03 March 2012

Desperate Refugees: 1940 and 2001

Phillip Adams is a columnist in Australia’s most prestigious newspaper and a film producer of note. He wrote the most amazing column just recently (The Australian, 18th Feb 2012) that I would like to reproduce and then comment on.

The newspaper article started here. "The remarkable Australian writer-director Ben Lewin being carried shoulder-high through cheering crowds at the Sundance Festival. Lewin's latest film, The Surrogate, should now enter Oscar contention. At the same time, Australia’s wealthiest woman, Lang Hancock's daughter Gina, was upping her strategic media holdings with a tilt at Fairfax. The two stories strangely connected – mining magnate Lang Hancock was a secretive player in the Australian film industry. And, having backed Australia's most famous film Mad Max in 1979, he agreed to back Ben Lewin.

Adams had long loathed Hancock’s bank-rolling of right wing Queensland premier Joh BjeIke-Petersen; his enthusiasm for business partner and Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu; his contempt for Aboriginal land rights; his insane attempts to have the Treasurer of Australia ban the writings of Ralph Nader and John Kenneth Galbraith; and his lunatic plan to create new deep-water ports in Western Australia with nuclear bombs. But Lewin and Adams were finding it hard to finance a feature called The Dunera Boys - and suddenly Hancock came knocking. Waving a cheque for the entire budget.

The Dunera Boys, National Library of Australia

The film would have told why Australia used a prison camp for Jews at Hay. They'd been among a few thousand refugees from Germany and Austria that Churchill had interned during the UK's darkest hours - and then shipped them here on HMT Dunera. He bizarrely believed that the Jews, many of them men of great distinction, might be Nazis. The camp was as surreal as Churchill's notion. On good terms with the guards, the Jews re-created Viennese cafe society in southwest NSW. After the war, many Dunera boys stayed on to make immense contributions to Australia.

All but forgotten, the Dunera story is one of the oddest episodes in our history. Ben Lewin's script was masterful and Phillip Adams was the producer.

The initial approach came from a go-between who'd neither confirm nor deny that Hancock was his client. But he was well known as the magnate's man. Were there any projects that would qualify for the 10BA tax concessions? Yes but, suspecting that Hancock's right-wing views probably included anti-Semitism, Adams warned that his nameless client might not like the story. "He won't be concerned. It's all about tax planning, not the content of the movies. Nor will the size of your budget be the slightest concern."

So in the early 1980s they signed heads of agreement, booked a marvellous cast including Bob Hoskins and Warren Mitchell - and started building a replica of the Hay camp. But before the first take of the first scene there was a phone call. "My client has instructed me to tear up the cheque." No reason was proffered; no discussion would be entered into. "He's found out that our film is about a boatful of Yids, hasn't he?" Once again the lawyer would neither confirm nor deny. Infuriated, Adams warned that the film director and producer would call an immediate press conference to denounce his client as an anti-Semite. The measured response was to say this would lead to an immediate libel action.

They scrambled to save the film, trying to raise the funds within the Jewish community. But time beat them. They had to release the cast and crew, and dismantle the sets. A few years later in 1985, Ben Lewin rejigged The Dunera Boys as a mini-series under a different producer. It remains one of the finest achievements in the history of Australian television. But the backstage story of the Hancock investment scandal appears here, for the first time.

Ben Lewin's success at Sundance was wonderful but his brilliant career has not come easy. He greatly deserves his latest triumph - and to be recognised as one of our best, up there with Weir, Beresford and Schepisi." End of the newspaper article.


To my mind, Lang Hancock was perfectly entitled to back any film project he fancied and could have stayed well away from any project he did not like. So why did he seem to at first accept the Dunera Story, a tragic episode in Australian history that is still fresh in the minds of people old enough to remember World War Two, Nazism and terrified refugees?

I have of course seen the final mini-series that Ben Lewin directed, The Dunera Boys, and thought that Bob Hoskins and Warren Mitchell were indeed amazing.

Let me leap forward a few years to 2001 at the Maritime Museum in Sydney, when the 61st reunion of the Dunera Boys their families and friends was being held. Its not far from the place they first landed in Australia on the transport ship Dunera in 1940.

As noted, they had been 2000 of the Jewish refugees who fled to England from Germany and Austria. England feared they might be a security risk so put them into internment camps and later shipped them to camps in Australia; a miserable cargo - unwanted and uncertain of their future. Many of the Dunera Boys went on to become prominent lawyers, doctors, businessmen, professors and artists.

At the Dunera reunion there was plenty of talk about the past, but also about current world headlines regarding the asylum seekers on board the tragic ship, Tampa. Think of events that rocked Australia at that moment and consider the coincidence of place (Sydney wharf), time (2001) and theme (desperate refugees)!

The Norwegian freighter, The Tampa, rescued and protected the refugees, 2001

In August 2001, the Howard Government of Australia refused permission for the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, carrying 438 rescued but unauthorised Afghans from a distressed fishing vessel in international waters, to enter Australian waters. The Prime Minister ordered the ship be boarded by Australian special forces and the refugees taken out of Australian waters. Later that same August, the Prime Minister introduced an emergency bill entitled the Border Protection Bill 2001. The government subsequently acted to excise Christmas Island and a large number of other coastal islands from Australia's migration zone. It was arguably Australia’s most immoral legislation since becoming a nation in January 1901.

The timing of the Tampa disgrace was exquisitely painful. The surviving Dunera boys, now men in their 80s, wanted to shake the Prime Minister, John Howard, saying “we were tragic refugees. Don’t you forget it. You must never turn a boat away with refugees”.


Andrew said...

Well, well, well. I'm glad that has come out. While I understand what the Dunera Boys must have been thinking at the time of Tampa, I see present refugees quite differently to WWII refugees. Having said that though, Howard's Tampa actions were disgraceful and an embarrassment to us around the world.

the foto fanatic said...

It is difficult to comprehend that in the seventy or so years since WWII we appear to have learned nothing - we still treat refugees miserably.

Particularly if they look different or have different customs or religions to us.

Let us imagine: the New Zealand earthquake of last year caused immediate and widespread famine as well as damage to residences. Water was unavailable. Roving gangs of gunmen were shooting and looting. People had to flee their houses for safety.

Some of them found rusty leaky boats and sailed across the Tasman. Some were met by Australian navy ships and forced at gunpoint to turn back. Those with infants were allowed to proceed, but only to Port Arthur, where they were kept behind barbed wire.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for this, Hels. The truth will out, but sadly history keeps repeating itself on the rationalisation of political expediency.

As the daughter of migrants post world war two I have difficulty understanding this country's hostility towards refugees. Even as I can recognise the degree to which self interest, fear of loss, and paranoia can lead people into positions that exclude compassion for those much needier than them.

This to me is the ugly face of human kind, but there are also stories like that of the Dunera Boys that show up other aspects as well: human fortitude and goodwill in the face of atrocity, even when its sanitized and comes out of the minds of so-called reasonable government.

Hels said...


Howard's actions re the Tampa WERE disgraceful, scary to Australian citizens with a grain of morality and humiliating before the rest of the world.

But I am not sure about the difference between Jewish lads escaping certain tragedy in war town Germany in 1940 is very different from Afghan families escaping certain tragedy in war torn Afghanistan in 2001.

Hels said...

foto fanatic,

Australians were very generous after the New Zealand earthquake, just as we were after the cyclone that blew New Orleans apart. We apparently will give money and clothing endlessly, but we will not a room to boat people ON OUR OWN SOIL. I want to weep.

jeronimus said...

I hear a lot of Australians saying that the refugees coming here today are economic refugees because they have the money to pay people smugglers. Jewish refugees often had to pay large sums of money to escape but having economic means does not make you immune from the Burmese or Shr Lankan miltary, or the Taliban, in fact it makes you a target, a source of funding for the regime, just us it did in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.

diane b said...

A very gritty post. I must have a big hole in my education as I had never heard of the Dunera Boys. I would love to see the series. I must try to find a copy. The refugee problem is a difficult one. We should certainly be more humane towards them but I do think they need to be vetted carefully. I don't like the idea of queue jumping. There needs to be a lot faster way of sorting them out.

Hels said...


spot on! Having economic means does NOT protect families from the Burmese or Sri Lankan military, or the Taliban. But in any case, I suspect these refugees have just the clothes they stand up in, just like refugees escaping from Nazi Germany in the past.

Hels said...


Husband and I have discussed this very subject all afternoon, since the post appeared. My parents were in Australia before the war; he and his parents were refugees to Australia in 1952.

You put it well: human fortitude in the face of atrocity. And I would add some luck (that they were spared while the rest of their family was exterminated) and unbelievably hard work in their new country.

Political expediency doesn't cover it... sleaziness is closer to what I have in mind.

Hels said...


oops should have added this myself "I do think they need to be vetted carefully". Without a doubt, in this era of terrorism, every single refugee needs to be in a safe and dignified place until thorough security and health checks are completed.

ChrisJ said...

Australia and Canada are both countries full of immigrants, as is the US, yet we still have some of the most anti-immigrant (and I believe racist) attitudes.

I have always shaken my head when people talk about how refugees just come here for the "perks," and discount the incredibly awful circumstance and hardships they endure to do so. Families bankrupt themselves if they can and accept transport in some of the worst, most dangerous conditions. The reality speaks volumes about just what they are leaving. It's not a cake walk.

Hels said...


Except for indigenous populations, every single citizen in the New World came from somewhere else. Either we were born outside our country, our parents were or our recent ancestors were. In 2006 19.8% of the Canadian population were born abroad. In 2006 23% of Australians were born abroad.

For a New World country to suddenly become precious about keeping foreigners out is anti-historical and absurd.

Andrew said...

I expect we have quite different views on our present refugees. Briefly, I consider them mostly economic refugees who if they kept their heads down in their own country, they would be ok, except they would still be poor and perhaps subject to human rights deprivation. They are quite different than the WWII refugees who faced death because of who they were. Regardless, both pale into insignificance compared to the way the world allows children to starve to death.

jeronimus said...

There may be some refugees who are motivated by aspirations for greater economic security rather than the more pressing need to stay alive. But the reality is that there are minorities in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Afghanistan who have been murdered simply because of who they are. In this, they are no different to WW2 refugees. The attrocities carried out by the Sri Lankan military against Tamil non-combattants is not widely known in Australia. Many of those killed were literally hiding in holes in the ground when they were shot. The women often raped first. Hard to see how they could have kept their heads down lower.

Andrew said...

I take your point Jeronimus and we could go into deep discussion about the intricacies, eg the Sri Lankan Tamils are not happy to go to India to be with other Tamils. No apparently Australia is the preferred place. I don't blame them. I would do the same, but whether they can or not is another matter.

Hels said...


you are right. In the first instance, the hope for greater economic security does not seem to push families into a dismal little boat to sail the open ocean. Rather we can say confidently that
people will do whatever they have to do to save the lives of their wives and children.

I would! If my children's lives were threatened, I would pull the gold out of my fillings, sit in a DP camp, risk life in a dismal little boat. Whatever it took.

Hels said...


I know that Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, Argentina, Brasil, Colombia, Chile, Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Israel, Jordan etc cannot accept every desperate refugee in the universe. These countries would be swamped.

But we can provide more safety and more dignity to these poor human beings than we do now.

jeronimus said...

Andrew, your comment seemed to imply that refugees should just stayed put. The question of choice of destination is another argument. With all due respect, you are just moving the goalposts. But to answer your new point, see this link: