Norman Myer was born Nahum in a shtetl, a market town with a large Jewish population, near Tatarsk in Byelorussia. Byelorussia was part of the Pale of Settlement in south-western Russia. His father, a merchant, died when he was six months old.
At this time, traditional Jews living in the Pale of Settlement were subject to persecution, discrimination, and oppressive restrictions. These restrictions led to the immigration of much of the Jewish population to Western Europe, countries of the British Empire, and the United States, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Norman’s uncles, Sidney and Elcon Myer, who were living in Melbourne, provided the funds for Norman to travel to Australia when he was 12 years old. He arrived in Melbourne in February 1909 on board the Friedrich der Grosse.
In 1912 Norman Myer, a secondary student at Wesley College, and his Uncle Sidney, now Director of the Myer Emporium, spent Sunday mornings walking along Queen Street in inner city Melbourne. During those long walks the men discussed how Norman would study accountancy in London and America in the future, and then return to Australia to work for the “head man” of Myer department stores.
However, the outbreak of the Great War put these plans on hold. In June 1916 Norman enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force at the age of 19. Not yet a naturalised British subject, Norman enlisted as a Russian citizen. In October 1916 he sailed from Melbourne with a reinforcement group for the 8th Field Artillery Brigade on board HMAT Ulysses. On the long, dull, voyage to England, Norman took part in boxing matches and won the ship’s championship, having excelled at boxing in his school days. By December, he was based at Larkhill training camp on Salisbury Plain in England.
Norman was posted to the Reserve Brigade Australian Artillery and in August 1917 was sent to France to serve in the Divisional Ammunition Column. He served on the Western Front, as a gunner on the quick firing 18-pound field gun. These guns, and other artillery, were responsible for the devastation of the landscape of northern France and Belgium.
There was occasional respite from action. In March 1918 Norman took leave in Paris. He and a friend climbed the Eiffel Tower, completed only 28 years previously. From the second floor he could see the Seine and its riverboats, the green belt of the Bois de Boulogne and the pretty dormer windows in the mansard roofs. Looking at the shop windows in the boulevards gave him ideas for the family business back home in Australia, and planning for the future made him anxious for the war to be over.
At the time of the Armistice, Norman was training at the Artillery Cadet School at Preston Barracks in England. In 1919 he was promoted to second lieutenant, then lieutenant. From January to July 1919, Norman took leave to study silk manufacture in London, and later that year took further leave to return to Australia via the United States, where he learned about new developments in retailing.
The following year his army appointment expired. Norman had come through the war physically unscathed, and soon after his return to Australia he became a naturalised British subject.
Norman then started work at the Myer Emporium’s Bourke Street store and learned every aspect of its running from lift driving and floor sweeping, to parcel wrapping and docket writing.
He went on to run different sections of the store and, along with James Martin, took over the Myer Emporium in Adelaide in 1928. He became head of the Myer Emporium in 1936, and over the next 20 years made Myer one of the five most successful department stores in the world.
Under Norman’s management the Sidney Myer Charity Trust continued to fund charitable and cultural projects, a practice which his philanthropic Uncle Sidney had begun in the Depression era. Construction of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl was announced in 1956 and it was finally presented to the people of Melbourne in 1959.
For Norman and his uncles, Australia was a country where they flourished, free from the restrictions and persecutions imposed on those of Jewish heritage in their native Russia. When Norman Myer died in 1956 from cancer he was known as “Australia’s biggest shopkeeper”. The Myer department store chain remains a successful family business today.
 Elena Govor, Russian Anzacs in Australian history. University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2005, p. 55.
Activities for research and classroom discussion
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Pale of Settlement was an area in south-western Russia. Where does the name “Pale of Settlement” come from? Use this page from the Britannica Student Encyclopedia to help you.
Jews living in Pale of Settlement areas were often subjected to pogroms. What is the definition of the word pogrom? You will find useful information on the YIVO Encyclopedia.
What happened to Russian Jews in the Pale of Settlement during and after the First World War?
What was the Armistice? What date did it take place?
Why do you think the Myer family has always been so generous? Think about its origins in Russia and do some more research on Jewish people living in the Pale of Settlement. You can read about the Myer family’s grants and special programs on the Myer website.
Use the following words to make a crossword, complete with clues: shtetl, pogrom, hawker, retail, tantalising, artillery, emporium, drapery, assimilate, emigrate, immigrate, incessant, undeterred, unscathed, merchant, hosiery.
Imagine you are 12-year-old Norman and have just arrived in Melbourne from your home in Byelorussia. What is different? Think about architecture, landscape, climate, food, and people. Write a letter home to your mother about what you are seeing and experiencing. This official website has information on Belarus, the modern day name for Byelorussia.
What challenges might Norman have faced as a gunner while he was serving? What about when he returned home?
What impact did artillery have on the French landscape? How would this have affected the local French people?
Imagine you are a local French person returning to your home after the war. Write a journal entry or letter describing what you see and how it makes you feel.