Mrs Grunfeld – a Sydney institution. 1927-2021

April 8, 2021 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Names say so much – she was Esther to her parents and siblings, she became Anyu to all those closest to her here in Sydney and around the world, most especially in Eretz Yisrael – but to all of us – she was the indefatigable Mrs Grunfeld…an institution in our Sydney Jewish community…a eulogy delivered by Rabbi David Freedman.

Mrs Grunfield Photo: Supplied

I must be perfectly honest and say to you, who am I to address her, even after her passing using any other title than Mrs Grunfeld – that was her name, that was her calling, that was her brand, and above all that was her bracha – it was so touching when, I think it was Shosh who said to me on Friday that her beloved grandmother felt that being Sydney’s premier caterer for so many years – bringing simcha into so many families, on so many occasions – was such a privilege, she felt blessed that she had a career with so much meaning.

Nothing in this world is mere coincidence – and surely it is not by chance, that dear Mrs Grunfeld passed away during the week of Pesach – when all we think of in the Jewish community is food – when we in the Freedman household, like so many of you, have had Mrs Grunfeld’s wonderful culinary delights on our table and more importantly in our mouths during this Yom Tov in years gone by.  Nor is it a coincidence that as we conclude Pesach we head towards the next Shabbat – Parshat Shemini – which is precisely where we find all the laws of Kashrus in the Torah.  I asked the family if they could calculate how many semachot she had catered throughout her life – running into thousands and thousands, then I asked, as one who really enjoyed her gefilte fish – how many gefilte fish she had made  – and the considered answer was over 1 million – quite incredible.

So first allow me to wish her family Arichat Yamim – her children Judy and Leon, Deborah and Avi, her sister Bobi together with Michael and Hester and all their family, and of course her grandchildren – Shoshana and Jason, Rabbi Danny (Rav Yona) and Shoshana, Mindy & David, Naomi and Rav Shmuel, Laila, Pharan and Yoav, and her great grandchildren – Ariel and Raphael;  Akiva, Zeevi and Gabriella; Itai, Nadav, Grace and Maoz; David Moshe, Fayge, Rina and Eliyahu.

Her story naturally began elsewhere and I am indebted to her grandchildren Ariel and Laila (Lyla) who researched everything for their Hans Kimmel projects a few years ago.

Esther Elizabeth Grunfeld (nee Hitter) was born on the 22nd of July 1927, to Martin and Hinda (nee Pretz) in Petnehaza, Hungary.  When she was two years old, her father passed away from appendicitis.

When she was still quite young, her mother sent her, to live with her grandparents.  Her grandparents ran the estate of a feudal lord and in return they lived on the grounds of his castle and they had good access to food.

Eventually, her mother remarried David Grosz.  The family included her dear sister Bracha – Bobi, brothers Yonah and Max – both of whom sadly have passed away, and three much younger half-siblings Hermina , Fayge and Edu, all of whom were taken from the family during the Shoah.

In 1944, the Jews of her area were rounded up to be taken to an unknown place.  After a harrowing cattle-car journey, they arrived at Auschwitz/Birkenau.  As they were waiting they were divided into two lines.  As it transpired one line led to forced labour, the other to the gas chambers.  Anyu held Hermina in her arms, as she was only a young child.  Bracha held a second infant and their mother held the third.  Near the front of the line, a woman told Anyu and Bracha to give the young children to their mother.  So it was – life or death in this hell on earth.

In the labour camp, they were tasked with doing extremely hard work, with little food, little sleep and terrible conditions.  In their camp, their job was to build missiles for the German Army.  They would finish the missiles, put in the screws and then secretly loosen them.  The Germans could never understand why so many failed.

Every night in the camps, they would retire to their bunks, eight in each bunk would huddle together for warmth and they would pass the time talking about food.

On one occasion, Anyu got really sick.  But her sister, Bracha, who worked in the kitchens, stole some beetroot and used them to dye Anyu’s face, making her look well.  Bobi took food many times from the kitchen.  The Nazis caught her a few times and punished her for her humanity.

Her grandson Rabbi Danny shared with me some special memories and thoughts about his dear grandmother and he wrote to me that Anyu had taught him that being paired with her sister in the camps taught her a singular lesson that remained with her throughout her.

That one must ALWAYS be prepared to share with others, and equally, be prepared to rely on their support to help carry you through.

She told Danny that no-one went through the Shoah without moments of weakness and self-centredness, but when she saw this happen she felt sad, not angry because she felt they were really letting themselves down and cutting themselves off from others.

The lesson that she always wanted to impart to her descendants was that kindness and humanity, thoughtfulness and compassion – were the traits that enable one to find the physical and mental strength to overcome adversity.

After the war, Anyu and Bracha made every effort to find out if any of the family had survived.  They circled Budapest by train for weeks – one person they did find was Bracha’s fiancée, Moritz Grunfeld.  Bracha and Moritz married and at the wedding, Esther met Morris’ brother, Dezi – and so it happened that two sisters married two brothers.  It was a brief courtship for Esther and Dezi married a mere 2 weeks later, on August 30th 1945.

On June 8th 1946, their first daughter, Judita (Judy) was born in Marghita, Romania.  Two years after she was born, Romania became a communist state and they were subjected to the harsh Communist regime.  They had to work long hours and they were not permitted to observe or celebrate Shabbat or the Chagim as they were made to work on those days.

Everyone who lived under the Communist Regime was in constant fear that there would be a knock on the door late at night.  That someone from the family would be taken away, and more than likely never be seen again.

In 1958, Anyu had a second daughter, named Annika but sadly, she passed away at the tender age of 2.

In 1960, the Communists offered the family a chance to leave albeit with nothing but a suitcase in their hand.  They departed on the SS Sydney from Genoa, Italy and they arrived In Sydney to join Anyu’s 3 siblings and Dezi’s brother.  It should also be recorded that Jewish welfare gave them some assistance in buying their first home In Bondi.

Anyu worked In various jobs till she opened the Eden Restaurant In Hall St.  It was quite small, it could seat around 40 people.  However, she started having Bar Mitzvah parties and she also made Chocolate Rolls called Kokosh, which Dezi would bring to his work at E&M Greenfield.  He would sell them to the customers for a pound.  This may not sound much in today’s currency, but when one considers that they only paid 200 pounds for their first house on O’Brien Street, it wasn’t a bad price for a chocolate roll.

In 1967 blessing entered their lives again with the birth of another daughter – Debbie.

Anyu eventually gave up the restaurant and went into kosher catering full time.  Apparently, Ron Weiser’s Barmitzvah was her first major function at the new National Council of Jewish Women.  Grunfeld’s Catering was by far the biggest kosher caterer in Sydney at the time and over the years they catered hundreds of weddings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and many other communal events.

Sadly Dezi died In 1980.  But Anyu continued to work and of course spoil the family with the most delicious delicacies.

It is a quite remarkable story that here was a woman who experienced such privations and yet had the strength and faith and good fortune to survive and flourish here in Sydney.  It is amazing to think that in the camps she could only imagine food and yet here in Sydney her life revolved around food, made with care and in abundance and with it she nourished not only her own family but the entire Jewish community.

Esther Grunfeld

Born: July 22, 1927, 22nd Tammuz 5687 in Petnehaza, Hungary. 

Died: April 2, 2021 in Sydney, Australia 


Rabbi David Freedman is a member of the clergy at Sydney’s Central Synagogue

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