Escape to Paris inspired iconic local cafe




24-5-1924 - 8-6-2013

Avram Zeleznikow - partisan, community activist, proprietor of Cafe Scheherazade - has died aged 89. A week before his death he reaffirmed his view that his extraordinary life pivoted around one night.

In early July 1944, the Red Army central command ordered his partisan battalion to abandon the forests and join the advance on Vilna, occupied by the Nazis. The battle for the city raged for five days. On the night of his liberation, Avram's battalion was billeted in Napoleon's Palace, a Vilna landmark. The partisans dispersed throughout the city to rejoin friends and loved ones. For the first time in his life Avram was utterly alone. He paced the palace rooms. He was free, but free to do what? Go where? His entire family had vanished into unmarked graves. "I had seen too much brutality, too much killing," Avram said. "I lost the will to live. All I wanted to do was forget."

Avram Zeleznikow was born in Vilna, then part of Poland, on May 25, 1924. His parents were members of the Bund, a Jewish socialist movement with a mass pre-war following. A Bund activist, trade union leader and member of the Vilna Jewish Council, his father was often away on party business. Avram's mother, a midwife, was the main breadwinner. A former revolutionary, she had given birth to Avram's older sister, Basia, in 1911 in a Tsarist prison.

Avram received a secular education and attended Bund gatherings, where he obtained his grounding as a community activist. In September 1939, aged 15, he was entrusted with his first clandestine mission. Vilna was now occupied by the Soviet Union. Soon after, his father was arrested by the secret police and vanished in the Stalinist gulag.

When the German army invaded in 1941, Avram was incarcerated in the Vilna ghetto. He remained there until 1943, when he escaped through the sewers to the neighbouring forests. The Nazis murdered his mother, his sister and her six-year-old son in the forests of Ponary.

Avram joined the partisans and took part in many dangerous missions. After liberation he was assigned to a Red Army intelligence unit as the front advanced westwards. He was valued for his interrogation skills and was to be sent to a special school in Moscow. Through a warning from a fellow officer, Avram learnt it was an espionage centre. It was time to get out. Avram left for Poland and spent three years in Lodz, where he worked as a Bund activist, helping survivors regroup. He also attended Lodz University, where he met his lifelong partner, Masha, who was studying medicine.

When the Communist Party looked set to take control of Poland in 1948, the days of the Bund were numbered. Avram and Masha left separately. Masha was able to obtain a visa, while Avram escaped with Bund comrades, stealing across the border into Czechoslovakia. He made his way to Paris as prearranged with Masha. To celebrate their reunion, the couple went to Scheherazade, a nightclub for Russian emigres made famous in a novel about stateless refugees, written by Eric Maria Remarque.

It would become the name of the cafe the couple opened in Acland Street, St Kilda, in 1958. They had migrated to Melbourne in 1951 and Avram first worked as a labourer. The cafe became a popular meeting place for Holocaust survivors, especially single men who had lost their families. Avram's son John says: "He did not run the restaurant to make a profit, he ran it to help people. There were many people who received free meals, because if you couldn't pay he would still provide the service." In time the cafe became a Melbourne institution, drawing many people with its European ambience and lively conversation.

Avram's heart, however, lay in community activism. He taught Yiddish in the Sholem Aleichem Sunday school, remained active in the Bund, and was elected to the board of the Australian Jewish Welfare Society, where he served as honorary secretary, treasurer and president. Among many other activities, he was a delegate of the Victorian Jewish Board of deputies, a Jewish community representative on the Ethnic Communities Council, and involved in ALP politics.

Avram was driven by a visceral hatred of totalitarianism. The fate of his father sealed his loathing for Stalinism. His passion spilled over into fiery political debate and coloured his political outlook. He expressed his opinions forcefully and at times with anger. When the novel Cafe Scheherazade was adapted for the stage in 2011, Avram was deeply moved by Jim Daly's portrayal of him as a passionate, enraged and driven man. How could be it otherwise, he said, given his life's experience.

I last saw Avram two weeks before he died, slowly but determinedly walking the paths of his beloved Botanic Gardens, his mane of white hair intact, jacket slung over his shoulders European-style. He delivered his final talk the day before his heart attack, on the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved many Jewish lives before vanishing into Soviet custody.

Avram's last words, minutes before he died, were a congratulatory call to a granddaughter who had been admitted into Harvard University. For Avram, education was the key to self-fulfilment and the basis of a civilised society. He had been condemned, like so many of his generation, to be an autodidact whose university was life itself.

Avram Zeleznikow was a survivor and far more. After that desperate night in Napoleon's Palace, he gradually regained his will, especially after meeting Masha. Tragedy struck yet again with the death of his two daughters, one through an accident, the other through illness.

He is survived by Masha, his son John and seven grandchildren.

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