The Scandal of Holocaust Refugees Expelled From England, Shipped To Australia
One of the more bizarre stories of Jewish survival during the Holocaust occurred in prisoner of war camps in Australia between 1940 and 1944, where about 2000 German and Austrian Jews were interned. These Jews had been arrested as “enemy aliens” in Britain where they sought refuge from Nazi persecution. Many had been previously incarcerated in Dachau and other concentration camps.
The strange odyssey of these refugees took them from the brink of death in Europe on a flight to “safety” in England—only to find them abruptly snatched from the streets and interned as “Nazi spies” on the military ship Dunera, which deported them to Australia. Following a harrowing voyage under brutal conditions, they were incarcerated in Australian prison camps while ferocious WWII battles were fought thousands of miles away.
In July 1940, the HMT (Hired Military Transport) Dunera sailed from Liverpool with almost 2,500 people interned aboard. The voyage was later described by Winston Churchill, who had ordered it, as “a deplorable mistake.”
That summer was one of acute fear for the British people. Netherlands and France had fallen to the Nazis. The remnants of the British Army had been rescued from the beach at Dunkirk, minus their weapons. The country was alone and facing the strong possibility of a Nazi invasion and conquest.
In this climate of panic, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and other government officials grew suspicious of all German and Austrian foreigners living in Britain. Anyone caught speaking German was suspected of spying for Germany or secretly sympathizing with Nazi goals. These traitors could potentially form a fifth column to assist a German invasion, it was feared.
Even before the outbreak of war in September 1939, emergency legislation had been rushed through the British parliament giving the government the power to intern “enemy aliens” in the event of war.
Sir Nevile Bland, Britain’s former ambassador to the recently conquered Netherlands, called for all Germans and Austrians to be immediately interned, warning against “satellites of the monster all over the country, who will embark on widespread sabotage and attacks on civilians and the military indiscriminately.” German domestic help such as cooks, nannies and housemaids — some of the very few jobs that refugees had been allowed to take — were now considered “a real and grave menace.”
Tens of thousands of “enemy aliens,” aged 16 and above, especially those living near the coasts where the Germans were expected to land, became subject to internment as the order to begin the arrests was issued from Winston Churchill’s Cabinet.
As the round-up of the refugees got underway, an array of holding camps on the Isle of Man and around Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and other cities began to fill up. Historians say that some 27,000 people were eventually interned.
Caught up in the sweep were thousands of German and Austrian Jews who had sought sanctuary from Hitler’s murderous regime. Their letters, memoirs and other writings record their shock, anger and humiliation at being treated as suspected traitors against the country they ardently supported in its struggle against the Nazis.
Detention on the Isle of Man — a rugged island in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland — terrified the internees. Although safe from the air raids their families were enduring on the mainland, the island offered no way of escape if the Germans invaded.
As the camps began to overflow, and as Britain was facing food and other shortages, the government decided to ship some of the internees out of the country. That is how it came about that on July 10, 1940, the HMT Dunera left Liverpool for a 57-day voyage with none of its passengers knowing where they were headed.
The detainees were told they were being shipped to Canada for their own safety where they would be set free to work. But in reality, Britain had made an agreement with both Australia and Canada to hold the internees in detention camps until the end of the war.
The Dunera was built to carry 1,600 passengers but was crammed with over a thousand people beyond its capacity. On board the ship was an officer, 309 guards, one medical officer, 2,000 German and Austrian Jewish refugees, 200 Italians fascists, and 251 German Nazi POWs.
Salvation In A Suitcase
“We were herded onto the ship like cattle. The guards on board the Dunera were ex-prisoners from various jails in England who had been recruited by the army to guard us. We were brutally searched and robbed of everything we had, including valuables, documentation and medication,” survivor Walter Kaufmann wrote.
Most tefillin, talleisim and prayer books were thrown overboard, he and other Dunera prisoners attested.
Just one week earlier, another British vessel interned with refugees, the Arandora Star, had been torpedoed in the Atlantic and sunk by a German U-boat as it made its way to Canada. On board were 1500 internees including a great many Jews, seamen and soldiers. Over 800 people lost their lives. Many of the survivors were transferred the following week to the Dunera, cruelly forced to endure another high-risk voyage in waters infested with German submarines and U-boats.
In the Irish Sea, the Dunera, too, was hit by torpedoes, according to survivor accounts; the first torpedo failed to detonate, the second passed underneath the boat as it rose in the choppy waters.
The commander of a German submarine apparently called off his torpedo attack on the ship as it crossed from the Irish Sea into the Atlantic Ocean. The popular explanation for this phenomenon is that the German commander drew the erroneous conclusion, from German-language letters and documents in the suitcases floating in the sea, that the ship was full of German POWs. He therefore not only refrained from harming the ship but radioed to other German U-boats in the area not to attack the Dunera.
This narrative appears to have first surfaced in the 1980s, supposedly through the published memoirs of the German submarine commander, or in another version, the opening of German wartime naval archives –or in yet a third rendition, an interview with the commander on German television.
Although historians have challenged the story’s authenticity, noting that crucial details cannot be historically verified, and that the commander remains either anonymous in all of these narratives or given a name that does not correspond with historical records, the story has gained great traction. It highlights the wondrous workings of Divine Providence and the inscrutable nature of Heavenly justice which mortal man is sometimes privileged to grasp only in hindsight. In this example, what the refugees perceived as a catastrophe—the destruction of their luggage containing all their belongings—turned out to be their salvation.
Indeed, the striking and undisputed fact that the torpedo attack on the Dunera twice failed and was then called off, and that the ship sailed on to Australia, unmolested, through German submarine-infested waters surely points to the miraculous.
Conditions aboard the ship were dreadful. Ten toilets had to service more than 2,000 men, and dysentery was rampant. Fresh water was in short supply, making personal hygiene impossible. The men were kept below deck in congested quarters around the clock, trapped in the putrid, stagnant air.
The guards brutalized the passengers, with beatings and blows from rifle butts, a daily occurrence, survivors testify. They plundered the personal possessions of the deportees, kept anything of value and tossed the rest overboard, including passports, medication, even false teeth.
“I witnessed one of the guards slamming the butt of his rifle onto a refugee’s foot. He wasn’t quick enough to escape and ended up with a broken foot,” recalled Dunera survivor Walter Kaufman in a 2018 interview. “We were only allowed on deck for 10 minutes a day to exercise. For the rest of the time we remained in the hull where all portholes had been blacked out and locked. Occasionally I was lucky enough to peel potatoes, which meant that I could go on deck and help in the kitchen.”
Guards were also accused of engaging in deliberate acts of cruelty, beating passengers with rifle butts and bayonets, and smashing bottles on the decks which they knew barefoot people would be forced to tread on, injuring themselves. Some guards verbally assaulted Jewish internees with anti-Semitic curses and taunts on a habitual basis, Dunera passengers later attested.
Overcrowding forced some men to sleep on hammocks, tables, benches, and the floor, where buckets of sewage overflowed. Food rations were short in supply, and the bread often had maggots. Water was distributed every two to three days.
“It was an absolute disaster,” Henry Lippmann said in a 2003 interview with JTA. “We were starved. We were sick. Our clothes were torn. We hardly saw daylight.”
The fact that despite the hunger, disease and abuse they suffered, thousands of internees, with the exception of two individuals, survived the three-month voyage is incredible.
They Clung Tenaciously to their Faith
In a book titled, The Internment of German-Jewish Refugees in Australia, by Konrad Kwiet, the author devotes space to describing a group of Orthodox Jews aboard the Dunera led by Rabbi Yona Yosef Ehrentreu, who came from a long rabbinic lineage and had served as the rov of Munich until the Nazis came to power.
“Rabbi Ehrentreu was arrested on Kristallnacht as he tried to rescue the Torah Scrolls from the burning synagogue,” writes Kwiet. “He was incarcerated at Dachau and upon his release, escaped to England with his family. The British arrested him as an enemy alien in the summer of 1940, and he was interned on Dunera with many other Orthodox Jews.”
After guards confiscated the prisoners’ luggage, including siddurim, tefillin and talleisim, Rav Ehrentreu persistently lobbied the ship’s commander for their return. In her book “Not Welcome: A Dunera Boy’s Escape from Nazi Persecution,” historian Sue Everett quotes Dunera refugee Lutz Eichbaum describing the viciousness of the ship’s Sergeant Charles Bowles, who, faced with Rav Ehrentreu’s demands on behalf of his fellow Jews, warned him to “shut up or he would be hung by his beard to the mast, then thrown overboard.”
“The rabbi told me about this incident himself when we were lined up together in the latrine queue,” wrote Eichbaum.
From Kwiet’s account, based on interviews with some of Rabbi Ehrentreu’s fellow travelers and on some of their own memoirs, the Munich rov emerges as a dynamic, inspired leader. Along with Rabbi Elchanan Loebenstein and a number of colleagues, Rav Ehrentreu led the religious Jews aboard the Dunera in remaining staunch in their observance of Shabbos and kashrus, organizing minyanim and delivering shiurim. In the unlikeliest setting, amid the terrible conditions aboard the Dunera, the sound of Torah study reverberated.
“Scholars gave talks on Torah learning, and whoever had managed to stash a few pages of Chumash, Mishna or Gemara in his pocket before his possessions were taken from him, taught from them. A few pairs of tefillin served about 200 religious Jews on board,” Joseph Asher, one of the internees, recounted in his memoirs.
“Torah studies almost never paused….People huddled in corners, always eager to learn and debate,” continued Asher. “By the end of two months, there already emerged a regular time schedule which for instance in my case was as follows: three times a week Talmud Ketubot, four times a week Pesachim, three Chumash lessons, one hour Jewish history, two hours Hebrew language and two hours for English.”
Among the refugees were many married men who had been torn from their wives and children, whose unknown fate gave them no peace. The spiritual life the rabbonim ignited aboard the ship strengthened their fellow Jews and countered the tendency to succumb to anxiety, depression and despair. Historical accounts show that despite hunger, sickness and mistreatment, the Jews clung tenaciously to their faith.
In an examination of the Dunera affair found in the National Archives of Australia, Professor Hugo Wolfson wrote, “There was a group of Orthodox Jews on board who were only able to eat kosher food; they suffered particularly badly. One witness recounted, “It was a miracle they survived the entire voyage on prayer and cheddar cheese.”
“The Orthodox Jews more than other passengers were exposed to the tribulations and hostilities that marked that voyage,” attests historian Kwiet, noting that they were “instantly recognizable” and thus easy targets due to their “skull caps and beards.”
“The food from the kitchen was treif. Those who kept kosher only had some dried out vegetables, onions and occasionally fruit,” confirmed Dunera refugee Joseph Asher.
“As week followed arduous week at sea, men passed the time as best they could,” wrote Ken Inglis in From Berlin to the Bush, a historical account of the British internment of refugees in Australia. “Many played cards. Others played chess, sometimes with chess pieces made from the ship’s dense, doughy bread. Orthodox Jews gathered around rabbis to read and interpret the Torah… A Berlin cantor and his son formed a choir fit for a synagogue.”
Arrival in Australia
On September 6, 1940 the ship sailed into Sydney Harbor. A medical officer, Alan Frost, boarded the ship and was appalled by the conditions. He submitted a report to the Home Office in England, noting the theft and brutality that had occurred. The British Parliament opened an investigation which led to the court martial of several British officers and guards in June 1941.
“The court martial of army officers on charges arising from robbery and mistreatment of refugees transported to Australia on the S.S. Dunera last July were sentenced today,” the JTA reported on June 25, 1941. “Sergeant-Major Charles Albert Bowles was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment and dismissal from the service. Sergeant Arthur Helliwell was severely reprimanded.” No others were punished.
Meanwhile, the “Dunera Boys” – as the ship’s passengers later became known – disembarked, emaciated, pale, unshaven, clad in rags, and some without shoes. They were met at the wharf by reporters and photographers who inflamed public opinion against the refugees with headlines like “Captured Germans Arrive” and “Nazi Prisoners-of-War Arrive.” Survivors, however, recall being treated decently by Australian authorities, a far cry from the brutality encountered at the hands of the British aboard the Dunera.
The internees were herded onto waiting trains by Australian soldiers who accompanied them on an 18-hour journey to a sweltering, fly-infested internment camp in New South Wales called Hay. The camp was encircled with a double barbed wire fence, four watch towers equipped with machine guns, 32 wooden barrack huts, a mess hut, and an assembly hall.
Dunera refugees recount that except for the cruelty of incarceration for no reason other than their Jewish faith, they were treated humanely. The Australian soldiers left the camps’ internal management to the inmates, giving them a free hand in setting up a governing council, running classes in a plethora of subjects, and even printing their own form of camp “currency,” writes historian Kwiet. Food was not plentiful but no one starved.
The approximately two hundred Orthodox Jewish refugees requested and were given their own section of the camp, where separate huts were set up. Led by the rabbonim, they ran a kosher kitchen and dining hall and even provided their group with an occasional supply of kosher meat.
Rabbi Elchanan Loebenstein, a certified shochet, received permission to leave the camp once a week under military guard to slaughter animals in a nearby town. He was accompanied by Rabbi Shaul Shaffer and Rabbi Ehrentreu. The chaleph (slaughtering knife) was given to Rabbi Loebenstein by Australian soldiers when he left the camp and taken away after he finished slaughtering.
Around Pesach time the following year, the devoted Rabbi Loebenstein composed a Haggadah from memory, which hundreds of Jews used at the camp’s communal Sedorim. That Haggadah is on display in the Fred Rose Jewish Museum in Melbourne, Australia, a stirring testament to the endurance and eternity of the Jewish faith.
‘Enemy Aliens’ Become ‘Friendly’ Ones
In October 1940, in response to the mounting scandal over the incarceration and abuse of thousands of people who had committed no wrongdoing, the British Parliament expressed regret for the “mistake” it had made and, in 1941, sent Major Julian Layton, who was Jewish, to Australia to assist with releasing and repatriating the internees. These mistreated individuals were newly classified as “friendly aliens.”
The quickest way for those of military age to get released from the camp was to volunteer for the army. So Major Layton invited those who qualified to enlist into the Pioneer Corp of the British Army; 500 men immediately volunteered. Hundreds of others, who preferred to remain in Australia, accepted an offer from the Australian government to enlist in labor battalions.
Many of the religious Jews declined both offers on religious grounds—they refused to abandon their commitment to kashrus and the right to abstain from military duty on the Sabbath. For these staunch Jews, the release process stretched on maddeningly. After eight months, Major Layton arranged for the remaining internees at Hay to be moved to Tatura where there was a more moderate climate. It was not until 1944, writes Inglis, that this diehard religious group left the Tatura camp, either for England, Palestine/Israel or the United States.
Thus ended one of the most shameful chapters of the war on the British side, which paradoxically highlighted the spiritual stature of rabbinic leaders aboard the Dunera and the shining faith of simple Jews who remained steadfast in the face of great adversity.
A Lone Survivor and 77 Descendants
(Adapted from the recollections of Nurit Bachrach printed in the Times of Israel)
“Following the terror of Kristallnacht and my grandfather’s imprisonment in Dachau, my grandparents, Willy and Bertha Bachrach, understood that their only child had to get out of the country. Their son, Hans Abraham, fled to London in August 1939 at the age of 16, hoping to be reunited with his beloved parents as soon as possible,” the Bachrach memoir recounts.
Young Abraham’s plans were dashed once the war broke out, and he was designated an ‘enemy alien’ by the British and imprisoned and sent to Australia in 1939 on the infamous Dunera ship. There he was interned in the remote prison camps of Hay and Tatura until 1944.
“In the Hay internment camp, my father and his fellow inmates celebrated Seder night in 1941 with hundreds of other Jews using a handwritten Haggadah, extraordinarily written from memory by a fellow inmate, Rabbi Elchanan Loebenstein,” the author writes.
Following Abraham’s flight from Germany, his parents had remained in their home for several months. Despite the raging war, they were able to send letters to their son in the Australian internment camp. The last letters from Offenbach am Main were written on September 15th 1942, twelve days before the Bachrachs were deported. “With hindsight,” their granddaughter Nurit writes, “it is clear that these letters were meant as farewell messages to their beloved only child.”
“The final letters arrived at their destination months after my grandparents had been murdered in Treblinka. They were only discovered by us, the grandchildren, almost twenty years after my father’s death,” the memoir continues. “My father had kept these old yellowed letters from his martyred parents locked up in a safe.”
The final letter to young Avraham from his mother was filled with foreboding. “Stay brave and don’t worry about us…As soon as it becomes possible, we will be in touch again. We yearn to see you! May Hashem help us and reunite us. We must depart from here in the coming days and our destination is uncertain. It is difficult for us to leave our home behind, but our trust in G-d will not desert us….The Al-mighty will protect you, my son. We send you heartfelt kisses and keep you always in our thoughts.”
“Willy and Bertha Bachrach were taken from their home on Sept 27, 1942 and on September 30, transported to Treblinka and murdered,” the Bachrach memoir continues. “That day was Hoshana Rabba when the Heavenly judgement is sealed.”
Hans Abraham chose to settle in Australia after he was released. He married and raised four daughters, passing down to his children the sacred legacy he had received from his parents.
“In the 1980s, each of us made our way to Israel,” writes Nurit. “After my father’s death, my mother joined us and during the past fifteen years, we and all our families with the children and grandchildren had the Pesach Seder together every alternate year.”
One year the family realized they had grown too large to manage the Seder night together, so they “reluctantly separated into two separate Sedarim. To ensure that even while apart we would still be together, my oldest nephew and nieces surprised and delighted us with a special Hagaddah they printed, entitled “The Bachrach Hagaddah: The Offenbach am Main Edition.”
“KaiserStrausse in Offenbach am Main is where my father grew up before the Holocaust. His home was directly across the road from the imposing Offenbach Synagogue. It was from the window of this home that my father and his family witnessed the burning of the beautiful synagogue on Kristallnacht, November 1938….
“This year, almost 77 years after my grandparents’ letters of farewell, all of us—grandchildren, great-grandchildren and miraculously great-great-grandchildren, were for the first time too numerous to sit around one Seder table. But they all celebrated with the same Haggadah, the specially created “Bachrach Haggadah, Offenbach am Main Edition….” created in memory of Willy and Bertha Bachrach, may their righteousness continue to protect our family.”
Am Yisroel Chai