Because they were considered a risk to British security, 7,000+ internees were deported, the majority to Canada, some to Australia. The liner Arandora Star left for Canada in July 1940 carrying German and Italian internees, but it was torpedoed and sunk with huge loss of life.
2,542 men were taken to Australia on the Dunera, which sailed a week after the Arandora Star. According to the BBC, internees were subjected to humiliating treatment and intentionally abysmal conditions on the two-month voyage. Many had their possessions destroyed by the British military guards.
The ship arrived in Australia in June 1939, then the men was taken for internment in the tiny rural towns of Hay in New South Wales and Tatura in Victoria. Among the men on the Dunera who had so threatened Britain’s very security were sensitive, educated men like artists Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack, art historians Franz Phillipp and Ernst Kitzinger, composer Felix Werder, photographer Henry Talbot, mathematician Dr Felix Behrend and Franz Stampfl, later Australia’s most brilliant athletics coach.
Whereas the British guards on the Dunera were brutal and anti-Semitic, the Australian guards were reported to be kind and generous with their own food and cigarettes. The internees were placed in barracks that housed 28 men apiece. Barbed wire and guard towers surrounded the perimeter, but the guards rarely intruded and the internees ran their own affairs through an elected parliament. They developed soccer teams, a choral and theatre group; they printed a newspaper and they published books.
So educated were these men that while they were interned in rural prison camps, they set up their own unofficial university to pass the time and to deal with Australia's hot summer weather.
Tatura Internment Camp, Victoria
The Dunera story is a testament to the human spirit, the ability of young men to survive, despite the Holocaust that befell their parents and siblings in Europe. Today the Dunera Museum in Hay is an internment centre that houses exhibits documenting the history of one of Australia’s lesser moments in history. It is located in Hay’s old railway station platform and two train carriages.
The second factor was Australia’s status as a self-described “British society.” As Australian Memories of the Holocaust noted Prime Minister Stanley Bruce said in 1928 that he wanted Australians to remain “essentially a British and white people.” In April 1938 the Australian Interior Minister, John McEwen, wrote in a Cabinet submission:
“The Jews are highly intelligent as a class and usually make a success of whatever occupation or business they fellow, but in view of their religious beliefs and strict rules as regards marriage, they remain a separate race, and this failure to become properly assimilated in the country of adoption appears to create difficulties in any country where they form a considerable proportion of the population.”
Even the Labour opposition party didn’t want Jews coming in. Labour MP Albert Green said about Jewish refugees in 1939: “My opposition to this proposal is far stronger than it would be if the immigrants were of the Nordic race and came from northern European countries. People from those places would help to develop Australia.”