Inside AJHS: Personal Papers of Ken Symonds

Working with Personal Papers

Cameron Bennett, Intern, Master of Information Studies – Charles Sturt University

During the early summer of 2024, I had the opportunity to work as an intern at the Archives of the Australian Jewish Historical Society (AJHS). During my time with the AJHS I worked closely with the content and materials of two of their collections, helping to organise and describe the records for their retrieval and use. Through this experience, I discovered some of the events and perspectives represented by these records, each sharing parts of the stories and experiences of the Jewish communities of Australia and the wider diaspora during the 20th Century. It is my wish to highlight some of the materials belonging to these collections and the stories they tell.

The first collection with which I worked was that of the late Mr Ken Symonds, a member and deputy of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies during the second half of the 20th century, who maintained a collection of materials relating to his work and interests throughout his life. For one, Mr Symonds kept a collection of many of the monthly information bulletins published by the NSW JBOD dating from 1967 up to 1990. Many of these collected bulletins were annotated to various degrees with personal notes and thoughts from meetings and events. These bulletins provide a depth of insight into the workings of both Mr Symonds as an individual deputy, as well as the processes and agendas of the NSW JBOD during this period.

Another standout part of this collection is the assortment of materials relating to the fundraising campaigns and advocacy of the United Israel Appeal/ Keren Heyesod and the Jewish Communal Appeal. Through the collected records of invoices and lists of financial donors, we can see that Mr Symonds worked for a time with these organisations, helping to canvas for and collect donations from the Sydney Jewish community as part of various yearly and emergency fundraising campaigns in support of Israel, including during the early stages of the Lebanon war in 1982. Similarly, the collection includes materials from campaigns seeking the protection and repatriation of Jewish Peoples in the Soviet Union, such as information briefings, campaign materials and posters, and an English-to-Russian language booklet.

The other collection I encountered during my work was that of Rabbi Dr Israel Porush, who worked as Rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Sydney (from 1940-1973), head of the Sydney Beth Din (1940-1975), and President of the AJHS (1948-1974), among other responsibilities. (Suzanne D. Rutland, ‘Porush, Israel (1907–1991)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, ANU) Throughout his life, Rabbi Porush maintained records from his early education and work in Europe through to his time working in Australia from 1940 up to his passing in 1991.

One area of interest in Rabbi Porush’s collection concerns an array of ‘Order of Service’ booklets for synagogue services that notably include German-language booklets of the Berlin Jewish Community prior to the Second World War, as well as booklets from throughout the Second World War and its aftermath. These booklets often feature prayers for and references to the concerns and events surrounding the services they were created for, such as following the destruction of the Great Synagogue of London in 1941.

Another notable part of his collection is the assortment of correspondence materials pertaining to the migration and emigration of Jewish persons during and after the Second World War. These records include materials such as letters seeking information on family members held in detention camps in Australia, requests for intermediary support with migration and communication, as well as advocacy efforts by Rabbi Porush to promote the struggles of the Jewish people during the Shoah.

Through these two unique collections, we gain insight into some of the experiences and struggles of Jewish peoples in Australia and elsewhere before, during, and after the Shoah. We can see some of the ways that the Jewish peoples of Australia acted to support both their local communities as well as the wider diaspora and the state of Israel during the tumult of the 20th century. In addition, these records show some of the difficulties for Jewish migrants who often faced both persecution and prejudice as well as the rigors of immigration detention and internment as ‘enemy aliens’ in Australia.

Although this article could never hope to cover the full depth of information and meaning contained in these two collections, I hope that from this basic overview, any individuals interested in these stories make their own efforts to experience these materials and the others of these collections themselves. I am thankful for the opportunity I had to work with and experience these stories through the records of the AJHS, as well as to help highlight and promote these records alongside the individuals who collected and created them.

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