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Freilich, Meilech (Max) (1893–1986)

by Suzanne D. Rutland

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Meilech (Max) Freilich (1893-1986), manufacturer and Zionist, was born on 8 June 1893 at Lesko, Galicia, Austro-Hungarian Empire (Poland), fourth of eight children of Aron Freilich, wholesale grocer, and his wife Jueta (Yetta), née Dym, both from Orthodox Jewish families. Aged 13 he was sent to study with Rabbi Halberstam in eastern Galicia; he was the youngest student, known as an ilui, a Talmudic prodigy. His parents presumed that he would become a rabbi, but he returned home and worked in his father’s business while secretly beginning secular studies. In 1913 Max moved to Vienna to prepare for his matriculation but next year enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army, serving on the Russian front. Late in 1917 he received extended leave to complete his matriculation in Vienna. He enrolled in chemistry at the University of Vienna but experienced anti-Semitism and did not graduate. On 5 September 1920 he married Cypora (Sasha) Landau in Vienna.

As a businessman, aware of the depressed Austrian economy, Freilich decided to join a relative in New Zealand and work as a diamond merchant’s agent. Arriving with his family in 1926, next year he investigated business prospects in Sydney and subsequently moved his family there. He planned to manufacture cigarette paper but, because of competition, soon resolved instead to produce toilet paper, naming the company Safre Australasian Paper Industry Co.; Safre was an abbreviation of Sasha Freilich. In 1934 he was naturalised. Believing that war was inevitable and that importing would become difficult, Freilich borrowed £100,000 to import bulk paper from Scandinavia. Almost all of it arrived, enabling continued production throughout the war both for Safre and its manufacturing competitor to whom he agreed to supply paper. Freilich’s elder son, Theodore, joined Safre after the war. In 1961 they sold the business to Kimberly Clark of Australia Pty Ltd. Max retired in 1963; Theodore left a couple of years later.

From childhood Freilich was committed to the Zionist movement: when only 11 he had made a donation and in 1913 had attended the Eleventh Zionist Congress, in Vienna, as an observer. In 1930 he was elected to the executive of the Union of Sydney Zionists, later introducing two friends, Horace Bohmer Newman and Norman Schureck. He helped to establish the State Zionist Council of New South Wales in 1939 and served (1942-45, 1948-52) as its president. Commissioner (1937-67) for the State Keren Hayesod (Palestine Foundation Fund, later United Israel Appeal), he published 25 Years of Keren Hayesod (1945). From 1953 to 1958 he was president of the Zionist Federation of Australia and New Zealand. He supported every aspect of Zionism, including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Youth Aliyah, and trade through the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The murder of most of Freilich’s family in Europe during the Holocaust spurred him on. Through Abram Landa and Sydney Einfeld, he became friendly with Bert Evatt, minister for external affairs, who played a central role in the partition of Palestine. Freilich also encouraged Peter Fraser, the New Zealand prime minister, to support the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 1947.

Freilich believed that Israel and diaspora Jewry were a partnership for Jewish survival. He insisted that the State Zionist Council affiliate with the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, for which he served as chair of its overseas Jewry committee, as honorary treasurer and later as vice-president. In 1966 he was appointed an honorary life member. Freilich worked hard for Jewish education: he chaired the New South Wales Day School Council and the King David School, and became a trustee (1972-86) of, and a major donor to, Moriah College. He was a member of both the Great and Central synagogues. In 1964 a watchtower was established in his honour in Kerem Maharal, a Jewish National Fund project centre in the Carmel, and in 1968 he became the first Australian life member of the World Zionist Organization. He was given the 1973 Maurice Ashkanasy award for Australian Jew of the Year and was appointed OBE in 1982.

Five ft 6 ins (168 cm) tall, and of slim build with brown eyes and dark hair, Freilich was diminutive in stature but not personality. A laryngectomy in 1956 did not lessen his commitment. He published his memoirs, Zion in Our Time, in 1968. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died on 19 October 1986 in his home at Bellevue Hill and was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood cemetery. The Australian Jewish Times described him as `an initiator, a doer, a fighter with courage and determination’. Judy Cassab painted two portraits of him: one (1955) is held privately, and the other (1963) is in the United Israel Appeal office, Darlinghurst.

Select Bibliography

  • W. D. Rubinstein, The Jews in Australia, vol 2 (1991)
  • G. H. Gordon, Guardians of Zion (1996)
  • S. D. Rutland and S. Caplan, With One Voice (1998)
  • S. D. Rutland, Edge of the Diaspora (2001)
  • Sydney Jewish News, 8 Mar 1968, p 13
  • Australian Jewish Times, 21 June 1973, p 15, 23 Oct 1986, p 25
  • Great Synagogue Journal, Feb 1987, p 7
  • series A659, item 1943/1/2845, series A6126, item 79 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Suzanne D. Rutland, 'Freilich, Meilech (Max) (1893–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/freilich-meilech-max-12514/text22517, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 2 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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