An interview with Emil Witton
[Editor: In my article “From the Little Island Books of Leipzig to the King Penguins of London” in the June 2005 (346th) issue of Biblionews I made passing reference to a Hans Schmoller (p.68) and then in the September and December (255th and 356th) 60th Anniversary Double Issue of our journal I remarked on his connection with Emil Witton (p.176). (The photo caption mentioned below by Emil is referred to there, and it and the photo are reproduced with this interview.) Emil’s son Nic had once mentioned to me that his father had been a printer in Sydney and had printed a book on the Melbourne Olympic Games. This combination of circumstances induced me to want to interview Emil for a possible article in Biblionews. I did the interview at Emil’s Chatswood apartment earlier this year, but as my cassette recorder was not working, I jotted down notes as he talked, intending to write them up into a text, which I would show to him for him to check its accuracy, but I did not get the chance to do so. Unfortunately, Emil had a fall at home in June and died in hospital as a result of it on 23rd June. A memorial gathering was later organised by his family and held at his apartment on 23rd August. It was there, as a member of a very large crowd of attenders, that I learnt just how much this man, who had suffered discrimination at the hands of the Nazis, devoted himself in Australia to the Aboriginal cause over very many years (just search his name on the internet to see that) and to Amnesty International, in whose Sydney office he worked for over twenty years as a volunteer up to the day before his accident. I have been mainly dependent on my, at some points almost illegible, notes for the following record, so I am grateful to Emil’s children Nic, Ron and Heidi and his nephew Peter for checking it and correcting some errors. An excellent and very wide ranging interview with a lot more information about the technical side of printing was done by Bill Bottomley in early 1996 for his series “What did you do for a crust? 19 retired people talk about their working lives”, and it can be accessed on the internet at
It does not, however, make any mention of the books that Emil’s firm printed.]
I was born Emil Witkowski in Berlin in 1919. I took my school leaving examination—the German Abitur—when I was 16, a young age, since Hitler had abolished the two most senior years of high school and replaced them with military service. It was at that time that I met my wife, Hannah, who was the same age as me. I would have liked to go to university, but because I was Jewish, I wasn’t allowed to study, so, as there was a history of printing in my family (my grandfather, Emil Mosse, having been involved in a leading Berlin newspaper, Berliner Tageblatt), I decided to take an apprenticeship with the Siegfried Scholem firm of book and newspaper printers. There I met Hans Schmoller. He was older than me, having been born in 1916. He had gone to England, but returned to Germany to join Scholem, I think from 1933 to 1937. He finished his apprenticeship in 1937. He was particularly interested in monotype, but couldn’t get enough information on it, so he went to England from 1937 till 1938, after which he went to Basutoland. He was really an artist rather than a typesetter.
By the way, the caption on that picture showing Hans and me at Scholem’s is wrong. It can’t have been taken in 1934, as I was still at school then. It’s probably 1937. And we’re not watching a compositor working, but are actually working there ourselves as apprentice compositors.
Hans had really lovely parents. His father and my father were both doctors in Berlin, but his father later died in Auschwitz.In England Hans got interested in layout. He got to know Allen Lane of Penguin Books, rose to the top and married the boss’s secretary, Tania, a South American, who was an expert on wallpapers.
Before Hans went back to England he and I used to go out together with our girlfriends. His girlfriend was also artistically very talented and used to produce the most beautiful cards.
In the composing room at Scholem, 1934:
(left to right) the apprentices ‘Meister’—Herr Vogt, Hans Schmoller and Emil Witkowski watch a compositor at work. Witkowski (later Witton) emigrated to Australia where he became a printer.
Hans loved music, but he had no time for anything modern. When we were both working at Scholem’s, we often got bored just setting type, so we got into the habit of humming melodies to each other. And each had to try to guess what the other was humming. Hans always hummed Bach and Beethoven. At that time the radio didn’t broadcast all 24 hours, so used “break signs” (Pausenzeichen), particular sounds that were played while it wasn’t broadcasting. I once tried to hum one of those signs to Hans, who, when he was told what it was, said: “That’s not fair, that’s not music!”
The high school I attended in Berlin was the Französisches Gymnasium [the French Grammar School]. Hans didn’t attend that school, but his cousin, Kurt Eisner, who was the same age as Hans, was at that school at the same time as me. Kurt now lives in Melbourne.
After he went to England and joined Penguin, Hans was responsible for the layout of every Penguin book, including the notorious Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I still have a copy of that book, sent to me by Hans.
Years after I emigrated to Australia with my parents and Hannah, by then my wife, we met Hans and Tanya in England. The second time we four got together was here in Sydney—in 1973, the year the Opera House was opened. Hans gave us a lecture on all the plaques in the house—on their layout.
Tanya collected books from the German Insel publishing house as well as Penguins; she had numbers 1–1000 from each publisher’s series.
By 1939 we could clearly see how things were developing in Germany— my father by that time had been briefly detained and then released—so Hannah and I married, at the age of 19, and we emigrated to Australia with my parents to join my older brother Paul, who had already emigrated. After we arrived here and once the war had broken out, we were regarded as ‘enemy aliens’ and later as ‘friendly aliens’.
I managed to get an apprenticeship as a compositor with a Hungarian fellow in Rawson Place, Sydney, for the fifteen months I needed to complete my apprenticeship. He subsequently went broke just before I’d finished my apprenticeship, but I was taken on by a small printery called Wynwood Press and was able to finish my apprenticeship with them, but that meant my salary went up so that they couldn’t afford to keep me on. Then the union got me a job as a journeyman-compositor on five pounds [ten dollars] per week, but I did the night shift, so I actually got six pounds ten [thirteen dollars]. My brother Paul had been trained as an electrical engineer, but had to work here as a fitter and turner.
Then in 1942, as friendly aliens, we were both allowed to join the Australian army. We later volunteered for the AIF and were to do jungle training, but the ‘bomb’ dropped and the war was over.
We ‘enemy aliens’ couldn’t change our names during the war. But after we were naturalised, we decided to change our surname Witkowski (derived from a village in the province of Posen, now in Poland, called Witkowo), since Australians at that time weren’t used to Balkan, Chinese etc. names. Our children were often called “Wit”, so we decided on “Witton”. Although the English surname Whitton already existed, we noticed that no one ever pronounced the “h”, so we settled for “Witton”.
After leaving the army I opened a printing shop in Sydney, Witton Press, and my brother joined me: I did the technical side and he did the commercial side. After Paul and his wife Ilse resigned their directorships in 1979, their places as directors were taken by their son Peter, who had joined the business some time before 1970, and his wife Francine. Later, in 1986, we sold the firm and then I worked for twelve months for the new owner before retiring. Following my retirement I went to work as a volunteer for Amnesty International.
Witton Press—after incorporation in 1966 officially Witton Press Pty Ltd—mainly concentrated on printing smaller items rather than books. We did catalogues for firms, wine labels, lots of business forms (statements, invoices, etc.). Peter worked at early film festivals as a volunteer, first at the university, then at other places. His friendship with the film critic David Stratton led to our printing the film festival programs for quite a few years.
We only ever printed two books, but they could hardly have been more different. The second one, published in 1985, is not likely to be of much interest to book collectors: It was the Proceedings of the Fourth International Congress on the Ultrasonic Examination of the Breast, published by the University Department of Surgery at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital.
The other book might be interesting to people who collect books about the Olympic Games, especially Olympic Games held in Australia. It was Olympic Saga: The Track and Field Story, Melbourne 1956 by Keith Donald and Don Selth and was published by the Futurian Press, Sydney, though on the back of the title page it says: “Wholly set up, printed and bound for the publishers/by/WITTON PRESS/12 Little Regent Street, Sydney”. So it was about the 1956 Olympic Games held in Melbourne, but it didn’t appear till 1957. Commercially the book was a complete flop. That was the fault of the chaps who wrote it. They took so long over the research for it that it took some six months after the Games before it could be typeset and by then the Games euphoria had evaporated.