When I entered Schumacher Shoes in Flinders Lane, I was not expecting to leave with anything more than a sigh of relief that my sister’s hard-to-fit feet had finally found their glass slipper.
One look at the elderly gentleman whose feet shuffled over the showroom floor, however, and I knew this was not your average retailer.
The huge reductions and antiquated Make a Lay-By-Sign seemed to suggest the closure of the store and with it the end of an era in the city’s retail life.
Fortunately, there was another assistant to attend to my sister’s feet, so I could find out why this octogenarian was serving customers instead of rolling a ball down a bowling green.
It was not long into my conversation with the softly spoken 83-year-old – who was in fact the proprietor of the shop – that his words began to walk off the page of a W.G. Sebald novel.
“It all began in 1926, when mum and dad arrived fresh off the boat from Poland,” Monty Rudov said.
Monty’s parents – Abraham or Jack as he called himself in Australia, and his wife Esther – were Jews from the Polish city of Lodz.
“Both my parents had lived through World War I, and with rising anti-Semitism they came to Australia to start a new life and have a family in safe surrounds.”
Monty recalled his parents’ warm welcome in their new country: “Mum and dad were fresh off the boat and had just arrived at their accommodation opposite the Exhibition Building in Carlton when mum wanted some meat to eat.
“Dad found Watkins Butcher at the top of Russell Street where he bought six T-bones for sixpence each.”
Monty said the butcher had thrown in an ox tongue – considered a luxury in Poland – and he chuckled lightly as he recalled his mother saying: “An ox tongue! Well, now I know we are welcome.”
Schumacher Shoes reflects a long retail history. As I looked around the store, I saw a Meritus Lighting Award presented to the Rudov family in 1960 by the Victorian Branch of the Illuminating Engineering Society of Australia for their innovative showroom and window display lighting.
In the showcase, I saw a display of miniature moccasins given to the family by the German shoe company Sioux in the 1950s.
The Sioux shoe company, established in 1954 and named after the Sioux Native Americans, is a leading German company which specialises in the making of comfortable footwear, including moccasins.
Experienced in the rag trade, Monty’s parents began tailoring suits and ensembles made from wool and Thai silk in Fitzroy and later Flinders Lane.
Without a retail outlet, they visited hotels and businesses to sell their garments but also took to the road and sold their clothes out of a suitcase.
This took them to Albury in NSW, where they quickly learnt that even during the Great Depression, there was money on the land.
In 1930 they opened their first retail clothing store: Rudov Modes in Dean Street, Albury, where they specialised in selling women’s formal wear to graziers and townsfolk.
In the workroom above they also manufactured maternity wear made from a combination of wool and washable terylene which they sold downstairs.
In 1939, the family moved back to Melbourne to open the Christine Bradley Boutique in Collins Street. Here Abraham and Esther engaged a local French designer to design women’s evening gowns and wedding attire which they would tailor and sell out of the store.
Monty remembers that year well, not only for the move back to Melbourne but also for his mother’s brother boarding a ship for Germany, never to be seen again.
One evening, four-year-old-Monty overheard his parents arguing with his uncle, who wanted to return to Poland to fetch his wife and two daughters.
Esther said: “Don’t go back, we’ll bring them out where they’ll be safe.”
She knew the danger as she had gone back to Poland and Germany the year before to settle her father’s estate. She had also gone to Paris to buy dresses for the Albury store.
She was in Berlin during the Night of Broken Glass, Kristallnacht, when Jewish shops were smashed and plundered on November 9 and 10, 1938.
In spite of this, Monty’s uncle boarded the ship and was in passage when World War II broke out. Monty said: “Uncle reached Germany but disappeared, never to be seen again.”
Monty spoke with deep pride and affection about his mother: “Mum went back to Germany not once but twice: once in 1938 and again in 1945, just after the war had ended.”
In 1945 Esther was on a quest to find her brother and his family. After months of going through displaced persons’ lists which took her from Germany to France, she finally found her 18-year-old niece Selina, known as Tsesha, in Paris.
This is when she learnt of the family’s fate.
In 1940, her sister-in-law and two nieces had been rounded up with the other 160,000 Lodz Jews by German officials and kept in a barbed-wire camp called the Lodz ghetto.
Lodz was the second-largest industrial city in Poland at that time and became a major production centre under the German occupation.
As early as May 1940, the Germans established factories in the ghetto and used Jewish residents as forced labour. In 1944, the ghetto was liquidated and all but a few hundred of the remaining Jews, including Esther’s sister-in-law and nieces, were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Monty said: “The only one to survive was my cousin, Selina, whom mum brought back to Australia. In total, mum and dad repatriated 12 family members as well as many non-family members to Australia both before and after the war, and all of these people have contributed greatly to Australian society.”
In 1959 Abraham and Esther opened Schumacher Shoes, originally in Collins Street but moving to the current store in Flinders Lane in 1975.
Monty chuckled as he noted that it had all started in Flinders Lane with the tailoring business and this is where it will all finish, before the end of the financial year.
“My brother and I were still tailoring and selling garments to boutiques and Myer when we established the shoe shop,” he said. “Dad intended retiring, so we hired a store manager.”
Monty chuckled again as he recalled his father’s three-week retirement.
“Mum and dad argued for three weeks straight,” he said. “He was out of bed and ready for work on the Monday morning of what would have been his fourth week with his feet up.”
“Jack” Rudov spent the last 11 years of his life at Schumacher Shoes, dying in 1970. That is when Monty and his brother took over, and Monty has been at the store serving customers with hard-to-fit feet for some 48 years.
Suddenly Monty had to excuse himself from our conversation – one of his faithful customers, a woman from Queensland with a need for large and wide shoes, had made her purchase and was ready to leave with three new pairs.
“I’ve been coming here for the past 25 years to buy shoes from this gentleman,”, she said.” I will miss him and the store when it closes.”
My sister too had done well. With her feet the size of a child’s, finding a stylish and quirky pair of shoes has always presented her with a huge challenge, normally ending in disappointment.
I had learnt to avoid accompanying her on shoe shopping trips, as I too came away feeling the frustration of having spent hours of my time to no avail.
On this occasion, however, we could both leave in high spirits; my sister had scored five pairs of chic shoes and I had discovered a tale worth telling.