Migrant Voices – Dina Gelfand

Orrvale Primary School, circa 1049

Dina Gelfand's story is the story of the Jewish settlement and family life in Shepparton. Dina migrated to Australia and came to Orrvale in 1929.




My mother was born Liba Zaentz, in Wysokie Litewsk, a shtetl (village) in the Polish-Russian Pale. My father, Isaac Wolkowicki (later abbreviated to Wolk), came from Novogrodek. I was born in 1923 in Wysokie Litewsk. My first recollection is of doting grandparents, two aunts and my parents all living together in one house.

When I was four years old, my father left for Australia. My mother's cousin, Chaya-Sora Black, and her husband sponsored him. Two years later, my mother and I joined him. We boarded the ship Saffe in Marseilles. We disembarked in Melbourne on 15 October 1929 and were met by my father.

I had remembered him as a clean-looking man with immaculate white skin. I cannot describe how I felt seeing this tired-looking man with a lined and tanned face. We stayed in Melbourne that night and the next morning we boarded the train for Shepparton, where Gershon Gorr met us in his Ford car. I had never known anyone who owned a car. The first thing I noticed was that there were no people, few houses and many fruit trees. Then came the realisation of what we had come to. I cannot imagine the shock my mother must have had, leaving her comfortable, happy home in Poland and arriving at her new home - a weatherboard house with not another dwelling in sight. There was no running water and all our drinking water came from rainwater tanks. There was no electricity, no bathroom and the toilet was a 'dunny' two hundred yards from the house. It was just a seat over a huge hole in the ground. However, much to our amazement, there was a telephone!

The stables were near the house and had a fenced yard where the horses were kept. There was also a barn for fodder, but I would never go in there because of the rats. To this day, I am more scared of mice and rats than almost anything else in the world. To make matters worse, we were warned to be aware of snakes. In spite of all of this, there was one big plus - we were a family again.

After settling in, Mum and I discovered that the day before our arrival Dad had fallen off a plough and was in a lot of pain. I gave him a bad time at first, blaming him for taking me away from my beloved grandfather, my Zaida. When he came in from the orchard I would not go near him until he had changed out of his working clothes into a suit with a collar and tie. How hard it must have been for him!

The first day in my new house was quite eventful. I wandered around the house and then into the shed where an employee was fixing up cases in preparation for the fruit season. He knocked his hand with a hammer and said: 'Bloody bastard!' Naturally, I quickly memorized these words and thought I could speak English. The following day my father took me to visit a family called Rosenbaum. Two of their sons, Joe and Ben, were working in the orchard. In Yiddish, I told Joe I could now speak English. 'What can you say?' he asked. I told him, he replied that I certainly could speak English and that I should go on speaking it.

I started school the following day and when the headmaster spoke to me, I looked him in the eye and answered, 'Bloody bastard.' He asked Claire Feiglin to take me outside and explain what I had just said. I did not open my mouth again for three months after this incident, by which time I was able to speak English fluently.

I attended a small rural state school in Orrvale, approximately three and a half miles from Shepparton. It accommodated children from Grade 1 through to Grade 8. There were two rooms, two teachers and a headmaster for around ninety children, of whom about ten were Jewish. Later, I graduated to Shepparton High School; along with about fifteen other Jewish children.

Our means of transport was a horse and gig or a fruit lorry pulled by two draught horses. A beautiful horse called Lady drew the gig, which held the three of us. She was quite spirited, having been bred for racing. Dad was a great horse lover and he really loved Lady. She always looked around behind her to see who was getting into the gig and if it were Dad, she would not stand and wait, but just raced off. On the other hand, if it were Mum and I, she would take her time and have to be urged to move. In the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, there is a section on rural Australia with a photo of Mum, Dad and me in this gig.

I recall the first Passover we spent in Shepparton. It was just after the fruit season and we had enough money to buy the necessities - a dinner set, tablecloth, saucepans, cutlery, etc. We were on our way home in the gig when we decided to visit another family, where we were talked into staying for tea. When we came outside again the horse and gig were gone. They came home the next day, but without the goodies. We were devastated. This sad story got around and all the local Jewry contributed to make our Passover a happy one. Dad repaid them many times over.

Times were very difficult and I recall the Jewish women saying to Mum that if the women did not help, we would not get anywhere. Mum got stuck into the hard work and within a few weeks, she was in hospital for three years with recurrent tuberculosis. My father looked after me for the first six months and I recall moonlit nights when he was ploughing really late, with me sitting on the plough, because he was afraid to leave a seven-year-old girl alone at home. He really could not cope with the work and a small child, so after that, I spent six months with the Feiglins, six months with the Trevaks family and six months with the Gorrs.

Mum was in Mooroopna Hospital and Dad took me there regularly to see her. My father was allowed to come near her, but I could only see her through a pane of glass. In my eyes my mother was very lovely - a blue-eyed blonde raised in a very loving and caring family. In the old days only sons were educated, not daughters. But in my mother's family boys and girls were treated equally. Consequently, my mother was quite an educated woman. She spoke and wrote in Yiddish, Russian, German and Hebrew and read all the Russian classics in that language.

Years later I realized how difficult everything was for her, such as becoming so ill after only six months in Australia. She had very fair skin and the mosquitoes absolutely loved her. Practically her whole body became infected from scratching. One day, we noticed the cat staring at a pair of fangs sticking up between the cracks in the wooden floor. Dad got a rake and pulled out a big black snake. Mum was very frightened. Also the heat was just terrible for her. How she must have suffered! However, the people of Shepparton were very kind and visited us constantly, making us feel at home.

For the next twelve months, when I was about eight or nine, I was boarded with the Naiditch family in Carlton. I only have a few memories from that time. I attended Lee Street School in North Carlton and every four weeks, a friend of my parents took me to see Mum in the Greenvale Sanitarium north of Melbourne.

At last Mum came home and all was as normal as was possible. Times were tough during the Depression, but Dad always made sure there was a woman in the house and never left Mum alone. She lay on a couch in the kitchen, directing the cooking so our housekeeper cooked in a more Jewish way. In her gentle way, she told us all what to do and I was very well looked after, much loved, even spoiled. Finally, I returned to Orrvale School, where I was much happier.

Twice a year, before Pesach and Rosh Hashanah, the Aisens came to visit, Fay Aisen bringing beautiful remnants of material from which she made a new wardrobe for me. Crowds always came up from Melbourne for the Christmas holidays too, but there were not enough beds for all, so the older people went to bed first while we young ones - I was a teenager by this time - stayed up all night, then went to bed when the older people got up. We had a ball! We rode our bikes into Shepparton, double-dinking the guests, and swam in the Goulburn River.

But life was not all play. When the season was on, we were up at 5.00 am for work, sorting fruit for the cannery under the shade of a tree. At 5.15 pm when work finished, I used to come in dog-tired and lie down on the cold lino floor for half an hour's sleep, then have tea. After tea, I went back to the shed to pack the fruit for market. Our orchard grew a lot of pears and I still can't eat them to this day.

Most of the time, there was a shochet (a ritual slaughterer) who also acted as a teacher. Although I learned a little Hebrew, I concentrated mostly on Yiddish and am very grateful now that I can correspond with my relatives in that language. Whenever we had to shecht (to slaughter chickens), I had to carry them in a chaff bag on the bike to the shochet's house. Once I met a friend and came home several hours late, so Dad made me pluck the chickens, which made sure I was never late again. At times when there was not a shochet, we received meat from Melbourne, which usually arrived spoiled and had to be thrown out.

By this time the Depression had set in, but I think the people on the land were better off than those in the city. There was always plenty of food in the house as we had our own chickens and grew vegetables as well as the fruit. Bread and groceries were bought on account and paid off when the fruit harvest was sold. Shepparton was a caring community where everyone helped each other. If someone was unable to cope, working bees were formed to bring everything up to date.

Whenever it was Yom Tov (a Jewish holiday), we were always invited to the Rosenbaums. I remember the Passovers when their Seders were really something to remember. Family arrived from everywhere and there were always thirty or forty people. The Seder was conducted with exactness. The Jewish community was close-knit and all the Jewish holidays were observed. None of the children went to school on these days. On one such holiday a Jewish boy turned up at school and the headmaster called him into his office, chastised him and sent him home. We thought that was a great joke.

The Jewish community in Shepparton often held socials and meetings. We had a teacher who taught us to daven (to pray) in Hebrew, and taught Yiddish reading and writing to those who wanted to learn. Dignitaries from the Melbourne Jewish community visited us two or three times a year. There was a Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO) group and we supplied a candidate for their queen competition. All our homes were open to each other, with or without need for invitations. There were often up to twenty people at Friday nights at our place. It was great!

In 1937, my parents brought out from Poland Mum's sister, Keila, her husband, Israel Feldman, their son, David, and Dad's brother, Reuben Wolk. There was great excitement now we had family in Australia and they stayed with us while deciding what to do. Eventually, they bought orchards.

In 1939 Uncle Reuben's wife, Anne, arrived with their two children, Rose and Issy. So we were three families, all living in Shepparton.

It makes me sad now to think that (as far as I know) that my children, my grandchildren and I are the only living descendents of the Wolk family. My mother had wanted to bring out her parents and her brother, Abraham Moshe, his wife, Yudice, and their three children, Eli, Bela and Chaya. Unfortunately, her parents would not come and the others felt they could not leave them behind. They all died in the Treblinka extermination camp and Mother never forgave herself for their deaths.

Part of our social life in our younger days was playing tennis at Mr Feiglin's house. This was beside an irrigation channel and after tennis we went for a swim. One day we decided to have a look at a little shed near the house. We found it was a mikvah (a ritual bath) and being children, we pushed each other in. Well, did we get into trouble! The Shul (synagogue) in Shepparton was on a site granted by the Government for religious purposes. It was a rectangular timber building with several windows. Inside was the Ark and in front were seats where the men sat. Then there was a small partition and several rows for the women.



Shepparton Synagogue

The former Shepparton Synagogue, near Poplar Avenue, Shepparton



Shepparton Synagogue

The same location, perhaps 60 years later



On High Holy Days, people came from surrounding towns to join in the services and we never let them return to their homes without entertaining them with meals. Sometimes they slept over. Aunt Keila, Israel, and David Feldman would eat with us on Friday nights and many people visited after dinner - the Pratts, Upfals, Trevaks, Blayers and many others. Mum lay on the sofa in the kitchen entertaining the women while the men played cards in the lounge or dining room. They played weird European games like 'sixty-six thousand' and another called 'ocke'. Later they graduated to Poker. It was a lot of fun and wonderful for Mum.

Eventually, I went to Melbourne where I got a job working for the United Jewish Overseas Relief Fund, which made me very aware of the situation in Europe. When the war ended we were the first to hear of the atrocities and immediately began collecting clothing, tinned food and blankets to send to the survivors. We also sent a team to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA), which were affiliated with the American Joint Distribution Committee (Joint).

We had an arrangement with Australia Post that all dead letters be directed to us. We were not allowed to open them but tried to locate the people whose names were on the envelopes. It was heartbreaking to see grown people, including men returned from the war, reading these letters informing them what had happened to their families. One day when I was going through a bundle of these letters, a queer feeling ran through me as I saw a letter addressed to Volkokovic, farmer, Australia. I took it to the secretary's office and asked to be allowed to open it. He gave permission and I saw it was from my father's brother, Israel, who was liberated and still in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.

Israel knew my father had changed his name in some way, but could not remember exactly how. So he wrote Volkokovic as a guess. It was only my intuition that guided me. Within two weeks we had a permit for him to come to Australia.

Shortly after this episode, on 11 December 1947, I married Sam Gelfand from Perth and went to live there with him. My twin sons, Allan and Warren, were born at the end of 1948. We travelled back to Shepparton every eighteen months to visit my family - the first flight in a DC3 took fourteen hours. When the DC4 appeared 1951 it cut two hours off the flight. I loved Perth, but as the only child of my parents, I felt that we needed to live close to them. In 1953 we returned to live in Melbourne. We missed Perth and our friends there and flew back every year. In 1956 our third son, Howard, was born. To this day, my sons' fondest memories are of visiting their grandparents and the Jewish community of Shepparton.

Source: Suitcase Full of Dreams (Reproduced with permission)

Image Credits: Shirley Randles, No Locked Doors, Jewish Life in Shepparton, Makor Jewish Community Library, 2004. ISBN 1-876733-446

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