‘A real mensch’: Australia’s oldest Jew mourned

Leo Buchler (right) after his 108th birthday last year, with grandson David (left) and son Paul. Photo: Peter Haskin

THE Australian Jewish community lost a legend on Tuesday, with our oldest community member Leo Buchler passing away at 108 years of age. 

Leo was the third oldest man in the country and a Shoah survivor – but above all, he was a father, grandfather, great-grandfather and proud member of Elwood Shule. 

“Mr Buchler was an excellent person to be around. He was a gem, and it has been a true honour and privilege to have known him,” Elwood Shule’s Rabbi Shmuel Karnowsky told The AJN ahead of the funeral on Wednesday.

While Rabbi Karnowsky met Leo over 11 years ago, it was in the past six years that the two really struck up a special friendship. 

The rabbi visited Leo on every birthday. They would wrap tefillin and the rabbi’s children would play music for him. Leo happily received home visits from Rabbi Karnowsky, whether to blow the shofar each Rosh Hashanah, and shake the lulav each Succot, or just to catch up and have a chat. 

“I would go to visit him, but I was the one who would walk away inspired,” shared the rabbi. 

“Mr Buchler would just appreciate every day of his life. I remember, he would say, ‘I wake up, and it’s a blessing.'” 

The rabbi recalled the famed Abraham Lincoln quote, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years,” adding, “But Mr Buchler had both.”

“He was the epitome of a mensch – humble, dignified, intelligent, thoughtful, witty and grateful. I deeply valued our friendship and myself and my children will miss him truly.” 

Leo was born in Hungary on November 9, 1910, and lived though two revolutions, two world wars, life as an inmate at a Nazi labour camp and immigration to a country on the other side of the world. 

When The AJN visited a sprightly Leo following his 108th birthday last year, he shared his story. “I’ve got a lot of bad memories from Hungary,” Leo reflected.

In the midst of the horrors of Nazi Europe, Leo wed his wife Magda in 1940. She would be sent to Auschwitz, as Leo was an inmate at labour camp. But they would luckily survive and later reunite. 

After the war, Leo and Magda desperately looked for a way out of Europe. They arrived in Vienna illegally from Budapest, and from there they attempted to immigrate to either Australia, the US or Canada. But they were informed that the borders were closed to these countries for three months, and their only option would be to immigrate to Israel. With a ship set to depart for the Holy Land the following day, the couple began to contemplate their future as Israelis – and then in a surprising twist of fate, they received word that Australia would accept them. 

“And so we came to Australia, otherwise today we would be in Israel, because it was terrible in Vienna for us,” Leo remembered. 

Upon arriving in Australia, Leo got straight to work at a printing press, and eventually went on to buy his own printing business and have his family. 

Leo’s grandson, David Buchler effused, “He is our family legend – humble and intelligent.”

Son, Paul Buchler, concurred. 

“He is a caring, loving man … modest, and a quiet achiever.

“But above all, he is a real mensch.”