A Tale from Australia

Reconnecting to JDC through the Archives

Tens of thousands of Jewish refugees settled in Australia in the decade following World War II, many of whom received emigration assistance provided by JDC. In conjunction with the local Australian Jewish community, the JDC funded housing and training centers for the newcomers. As a new JDC employee in Australia, I researched every piece of information about the World War II era that I could get my hands on. I was born and bred in Israel and learned about the Nazi horrors from my school days on a moshav and from the media, but it was only when I moved to Melbourne that I met many families that were directly affected by the horrible war. Hearing stories firsthand from people who lived through this tragedy was overwhelming. This experience intensified once I became a JDC employee and met more people who were helped by JDC during the most vulnerable times of their lives.

One of the main sources for this information was the JDC Archives. While browsing through documents and photos in the online database, the idea of sharing them with the community sparked my interest. I created a partnership with the Jewish Museum of Australia (based in Melbourne) which also holds documents and artifacts from those decades, many of which were donated locally. Together, we designed a Community Day titled “Calling Australia Home: Stories of Migration and Community.”

Over seventy years ago, JDC, or “the Joint” as it is often more widely known, established historical and personal ties with the Australian Jewish community through the Executive Council of Australia Jewry (ECAJ) and the Australian Jewish Welfare Society (known today as Jewish Care). This unique partnership enabled the Joint and the Australian Jewish community to work together to resettle tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors who found themselves stateless with nowhere to go. The Joint provided these refugees with safe passage to a new land as well as the support and wherewithal to rebuild their lives in Australia.

In fact, between 1946 and 1954 some 50,000 Jewish refugees arrived in Australia from Europe and Shanghai. The Joint was involved in every aspect of this migration program, from financing resettlement, which included providing hostel accommodations, English classes, employment assistance, and interest-free loans to establish businesses.

Yael Cass, JDC’s director for Outreach and Development in Australia, speaking at the Community Day.

Melbourne, Australia, November 18, 2018.

The Community Day on November 18, 2018 was an opportunity for the Melbourne Jewish community to explore and discover this history; the origins of their modern Australian Jewish community and the stories of migration and immigration that made them. Leading up to the Community Day, we conducted a social media campaign and invited the community to participate. A photo from the JDC Archives served as the backdrop for an advertisement. It depicted a Jewish family on their departure from an Italian passport control station; mother and father with baby in tow. A few weeks into the campaign, I received a phone call from a man, William Eckstein, who recognized himself as the little boy alongside his parents Valerie and Jonas. The man was excited and emotional, and I must admit that it made me feel good to be able to share this photo with him.

William Eckstein and his wife viewing the online photo in which he recognized himself as a boy.

Passport control at the Rome airport for Australia-bound refugees. Rome, Italy, 1948. William Eckstein identified himself as the baby being held by his father Jonas.

Photographer: Ghibli, Rome. JDC Archives Photograph Collection, item NY_14592.

The day quickly arrived. Though the social media campaign was successful and created a buzz for several weeks, we had no idea how many people would show up. On that day, just before leaving home, I thought to myself, I better take a box of tissues, just in case. Little did I know at that time, how useful this box of tissues would become throughout the day.

The Community Day’s activities included:

  • Behind the Scenes Sessions: Discover items from the Jewish Museum’s collection relating to The Joint’s rescue and resettlement of thousands of Jewish refugees in Australia after the Holocaust.
  • Personal Recording Studio: Share a personal story of emigration and immigration on tape with a historian to be recorded for posterity.
  • Play Historian: Identify anonymous faces in JDC Archives photos of emigration and immigration to Australia from the 1940s and 1950s.
  • Panel Discussion: A deep dive into both the past and present of Jewish communities at home and abroad with distinguished guests.

A highlight of the day was the “Play Historian” activity. With JDC Archives photos of immigration to Australia from the 1940s and 1950s presented on computer screens, visitors could scroll through the images and register the names of any individuals that they recognized. Many people who attended wanted to know more about their relatives and their past and were able to search the JDC Archives online database. Not surprisingly, there were many emotional moments throughout the day. In fact seven oral histories were collected, adding to JDC’s historical record of the period.

I recall most vividly two women who walked into the museum out of curiosity. They had never heard of the Joint. A short conversation with them revealed that their parents were Holocaust survivors who came to Melbourne after the war. However, they did not know the details of their journeys and had no one to ask anymore. I suggested that they scroll through the photos. After some scrutinizing, one woman, Danielle Kiriati, thought she recognized her father in a photo, but could not be sure. As a second course of action, we conducted a search in the JDC Archives online database with the names of her mum and dad. With tissues at the ready, everyone waited patiently for the search results. It was found that the JDC had in fact sponsored her parents to come to Australia.

Australia-bound emigrants smile and wave as they await departure at the Ciampino Airport. Rome, Italy, 1948.

Photographer: Ghibli, Rome. JDC Archives Photograph Collection, item NY_50872.

A group of refugees on board the airplane en route to Australia. Rome, Italy, 1948.

Photographer: Ghibli, Rome. JDC Archives Photograph Collection, item NY_14595.

With around 200 people in attendance throughout the day, the event was a success. It also connected many with their past and reunited them with the JDC. It was a testimony to the way in which the JDC’s activities have been documented over the years and ultimately the value of the JDC Archives. I feel proud to be a ‘Jointnik’.

About the Author

Yael Cass is JDC’s Director for Outreach and Development in Victoria, Australia. This story was shared with her permission.