21 November 2009

Dunera and its Jewish Internees in 1940

The BBC said in 1940 thousands of Germans, Austrians and Italians in Britain were sent to camps set up at racecourses and incomplete housing estates, such as Huyton outside Liverpool. That many of the enemy aliens were Jewish refugees and therefore hardly likely to be sympathetic to the Nazis, didn’t seem to ring alarm bells. The majority were interned on the Isle of Man; in one Isle of Man camp, over 80% of the internees were Jewish refugees, most of whom had fled Germany and Austria after Kristallnacht 9/11/1938.

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.

Why were the Jewish men so unwelcome in Australia? Two pressing factors lay behind Australia’s attitude to Jewish refugees. One was the high level of unemployment in the wake of the Depression, and the fear that a wave of refugees would take jobs from Australian workers. This was the generally held view about immigration in Australia before WW2, although we now know that migrants create more jobs than they occupy.

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.

Dunera Museum, Hay

ex-railway station, Hay

See an excellent article on the Dunera Boys in The National Library Magazine, June 2010. It was written by Dr Susannah Helman, Assistant Curator of Exhibitions at the National Library of Australia in Canberra and curator of a specialist exhibition in 2010 called The Dunera Boys: Seventy Years On.


palace said...

I saw the film Dunera Boys but don't remember any mention of the Isle of Wight as a prison for internees. Do you have a reference?

Hels said...

If you mean the Isle of Man, there are plenty of references. See Britain's Rule 18B of the Emergency Powers Act 1939.

It allowed for the internment of people suspected of being Nazi citizens and sympathisers. Of course the Jews had already involuntarily lost their German/Austrian citizenship and they most certainly were not sympathetic with Nazism.

I realise war was threatening, but the trouble with draconian legislation is that innocent people get caught up in it and cannot extricate themselves.

Al said...

There is the other side to the coin, many Jewish people did not want to leave Europe. unfortunately, some people who had the resources to leave did not do so because they had the view that Hitler and his ilk were a temporary aberration. Not many, even those living under the jackboot, could have dreamed what lay ahead in 1939.

David S said...

If anyone has information about a Dunera "passenger" by the name of Alfred Schwarz, Dr. of Veterinary Medicine, I would be very interested/appreciative. He spent 1939-1943 in Australia, after traveling there on the Dunera, before emigrating to the USA.

He was my mother's uncle and he had been a large animal veterinarian in Peine, Germany until Kristallnacht, when he was beaten, imprisoned, and his house was ransacked. It was after that that he fled to England. After living in England for a short time, he was interned. As he was in his 60s, he was not a candidate for being deported to Australia or Canada, but he volunteered to go in the hopes of making his way from Canada to Chicago. He took the place of a younger man who wanted to stay in England to remain closer to his wife. That man made his way to the USA in a matter of months and contacted my grandfather to tell him of the good deed that his brother had done.

My great-uncle ended up at Camp Hay and then another camp before being released. I believe that was in 1941 and he worked for a sheep ranch for time while waiting for papers to emigrate to the USA. He did eventually make it to Chicago in 1943, and he died of heart failure 3 years later, in 1946.

If you have information, or know of a good source of information, please contact me.


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There are certainly a lot of details like that to take into consideration. That is a great point to bring up.

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Custom Home Detailing said...

This is a very informational post. This is a good piece of history. This is something good to bring up in class.

Hels said...

thanks for your sensitive comments.

The Dunera Museum and Archives have the best information on German Jews deported to Australia on that infamous ship. You can reach the Dunera Museum at Hay Railway Station, 421 Murray Street, Hay, NSW or (02) 69932161.

Other deportees have produced eye witness accounts of the Dunera, either in book form or in taped recordings. But I would follow that up quickly - the surviving Dunera Boys are older and frailer these days.

Hels said...

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Good blogs are certainly a source of great information that can be used by teachers and lecturers. I love the idea of an international body of history bloggers, helping each other :)

Hels said...

you are quite right.

Cultured families who had been in Germany for generations, who had fought for Germany in WW1, who had businesses, who adored German theatre and music... they believed the Nazis were hideous thugs who would never gain traction in their glorious homeland.

Alas for those who DID want to leave, getting a legal entry visa into another country between 1933-39 was next to impossible.

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Hels said...


agreed. But who should avoid the conflict? Not the poor refugees who want to survive, and to keep their families alive.

Australia is treating refugees very badly still.

iODyne said...

I have read a novel based on German military living on The Isle Of Man.

Franz Stampfl the great coach of the Melb Olympics had been incarcerated at Dunera.
Is it just those of us old enough to know about WW2 refugees who are empathetic toward today's refugees?
Some of the post WW2 refugees just needed FOOD, as war has a very bad effect on agriculture. We are so lucky in Australia, and I hope David S (above) finds what he needs on his great uncle the vet.
x x ann odyne

Hels said...


I have been a paid up, active member of the Labour Party since my 21st birthday.

I am sickened by the Conservative view about refugees.. that they should be towed back out to sea or transported like criminals to some Pacific island. But the Labour Party view is only marginally more humane. What a disgrace.

Wendy Donald said...

Wendy Donald originally left this comment on the post "The Angry Penguins: art in war-time Melbourne 1938":

Thanks for the post on Angry Penguins - its a good overview, and acknowledges that there were other get-together places apart from Heidi, for those artists. I am a bit uneasy that the myths built around Heidi seem to blot out a lot of other places and people.

Following on to your comment about the Dunera 'boys'. In the 1980s I interviewed an artist in London, who had been one of these. For me the amazing thing was that not only did he not harbour bitterness toward Australia for his imprisonment, he had only good things to say. He saw himself as an honourary Australian and exhibited with other Australians in London in the 1950-60s. Of course it was criminal act to take these refugees in this way.

Hels said...


Many thanks for your connection with the Dunera. Most of the Dunera lads have passed on by now, so you were fortunate to have interviewed the artist in the 1980s.

The treatment received by the young lads on the Dunera was outrageous, but I truly don't think there were any Australians staffing the ship. It was the British Military Guards who were cruel and often sadistic.

Your artist friend was one of the Dunera lads who went back home after the war. I am assuming he had parents and a home to go home to. Most stayed in Australia after the war, because their parents in Germany and Austria had been exterminated.

Unknown said...

For David S. I do not have information on your Uncle but there is a facebook page for survivors and their families and someone on that page may have information. It's called Friends of the Dunera Boys.

Hels said...


many thanks for the reference. David's blogs haven't been updated for many years, and I don't have any other contact address. Fortunately this Dunera post has been read by thousands of people, more than most of my other posts, so I hope it gets back to him.

Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne said...

Some men were very young when they were sent on the Dunera while others were established in their career and even renowned at the time of their deportation and internment. Yet once they were interned there seems to have been a great sense of camaraderie; you can see it in their group activities of putting on theatre revues and orchestral performances or holding sport competitions. They also were able to work together as a community – holding camp-wide parliaments and delegating tasks, and even maintaining health systems and schools.

This is just incredible, as not only were these men interned in a strange land away from their family and friends and comforts, but they were a group of random people from Europe thrown together in our tough Australian outback, which they’d never experienced anything like.

What I believe is even more amazing is that their systems and creations actually enabled these men to thrive. I’ve really enjoyed exploring the art, compositions, magazines, revues and music that were produced during internment and I think that audiences will really enjoy seeing the humour, skill and investment these men put into their creations and cultural activities. The exhibition is an exploration of this multifaceted and rather astonishing cultural output.

Hels said...

Your timing is perfect, thank you. The "From Aliens to Australians" exhibition started 6th September 2015, just as I was travelling to the museum.

Shepparton News said...

The work of Robert Felix Emil Braun lives on after a replica memorial for the victims of the torpedoed SS Arandora Star was unveiled in Tatura. Braun, an artist and internee at Tatura’s internment camps during World War II, created a memorial for those who went down on the ship when it was torpedoed by German forces en route to Canada.

Dunera Association president Rebecca Silk spoke about the importance of reinstating the memorial. It is important in order to honour the lives of those who died in those tragic circumstances, to acknowledge the existence of the original Arandora Star memorial installed by men who knew some of the victims and to contribute to the internment story in Tatura.

Tara Whitsed
Shepparton News, 8/5/17

Hels said...


thank you. I have seen the old photos of the Braun memorial, but I haven't yet visited Tatura to see the recreated version.