LEO Buchler has lived through 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.
But when he celebrated his 108th birthday last week, he was happy to just enjoy some of his native Hungarian food with family.
His grandson, David, owns the Elsternwick restaurant, Budapest, and Leo is always overjoyed to receive David’s special deliveries.
“It’s just fantastic,” says Leo, musing on his traditional favourites rukott krumpli (a dish made with potatoes, eggs and lashings of sour cream) and of course, the classic chicken soup with matzah balls – “and noodles”, he adds.
It is insight into his character – modest, humble, homely. A European gentleman of yesteryear.
Born in Hungary on November 9, 1910, The AJN understands that Leo is Australia’s oldest Jewish person – and indeed the third oldest man in the country.
“I’ve got a lot of bad memories from Hungary,” reflects Leo.
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 to 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 remembers.
Three days after he and Magda’s arrival, Leo’s only friend in Australia offered to show him the city. “I said, ‘no, thank you’. I don’t want to see the city. I want to work.”
And work, he did. Leo was a printer by trade – a profession which has spanned generations of the Buchler family (Buch is German for ‘book’). But without any knowledge of spoken or written English, Leo was prepared to work at the motor car factory that he had heard about while on the ship to Australia – Holden.
Again fate intervened. Leo’s friend heard of an opportunity in a printing press and they agreed to give him a trial.
Armed with a Hungarian-English dictionary, Leo went to work. He did so tirelessly, eventually buying his own printing business, GP Printing on Inkerman Street, where for decades, he printed everything from books to bar mitzvah invitations until his retirement at the age of 80.
Leo’s stories are infused with his impeccably quick wit, infectious sense of humour and are told with a twinkle in his eye.
When The AJN met with him this week, he was surrounded by David, and his son, Paul. Their joy was palpable as the three generations spoke Hungarian animatedly, punctuated by eruptions of hearty laughter.
“He is our family legend – humble and intelligent,” effuses David.
“He is a caring, loving man … modest, and a quiet achiever. But above all, he is a real mensch,” adds Paul.
While Leo is certainly sprightly, he has not been without his health scares. He very nearly did not make it to 108.
A few months ago, Leo awoke with chest pains. Suspecting he might be having a heart attack, he first showered and made himself a cup of coffee and some toast, before calling himself a taxi to go to the hospital.
Indeed, he was experiencing a heart attack – and it was serious. The family prepared for the worst.
But, with the gritty determination that has been characteristic to Leo over his lifetime, he fought back and is still with us.
So, what is Leo’s secret for living so long?
“I have no advice,” says Leo humbly with a slight grin. “I have to say, I was very, very lucky. That’s it. I’m just very lucky.”