SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) — Michael Factor was pressed for words shortly after visiting his vacation home in Australia to discover it had been ravaged by the deadliest bush fires in the country’s history.
“There’s not much to say — it’s just total devastation, there’s nothing left,” Factor, a member of the Jewish community, told JTA on Wednesday. “Our house is gone, too. Everyone else’s has gone. It’s total devastation.”
The fires have claimed more than 180 lives, including a Jewish man and his wife, and destroyed at least six properties belonging to members of the Jewish community.
John Barnett, a London native, was found with his wife, Jenny, in their incinerated car trying to escape the inferno near Steels Creek, less than 20 miles from ground zero of the fires that swept through Victoria on the night of Feb. 7.
Barnett, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne, where he was principal research fellow in animal welfare, and Jenny, a researcher at the National Parks Association, spent most weekends at their country retreat north of Melbourne. The couple, who were in their 60s, had no children. Jenny Barnett was not Jewish.
Fears also were escalating this week for the welfare of an unnamed Jewish man whose burned car was discovered near the fire-ravaged area. The man, believed to be 90, owned a country house and apparently had driven there to check whether it survived what is being dubbed Black Saturday.
Ronnie Figdor, the executive director of Mizrachi, confirmed to JTA that contact had been made with the family of the missing man. His name has not been released because the family, believed to be involved in key Jewish community organizations, is still holding out hope that he may be found alive.
Officials fear the final death toll could top 230 because up to 50 people are still unaccounted for and believed to be dead. More than three dozen bush fires destroyed more than 1,000 homes and left more than 5,000 people homeless in the deadly firestorm that scorched an area more than twice the size of Los Angeles. Police suspect several fires were lit by arsonists, prompting Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to accuse them of “mass murder.”
As the fires blazed, Jewish community organizations immediately mobilized to help raise funds, food and clothing for the survivors of the disaster.
Hatzolah, Magen David Adom, B’nai B’rith and Mazon, among others, are at the forefront of collecting food and clothing. Jewish Aid Australia, the community’s disaster fund, raised nearly $90,000 within 48 hours. Australians had raised $20 million by Wednesday.
The Rabbinical Council of Victoria and the Council of Orthodox Synagogues of Victoria held a special prayer service in Melbourne on Thursday night in memory of the victims.
“It is impossible to comprehend the magnitude of the disaster that has struck Victorian families, so quickly and so brutally,” saidJohn Searle, president of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria. “Yet now is not a time for reflection. Rather it is a time to provide practical and spiritual solace.”
The response from the Jewish community has been overwhelming, he said.
“We’ve asked for people to stop dropping off stuff until we can clear it all,” Magen David Adom’s administrative officer, Taube Mrocki, told JTA.
Several properties belonging to Jewish owners were destroyed in the fires, including Gesher House, a drug rehabilitation facility run by the Gateway Family Counseling Center for the past 18 years.
“There will be people reminiscing about Gesher House, which for many was their first step in the long journey home,” director Raphael Aron said of the facility that provided “a vital service to members of the community.”
Also destroyed was the Cumberland Resort & Villa Day Spa in Marysville, where a communal Passover retreat for about 150 Orthodox Jews has been held annually for the past two decades.
Daniel Lazar, 33, is one of the dozens of Magen David Adom volunteers helping in the crisis. “It’s pretty frightening stuff and it’s on our back doorstep, only an hour’s drive from Melbourne,” he said. “Most of us holiday in these areas and frequent them for business.”
Trucks full of goods have also been sent from Jewish communities in Canberra, New South Wales and South Australia. In Sydney, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement prepared hundreds of portions of food and biscuits for emergency services personnel still working to contain the fires.
University of Melbourne Professor Frank Dunshea, who worked with John Barnett for the last 20 years, said he was shocked by the news of his colleague’s death.
“We were worried about him from Saturday onwards,” Dunshea said. “One of his associates was frantically sending text messages. When neither John nor Jenny turned up at some appointments on Monday, people were seriously concerned.
“Their car was found in the driveway. They had apparently tried to flee.”
On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sent a letter of condolence to Australia’s prime minister.
“Our prayers are with the Australian people at this difficult time,” he wrote.