The birth of our movement
“It was in the Hotel Russell in London that WIZO was born”
Before there was a WIZO, there was “Western Women’s Tent” – an intriguing name for the first Women’s Zionist Society in England, Established in 1891. The aim of the group was the establishment of a working community of Jews in Palestine. Later came the English Zionist Federation, founded in 1897. This had a ladies committee that included Rachel Sieff.
Rebecca Dora Sieff was born in 1890 in Manchester, the daughter of Michael and Hannah Marks. She attended Manchester High School for girls and continued on to Manchester University where she studied English literature.
In 1910 she married Israel Sieff, an ardent Zionist. They both formed a close bond with Chaim Weizmann who was also studying at Manchester University.
For the next 8 years Rebecca was involved in developing Zionist support groups and a broader Zionist platform for women. The Federation of Women Zionist of the United Kingdom (FWZ) was formed, the forerunner of WIZO.
AFTER THE WAR, Rebecca accompanied her husband to Palestine. He had been appointed political Secretary of the first Zionist Commission to Palestine headed by Dr Weizmann. There she observed the dire social and economic condition of the Jewish Community and was appalled by what she found. On returning to England she was determined to speed the implementation of a plan for a new world movement of Jewish Women. She called for volunteers and delegates from around the globe to attend the first International Women’s conference. The historic date of the WIZO founding conference was the 11th July 1920. Rebecca Sieff was elected President.
The first WIZO group was established in Melbourne in 1935 followed a year later by Sydney. Soon after that and prompted by the visit of an emissary from World WIZO, the Australian WIZO Federation came into being. Women Zionists actively began undertaking fundraising for ‘child welfare work’ in Israel.
The first WIZO publication was organized by NSW President Reike Cohen in Sydney in 1935, a monthly journal with a circulation of 350, called “Ivriah”. Ruby Rich-Shalit was the first Federal President from 1937-1940.
The movement continued to grow and thrive and by 1941 there were 1600 WIZO members with an annual budget of $4200. Work during the war years focused on the plight of the European Jewry. Whilst Australia was at some geographic distance from the horrors of Nazism, the women in WIZO pended every effort to assist wherever they could.
The WIZO Reader’s digest of July 1944 was circulated amongst WIZO women Australia wide. The following appears on the first page.
“WIZO’s Federation and Groups in Great Britain and the Empire today are dedicating themselves to 2 great tasks: to help win the war against the evil forces creating racial hatred and destroying freedom; and to help in the historic task of rebuilding our National Home in Palestine”.
For many survivors who made Australia home after the Shoah, WIZO was a place of camaraderie and purpose. The official WIZO publication ‘The Saga of a Movement’ states that “it can safely be said that without them (the survivors) Australia WIZO of today would not be the strong organization it is.”
Today we enjoy reading this publication; we pay tribute to our founding mothers and pledge to continue their legacy.