St Kilda’s street of dreams

Mr Benedykt behind the counter in Benedykt Delicatessen in Acland Street in the 1970s.

ACLAND Street in St Kilda has a long Jewish history which historian Judith Buckrich has tapped into in her new book, Acland Street: The Grand Lady of St Kilda.

“St Kilda has been the axis of Jewish life in Melbourne for over 150 years,” said Buckrich. “Buildings like Linden, once the home of the Michaelis family and now a council- owned art gallery, stand as a testimony to the influence of the Jewish community in the 19th century.”

The book explores the history of Acland Street since it became St Kilda’s first named street in 1842, taking its name from Thomas Dyce Acland, the owner of the schooner Lady of St Kilda which gave its name to the suburb.

Even in the 1840s the area was popular with Melbourne residents looking for a picnic sport beside the water close to the city. The discovery of gold in 1851 brought thousands of gold-seekers from around the world to Victoria and St Kilda began to develop rapidly.

By the 1860s there were more than 50 Jewish families living in St Kilda and on September 12, 1869 a meeting was held at the home of Jacob Isaacs to discuss establishing a synagogue and school in St Kilda.

The meeting was chaired by wealthy businessman Moritz Michaelis, who had arrived in Melbourne from Britain in 1853 to set up a branch of the family’s soft goods business and expanded into tanneries and other businesses.

In 1871 the 18-roomed, two-storey mansion Linden was built for the Michaelis family, with its large garden designed by the Royal Botanic Gardens’ curator, William Guilfoyle.

Linden remained in the Michaelis family until 1962 when it was sold to become a hotel and later an art gallery.

Buckrich drew on the Sands and McDougall directories, which listed the names of all residents who lived in Melbourne, to research the Jewish residents of St Kilda, and discovered that in 1906 and 1907, of the 84 properties on both sides of Acland Street, at least 16 were Jewish residences.

“The first refugees from Hitler in the late 1930s weren’t always welcomed by Anglicised Jewish residents who were concerned that the Yiddish-speakers with their outlandishly conspicuous hand-waving gestures and long coats would incite anti-Semitism,” said Buckrich.

Among those who settled in Acland Street in 1943 were artist Karl Duldig, his wife Slava and daughter Eva, 5, who had fled Vienna and were interned at Tatura in NSW as “enemy aliens” for several years.

After World War II until the 1990s, St Kilda and especially Acland Street was the centre of Jewish social life in Melbourne.

“Many Jewish refugees landed there straight off the boat,” said Buckrich. “Jews who had been living in Carlton before the war also descended on St Kilda, Elwood and Caulfield and frequented the restaurants, cafés, delicatessens and cake shops in Acland Street.”

In the late 1950s Masha and Avram Zeleznikov opened the Scheherezade restaurant, a cafe serving Eastern European Jewish food which reminded many Jewish customers of life in Europe before the war.

Hungarian Jewish migrant Endre Szanto established Cosmos bookshop in 1963 selling books and magazines in English, Hungarian, Polish and German as well as records.

Between Monarch Cake Shop and Scheherezade was Berger’s Delicatessen, operated by the parents of high-profile comedian Rachel Berger.

In 1968 the Yiddish-language bookshop Balberyszski was opened by Lithuanian-born Mendel Balberyszski, who had survived the Vilnius ghetto uprising of 1943 and settled in Melbourne after the war.

“Jewish migrants gave the street a totally cosmopolitan flavour. Sunday mornings on Acland Street was standing room only as Jewish men gathered on the street to thrash out the politics of the day, eat latkes at Scheherezade, buy kugelhopf from the Monarch, and get the latest Bashevis Singer novel from the Balberyszski bookshop,” said Buckrich.

Researching and writing the history has been a very personal project for Buckrich, who fled Hungary with a Communist father and Jewish mother in 1958, following the aborted 1956 uprising.

“I have been visiting the street since the early 1960s, when my parents ate at restaurants like Scheherezade and Blue Danube, and swam at St Kilda Beach,” she said.

“In the seventies, I was a student at the National Theatre Drama School, and often in the street before or after classes. In the 1980s I was acting community arts officer for St Kilda Council.”

After Buckrich completed her history of Ripponlea Village – which won the 2016 Victorian Community History Awards Local History: Small Publication Award – she had planned to take a short break from local histories until a friend suggested that her next book should be on Acland Street.

“That was about two-and-a-half-years ago and I immediately agreed on the project. The City of Port Phillip and the St Kilda Historical Society offered some financial assistance and we decided to do a crowd-funding campaign which did quite well,” she said.

Peter Tapp, editor of Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM), a non-profit book publisher, who is also a member of the St Kilda Historical Society, promptly committed to publishing the book.

“This book has given me the most pleasure since my first book 20 years ago on the history of 
St Kilda Road,” she said.

As well as delving into the archives, Buckrich interviewed many people from the Jewish community including comedian Rachel Berger, who grew up above her parent’s Acland Street deli, Port Phillip councillor Dick Gross, restaurateur George Biron whose parents owned food shops, and Hillel Benedykt whose parents established Benedykt Delicatessen.

“So many of the hundreds of people I have met and corresponded with over the course of writing the book love Acland Street with a passion that I have never heard expressed for any other place,” she said.

Buckrich has written many histories including St Kilda Road, Collins Street, Montefiore Homes, Prahran Tech, the Port of Melbourne and the Royal Victorian Institute of the Blind. Earlier this year her memoir, The Political is Personal, was published.

Acland Street: The Grand Lady of St Kilda by Judith Buckrich is published by ATOM. $50 (rrp)

REPORT by Danny Gocs