The Kiwi Collector

by Jeff Fleischer

(World Jewish Digest, August 2008)
Photo by Jeff Fleischer

Photo by Jeff Fleischer

As a nation, New Zealand prides itself on consistently “punching above its weight” in international affairs, having a disproportionate impact in areas such as technology and conservation despite boasting a population of slightly more than 4 million.

What’s true of the country in general has also long been true of its Jewish community. Based on the most recent census, there are fewer than 7,000 Jews in New Zealand. Most are here in the country’s capital of Wellington or else in its largest city, Auckland, home to more than one of every four Kiwis. And they’ve been influential.

In the first nation where women acquired full voting rights, both its first female lawyer (Ethel Benjamin) and first female doctor (Emily Siedeberg) were Jewish. Sir Michael Myers served as the country’s chief justice from 1929 to 1946, while in 1873 Sir Julius Vogel began the first of his two terms as premier. Jewish entrepreneurs were prominent from the earliest days of European settlement, whether helping build the iconic wool industry that remains one of the country’s top exports, or opening popular department stores.

In 1840, the same year that the Treaty of Waitangi established New Zealand as a dominion within the British Empire, ships representing the London-based New Zealand Company brought three Jews to the Wellington region as part of its efforts to settle the area. The population grew and New Zealand’s first Jewish service with a minyan was held in January 1843. An Orthodox synagogue opened in 1870, and a Jewish cemetery in 1892 in the near western suburb of Karori. By 1871, more than 1,200 Jews lived here, and future waves of Jewish immigration came from places like Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and South Africa.

Since the 1980’s, Michael Clements has been the man in charge of preserving the records of all this history through the New Zealand Jewish Archives. Starting with two filing cabinets full of old records kept by the local Jewish congregation, he began amassing an impressive collection of the country’s Jewish past and present.

“When I took it over and as I’ve carried on since then, it’s really been about collecting,” he says. “I don’t have any experience or education in archival work, but I’ve done it so somebody’s doing it. I find stuff all over the place. And as people here got to know what was happening, now and again I’d come into the office and find a plastic bag full of material, books, some traditional Jewish items, things like that.”

The idea of educating the public about New Zealand’s small but influential Jewish community has only become more important as that community has grown smaller in recent years.

The Zionist movement was particularly effective here, and no English-speaking country lost a larger percentage of its Jews because of emigration to Israel in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Like every Jewish community, it has lost members as people marry out of the faith and the younger generation moves away from observance. Also, mirroring a trend in New Zealand as a whole, many Jewish Kiwis have crossed the Tasman Sea, lured by the lower cost of living and larger economy of Australia (which also boasts one of the world’s largest Jewish communities) just 1,400 miles to the west.

That the collection is essentially a one-man operation clearly hasn’t prevented it from growing exponentially. What began with those two filing cabinets (still kept as part of the collection) now takes up two large, tightly packed rooms, including the long entrance corridors to both. Cabinets, bookcases and metal shelves full of materials line each wall, with just enough room in between for someone to walk through.

Once a year, Clements puts on a display of the archives, inviting the Jewish community and the general public to view the ever-growing collection. “I just bring out everything,” he says. “For a week, it fills up the whole hall, and we’ll have 400 or 500 people through.”

Many of the most important historical documents now reside in a series of fireproof safes Clements installed in the main archives room, which has walls covered with campaign posters for Jewish politicians, posters from community events and newspapers from events such as Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination or the reaction to the arrest of two Israeli spies trying to obtain New Zealand passports illegally. On the other end of a hallway, the second room has even more cabinets of documents, shelves upon shelves of prayerbooks and a collection of Jewish-themed television programs Clements has personally recorded for inclusion in the archives. He has also collected menorahs, yarmulkes, Pesach plates and other religious items.

In short, it’s a lot of material.

The archives sit in the Jewish Community Center, a modern white building surrounded by palm trees and flax plants near the southern edge of the city’s central business district. When the government wanted the land on which the former synagogue stood as part of a massive motorway project, the Jewish congregation negotiated a settlement that allowed for the construction of this facility, which opened in 1977. The complex houses the community’s shul, a Moriah school for children, a kosher co-op, a library, a social club and a large community room right past the entranceway.

Much of the archives consists of community documents, many going back more than a century: minutes from Wellington Hebrew Congregation board meetings from March 1885 onward, letters written by community founder Abraham Hort, lists of the early settlers buried in Wellington, birth registers back to 1876, death registers starting in 1845, historic photographs and annual reports for the Jewish Social Club and the congregation. Plus, back issues of magazines and newsletters published by Jewish organizations in Wellington and Auckland, some nearly 90 years old. Clements has also amassed a collection of books about Jews in New Zealand, books on any subject by Jewish Kiwi authors, and several folders of newspaper and magazine articles ranging from coverage of Jewish events here to letters to the editor about Israel.

While those records have been meticulously kept, some of Clements’ best finds have far more serendipitous stories behind them.

Last year, he got a phone call about a collection of mid-19th-century photographs found in a farm shed in the middle of the North Island that were being held at the National Archives in town. “I had a look through, and I recognized some of the names of colonial British Jews. Lo and behold, one of those photographs had an inscription on it that said, ‘Abraham Hort.’ That was the first time we’d ever seen a photo of the founder of our community. I was able to acquire that photograph from them, and now I have it up as you go into the shul.”

Another time, while putting together items for an exhibition, Clements found a locked cupboard upstairs in the community center and decided to look inside. What he found was an elaborate 1893 ark curtain, one of the earliest such curtains in New Zealand. The national Te Papa museum in Wellington agreed to restore the curtain in exchange for being able to display it, and it now hangs in the museum’s exhibit on immigrant cultures.

Other rare items in the collection include one of the Westminster Torahs (scrolls stolen by the Nazis that were recovered, restored and gifted to synagogues around the world), a Torah with a breastplate that is considered one of the earliest examples (and possibly the earliest) of both silver smithing and engraving in New Zealand, and an enormous cast-metal Star of David that adorned the city’s former synagogue.

Once a year, Clements puts on a display of the archives, inviting the Jewish community and the general public to view the ever-growing collection. The entrance fee provides the money he needs to frame and preserve items he’s acquired or purchase new pieces. “I just bring out everything,” he says, laughing, when asked how he chooses which pieces to display. “For a week, it fills up the whole hall, and we’ll have 400 or 500 people through.” He also gives occasional talks about Jewish history or religion to university groups or organizations like the Lions Club and Rotary Club, incorporating archive items into the presentations.

Earlier this year, the public got to see more items from the archives with the opening of the community center’s Holocaust Research and Education Centre. The first of its kind in New Zealand, it’s a small museum that uses the stories of two area survivors as a way to teach locals about the Shoah. Some items were donated by survivors, such as the uniform one local woman wore in Auschwitz, while others had earlier been donated to the archives by survivors or their families. Some of the most important additions to the new museum are audiotapes of interviews Clements conducted with survivors about a decade ago. “There are about half a dozen survivors here, and some who’ve passed away since I spoke with them,” he says. “I was doing it on my own really, so it was a matter of being able to give time when I could, but I thought it was important to do.”

When he isn’t collecting, Clements has also helped the Wellington Hebrew Congregation produce an enormous volume of its history and assists people interested in using the archives to trace their genealogy: all in the name of preserving history.

Jeff Fleischer, a WJD contributing writer, is currently a 2008 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow in Oceania.

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