'When the guns cease firing' – rescue and resettlement in the 1940s

The Australian Jewish News on 13 July 1945 praised the United Jewish Overseas Relief Fund (UJORF) for organising a ‘Jewish Relief Mission’ as part of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) Medical Relief Mission: ‘The formation of the Jewish Relief Mission together with the achievements of the Relief Fund show that even a small community, like Melbourne, can give a notable and adequate contribution to the great work of help for the unfortunate remnants of European Jewry. Like in other communal affairs, clear and broad vision and determination, even of one organisation, will achieve what could seem the impossible.’

In a show of UJORF’s communal strength, on 30 July 1945, the Victorian Jewish Advisory Board requested UJORF representation on their board. Leo Fink agreed with the proviso that ‘we would not be concerned with anything political’.

In August 1945, UJORF launched its Annual Appeal. More than £30,000 was donated, with over 800 people in attendance at Melbourne’s St Kilda Town Hall.

Jewish Relief Mission 1946
Jewish Relief Mission 1946

The UJORF minutes of 29 October 1945 made a clear commitment to assist in immigration to Australia: ‘Our intention is to give direct material aid to immigrants who wished to come to this country.’ UJORF allocated £5000 to refugees stranded in Shanghai – this was the beginning of direct assistance with immigration and resettlement.

By November 1945, UJORF had expanded operations as relatives lodged funds for payment of passage for surviving relatives under the Minister for Immigration Arthur Calwell’s close relatives’ scheme. At the same time, the Australian Jewish Welfare Society (AJWS) distanced itself from immigration: ‘It was not the function of the AJWS to obtain such permits.’

In December 1945, UJORF launched a ‘Search Service’ for locating survivors in Europe and began publishing survivor lists.

By the end of 1945, Leo had steered UJORF towards the shipping of goods overseas, £46,750 in cash pledges, allocations of £54,000 to overseas aid and the formation of UJORF branches in Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane. Mina Fink had secured £11,000 from her Ladies’ Group and £2000 from the Youth Group.

While welfare consumed a large part of their lives in Melbourne, Leo and Mina were also engaged in other ventures and organisations. In 1946, Leo was Joint Managing Director of United Carpet Mills Pty Ltd, manufacturers of Wilton, Axminster and broadloom carpets, at 64 Oakover Road in Preston. Mina joined the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW).

In January 1946, Leo agreed to send funds to the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS) under strict instructions that money be expended at ‘our express directions’. At the same time, the UNRRA Medical Relief Mission departed for Greece, hoping to enter Poland.

On 26 February 1946, Leo was granted leave from UJORF to travel to Europe and Palestine to seek consultation with Jewish relief organisations and to inspect firsthand the plight of survivors. He left on the first commercial flight and was away for six months. Shocked at what he saw, he called on the community to join in the ‘Sacred work of rescue and rehabilitation…true the first of the extermination camps have been extinguished, the ashes of the Kedoshim scattered by the winds, but still the fate of survivors in Europe appears sombre and uncertain. Miraculously saved from the Nazi butchers and mass graves, the survivors are still in [displaced persons’] camps suffering deprivation and fear!’

The first refugees from Shanghai arrived in April 1946, while the first ship from Europe, the Ville d’Amiens, arrived on 26 November 1946, with a total 190 Jewish immigrants. Work on reception of immigrants gathered pace. UJORF had a membership of 2000, which formed the backbone of support for this work.

A severe shortage of shipping hampered efforts to bring Jews quickly to Australia. Leo and his UJORF board were actively discouraged by Arthur Calwell to charter vessels ‘for any special racial group’. The HIAS was able to secure additional berths, but was instructed by AJWS not to proceed for fear of a political backlash. By mid-1946, fearing adverse publicity, Calwell imposed a 25 per cent quota on the number of Jews permitted to travel on any boat to Australia.

Meanwhile Leo’s influence expanded and, in July 1946, he had UJORF representatives on both the Victorian Jewish Advisory Board and in the AJWS.

In August 1946, Isaac Boas resigned as Chairman of AJWS and Alec Masel stepped in with an understanding that Leo would ‘help to adjust the position in the Office.’ In the following two months, there were discussions to merge the UJORF and AJWS into one organisation with an 18-month to two-year transition period.

On 9 September 1946, Leo informed UJORF that it was now the sole organisation dealing with ‘emigration arrangements.’

By December 1946, Leo effectively ran AJWS and UJORF. Committees were set up to welcome and house immigrants.

By the end of 1946, the UJORF annual report emphasised cooperation with the Joint, HIAS, ORT-OSE and Jewish Agency to complete its relief and rehabilitation mission. The report stated that financial assistance had been granted to select organisations, with goods shipped that ‘will not only provide warmth and coverage, but will build self-respect and morale.’

In January 1947, Leo negotiated with the Bialystoker Centre for temporary accommodation. A Melbourne hostel was purchased at 19 Robe Street in St Kilda in July 1947, the first of 11 properties purchased from 1947 to 1958.

In January 1947, Arthur Calwell learnt that the Johan de Witt had embarked for Australia with 702 Jewish immigrants, in contravention of the agreed quota of 25 per cent. The affair blew up. Calwell was furious that he had been deceived and Saul Symonds, President of AJWS Sydney, was angry at being sidestepped. Both accused Leo of going it alone. The Johan de Witt arrived in Sydney on 16 March 1947 with the largest group of Jewish immigrants to ever enter Australia at one time. Apart from the Johan de Witt and the Shanghai boat Hwa Lien, which arrived in January, there were no other exceptions made to the quota ruling.

In undated correspondence, but calculated as early February 1947, Saul Symonds and Walter Brand of Sydney appeared more concerned about the public perception of Jewish immigration than Leo’s view that new immigrants helped strengthen the existing community. Leo highlighted cultural differences between Sydney and Melbourne: ‘On today’s immigration depends the survival of Jewish communal life in this country. We can replenish and revitalise our stock today. It will be too late tomorrow. The Brands will never understand it. It is not within their province… We wanted to encourage Jewish immigration…the Relief Fund has taken full responsibility… We lack this mentality of my Jew and your Jew…’

In February 1947, Leo advised UJORF that there were ‘welcoming, housing and employment subcommittees created under the auspices of UJORF and AJWS’. Mina was given a directive to work on resettlement and housing of new immigrants and to report back on finances required for additional accommodation. Mina swiftly reported that she had 14 delegates to work on a Housing Subcommittee.

In anticipation of the Johan de Witt’s arrival, Mina proposed that David Abzac be sent to Sydney to meet and organise new arrivals. On 5 March 1947, Mina asked OSE for names and addresses of 100 orphans for whom they would find sponsors.

On 15 April 1947, Mina was asked to organise reception of the migrant boat El Misr and to enlist the help of NCJW members: ‘All members of the board possessing cars expressed their willingness to come to the boat which was expected on 20 April.’

On 1 July 1947, Leo was Chairman of the first meeting of the two amalgamated welfare organisations. One week later, he invited Mina, as representative of the Ladies’ Group, to attend future meetings in the same capacity.

Within the first eight months of the post-war immigration period, over 50 per cent of Jewish arrivals came to Melbourne. In that short time, the community had to house and find employment for nearly 1000 new arrivals. The relief effort was lauded on 8 September 1947 by Charles Jordan, a representative of the Joint: ‘On a per capita basis Australian Jews have sent more relief than any other Jewish community in the world.’

The Australian Jewish News 18 March 1945
The Australian Jewish News 18 March 1945

By the end of 1947, Jewish immigrants were arriving in large numbers. The work involved was duly noted in the Jewish press: ‘The staff of the Welfare Society under the leadership of Mr and Mrs L Fink began their valuable work assisting those passengers...’ (Australian Jewish Herald, 21 Nov 1947)

On 2 December 1947, UJORF sent a congratulatory telegram to the Jewish Agency re ‘UN decision to establish a Jewish State in Palestine’. At the same time, Mina was dealing with urgent cases of financial need and asked that ‘sustenance’ procedures be simplified. Mina was given greater autonomy to give up to £50 in urgent cases.

In February 1948, Mina was asked to form a Ladies’ House Committee in charge of running the Camberwell House hostel.

On 23 February 1948, Leo was elected to the Executive of the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies.

In 1948, Mina’s influence broadened. In March, she suggested that special occasions be used as a means of collecting funds. Letters were sent to rabbis for support. She also insisted on better recordkeeping, with press cuttings to be kept up to date. The Ladies’ Group reported that ‘Under the sponsorship scheme 97 children found Jewish homes with Melbourne parents. This scheme is under the auspices of the OSE Central Board Geneva.’ Mina had direct involvement in the care of children at the Larino Home hostel and asked for clarity concerning the line of responsibility of her House Committee (which now comprised 21 women). Mina also took a personal interest in individual children in difficult circumstances, often showing initiative in resolving problematic cases.

Between November 1947 and March 1948, the Migration Committee dealt with 2000 letters, interviewed 92 applicants as guarantors, and opened 472 new cases involving 626 migrants. It had also handled over £21,000 in deposits and full payments for fares, acceptance of promissory notes and redemption of promissory notes that had become due.

In a letter to Lewis Neikrug at HIAS Paris on 20 April 1948, Leo highlighted fundamental differences between Sydney and Melbourne: ‘There is a long-standing difference in opinion in matters of policy between Melbourne and Sydney… Their [Sydney] policy is conservative, cautious and non-committal, whereas the Melbourne representatives are more active and liberal.’

On 20 July 1948, the newly constituted Australian Jewish Welfare and Relief Society (AJWRS) under Leo took on a blanket guarantee scheme with the Federal Government to take over all responsibilities concerning migrants, including the issue of permits. The Joint offered funding of £50,000 towards expenses.

The AJWRS migration report of 28 September 1948 showed considerable achievements: ‘Those assisted by AJWS and UJORF between 1 Jan 1947 and 31 August 1948 totalled 2086. The total Jewish population of Melbourne was 14,231. A number of these arrivals would have been included in that figure so the increase that the community had to cope with was close to 20 per cent in a period of just over 18 months.’

In the AJWRS minutes of 1 November 1948 highlighted Mina’s strong involvement with the group of orphans known as the ‘Buchenwald boys’: ‘Mrs Fink informed the Board that everything is done to make their stay a pleasant one, and every boy received £1 weekly pocket money. The House Committee had extra expenses for urgently needed clothing for the boys. Mrs Fink also arranged for the boys to attend English Classes at the Taylor’s College as from Monday November 8. Dr Benfrey suggested that Taylor’s College be requested to let this Society have weekly reports on the attendance of the boys.’

On 8 November 1948, the last formal meeting of UJORF was held before the newly constituted AJWRS commenced in its own right.

The first annual general meeting report of AJWRS (covering an 18-month period from 1947 to 1948) revealed a breadth of activities: migration, transportation, reception, housing, employment, loans and sustenance, medical care, children’s care, overseas relief and searches for missing relatives, English classes, and fund raising. There were some 200 meetings in that year, which meant that the Finks were involved in three to four meetings per week, in addition to all the work those meetings generated.

On 2 February 1949, Mina reported to AJWRS on Camberwell House. Terribly overcrowded, it was housing about 80 people. One of the boys wanted to further his studies and she would seek a private sponsor for him. The meeting noted that the AJWRS could not undertake such sponsorship, but was very pleased if private sponsors could be found.

On 28 February 1949, Leo was elected Chairman of AJWRS and Mina was unanimously elected Chairperson of the AJWRS Ladies’ Committee.

On 4 March 1949, in a letter to Lewis Neikrug, Leo noted his success with government negotiations regarding the AJWRS blanket guarantee: ‘By now you have most likely received from the Executive Council a report of our deliberations, and you can guess that I have taken a lion’s share in bringing about a change in the Government’s policy.’

On 25 May 1949, in a letter to Mr Telsey at HIAS New York, Leo explained the resettlement challenge that lay ahead: ‘You are no doubt aware that Jewish immigration to Australia, which a few years ago was a matter of expediency, a matter of saving lives, is now becoming a problem of permanent settlement…one of the greatest obstacles in absorbing immigrants in this country is the problem of accommodation.’ He subsequently asked for assistance to purchase another hostel, and offered to name it after HIAS.

In a letter to Lewis Neikrug on 27 May 1949, Leo voiced concern over extremely overcrowded and filthy conditions on boats such as the Ville d’Amiens and Luciano Manara. This was given public airing and received very poor press, blaming [Jewish] passengers for the conditions. Also noted was the poor health of many migrants, obviously slipping through the medical check-ups, thereby jeopardising the whole migration program. Leo asked Neikrug to tighten up the process as too much was at stake.

On 9 June 1949, in a letter to Henry Shoshkes at HIAS New York, Leo noted the high immigration figures and the struggle to absorb them: ‘Looking through recent figures, I see that the number of Jewish post-war arrivals in this country is very close to 7600 persons (not for publication please). You will agree that for a Jewish population of 30,000, this presents a very great task to absorb them, and especially as we expect to bring over to this country, by various ways and means in the next two or three years’ time a good few thousand more.’

At the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) conference, held in Melbourne from 11 June to 13 June 1949, Leo gave the address on immigration. He emphasised the problem of absorption: ‘3000 [Jewish] people will enter Australia during the year. The problem will be the absorption of the immigrants into the Australian Jewish community, not the obtaining of permits.’

Mina’s housing report to AJWRS on 12 July 1949 stressed the need to cater for the cultural and social needs of people in Camberwell House. In response, members of the board agreed to assist with special programs.

As ECAJ Chairman of the Immigration Subcommittee, Leo tabled his report on 10 December 1949. It covered the following items:

1. Conditions in Europe are improving for Jewish displaced persons.
2. Establishment of Israel has created the wrongful idea that we are in competition for manpower. This is not so.
3. Maurice Ashkanasy has been successful in the government overturning the 25 per cent quota on the number of Jews on any one boat or plane. But Federation of Australian Jewish Welfare Societies, with the Joint and HIAS, have to accept all responsibility for the harmonious absorption of Jews in Australia.
4. Australia’s agreement with the International Refugee Organization discriminated against Jews so few arrived on that program.
5. AJWRS dealt with transportation, searches, permits, reception, interstate transport and luggage clearance, social services, sustenance, medical assistance, employment, translation of documents and legal advice, interpreters, housing and accommodation, and child welfare.