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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fink, Leo (1901–1972)

by Rodney L. Benjamin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Leo Fink (1901-1972), manufacturer and Jewish welfare worker, was born on 31 October 1901 at Bialystok, Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, eldest son of Mordechai Fink, manufacturer, and his wife Masia, née Jablonska. Educated at Zeligman's Gymnasium, Bialystok, Leo worked in a pioneer corps in Palestine for two years and in 1922-26 studied civil engineering in Berlin and at Altenburg, Germany. He then joined his family's woollen-mill at Galatz, Rumania, but the business was not a success.

In 1928 Fink and two of his brothers emigrated to Victoria and went to a farm at Berwick which had been established to assist Jewish settlement. After a year they moved to Melbourne to start a family business: the venture led to the formation of United Woollen Mills Pty Ltd and United Carpet Mills Pty Ltd. Fink returned to Bialystok where, on 20 September 1932, he married Mina Waks. She accompanied him to Melbourne.

Drawn to the Kadimah—a society dedicated to maintaining interest in Jewish history, and Yiddish language and culture—Fink was a committee-member (from 1938) and president (1940). In 1943-47 he presided over the United Jewish Overseas Relief Fund, set up to assist survivors of the Holocaust. Under his leadership it quickly became the largest Jewish organization in the country. From the end of World War II the U.J.O.R.F. also helped those who had lived through the atrocities of Nazism to emigrate and settle in Australia. Melbourne became the focus of the movement and Fink a leader in combating government and public pressure to limit levels of Jewish immigration. He developed a close relationship with Arthur Calwell, minister for immigration in the Chifley government.

Because much of its work involved resettlement issues, the U.J.O.R.F. merged with the Australian Jewish Welfare Society in 1947 to form the Australian Jewish Welfare and Relief Society. Fink was elected president of the new body, a position he held until 1960. During this period he filled various roles on both the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. He travelled frequently to Europe and the United States of America, raising funds for the A.J.W.R.S.'s immigration programme and representing Australia at Jewish conferences. In 1963 Australian Wool Industries Pty Ltd, of which Fink was founding chairman, opened a factory at Ashdod, Israel, to process Australian wool.

Fink's support for multiculturalism brought him into conflict with those who espoused assimilation, as well as with some local Zionists who considered that Jewish migrants should have been encouraged to go to Israel rather than Australia. In 1959 the Hebrew Immigration Assistance Service, U.S.A., granted him an award of honour. Survived by his wife, son and daughter, he died of cancer on 20 September 1972 at Fitzroy and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. Three buildings bear his name: a block of A.J.W.R.S. units for the elderly, at St Kilda, and the Kadimah Hall, and Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Centre, both at Elsternwick. His widow Mina, who had been a director (1947-76) of the A.J.W.R.S. and president (1967-73) of the National Council of Jewish Women, was appointed M.B.E. in 1974.

Select Bibliography

  • S. D. Rutland, Edge of the Diaspora (Syd, 1988)
  • H. L. and W. D. Rubinstein, The Jews in Australia, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1991)
  • Australian Jewish News, 29 Sept 1972
  • Australian Jewish Welfare and Relief Society reports and minute books (Jewish Welfare Society Archives, Melbourne)
  • United Jewish Overseas Relief Fund, Annual Report (Jewish Welfare Society Archives, Melbourne)
  • Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies and Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Annual Report (Australian Jewish Historical Society Victoria Inc Archives, Melbourne)
  • W. M. Lippmann papers (Jewish Welfare Society, Archives, Melbourne)
  • L. and M. Fink papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Rodney L. Benjamin, 'Fink, Leo (1901–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 31 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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