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Michaelis, Moritz (1820–1902)

It was with expressions of deep regret on all sides that on Wednesday morning last week the news was spread from mouth to mouth that Mr. Moritz Michaelis, senior partner of the firm of Michaelis, Hallenstein and Co., tanners and leather merchants, of Melbourne, Footscray and London, had passed away at his residence, "Linden," Acland-street, St. Kilda. To many, if not most people, the sad news was not unexpected. The deceased gentleman had reached the patriarchal age of eighty two years, and had for a long time been in failing health. Indeed, had it not been for the admirable devotion and wonderful resourcefulness of his medical adviser. Dr. McAdam, M.D., combined with the affection and and unceasing care of his children, the end would have come much sooner. As it was, the poor old gentleman retained his mental faculties almost to the last; but Nature was inexorable in claiming her own, and so, calm and peaceful, as had been his whole life, he passed away early in the morning of the before-mentioned day. There was no one in the community —Jew or Gentile alike—who, receiving the sad news, did not readily testify that a good, upright man had gone—one who would do good by stealth and blush to find it fame—one whom the community could ill afford to spare. But the verdict had to be accepted, though the regret was general and keen.

Moritz Michaelis was born in 1820 at Lug de, near Pyrmont, in Germany, his father being a learned and enthusiastic Talmudical scholar. Young Moritz having received a good general and religious education, proceeded early in life to Manchester, England, where he devoted himself to commercial life. By his industry, business capacity and strict probity, he soon won for himself the esteem and appreciation of the principal of the firm which he served, and when, in course of time, he expressed the intention of going to Australia, splendid inducements were held out to him by the firm to remain with them, but he had made up his mind and would not alter his determination. Before, however, he embarked for Australia, he visited his native country once more, and there became engaged to Miss Rahel Gotthelf, whom he married soon afterwards. The young couple arrived here in 1853, and anyone knowing the primitive state in which Victoria then was can well imagine the many hardships and inconveniences they had to put up with. But they were a devoted couple, and cheerfully shared with each other whatever Providence put in their way. Indeed, all through their long and singularly happy married life, Mrs. Michealis was an ideal wife, supporting her husband in whatever he undertook, and not rarely proving herself the mainspring of good actions, while Mr. Michaelis was the kindest of husbands and the most affectionate of fathers. In course of time fourteen children—six boys and eight girls—were born to them, of whom, however, three died in infancy. The others, with the exception of one son and one daughter, are now all happily married, and have families of their own. To the education of their children Mr. and Mrs. Michaelis devoted every attention, and no expense was spared in order to thoroughly equip them for their duties in life. All the sons were educated at Wesley College, and the eldest of them, Mr. F. D. Michaelis, is at the present time vice-president of the Old Collegians of Wesley, and very popular amongst his former school mates many of whom have made names for themselves in the learned professions. For religious instruction Mr. Michaelis sent his children to the St. Kilda Hebrew School, while in his own domestic circle, on Sabbaths and festivals, he taught them by example the practice of those rites and ceremonies which in so large a measure contribute to the happiness of the Jewish home, and help to foster the love of that family life for which Jews have always been noted.

Soon after his arrival in Melbourne Mr. Michaelis established a partnership which be came known as Michaelis, Boyd and Co., carrying on a large business as general importers. and that with very fair success. But with the introduction of the Protectionist tariff in Victoria, a bad time commenced for importers, and Mr. Michaelis found it necessary to dissolve the partnership and to relinquish the business altogether. He then joined his nephew, Mr. Isaac Hallenstein, in carrying on a tannery at Footscray. The beginning was small, but by the energy and enterprising spirit of the partners, who later on were joined by other members of the family, the concern grew until at the present time it is one of the largest tanneries in Australasia, having branches in various centres, and supplying not only the home market, but also foreign parts of the world. In business circles the late Mr. Michaelis was always noted for his strict probity and his fair dealing with all that had transactions with him. This was particularly emphasised in numerous letters of condolence which the family received at his death from mercantile houses and even rival firms. By his uniform courtesy, natural tact and kindness to all alike, he managed to avoid those industrial disputes which from time to time had to be faced by other firms, and which are always injurious to the best interests of employers and employes alike. His employes were not slow in recognising that in Mr. Michaelis they had a kind and considerate master, who studied their interests no less than his own, and the happiest relations have always been the result both in the tannery and the warehouse. To young people entering his employ, Mr. Michaelis was always a warm friend, and many a one whom he trained and, in the course of time, set up in business, has made a good position for himself.

In the Jewish community, in years gone by, the deceased was a prominent figure. He occupied a seat on the Board of Management of the Philanthropic Society, where he did good practical work, and he was also connected with the management of the East Melbourne Congregation, giving valuable material support, and helping his friend, the late Rev. Moses Rintel, to get over the initial difficulties of establishing a new congregation. He was one of the founders of the St. Kilda Congregation, and up to the time of his death its warmest friend and most liberal supporter. In private life he was one of the most generous contributors to charitable objects, always ready to help and spend of his means for the alleviation of human suffering. When some time ago an effort was made to extricate the Melbourne Hospital from a heavy debt, he, on behalf of his firm, subscribed £500, while he was exceedingly pleased with, and, if the truth were known, perhaps a warm advocate of, the action of his children, after the death of their mother, when they gave £1000 for the equipment of the children's ward at the Alfred Hospital. It was a tribute of love and affection for their parents, whose name the ward will ever bear, and the motive stands recorded, in Hebrew and English, on one of its walls— "Honour thy father and thy mother." He never sought any public position, though his education and his upright character would have eminently fitted him for it; he was satisfied to do good wherever he could without courting the applause of the world. The death of his wife, nearly two years ago, was a heavy blow for the poor old man, yet he bore it with the resignation of a truly pious man. Nevertheless, from that time his health began rapidly to fail him, until death made an end to an eminently good and useful life.

The interment took place in the family grave at the St. Kilda Cemetery on Thursday, the 27th November. The funeral was very largely attended; in fact, it was remarked that since the death of the late Sir William Clarke there had not been such a large funeral in or around Melbourne. There were representatives of nearly all the mercantile houses, as well as of corporate bodies. The trustees of the St. Kilda Cemetery, of whom the deceased was a member, were in attendance. Amongst the mourners and friends were noticed Mr. M. Gotthelf, of Sydney, and Captain George Michaelis, brother-in-law and son respectively of the deceased, the Revs. A. B. Davis of Sydney, and J. Lenzer, of the East Melbourne Congregation, Drs. McAdam and Felix Meyer and many other representative men. Preceding the hearse marched a large body of employes at the Footscray tannery and the Melbourne warehouse. It rained heavily, but those men were not deterred by the rain from showing the least mark of respect to their late employer. Next to the hearse came the carriage of the deceased, and then a flower carriage loaded with the most exquisite wreaths and floral emblems, sent by relatives and friends from all parts of Australasia. Four mourning coaches and a large number of private conveyances completed an unusually long cortege. At the grave the Rev. E. Blaubaum officiated, and, after having read the prescribed service, he delivered the following short oration:—

It is with sad and mournful hearts that we have met here to consign to the earth the mortal remains of our dear departed brother, Moritz Michaelis. True, he was old; past the age limit of man foreshadowed by the Psalmist, and we knew that he would not be spared to us much longer. True; also, that he suffered long and severely, and we prayed, as he himself did, that the Almighty might call him away from this world of sorrow. And yet now, that the separation has come, we feel that we have lost one whom it will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace. If we looked upon him as a prominent figure and a trusted leader amongst us, we had good reason for doing so. For Moritz Michaelis was no ordinary man. There was an indescribable charm in his character which endeared him to all who had the privilege of coming into contact with him. Just to a degree, fair in all his dealings, strongly imbued with the love of his God and of his fellow-men, he walked humbly through life, ever anxious to do his duty as a man and an Israelite. His charity was as generous as it was unostentatious. He claimed no credit for the good he did, and it was much—much more than most people knew: he preferred to extend a helping hand wherever he could without letting anyone know anything about it. His motto was that of the ancient sage in Israel—"Do unto others, as you would have others do unto you." He often quoted it, and never failed to act up to it. Surely, goodness of heart and nobility of soul were the salient features in his character. We are the poorer by his death, but the richer by his life. Well may we say of him "Would that there were many in Israel like unto him." It is for us to emulate his noble example, and so to live and to act that when our end comes, it may be said of us, as it may well be said of him, "And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament: and they that turn many to righteousness like the stars for ever and ever."

The coffin was then lowered into the grave, and as the earth closed over all that remained of Moritz Michaelis we have no doubt many a one present felt that he had lost a staunch friend, while all were agreed that a good man and a valuable member of the community had that day gone to his everlasting home. As may be imagined, the family received a very large number of telegrams and letters of condolence from this and the neighbouring states, and all spoke in the highest terms of the deceased's noble character. Indeed, the head of one of the largest firms in the leather trade expressed the opinion that to serve under the deceased gentleman must have been "a pleasure and an education."

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'Michaelis, Moritz (1820–1902)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/michaelis-moritz-4194/text25052, accessed 24 November 2017.

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