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Gisella Scheinberg (1921–2018)

by Debbie Redelman and Jacqui Scheinberg

Everyone who met Gisella had a story to tell. Gisella always said it how it was: whether you were too fat, too thin, too loud, going white or a myriad of other things, she felt it was her duty to tell you. She had a cheeky sense of humour, but not everyone knew the kindness that she showed to people behind the scenes.

Gisella began her life in interwar Hungary in 1921. She told stories of an idyllic life in Budapest. Her mother and beloved grandmother had a strong business sense which Gisella inherited. They lived above a retail liquor and grocery store that they owned. It was a traditional Jewish household and she recounted stories of getting new shoes for Rosh Hashana and walking to synagogue in them.

Gisella was the 2nd daughter of four children.  Her eldest sister was a brilliant mathematician and swimmer who was sent to NY before the war but died of pneumonia shortly after. Gisella and her two younger brothers stayed in Hungary and they all survived.

Gisella was a brilliant mathematician and excellent swimmer as well, she proceeded to university to do a Fine Arts degree, but her studies were discontinued as Jews were no longer allowed to study at University.

She lived through the war, escaping concentration camps multiple times. She hid in the wall of her house and ate snow to survive. She was involved in forging documents with the communist resistance and she saved herself and her immediate family through the resistance connection, she escaped twice from the Elizabeth Island transit camp in Budapest by swimming the fast-flowing Danube River. Most people who attempted that escape didn’t make it.  She possessed remarkable inner strength. She gathered an awareness of the harshness of the world and this later informed her business acumen and also her kindness and generosity to those whom she deemed worthy and in need.

She was hiding in the home of a non-Jewish friend. The neighbours outed Gisella and a soldier came looking for her. She was hiding in a sack amongst sacks of potatoes. The soldier bayonetted the sacks but they missed Gisella. Gisella had since nominated this friend for status as righteous among nations.

At the end of the war, she was chased by a soldier, she ran into the headquarters of the Russian army to try to get away. She explained that she was a Jew and had been in hiding. The Russian soldier asked her to prove that she was Jewish and asked her to say the Shema. She did so and was saved.

Her mother and grandmother (who brought her up) did not survive the war which was always a great sadness to her.  Her mother died after an operation (there were no antibiotics) and Gisella was unable to get food to her bedridden grandmother.

She married after the war and left for Australia with her husband, William Jakob, after being asked to report to the government (at that time under communist rule) as to how many sewing machines she owned. She was sponsored by Albert Scheinberg who was the founder of Stocklands (Stocks and Holdings originally), as well as a partner in many other businesses.  Albert had come to Australia in 1939 and supported refuges by sponsoring them and later by going into business with many of them. Between the pregnancy and her seasickness, she was sick all the way.

Gisella had George within days of arriving in Sydney. She worked as a seamstress for her husband who was a tailor. Gisella was always very proud of being an Australian. As George was born only a few days after she arrived in Australia, wishing to give him an appropriate Australian name, she named him George after the king.

The marriage broke down and she obtained work as a bookkeeper with Albert who was also recently separated. Albert and Gisella were married in 1955 and so began the blending of the families and the birth of Richard and Deborah. Gisella had a terrible time with 8 lost pregnancies and treasured her children immensely.

In the 1960s she had a number of businesses and in 1968 she made some money and decided to buy a painting. She went to Bonython Gallery intending on buying a Sidney Nolan painting. Being a European woman, a refugee with a heavy accent, she was ignored. She asked to see someone in order to purchase the painting. No one would serve her. She waited some time and then had to leave to pick her children up from school. Gisella recounted this story to Albert saying she could do a better job. He told her to go ahead and do it. She did!

In 1969 she opened the successful Holdsworth Galleries in Woollahra. She made her mark in the art world both as a shrewd businesswoman and a great supporter of struggling young artists. If it wasn’t for her chicken soup, generous payments in advance and faith in her artists, many would not have survived in their field. Some would not have survived at all. She held dinner parties, inviting artists and customers and her cooking was renown.

She would often take artists to attend doctors’ appointments and when AIDS was the scourge of many artists, there was always a pot of nourishing soup to take to them.  She was awarded an OAM in 1985 for services to the arts, in particular to the advancement of young artists. Her passion and drive never stopped, she worked 7 days a week. Her philanthropy continued from her working days into her retirement.

Joseph Eisenberg, Cultural Director at Maitland Regional Art Gallery, commented: “She was a leading, commercial gallery operator; very knowledgeable about Australian art; and a great supporter of Australian artists.” A room has been named in her honour at the Maitland Regional Art Gallery after she donated a huge print collection and well as supporting many programs that the gallery ran. Jenny Dickerson (wife of the late Bob Dickerson, artist) commented: “She was indeed an exceptional woman, with humanity and intelligence.”

Gisella was instrumental in establishing many contemporary Australian artists and has survived most of them. When she came back from Russell Drysdale’s funeral, Albert told Gisella that if she didn’t die soon there would be no one to attend her funeral. Neither Albert nor Gisella expected the longevity. Albert died at 96 years, and now Gisella at 97 years – a testament to the excellent healthcare and medical advances that we are able to avail ourselves as well as their strength.

Every Wednesday morning the new artists wishing to show their work at the Holdsworth Galleries would gather. Gisella would sit on the couch at reception and either give them a date to have a show, give them some advice as to how they should improve their work or just wave them away.  She exhibited 992 artists over the 26 years that the Gallery was open – two or three every three weeks, as well as the Fine Art Gallery, and for some of that time, she had the Contemporary (in Darlinghurst) and City galleries too.

She used to make food for the homeless man who lived behind the gallery.  She nicknamed him the “security guard” – thoughtful acts like this punctuated her life.

Gisella and Albert travelled extensively. She particularly loved outback Australia. They travelled all over Australia, often taking some of the grandchildren with them.

When she retired in 1996 to look after Albert, the Sydney art world changed. Of note, she donated her letters to artists, and exhibition catalogues, to the National Library who has catalogued them and consider them an important asset.

She continued to be productive with cooking, sewing and knitting – producing many outfits and toys for her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and future great grandchildren.  She always wanted to feel useful and worked with purpose, so she always found some more knitting, sewing or craft to do.  Every child was the apple of her eye and she spoilt them. She treated Albert’s many grandchildren as though they were her own. Unrelated visitors would be given a knitted doll to take to their grandchild.

She held Friday night Shabbat dinners until she entered Montefiore Jewish Home in 2008. She continued to maintain an active life – attending many of the activities offered in Montefiore, going to art exhibitions, going out for lunch with her grandchildren and swimming every morning at 5 am until she was 92, when she also gave up driving.

When it came to Friday night dinners, if you had mentioned that you liked one specific dish, it would be made every Shabbat. This would mean sometimes that she was making at least one special dish for each person with up to 20 guests this was a lot of food. This included making her home kosher when Debbie married Geoff who was kosher. Friday night dinners were her heart and soul through which she cared for her family. One grandson taught Gisella to make sushi. From then on sushi was a Friday night staple. One of the younger grandchildren thought that sushi was a traditional Hungarian Shabbat food.

In 2002 Gisella attended a cooking course which cost $200.  She learnt to make a particular dish. The first time Albert tried the dish he called it a $200 fish. It was a bone of contention between them, but that fabulous fish dish was served many times.

Her declining health was tough on her, with the last year particularly difficult. Even if she was in pain or discomfort, her face lit up whenever the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren arrived. There was a steady stream of visitors to her room. It was not unusual for her to have two or three different groups of visitors a day. She never hesitated to give advice or offer them something to eat, often from her own plate.

She had beautiful skin and never looked or acted her age. She was an advocate for voluntary euthanasia and asked many times toward the end to stop her suffering. She kept her sharp mind until the end. She fortunately passed away peacefully on Thursday morning after one of her beloved grandchildren returned from overseas on Wednesday night.

Gisella is survived by three children, nine grandchildren, and so far, five great-grandchildren. She also had nine grandchildren, 19 great-grandchildren, and nine great-great-grandchildren through Albert. She will be greatly missed.

Gisella Scheinberg: Born Budapest June 12, 1921.  Died Sydney: October 4, 2018

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Debbie Redelman and Jacqui Scheinberg, 'Scheinberg, Gisella (1921–2018)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 13 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Jakob, Gisella

12 June, 1921
Budapest, Hungary


4 October, 2018 (aged 97)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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