Friday, September 28, 2012

Jewish Synagogue, Greenslopes

One of the things that perplexes me most is Australia's current debate about people variously described as refugees, asylum seekers, boat people and queue jumpers. The thought that people who are risking drowning to escape tyranny, violence, discrimination or hunger have to be locked up for years to make sure that they are not getting to Australia ahead of someone who might be better off in those areas is distressing. The fact that it becomes a political football is disgusting.

Yet it seems that it has almost always been difficult for refugees to enter Australia and live here without hatred and vilification. Going back in my lifetime, I can recall Vietnamese boat people having similar problems, and in primary school I can remember kids from European countries who were described as "reffos". During my high school years I lived in a housing commission suburb where our neighbours were Italians, Dutch, English, Greeks and Yugoslavs, all of whom travelled here to provide a better life for themselves and their families. The word "migrant" came to have such a pejorative meaning that we were implored to use the term "New Australian" instead. It was eventually seen in the same light and became just as contemptuous. Without wanting to cast myself as some sort of white knight, I could never understand how someone who uprooted their family and travelled to the furthest corner of the earth to escape war (or something just as perilous) became a person to be belittled. Many of these people worked at jobs well below their level of education and experience to give their children a better life. And subsequently, so many of those Italians, Greeks, Vietnamese and others have contributed so much to our Australian way of life. 

Recently we looked at the Red Flag Riots that occurred in Brisbane after WWI. In that instance it was Russian immigrants who bore the brunt of racial vilification. In 1918 there were 6000 Russians known to be living in Australia - 4000 of them were in Queensland. Many of them settled in the Woolloongabba area, where both an orthodox church and a synagogue were quickly established. For the Russians were hardly a homogenous group - there were wide political, ethnic and religious differences among them.  To the average Australian of that time, these differences were probably not even understood, or else they were completely dismissed. In March 1919, unrest that was festering amongst returned servicemen who feared the growth of Socialism in Australia boiled over into street demonstrations and violence against Russians. Any Russians.

To gain an understanding of what a dangerous journey some Russians made to come here, I invite you to read this essay "The main thing is to shut them out" online at University of Woollongong. The author, Marett Leiboff, is the descendent of a Russian Jew who settled in Brisbane, and she tells the story of the dangerous journey to Brisbane made by her grandfather. She also discusses the riots and their effect on Russians. (Edit: I originally mistakenly referred to Marett Leiboff as a male. I apologise.)

Here is a transcript of a letter sent during the time of the riots to the editor of The Brisbane Courier - it was written by the "minister" of the Deshon St synagogue that was established at Woolloongabba by Russian Jews.

Sir,- As minister of the Jewish Synagogue in Deshon-street, I beg leave to place a few facts before you about our church. From seven to eight years ago a number of Jews emigrated from Russia to Australia on account of the awful persecutions that they were forced to undergo at the hands of the Russians. We subsequently established a Jewish Church in Deshon-street for religious purposes, and have a large membership. We wish to point out to the Australian public that we have no connection or sympathy whatever with the Bolsheviks - it was people such as these who persecuted us in Russia, and that is why we are in Australia to-day. The Bolshevists have no religion, and believe in no church. We are highly religious to-day, and believe in peace and quietness. In our service we always pray in the Yiddish language (and not in the Russian), for the British King and Queen and Prince of Wales. During the war we have always prayed for the success of the Allies, and we are in every way true, loyal, and devoted subjects to the British Empire, and have never at any time wittingly admitted any one with Bolshevist views into our religious circle.
We hope and trust that we will be permitted to live in peace and quietness in our little community, as we have heretofore done, and that no one will in any way associate us with or molest us as part of the Russian Bolshevists who unfortunately are in Brisbane to-day.
For the members of the Deshon-street Jewish Synagogue,
-I am, sir, &c, 
I. MEERKIN, Minister. March 27 (1919).

The synagogue mentioned here was established in 1915 in flood-prone Deshon St Woolloongabba, and here is a photograph of it from 1922.

A friend of this blog and a man who grew up in Brisbane as a member of this congregation is Dr Mervyn Doobov OAM, who now lives in Israel. He kindly supplied this later image of the exterior of the synagogue from 1965 and a photograph of the interior from 1969.  

(Photos: M Doobov)

This little synagogue perished in 1976 as the result of a fire that has been described as "mysterious". The congregation built another synagogue at nearby Greenslopes, pictured below. It has been erected on a hill to prevent flooding and made of brick to prevent fire. If only there was something that would prevent discrimination too.
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Click here for a Google Map.



  1. Couldn't agree more *nod*. We, of all countries of the world, should embrace every migrant and refugee who wants to make a new life in Australia, away from the poverty and oppression in their own nation. Every single one of us, apart from the aboriginal community, arrived here in this generation or our parents' or our grandparents'.

    I have tried to suggest why some migrants were actively recruited and warmly welcomed, and others were imprisoned or sent home:

    The Deshon St Woolloongabba synagogue looked lovely, almost on a domestic scale of architecture. The Greenslopes synagogue alas looks as if it is more concerned with security and fire than it is with welcoming families.

    Thanks for the link

    1. Just typical not-so-attractive 1960s Brisbane architecture more than anything I think - I believe the style is called "brutal" (perhaps just unofficially) it always reminds me of the old La Boite Theatre building on Hale Street, and some of the older buildings at UQ.

      Thanks for the information on the congregation's response to the Red Flag riots - another vital clue for my investigation of the community!

  2. Thank you so much for this post. I grew up in Morningside and later Cannon Hill, Brisbane. My families Synagogue was Deshon St, although we went to the one in the city for Sunday school.

    My brothers, sisters and I were the only Jewish kids at Morningside Primary school which made us different. Also, as Jewish kids we had all watched the movie Exodus (about Jews escaping the holocost) and my parents are immigrants.

    So I very much appreciate your introduction about the terrible way our government is treating the current refugee crisis... I also very much appreciate your posting those pictures - they bring back many fond memories...

    Jonathon Rose

    1. Jonathon, did you go to Coorparoo High School, by any chance?

      Kris Olsson


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