Jewish Lives in New Zealand: A History, edited by Leonard Bell and Dianna Morrow, (Godwit, 2012), 439 pp., $55.00.
Leonard Bell and Dianna Morrow’s book Jewish Lives in New Zealand: A History,opens up many connections to the life stories of the local Jewish community, while leaving room for more. It is a selective work, made up of essays focusing on the contribution made to the arts, business and professional spheres, rather than trying for a complete survey of the many ways that Jewish people meshed with New Zealand society. It is a history of accomplishment, education, success and hard work, often accompanied by social activism that strove towards better conditions for all New Zealand citizens, not just their immediate community.
This was particularly evident and valuable in the social development of New Zealand in the late nineteenth century, when many of the public institutions that we take for granted had to be dragged into being. I doubt that many would associate kindergartens with free public libraries, or be able to connect the dots back to Mark Cohen (1849–1928) in Dunedin. As editor of the Evening Starin the 1890s, Cohen championed women’s suffrage, free early childhood education and access to knowledge through free public libraries. His wife Sarah (1861–1923) was actively involved in the most deprived sections of the city, and is recalled today in the Sara Cohen School in South Dunedin, one of the last functioning special-needs schools in the country. Bell and Morrow and their contributors draw together many similar stories, leaving the reader to quietly wonder how such a small group wielded such positive influence over time yet remain so little known. Part of it was the smooth fit which many Jewish families and individuals found within New Zealand society. Sir Dove Myer Robinson (1901–1989) was Auckland’s mayor throughout my childhood and into adult life. We knew he was Jewish and worked in the garment trade, both aspects of his life that passed with little comment. It seemed neither unacceptable or unusual, and made Auckland almost seem cosmopolitan.
Bell points out that three of the country’s prime ministers were of Jewish extraction, although most of us would stop at John Key, try for Julius Vogel (1835–1899), and struggle to recall Francis Dillon Bell (1851–1936). There are many such ‘I did not know that’ moments in the book, but it avoids becoming a list by dealing with its subject in eleven linked chapters outlining Jewish contributions to music, to literature, to the fine arts, to professions and to academia, as well as looking at the Jewish community in the South Island, and the sad history of anti-Semitism in this country. These revelations belie my somewhat glib recollection of the public profile of Auckland’s longest serving mayor, and show that New Zealand was not always the fair and tolerant society that we are inclined too often to take for granted. However, it also pays to remember that Prime Minister Vogel did not have to convert to Anglicanism to become acceptable, as Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had to do in England.
The polymorphous talents of those individuals that form the core of the book see them crop up in different settings. We read of Vogel the lively newspaper man, as well as the politician whose bold overseas borrowing policies saw the country linked by telegraph and railways. Likewise, poet and writer Charles Brasch (1909–1973), founding editor of Landfall, appears at regular intervals throughout with contributions to literature, music, the fine arts, and as philanthropic benefactor to the city of Dunedin where his generous bequests aided the university and other cultural institutions.
Many of the everyday product names that fill our domestic environments and workdays stem from the enterprise of Jewish manufacturers. Woolf Fisher (1912–1975) was the son of a Latvian immigrant who saw an opportunity to import domestic appliances, and did so while New Zealand was climbing out of an economic hole far deeper than the one we are in today. The firm he built with partner and brother-in-law Maurice Paykel places two Jewish names at the head of New Zealand’s best known design-led business. Similarly, Bendix Hallensteins’ clothing factory in Dunedin moved from just providing workers’ clothing and school uniforms locally, to becoming urban outfitters to the nation.
As a design historian, the area of greatest interest to me was the Jewish presence in architecture, product design and the visual arts, where connections can be made back to key movements and individuals in international history as well as the profound effect they exerted locally. This trans-national matrix of influences is dealt with by Leonard Bell, an art and cultural historian at the University of Auckland, in the chapter entitled Boarder Crossings: The Visual Arts. Somewhat inescapably, nineteenth-century New Zealand is described as a barren artistic environment dominated by amateurs. Bell maintains that this situation did not change until the later part of the century, but here he bypasses the important early role of the Dunedin School of Art, which was established in 1870. It has been long argued by curator Peter Entwisle that Dunedin was the locus for the professional fine arts in the country at this time. Certainly the city was later the home of a key group of modern-minded painters, including the Jewish artist Patrick Hayman, who studied with Colin McCahon before returning to England following the war to a significant career as an artist and critic.
Bell’s main focus is on the cohort of European Jews displaced from their home countries by Nazi persecution in the 1930s. These include Helmut Einhorn (1911–1988), Friedreich Neuman (1900–1964), Heinrich Kulka (1910–1971) and Ernst Plischke (1903–1992). Architectural historian Andrew Leach points out the difficulty of grouping these émigré architects under a convenient Modernist identity when their backgrounds and attitudes to design and society were so widely different. His article Helmut Einhorn: Dislocation and Modern Architecture in New Zealand (Fabrications Vol 14, Dec 2004) does an equally good job of untangling these confusing threads of identity, and could be read alongside Bell’s chapter for an alternative interpretation of Jewishness and European experience, and how that fitted in with local conditions.
While Plischke is the best known architect in this group, he was not Jewish; rather he emigrated to New Zealand because his wife Anna was Jewish. Emerging as he did from the cultural hot house of post-secessionist Vienna, his commitment to social housing coexisted with an abiding concern with luxury, manifesting itself in his New Zealand projects as a concern with fine finishing and quality materials. These dual aims were realised in his Wellington office building Massey House (1951–2), into which people would walk just for the pleasure of being in such a modern space. Parson’s Book Shop and Harry Seresin’s coffee lounge were added attractions, and so casually yet naturally incorporated that one wonders why commercial developers can’t seem to match the effect today.
Henry Kulka’s work for Fletchers occupies another significant critical space in local architecture, but his structures were more suburban or industrial than Plischke’s and consequently have been far less recognised for their remarkable design qualities. One of his first major projects in New Zealand, a linseed oil refinery in Dunedin’s Parry Street, disappeared to make way for the city’s new events stadium without the architectural loss being much noticed by anyone, I suspect, apart from me.
I was very pleased to again read about the Czech architect Max Rosenfeld (1905–1989) and his book The New Zealand House, which was reprinted several times over a period of thirty years. The implicit notion of the ‘Plan book’ does not do justice to Rosenfeld’s contribution to local domestic architecture. He was a pioneer of what we would now call ‘open source’ knowledge about housing, and the success of the book placed him somewhat offside with the architectural profession. Builders used his plans liberally, and some of the copies I have purchased have sketches by owners tucked inside, showing how Rosenfeld’s European ideas about communal family space were accepted in Glenfield and other places we sometimes think of as benighted and deprived in design terms. The story of his narrow escape from Prague in 1939 and arrival in Auckland — available on the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand website — is so harrowing it might make you weep.
While this group of architects was significant to New Zealand, other earlier Jewish artisans made important contributions to the local visual arts, particularly through silversmithing and jewellery. This is well covered in Winsome Shepherd’s Gold & Silversmithing in Nineteenth & Twentieth Century New Zealand (1995) but stands out as a surprising omission from Bell’s canon, which is otherwise balanced and highly informative. Overall, Jewish Lives in New Zealand makes a significant contribution to public knowledge of the complexity of our society, whether we see it in terms of atomisation or cohesion. The stories of Jewish people who settled here to grow into multi-generational families such as the Nathans in Auckland, or who passed through New Zealand on a peripatetic journey to somewhere else, supports both interpretations, and this multilayered story is well served by Bell and Morrow’s contributors, as well as by their own perceptive essays.
MICHAEL FINDLAY is a Professional Practice Fellow with the Department of Applied Sciences at the University of Otago. He was formerly Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts at Auckland Museum and collections curator at the Otago Settlers Museum in Dunedin. He is working on a PhD on the effect of travel on local architecture.
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