In the early years of the 20th century a Russian Jewish immigrant, Jascha Gopinko, arrived in Kurri Kurri.
He was seeking work, but despite being fluent in French, Russian and German his English was poor. He eventually found work in the coal mines but struggled financially, describing himself as a ‘terrible miner’.
Jascha may not have been a good miner, but he was an excellent musician and a gifted music teacher. His beautiful violin playing so inspired his fellow miners that when he created the Kurri Kurri Mandolin Orchestra it was composed mainly of his colliery work mates.
Jascha also went on to found the Kurri Kurri Symphony Orchestra and became a much-loved member of the community, instructing hundreds of local children in the violin, cello and mandolin.
In a newspaper interview in 1926 Jascha declared “There is an abundance of musical talent in Cessnock” so much so that he went on to form the Cessnock Symphony Orchestra, convinced that it would become one of the best orchestras in the state.
Despite being embraced by the local community he was viewed with suspicion by the Investigation Branch of the Attorney-General’s Department, who for years refused his request for Australian citizenship.
Records from the National Archives of Australia document the government’s suspicions that Jascha was a communist sympathiser and noted that his presence on the coalfields was ‘most worrying’. They questioned whether he was here solely to stir up trouble and politicise the miners.
Jascha and his wife Rebecca moved to Sydney in 1936 and he became as a full-time music teacher, but he didn’t ever forget the Hunter.
For decades he returned to Maitland and Cessnock on the weekends, teaching music to his enthusiastic local students.
While many of his students went on to great acclaim, including Cessnock Hall of Fame member Ernest Llewellyn, Jascha himself is barely remembered. As he got older he became increasingly deaf, but continued to teach until almost the end of his life. He died in 1980.
Jascha Gopinko’s story has inspired an exhibition ‘Remembering Jascha’ which will be held in the Cessnock Library foyer from March 20 to 28. It has been timed to coincide with Harmony Day, a celebration of our cultural diversity and a day of respect for everyone who calls Australia home.