The late Louise Rosenberg OAM (1914-2018) was one the Society’s most passionate and dedicated members for much of her life. Louise made a significant bequest to the Society which made the Society’s state of the art Louise Rosenberg Archive possible.
At the opening of the Archive on 29 November 2020 in the presence of members of Louise’s family, Helen Bersten, former honorary archivist of the Society, gave this oration.
LOUISE ROSENBERG, OAM (1914-2018) Speech by Helen Bersten 29.11.20
This will not be a biography of Louise – that has appeared in our Journal and other publications. In fact, Sophie Gelski did an oral history interview with Louise in about 2010 which filled eight cassette tapes! So this will be a portrait of the delightfully eccentric woman who so generously donated the money to create this new archival storage space for the AJHS.
I first met Louise in 1978 when I accepted the position of Honorary Archivist for the AJHS whose records were housed, at that time, in the Great Synagogue. She was nearly 30 years my senior and a tiny ball of energy. She revelled in doing family research and often found hidden ancestors which other people couldn’t find. She knew the Great Synagogue birth, death and marriage registers backwards and always used the original volumes even after we microfilmed them. Similarly, she could tell you volume and part for most AJHS Journal articles and did sterling research for historical exhibitions at the Great Synagogue. When I came along, she was both secretary and genealogist, ably assisted by Terry Newman. She and Terry faithfully recorded the grave inscriptions at Raphael’s burial ground in Lidcombe just before it was destroyed in 1970. At the launch of the Jewish walk app at the beginning of this month, mention was made of the menorah on the kerbstone at the corner of Macquarie and Hunter Streets in town. It was Louise‘s detective work which unearthed its creator, Saul Flicker-Munro. Her initiative in making reproductions of some famous portraits procured the ones we hold of Esther Abrahams, her daughter Julia, and Barnett Levey.
Shortly after I joined the Society, we needed to move our whole archive next door to the MUIOOF building while the classrooms in the Castlereagh Street side of the Great Synagogue were renovated. Louise and I personally moved filing cases, steel bookshelves and archives to allow the Society to continue its work over several months. Our colleague Noni Guthrie recorded Louise’s non-stop action in a series of paintings now owned by Louise’s granddaughter Cate. Whenever the Society’s AGM came due, Louise would have her hair styled and wear a special outfit for the occasion. She was our secretary for 22 years.
As secretary, she was a meticulous minute keeper and kept us all fully informed about committee matters. Her Secretary’s Reports published in the Journal were full of interesting information. She wrote book reviews for the Journal and created the first series of Newsletters. Her special research project on Rev Abraham Tobias Boas of Adelaide was published in the Journal and as an offprint. She also did research into and extensive interviews with Sir Asher Joel for his biography.
She was also the correspondence secretary and kept up a regular series of letters for many years with the Society’s interstate and overseas representatives. In many cases they became personal friends. Indeed, her typewriter, with its distinctive Italic type, must have run hot as she spent hours a day at it when she wasn’t keeping up with friends on the telephone. Louise performed so many roles within the Society that when she left four people took over her position.
Once I joined the committee, I was able to observe her first-hand, sparring with George Bergman, one of the Society’s prolific historians. One of his main accusations was that she took archives home and indeed she did. Going through her many, many boxes of papers, I found the first volume of the Society’s minute books! She also clashed occasionally with Rabbi Apple and was determined not to cooperate with the Archive of Australian Judaica which Professor Alan Crown had set up in 1983 – because its archives were housed in non-Jewish premises (The University of Sydney!) During the battle over the housing of the Falk Library in the 1960s, she had been firmly against any move to relocate the library to Sydney University, even though its Rare Book section already held rare, valuable Hebrew books. It was because of some of these clashes that the committee eventually began to suggest that Louise should step down as secretary, which she reluctantly did.
We attempted to soften the blow by giving her Life Membership of the AJHS, by nominating her for a Certificate of Achievement from the Royal Australian Historical Society as well as giving her the title of Honorary Historian, but she was too intelligent to be fobbed off and, in an act of retaliation, removed the Society from her will. That act did eventually prey upon her mind and she very generously anonymously paid for the printing of a Journal issue which cost her $7000 even though she simultaneously lost money in a financial downturn. Luckily for the Society, Louise eventually reinstated us as a beneficiary in a codicil to her will and the new archive area being named after her today is the result of that generosity.
As a child of the early 20thcentury, she wasted nothing, writing notes on used envelopes, even keeping the “wake-me-up at 6am” notes written by her daughter, Marianne. I gave the family several suitcases of letters written by Marianne to Louise (including carbon copies of Louise’s replies). Louise subscribed to many magazines and wrote many letters to family and friends. Unfortunately, storage in damp places destroyed the majority of these. However her many archive boxes upstairs are testament to the amount of material we were able to salvage from Louise’s long term as secretary and her amazingly long life. In the last years of living in her own home, her son-in-law Tony had sorted some papers into archive boxes and Louise asked me to also go through documents in her filing cabinets to select material to be given to the AJHS.
Louise greatly admired Morris Forbes who held the positions of Journal editor and president for some years. He was the one who had encouraged her to become involved in both the Great Synagogue and the AJHS. With her daughter Marianne, Louise had moved to Sydney from Katoomba in the late 1950s, after her divorce from husband Moishe, and had become a keen member of the Adult Jewish Study and Discussion Group, writing regular essays for presentation. Despite her short formal education, Louise continued to take self-improvement courses – in public speaking and local history writing. She also wrote short stories and verse. She was a great story teller and was in demand as a speaker to many groups where she would tell tales which eventually became her first book, Of Jewish Folktales and Jewish Folk. Encouraged by her son-in-law, Tony Helm, she followed that with her second book True Blue Jews and a third which was a collection of essays from the Adult Study Group. She accumulated a large number of certificates from many organisations, but her greatest award was her OAM, which she received from Governor-General Marie Bashir in 1998.
A strange episode came once when Louise was to present a paper to our Society on someone’s Sephardi ancestors in Amsterdam in (I think) the 17thcentury. I was very busy and did not pay attention to her preparations although Noni Guthrie kept hinting to me that something was not quite right. On the night, Louise, resplendent in lovely hairdo and oufit, launched into her topic. It was beautifully written and read, however it was not history. It was an imagery scene, complete with dialogue, between the members of this long-ago family, although it was based on well-researched historical facts. The audience became restless listening to her very entertaining but overlong reading when they realised it was a piece of ‘faction’.
Louise was adamant that we shouldn’t leave the Great Synagogue and refused to come with us when we moved to Mandelbaum House in the 1990s although she would attend general meetings there. She continued to do her regular weekly research at the Great Synagogue until she was in her 90s. It was a habit of hers to look at the RSVP column in the Sydney Morning Herald in case people were searching for Jewish relatives and she was often successful in finding them. She also successfully reconnected a number of adoptees with their Jewish biological parents.
Louise was indeed one-of-a-kind – she could talk to children and adults, the famous and the infamous. She had an amazing memory until it wandered away in her early 100s but she retained vivid images of her youth and her family. She also retained memories of old songs and poems. Years of finding the correct words for her everyday conversations and correspondence, her essays, her book reviews, her articles and her published books stood her in good stead. She was always positive, an eternal optimist who believed her tomorrows were better than her yesterdays and despite making historical research her career, she “wouldn’t go back for quids”. Despite her mother’s warning that no one would remember her name, her generous bequest has ensured that we will.
Her family meant a great deal to her although she remembered her daughter, Marianne resenting the hours she gave to her five dogs and to the Historical Society. Louise loved her family, Judaism and Jewish history and she left bequests to four Jewish institutions as well as to her family. I am delighted that the improvement in COVID has allowed us to hold this meeting here today and that Louise’s grandchildren Martin, Chris and Cate could be present to see these premises become a lasting reminder of Louise’s dedication and generosity to this Society.