2019 Victorian Community History Awards – Commendation – Cultural Diversity
They came from an old world to a new land. The Yiddish speakers from Eastern Europe brought few material possessions but clung to a language and a culture that defined who they were, a way of life that had endured pogroms, persecution and a genocide that pushed them to the brink of extinction. Melbourne gave them a second chance at life, an opportunity to rebuild a secular Yiddish world that sat at the core of their existence.
Hardship had taught these Jews to be resilient, fiercely independent and great institution builders. A community centre quickly became the beating heart of Yiddish Melbourne. The arts flourished, newspapers were launched and schools were established. But these immigrants also brought their competing political ideals, hotly contested notions of what it meant to be a Jew and how to live life in this furthest corner of the world.
Their arrival in Melbourne was not always welcomed. The Australian authorities only grudgingly accepted them as immigrants, in restricted numbers and under the sponsorship of Jews already living here. Yiddish speakers, with their boisterous demeanour and high visibility challenged the authority of the established Jewish community, which traced its origins to the first settlement and which believed that ‘blending in’ was the antidote to antisemitism.
Using the voices of the immigrants themselves and archival sources, the authors give a compelling account of how these Yiddish speakers came to shape, change and define an entire community.
Dr Margaret Taft is a Research Associate at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, (ACJC) Monash University, and author of From Victim to Survivor: The Emergence and Development of the Holocaust Witness 1941–1949 (2013) and, with Andrew Markus, Walter Lippmann, Ethnic Communities Leader (2016). Margaret has been researching Yiddish Melbourne for the past eight years as part of a major study undertaken by the ACJC. She is a Yiddish speaker and daughter of Holocaust survivors whose early years were spent in the post-war immigrant community of Northcote.
Professor Andrew Markus is the Pratt Foundation Research Professor of Jewish Civilisation at Monash University and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. He has published extensively on Australian immigration and race relations. Andrew heads the Scanlon Foundation social cohesion research program which in 2017 conducted its 10th national survey. He is also the principal researcher on the Australian Jewish population and Yiddish Melbourne research projects. Andrew is a post-war immigrant from Hungary who arrived in Australia in January 1957.