Fairfield City Open Libraries: Heritage Blog

Austrian Community in Fairfield

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Austrians in Fairfield

adoreThe history of Austrians in Australia runs parallel to that of German immigration in many respects, the most obvious being in that they share the same language, although it is spoken with many dialects. Austria was for 400 years part of the Austrian- Hungarian Empire ruled by the Hapsburg family. In 1938, with the Anschluss, the Nazis took control of Austria and it became part of the Third Reich. At the end of World War Two it fell into the hands of Russia and in 1955 it gained independence and declared itself permanently neutral.

Austrians have played a large part in Australian life. In the Fairfield area the politician John Newman is probably the best identified. John was born in Austria in 1946. His parents had divorced and his mother later married a Ukrainian with the surname of Naumenco. John took that surname but later in Australia, in 1972, he changed it by deed pole to Newman. He was very much involved in politics and chose the Labor Party probably due to his involvement in unionism. In 1977 he sat on Fairfield Council as an alderman and later became Deputy Mayor, remaining in that position for 10 years. Sadly during that time, in 1979, his pregnant wife and son were killed in an automobile accident at Bossley Park. John then decided to stand for the state New South Wales Legislative Assembly as the Member for Cabramatta, a position which he attained in 1986. John became very vocal against local Asian organised crime and in doing so received numerous death threats. On the night of 5 September 1994 he was shot and killed outside his home in Cabramatta in what was to be Australia’s first political assassination. In 2001 a local club owner, Phuong Ngo, was convicted of the killing and is serving a life sentence for the murder. A swimming pool at Prairiewood has been named after John Newman.
Another former Austrian who is very well known to Fairfield City is Walter Schmied. Walter was born at St. Polton in Austria and arrived in Australia in 1959. He was a furniture builder with a strong preference for individually styled furniture as opposed to mass production. He did eventually work for Chiswell Furniture at Yennora, which, although not one-off, nevertheless was of very high quality. His own home is a tribute to his workmanship and is full of perfectly made furniture. He lives in the Carramar area and was one of the founders of the German-Austrian Society, becoming its first President, the position that he still holds. The Society was formed in 1956 and built a club in Cabramatta in 1965, which has a wide variety of activities. The Club organised and ran an Oktoberfest for many years from 1970 and attracted visitors from many places to partake of German/ Austrian food, drink and culture. The Fest was the largest in the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world, with about 30000 visitors annually. After 2009 it was decided to no longer run the Fest and Oktoberfest activities are now only held at the club. Walter was awarded the Golden Award Cross in Vienna Austria on 21 April 1994 by the President of Austria for work that he had done to cement Austrian-German-Australian relations. He is now an Australian citizen.
Richard Emanuel Klugman, better known as Dick, was born in Vienna, Austria and fled to Australia with his Jewish parents in 1938 when he was aged 14. He was educated at Sydney University and became a Doctor of Medicine, working at Sydney’s Royal Hospital before moving out to the western suburbs. In 1969 he was elected as the Labor Member for the seat of Prospect in the Australian House of Representatives. He retired in 1990 and his position was taken by Janice Crosio. Dick died on 21 February 2011.
The Austrian who has most indelibly left his mark on Fairfield was the architect Harry Seidler. Seidler was born in Vienna in 1923 and like Dick Klugmann was also Jewish. He was only 15 when his family fled Austria in 1938 at the onset of the Anschluss, when Austria was annexed by the Germans. The Seidler family went to England initially but they were interned as they were originally considered to be enemy aliens. They were sent on the Isle of Man but then deported to Canada where they lived in Manitoba until 1941. Harry studied architecture at various places and finally the family immigrated to Australia where his parents commissioned him to design and build a home for them which is now known as the Rose Seidler House. The house is in Wahroonga and won Harry the Sulman Award in 1951. Other Sulman Awards followed in 1967, 1981, 1983 and 1991. In 1988, after the death of his mother, Rose Seidler House was donated by Harry Seidler to the State of New South Wales to be managed by the Historic Houses Trust. The home was the beginning of a long and illustrious career as one of Sydney’s most successful architects. Australia Square, built from 1961 to 1967, and standing in the centre of Sydney’s CBD is one of the most famous of his designs and when opened was to be at that time the most modern building in Sydney. Many other commissions followed to 2004 and it was at about this time that Harry Seidler suffered a stroke and later died in 2006 at the age of 82. In 1958 Seidler had married Penelope Evatt the daughter of Clive Evatt who was one of the best known politicians and barristers in Sydney. Penelope Seidler also studied architecture and became her husband’s business partner.


With all the fine buildings attributed to Harry Seidler the one that identifies him to the City of Fairfield is the Whitlam Library at Cabramatta. He was commissioned to build a new library as the old one had outgrown its use. The new library was originally known as the Cabramatta Library, but later named the Whitlam Library after the then Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam. The library was opened on 20th October 1975, by the Victoria Cross winner, Governor Sir Roden Cutler, a month before Gough Whitlam was dismissed as Prime Minister.
The Austrians, like the southern Germans, are predominately Roman Catholic and because of their common language were grouped with the Germans during World Wars One and Two. Many, similar to many Germans, were interned at various establishments for the duration of most of both wars. Like the Germans they have brought to the Fairfield area fine work ethics and have become worthy citizens.

[Researched by Shirley Kingsford McLeod]


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