Leo and Mina Fink: For the Greater Good – a book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

March 27, 2022 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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For those of us of a certain age (say over 50) and raised in Melbourne’s Jewish world the names of Leo Fink and Mina Fink will recognise the names even if they did know them.

For the rest of us raised outside Melbourne they were relatively unknown unless one was very active in the Jewish leadership.

This book grew out of a lecture given by the author for the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) with the academic support of the Fink Papers at the University of Melbourne and Melbourne’s Holocaust Centre. It also drew upon a number of interviews.

There were three phases of their lives which were first establishing themselves and moving from Europe to Australia; second, the war years; third describes how they each became involved in communal leadership- there was some overlap between these phases.

This story begins in the town of Bialystok in Poland. Both Leo and Minna were born there twelve years apart. Some would suggest that such a gap is a serious barrier to a successful partnership. From what Taft recounts about their relationship and marriage they were compatible on so many levels. The real story for Leo begins in 1920 when he leaves Bialystok and settles for a while in Mandatory Palestine. He then spent four years in the Weimar Republic, much of it as a student including a stretch at the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin. In 1928 he and two of his brothers arrived in Australia. Leo spent some time in Berwick Land Settlement Experiment in Shepparton. In 1929 the brothers returned to the family’s trade in the textiles but this time in Melbourne, initially utilizing one machine which operated continually through the night and day shifts. In 1932, Leo returns to Bialystok to find a bride and it was Leo’s mother who makes a ‘shidduch’ with Miriam (Mina) Waks.

In 1936, Leo became involved in Kadima which was a ‘home’ for the Yiddish speaking section of the community gathered. Others have written in the dichotomy between the new (Yiddish speaking) migrants and the Anglo establishment. The war, at least in Leo’s case, broke down those barriers. In his involvement in the establishment, he drew on his organizational and business skills to make positive changes.

It was in 1942 that their ascent to leadership roles becomes apparent. Besides Leo’s involvement in Kadima, it was in 1943 when he was involved in the establishment of the United Relief Fund (UJRF) which was created in addition, others would argue ‘in opposition” to the Victorian United Emergency Committee (UEC). Before the end of the year, URJF became the United Jewish Overseas Relief Fund (UJORF). Mina was to lead the Ladies Group. Eventually, UJORF and UEC became one under Leo’s leadership. This became important after WWII and the need to try and bring Holocaust survivors to Australia.

Post-war the immigration minister was Arthur Caldwell. There was an operating rule which sought to reunite families from among the displaced persons of Europe. Taft cites a story recounted by Suzanne Rutland when Caldwell challenged Leo who was personally sponsoring so many Jewish potential immigrants when Caldwell sarcastically remarked that “he never knew a person with so many cousins” to which Leo responded, “that was because all Jews are related.” I heard the same story but attributed to Syd Einfield. That was because both Leo and Syd regularly travelled to Canberra to meet with Immigration and deal with requests from DPs.

With the establishment of the State of Israel came a new tension. Should those who survived their attempted annihilation move to Israel or be encouraged to settle in lands such as Australia. In 1946 he made a visit to both Europe and Palestine he recognised the ‘sacred work of rescue and rehabilitation” of those who were “miraculously saved from the Nazi butchers and mass graves”. Part of that allowed for the expansion of Jewish life in Victoria. One only has to look at Jewish life in Melbourne today to recognise how the survivors and their descendants have made Jewish life so vibrant.

In the 1950’s business, family life and communal life for the Finks continued to expand. For Leo recognition came from both secular [the Coronation medal] and Jewish authorities {United HIAS Service Award of Honor. Leo, around the time of the Melbourne Olympics, had been acting President and acting Treasurer of the ECAJ. Mina expanded her involvement in NCJW.

The 1960s saw Leo’s return to his Zionist roots after being asked to establish a business in Israel by the then Israeli Treasurer, Pinchas Sapir.

Leo died in 1972 at the age of 71 on the day when he and Mina would have marked their 40th wedding anniversary. Mina’s life continued not as the widow who slipped back into the shadows but rather one which continued to make a difference in a number of areas including the emergence of the Holocaust Museum. Her life continued until 1990.

My only criticism of this book is that while it tells the story of a community for over 40 years [from 1940 to 1990] one gets to know the Finks the reader does not get to know those with whom they interacted to make the community what it is today.

The book is an easy read and worthwhile

Leo and Mina Fink: For the Greater Good

Author: Margaret Taft

Published by Monash University Publishing

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is Associate Professor [Adjunct] in Notre Dame’s School of Medicine and Research Chaplain at St. Vincent’s Private Hospital Sydney. He has been CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at UNSWMedicine.

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