Australia wildfire 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Upon hearing last weekend that a fire had destroyed Marysville, Rabbi Shlomo Mendel Kluwgant immediately called the agent who arranged his annual Pessah retreat there.
"Mendi," the agent said, "I am standing here at Shepparton Hospital and I just found out that I lost my wife and two kids."
He also learned that the owner of the historic Cumberland Resort and Villa Day Spa in Marysville where some 150 Jews had planned to stay for the holiday this year, had lost her father fighting to save his home from the blaze.
"We are all devastated by the loss of life and property in Marysville," said Kluwgant, a Chabad emissary who is president of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria.
The entire township was burned to the ground by the fire February 7.
Police believe that the Marysville blaze, one of six sources of the fires in the state of Victoria, might have been started by arsonists.
They said at least 15 residents of Marysville were confirmed dead, but the township had been sealed off, and the final toll could rise to as much as 100. According to an official census taken in 2006, Marysville had a population of 518.
Altogether, more than 200 people died and 700 homes were destroyed by fires in Victoria.
Marysville, about 100 kilometers northeast of the state capital, Melbourne, was established in the 1850s after the discovery of gold in the area, and by 1861, some 6,000 miners had settled in the region.
By the 1920s, Marysville had become a popular tourist resort, largely due to its proximity to the Yarra Valley, dozens of wineries and Stevenson's Falls, Victoria's highest waterfall.
The Cumberland opened in 1917, and was always booked out during school vacations, often 12 months in advance.
For the local Jewish community, Marysville was the equivalent of the Catskills for east coast Americans. Over the last 21 years, on Pessah and other holidays, dozens of Jewish families, primarily from Melbourne, would drive up to the scenic resort for a week of eating, schmoozing, bush walks and horse riding.
Sydney's Rabbi Chaim Ingram summed up the uniqueness of the experience in a letter to the Australian Jewish News last year.
"One hundred and sixty men and women of all ages and varying native languages, prayer rites, synagogue affiliations and shades of observance bonded together as one havura - the very opposite of the old joke about a man who builds two shuls on a desert island, one of which he would not be seen dead in," he wrote.
Kluwgant explained what he and the retreat participants loved about Marysville.
"It was picturesque. We were always there in fall when the trees begin to change colors," he said. "There were historic attractions and the people were extremely nice, accommodating and honest, making the vacation always 100 percent enjoyable."
One of the many who will miss the Pessah retreat is Jeremy Weinstein from Melbourne, who spent the holiday in Marysville each year for the last 14 years, first with his parents, and eventually with his own family.
"The place is full of beautiful scenery, bush walks and an iconic waterfall," he said. "There's something special about the fresh country air and the people too are very warm, friendly and welcoming. It's just such a gorgeous, little country town."
On a more personal note, Weinstein added: "I started going to Marysville a few years before my mother died so I have a lot of fond memories of the place - the local candy store, the oval we played football on, the year three people got lost hiking in the bush. [They were found and returned safely.]
"The horse riding we did every year was always a highlight, but the fondest memory I have of Marysville is at the end of Passover when we would go down to the pub with the locals and have a drink and party till the early hours of the morning. They were fun times."
Kluwgant said he was searching eagerly for another family destination for the upcoming Pessah vacation.
"I e-mailed many resorts around Victoria and explained my predicament," he said. "They were very understanding and we think we have found a place for Passover."
But, according to Weinstein, things will not be the same at future retreats.
"We're currently looking into other options, but wherever it will be this year, it won't be the same and there will a sadness about that," he said. "It's been such a terrible tragedy."