New Zealand's Jewish achievers

By Andrew Stone

'Jewish Lives in New Zealand, A History' by Leonard Bell and Diana Morrow, editors. Photo / Supplied
'Jewish Lives in New Zealand, A History' by Leonard Bell and Diana Morrow, editors. Photo / Supplied

A new book examines the positive impact of Jewish people in New Zealand

Three New Zealand prime ministers have been Jews.

So have two chief justices, six Auckland mayors, the country's first female lawyer, Ethel Benjamin, and first woman doctor, Emily Siedeberg, who enrolled at Otago University in 1891 with the consent of dean John Scott who told her to give "no encouragement for frivolity".

The record of achievement from a small community rolls on: in education, the law, arts, business, medicine, civic affairs, philanthropy, architecture and film.

"Punching well above their weight" was the late writer Michael King's observation about the Jewish community in New Zealand. Art historian Len Bell, co-editor of a handsome, richly illustrated new history of Jews in New Zealand, firmly agrees. The impact, says Bell, of the smart, often secular mid-century professional migrants, displaced by the rise of Nazi Germany, has been vast.

He says many were motivated to succeed, encouraged by family, education and tradition, driven to high levels of accomplishment. So, with the help of author and historian Diana Morrow, Bell set out to collect in one place the achievements and works of Jewish people in New Zealand. The sweep is broad, from the pioneering writer Joel Polack, who by 1840 had written three books about the country and Maori customs, to the successful businesswoman and Top Model judge Sara Tetro.

There have been previous books about Jewish communities and practices, but none, says Bell, that observed Jewish life in a broader New Zealand context. Together the editors enlisted nine other contributors to identify people of Jewish descent who have made an impact on this country's life, culture and economy.

Bell says they did not set out to be exhaustive and expects a few howls of protest from some excluded at the expense of those who made the cut.

And he made no concession to religious observance. The book includes many who practise Judaism, and many who do not.

Writes Bell in his preface: "The question of 'Who is a Jew' often generates contention and disagreement, among both Jews and non-Jews. It is a question that never has been resolved."

Non-religious and secular Jews feature, those whose Jewishness is based on choice, family and culture.

Bell quotes one well-known New Zealander telling him: "The good thing about being Jewish is that you don't need to worry about religion."

In the end, writes Bell, the broad Jewishness of the people whose lives are touched on "inevitably informed their works. At the same time we recognise that these achievements are not solely grounded in their Jewishness."

Given the book's subject matter, it is inevitable that prejudice and anti-Semitism in New Zealand is examined. Academic Paul Spoonley, who contributes a chapter, concludes that the levels and significance of anti-Semitism are "noticeably more modest " than in countries like Australia and Canada. But as his survey reveals, episodes of prejudice have occurred throughout the history of Jewish settlement in New Zealand. In the last 20 years, Holocaust revisionist scandals have stained Waikato and Canterbury universities.

Bell, who is not a Jew, but has a Jewish wife, uses the phrase "low grade" to describe prejudice encountered by the Jewish community here: " But low grade can still hurt people."

* Jewish Lives in New Zealand: A History. Edited by Len Bell and Diana Morrow (Random House, $55). Photographs supplied by the publisher.

Georg Tintner
A musical prodigy, the Austrian-born conductor spent just 14 years in New Zealand but left a rich cultural legacy. Tintner sang in the Vienna Boys' Choir and conducted the famous young singers with some of his own compositions. Nazi persecution forced him across the world to Auckland. Starting out as a poultry farmer because of his alien status, Tintner gave free singing lessons and taught piano. In 1947 he became director of the Auckland Choral Society and then led the Auckland String Players. In 1954 he moved to Australia, and introduced television opera, and later still to Canada, where he became director of Symphony Nova Scotia. A pacifist, vegetarian and socialist, he travelled on buses with his orchestras rather than going first class. Stricken with pain from cancer, Tintner ended his life by jumping from the 11th storey of his Halifax apartment. His third wife said he was looking for an "honourable" way out of his illness.

Marti Friedlander
A 1960 anti-apartheid protest in Auckland's Myers Park showing a banner declaring "I'm All White Jack" was the first photograph Marti Friedlander took in New Zealand. Born in London's East End in 1928 and raised in a Jewish orphanage, Friedlander came here with her Berlin-born husband Gerrard. Her work over almost half a century has established her as one of the country's leading artists and her photographs - portraits, landscapes, social issues - reveal her ability to connect with her subjects. Michael King once said that "when our descendants want to know what kind of country New Zealand was in the 20th century - what we did that distinguished us from other peoples, what we looked like, what our character was - then one of the major sources for that kind of information and understanding will be the photographs of Marti Friedlander."

Karl Popper
Storm clouds were gathering over Europe when philosopher Karl Popper arrived in Christchurch to teach at Canterbury University. Born in Vienna to Jewish parents, Popper was raised a Lutheran then became a teenage Marxist in the heady political times. The annexation of his home country in 1938 prompted him to refocus his writings on social and political philosophy, and the refugee academic used his time at Canterbury to write two significant books - The Open Society and its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism. He also laid the groundwork to create an enduring research culture at New Zealand's universities. His wife Hennie, a Catholic, felt New Zealand was "half way to the moon". Popper moved to Britain after the war and taught at the London School of Economics. He did not embrace Jewish identity, his "open society" idea rejecting all ethnic, religious and racial identities.

Emily Siedeberg
"Keep men at a distance" advised Emily Siedeberg's mother when her trail-blazing daughter started at the Otago Medical School in 1891. The advice was heeded: five years later Emily was New Zealand's first woman graduate. Other students, she reported, were mostly well-behaved, apart from the "one trifling occasion when a few pieces from another dissecting table came in my direction". Her Jewish father, Franz, an architect in East Prussia arrived in New Zealand in 1851, drawn by the gold rush in Central Otago. Emily, though not a professing Jew, always remembered the "astute father" who encouraged her career and bought his daughter a house where she set up a surgery. The pioneering doctor worked mostly with women and children and was a strong advocate for midwives in the face of opposition from medical colleagues. In 1924, she delivered the infant Janet Frame.

Erich Geiringer
With his black-rimmed glasses, luxuriant beard and unruly mop of curly grey hair, Erich Geiringer was never far from the headlines when he rocked the staid southern medical establishment in the 1960s. The young Erich's upbringing took place alongside the socialist intellectual talk in Vienna's Cafe Geiringer, run by his politically active father. He left Europe ahead of the Nazis, studied medicine in Scotland and got a job at Otago University in 1959. In 1962, when he got his students to distribute pamphlets advocating cervical smears, a university edict banned them as obscene. At one point the British Medical Association New Zealand Branch (as it once was) banned him from membership - Geiringer responded by creating the New Zealand Medical Association. He was a lively radio host with a view on everything and a crusader for nuclear disarmament.

Deb Filler
At the tender age of 9, a fearless Deborah Filler confronted a vicar in Mt Roskill who had preached over the school intercom that the Jews had killed Jesus. Filler - daughter of German Jewish mother Ruth and father Sol, a Polish Jew who survived Nazi concentration camps - insisted to the vicar that her family had no part in killing Jesus. The minister publicly recanted his statement. Now 54, Deb Filler can reflect on a stunning career as a musician, actor, writer and comedic performer who has never flinched from presenting bold material. Her breakthrough work, Punch Me in the Stomach with 36 characters and a humorous take on the legacy of children of the Holocaust and the experiences of Auschwitz-survivor Sol, opened on Broadway in 1992. It is still being performed. She has had similar success with her show Filler up!, where nothing is spared in her self-deprecating line of Jewish humour.

- NZ Herald

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