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My family’s delicatessen: a story straight out of the Bible

Michael Visontay
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Published: 16 December 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

A century ago, a New York bookseller caused a sensation by selling his Gutenberg Bible, leaf by leaf. The bookseller was also a distant relative of mine and his gamble helped resurrect my family when they arrived in Sydney from Hungary.

For a bibliophile, books are sacred objects to be treasured and protected. Of all the sacred books in this world, perhaps the most famous is the Gutenberg Bible, the first major book printed in Europe using mass-produced movable metal type.

First published in 1455, only 180 copies were printed. Is there anything more sacrilegious than tearing the pages from a Gutenberg Bible?

Yet one hundred years ago a famous New York antiquarian bookseller chose precisely this course of action to maximise the potential sales on his investment in a damaged copy of the Bible.

The bookseller’s name was Gabriel Wells, whose purchases included a Gutenberg Bible which was missing more than 50 of the usual 541 leaves.  In 1921 Wells decided to sell each page as a “Noble Fragment”, a brazen act that ensured his everlasting notoriety in the world of bibliophiles, some of whom continue to revile him.

“That bastard Gabriel Wells broke his up into individual leaves; with, of course, the book breaker’s invariable whine that it was “damaged” because it was missing 53 leaves; missing only 53 leaves meant that it was one of the most complete surviving copies. Until he got his claws on it,” wrote a contributor to an American bibliophile site. (Thomas Conroy, The Peachey Conservation)

I am, however, more warmly disposed towards “that bastard” after discovering a few years ago, that Wells was a distant relative whose disposal of the “disseverated” (his adjective) Gutenberg helped build a small fortune that underwrote my own family’s destiny when they moved to Sydney after fleeing post-war Europe.

It was a connection that only emerged when I started digging into our family history during Covid lockdown. The one glaring void in the story was my grandfather's second wife, a woman who seemed to have been erased from our family – but who emerged as the crucial link between the Gutenberg Bible and the Visontay family’s resurrection in Kings Cross.

Born into a Jewish family in provincial Hungary, Gabriel Wells immigrated to America in 1891, leaving behind his parents and five siblings. After establishing himself in New York, he became “an international figure in the field of rare books and manuscripts”, according to his obituary in The New York Times, “built on selling the first folios of Shakespeare’s plays and large volumes of Balzac’s work”.

Wells died in 1946 a very wealthy man, but childless. His estate was distributed among his siblings, most of whom perished in the Holocaust, as did many of their offspring. As a result, one of the unexpected beneficiaries was his niece Olga Illofsky, who married my grandfather Paul Visontay shortly after the war in provincial Hungary, after both had lost their spouses in Auschwitz.

Neither knew anything about the inheritance at the time but when Olga was informed of her good fortune five years later, she initially tried to take her new husband and stepson to join Wells’ sister, her surviving aunt, in New York. But she was refused a visa and so, having heard good things about Australia, they boarded a ship in Genoa for Sydney.

Paul and Olga arrived in 1952, with my father Ivan in tow, and a decent nest egg to help them rebuild their lives. The inheritance enabled Paul and Ivan to start the delicatessen at Kings Cross, which they called the Minerva (after the popular theatre around the corner), reviving the family business they had run back in the old country.

The inheritance was worth $US21,000, which seems modest by today’s standards. But it’s equivalent to a couple of hundred thousand in today's money and was more than enough to bankroll the purchase of the delicatessen business (and three times what my father paid for his first house a few years later).

Th Visontay family in front of the delicatessen, late 1960s (courtesy the author)
Th Visontay family in front of the delicatessen, late 1960s (courtesy the author)

Sadly, there was no “happily ever after”. Just 18 months after they had arrived, Olga died suddenly from a stroke. Worse, she died without a will, and her aunt in New York successfully contested her inheritance. My grandfather and father were forced to repay a portion of her estate in compensation.

The unexpected financial hole compounded the debt they had from starting the business. Father and son had to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day, for five years to get back on their feet.

My grandfather remarried shortly after Olga died and by the time I was old enough to inquire about the family history, she had been erased from the narrative, a victim of two larger personalities before and after, and the odour that lingered from her contested estate.

My family’s 30-plus years in the delicatessen could fill a book; it was a migrant’s story as colourful as it was successful. Here is just a taste: every family car we owned stunk to high heaven from the boxes of cheese and salami that my father brought home every night to store in the commercial fridge he had installed in our garage.

One Friday evening in 1975, the night before my younger brother’s barmitzvah, my father arrived home, unloaded the cheese into the garage and came into the house in a state of high excitement. We thought he was pumped up about the big day ahead.

No, he was flustered because a few hours earlier two young women entered the small jewellery shop next door, pulled out a rifle and shot dead the woman standing behind the counter. He saw the two women, later identified by the media as junkies, looking at the jewellery shop window, then heard a door slam with such force that he ran out of the deli to see what was going on. I still have the police report of his statement.

In the mid-1980s he had another brush with the law. The NSW government had commissioned an inquiry into the prostitution industry. At the time, I was working as a junior journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald. One evening a senior colleague rang me. “The committee has just tabled its report in parliament and a man named Ivan Visontay has been named four times as the owner of a brothel. Is he related to you?”

One Friday night, my father arrived home in a state of high excitement. A few hours earlier two young women entered the small jewellery shop next door, pulled out a rifle and shot dead the woman standing behind the counter.

The report was referring to the Shangri-La Health Studio, a massage centre in the same building as his shop, run by Madame Hildegard, an Austrian woman who variously claimed to be a clairvoyant, masseuse and expert in alternative medical therapies. To be fair, Hildegard had helped me recover from a lower back problem a few years earlier through acupuncture and walking on my back. But I always wondered why her studio needed a locked metal grill door.

Ivan laughed the report off, explaining that as one of the co-owners of Minerva House, his name would always come up on such searches. The jury was forever out on Hildegard.

My father continued to work in the delicatessen for a few more years, and then finally sold the business as a going concern. Today it’s a vintage clothes shop. Although I doubt that a hot piroshki will ever be served there again, 109 Macleay Street Potts Point will be a part of the Visontay DNA forever.

The Gutenberg leaf had been acquired by an Australian bibliophile who, it turns out, may very well have walked past the delicatessen while my father was working there.

But that’s not the end of Gabriel Wells’ legacy. A few months ago, I caught up with my next-door neighbour from childhood, who now works for an international antiquarian bookseller. When I mentioned Wells, the name registered instantly. In the course of his arcane work, he had actually handled one of Wells’ Gutenberg Bible leaves when he catalogued it for sale some years previously.

Not only that: the leaf had been acquired by an Australian bibliophile who, it turns out, may very well have walked past the delicatessen while my father was working there. I am sure he would love to have learned about the chain of events, so close to home, that were launched when Gabriel Wells took a leaf out of his own book.

Photo: Paul and Ivan Visontay behind the counter of Minerva Delicatessen in 1959 (courtesy the author)

About the author

Michael Visontay

Michael Visontay is the Commissioning Editor of TJI. He has worked as a journalist and editor for more than 30 years. Michael is the author of several books, including Who Gave You Permission?, co-authored with child sexual abuse advocate Manny Waks, and Welcome to Wanderland: Western Sydney Wanderers and the Pride of the West.

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