Refugee internment

Before World War II, many Jewish citizens of Germany and Austria were driven out of their countries by the rise of the Nazis. They sought refuge in various countries, including England and Australia. When the war began, the British and Australian governments wondered if they could trust these recent arrivals from what were now enemy countries.

Even though these people had been escaping from Hitler, governments decided to treat them as ‘enemy aliens’, who could not be trusted. Some Australians protested at the unfairness of this decision, but at the same time, many others called on the government to intern anyone of German or Italian background. ‘Enemy aliens’ had also been interned in Australia during the first World War.

After police investigations, the Australian government interned a number of people of German and Italian nationality. They also agreed to take a number of Jewish German refugees from England for internment. The two main camps for internees were at Hay in New South Wales and Tatura in Victoria.

In 1940, the British assembled a group of nearly 2500 Jewish refugees, as well as Italian and German prisoners-of-war, for transport to Australia. They were crammed onto the Dunera, a ship designed to carry 1500 passengers. When they arrived in Australia in September 1940, they had suffered so much from the terrible conditions aboard ship that the British officer in charge of the Dunera transport was court-martialled. The internees had also been beaten and robbed by some of the soldiers who guarded them.

Many of the Dunera refugees were skilled professionals and highly educated; some were talented in music and the visual arts. Once they were settled in their camps, they set about organising a rich cultural life. Those who were experts in a subject gave lessons; those who were artistic drew and painted their surroundings; performers gave concerts and put on plays. The internees produced their own magazines and printed their own camp banknotes.

There were no blackboards, no chalk, no paper, no pencils, nothing of the vital implements for study. We found some soft limestone which we used as chalk to write upon the walls of huts and the back of tables.

- From ‘Collegium Taturense’ (Tatura College)

‘Collegium Taturense’ (Tatura College), a booklet produced in the camp in 1941. MS 13589, Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria.

The banknotes which were designed and printed by the internees at the Hay camp were so professionally designed that the Government stopped them being circulated. They were afraid the notes would get outside the camp and be mistaken for official money.

Some of the other internees, such as the prisoners of war, were loyal to the Nazi regime. One such group in the Tatura camp secretly produced their own magazine called Brennessel (‘Nettle’), complete with cartoons, advertisements and news about the war.

Eventually the Jewish refugees were re-classified as ‘friendly aliens’ and released from the camps. Many of them joined the Australian army, or remained in Australia and became successful and prominent citizens after the war.

Magazine produced by German internees during World War II.
Print made by a German prisoner of war during World War II.
Newspaper article about compensation to be offered to Jewish refugees interned in Australia.
Painting produced by a German Jewish internee, World War II.