Born in Bialystok in 1913, Miriam (Mina) Fink immigrated to Melbourne after marrying Leo Fink in 1932. The Holocaust shattered her. From the early 1940s until her death in 1990, she dedicated her life’s voluntary work to the welfare of others, beginning with the rescue and resettlement of thousands of Holocaust survivors in Melbourne. As President of the National Council of Jewish Women, Mina brought a strong feminist and humanitarian agenda to her leadership, redirecting it towards a broader internationalism and attracting a younger, more educated leadership. In establishing Melbourne’s Holocaust Museum in 1984, she pushed for it to have a strong educational focus. Mina was a formidable community leader whose great strength was her ability to inspire others to follow her example of selfless community service.
Early Life and Family
Miriam (Mina) Fink, one of Australia’s most influential Jewish community leaders of the twentieth century, was born in Bialystok, Poland, on December 5, 1913. The second of three children born to Nathan and Freda Waks (née Kaplan), Mina’s early life was shaped by personal tragedy. At the age of eight, Mina and her brothers were orphaned when their father died in a typhus epidemic and their mother committed suicide. Mina was raised by her maternal grandparents and three aunts, who, though not wealthy, ensured she received a good education. She attended the prestigious Druskin Gymnasium, a secular, progressive, co-educational school. Mina graduated in June 1932 with excellent academic results, a confident young woman with a strong sense of self-worth. Her grandfather Eliezer Kaplan instilled in her a passion for Zionism and a love of family.
Shortly after her graduation, nineteen-year-old Mina was introduced to Leo Fink, a man twelve years her senior, who had migrated to Melbourne, Australia, in 1928. Leo was on a return trip to Bialystok to visit family and buy machinery for his rapidly expanding manufacturing business. They married in Bialystok on September 20, 1932, and arrived in Melbourne on November 29, 1932. Mina gave birth to their daughter Freda on September 18, 1933, and their son Nathan on January 21, 1935.
In 1938 the Finks undertook a trip to Europe so that a homesick Mina could visit family and friends in Bialystok. Travelling by train across Germany at the time of the Anschluss, Mina never forgot hearing Hitler’s threatening voice on the radio. She was shocked by the deterioration in living conditions in Poland. Family and friends begged her to arrange immigration papers for their children. By the time Mina returned to Melbourne it was too late. The outbreak of war changed everything. Mina never saw her grandparents, aunts, or Bialystok again.
Galvanized into Community Action
The Holocaust shattered Mina but also galvanized her into community action. For the rest of her life she devoted her service to the welfare of others. She and her husband formed a dynamic team committed to relief, aid, and rescue.
In 1943 Mina became a Director of the United Jewish Overseas Relief Fund (UJORF), an organization spearheaded by Leo. In 1944 Mina became President of its Ladies Group, the only female member of the UJORF executive, charged with collecting and packing parcels of clothing, medicines, and foodstuffs to send to refugees and war victims overseas. Until 1947 Mina directed her “army” of 900 women, as she called her co-workers, into a prodigious fundraising and organisational arm of the UJORF. Under Mina’s stewardship the Ladies Group formed the backbone of a strategic, well organized, and highly disciplined, democratic organization.
With the end of the war, the task turned to the rescue and relocation of Holocaust survivors. Between 1945 and 1955, 17,300 Jewish refugees migrated to Australia, doubling the size of the community. Mina played a leading role in their resettlement in Melbourne.
The UJORF established seven hostels to accommodate post-war immigrants. Mina took charge of meeting ships at the wharf, arranged packed meals for transit passengers, set up and managed the hostels, and provided comprehensive services covering language, accommodation, employment, childcare, health, and business loans.
Mina’s impact went far beyond the institutional level. She took a personal interest in immigrant welfare, particularly in children and orphans. She formed a special relationship with a group of orphans known as the “Buchenwald Boys,” finding them Jewish homes and jobs and encouraging them to obtain qualifications, as well as taking them for outings and visits to her family’s beach house. Mina became their surrogate mother, attending their weddings and other life-cycle events. Their close bond continued until her death.
From 1947 to 1976 Mina was an executive member of the Australian Jewish Welfare and Relief Society, the UJORF’s successor. By the late 1950s the rate of Jewish immigration had eased considerably and volunteers were being increasingly replaced by professional social workers. She continued to play an important part in the AJWRS’s decision making, strategic planning, and fundraising as the organization repositioned itself from immigrant resettlement into elderly care and welfare.
National Council of Jewish Women
Mina turned her interest to the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), an organization she first joined in 1946. In 1957 Mina was elected Victorian President, a position she held until 1960. On June 19, 1967, she was elected National President, a role she held for six years. She quickly grasped the enormous changes that were taking place for women, and the flow-on effects for the women’s movement, by developing more opportunities for leadership and non-profit organizations, by imparting a higher degree of professionalism.
Mina showed considerable ability to engage an educated younger generation of women into leadership roles and imparted a new professionalism in the running of meetings and fundraising. Under her leadership the organization advanced into a humanitarian, global role with large-scale projects. In June 1970, Mina announced that the NCJW would join with all major Australian women’s organizations to build a women students’ hall of residence at the University of Papua New Guinea. During the campaign to free Soviet refusenik Ida Nudel, she led a protest delegation to the Russian embassy in Canberra.
During Mina’s presidency, the NCJW moved its headquarters to Melbourne, for the first time in 44 years, signally a power shift in the hierarchy of the organization. The first president born in Poland, Mina identified as a feminist who nevertheless did not see the role of women supplanting men. Women had an equal place in the wider world, she believed, but would remain the arbiters of family life.
Leo and Mina travelled frequently and both were lifelong supporters of Israel; their many visits included prolonged stays between 1960 and 1964, while Leo was establishing a business venture in Ashdod. Mina remained a passionate supporter of Israel all her life, assisting with the United Israel Appeal and as an executive member of the Zionist Federation of Australia for almost two decades.
Recognition and Legacy
On January 1, 1974, Mina was awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) “for Community Services, particularly Jewish Women,” a recognition she greatly valued, and she enjoyed the high profile that came with a public life.
In 1975, Mina was Convention Chairman of the International Council of Jewish Women’s (ICJW)10th Triennial Convention in Australia. This was the first international Jewish meeting to be held in Australia by any Jewish organisation. In 1987, she was elected Vice President of the ICJW. She was also made an Honorary Life Governor and Honorary Life Member of the ICJW’s Executive.
Throughout the 1980s Mina’s interests veered back to the Holocaust. She assisted in the establishment of the Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Centre, which opened in Melbourne on March 4, 1984. In recognition of her donation towards the purchasing of the museum building and at her request, the museum was named “Leo Fink House,” in honour of her late husband, who had died in 1972. She insisted that the museum not remain a static memorial but a vibrant, forward thinking educational institution that combatted racism and discrimination. She worked to provide professional training for Holocaust survivors who acted as guides to visiting school groups and was a strong advocate for a public lecture and education program with the involvement of academics. To this day these programs remain a fundamental part of the museum and its success.
Mina’s management of people was exemplary. She recruited and inspired volunteers to work with her, put protégés into positions of responsibility, and always encouraged and fostered talent, building strong teams and networks.
Mina was a formidable leader who commanded respect without seeking popularity. Impeccably groomed and mannered, she never lost the common touch and was never too proud to pick up a broom and sweep the floor of a migrant hostel, or re-organize its kitchen. She was known for her exceptional organizational skills, her meticulous attention to detail, and her drive and energy. Mina loved life, her family, her extended circle of friends and the causes that she so admirably championed.
Mina’s greatest legacy was an unswerving commitment to the longevity of all the organizations she led. Jewish Welfare (now known as Jewish Care), the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Holocaust Centre would continue long after she was no longer at the helm. They could only survive, she believed, if they remained relevant and addressed the needs of the times. That meant being receptive to change, resilient, and adaptable, traits that were a reflection of Mina herself.
Mina Fink died on May 2, 1990. She was survived by her two children and their families.
Cooke, Steven and Donna-Lee Frieze. The Interior of our Memories: A History of Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre. Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2015.
Newton, Marlo L. Making a Difference, A history of the National Council of Jewish Women in Australia. Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2000.
Benjamin, Rodney. ‘A Serious Influx of Jews’: A History of Jewish Welfare in Victoria. Melbourne: Allen & Unwin, 1998.
Leo and Mina Fink papers, University of Melbourne Archives.