THE VAJEX AUSTRALIA STORY:
ACHIEVEMENTS IN WAR AND PEACE
by Walter Jona AM
Originally published in
The Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society Vol XII 1993 Part 1, pp170-178
The Victorian Association of Jewish Ex & Servicemen & Women Australia Inc, more familiarly known as VAJEX Australia, is much more than just another organisation in the Jewish community of Victoria. Its historic role and that of its predecessor associations distinguishes it from most of the other 150 plus organised Jewish groupings in Victoria, for it is the only Jewish organisation which singularly perpetuates and honours the memory of Jewish men and women in the Armed Services of Australia in the world wars and in all other conflicts in which Australia has been engaged.
In more recent years, VAJEX Australia has welcomed to its active membership large numbers of Allied servicemen and women of World War II, including many Jews from the former USSR now residing in Australia.
VAJEX Australia has vigorously and persistently endeavoured to ensure that succeeding generations should know of the Jewish record in Australia's wars. It is a record of immense pride. The statistics of Jewish war service in the armed forces of Australia reveal a remarkably disproportionate response from a tiny section of the general Australian community. The sacrifices of Jewish service personnel and the level of personal achievement of servicemen and women far exceed proportionately the comparative statistics for the rest of Australia.
Furthermore, the contribution made to Australia by the Jewish survivors of Australia's wars and the services rendered by them to the well-being of Australia and its citizens is as remarkable and distinctive as the war-time service itself.
VAJEX Australia is the symbol and torch carrier of the Jewish spirit which permeated the Allied fight for survival and freedom. It is a beacon which has focused on the ANZAC spirit which flowered in abundance through the blood of Australian Jewry. As a fully identifiable but integrated part of the total Australian population, the Jewish community has a record which is literally second to none in its services and sacrifices for the preservation of the highest Jewish and Australian ideals and in the safeguarding of freedom and peace in times of both peace and war.
Therefore, it is proper that some of the highlights, notable achievements and landmarks in the history of VAJEX Australia be permanently recorded in the annals of Australian Jewish history. In so doing, it is appropriate to recollect some of the great personalities who served VAJEX Australia and its predecessors over the years.
As a result of the large-scale Jewish immigration to Australia in the post-war years, many people think of the Jewish community in Australia as a relatively new community. This, of course, is not the case, for vibrant Jewish life in this country and the Jewish contribution to the development and security of the Australian nation goes back to the earliest days of settlement. It began with the arrival of Jews in the First Fleet in 1788, later to be joined by numerous free settlers from England and thousands of freedom-seeking immigrants, including refugees who had fled the various waves of anti-Semitism in Europe.
As the population in Australia increased, so did Jewish community life. Australian Jews were not only keeping alive and practising their ancient faith and customs, but they were also accepting their full responsibilities as citizens in the community life and affairs of the land of their birth or their adoption.
One of these responsibilities was to defend this country whenever its citizens were called on to do so. In the Boer War and in the subsequent two world wars, as well as in other conflicts, Australian Jews have always rallied to the national cause with a great spirit of loyalty and genuine patriotism.
The statistics of Jewish enlistments in the 1914-18 war reveal that out of a total Australian Jewish population of less than 18,000, more than 2,300 or in excess of 12% enlisted voluntarily in the AIF, as against 9% for the whole nation.
A total of 176 Jewish soldiers held Commissioned Officer rank, the most distinguished of course being that great citizen soldier, lawyer and engineer, General Sir John Monash. Sixty-one Jewish soldiers from Victoria alone were killed in action.
In World War II more that 3,800 Jewish men and women served in the Australian Armed Forces representing a significantly higher percentage than the national enlistment rate. Of these, 134 paid the supreme sacrifice, including 58 from Victoria.
In both world wars, the death toll of Australian Jewish servicemen was slightly higher than that of their non-Jewish fellow Australians.
The remarkably high rate of enlistment in the 1939-45 War had a unique impact on Jewish communal life in Victoria. For example, of the 72 male members of the Youth Group of the Liberal synagogue in Melbourne, 59 enlisted in the forces. From the 3rd St Kilda Scout Group (later to be known as Danglow's Own), 129 or 25% of all former scouts enlisted, of whom ten paid the supreme sacrifice. Almost 100% of the male membership of Jewish sporting clubs joined the services.
Australian Jewry's very high numerical proportionate contribution to the armed services, together with its high level of inspiration and leadership within the Forces, as well as the many recorded accounts of gallantry, provide an illustrious chapter in Australian history of which every Australian, both Jewish and non-Jewish, should feel proud. Australian Jewish servicemen and women received no less than 120 war-time awards for bravery and conspicuous service, a remarkable achievement for such a small percentage of the Australian population.
Following the end of World War II, Jewish returned servicemen and women, inspired by the ideals for which they had fought and determined to ensure that their dear comrades and their families would not be forgotten, together with the returned servicemen and women of all faiths, joined the RSL and other general community organisations committed to the remembrance of the fallen, the welfare of the living and the preservation of their sacred ideals. In addition to their participation in the Remembrance and ANZAC Commemorations held within the general community, the Jewish returned men of Melbourne in the early 1920s began to meet informally as a group on occasions such as Remembrance Day in order to form a minyan and recite the mourner's prayer or Kaddish in memory of those killed in action in the 1914-18 War. All of these men were later to hold office in or give strong support to the Jewish Returned Soldiers' Circle, established under the presidency of Colonel Isadore Isaacson in 1929. With Isaacson at these early meetings were other such well-known personalities as Arthur Groenwoud, Louis Orbuck, Harold Cohen, Sam Crawcour, Mannie Eilenberg, Bert Blashki, Archie Michaelis and many others.
In 1924, the Chevra Kadisha - the Jewish Burial Society - in Melbourne undertook the erection of an obelisk in the grounds of the Melbourne General Cemetery. The initiative and driving force for the erection of the obelisk, which was unveiled and consecrated by Chaplain Rabbi Danglow, Rabbi Joseph Abrahams and Chaplain Rabbi (later Sir) Israel Brodie on 14th December 1924, largely came from the then President of the Chevra Kadisha Joseph Waxman and its Honorary Secretary, Casper J Perlstein.
Interestingly, Joseph Waxman was the grandfather of VAJEX Australia stalwart Meryl Slutzkin and David Cohen, whilst Casper Perlstein was the father of former VAJEX Australia president Lou Perlstein.
The obelisk, a memorial to the 61 Jews from Victoria who paid the supreme sacrifice with Australia's armed forces in World War I was, in 1947, to have added to it a further 58 names of those Victorian Jews who were killed in action with Australia's forces in the 1939-45 War.
The Victorian Jewish Returned Soldiers' Circle, founded as I mentioned in 1929, and with Sir John Monash amongst its members, continued under Isadore Isaacson's presidency until 1937, when Brigadier Harold E Cohen took the chair until the end of the war in 1945.
During those war years, the Circle worked strenuously for the war effort. It provided comforts for the troops overseas, dispatched a regular supply of food parcels to Britain, assisted the Jewish chaplaincy and kept the interests of serving and returned Jewish servicemen and women above all else. A close liaison was maintained with the senior Hebrew Chaplain, Colonel Rabbi Jacob Danglow, whose chaplaincy service in all Australia's wars from 1905 until his death in 1962 had earned him a high reputation. Regular contact was maintained with Rabbi Major LM Goldman whose six years active and energetic service had brought him the endearing respect of Jewish troops in both the Middle East and Pacific theatres of war. Chaplain Goldman's premature death in the 1950s was undoubtedly accelerated by his war service, whilst Rabbi Danglow continued to render service as the beloved senior patron and chaplain until his death in 1962. By 1946, the membership of the Victorian Jewish Returned Soldiers' Circle had naturally reached a record level and there were several unsuccessful attempts to amalgamate with the Victorian Jewish Ex-Servicemen's Association, which in 1945 had been formed to cater for those Jewish servicemen and women who had not seen service overseas.
An amalgamation of interests did eventually take place on 11 July 1949, with the constitution of the Returned Soldiers' Circle being widened to permit membership of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and women with at least six months war-time service.
Philip Opas, the President of the Returned Soldiers' Circle, continued on as President of the newly consisted organization known as the Victorian Jewish Returned and Ex-Servicemen's Association.
The Victorian Jewish Returned and Ex-Servicemen's Association then disbanded and by 1950 65 of its members, including its President, Ben Green, and its Honorary Secretary, Arnold Blashki, had joined the Victorian Jewish Returned and Ex-Servicemen's Association.
In later years, the constitution was to be further widened to include servicemen and women who served in any of the allied forces against the common enemy. The ranks of VAJEX Australia membership accordingly grew to embrace a very wide and representative group of veterans from many lands who had now made Australia their new home.
In fact, by 1986 just on 60 Jewish veterans who had fought with the Russian Army against the Nazis, and who had managed with courage and determination to get out of the Soviet Union, had joined the membership of VAJEX Australia.
During the 1950s, World War I stalwarts who had so magnificently formed and led the organisation for nearly 30 years, whilst still retaining active interest and providing guidance, decided to hand over more reins of office to the younger men and women from World War II.
The Australian Federation of Jewish Ex-Service Associations, comprising Jewish ex-service organisations from the five mainland states of Australia was formed in 1948, and provided a great impetus for the development of national programmes during the important periods of post-war rehabilitation. One of these programmes was the British Ex-Service Immigration Scheme, under which scores of British Jewish Ex-servicemen and their families were sponsored to Australia under the Australian government's Immigration programme.
In 1957, the Victorian Jewish Returned and Ex-Servicemen's Association changed its name to the Victorian Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, more familiarly known as VAJEX. This name change followed a recommendation in 1956 by the name of each state association and as a result we saw the adoption of the names VAJEX, NAJEX, SAJEX and QAJEX respectively, with the federal body becoming known by the abbreviation FAJEX.
The Victorian Association, VAJEX Australia, continued to thrive and to carry out the vital services entrusted to it. Its welfare and helping hands fund aided scores of its members and their families on a confidential basis, while the hospital visitation teams serviced Jewish ex-service patients in all hospitals as well as providing regular monthly visits to the Heidelberg Repatriations Hospital. The VAJEX Australia blood bank teams under the leadership of such people as Clive Rose, Frank Slutzkin and the late Eric Ciddor donated thousands of pints of blood in their quarterly visits to the Repatriation Hospital.
In addition to the VAJEX Australia initiatives and participation in the Remembrance and ANZAC Day services over the years, it has also ensured that funeral honours would be available at the funeral of every deceased Jewish ex-serviceman and woman.
One of the most honoured possessions of VAJEX Australia and the community itself is the Book of Remembrance, containing in the first instance the names of the Australian Jewish fallen of the two World Wars and later the names of Jewish Ex-servicemen and women who have subsequently passed away. This book was dedicated by Senior Chaplain Rabbi J. Danglow on 18th April 1944, and the first names to be dedicated to its pages were those of Sir John Monash, Colonel Isadore Isaacson, WS Abraham, Lawrence Orbuck, Athol Harlem, Merton Ciddor and Issy Smith, one of the two Australian Jewish Victoria Cross winners and one of a total of seven Jews to win that decoration.
The Book of Remembrance is formally the possession of the entire community but has been permanently placed in the safe custody of VAJEX Australia. It was for years regularly displayed, by rotation, within the various synagogues of Melbourne, and on all ceremonial VAJEX Australia occasions.
The vibrant VAJEX Australia membership and the desire to proclaim and practice the Association's ideals and objectives led to the formation of an eastern suburbs sub-branch of the Association in 1959. With more than 100 members, this sub-branch complemented the parent organisation in all activities, and amongst its pet projects was the traditional VAJEX Australia Annual Legacy Picnic and the donation of a recreation hall to the Legacy Home, Harelands, in Kew. Such was the type of community service undertaken by VAJEX Australia for the benefit of all ex-servicemen and women and their families.
The close VAJEX Australia link with the 3rd St Kilda (Danglow's Own) Scout Group, whose Elwood headquarters houses the VAJEX Australia headquarters, goes back to a basic and common interest since the group was formed in 1924, the same year as the obelisk was erected in the Melbourne General Cemetery.
In 1952, VAJEX Australia established a scholarship fund at Mount Scopus War Memorial College for children and, later, grandchildren, of Jewish Ex-servicemen and women. In the same years the Association's official publication PARADE was launched and has continued its unbroken 41 years of regular publication to this day.
Since the end of World War I, VAJEX Australia has involved itself in many significant debates and issues of both a Jewish and general community nature. Many large and sometimes controversial meetings have been held, but none have been so well attended and so enthusiastically unanimous as was the occasion in January 1960 when several hundred of its members attended or pledged their support to a special meeting of members called at short notice, under the chairmanship of Jack Lipshut, to take appropriate action in response to the wave of swastika and Anti-Semitic daubings which had suddenly plagued synagogues and other Jewish buildings in Melbourne.
Within hours of that meeting and with the full cooperation and support of the Victoria Police, a series of inspection patrols - all comprising VAJEX Australia members were organised and put into action throughout the whole of the Melbourne and Metropolitan area. The Police force not only commended this swift response and co-operation but acknowledged the counter-effect it had to the daubing campaign.
I have purposely detailed some of the activities in which VAJEX Australia has been engaged over the years because they highlight, in very practical terms, the real meaning and purpose of VAJEX Australia existence:
This is why we have and need ex-service organisations to reflect and to remember, to be vigilant and caring, and above all to ensure that those who made the greatest sacrifices in war did not die in vain.
As Jews, members of VAJEX Australia share all the aspirations and responsibilities of the ex-service cause. They also through VAJEX Australia provide the opportunity for Jewish men and women to apply their faith and their religious practice in the ceremony of remembrance.
Any reflection on the role and influence of VAJEX Australia in the community would be incomplete without reference to what surely must be a unique contribution of public service to the general community from the membership of any one organisation of the modest size of VAJEX Australia, Jewish or non-Jewish. It should be emphasized that this remarkably high level of public service relates to the membership of just one state organisation whose membership during its most active years in the 1950s and 1960s was in the range of 400-500 men and women. In the subsequent years, as World War II moved further into the background, the membership, of course, was to decline from its peak of the earlier post-war years.
Let me mention just some of the prominent members of the Victorian Association of Jewish Ex & Servicemen & Women Australia who over the years have distinguished themselves in public office or in notable community positions:
- Maurice Ashkanasy CMG QC - A former Chairman of the Victorian Bar Council
- Arnold Blashki MBE - Past President VAJEX Australia, State and Federal President Australian, Legion of Ex-servicemen and Women
- Brigadier the Hon Harold Cohen CMG DSO VD - Foundation Member, Former Victorian Cabinet Minister, First President of Melbourne Legacy, Former Chief Commissioner of Scouts in Victoria
- Senator Sam Cohen QC - Patron in Chief VAJEX Australia, Former Chairman of the British Press Council
- Rabbi Jacob Danglow CMG OBE VD - Former First Grand Principal of the Supreme Grand Chapter of Freemasons in Victoria
- Bert Harlem - Foundation Member of VAJEX Australia, Former Deputy Commissioner of Repatriation in Victoria
- Matthew Harrison MBE - Past State and Federal President Australian Legion of Ex-servicemen and Women
- Arthur Heymanson - Former Presidents of Carry-on Club, Victoria
- Leslie Hyams - Former Presidents of Carry-on Club, Victoria
- Louis Hyams - Former Presidents of Carry-on Club, Victoria
- Peter Isaacson AM DFC AFC DFM - Chairman of Shrine Trustees, Past President of the Air Force Association
- Dr Jacob Jona - Former Senior Vice President, Victorian Football League, 20 year President Hawthorn League Football Club
- The Hon Walter Jona AM - Patron of VAJEX Australia, Former State and Federal President, Cabinet Minister in several governments during his 21 years in the Victorian Parliament
- Ernest A Joseph - Former President of VAJEX Australia, Past President Fitzroy League Football Club
- The Hon William Kaye AO QC - Former Senior Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria, Past Chairman of the Victorian Bar Council, Past President of the Australian Bar Council
- Leigh Masel - Former Chairman National Companies and Securities Commission
- Hon Sir Archie Michaelis - Foundation Member VAJEX Australia, Former Speaker, Minister and Member of the Victorian Parliament
- General Sir John Monash GCMG KCB VD - Foundation Member of Association, First Chairman State Electricity Commission of Victoria
- Lou Perlstein - Senior Vice President (and President-elect) Carry-On Club, Victoria
- Colin Pura - Past President VAJEX Australia, Past President Rats of Tobruk Association
- Judge Trevor Rapke - Former Judge Advocate-General RAN, Judge of the County Court of Victoria
- Judge Martin Ravech - Judge of the County Court of Victoria
- Dr Sol Rose - President of VAJEX Australia, Past Federal President, Former Deputy Director of Repatriation of Victoria
- Reuben Sackville AM - Past President St Kilda League Football Club
These are but a few examples of the public services rendered to the community by VAJEX Australia members over the years. Added to it are numerous mayors, municipal councillors, members of statutory and public authorities and holders of other community offices which have contributed greatly to the well-being of the state. It is a record in which the Victorian Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, as an organisation, can rejoice and be justly proud. As it was in time of war when Jewish men and women rallied in disproportionately large numbers to serve Australia, so it has been in times of peace that these same men and women have been disproportionately prominent in ex-service welfare organisations and in their public service to the state and its people.
VAJEX Australia and its predecessor organisations were born out of a desire to remember and to serve. In both these respects it has earned high marks of distinction. Within the Jewish community and notably, during the year when its membership age group was conducive to active communal affairs, VAJEX Australia played a very prominent role in the forums of Jewish debates and in the organisational structure of the Victorian Jewish community. During the past 50 years, five of its members have served as President of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria or its predecessor organisations, the Board of Deputies and the Victorian Jewish Advisory Board.
Whilst VAJEX Australia will inevitably cease to exist as an organisation primarily founded out of and for Jews who served in war-time armed forces, it will still continue for many years to come as a service organisation with new challenges and new responsibilities. Whatever the future role of VAJEX Australia might be, it is proper that history should record the unique and proud accomplishments of it and its members both within and outside of the Jewish community over an unbroken period of almost' seventy years. These reflections on the VAJEX Australia past are designed to contribute further to the recorded rich history of the Jewish community and of the total Australian society of which we are all an integral part.
NOTES: The Hon Walter Jona AM died on 22nd July 2007. His State funeral was on 26th July and was attended by a large number of people from the Jewish and general community including VAJEX Australia members. The Military ritual was recited. The Eulogy was given by Emeritus Rabbi Dr John Levi, AM of Temple Beth Israel.
1. Since this article was published in The Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society Vol XII 1993 Part 1, pp170-178 the following changes have taken place. There are now 82 WWI names on the Historical Memorial Obelisk - having discovered Jewish servicemen who have been 'forgotten' for decades. We express our grateful thanks to the Melbourne Chevra Kadisha for recreating the list of 82 names in alphabetical order.
2. Sir Archie Michaelis served in the British Army during WWI and was on Home Service in Australia in WWII.
3. Issy Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross when serving with his British unit in WWI.
4. Dr Sol Rose was honoured with a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) but died before it was presented to him.
5. The Victorian Association of Jewish Ex & Servicemen & Women Australia Inc. is now an incorporated body since 2008.
VAJEX Australia wishes to thank
the Australian Jewish Historical Society (Vic) Inc
for giving us permission
to publish this article in its present form