Pinchas Goldhar, an influential Australian Yiddish Writer

Pinchas Goldhar, Australian Yiddish writer


In the nineteen years that Pinchas Goldhar lived in Australia, he laid the foundations of the now substantial literature on Australian Jewry. His father Jacob, a widower, migrated from Poland with his four children in 1928, and established a dyeing factory in Richmond, Victoria. When considering Pinchas Goldhar's stories of Jewish immigrant life in Australia, it is also vital to recognise the enormous contrast between New York and Melbourne to understand the loneliness and insularity experienced by many Jews. Yet, migrant writers such as Pinchas Goldhar exerted a powerful influence on Australian literature in general, providing an enrichment and an awakening to other cultures and points of view. Goldhar wrote short stories about Polish Jewish immigrants, yet, despite the fact that he wrote in Yiddish, his work made a deep impression on Australian writers and critics through English translations. It was a revelation to these critics to see the tensions, trials and mental anguish of lonely migrants uprooted from their former homes trying to adjust themselves to life in a totally new world.

The impetus to write in Yiddish did not stem directly from post World War II migration as is sometimes suggested, but began earlier. At the same time, migrants played a major role in stimulating the publication of Yiddish novels and journals. Some writers such as Judah Waten wrote in English but followed the patterns of Yiddish writers, having come from the same cultural background. Though usually not himself writing in Yiddish, Waten translated the work of other Yiddish speaking immigrants to Australia *

Pinchas Goldhar, was born in Lodz, Poland. This city was the centre of Yiddish literature, possessing an environment steeped in Jewish culture and a large Yiddish-reading public. In Australia, he found himself a stranger in a new country, rootless and insecure. Being already an established writer in his homeland, he began to write about the people he knew best and their experiences, which were also his own, in adapting themselves to their changed circumstances.

While working at his father's factory, Goldhar ordered a set of Hebrew letters and arranged with the printer, Dov Altshul to produce the sheet that evolved into the first Yiddish newspaper in Australia- Austalier Leben. His readers were East Europeans like himself. Goldhar's modest news page took time to make an impression but continued to make progress. In 1932 when he went back to Europe for a visit, arriving back with his bride, Dov Altshul sold Australier Leben. Chaim Rubenstein became the new editor-publisher and continued to work with Goldhar and to publish his articles.

In 1937, Goldhar published in the first Australian-Jewish almanac, his first story "Der Pioneer," which gives the key to his deep pessimism in depicting the hard-edged local terrain of Australia and the struggles for survival and continuity. Sam Rotman, the main character, is a pioneer on an estate, a farm set in a remote area in Victoria, in the midst of empty pastures, somewhere near Ballarat. His neighbours, such as the Irishman O'Brien, regard this Jewish person with astonishment and cannot understand his very different life style. The only person who understands him is O'Brien's daughter, Jean. In his story, Goldhar touches at the root of the problem of mixed marriages. Sam Rotman is attracted to Jean O'Brien, but feels obliged to propose marriage to Rosa Zelman, the only eligible Jewish female in the area, whom he really does not like very much. However,his intentions come to nothing as he is rejected by the latter, and leaves, a broken man and feeling thoroughly humiliated. He seeks a Jewish life with roots in the soil, but has no one, so to speak, with whom to share his table. It was this darkness that the writer saw when confronted with this new Jewish reality.

The stresses and conflicts between old and new immigrants, family members, those who settled earlier and the newcomers, between parents brought to Australia and their children receive the stamp of an authentic individuality in Goldhar's stories. However, he did not indulge in nostalgia for the " old country ", but held, according to Itzhac Kahn, that his own artistic mission was to "establish the new structure and edifice of the Jewish community on Australian foundations."

Goldhar saw a point of contact between Yiddish immigrant literature and Australian literature. He believed, like Marjorie Barnard, that a migrating people could not carry its literature from one place to another. Like a fire it has to be rekindled with a new wood on the new soil. He believed that the Jewish historical experience proved the continous need for "kindling the fire." In the war years, when six million Jews were annihilated, Goldhar was concerned as to who was to "keep the fire burning ", and who would carry on the historical task of saving the literary heritage of some seven hundred years or more, from obliteration. The concern still exists today with the slow leaching away of Yiddish culture with the demise of those who once spoke it.

Before World War 11, Goldhar translated stories by Henry Lawson, Vance Palmer, Katherine Susannah Prichard, Frank D. Davison, Dowell O'Reilly and others into Yiddish, thus introducing Australian writing to Yiddish readers in many parts of the world. Goldhar's later essays are in English. Sections of his earlier work have been translated. In particular, his story "Cafe in Carlton, " (Southern Stories, 1945) should be mentioned. That year, it was lauded as the best story of the year by literary critics. A second story, "The Funeral ", was published twice in translation in two years, in the annual anthology Coast to Coast, (1944) and in Meanjin (1945), such was its impact. It is considered his most powerful work.

In "The Funeral", Goldhar shows Moishe, a hawker, who finds it difficult to adjust to the "new ways of the country ". Though him, Goldhar expresses the feelings of hundreds of the newcomers, the tailors, market-stall owners, hawkers and artisans when faced with the death of one of their number, a death which, to these newcomers, was as strange and remote in this country as their own lives felt in this far off land. Everything is different and unfamilar. The Rabbi who officiates is "shaven and can't speak Yiddish " and "looks like a gentile parson", wearing black and the characteristic "dog collar" as worn by Christian clerics. The burial ground, unlike the Jewish cemeteries abroad, is a cemetery, where crosses and holy figures are to be seen all around; even the ritual is strange and foreign, with part of the ceremony being conducted in English. Nothing is familiar, nothing is the same, even death is a different death from death at home. At the end of the story, Moishe the Hawker sadly fingers a handful of earth from the grave and reflects on the "strange earth this altogether different from that at home".

The Last Minyan, Goldhar's longest, and some say finest work, had its origins in a trip to Ballarat to meet fellow author Nathan Spielvogel, who told of his memories of the community and the synagogue that had seen better days. Goldhar's work is a finely crafted account of the Ballarat's rabbi's struggle in the days of the decline of the goldfields, to maintain his community and to have sufficient for a minyan (10 men) for the synagogue services. Unfortunately, the story has not been translated into English.<

Pinchas Goldhar died in Melbourne on January 15th, 1947, at the early age of forty six. The death of so great a writer, at an age when his gifts were maturing, would have been overwhelmingly sad, were it not for the fact that his contribution to the life of the Jewish people was lasting and vital. The Bridge, although not written in Yiddish, regularly featured translations of Australian Yiddish works or articles on Yiddish culture. Some of Goldhar's stories were translated in The Bridge by Hyam Brezniak and Alan Crown working together under the pen-name of R. Z. Schreiber. These were reprinted in Hyam Brezniak's Pinchas Goldhar(1901-1947): an Assessment, Wentworth Press, 1968. In The Bridge new writers were able to air their views and much of the literary output of Yiddish writers was made accessible to non Yiddish speakers.

Further Reading

  • Chaim Brezniak, Pinchas Goldhar in The Bridge, Sydney, The Australian Jewish Quarterly Foundation, 3:2 (Jan 1967), 13-15.

  • Jewish Youth , v. 1 no 9, March 1947, 1.
  • Yitzhak Kahn, "Pinchas Goldhar, the Pioneer of the Jewish Creative Word in Australia" in Meanjin, 6, 1947, pp 50 -51.
  • Pamela Maclean and Bruce, T. (1995) Pinchas Goldhar "Three Prose Pieces", Southerly, English Quarterly Society, Sydney, 55, pp. 35-44.
  • N. Palmer, "Tribute to Pinchas Goldhar" in Melbourne Chronicle, July 1977, pp 12-16.
  • Judah Waten, "Pinchas Goldhar, Contemporary Jewish Literature in Australia " in Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society, 3:2 1949, pp 92-97.
  • Works in Yiddish

    Goldhar, P., Dertseilungen fun Oistralie. Tales from Australia. Melbourne, 1939.

    Goldhar, P., Gezamelte Shriften Collected Works. Melbourne, Friends of Yiddish Literature, 1949.

    *A Judah Waten prize for the best essay is awarded each year in the Box Hill area (Melbourne), where Waten lived.