Professor Zeleznikow's family founded St Kilda's iconic Scherehazade cafe. From this fascinating childhood, his achievements have spanned diverse fields. He attended Elwood High from 1964 - 1968.
“I went to Elwood Central in 1960-63 and then came across to Elwood High in 1964 for Form 2 (Year 8). This was my least favourite year at school as the Elwood High Form 2 was all boys, and there were 48 of them. The girls, and those boys with surnames starting with the letters A – M, were retained at Elwood Central. This meant that Form 2 had a bit of a “macho” feel about it.
In 1964 there was a lot of teacher union activity and strikes so I remember we had no proper Maths teacher that year. I ended up helping other kids with their Maths in classes.
The grey uniform was very strictly enforced, and although I was rather a conscientious student I remember being disciplined by a teacher who noticed that when I was walking home from school on a day of 105 degrees I was not wearing a tie.
I was in the Science stream at school and we didn’t have much contact with students who were in the Arts stream.
I fondly remember the commitment of the Elwood High teachers and found lessons with Mr Pittock the History teacher really inspiring. I also loved my Maths teacher Mr Will. Since leaving school I have regularly met my chemistry teacher Mr Clift who subsequently received a PhD in Chemistry. I admired our French teacher Mrs Lewulis, who was of Polish background and was involved in the French resistance to the Nazis.
There were a lot of students, like me, of Eastern European background, whose parents were Holocaust survivors or had escaped from Nazi persecution, but we didn’t talk about that at all at school. I was busy trying to fit in and become an “Aussie” so I ate the pies from the school canteen and took to following the AFL and cricket.”
As part of the inaugural Arts Club activities in 1967 and a foundation committee member, John founded the Elwood High Debating Club. Debating became part of the House competition, a tradition that continues today. A debate by outside speakers including Barry Jones (who at that time was the Australian quiz champion on Bob Dyer's Pick a Box) "whetted students' appetites for more information and aroused vigorous discussion". The driving force behind the Arts Club was Drama teacher Mr Whitehead, who produced a play called "Lady Precious Stream" which was performed at the Alexander Theatre, Monash University.
At the 1967 speech night at the St Kilda Town Hall, John performed in a one-man play to an audience of 1,000. He created the play from a story about the convict Ralph Rashleigh, adapted from “The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh: A Penal Exile in Australia, 1825-1844” by James Tucker.
John Zeleznikow was born of Polish/Jewish parents. His father Avram was living in Vilna, Poland when the German army invaded in 1941. He was incarcerated in the Vilna ghetto and remained there until 1943 when he made his perilous escape through the sewers to the neighbouring forests. He joined the partisans and fought with them until his liberation in 1944.
His courage and heroism were recognised by both the Soviet and Polish governments.
Three years later at Lodz University he met his lifelong partner and wife ,Masha. When the Communist Party took control of Poland in 1948, Avram and Masha decided to leave Poland and travelled separately to Paris where they met at a café called Scherehazade.
They remained in Paris for three years before accepting a visa to Australia in 1951.
The family moved from Bothwell St, Balaclava to Southey St, Elwood in May 1960. John’s parents opened the Scherehazade cafe in Acland St in 1958 and ran it for 38 years. This café, which was open between 9am and midnight, became a kind of soup kitchen and community centre for the local Jewish community, many of whom were Holocaust survivors. Scherehazade became a “place for discussion and argument, a place which nourished both the body and the soul”.
John went on to study Science (Honours), and then completed a PhD (Pure Mathematics) at Monash, and a GradDip (Computer Science) at the University of Melbourne. He is currently a Professor in the College of Business at Victoria University and has conducted research and taught in Australian, US, French, Dutch, Israeli, Belgian, German, UK and Polish universities for 45 years
In 2005, he and a former PhD student Dr. Emilia Bellucci won their heat of ABC television's New Inventors program for software that assists divorcing couples to negotiate their disputes.
Over the past 20 years, Professor Zeleznikow has focussed on how artificial Intelligence can be used to enhance decision-making. Specific examples have been created in the domains of law, negotiation and sport. His research findings have been utilised by law and mediation firms, Victoria Legal aid, Relationships Australia Queensland, Victorian Institute of Sport, Australian Institute of Sport and Relationships Australia Victoria.
Despite a childhood crippled by polio and Perthes disease, which meant that he was not able to walk until he was 10, John has now run 192 Marathons. This includes 24 Melbourne marathons and multiple marathons in New York, Dublin, Paris and Chicago.
More reading on John and the Zeleznikow family: