The Maccabean Hall: What lay amid the art deco walls

Prior to volunteering at the Sydney Jewish Museum in Darlinghurst, I had visited the museum quite a few times not knowing about the building’s history and significance. Prior the creation of the Sydney Jewish Museum in 1992, it was a Jewish community centre called the Maccabean Hall, or known as “the Macc”. The Macc opened in 1923 mainly as a Jewish war memorial to commemorate all the Jewish soldiers who served in the Australian Army, as well as a space where the Jewish community could gather to ignite social, cultural, and religious practices. As the years went on, with the increasing immigration of European Jews to escape the antisemitism especially fuelled by the Nazi regime, the Macc became a centre for welcoming these immigrants. English classes, skills lessons, the Jewish Welfare Society, social dances, cultural and religious events were housed under the ceilings of the Macc to ensure the integration of the Jewish community in Australian society, as well as safeguarding the continuation of the Jewish culture. Therefore, this project to tell the story of the Maccabean Hall is important to preserve its narrative and memories from individuals themselves. Such as Jack Meister who went to the Sunday dance, or Peter Wagner’s family who relied on the Sheltered workshops inside the Macc. These are the stories and memories that will not be forgotten, which is why I have created a booklet on the Maccabean Hall for the Sydney Jewish Museum to display for all its visitors.
As we all know, museums can get very busy with the amount of people that walk through the doors everyday, especially since the Sydney Jewish Museum has a very highly regarded education program for students. Once I sat down with the Education Officer, Breann Fallon, I found out that there was one project that the museum desired to add, however, they have not had the time to do so. It was a project on the Maccabean Hall that the museum wanted to implement in some way in order for every visitor to have the opportunity to understand the space they are in. The Sydney Jewish Museum itself documents the history of the Jews all around the world, with their central focus on the Holocaust, via the medium of artefacts, journals, photographs, and most importantly the survivors themselves. This is all housed among the art deco ceilings of the Macc, which had stood as a centre where Holocaust survivors, who have told and still tell their story at the museum, could restart their life in Australia. This has been the purpose of the project, to ensure that every history is not forgotten, even though the building serves a different purpose now, it is important to ensure the survival of its history. Just as the Macc was a community centre and a point of help, the museum serves the same purpose today to bring together various stories in order for them to be retold to a wider audience.
The process of gathering information on the Maccabean Hall brought an abundance of sources. From the interviews I conducted, to the Australian Jewish Historical Society’s archives. What was the significance of the Maccabean Hall? Is it still significant today? Did the purpose of the Macc change overtime? What should be the sequence of the booklet? How will I present the information in the booklet? I started with these questions when conducting all my interviews and searching through several documents, as it lead me to pose many more interesting questions to produce the booklet.
The way the booklet is set out is to tell a story of the Macc through a unique experience. I wanted to highlight some interesting points on the outside and inside of the museum, which may have gone unnoticed. We start the visitor from the outside of the museum, focusing on the stained glass windows, the menorah on the façade, as well as the Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial. I will admit, even I hadn’t noticed these features until they were pointed out to me, which is why I wish to help the museum do the same fro every visitor. Moreover, there are inside features such as the Jewish War Memorial, a mysterious mosaic, a relief, the Children’s Memorial, and the architectural design of the staircase. Furthermore, I conducted three interviews with Peter Wagner, Jack Meister and Mary Ziegler to coincide with the features highlighted as their stories add a personal experience to why we have focused on these areas of the Macc. Both Peter and Jack were part of the Macc community when they arrived in Australia from Europe, rewinding several decades to recount the dances and events they used to attend at the Macc. The image that Peter and Jack described to me is exactly what we wanted to convey to the visitor upon following the map to each feature, and it also was central when deciding what the sequence of the booklet would be. We decided to start with an information page of the Macc, then go into the outside features, followed by Peter’s story. This was so the visitor could walk in the steps of Peter as he would when entering the Macc, especially sine he had been part of the Hall from 1952 to this day.
At the start of this project when I had a clear idea of what history I was telling and in what way, I believed my purpose in this project was to preserve the history of the Maccabean Hall, from its physical features to the recollections from many people part of the Macc community. Especially the memories from individuals like Jack Meister and Peter Wagner, are never forgotten, and continue to be retold amid the art deco walls of the Maccabean Hall.