Danby talks to the Dunera Boys

November 19, 2009 by J-Wire Staff
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Federal MP Michael Danby addressed the Dunera Boys…a group of Austrian and German refugees sent to Australia in 1940. The occasion marked the 71st anniversary of Kristellnacht.Danby’s address:

It’s a great pleasure once again to be with you all here today, and to see so many familiar faces. Among you of course are some of the surviving Dunera boys, the 2,036 German and Austrian Jewish refugees who were classed as “enemy aliens” and sent from Britain to Australia on the HMT Dunera in 1940. We are meeting on the 71st anniversary of the implosion of German civilisation against its Jewish minority. On the night of the 9th of November 1938, on the orders of the German government the thugs of the SA burned down synagogues and wrecked Jewish shops all over the then German Reich.


Michael delivering the speech at the Kimberly Function Centre on Tuesday.

This function is personally gratifying because of my family, particularly my late uncle Peter’s connection to the Dunera Boys. Moreover Bernie Myers has just given me a photocopy of the first notice in 1968 of the Dunera Boys reunion. For many years my aunt, Cipa Danby, explained to me that my late uncle, her husband Peter, had organised the first Dunera reunion. The first Dunera Boys notice records that it was held at the Carlton Townhouse and just as my aunt recounted Peter’s name, telephone number and address is recorded on the notice. Cipa, the matriarch of the Danby clan, is here today, as is Peter’s son Gary, and his sister Peppy, and Gary’s children, Angie and Christy. My father Fred, or as his German passport said, covered with swastikas, Kurt Joachim Danziger, arrived in Australia in June 1939. Later reclassified as a “friendly enemy alien”, he was allowed to join the Australian Army (the 8th Employment Company). After my father’s death in 1997 we discovered many very sweet letters from his younger brother Peter writing from the Hay and Tartua camps. My father and uncle were very close, and it’s therefore very pleasing to have my brother Simon, his wife Miriam, and my daughter Laura joining the Danby clan for this important function today.

The passage of 69 years has of course taken its toll, but it’s wonderful to see again people of my father’s generation here today. That generation grew up in a Europe which in the wake of the First World War seemed to offer new opportunity and new freedom for religious and ethnic minorities. The old autocratic monarchies had fallen, and democracies had been established in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. A new and exciting experiment in socialism was taking place in Soviet Russia. It was a time of novelty, enthusiasm and optimism.

That dream of a new Europe of freedom and opportunity turned as we know into the nightmare of the 1930s, with the rise of fascism, Stalinism and finally National Socialism – ideologies based on class, racial and religious hatred, which led to the deaths of millions in wars, civil wars, famines, purges and pogroms, culminating in the ultimate horror of the Nazi “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”

Many of us here today, including myself, are only here because, by a combination of good luck, desperation and the unpredictable generosity of others, a small fragment of the doomed Jewish population of Europe was able to escape in time and find refuge in other countries, including Australia. My father, born Kurt Joachim Danziger in Thorun, in what was Germany, but now Poland, in 1920, arrived in Melbourne in 1939, leaving behind his parents, who were murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. I know many of you have similar family stories to tell.

We are the lucky ones. At the site of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic, there is a large room where the names of all the children who passed through that camp, most of them on their way to Auschwitz, are inscribed on the walls. Among them are several Danzigers, probably relatives of mine. Even after nearly 70 years, we have to ask ourselves, and the world, how was it that so few were able to escape, while so many were left to die.

I’m very proud to be an Australian, and I’m very grateful for the opportunities that this country gave to my father and has continued to give to me and my family. But as Australians we do need to be honest about our past. The current government has acknowledged that, with the formal apology to Indigenous Australians. We also need to be honest about our past in relation to the Jewish refugees of the 1930s. However at this point I particularly want to welcome our visitors from Hay and Tartua who generally were kind hosts of my uncle’s generation.

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.”


Two 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 World War II, although we now know that as a statement of economics it’s untrue, because migrants create more jobs than they occupy.

The second factor was Australia’s status as a self-described “British society.” Prime Minister Stanley Bruce said in 1928 that he wanted Australians to remain “essentially a British and white people.” This view was held by all parties at that time. The Labor 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.”

These factors explain the attitude that Australia took at the Évian Conference on Jewish refugees in July 1938. The Australian delegate was the Minister for Customs, Colonel Tom White, whose electorate of Balaclava included some of the same areas which I now represent as Member for Melbourne Ports. He had the sad distinction of making a speech which has become notorious as representing the negative attitudes taken by most delegates at the conference.

He said: “Under the circumstances Australia cannot do more. 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.”

The fact was that there was no political will at Évian to offer anything more than token gestures to the 500,000 Jews who were desperately trying to get out of Europe before the widely foreseen second world war closed the doors to emigration.

The journalist William Shirer wrote: “I doubt if much will be done. The British, French and Americans seem anxious not to do anything that will offend Hitler. It’s an absurd situation. They want to appease the man who was responsible for their problem.”

It’s important to note that voices were raised in all the democracies protesting at the feeble response to the Jewish refugee problem which was shown at Évian. The Sydney Morning Herald editorialised: “There cannot but be disappointment with the negative nature of the speech made by the Australian representative… It is a truism that the Commonwealth has no racial problem and no desire to import one. On the other hand it prides itself on being a democracy with a strong tradition of tolerance, and any undue suggestion of racial intolerance constitutes a betrayal of our cherished traditions.”

A few of the Dunera Alumni.

Sadly, these were not the prevailing views in Australia, or in the other western democracies. My friend Erwin Lamm will remember the powerful political commentator Dr. Frank Knopfelmacher. Frank was one of my professors at the University of Melbourne and he used to make the point that Australia’s rhetoric is always worse than its policy. He often used to point to Evian as proof of that dichotomy.

Some countries, including Australia, accepted quotas of Jewish refugees. Australia’s quota was 8,000. Our practice was rather more generous than our rhetoric, and eventually we took in about 10,000. Proportionate to our population, this compares well with Canada’s 8,000, Britain’s 65,000 and the USA’s 190,000. Had Australia not taken in those refugees, I, like some of you, would not be here today.

But the fact remains that Australia was a large and thinly populated country which obviously could have taken a lot more refugees if the political will to do so had existed. By contrast, Argentina took 50,000, Paraguay 20,000, Chile 14,000, Bolivia 12,000 and Cuba 4,500, although not all these quotas were actually filled before emigration became impossible after 1940.

Australia, then largely a farming society, could have benefitted from the skills possessed by many of these refugees. My father, for example, was one of the many German Jewish youths who were trained in agriculture at the Gross Breesen school in Silesia, in preparation for emigration. That’s where he was when the Kristallnacht pogrom broke over the German Jewish community in November 1938. The school was raided by the Gestapo and many were arrested and sent to camps, from which they were released only when they agreed to surrender all their property and emigrate, to any country that would take them. That’s how my father and a number of other Gross Breesen boys finished up in Australia.

The obvious place for Jewish refugees from Europe to go was the Jewish homeland, which was then the British Mandated Territory of Palestine. But the British government was determined not to provoke Arab protests by allowing Jewish immigration to Palestine. Even so, 120,000 Jews managed to find their way there before 1939, the largest total of any destination apart from the USA.

Another popular destination was China, and particularly the International Settlement of Shanghai, which could be entered without a visa. About 30,000 Jews found refuge in China, and many of them later came to Australia. Among those who went to Shanghai was the 13-year-old Michael Blumenthal, later US Treasury Secretary in the Carter administration, and later still director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. That museum, standing in the heart of Hitler’s capital, is a powerful symbol of Jewish survival, but its design features poignant empty spaces, designed to show the rupture in both German and Jewish history caused by the Nazi Holocaust and loss through death or emigration of so many of Germany’s most talented people.

In 1933 there were about 700,000 Jews in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, the three countries which by 1938 had become the Greater German Reich. Of these, about half, or 350,000, either migrate beyond the reach of the Nazis, or managed to survive until 1945 under Nazi rule. The remaining 350,000 died one way or another at the hands of the Nazi regime. Unlike the millions of Jews killed in Poland and the occupied parts of the Soviet Union, who had no chance of escape, these people could have been saved if the international community had been prepared to act firmly before 1939. These deaths remain a dark stain on the collective conscience of the western democracies, including Australia.

The tragic events of the 1930s, and the guilty conscience that many people in the Allied countries had about their failure to help the Jews of Europe in the years before the war, led directly to the drafting of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which is still in force today, and to which Australia is a signatory.

One of the central outcomes of the Final Solution of Jewish Question was the foundation of the United Nations and the promulgation of the Refugee and Genocide conventions, which are called in toto Geneva convention. Unfortunately we see today conflicts where there is no front, where combatants wear no uniform, and where the Jewish state is the target of people misusing these conventions. Homicide bombers and mass rocketing of cities in Israel are not effectively being dealt with by these conventions and the United Nations, but that is a topic for another day.

Our presence here today in our great country Australia is a testament to the victory of the human spirit, the victory of the Dunera Boys over that great darkness that enveloped Europe during the Nazi era.


6 Responses to “Danby talks to the Dunera Boys”
  1. Angela Forell Fletcher says:

    For anyone who knew my father John Forell (nicknamed Gockel) who was interned in Hay, I would just love to know any stories you have of him.

    Thank you,
    Angela Forell Fletcher

  2. Angela Forell Fletcher says:

    I would love to know more about what happened in Hay as my father (now deceased) was nicknamed “Gockel” and more formally known as John Forell.
    I would love to hear stories about my father and how any of your knew him.

    Angela Fletcher

  3. Danny Ruben says:

    Dunera information can be found here;

    National Library: http://www.nla.gov.au/exhibitions/archive/dunera-boys.html . It includes labels, transcriptions, the video, some media and more.

    Podcasts about the exhibition, and others from previous exhibitions. http://www.nla.gov.au/podcasts/exhibitions.html Several events associated with the exhibition were taped (audio only), including our seminar afternoon (The Dunera Remembered) of 27 August 2010 (both sound and vision).

    Recent media coverage was a Radio National Hindsight program. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/hindsight/stories/2010/2971949.htm

    via National Archives link – it outlines their Dunera holdings. http://www.naa.gov.au/naaresources/publications/research_guides/guides/haven/pages/chapter5.htm

    files on individuals, go to http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/SearchScreens/BasicSearch.aspx and type in the person’s name.

  4. Sarah Mason says:

    I have been trying to find out more about the Dunera for some time now. My father Arthur Wish (now aged 87) was on the ship in1940 and remained in Hay until he was released to find his own way back to England where he eventually joined the RAF air sea rescue and was sent to Ceylon. He couldn’t fight in Europe as he had escaped from Germany in 1937 with his family which comprised of his father (German) his mother (English but with a Jewish mother from South Africa but originally from a German background) and his younger brother. My father was just 17 in 1940. He was therefore taken from his home in the early morning(as was his father – but he went to the Isle of Man camp), told to pack a small suitcase and then marched off. He had never been brought up as Jewish ( but had to escape from Nazi Germany because of the small amount of background) and must have found it very difficult on the ship. He doesn’t talk about it but did once say that there were tales of people throwing themselves off the ship.
    I have read several books about the events and seen the “Dunera Boys”. There is also a film that is not available in England but I would dearly like to see it called “Friendly Enemy Aliens”.
    In England we do not have access to actual government documents about the time – at one time they were to be released after 30 years, then 60 years and the latest I heard it was to be 100 years, which must mean something but I don’t know what. I myself will probably not be around in another 30 years to find out.

  5. Bryan Zetlen says:

    Hello all,

    This not related to these current discussions. I recently learned that my father Rudolph Wihl and his brother Edgar Wihl were among the Dunera refugees transported to Sydney and then on to Hay in 1940. I was able to learn more about this through the National Archives of Australia to which I was kindly directed by Dr. Howard Freeman and Lionel Sharpe of the Australian Jewish Genealogical Society, and David Houston of the Dunera Museum in Hay.

    I am writing this message because I initially attempted to ask a correspondent at J-Wire, Henry, to assist me in locating any records about my father’s time in Australia. He replied that if there was ‘a story in it’ he would would look further. I’ve heard nothing more from J-Wire.

    This is ancient history to most everyone, as my father died by suicide in 1952 and no other family members survive. Perhaps there’s no media ’story’ in this of value, but I would like to know more, and would like our children and my wife to know more.

    Thank you for any information or stories. This sort of response would be very much appreciated. I recently worked in Melbourne in 2007 (in water research) and it was there I first heard of the Dunera Boys.

    with regard,
    Bryan Zetlen (Wihl until 1957) Seattle, WA ssc@seattlescientific.com

  6. Bryan Zetlen says:

    My father, Rudolph Wihl, was sent to Australia as a DP from Europe in 1940-41. There are documents from an Australian camp commander authorizing his release to the United States by Allen Dulles.

    It is likely that he was interned in Melbourne, possibly in that group called the Dunera boys.

    I recently worked in Melbourne in 2007 and was unable to learn more about the Melbourne internment and my father’s time there. My visit and time in Australia, and my effort to leatrn more about my father who died in 1953, were cut short by the interference of two Australian academics, Andrew Treloar and Ah Chung Tsoi, when I officially refused to consent to a dubious funding request for Monash Univ from the Australian government.

    I would very much appreciate establishing communications on the subject of my father’s time in Australia, and on the probability of my returning to work with the government in my fields of water treatment, nuclear fuel cycle management, and energy systems.

    with regard,
    Bryan Zetlen
    Seattle Scientific Corp.
    USA + 206 708 1812

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