Australia’s current policy became even more embarrassing when looking at the play Café Scheherazade, adapted by Therese Radic from the novel by Arnold Zable. The play is showing at fortyfivedownstairs in Melbourne and although there aren’t too many Holocaust survivors still alive, there are plenty of their children and grandchildren who were born from 1946 on. fortyfivedownstairs was packed.
Cafe Scheherazade, Acland St StKilda, 1950. (Photo: Jewish Museum of Australia)
After the war, a young couple called Avram and Masha Zeleznikow returned to Poland, found each other, got married and agreed to meet up in Paris. They chose to meet in a Parisian café named after the storyteller Queen Scheherazade who apparently told stories for 1001 nights to save her life. The name seemed appropriate since the Paris café was filled with refugees from Eastern Europe, sharing the stories, looking for any distant cousin who might have survived the Holocaust and eating cheesecake.
When they arrived in Australia in the 1950s, the Zeleznikows opened their own cafe in 1958 and of course they called it Café Scheherazade. They and their Eastern European patrons spent endless hours in Acland Street St.Kilda, recounting their own experiences as hunted enemy aliens in Poland and as refugees in the new country.
The play Café Scheherazade uses the device of Eastern European migrants in Melbourne telling their stories to a young journalist. The journalist wants to get down the details for a book; the café patrons just want to remember their journeys and their experiences of displacement and survival. There is nothing unique about this – I am certain the Afghanastani and Iraqi refugees are in the same position in 2011 that the Jews were in 1951. Refugee lives face universal problems, whether they analyse the issues in Yiddish, Polish, Russian, Arabic or Uzbek.
For people who love klezmer music, the music was evocative of a time well and truly gone. From the moment Ernie Gruner struck up his violin, Arnold Zable noted, the theatre audience was back in the café. Back in Acland Street. Back on the roads of Siberia, the forests of Lithuania, the crowded streets of war-torn Shanghai, the back alleys of Kazakhstan or the streets of Warsaw.
The original Café Scheherazade in St Kilda was indeed an Acland Street icon. Throughout the 1958-70 era, my family joined thousands of others on Sunday afternoons enjoying beetroot borscht with sour cream, potato latkes with sour cream, cheese cake with sour cream, and black tea with lemon slices. Then we would walk to the beach (4 minutes away) for some vigorous exercise.
the play Cafe Scheherazade, remembering stories and drinking lemon tea
But not just an icon - I should call Cafe Scheherazade a haven. The play reminds us to celebrate and embrace those refugees who continue to arrive in Australia, because they are the future of this nation. They provide workers for our industries, chefs, artists and musicians, teachers and historians, as well as contributing to the rich diversity of this culture.