Peter Erdmann enjoys Knitfest 2017
Imagine being in the Hitler Youth and not speaking German? Peter Erdmann has worked for the US Army, in Kings Cross and as a union boss. He’s filmed interviews in his milking shed, and would love to create a co-housing project on his acreage, Gay Liddington was delighted to interview someone she calls a 91-year old Maleny icon.
by Gay Liddington
I encountered Peter Storm Erdmann at Knitfest 2017 and asked if I could photograph him. He agreed but it was conditional. Peter, a passionate advocate of Maleny co-ops insisted on displaying his Maple Street Cooperative shopping bag.
My memories of Peter begin in 2000. He was like a one-man welcoming committee. Whether roaming Maple Street, at the Maleny Film Society or the Upfront Club, Peter would materialise, often greeting with:
“Welcome, welcome! Have you heard about the wonderful Maleny co-ops?”
If you had or had not heard about the ‘wonderful Maleny co-ops’ Peter would launch into his spiel just to make sure you’d not missed anything. More often than not he would be carrying his Panasonic Hi-Fi Stereo MS4 VHS camera always at the ready to film events in his beloved community.
Born in Nara, Japan in 1926 Peter’s beginnings cast the die.
“My parents were from Germany. Father, Alexander Erdmann, was a film-maker with generations of theatrical experience behind him. He was experimenting with motion pictures. In 1924, the Japanese Embassy offered him a three-year contract to ‘Westernise’ the Japanese film industry.
“Irmgard Foss, my actress mother, went off to Hollywood and I was born after she joined my father in Japan.
“When the contract came to an end we headed for Germany. During a stopover in Shanghai Father saw a distressed kitten and rescued it. He was scratched and got rabies. All their money was spent trying to save him but he died.
“Mother didn’t have enough money to continue and so, I was brought up in Shanghai cared for by an amah. I was a lonely little boy.
“Then the war began. I was put into an English day school and once the boys heard I was German, I got bashings.
“Halfway through the war, the German Embassy asked why I wasn’t in the Hitler Youth. My mother told them I was in the Boy Scouts. She was threatened with losing her job as librarian and I was pushed into the Hitler Youth. When they learnt I couldn’t speak German I got bashings from them too.”
Shanghai remained under Japanese occupation until the surrender of Japan in 1945. When the war ended Peter was employed by the US Army and later, as Shore Patrol Photographer for the US Navy.
Four years on, Shanghai came under Communist control. Peter worked at the Alcan aluminium factory.
In spite of Communist claims of a peaceful takeover of the city Peter was aware of the atrocities, witnessing the plight of thousands of refugees. He describes this reality as frightening and surreal.
“I had German papers and couldn’t get a visa for another country other than Brazil. However, I was married to a Russian lady whom I’d met in Shanghai. Her sister lived in Australia and could get a visa for us.
“We emigrated to Sydney in 1959. Again, I worked for Alcan. My interest in the workers led me to become head union man for the factory of 400 workers.”
Two years after Peter’s arrival in Australia his mother joined the family. She set him up in a photographic studio in Kings Cross.
“There was no great purpose for photographic studios at that time and we were not making money. I came up with the idea of getting canvassers to knock on doors and take orders. It was a success.”
A move to Mudgee, then Brisbane, found the family pining for wide open spaces.
“We wanted hills and plenty of woods. Maleny was suggested. I’d never heard of it but was keen to know more. In spite of the drought Maleny was green. It was magic!”
For Peter, Maleny in the 70s was like discovering Shangri-La. It was a heady time when communal living was gaining ground and the idea of cooperatives flourished.
“I showed movies at the showgrounds pavilion with my 16mm projector. Then became involved with the Maleny Film Society when asked to loan my projector. After that, the film society was part of my life. It was a wonderful way for people to come together.”
Bringing people together has been a motivating and driving force for Peter Erdmann. Certificates of appreciation and recognition scatter the walls of his home and VHS tapes in excess of 700 hours of footage line the shelves.
“It was something I just loved to do. I thought from an historical point of view it would be a good thing to have, but I’m sure people would say, here comes Peter with that bloody camera!”
In 2009 Maleny’s Jess Begum created the documentary ‘Reconstructing Peter’ using excerpts of his video footage.
“Maleny Film Society received funding from the Sunshine Coast Council to run an archiving workshop and the Queensland Museum loaned their conversion machine which converted the videos to DVDs. Consequently, the State Library copied all of Peter’s DVDs for their archive collection,” said Jess.
Peter Storm Erdmann has been described by many as one who embodies the spirit of Maleny. The self-appointed historian viewed his community through the lens and wove a tapestry of stories over three decades.
He enthusiastically affirms: “This place makes me gloriously happy. There is no other town like it.”