Margaret died on 24 May 2016 after a long and magnificently brave struggle with cancer. She will be sorely missed, by her sons and other family members, her partner Ziggy, the Jewish community, the Aboriginal community and many, many others in Australia and elsewhere. Many tributes paid to Margaret since her passing, including by her elder son, Sandy, can be found online. We publish here some more memories of Margaret, by her younger son, Michael, at a minyan at Central Synagogue, Sydney, on 26 May, and by some of those who spoke or had messages read at a commemoration of Margaret’s life held at the Sydney Jewish Museum on 5 June.
I went to a consecration a few years ago for one of Mum’s life-long friends The rabbi’s simple few words at the grave resonated strongly with me. He spoke about how, as life goes on, we sometimes forget what a huge role our mothers played earlier in our lives; bringing us into the world, nurturing us and giving us our start in life.
Mum believed in Sandy and me and was our greatest supporter. Some say the Gutman boys grew up with a little too much confidence but for sure mum would never hold back in her belief in our abilities and opportunities.
Perhaps that belief was not too far off the mark when she aimed for us (each) to become president of the United States – given the circus going on over there – never mind that we didn’t live there.
For me, she helped me get my start in the workplace by noodging a few of her acquaintances to give me a go. For Sandy she always encouraged Dad to recognise his talents and give him a go, even though stand-up comedy wasn’t quite within Dad’s range of experience. Dentistry wasn’t for everyone!
As you heard earlier, Mum had a wonderful life, magically avoiding the Shoah when her dad got the family out of Poland in 1939 and they came to Australia.
Because of her father’s Austrian passport, which classified them as enemy aliens, they could not live in the East for fear of him signalling the enemy from the cliffs of Dover Heights. So they moved to the upper North Shore which back in 1939 was a huge culture shock. They went to a little shule in a converted house in the suburbs and we always laughed about how, when the neighbours peered in the windows on the High Holidays, they saw them wearing their white kittles and shokkeling. The neighbours called the police because they thought it was the Ku Klux Clan.
As if, after all this, it was not enough for a Polish-speaking 9-year-old girl eventually to become dux of Kambala, she went to Sydney University, worked in New York at the UN and married our wonderful Dad, Isaac, in New York in 1954. Sandy was born in New York so technically he could yet follow Donald if things don’t work out there for him!
They moved back to Sydney and made a beautiful home for us all in Vaucluse. We all tried to move on and put the horrible past in Europe behind, although this was a massive challenge for our Dad and for us all. Sandy particularly became (and remains) Holocaust obsessed. I could never look at train tracks or potatoes like others around me and Mum dedicated herself to the community in various pursuits and particularly to work at the Sydney Jewish Museum for the past 20 years. Her Wednesday tours of the museum I know we’re incredibly special to all her guests .
I will miss my up-dates to Greta on everything from family, to work, to politics and to travels As I thought about Mum so much in these last difficult few days it dawned on me how content and happy she was with her life She was not a jealous or envious person and had made a wonderful new life with Ziggy in Rose Bay, enjoying her walks, bridge, cultural events and extensive travel She loved nothing more than an invitation and she would go along almost no matter what the event!
She has been a constant fixture in our lives and has been there for every milestone we have celebrated We were so happy to have been able to share her 85th birthday together a few years ago and have all her friends and grandchildren present.
Mum put on a huge brave fight over the past few months to try to extend her life. It was a very challenging period for us all, having only just lost my father-in-law Daryl, after an extended illness She gave it everything in order to keep enjoying her wonderful life and family, but it was not to be.
We are all grateful for the wonderful 87 years she had and the many special experiences and simchas she was able to fully participate in. I cannot believe we won’t bump into her again walking round the foreshore in Rose Bay or enjoying the Jewish Film Festival or in the carrying on of our daily lives. She has made an indelible impression on our entire family and will not be forgotten. We are so moved and appreciative of all your support from the core group who visited and inquired after her during her surgery and all of you who came today.
Aviva Wolff - Event Manager & Public Program Chair, Sydney Jewish Museum
Holocaust Survivors, Margaret’s brother Brian, sons Sandy and Michael, partner Ziggy, all their family and friends, communal leaders, Museum Board members and staff,
On behalf of our CEO, Norman Seligman, who is unfortunately ill today, I extend a warm welcome to this Memorial service for Margaret Gutman OAM of blessed memory. We knew that Margaret was very ill, but somehow we expected her to bounce back as she had done before, so her passing was a great shock to all of us.
As Norman would have done, I would like to start by paying tribute to the traditional owners of the land we gather on today, the Gadigal Clan of the Eora Nation.
I have apologies also from our President, Prof Gus Lehrer, who is presently in France and our Vce-President, Roma Shell, who is interstate. Our President has sent a message that he has asked us to read out and I shall read the rest of Norman’s message too.
Professor Gus Lehrer – President, Sydney Jewish Museum
I knew Margaret for many years before she expressed an interest in becoming a member of the SJM Board of Management. Her qualities were such that I was absolutely delighted when she made the connection to the SJM Board. Margaret had a calm serenity about the way she thought things out and expressed them. But her serenity concealed a passion and creative drive matched only by a very select few. She had the ability to conceive a public role for whatever she was involved in, and the persistence to follow it through.
Margaret’s time as a leading community administrator was characterized by a rare professionalism. Her supreme competence was matched by her ability to consider exceptions, special cases, and to apply some neshumeh to every decision and process. So too in her role as SJM Board member. She did not overspeak, but when she spoke, it always made sense. She was a wonderful person to have on board, and brought a special perspective of her own to the SJM’s affairs. She thought big, and emboldened others to do the same.
On a personal level, Margaret was one of the kindest and most supportive of souls. One felt that there was no limit to what she would do to help others. She lived a life of love. I am personally grateful to her for her support, and offer her my thanks for that.
She will be greatly missed.
On behalf of the Sydney Jewish Museum, and in my personal capacity, I wish Margaret’s family long life.
Norman Seligman – CEO, Sydney Jewish Museum
Margaret came from a family that believed in service to the community and she certainly did her family proud.
Margaret also possessed a strong commitment to multiculturalism and in forming relationships with other ethnic and faith communities. She focused on closer links with the Aboriginal community and was one of three initial trustees of the Rona Tranby Trust. In 1993 was honoured with an OAM for her work for the Jewish community and multiculturalism.
I first met Margaret soon after I arrived in Australia 14 years ago.
She belonged to that special group of people that made, and still make, this Museum so special – our volunteers.
Margaret had just retired as legendary CEO of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and was becoming increasingly involved in Museum activities. Margaret headed up the Public Programs committee and also then joined the Museum Board.
Margaret enthralled many visitors to the Museum with both her personal experiences, and her knowledge, about the Holocaust. In later years she was the Wednesday midday guide for adult visitors and left an indelible impression on all whom she met and guided
I know that I speak for all the Museum staff members when I say that we always valued her wise counsel, guidance and friendship. She inspired us and taught us about resilience and how to persevere when things did not go according to plan.
On a personal note, I would like to thank Margaret for the tremendous support and guidance that she gave me over the past 14 years. It was a privilege and a pleasure to know Margaret and to count her as both a mentor and a friend.
Things I will remember about Margaret:
- Our disbelief when we learnt that Margaret was turning 80
- Ability to relate to all, right across the age spectrum
- Pragmatic, level headed, charming
- Beautifully spoken
- Mobile phone ringing (24 piece orchestra) during meetings
- Way out ideas … or not?
On behalf of the Museum I want to pay tribute to her dedication and generosity over all those years and I wish Brian, Sandy, Michael, Ziggy and all their family members long life. Margaret will be sadly missed by all of us.
A personal note – Jill Margo on her friendship with Margaret
There’s a small lane in Rose Bay called Ian Lane. I live at one end and Margaret lived at the other. We’d both been there a long time and would meet, occasionally in the lane and often in and around the village shops.
In the beginning we would stop and chat briefly but as time passed, our conversations became layered and more complex.
We both loved walking along the bayside and if we bumped into each other, one of us would turn and we’d walk on together.
Our connection grew so organically and so naturally, that I didn’t realise a deep friendship was forming.
On these relaxed walks conversation was easy, but Margaret always elevated it.
Some say there are three levels of conversation. The first and lowest form is to talk about people, to gossip and exchange others’ personal information; the second is to talk about events; and the third is to talk about ideas and concepts.
I’d often start with people and be swiftly lifted to higher levels by Margaret. We talked frankly about everything. Nothing was taboo.
She was interested in everything, was independent in her thinking and had the courage to stretch convention. One could always find comfort in her broad mind.
Intelligence shone from her and you knew you were in the presence of a formidable brain, tempered by warmth and maturity.
A few weeks ago Margaret had a health crisis and I went to visit her in hospital. She was heavily medicated and listened as I chatted, without saying much.
I expressed an opinion about something and, as I did, her heavy lids opened, she looked at me with those clear beautiful eyes and, through the sedation, contested what I said.
She did it succinctly and accurately, careful not to cut me down. It was typical of her to express her view without hurting anyone.
It struck me that here was a brain that would not rest, here was a consciousness that could not be suppressed, a person who wanted above all, to remain engaged. To live!
Towards the end of her life she wanted to talk to me about dying. This was difficult, not because of the subject but because I thought – and perhaps I was wrong – that we needed a quiet contained space to have the conversation.
And it wasn’t possible. Every time I got to the hospital, it was busy with nurses, orderlies, visitors, doctors. There seemed no calm space.
One morning I called and she said “Where are you? Can you come?” I was in a taxi going to the airport to fly to Canberra.
I promised to stop in the next day, on my way home. I did. On Friday May 20, I went up to the oncology ward at the Prince of Wales Hospital and as I turned into her room, I could see the conversation would not be possible.
She was weak but present. Her beloved granddaughter, Julia, was holding her hand, which gave her great comfort. Ziggy was there, as were Rabbi and Rebetzin Milecki. Her lovely carer, Nectar, was there too, feeding her vanilla ice cream from a small tub.
Just before I got there, she’d apparently emerged from sedation, gathered her resources, and begun talking to those around her.
Margaret was a great participator, she wanted to be part of the group, she wanted to be part of everything.
None of us knew this would be her last afternoon of engagement.
As the unseasonably warm afternoon passed, I stood to leave and remembered how lighting the Shabbos candles had always been so important to her.
Another Rabbi had given her little battery operated candles which she’d used in hospital previously but she didn’t have them with her.
I told her I would light candles for her. And I did. About 7.30 that night, I looked across from the dining table and saw them burning brightly.
So I got up and I called her. Unexpectedly, she answered. I told her the candles were burning strong and bright and she seemed pleased. Then, with her voice breaking, she said “I hope I see you again.”
I went back a couple of days later and she was sedated and breathing noisily. She acknowledged me but didn’t open her eyes.
She never saw me and now I look for her whenever I walk down the lane and pass the passageway that leads to her apartment. I look for her in the village, hoping to glimpse her tall figure, colourful, smiling, warm and always embracing.
I don’t expect to meet a woman like her again.
I wish Sandy, Michael, Karen, Ziggy and their families long life.
Roslyn Sugarman, Curator, Sydney Jewish Museum
I am grateful to have the opportunity to talk about Margaret today. We make lots of good friends at the Museum, we see them weekly, always expect them to walk in, and it is very sad when suddenly that ends. It’s hard to believe that I’ll no longer talk to Margaret while having lunch in the boardroom after her Wednesday guiding.
My association with Margaret began in 2009 when she and Barbara Solomon put forward a proposal to the Museum’s board for an exhibition about the Sydney Jewish community’s involvement in the rag trade. It was a story that really needed to be told.
Margaret’s experience with story-telling is well-known: shortly after graduating she was invited to join a new radio program on ABC called ‘Happy to Know You’. It was a program for migrants. There were many British migrants coming to Australia, and it was an attempt to make them feel welcome; she interviewed them and became one of the broadcasters.
Margaret was passionate about the fashion exhibition and the potential it had for drawing large audiences. Before the Museum had even formally agreed to the exhibition, she inspired other volunteers (Eva Scheinberg and Barbara Linz) to join the team, and they began fundraising and exploring the ways in which the exhibition could develop.
By the time I came on board as the curator, an extensive list was drawn up of more than 100 people to be interviewed; Margaret’s breadth of knowledge of the community and the key players in the industry was invaluable and helped me so much at the time.
Although she never put herself forward as a candidate, amongst those we interviewed was Margaret herself. Her encounter with the world of fashion was quite novel, and demonstrates her creative thinking. Lucy Chipkin interviewed her for the exhibition, recording some lovely insights. (And I might plug the Museum here, as we now have this important oral history resource for posterity).
It was Margaret who best summed up the fashion industry in the 1950s when she described post-war Sydney as follows:
“It was still a bit of a raw situation because the country was small, probably half the population of current Australia. People were still recovering from the war and you didn’t have the consumer society of today. Access to clothing was limited; things in the stores were limited; there wasn’t much importing; it was a question of home dressmaking.”
She was interested in fashion from the point of view of journalism, of writing about it, and she was interested in fashion from a sociological point of view, of the role that clothes played in women’s lives.
At the same time she was reading about the fact that there was a lot of absenteeism in factories and it was understandable because women had already started working during the war effort and they continued working afterwards. Their access to shopping was limited as shopping hours were limited – so that it was difficult for people to buy and to be interested in clothing.
She got the idea to take clothing to the factories. One of the leading models at that time was June Dally Watkins and Margaret approached her to see whether they could do something together.
In the words of one of the newspaper cuttings from the time:
“An attractive 22-year-old Sydney girl is making quite a name for herself in the fashion world. She is Margaret Nebenzahl … Margaret launched ‘Shopping while you work’ a scheme that takes fashion and all its trimmings into the factories and offices with lunch-hour parades. She arranges the accessories, bookings, schedules and does the talking. She tells working girls who don’t get an opportunity to shop around what are the newest designs and how to adapt them; how to take advantage of colour and how to harmonise fashion and make up.”
Working women would watch a fashion parade and then they could order from a catalogue. (It was very progressive at the time, like ordering on the internet today). June Dally Watkins was the main model and (as described) Margaret the compare, and models of all shapes and sizes were included.
They were very successful. They got enormous press coverage. The people who were interviewed in the factory said that it was wonderful, it made them feel human, it took away the boredom of the day, and also it resulted in business for the manufacturers and stores that they were representing.
This was an innovative idea that pushed boundaries and I believe was a precursor of changes to follow that brought about a revision of the retail limitations – store opening hours were soon revised.
When the project completed its run, Margaret applied for an internship at the United Nations in New York to widen her horizons and move into international affairs.
I’ve used this ‘fashion to the factory floor’ story as a vignette – as a small insight into Margaret’s impressive range of activities and interests, as an example of her drive and ambition, and of her passion and commitment.
I was touched by her magic and I will remember her always.
Margaret’s partner, Ziggy Sieradzski
I met Margaret in the early 1990s through the JACC (Jewish Arts and Culture Council).
I used to attend their lectures and shows, which were of high standard, and I enjoyed the discussions after the presentations, which were often conducted by Margaret.
We got to know each other and we became good friends. One day I gave a party and invited Margaret, who couldn’t make it. She called me the next week to tell me that she had a small gift for me, and so we met at the cafe at Centennial Park. During the conversation we somehow established that we both lead rather lonely lives. Margaret confided in me that it was ten years since her beloved husband Isaac had passed away and that she would like to find a companion and she found it very difficult in Australia.
I asked her, “What kind of a person are you looking for?” Then, with a smile and coyness, she declared, “Somebody like you.” I was little surprised, but rather pleased, as Margaret was an attractive, intelligent woman. We started to see each other on regular basis.
One day I got a message from Margaret at my office that she needed to see me urgently. When we met Margaret told me that she had developed breast cancer and would be operated on soon. I was speechless.
After the operation, followed by chemo and radio, her confidence was gone. She was completely bald, vulnerable, and uncertain about our new relationship.
Then something happened, and I realised that I had deep feelings for Margaret. I told her I would look after her and bring her back to health. I said that I loved her and that she was for me the most beautiful woman in the world. We held each other and cried.
We spent 18 happy and productive years together. We became good friends, enjoyed each other’s company, and started to make plans for the future.
Margaret recovered fully – and decided to leave Jewish Board of Deputies.
At that stage our relationship was getting stronger and we realised that as a team we would be able to overcome any problems that life would present.
At the end of the year, we decided to travel for the first time overseas, and we went to Spain and Morocco.
During the trip Margaret was almost killed twice. In Morocco, she was almost killed by a crazy motorcyclist in Marrakesh, as she stepped off a bus. Being an Ausssie, Margaret thought that everybody in the world travels on the left side of the road. Then, as we travelled through the Atlas Mountains, the temperature dropped dramatically and after rain the road became icy and slippery, so the bus skidded and landed in a ditch sliding backwards.
When we came back from our trip, Margaret started to work at the Sydney Jewish Museum, as the head of Public Programs – a position that she loved and was so well suited to. When Margaret joined the Museum, it had a much lower profile than it has now. Margaret, with her typical passion and dedication, became totally committed to the Museum.
For example, one day we went to see a movie at a Leichhardt cinema and afterwards Margaret suggested that we should drop leaflets at Leichhardt for a forthcoming Public Programs event. I tried to argue with her that Italians would probably be not interested in Dreyfus affair – but to no avail. The event was a great success, but frankly I did not see any Italians there.
We continued to travel, all over the world.
In Poland, we went to see the handsome building on Poznanska Street, in Warsaw, where Margaret and her brother Brian were born. By coincidence, the building that I lived in in Warsaw until 1969 was only five minutes away by car!
I think her most favourite trip overseas was to the Galapagos Islands – a true paradise on earth, where we could swim with giant turtles.
In Tasmania, she fell in love with wombats, which became our favourite animal, much more than the cassowary in tropical Queensland that we had to run away from.
She loved water and swimming at her favourite beaches in Sydney, Redleaf and Balmoral. We swam in a lake in the Northern Territory, until we saw a sign on the shore “Attention swimming not allowed –Crocodiles”. You never saw Margaret and me swimming faster to the shore.
Whilst in New Zealand, at Akuna Bay, Margaret worn a wetsuit to swim with the dolphins, followed the next morning by an escapade in a hot air balloon. Margaret was ready to try every adventure.
On our last trip together, in 2015, we went to Italy. Whilst in Rome, Margaret was interested in seeing the Catacombs – but when we got there we realised that we had to go down three sets of stairs. Not a problem – Margaret went down by herself, but then I had to ask a young American to assist me in carrying her back up! She was so happy that she had managed – she was a true, tough adventurer.
During our relationship she developed an interest in sport, as a participant attending gym or aqua aerobics, and as spectator going with me to many events such as the Olympic Games in Sydney, in 2000, or travelling to the Soccer World Championship in Japan/Korea, or watching basketball in New York. You could occasionally spot her watching the Waratahs play rugby, or playing competitive bridge at O’Sullivan Club.
Margaret was very proud to be Jewish, as she found the Jewish religion spiritually nourishing, invigorating and uplifting. She was a long-standing member of South Head Synagogue and enjoyed a close relationship with Rabbi Milecki and his wife Hennia.
Her world political views were very balanced, with the exception of the state of Israel. Margaret was an ardent Zionist, ready to commit all her resources in the defence of our state.
Margaret’s love for her sons, Sandy and Michael, and their respective families, was extraordinary. For me, it was very interesting to see how her relationships changed with her grandchildren as they became adults.
Her love and devotion was reciprocated when Margaret got sick. Her grandson, Justin, and granddaughter, Julia, often came to see her in hospital. Margaret’s beloved granddaughters, Ellie, Bella and Tallulah, managed to get to Sydney from California in time for her funeral.
As Margaret, in the last few week,s developed problems with eating hospital food, Karen, her daughter-in-law, cooked and fed her some of her special dishes. Even though busy workwise, her sons, Sandy and Michael, were at her bedside all the time, worried and puzzled like myself by the mysterious progress of her illness.
Michael spent the last night with Margaret in intensive care, holding her hand, before she died peacefully in her sleep.
I would like to thank the two doctors who looked after Margaret’s health, her GP, Errol Kaplan, and Professor Michael Friedlander, in whose care she was for the last 15 years.
Margaret fought her illness with great bravery. She was a wonderful woman, full of life, loved by everybody who met her. She was modest, elegant and respected by all who knew her.
Margaret will be terribly missed by her family, friends and especially by me. I say goodbye to Margaret, with sorrow and sadness. She was a magnificent friend and companion.
God bless her soul.
At the end, she knew she was dying. The last time we spoke she whispered … as her beautiful blue eyes opened and looked through the clouds of her illness, “Build your bridge. Walk. I will be watching you, my love.”
Aviva Wolff spoke again later in the Commemoration about Margaret’s work with SJM Public Pr0grams. Rabbi Milecki also spoke movingly about his and the Rebbetzin’s long neighbourly and congregational relationship with Margaret, Isaac and Ziggy.
The following are a few of the slides shown at the Commemoration.
With Ziggy Sieradzski and Charles Aronson
With Roma Shell
With Prof Peter McNeil and Roslyn Sugarman
‘Shopping while you work’
With John Hemmes, Ajak Ajang, Yar Mayen, Dr Norman Swan, Judy Nachum and
‘Dressing Sydney’ exhibition
With Prof Konrad Kwiet and Betty Wilkenfeld
With Prof Colin Tatz and Barbara Linz
With Lesley Barold, Eva Scheinberg, Barbara Solomon, Roslyn Sugarman, Barbara Linz and Liz Sharota
With Lady Judith and Sir Charles Mackerras and Prof Suzanne Rutland