In 2002 I visited Poland for the first time. I took an overnight train from Berlin and arrived in Katowice on a freezing November morning. The skies were overcast, buses belched smoke, and the ground was covered in muddy ice and snow. In other words, it was miserable. And yet, as I made my way through town, I was filled with an unexpected feeling of comfort and calm, as if I had just arrived home. And then it hit me. It was just like my place of birth, Chicago. It may have been miserable, but it was my kind of misery. And finally I understood why thousands of Polish immigrants travelled as far as Lake Michigan and went no further: they had found a new home that felt like their old home. Later that day, and almost every day after that, the connection was confirmed at dessert, when I would indulge in poppy seed cake: thick layers of creamy black poppy seeds rolled up into sweet, yeasty bread.
This memory came to me during a December visit to a bakery in St Kilda, a beachside suburb of Melbourne. I had ordered a slice of the fondly remembered poppy seed cake and was looking forward to a trip down memory lane. I will forever associate poppy seed cake with Christmas in Chicago and Omaha, and visits to my Polish and Bohemian grandparents. Proust had his madeleine; I have my poppy seeds. But all these years later, something wasn’t right; the pastry was too dry, or perhaps the raisins muddied the sweet poppy taste. It was also strange (at least for me) to be eating something I associate with white Christmases in the middle of an Australian heat wave.
St Kilda is known for the Acland Street bakeries, with their pastry-filled windows tempting beachgoers and tourists. Yet those bakeries are there because St Kilda was also one of Australasia’s great centres of Jewish and Eastern European immigration from the late nineteenth century till after the Second World War.
If you had told me, ten years ago, that Australia and New Zealand were significant centres of Jewish culture, I would have believed you, but I would have been surprised. These days, I wonder what our culture would look like without the vast contributions of Jewish immigrants and their descendants. My adopted city Dunedin—little, Scottish, Presbyterian, Dunedin—owes much of its literary and artistic heritage to its Jewish citizens. Esmond de Beer (1895–1990) and his sisters Mary and Dora donated major works by (among others) Claude Lorrain, Monet, and Hokusai to the city’s Art Gallery. Their cousin, the poet Charles Brasch (1909–1973), founded Landfall, New Zealand’s oldest ongoing literary journal. The merchant and art patron David Theomin (1852–1933) created the stately residence Olveston, and his daughter donated the house and its remarkable collections to the city.
Olveston is a brisk fifteen-minute walk from the centre of Dunedin. Designed by British architect Sir Ernest George, the Jacobean-style mansion feels like an enclave of upper-class Englishness in the mix of international styles that mostly mark New Zealand cities. Theomin thought he was building a family home, but his son never recovered from service in the First World War and died young, while his daughter, an artist and athlete, never married. Dorothy Theomin’s gift to the city was extraordinarily generous, but in some ways her donations of the art and interior furnishings were even more remarkable, for they capture the upper-class New Zealand tastes of the early twentieth century. While there are certainly objects that remind visitors that this was a Jewish family, more items prompt us to remember that this was a British colonial family, albeit one with international tastes. Aside from a fine copy after Veronese, visitors are unlikely to know the names of the artists and artisans whose work is on display. But the warm interiors preserve an era when Japanese, Pre-Raphaelite, and impressionist styles were in vogue. Looking beyond these beautiful if predictable tastes, I was most impressed by the Theomins’ interest in the art of their adopted homeland. Indeed, paintings by New Zealand artists William and Frances Hodgkins are among the most striking works in the house.
It was a fondness for Olveston and the Theomins that initially drew me to St Kilda. I’ve recently become interested in colonial families that travelled between Australia and New Zealand, and I wanted to see Linden, the family residence of David Theomin’s wife, Mary, née Michaelis. Theomin had moved from Bristol in the UK to Melbourne, before deciding to cross the Tasman Sea and begin a new life in Dunedin. Set back from the road in a residential part of Acland Street, Linden today serves, appropriately, as a local arts centre. Though handsome and intact, nothing brought to mind the building’s importance for St Kilda’s historic Jewish community. The visit wasn’t a disappointment, however. There’s a fine satisfaction in seeing a place or object closely associated with one’s research. Standing before the grand entrance, I could imagine Theomin, the recent British arrival, approaching the great house of the formidable Michaelis family and asking for Mary’s hand in marriage. Besides, there was always the poppy seed cake a short walk away. But there was another bonus. I learned that Australia’s most significant Jewish museum was also in the neighbourhood. The chance to discover more of this history (and visit more bakeries) was too good to miss.
The Jewish Museum of Australia is tucked away on Alma Street, a twenty-minute walk from St Kilda’s more touristy quarter. Housed in a restrained, contemporary building, the museum has four main exhibition spaces: one introducing Jewish culture and religious practice, two for changing exhibitions, and one exploring the history of Jews in Australia. I found this last exhibition particularly fascinating. One of the first images presented is a torn and crumpled 1910 photograph of a Jewish family outdoors round their samovar. At first glance it might have been taken in Poland or the Crimea, except that one of the sons holds an Australian football and the setting is Mordialloc Beach, about thirty kilometres from Melbourne. It sets the keynote for what follows: a story of balancing assimilation with preservation.
Jews were part of Australia’s migrant culture from its earliest colonial days: fourteen Jewish convicts were among the first Britons transported in 1788. Jewish centres gradually developed in Sydney, Melbourne, and Hobart, but they have remained a small community, hovering around a half of one percent throughout Australia’s 228-year history. Despite this, their contribution has been remarkable: nineteenth-century Melbourne had several Jewish mayors, and four of the 75 members of Australia’s inaugural 1901 Parliament were Jewish. One of Australia’s most famous soldiers, Sir John Monash—a major university is named after him—was the son of Jewish immigrants from Prussia.
During the first century of Australia’s settlement by Europeans, most Jewish citizens came from Britain, and their religion was, for the most part, a private matter. In the closing years of the nineteenth century, however, Jews from Eastern Europe began to arrive in Australia, and they were much more demonstrative in asserting their cultural and religious heritage. One wonders what established British immigrants, like the Theomins and the Michaelises, thought of these new and different Jewish arrivals. Did they welcome them, or did they fear that their arrival might upset the delicate balance of Australian acceptance and assimilation? The Eastern European community increased throughout the twentieth century, especially just before and after the Second World War (tragically, few Jews were allowed to immigrate during the war), and again after the fall of the Soviet Union. More recently, some 25,000 Jewish South Africans have found new homes in Australia.
I’ve visited the Jewish Museum twice: in sunny December, and more recently on a chilly afternoon in May. The special exhibition in December examined the impact of the First World War on Australian Jews, with a particular focus on Monash, who served at Gallipoli and in France, and became Australia’s highest-ranking officer. The current exhibition, “Can We Talk About Poland?” sensitively considers the complex and often painful emotions Jewish Holocaust survivors and their descendants inevitably feel towards their ancestral homeland. The exhibition points out that there are thriving, if diminished, Jewish communities in Poland today, and Lindsay Goldberg’s photographs of young Polish Jews demonstrate that a cultural renaissance is underway. Both shows were honest and informative explorations of difficult subjects.
At the end of my May visit, I returned to St Kilda’s wintry beach with a cup of coffee and one last slice of poppy seed cake. A museum attendant had suggested another bakery, a local favourite, on nearby Carlisle Street. I wasn’t feeling particularly hopeful, because deep down we all know that we can’t go home again, that nostalgia is always a compromise. But to my surprise and great pleasure, the cake was delicious. Was it just like home? No, of course not, no more than Melbourne’s Port Philip Bay is just like Lake Michigan. Yet for a while the taste allowed memories of the past to mingle pleasantly with the present. And then I did something I could never do at Lake Michigan in winter: I removed my shoes, rolled up my trousers, and stepped into the sea.