Book of Life Stories

Miriam Millingen

Presented at the South Australian Multicultural & Ethnic Affairs Commission forum dinner celebrating the achievements of the Jewish community in South Australia, 17 June 2001.

I will speak tonight, about my late father, Dr. Jacob Zimmet, a Jewish European immigrant to Adelaide.

It is very fitting that three of his four children are here tonight, my brothers Professor Paul Zimmet, Dr Leon Zimmet, and myself.

Born in Poland in December 1909, our father commenced studying medicine in Tarnopol, Poland (now Ukraine) where he married Anne Herzog in 1934 and then finished his studies in Vienna in 1935. He returned to Tarnopol, working in the general hospital there, but as he was not being paid, he and Anne lived with their parents. Jewish doctors could not get employment in Tarnopol and realising there was no future for Jewish doctors in Poland, in 1937 he applied for a visa to Australia and America, with the Australian papers coming through first. When the papers arrived at their home in Poland, his wife, Anne, wanted to burn them, as the thought of leaving their families was horrendous.

Their first daughter, Rena was born in 1937 in Tarnopol and in December 1938, my mother, father and Rena left for Sydney on the ship Orcades, and arrived there on the 9th January,1939.

My father thought there would be more opportunity to find work in a big city like Sydney, but that proved not the case. Six months in Sydney ate up the little money they came with and they arrived in Adelaide six months later with 5 pounds.
War broke out that year, and they were cut off from the small allowance being sent by their families from Poland.

Another reason for choosing Adelaide was that to requalify as a doctor in Sydney, it would take five years, but in Adelaide only three.

With funds running out, my parents had to think of some way to earn money, so, as my mother had brought a treadle machine from Poland, they set up a leather business, making wallets and purses. My mother sewed, and my father, skipping medical lectures, rode around getting orders. My mother worked, even against doctor’s orders, until the eve of my brother Paul’s birth.

My father graduated as a doctor, at the University of Adelaide in 1942 and was offered a locum in Whyalla where they spent eight years.

My brother, Leon and I were both born there. My father very quickly gained the confidence and admiration of his patients in Whyalla, as he was totally dedicated to their welfare.

While in Whyalla, he was appointed to the Reserve Officers Unit of the Royal Australian Air Force. My father took some European culture to Whyalla, where he was a founder of the Whyalla Soccer Club, President of the Whyalla Music Club, and he also contributed to the Whyalla News. He was quite a sportsman. He co-owned a yacht which he sailed in Spencer Gulf, played soccer and of course, coming from Europe, was an avid skier.

In 1950, the family moved to Adelaide and my father commenced practice with Dr Kaufman on King William Road, Hyde Park, later opening his own practice at our home in Trevorten Avenue, Glenunga. Later he took over the North Terrace practice of the late Dr Pflaum about whom I will tell you a story.

Dr Pflaum had come from Germany, and when he went to sit for an exam to requalify, he was asked to go away and read one of the medical textbooks on a certain subject. He answered that he did not have to. When told he could not sit for the exam until he had read it, he said, ” I do not have to read it, I wrote it”.

Dr Zimmet was a highly esteemed member of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation and was its President for a number of years. During his years as an active member of the community, he was a driving force behind the establishment of a primary day school in the community. He was also an active worker and President of the Jewish Welfare Society and President of the SA Friends of the Hebrew University.

He was a wonderful husband to Anne, who was also involved in the community through WIZO, and a devoted and caring father. He was extremely proud that three of his children studied medicine, all becoming Fellows of the Royal College of Physicians. This gave him immense pleasure because due to the interruption of his studies by the war and changes in specialist recognition in Australia, he was unable to continue to practice as a consultant physician.

I wish to make mention, how very proud our parents would be today of the special achievements of my brother Paul, who, this week, received an AO, Officer of the Order of Australia in the Queens Birthday Honours list for his nationally and internationally significant research into Diabetes and his leadership of investigations into social, nutritional and lifestyle diseases.

My father was highly regarded as a doctor in Adelaide, and even years after leaving Whyalla many of his patients from Whyalla travelled to Adelaide to see him for medical attention. He was, at that time, one of the few multilingual doctors, being able to speak 7 languages. If you couldn’t speak English and had a medical problem, Dr Zimmet was the man to see.

In hospitals here, he was held in high esteem, especially at St Andrew’s hospital where he cared for many of his patients. After his death, the Dr Jacob Zimmet Award was presented to the top student at the Nurse’s graduation ceremony each year until the hospital closed as a teaching hospital.

My father was one of the many European Jews who have made a great contribution to the South Australian community at large.

These included Eugene and Mania Matison who arrived in South Australia during World War 1 living on the Eyre Peninsula before moving to Adelaide in 1923. Their home, Springfield House saw many a famous artist perform in their music room. Eugene and Mania both were communal leaders in the 50′s and 60′s.

Following their leadership came Hilde and Gus Hines who came from Germany. Gus developed a successful metal company and was also a leader in many Jewish organizations. In 1972, he received an OBE for services to the Jewish Community. Hilde is a communal leader in her own right, involved in WIZO, U.I.A., the SA Jewish Genealogy Society and she heads the Jewish Community Council Public Relations sub committee.

Some other European families that have contributed to the community were the Levy, Goldberger, Lazarovitz and Helman families to mention a few. I am very proud of the contribution my father made to the South Australian community.

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