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From Les Girls to goulash: Jewish stories of Kings Cross

Miriam Hechtman
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Published: 21 February 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

EVELYN FRYBORT tells MIRIAM HECHTMAN what drove her to document a missing chapter in the social history of Sydney’s Jewish community.

"Would you like to have your story included in my book, Memories of Kings Cross – The Jewish Migrant Experience – 1930s – 1960s?”. That was the question Sydney resident Evelyn Frybort posed to potential contributors when she began curating her book last year.

Frybort, whose parents Ruth and Joseph Zack migrated to Sydney from Europe in early 1939, were like many other Jewish refugees who lived and/or worked in Kings Cross and its neighbouring suburbs during these years.

Frybort’s father operated his hairdressing salon Zack's Hair Stylist in Bayswater Road, Kings Cross until he retired in 1967. Both parents worked in the salon, and Frybort and her sister Vicki Israel spent a lot of time in Kings Cross.

“There were a lot of continental women who went to my father's salon because he was trained in Europe. And so we saw them, got to know them. But there were also prostitutes. There were gay people. He had quite a cross-section of customers.”

Patrons also included performers from Les Girls and Frybort recalls her father would have to tint men’s hair at the back of the salon behind a curtain because in those days if a man got his hair tinted, it might have made his more conservative clientele feel uncomfortable.

The notion to document her family’s and other Jewish residents’ experiences in Kings Cross evolved after Frybort and her sister read Louis Nowra’s Kings Cross: A Biography. “It was an amazing book because he'd lived in the Cross and he knew a lot about it, the characters, and it was very colourful.

Cover of the book (left); Evelyn Frybort, who created the book (right)
Cover of the book (left); Evelyn Frybort, who created the book (right)

“But there was rarely a mention of the Jews. And we knew from our own family experience that the Jews played quite a significant role for a certain number of years in Kings Cross. It doesn't make headlines, but we knew about it and we felt there was a story to be told.”

Frybort made it her mission to gather these stories, so she posted an advert in Facebook group “Jews of Sydney” and wrote an article in the Australian Jewish Genealogical Society’s Kosher Koala Magazine. She also set up an Excel sheet to keep in touch with people and contacted pre-and post WW2 Jewish refugees or their children who she already knew. Most people were found through word of mouth, referrals and recommendations.

“Then my sister and I did a reorientation, a self-guided walking tour through Kings Cross and Elizabeth Bay because we haven't been there for a number of years,” she says. “We also spent the day at the City Library, Kings Cross Branch, researching the books on the subject. That was fantastic and great fun.” Frybort also conducted research at the Jewish Historical Society office at the Jewish Museum.

The two dozen contributors were asked a series of questions for their story. Whether they shared memories, or simply gave names and descriptions of landmarks and businesses, or described the emotions they felt in recollecting these memories - Frybort’s objective was that the stories were told verbatim, with little editing from her.

It's not meant to be a literary work. Some people didn't have the best grammar. So it's memoir. It is history based on personal memoirs.

“It's not meant to be a literary work. Some people didn't have the best grammar, the best way of expressing themselves. But that's how I wanted it. So it's memoir, it's not historical. It is history based on personal memoirs.”

Though the 24 stories are varied in style and content, Frybort says overarching themes emerged, such as the camaraderie between shop owners along Darlinghurst Road, most of whom were Hungarian, and the initial struggles of migrants who all lived with a “strong survival instinct and work ethic”.

She also noted the status and security of buying real estate. “As you go through the book, you'll find a number of people who actually ended up buying the block that they were living in.” Continental food venues were also mentioned often “because you couldn't get it anywhere else in Sydney,” says Frybort, and the entertainment. “That's where you went for entertainment.”

Newspaper clippings when Oliver's boutique closed down
Newspaper clippings when Oliver's boutique closed down

As for story highlights, Frybort recalls Tanya Hammer’s William Street interactions with the local populace:  “quite amusing”. And Frances Black’s gastronomic memories of King's Cross going out with her parents, “feeling very sophisticated, having European food in upmarket restaurants”.

Louis Nowra has agreed to launch the book at an event in Kings Cross next month.

Frybort also notes the story of her cousin Heinz James, (formerly Jacobius) who, coincidentally, lived opposite her father's salon. “He was a 16-year-old German Jewish refugee who came out on the ship "Dunera". He married Leah, an Australian Jewish lady. They were living in a one-room flat, (in a building that still survived. It would probably be under National Trust in Bayswater Road) with a single gas burner, and they had to boil nappies for their baby. So that was their life in Kings Cross.”

James couldn't train professionally for anything in Europe because he was too young at the time he immigrated, so he became a house painter and he did painting at the Oriental Hotel right in the heart of Kings Cross.

Evelyn Frybort and her sister Vicki Israel
Evelyn Frybort and her sister Vicki Israel

“We were just ordinary people. My parents were ordinary people. They weren't heavily involved in communal activities in the Jewish community, but they had a life and they had a story which became our story. It influenced our attitude to life. And I  thought there must be so many others like that.

“I feel very happy that I've done it. I guess a good sense of achievement and very pleased that it has had such a positive response.”

For one thing, Louis Nowra has agreed to launch the book at an event in Kings Cross next month.

Evelyn is hopeful that other Jews who lived or worked in Kings Cross will come forward to offer their stories for a second edition of the book, and she encourages people to email her with their stories or queries.

EVELYN FRYBORT CAN BE CONTACTED at efrybort@optusnet.com.au

Photo: Evelyn Frybort's father in front of the hairdressing salon with the hairdressing staff (supplied)

About the author

Miriam Hechtman

Sydney-based Miriam Hechtman is an Australian writer, creative producer and poet. She is the founder and creative director of Poetica, a live poetry and music initiative and co-presenter and producer of WORDSMITH – the poetry podcast.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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