Tuesday, April 14, 2015

  • Tuesday, April 14, 2015
  • Elder of Ziyon


First night Pesach this year in Australia’s second biggest city, Melbourne, and I attended a seder at the home of dear friends who not so long ago were strangers within Australia’s gate.  Most of the adults, even the 30-somethings, had been born in Belarus or the Ukraine.  The oldest, in their mid-seventies, have harrowing memories of their families’ flight eastward ahead of the Nazi invaders. 

These seniors had been in the vanguard of the exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and were the pioneers of a chain migration which brought relatives as late as the 1990s to this land. The total number of such Jews in Australia today is estimated to be 25,000, out of an overall Jewish population of perhaps 120,000.

The first Jews in Australia were a dozen or so convicts who arrived from Britain in 1788 with the First Fleet, and during the nineteenth century most Jews who settled here were of English and German (often anglicised German) origin.  In 1841 there were 1183 Jews in Australia (0.57 per cent of the entire Australian population); by 1891 there were 13,809 (0.43 percent) and in 1911 there were 17,287 (0.37 per cent).

A.A. Phillips, a well-known Aussie intellectual born in 1900, recalled that when he was ‘about eleven’ he was
 ‘struck by the strange improbability that I was an Australian Jew, when it was much more likely that I would have been born an American Christian or a Confucian Chinese.  I was aware that there were “millions and trillions” of Americans and Chinese and only a few thousand Australian Jews…. I was not sure whether I was proud of my special rarity or annoyed with God for making me something so peculiar.’
Rarer still were Jews of Russian, Polish or Romanian provenance.  Since it was a new Hebrew-language venture,  few Jews in Eastern Europe would have read and been tempted by the frequent and positive reports of life Down Under that appeared in the Hamagid – circulating at various places throughout the Pale – penned by an immigrant from Austrian Galicia who had settled in the prosperous goldfields town of Ballarat, in Melbourne’s hinterland.   A respected Aussie demographer using naturalisation records of non-British Jews (males only) found that of a total of 6256 who migrated to Australia between the 1830s and 1914, 1162 came from the Russian Empire (which of course until 1919 included Poland, whence 875 had come; a further 140 came from Romania).  There were also Eastern European chalutzim who were driven out of Eretz Israel by worsening economic conditions; the total of male Jews from “Palestine” was 60.

These “foreign” Jews were not especially welcomed by the existing Jewish community.  With their distinctive garb and speech they were often regarded with disdain.  In 1882, the minister of one of Melbourne’s synagogues (himself German-born and a derider of Yiddish as a “jargon”) proposed to the chief secretary of the colony (now state) of South Australia that an agricultural settlement of 300 to 400 young Jewish “artisans and famers” from Russia be permitted there.  He incurred the immediate wrath of Jewish communal leaders fearful  that such immigrants would drift to the towns, become a burden on communal coffers, and generally reflect badly on the community’s reputation.

When, in 1891, it was rumoured that the Franco-German philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch, founder of the Jewish Colonisation Association, was investigating the possibility of sending 500,000 pauperised Russian Jews to Australia where they would turn themselves into agriculturalists in a settlement of their own, an established Australian Jew reflected a general consensus when he warned in a letter to the London Jewish Chronicle that “the Russo-Jewish incursion with which Australia is threatened is … calculated to bless neither the man that comes nor the land that receives.”  Revealing the mindset that led, in 1901, when Australia became a federated nation, to the “White Australia” policy, he observed that an influx of such Russians would be regarded by Australians “as unfavourably as the Chinese cook, the Hindoo [sic] hawker, the Kanaka plantation hand, the Tamil servant, or the Lascar sailor” and added that America’s “negro problem” provided “an eloquent warning”.

In fact, no “group settlement” in Australia, whether of Jews or anyone else, was permitted in Australia then or later: thus however much some Australians, including certain political figures, might support such schemes, all of the several proposals presented from time to time for rural colonies of refugee Jews in Australia were ultimately doomed to rejection by the federal authorities. 

As for the “White Australia” policy, immigration officials were empowered to conduct tests in approved European languages to persons arriving at entry ports, and at first Yiddish was not on the approved list.  Jews born in Eretz Israel were classified as “Asiatics” to whom certain welfare benefits did not apply; this injustice was felt most keenly in Perth, Western Australia, and to a lesser extent in Melbourne, the cities with the highest numbers of former chalutzim

One former chalutz fallen on economic hard times who arrived in Western Australia was Eliezer Margolin (1875-1944).  Born in Akkerman (Belgorod) not far from Odessa, he had a broad Russian-language gymnasium education.  In 1892 his parents moved the family to Rehovot.  Relocating in 1902 to Australia and naturalised in 1904, he in 1911 in Collie, a coalmining town in the Darling Ranges, formed the local company of the 1st Battalion, Western Australian Infantry Regiment, and on the outbreak of the First World War he, like many, many thousands of Australian Jews, who flocked to the colours out of all proportion to their numbers – there was no conscription in this country – was swift to enlist.

He was soon commissioned in the 16th Battalion, Australian Military Forces, and distinguished himself at Gallipoli – where he met Jabotinsky, joint founder of the Zion Mule Corps – and subsequently.  In 1918, when a lieutenant-colonel, he took command of one of three Jewish battalions formed in the British Army to fight the Turks in Palestine – the 39th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers.  He informed his men that “our aim is … the liberation of our homeland” and at Rehovot he was instrumental in the formation of the 40th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, which also served under Allenby.  Smashing through Turkish lines on the Jordan river Margolin’s battalion captured a town in the Ramleh district, of which he was appointed military governor, the Australian Jewish press proudly noting that he was the first Jew in such a position since the time of the Maccabees.  In 1919, when the First Judeans (better known as the Jewish League) was formed he became its commander.
Jabotinsky recalled:

‘”He sits his horse like a Bedouin and shoots like an Englishmen” the Arabs used to say of him.  He was a huge, strong, silent man, every inch a soldier, a father and brother to his boys, with a masterly ability for organising …. [I]n May, 1921, Herbert Samuel [High Commissioner of Palestine] appointed him chief of the Jewish half of that mixed Jewish-Arab militia which was one of Samuel’s pet notions.  Margolin did not ask for anyone’s permission to bring his soldiers fully armed to Tel Aviv in the very midst of the Jaffa pogrom.  For that misdeed he was forced to resign.’
Returning to Australia in 1921, Colonel Margolin was generally viewed, like Sir John Monash, as the beau ideal of the “Aussie Digger” – and proved enduringly popular.  At his non-denominational funeral in Perth in 1944 – his ashes were reburied in 1950 at Rehovot – the vice-president of the Western Australian Returned Servicemen’s League observed in an affectionate tribute that Margolin “belonged to that illustrious band of people from overseas who have come to Australia and put more into our social life than ever it was possible to take out of it’”

The same could be said of many other Jews of Russian origin who had migrated to Australia, notably the members of a particular chain migration that began in the late nineteenth century with the arrival of a big, flame-haired operatic bass-baritone named Jacob Lenzer (1858-1921), a native of  Kritchev, a shtetl in Mogilev, an easternmost province of the Pale.   Expelled from the St Petersburg Conservatorium of Music following the passing of the anti-Jewish May Laws in 1882, he served the East Melbourne Synagogue (”the foreigners’ shul”) as minister from 1888 until his death.  He was, wrote a contemporary minister, “a great chazan, whose chazanuth alone is worth a journey to hear … a man qualified to take the lead in any large congregation” who was wasted in his present situation.

Following Lenzer  to Australia was his brother, who also became a minister here.  Their migration triggered that of their relatives the Slutzkins, who became prominent in Melbourne’s clothing trade; that of further relatives, the Baevski brothers, ensued.  Simcha Baevski (1878-1934), more familiar to the Aussie public as Sidney Baevski Myer, began with a successful drapery shop in Bendigo.   Shortly before the First World War he opened in Melbourne the celebrated Myer Emporium, which developed into a mighty retailing empire.  A noted philanthropist to diverse worthy causes, Myer in 1928 backed the trans-Pacific flight of aviator (Sir) Charles Kingsford Smith.  He was a keen lover of music, and an integral part of Melbourne life are the concerts held at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl.

In 1927 Sidney Myer’s cousin Dr Aaron Patkin (1883-1950) migrated to Melbourne, and so too in 1929 did Aaron’s nephew Benzion Patkin (1903-84).  Natives of Tatarsk, Smolensk, they had both left Palestine owing to the economic hardship that precipitated the end of the Fourth Aliyah.   Aaron, a former barrister and Menshevik, had quit Russia owing to the Bolsheviks’ disavowal of Jewish rights or cultural identity.  Author of the Russian Jewish Labour Movement (1947), he was at the forefront of the Australian Zionist movement, and edited The Zionist magazine from 1943 until his death.  Benzion was an equally staunch Zionist; his enduring legacy was the foundation of Mount Scopus College, opened in 1949, at one time the largest Jewish day school in the southern hemisphere.

 “In Russia we were known as Jews, and in Australia we are known as Russians,” some of my seder companions have been heard to say, with a resigned shrug of the shoulders.  They themselves realize that they are as Australian, and as Jewish, as anyone else in what has been affectionately dubbed “the shtetl by the [river] Yarra”.   What some of them lacked, through growing up in the Soviet Union, of Jewish knowledge, they have more than made up for by their eagerness to learn from their offspring who, reared in Australia, have given their own children the opportunity to learn Yiddish and Hebrew, and who in some cases are lay leaders of an Orthodox congregation. 


It was, of course, Isi Leibler, now of Jerusalem, who in the 1960s first put the issue of the trapped Jews of the Soviet Union on the international agenda.  The inspiring story of this struggle for the Refuseniks, and its ultimate triumph, is told in a recently published book by historian Professor Suzanne Rutland and veteran political journalist Sam Lipski: Let My People Go: The untold story of Australia and the Soviet Jews 1959–89 (Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne). 


Daphne Anson is an Australian who under her real name has authored and co-authored several books and many articles on historical topics including Jewish ones. She blogs under an alias in order to separate her professional identity from her blogging one.


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