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Heritage to be found

October 6, 2014 – 1:15 pm5 Comments

bendigo art gallery

By Alex Kats:

Recently I had the opportunity to visit Bendigo in regional Victoria, and Fremantle near Perth in Western Australia. In both cases I was in town for work, but had some free time and managed to walk around for a couple of hours. In both cases, I came across pieces of Jewish heritage that I didn’t expect to find.

In Bendigo, my final meeting was in a café next door to the Bendigo Art Gallery, so when the meeting concluded, I briefly walked through the art space with my colleague. One of the first rooms I went into, and probably the largest in the building, was ‘The Hon. Howard Nathan Gallery.’ Some years earlier, in a previous role, I had dealings with Justice Nathan when he was a judge at the Supreme Court. I knew he was Jewish, but didn’t know his connection to Bendigo. I now know that after his retirement, he bought property in Bendigo, partly in order to revive the tiny Jewish community.

Bendigo, or Sandhurst as it used to be known, was one of the most prominent and important regional towns during the Victorian gold rush in the midst of the 19th century. Melbourne was the main city in Victoria, but in terms of contribution to the state economy and eminence of the citizenry, Sandhurst and Ballarat had their fair share for a period in the mid-1800s, and some of these important people were Jewish. Some were gold miners or wannabe explorers, but most were part of the supply chain that made the towns run.

Bendigo had Jewish councillors and politicians, agricultural and horticultural leaders, as well as businessmen, including mine owners. All of this led to the establishment of services for the festivals in 1853, and the construction of a fairly large synagogue building on a major street in the heart of town in 1862. At its height, the synagogue had about 150 member families and a full-time rabbi. With the end of the gold rush though, much of the Jewish community departed, most likely to Melbourne. The synagogue closed in 1910 and was later demolished. I therefore saw nothing of the synagogue or even any remnants, but I did see plenty of references to Bendigo’s most famous resident.

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Simcha (Sidney) Myer Baevski arrived in Australia from what is now Belarus to join his older brother in 1899. He started his Australian life in Melbourne where he learnt English, but a year or so later, after he dropped his last name, he and his brother moved to Bendigo, which was at the tail end of its most prosperous years. On the main street, they opened a small drapery store and also started a delivery business. The store became popular, particular amongst ladies, because of Myer’s knack for displaying the stock most creatively in the shop window.

By 1908 Myer had over 60 staff, had taken over another drapery outlet, and was known as Bendigo’s foremost merchant. By 1912, after the closure of the synagogue, he moved most of his operations back to Melbourne where he purchased his signature Bourke Street store in 1914. The Bendigo store remained, and is still known as the original Myer store, though of course it has also expanded and changed a lot since Myer’s days. He died in 1934, but his name is probably more popular in Bendigo today than it was in his time. Apart from seeing the original store and an extended Myer department store, I also saw Sidney Myer Place, a sculpture of Sidney Myer and Myers Street.

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Since leaving Bendigo, I read that Howard Nathan came back to reawaken its dormant Jews precisely because of the town’s illustrious history. He found a small number of Jews still in business, at the university or at the hospital. He held a Chanukah celebration in 2008, which attracted quite a crowd, and has since set up the Kehilat S’Dot Zahav progressive congregation of Bendigo and the central goldfields, which during festivals or high holidays can attract up to 50 people from Bendigo itself and from neighbouring towns including Shepparton, Yea and others. Clearly even in a regional town these days there is an appetite for Jewish connection.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Fremantle. Before going to Fremantle for my conference, I spent a lovely weekend in Perth, where I went to both the Dianella Shule and the Perth Hebrew Congregation (PHC). Whilst walking around PHC, I was fascinated to read that the congregation had actually started in Fremantle, before later moving inland, closer to the CBD. The Fremantle synagogue was the first synagogue in WA, though it began as a humble ad hoc congregation in 1887. A permanent site was secured in 1891, but it took quite a number of years for the synagogue to actually be built. The foundation stone was finally laid in early 1902 by Elias Solomon MP, the Federal Member for Fremantle. Solomon was one of the four Jews in Australia’s first parliament.

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The opening of the synagogue was undoubtedly a joyous occasion, but for some locals it was probably also bittersweet. Between the time that the land was secured and the inauguration of the building, much of the community had already drifted towards Perth. Though PHC, under a different name, was founded in Fremantle in 1892, it too soon moved to Perth and changed its name. The Fremantle synagogue only housed services until 1908 and closed permanently in 1910, less than a decade after it had officially opened. It was sold in 1916, and has essentially stood dormant ever since.

I knew very little of this history when I was in town, but I did know approximately where to find the synagogue – on a very prominent corner block next door to the Fremantle Dockers Football Club, across the street from the market and just up the road from the jail. In Sydney, that would be the equivalent of having a synagogue on a corner block between the Opera House and Circular Quay! Yet despite such a prominent location, or maybe because of it, every business that the synagogue building has been converted to since it closed has failed, and much of it sits uninhabited and dilapidated.

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At first I wasn’t even sure I was on the right street because part of the block is boarded up and the rest has a temporary fence around it. I read later that some kind of restoration was started some months ago, but little has been done for a while, and no one seems to know what is intended for the site. The council is not saying anything, despite the fact that another sale of the site has been reported. For many decades though, the council has been very protective of the synagogue, as evidenced by an incident in 1976, when PHC wanted to incorporate the Star of David from the Fremantle Synagogue into an upgrade of their own site, but the council refused them and instead provided a replica.

From my perspective, it was great to see the old synagogue and to learn about its short-lived but very prominent history in the centre of town. It was a touch disappointing that neither the synagogue nor the community have been restored, particularly after reading about the obvious thirst for Judaism that still lingers in places like Bendigo. Maybe Fremantle needs someone like Howard Nathan to spur the community into action. In the meantime, let’s hope that the building is restored to its former glory, and that it can at the very least become a living memorial to the Jews of old, and not just another dilapidated building on a prominent corner.

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