Leibler speaks at opening of exhibit on Holocaust survivors finding refuge in Australia

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By Greer Fay Cashman
‘JERUSALEM POST’ columnist Isi Leibler, before making aliya, was president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the highest position in Australia’s Jewish community.

It was in that capacity that he was asked to speak at the opening of an exhibition at the Australian Embassy demonstrating how the Joint Distribution Committee, working closely with Australian Jewish welfare organizations, managed to get a large number of Holocaust survivors to Australia.

Leibler was taken out of Europe by his mother, just in time to escape the Holocaust. With a reputation for telling the truth even when it hurts, Leibler, though appreciative of Australia taking in so many survivors, did not forget the kind of Australia they came to.

It was not the role model for multiculturalism that it is today. It was racist. The notorious White Australia policy was in full force and migrants not of Anglo Celtic origin were denied entry or subjected to bizarre foreign language dictation tests as a pretext for rejecting them.

The media were unabashedly anti-Semitic, recalled Leibler, and parliamentary debates reflected a chorus of demands that Australia not become a dumping ground for undesirable Jews.

When Arthur Calwell became immigration minister, he was persuaded by some prominent Jewish financial backers of the Labor Party to allow Jewish refugees into Australia.

He initially agreed to 3,000 on condition that the Jewish community pay all the costs involved.

In this context, Leibler paid particular tribute to Leo Fink and his wife Mina, Polish Jews who had immigrated to Australia several years before the outbreak of the Second World War.

The Finks were dedicated to the welfare of Jews not only in Australia but anywhere in the world. Leibler studied with their daughter Frieda at Melbourne University. She married Martin Freiberg and their son, Mark, is one of Israel’s leading spokespeople, seen and heard on television around the globe.

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because he’s known in Israel as Mark Regev.

The exhibition was the result of research by Sydney-based archival historian Suzanne Rutland, who together with curator Sarah Rood wrote a book which is an extension of the exhibition.

Rutland, who introduced Leibler to the large gathering that comprised by and large Australians living in Israel, described Leibler as “a diplomat without portfolio” and credited him with being instrumental in securing the recognition of Israel by India and China.

Australian Ambassador James Larsen, in acknowledging the work of the Joint, noted that the Jews whom the organization had helped to reach Australia had been able to fulfill their potential and had made outstanding contributions to business and the arts.

Solly Kaplinski, executive director of overseas Joint ventures at the JDC Jerusalem, said that it remains as active as ever in many countries around the world, especially those in the former Soviet Union.

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post



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