Sydney, Australia: One by one, the elderly men with white hair or bald heads raised their hands.
Sitting in the sunlit Terrace Room of the Australian National Maritime Museum, at the edge of Sydney Harbor, they listened as Henry Lippmann, a fellow octogenarian, stood with hand-written notes and microphone in hand reading brief snippets of their life stories, asking each to acknowledge his presence.
It’s a familiar routine for the dwindling number of Jewish refugees from World War II who came here involuntarily six decades ago, found themselves behind barbed wire, stayed in Australia after the war and earned a collective place in the nation’s history.
Meet the Dunera Boys.
The HMT Dunera was a transport ship that brought 1,997 Jewish men (refugees from Germany and Austria, aged 16 to 60) and 440 non-Jewish prisoners of war (240 Germans and 200 Italians) from England in September 1940. A year after the start of the war, fearing a Nazi invasion and considering the Jewish refugees possible German spies, the British government had 75,000 Jews arrested as "enemy aliens": the nearly 2,000 were shipped to Australia, part of the Commonwealth, where they spent a year and a half in two isolated internment camps. Thousands more were sent to internment camps in Canada.
England, finally admitting its "deplorable mistake," ordered the internees’ release in early 1942.
Those in Australia scattered around the globe, with many serving in the British and Australian armies, and about half the group staying in Sydney. They’re known collectively as the Dunera Boys ("almost legendary, of course," according to a recent article in The Australian Financial Review) and are pointed to as a model of immigrant success, having produced notable politicians and artists and businessmen and a Noble Prize winner, all of them proud Aussies.
Each year they meet in early September, on the anniversary of their arrival in Sydney, a few hundred yards from the pier where the Dunera docked, to celebrate with their loved ones. A larger reunion takes place annually in Melbourne.
This year about 80 people came to the Dunera Friends meeting in Sydney, among them a dozen Dunera Boys, some in kipas or bush hats. Four died since last year’s meeting.
"Lately there are more friends of Dunera Boys than Dunera Boys," observed Walter Travers, an Austrian who became an Australian.
Lippmann, who heads the Sydney Dunera function, introduced the sons and daughters and widows of the Dunera Boys. A few former internees, in characteristic yekke jacket and tie on a warm spring day, offered remarks. Academics and leaders of the Jewish community spoke. The architect who is developing the nearby Pier 21, which will include a permanent Dunera exhibit, discussed his plans. Then came refreshments and schmoozing.
With their still-evident German accents, they reminisced about old times and current projects. Laughs greatly outnumbered tears.
"The early memories were largely negative," says Konrad Kweit, professor of genocide studies at the University of Sydney, who attends the event each year. "With the passage of time, a positive image has emerged: the Dunera Boy as a success story."
"We celebrate the good things that happened," echoes Lippmann, a Berliner who lost a brother and several other relatives in the Holocaust.
He read a recent obituary from a Sydney paper, the first paragraph of which simply described the deceased as "one of the Dunera Boys."
" ‘One of the Dunera Boys’ has become a status," Lippmann says.
The Dunera is Australia’s Exodus, a ship that has become a metaphor.
"The 2,000 of us heralded the mass migration of Europe into Australia," says Peter Lasky, a Dunera Boy from Berlin.
Largely unknown in the United States, the story of the Dunera is widely known here, the subject of television documentaries and dramas, museum exhibits and several books. A memorial plaque is mounted outside the Maritime Museum, visible from the room where the institution hosts the annual reunion. The story has been widely cited, and the Dunera Boys interviewed, during the ongoing national debate over Australia’s "Boat People" and the nation’s policy for accepting a wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
"Everyone knows somebody who came on the Dunera," says one Sydneysider; that’s what residents of Australia’s largest city call themselves.
The story: British police began rounding up male Jewish refugees in May 1940 and putting them in temporary interment camps in the countryside.
"People disappeared. I suspected my time would come," says Walter Travers, a Vienna native who had found refuge in northern Wales. The police came for him. After six days in interment, he was informed he would be sent to Canada "for the duration of the war."
"They made us volunteer to go to Canada," says Lasky. "Somebody tricked us."
The Dunera, with nearly 1,000 more "passengers" than its intended capacity, left Liverpool on July 10. The internees were kept below deck. "We would have drowned like rats if the ship sank," Travers said. A German torpedo did strike the Dunera, but the ship suffered only minor damage.
The British guards were brutal, beating the internees, verbally assaulting them, dumping their possessions overboard. Some say the guards acted out of misguided anti-Nazi venom. "I think it was mostly anti-Semitism," Travers says.
The 57 days at sea (the refugees soon determined they were bound for Australia, not Canada) were "an absolute disaster," Lippmann says. "We were starved. We were sick. Our clothes were torn. We hardly saw daylight."
Then, after letting off the POWs at Melbourne, they steamed into Sydney. Lippmann’s first impression: "It’s not a bad place."
The internees were unloaded onto four trains at the docks. "The [Australian] guards expected to see prisoners, maybe Nazi officers," Lippmann says. "They saw quickly it was not the case."
The Australian guards on the 19-hour ride into the outback, passing kangaroos and bushfires, were kind, sharing their food and cigarettes.
The trains stopped at Hay, a small town in the desert where three internment camps had recently been built. "It still smelled of fresh timber," Travers recalls.
The internees were assigned to two of the 1,000-man camps, in barracks that housed 28 men apiece. Barbed wire and guard towers surrounded the perimeter, but the guards rarely intruded and the internees, through an elected "parliament," ran their own affairs. They included university-style lectures, soccer teams, a choral and theater group, and a kosher kitchen. They printed a newspaper and their own script. Those who wanted worked on the grounds.
"The only thing missing were women," Lippmann says. "We didn’t want to escape. We wanted to be released."
After a year in the heat of Hay, the Jews were transferred south to internment camps at the town of Tatura, with a more moderate climate and no sandstorms. (The town of Hay recently opened a museum and memorial dedicated to the internees’ experience.)
The Australian Jewish community aided the internees with moral and physical support at both locations.
When Britain admitted its error, it offered the internees the option of returning to England to serve in the army. Many Dunera Boys accepted the offer. With transport ships scarce, many of the passportless Jews still in Australia enlisted in the Australian army. "We joined the army because it was our war," Lippmann says.
The Jewish soldiers, unarmed, worked mostly in ordnance and supply as members of the 8th Australian Employment Company.
After the war, after discharge, many of the former internees decided to stay in Australia.
"Many didn’t have anywhere else to go," Lippmann says. "Germany was out of the question. I had seen Australia. I liked it here."
Bitterness toward Britain?
No, he says. "I have no enmity," Lippmann says. "They gave us shelter. They interned us by mistake. We were the lucky ones."
After the war, Lippmann and the other Dunera Boys discovered their families’ fates back in Europe. Australia dismantled the internment camps. The Dunera, rusting, was scuttled, sunk in the sea.
And the Dunera Boys began holding their reunions. Each year, with a smaller number of Dunera Boys around, the resolve to meet keeps growing.
"Next year," Lippmann says at the end of this year’s reunion, "no matter how few, no matter how many, we will meet again."
Next week: The Jewish-Aborigine connection and a look at Australia’s moderate Palestinian community.