Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Goldman, Maurice David (1898–1957)

by Nina Christesen

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

Maurice David Goldman (1898-1957), linguist and professor of Semitic studies, was born on 13 January 1898 at Kolo, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire), son of Arie Lejb Goldman, retail merchant and scholar, and his wife Golda, née Kozminska. Maurice was educated at gymnasiums at Gostynin and Lodz, graduating in 1917. For three semesters he studied medicine at the University of Warsaw and attended several language seminars in his spare time. In 1920 he transferred to the University of Berlin (D.Phil., 1925) to read Islamic culture and Oriental languages under Professor Eugen Mittwoch. About 1922 Goldman married Fela Hermeon (d.1932) in Berlin. He subsequently lectured in Hebrew, Aramaic, Islamic culture, Arabic and Ethiopic at various tertiary institutions in Germany. In the summer of 1935 he travelled to Palestine, Arabia, Egypt, Algiers, Morocco and Tunis.

Coming from a rich cultural mix, Goldman was a remarkable linguist. He spoke modern Hebrew, Polish and German in his daily intercourse; he had been taught ancient Hebrew by his father and Russian by his Russian-born mother; he had studied French, classical Greek and Latin at school; and he mastered all the Semitic languages. In sum, he had a working knowledge of forty languages. While in Germany he published several articles and books, including a Hebrew grammar.

In 1938, after making a subtle comparison between the prophet Mohammed and the Führer, Goldman narrowly eluded the Gestapo—but not before he had ensured that his students had completed their examinations. Travelling on his Polish passport, he visited London, then left for Australia where he had a sister living at Horsham, Victoria. He disembarked in Melbourne on 2 January 1939.

Throughout World War II Goldman served as an interpreter and consultant in the censor's office, Department of the Army, Melbourne. He was naturalized in 1944. He taught at Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, was active in establishing Bialik College, North Carlton, and was a guest lecturer at the University of Melbourne where his erudition convinced Professor A. R. Chisholm, dean of the faculty of arts, that he was 'a man of genius'. Dr Greta Hort and other senior colleagues concurred and—although all the outward forms of a university appointment were scrupulously observed—what amounted to a personal chair was created for Goldman in 1945, initially subsidized by a benefaction from the Jewish businessman, Abraham Sicree.

Professor Goldman fitted well into the intellectual climate of (Sir) John Medley's humanizing era at the university. In 1950 Goldman initiated discussion which led to the formation of the Fellowship for Biblical Studies and the Australian Biblical Review, and was credited with promoting 'the first Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue'. A foundation member (1956) of the Humanities Research Council, he remained an active participant in international conferences, even during his final illness. He claimed to have developed a new method of teaching languages: since his method required an intimate knowledge of several cognate languages in their historic and modern variations as well as cultural associations and nuances, few could put it into practice as effectively as did its inventor.

In Berlin, Goldman had been in touch with Zionist leaders; in Melbourne, he supported the Labour Zionist movement, was a member of B'nai B'rith and belonged to the Liberal Synagogue, St Kilda. He served on the school council of Mount Scopus College, wrote a primer for children, contributed articles to Australian Jewish News and Australian Biblical Review, and a short chapter to Light out of France (Sydney, 1951). His lifelong work on a dictionary of Ethiopic languages remained unfinished.

Goldman was 5 ft 6 ins (168 cm) tall, weighed over 14 stone (89 kg) and had a 'poker face'. He disregarded the warnings of his medical adviser, smoked heavily scented cigars and took no exercise. A widower with no children, he employed a non-Jewish housekeeper. He entertained friends with philosophical discussions, vintage wine, inexhaustible anecdotes and crossword puzzles which he compiled in a range of languages, and he spoke Aramaic to his cat. Goldman died of cancer on 14 September 1957 at his Moorabbin home and was cremated. He left his fine library and the bulk of his estate to the university for the benefit of the department of Semitic studies.

Select Bibliography

  • A. R. Chisholm, Men Were My Milestones (Melb, 1958)
  • H. L. and W. D. Rubinstein, The Jews in Australia (Melb, 1991)
  • People (Sydney), 13 Feb 1952
  • Who's Who in World Jewry (New York), 1955
  • Leo Baek Institute Yearbook (New York), 1956, 1967
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, Nov 1957
  • Great Synagogue Congregational Journal, May 1980
  • Age (Melbourne), 16 Sept 1957
  • private information.

Citation details

Nina Christesen, 'Goldman, Maurice David (1898–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/goldman-maurice-david-10319/text18263, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 October 2018.

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

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