From Australia’s Jewish Past:
teacher and welfare worker
First published in J-Wire January 17, 2023
Frances Barkman was born in in Kyev Russia in March 1885. Her father was a teacher of Hebrew.
The family migrated to Melbourne in 1891 and she was educated at Rathdowne Street State School and the Melbourne Training College. She graduated with a Diploma of Education in 1909 and a Bachelor of Arts in 1915 from the University of Melbourne.
From an early age Frances developed cultural interests which she later demonstrated by convening the dramatic circle of the Melbourne Lyceum Club. She taught at suburban state schools and then at the Continuation School from 1911 to 1936 where she also organised the dramatic performances with enormous energy being put to whatever he was creating. Her major academic area was French and she was appointed an examiner at the university public examinations. For her ‘outstanding interest and promulgation of French literature, art and teaching’, she received two awards in the 1930s from the French Government. Throughout her career she was a leading member of the Alliance Française in Victoria.
To assist with the arrival of Jews who had fled from the Nazis, the Australian Jewish Welfare Society was established in Sydney in 1936 with a Victorian branch being founded in Melbourne soon after. Frances had been the first to propose the immigration of Jewish children to the Executive of the AJWS in late 1938 and in February 1939, the AJWS formally requested the Australian government to grant visas to 750 Jewish children over the next three years. In March that year, the Australian government responded, however begrudgingly, and agreed to accept 250 children a year. The department stressed that these children were to be included in the total of 15,000 Jewish immigrants over three years that the Government had agreed to accept in December 1938.
Frances served as the first AJWS Victoria’s honorary secretary and organised volunteers to provide assistance to new arrivals in Victoria. She influenced the activities of the women’s auxiliary and saw to it that representatives from the Society met incoming ships with child refugees from Germany and Austria, including survivors of the Holocaust. In 1939, Frances set up a home for thirty-two refugee children. This home, a large mansion on the corner of Maleela Avenue and Whitehorse Road Balwyn, was known as ‘Larino’ and this became the permanent location of the relief-services offered by the Society. The Home had capacity for 40 children, and Frances’s original plan was for children to stay at the house for 3 months and then be boarded out, to be replaced by the next group of 40 children.
In 1939 a group of 17 German children, under the care of Dr Erna Falk, travelled by boat from Germany to Australia. Dr Falk was described in the press as a ‘children’s specialist’ from Berlin. She became the first matron of the home. The children attended the local Balwyn State School. Frances helped the children to settle in and then would leave, carrying in her bag ‘dozens of letters to parents to tell of safe and happy arrivals’. With the outbreak of the War disrupting the AJWS’s migration activities, these 17 children were the only group of war refugees to be cared for at Larino as no more were able to follow them, the children stayed on at Larino.
The house at Balwyn was sold to the Victorian government in 1964 and the state-run Illoura Children’s Home was established. In 1965 three new houses were established in the Caulfield area to commemorate Frances and hr work. These homes were used to house family groups. The homes closed in 1992.
During World War II Frances had become an inaugural member of the Free French Movement in Australia and was a leading advocate of its cause throughout the German occupation of France. From 1942 she taught at Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School where she took charge of war relief organisation, ‘bullying’ her students into raising money for the patriotic fund and ‘doling out skein after skein of khaki wool’ for them to knit their quota of balaclavas. Following the liberation of France in 1944, she began worked to obtain French educational materials for Australian schools and, this project, was keenly supported by the French government.
After years of selfless work, and through ill health, Frances died of cancer on 28 September 1946 at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne. Most of her family had been massacred in Kiev during the 1905 pogroms and, at some stage with the family members around her, she advised in her will that her chief beneficiaries would be the University of Melbourne and AJHS ensuring that educational bursaries for students in the Jewish Refugee Children’s Home would be ongoing.
The historian Rodney Benjamin writes:- that the first group of children, who travelled on His Majesty’s Ship ‘’Orama’’, included brothers George and Richard Dreyfus. The children were fleeing Nazi Germany, alone, no relatives – in fact most of the children were never to see their parents again.’ The boys were most fortunate to have been reunited with their parents six months later.
George became a famous composer. His piece ‘Larino, safe haven’ was written about his experiences as a child, and to celebrate ‘plain, naked survival’. Over 50 years after his arrival in Melbourne, he reflected on Larino: ‘There isn’t much left of the Larino Children’s Home at the corner of Whitehorse Road and Maleela Avenue in Balwyn. The dark red brick fence is still there, always looking as if it’s about to fall down. When passing I sometimes get out of the car and give it a bit of a pat, a mixture of reassuring ‘hold in there, old fellow’ and ‘thank you for saving my life’.
In the late 1970s, the home in Glen Eira Road was converted for use as a hostel for the intellectually disabled. In 1984, the Aroona Road property became a community and residential unit for Jewish children, aged up to 18 years, with intellectual and physical disabilities.’’
- Australian Dictionary of Biography – Paul Bartrop;
- The Encyclopaedia of Australian Women in Leadership in the Twentieth Century;
- Finding Records – Victorian Government;
- Jewish Care Victoria;
- Australian Jewish News –
- The Power or Art – Jessica Abelsohn