From ‘Aliens’ to Australians – Remembering Dunera 75 years on
Written by Ariele Hoffman, Curator of From ‘Aliens’ to Australians, Remembering Dunera 75 years on.
From ‘Aliens’ to Australians – Remembering Dunera 75 years on is an exhibition recognising the anniversary of the landing of the Dunera in September 1940 and the events that followed.
The Dunera was a military boat the British used during WWII to deport around 2,500 men they termed ‘enemy aliens’ to Australia in a moment of fear, following Germany victories in Holland and Belgium. There they were interned in camps in rural areas in Victoria and New South, some for two years, others sometimes for the duration of the war.
Churchill had rounded up all men in the UK between 16 and 60 who had a German or Austrian background, of which the majority were Jewish, and sent them to Canada and Australia where he believed they wouldn’t be a drain on the British war effort.
These men had to leave behind family and were allowed to take only 35 kilograms of luggage with them. Most didn’t even know where they were going!
Sadly, many of these men had actually come to England as refugees from Nazism and Fascism. Some had even found refuge in England only a year before, arriving on the Kindertransport on which 10,000 German Jewish children were sent to England to be cared for by foster families.
I think this makes the Dunera story even more bitter-sweet as these men were already survivors who had determinedly sought a new life. They then suffered again, being deported as enemy aliens and then interned in the Australian bush. Yet these men still didn’t give up on living life!
While interned they actually created a whole community which included camp parliaments, a camp currency, camp sporting competitions and schools. They created art, music and theatre and continued to write and reflect on their experiences.
The exhibition is an exploration of this multifaceted and rather astonishing cultural output.
What is interesting is that after release from internment and the 8th Employment Company, a Australian Military Force Labour Corps especially created for those internees that wanted to help with the war effort, many men went on to be very successful in Australia and elsewhere. The famous photographer Helmut Newton was amongst this group, the inventors of FLER furniture too, there were leading academics who played an important part in Australian art history and a leading composer of classical music.
Of course, not all those interned turned out to be modern masters or huge success stories, and most importantly the exhibition is not trying to suggest that! But rather that these men had skills, talents, sense of humour and a true strength of character that enabled them to be expressive, creative and to survive those hardships they faced in internment, and after release.
What I’ve really enjoyed in developing, researching and curating this exhibition is learning about the personal stories of these men, how they found ways to turn their life around, by maintaining their skills, or learning new ones and continuing to expand their knowledge of different disciplines, languages and the world. It truly is inspiring.
Some men were very young when they were sent on the Dunera while others were established in their career and even renowned at the time of their deportation and internment. Yet once they were interned there seems to have been a great sense of camaraderie; you can see it in their group activities of putting on theatre revues and orchestral performances or holding sport competitions. They also were able to work together as a community – holding camp-wide parliaments and delegating tasks, and even maintaining health systems and schools. This is just incredible, as not only were these men interned in a strange land away from their family and friends and comforts, but they were a group of random people from Europe thrown together in our tough Australian outback, which they’d never experienced anything like. What I believe is even more amazing is that their systems and creations actually enabled these men to thrive. I’ve really enjoyed exploring the art, compositions, magazines, revues and music that were produced during internment and I think that audiences will really enjoy seeing the humour, skill and investment these men put into their creations and cultural activities.
Here are my pick of a few of my favourite objects from the exhibition:
An immediate favourite is the voucher for coffee created in Hay camp in 1940. While it seems almost humorous when you first see it, it quickly becomes a reminder that these were people just like you and I. They had come from functioning society and coffee had probably been a part of daily existence before they were deported and interned.
Another of the pieces I think is really quite beautiful is a very detailed chronicle that includes hand drawn pictures in both ink and watercolour and handwriting in a medieval style German script. It was made by Hans Greilsheimer and documents the Dunera journey to Australia and his time in internment. This lovely artefact is a great example of how the Dunera Boys not only documented their experiences but turned these into creative and artistic expressions.
Another great piece that I think demonstrates continued creativity but furthermore that the Dunera boys remained determined to stay inspired and invested in all that the world has to offer is a large watercolour poster advertising a lecture in youth culture. It was one of the many lectures held at both Hay and Tatura as part of the camp universities the internees created.
A small photo from 1968 of a graduation ceremony for some Dunera Boys at the University of Melbourne is included in the exhibition as a reminder of just how far the drive within these men went. This photo is an inspiring testament to these men’s motivation to make something of themselves, and how they did not only survive internment but continued to be creative, expressive and to educate themselves. Their time in internment was therefore full of hardship but also one in which they taught themselves to thrive, which many continued to do after release as well.