“We Australian Jews certainly don’t want you here!” (Dunera Boys pt.2)

by R.S.

Fritz Schonbach, With Prescience, depicting the Dunera Boys as museum displays. Jewish Museum of Australia, 2007

With Julia Gillard and the Australian Labor Party dogwhistling their way to the next election over asylum seekers, and with this month marking 70 years since HMT Dunera left Britain, I think it is worth writing my second installment to my review of the 80s flick/tv show Dunera Boys. You can read Part 1 here.

The Australian Jewish News reported recently that, ‘Peter Felder, son of Dunera boy Henry Felder, is organising this year’s reunion, the first major gathering since a 50th-anniversary event in 1990. “So far, we’ve had 12 Dunera boys indicating they will attend,” he told The AJN.’ I think this is great news, and really nice that someone has taken it upon themselves to organise an important event such as this.

As the Dunera Boys pass on (the history nerd in me can’t help but think) they each take their own little archive with them – to be a fly on the wall at this event would be an amazing thing.

I feel like the Dunera Boys have taken on a kind of symbolic place in Australia’s history of refugees, particularly in the minds of Jews. However, I think some people have forgotten the gritty, at least initial, response to European refugees by the “established” Jewish community and particularly the Jewish establishment’s response to refugees, including that of the Dunera Boys.

The “old-established” Jewish community in 1940 – mostly older families of English and German origin – held a relatively secure place in Australian society. The Jewish community located their Jewishness, for the most part, in religion, and saw themselves, as the adage goes, ‘more Australian than the Australians’. Despite fears about the outbreak of anti-Semitism, their “Britishness” passed them as “white”.

This was not always the case, Australian nationalism oscillated so much that it is often hard to tell who was considered “white” at any given time, by any given group. All of this, revolves around the White Australia Policy (which you can get a wiki-crashcourse in here), which didn’t officially end until 1972, but which always appears in the form of white-noise any time a politician mentions the word “immigration”. Certainly Australia’s representative to the Evian Conference (established to work out what to do about refugees from Nazism) told the delegates in 1938:

It will no doubt be appreciated also that as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration…I hope that the conference will find a solution of this tragic world problem.

Instructions issued to refugees by the Australian Jewish Welfare Society are a good example of what the Anglo-Jewish community expected of European refugees:

Above all, do not speak German in the streets and in the trams. Modulate your voices. Do not make yourself conspicuous anywhere by walking with a group of persons all of whom are loudly speaking in a foreign language… Remember that the welfare of the old-established Jewish community in Australia as well as of every migrant depends on your personal behaviour…Jews collectively are judged as individuals. You personally have a grave responsibility.[1][My emphasis.]

Considering the lack of institutional anti-Semitism, , the ‘normalcy’[2] of the Jewish experience in Australian history and society, the degree to which the wider community espoused it’s “Britishness”/”whiteness” and Australia’s all consuming preoccupation with “assimilation”, it is not surprising, as Blackeney has put it, that ‘the Australian Jews shared the general xenophobia of Australians’.[3]

Blakeney has written that various policies adopted by the AJWS were ‘bound to create tensions between the Welfare Society and the refugees’.[5] Bartrop has argued that assimilation ‘in the first third of the twentieth century developed owing to a misconception that anti-Semitism would breakout the minute Jews were seen to be anything other than loyal Australians true to the British empire’.[6] Rubinstein has noted that it should be remembered that, ‘only twenty years before the refugee intake began in earnest many Australian Jews had opposed their German co-religionists on the battlefield and conceivably…it was difficult to accept with warmth and enthusiasm people whom they, as loyal British subjects, had once regarded with enmity’.[7] Rutland reminds us that such a response was not unique to Australia. The Jewish community in America responded in a similar way when Jews were fleeing Tsarist Russia, while the assimilated German and Austrian Jews also rejected social contact with Jews who fled Polish oppression before and after World War 1.[8]

However reasonable someone might find these explanations, I’m not sure it changes the fact that for Australia, let alone the British/German Jewish community, refugees were seen as an inconvenience before they were seen as people with a story in which they had little agency.

The Jewish establishment felt at the time they they knew how to best fight anti-Semitism and for the rights of Jews and Jewish refugees in Australia, effectively to the exclusion of ‘continental’ voices. They considered those whose ‘expertise’ in fighting anti-Semitism was ‘limited to conditions in European lands’.[4]

In response, people who were either refugees or Jews of Eastern European origin responded by establishing the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism.[9] This was a largely left wing, communist oriented organisation that had, from what little I understand, fairly broad support for a fairly long time. You can listen to an awesome podcast here with Norman Rothfield, once a former organiser for the ensemble.

It is around this time, with refugee arrivals trickling in, that the nature of the Australian Jewish community began to change dramatically and would never be same again. The tensions that ensued can be seen in the experience of some of the Dunera Boys.

Around the time the internees first arrived, they received a visit from General Secretary of the Australian Jewish Welfare Society, who was considered the representative of the Jewish establishment. Benzion Patkin described the General Secretary’s speech to the internees,

We bring you greetings from the Jewish community of Sydney … we realize your plight and misfortune … however as enemy aliens, and to safeguard the security of England in its hour of peril, you were brought out to Australia, a friendly democratic country. If you will behave in accordance with all regulations, begin to learn English, we shall be proud of you. You will be given some work to do and you will be provided with all the necessities. We brought with you some amenities and will send some more later.[10]

The amenities included toothbrushes, prayer books, chewing gum and “special items for women” (there were no women in the camp).

Erwin Lamb describes his impression of this news. The General Secretary,

in the presence of the Australian guards and the Australian officers, told us very plainly: “We Australian Jews certainly don’t want you here!” We, the internees definitely did not expect to hear such statements from a Jew, a Jewish high official of a Jewish institution.[11]

He goes on to describe how a Jewish Chaplin, I presume from the Army, came to visit during Hanukah, and noticing the wooden menorah, made by some internees ‘he remarked “one day this Menorah will be placed in the Museum in Melbourne” to which we replied that we were more interested to be in Melbourne ourselves than to have the Menorah in Melbourne’.[12] [See title sketch]

Hans Hammerstein describes how

It was about this time that an official of the Australian Jewish Welfare Society visited the camp for the first time. Our impression was that we, the internees, were like wandering beggers in his eyes. I approached him with a question whether he could assist us obtaining immigration certificates to Eretz Israel. He replied (over the shoulder and in a manner that anyone, like me, who heard him say it, will never forget) “I am not interested in Palestine in any way”, and left. The fact was – we had no “status”. It was not clear who or what we were, or who might “protect” us.[13]

The attitudes of the Jewish community establishment changed quite dramatically quite quickly as the war progressed, and Patkin describes this in a number of instances. Certainly at the time I think the “established” community recognised the real threats Nazis posed, and were not deluded (as far as you could be, so far away) about the ramifications for Jews in Europe.

However, Jews in Australia were extremely quick to defend not just their own social capital but the social capital of what was considered to be “white” in Australia, and to be “white” meant protecting Australia from any possible “problem” – in this instance it was European Jewry.

Since I can’t stand blogs that don’t reference properly, but hate referencing/bibliography myself, this simple one will have to do. Leave comment if you need further details. 
Rutland, Edge of the Diaspora, 1997

[2] Rubinstein, The Jews in Australia: A thematic history 1788-1945, 1991

[3] Blakeney, Australia and the Jewish Refugee 1933-1938, 1985

[5] Blakeney, 1985

[6] Bartrop, Australia and the Holocaust 1933-1945, 1994

[7] Rubinstein, 1991

[8] Rutland, 1997

[4] Blakeney, 1985

[9] Blakeney, 1985

[10]Bartrop, Eisen, The Dunera affair : a documentary resource book, 1990

[11] Bartrop, 1990

[12] Bartrop, 1990

[13] Bartrop, 1990