Mirka Mora, the artist whose joie de vie enlivened Melbourne for many years, was born in Paris in 1928, the daughter of Lithuanian Jews, Leon Zelik and Celia Gelbein.
After the Nazis invaded Paris she and her mother were arrested in the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup of 1942, the largest French deportation of Jews of the Holocaust, and taken by train to a concentration camp in Pithviers. Through a combination of fortunate events which included the kindness of strangers and her father’s ingenuity, they were released. Most of their fellow prisoners died at Auschwitz.
In 1947 she married Georges Mora, who had been a fighter in the French Resistance and in 1951 they emigrated to Australia with their baby son Philippe, settling in Melbourne.
They were by instinct urban dwellers so found an apartment at 9 Collins Street. It had a distinguished history as it had been used as a studio by Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin. They soon opened Mirka Cafe in Exhibition Street, where good food and sparking conversation made it a drawcard for Melbourne’s creative intelligentisia. Soon it was also exhibiting art painted by the habitués and their friends. Sunday Reed organized a rare exhibition of Joy Hester’s work. Charles Blackman held his first exhibition there. She combined her work in the cafe with parenthood, but always was making her art. She painted, drew, embroidered, made amusing lascivious dolls, decorated ceramics. There were no barriers with her art.
In the late 1960s they moved to St Kilda to the Tolarno Hotel for which she painted murals. This morphed into the Tolarno Gallery, one of Melbourne’s leading art galleries. In 1970s, after multiple affairs by both parties she separated from Georges and later divorced, but remained close to him until his death.
In 1978 she was commissioned to paint one of Melbourne’s Art Trams, a project by the state government in an effort to enliven the city. Her whimsical tram easily became the city’s favourite and in 1986 she was commissioned to create a ceramic mural at Flinders Street station. She also painted the foyer of Melbourne’s Playbox Theatre and in 2016 collaborated with the fashion designer Lisa Gorman.

Staff Writer
Joanna Mendelssohn
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