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.

Sydney Jewish Museum

For me, choosing this course was a way to help me translate 2 ½ years of in class education into the real world where I can give my time to a non-profit organisation, and in turn my knowledge and skills could grow. My major is Jewish Civilisation, Thought and Culture, a passion for Jewish history, which has stayed with me since year 8 in 2010. Then after taking multiple courses at university on periods such as the destruction of the first and second temple in Jerusalem, the Spanish Inquisition, Emancipation, the Holocaust, as well as the modern State of Israel. Thus, I reached out to Breann Fallon, who is the Education Officer at the Sydney Jewish Museum, and was given the opportunity to go in and discuss what I could do at the museum.
The museum opened in 1992 after transitioning from a community centre, formerly known as the Maccabean Hall since its opening in 1923. The museum displays many artefacts and memorabilia that are more than just inanimate objects, they speak the experiences of the Holocaust from many perspectives, in ensuring that ‘its uniqueness in history is never forgotten and that it is recognised as a crime against humanity with contemporary and universal significance’ ( It is the museum’s mission to educate all its visitors on the consequences of racial hatred, and thus to ensure that racial tolerance is adhered to presently and in the future. Especially since many of the museum’s visitors are school students who come to learn more about the Holocaust through the museum’s displays as well as through survivor testimony as they give their story to the students in person. Thus, it is extremely important to the museum for notions of racial tolerance, human rights and social justice to be educated to these students, as they are the beneficiaries of this world in the future.
I was invited by Breann to the museum on the 17th of August in order to see how I could help them, and in turn come up with a project. The day looked like this: 9am to 10am I got to explore the museum to gather some ideas; 10am to 1pm I would observe the Museum Education Program, which included listening to Egon’s testimony as a survivor of the Holocaust, then a seminar to help the school kids further understand the importance of studying the Holocaust, and then a guided tour analysing artefacts and resources around the museum; lastly, from 2pm to 3pm Breann and I would brainstorm some ideas for what I could do at the museum. My first hour exploring the museum was how I could interpret what the museum wished to portray to its visitors, with a lot of thought going into the set up, especially that of the use of the Star of David at the centre of the museum. As you go further up the stairs, delving deeper into the history of the Holocaust, you start to lose your sighting of the symbol, then as you get to the top floor you can once again clearly see the Star of David. These architectural layouts symbolise the feeling of being lost and confused, then once you find the end everything becomes clearer and the pieces are put back together, renewed, or transformed. Other exhibitions of the museum that was memorable was the Children’s Memorial, which included a wall of photographs and names of children, importantly individualising the 1.5 million child victims of the Holocaust. Lastly, the Human Rights exhibition is an important space to start conversation about the past, current, and future challenges of human rights. Thus, these were the areas that Breann and I discussed when asked what parts of the museum interested me in order to see where I could fit in.
First of all, prior to going to the museum I was told not to plan anything, and to put the organisation first, and my project last. However, I did have expectations as an individual who loves to overthink everything, and analyses many possible outcomes. However, I did not expect to walk out of the museum with the plan that Breann, Roslyn (Head Curator), and I had conjured up. Both Breann and Roslyn mentioned the Maccabean Hall and how they would like to incorporate that part of Australian Jewish history into the museum, as previously they have not had the time or the hands to do so. Thus, we brainstormed some ideas in order to execute this idea, such as an interactive map showing the various spots of interest associated with the “Macc”, including the Jewish War Memorial at the entrance, as well as pointing out surrounding buildings like the Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial in Green Park. Furthermore, we thought of an audio walking tour including those spots with further information.
My next meeting was on the 6th of September, with a day including researching through the Resource Centre, with the help of Tinny, reading articles such as Barbara Linz’s essay on the history of the Maccabean Hall, Avril Alba’s ‘The Holocaust Memorial Museum’, as well as a compilation of articles part of the Australian Jewish History Society Journal. From these works I gained an in depth understanding of the Macc and how it contributed to the Jewish community, especially as a centre welcoming refugees after the Holocaust, helping them settle into this new environment through programs such as English classes.
Prior to the day, Breann informed me that she had set up a session for me to interview a man named Jack, a Holocaust survivor who moved to Australia after the Holocaust and was deeply imbedded in the Macc community. I’ll admit, I was very nervous to conduct an interview, I made sure I wrote down every question under the sun relevant to understanding what it was like to be part of the Macc community, so as to not miss a detail. My interview with Jack went very well, his story at the Macc was very inspiring and left me in awe of how such a space could mean so much to someone’s renewal. “The Maccabean made me realise life keeps going, and I was happy afterward, and my life start all over again”, is one statement Jack made when reminiscing the social dances he used to attend at the Macc, where he also met his wife, whom he later married at the Macc. Now my goal with Jack’s interview is to utilise it as much as possible, in conveying to those who would like to know more about the Macc, how important the Hall was and still is to many people in settling into Australian society, as well as maintaining their Jewish roots. Lastly, I was given the opportunity to explore though the archives of the Australian Jewish Historical Society, going through countless documents regarding the Macc, such as: the minutes of meetings; a membership card; an appeal to raise funds to build the Maccabean Hall; as well as Annual Report Brochures.
There was so much I didn’t get to go through, but I will definitely get to it as what I did find was so important and interesting in uncovering various aspects of the Hall prior to its opening, as well as during. I’m looking forward to gathering all this information and sharing it in order to show the story of the Macc for the Sydney Jewish Museum.