution to science and thereby citizens’ safety throughout his 38 years as a Forensic Scientist with Victoria Police is notable. U3APP may be pleased that Michael’s family chose to come to Australia, rather than America.
Felicity May interviewed Michael Perkal.