Yiddish in Melbourne

A behind-the-scenes slideshow from the Wexler Oral History Project's fieldwork trip to Australia

The Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project was thrilled to partner with the Kadimah Jewish Cultural Centre and National Library in February 2017 to record stories of Yiddish speakers, actors, and activists in ek velt (at the ends of the earth) in Melbourne, Australia.

The first Jews arrived in Australia in 1788 with the First Fleet, English ships that brought convicts to the new penal colony. Jewish migration continued in the nineteenth century from the British Empire and Europe. Yiddish-speaking Jews arriving in the early twentieth century founded organizations in several cities, including Melbourne. The Kadimah, established in 1911, became a gathering place for those interested in Yiddish theater, literature, and culture. Other important meeting points included Yiddish schools, the Melbourne branch of the Bund (the Jewish worker's socialist party), and landsmanshaftn, social and welfare organizations of Jewish immigrants from the same European town.

After the Second World War, Australia had more lenient visa restrictions than some other countries, making it the country that accepted more Jewish refugees than any other after Israel. This influx of Holocaust survivors gave new life—and audiences—to the already established Yiddish institutions, spurred expansion of Yiddish schools and theater, and led to the creation of Yiddish radio programs.

Still today, men ken hern a yidish vort—a Yiddish word can be heard—at the Kadimah's reading groups and talks; at meetings of SKIF, the Bund youth group; in the classrooms of the Sholem Aleichem College, a Jewish day school; on the radio; and in homes.

Below, see some photo highlights from the twenty-nine interviews the Project conducted during its time in Australia. After thorough processing, the full interviews and subtitled excerpts will be available in our oral history collection.

Abram Goldberg shows photos of his sister

Abram Goldberg described in wonderful detail the Lodz of his youth, back when the sky was dark with soot from the factories and Yiddish was spoken on the streets. Here, he shows photos of his sister, which he hid in a metal box along with other documentation about life in the Lodz ghetto and dug up after surviving Auschwitz.

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Danielle Charak portrait

Danielle Charak's passion for Yiddish began when she was a child, when she would recite Yiddish poems by heart publicly. She went on to teach and translate Yiddish and to host a Yiddish radio program. In her interview, she shared her early memories of post-war Brussels and a life of rich cultural engagement in Melbourne and abroad.

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David and Ben Burstin interview

Brothers David and Ben Burstin described Carlton, the very Jewish Melbourne neighborhood where they grew up in the 1930s-50s. While their parents were Bundists, the brothers each developed slightly different takes on what's best for the future of the Jewish community.

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Christa Whitney with the audience at a talk she gave at the Kadimah Library

In addition to collecting twenty-nine interviews across Melbourne over three weeks, Wexler Oral History Project Director Christa Whitney gave a talk at the Kadimah, where she shared a variety of excerpts from the project's collection of interviews.

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Paula Boltman holding photograph of Rokhl Holtzer

Actor Paula Boltman spoke about her Yiddish theater mentor, the great Rokhl Holtzer. Holtzer was visiting Melbourne in 1939 when World War II broke out, leaving her stuck in the city—to the great fortune of the local Yiddish theater scene.

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Moshe Fiszman portrait

Holocaust survivor Moshe Fiszman grew up in Radom and Warsaw, Poland. He loves Yiddish literature and recited several poems and stories from memory in his interview. He explained, too, that he would recite Yiddish in the concentration camps to lift his spirits and the spirits of those around him.

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Alex Dafner being interviewed in Melbourne

Alex Dafner described growing up in post-World War Two Lodz, with its parks, Yiddish school, and Yiddish theater. Over the years, he’s lived in Australia, England, Israel, and the United States. After settling in Melbourne, he served as president of the Kadimah for two decades and became very involved in Yiddish radio.

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Hinde Ena Burstin in library

Yiddish poet, scholar, and feminist Hinde Ena Burstin showed Christa how she marked books written by women with purple stickers when she worked at the Kadimah Jewish Cultural Centre and National Library. She also added stickers to books about the Holocaust—and kangaroo stickers to books printed in or about Australia.

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To see more photos from the Wexler Oral History Project's trip to Australia, visit the Yiddish Melbourne album on the Project's Facebook page.