From: The Australian
November 14, 2009
BETWEEN Kristallnacht and the Final Solution, many German and Austrian Jews tried desperately to escape the Nazis. A few were fortunate enough to find "people smugglers" and, becoming boat people, sought asylum in Britain, the US, Australia, anywhere that might have them.
But country after country turned the Jews away. Those who made it to the UK were promptly rounded up and interned. Panicked by Dunkirk, Churchill failed to make any distinction between Jews and Nazis. He didn't want them in England and so sought a "Pacific solution" - they'd be sent to Australia.
Like Churchill, the crew on the overcrowded HMT Dunera treated the 2000 Jews as Nazis. They brutalised them, ridiculing the orthodox Rabbis, looting luggage and tossing it overboard. As well as being in constant fear of torpedo attack, the human cargo had no idea of their destination. Having expected to join Britain in fighting Hitler, all they knew was that wherever they ended up they'd be treated as enemy aliens.
And on their arrival in Australia on September 6, 1940? They were sent to Hay in NSW and shoved into a detention centre with a sign at the front gate declaring it a "concentration camp". When the truth of what was happening to the Jews in Europe began to emerge, it was taken down.
You will have noted certain similarities with current events and those since Tampa. Asylum seekers whom nobody wants. "Jumping queues." "Economic refugees" who could afford to bribe their way from danger. Being demonised by those who could have chosen to help them. Victims of escalating injustice offered precious little compassion. Characterised as potentially dangerous. With hindsight, the "people smugglers" in this narrative are now seen as heroic.
So the refugees on the Dunera were herded behind barbed wire in Australia's very own camp for Jews. They were, of course, vastly more fortunate than those who hadn't escaped. Hay was no Auschwitz and the Australian guards treated them with kindness and decency. It soon became a remarkable community with its own currency and first-class concerts; a virtual university. Not surprising, given that among their number were some of Europe's best and brightest: musicians, artists, actors, scholars and even a Freudian psychiatrist. Some of Vienna's café society was recreated on a treeless plain in the middle of nowhere. I was honoured to know many of the Dunera boys who stayed on in Australia. They became famous in many aspects of Australian life. In the arts, academia, media and the law. Later I'd work with writer/director Ben Lewin to tell their ultimately inspirational story in a feature film. But our major investor, one of Australia's richest men, pulled the rug when we were well into pre-production. In an anti-Semitic outburst, he said: "I didn't know your bloody film was about a boatful of effing yids." Fortunately, Ben was later able to tell the story in one of Australia's best mini-series.
Jews then. Muslims today. We should learn from this moment in our history: not to exploit fear of refugees; not to toss decency overboard into the cesspit of racism. We should remember that among the first to leave a terrible situation, whether in Berlin or Baghdad, are the sort of talented, highly motivated people you'd want as citizens. I urge Messrs Rudd and Turnbull to study the lessons of the Dunera. You never know what marvellous people might be in the next boatload of reffos.