Australia's Response
The character and aim of Australia's immigration policy up to the 1930s was aptly summed up by Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce in 1925. Bruce wanted Australians to remain "essentially and basically a British (and white) people". In general, the Australian community supported this ideal and favoured policies which prevented alien immigrants from competing for (white) 'Australian' jobs. Until 1939 there was official support across the political spectrum the policy of 97% of immigrants being Anglo-Saxon. All migrants from Europe were considered "alien".

Policy regarding the acceptance of Jewish refugees into Australia was set in the context of this restrictive thinking. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Australians were still experiencing the hardship of the economic Depression. Most Australians were looking inwards to pressing domestic concerns, as one third of the workforce was unemployed. Nevertheless, the dramatic resurgence of Germany under the Nazis figured prominently in foreign news reports.

Reports reached Australia of attacks against Jews in Germany, but it was believed that these attacks would be shortlived. The German Consul-General, R. Asmis, denied the reports, calling them "untrue and grossly exaggerated" (Sydney Morning Herald S.M.H. March 30 1933). The newspaper countered Asmis' statement two days later, saying "It is an unfortunate blot on the progress of the nations towards peace and goodwill that events in Germany include an outbreak of hatred and intolerance against the Jews." (S.M.H. April 1 1933). Above all, it was felt at the time that the threat from Stalinist Russia was far greater than that from Nazi Germany.

Humanitarian and sympathetic attitudes were expressed by a number of prominent Australians. The moderator of the Presbyterian Church in N.S.W. suggested that different churches send a protest against the treatment being accorded to the Jews in Germany, which had gone patriotism-mad. Men, women and children, he said, were being slaughtered for no reason and the atrocities were worse than reported. It was time for people to think internationally and to stand up for the right of all sections. (S.M.H. April 4 1933). Bertram Stevens, then Premier of N.S.W. stated at a public rally: "To deny Jews the right to full citizenship and the right to observe the laws of the country is tantamount to saying they have had no right to live. That idea is repugnant to our sense of fair play. The Jewish citizens as we know them in this country are excellent citizens, worthy in every way of all rights and privileges that we enjoy under the British flag". (S.M.H. May 19 1933)

Unfortunately, not all Australians felt the same way. The right-wing magazine Argus commented that "Australia, though her indignation is deep and her sympathy sincere, can absorb but a few thousand of them at most. It is in reality not a problem for Australia, but for Europe…" At the Evian Conference in 1938, Australia was represented by the Minister for Trade and Customs, T. W. White, who expressed this attitude:

"Australia has her own particular difficulties…migration has naturally been predominantly British, and it (is not) desired that this be largely departed from while British settlers are forthcoming.

Realising the unhappy plight of German and Austrian Jews, they have been included on a pro rata basis comparable with that of any other country…Under the circumstances Australia cannot do more, for it will be appreciated that in a young country manpower from the source from which most of its citizens have sprung is preferred, while undue privileges cannot be given to one particular class of non-British subjects without injustice to others.

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."

In summary, at Evian Australia agreed to accept 15 000 Jewish refugees over a period of three years. However, many politicians were mindful of public fears that too many Jewish refuges would take jobs from Australian workers. As Mr Green, Member for Kalgoorlie, explained to Parliament on June 15 1939:

"I desire to discuss what many honourable members might regard as a ticklish subject, namely, the policy of admitting
15 000 Jewish refugees to Australia during the next three years. I do not wish to be misunderstood. My opposition to this proposal is far stronger than if the immigrants were of the Nordic race, and came from Northern European countries, from the north of Italy or from Jugo-Slavia. People from those places would help to develop Australia.

I recognise that many Jews have rendered signal service to humanity, and this is true of the Jews in Australia also. To such men as the late Sir John Monash, and the ex-Governor General, Sir Isaac Isaacs, we must all lift our hats. It seems true, however, that…we have plenty of trades and business people in Australia now, and the Jews who are coming here will be of no help to a producing country like Australia. For every Jew who is given a professional job in Australia, an Australian will be shut out.

Why is it necessary for the Jews to leave Europe? I have no anti-Jewish feeling, and no racial hatred. I recognise that the Australian-born Jew has as much right in Australia as ourselves. They have the same ideals as we have, but the Jew born in Argentina or Germany, or in the United States of America, is international in his outlook. Australian workers are being dismissed, and their place taken by refugees … so far as Australia is concerned they are not required here."

"The Dunera"
Shortly after Australia declared war on Germany, those Jewish refugees who had arrived before the war from Germany, Austria and Hungary were labelled as "enemy aliens". It was feared that they would act as spies for the Nazis, no consideration being given to the fact that they were themselves victims of the Nazi regime. All enemy aliens were required to report regularly to the local police, receive a police pass if they wished to travel outside their police area and had to surrender their radios, binoculars and cameras. All their mail was also censored. Some enemy aliens were also interned, initially at Hay, New South Wales, and later at Tatura, Victoria and Loveday, South Australia. Many of the men felt bitter and hurt at being interned, especially as they were often housed with "enemy aliens" who were Nazi supporters.


Watercolour of the Hay camp by internee Fritz Schonbach

Australia's decision to intern refugees from enemy countries was not unique. Indeed, Britain interned so many such refugees that by the mid 1940s she requested assistance from Commonwealth countries to accept some. Canada and Australia both agreed and in mid-1940, 2542 internees were sent to Australia on the "Dunera", a hellish voyage where all suffered privation, while many were robbed of their property and suffered brutality and physical abuse at the hands of their British guards.

Once in Australia they joined other refugees at Hay and, later, Tatura. While awaiting release, the "Dunera Boys" developed a rich cultural and intellectual programme at their camp, giving concerts and establishing an unofficial university. The small group of strictly Orthodox Jews also managed to organise a kosher kitchen. After a period of time the injustice of their situation was realised and they were permitted to return to Britain.

About half of the "Dunera" internees returned to Britain while many of the rest volunteered for service in Australian Military Forces (AMF) employment companies. As "enemy aliens" they were not permitted to handle weapons; many highly qualified refugees ended up loading railway trucks and ships, mostly in the Eighth Australian Employment Company.


"Dunera Boys" of the 8th Employment company

Liberal-minded citizens such as Bishop Pilcher, and some Jewish leaders campaigned vigorously for a review of the refugees' status. An Aliens Classification and Advisory Committee was established under the chairmanship of Arthur Calwell, Minister for Information. The status of refugees from Nazism was eventually redefined, "friendly aliens".

For further details, read Rutland, S. (1997) The Edge of the Diaspora, Sydney, Brandl, Schlesinger