The 6th of September marks the 78th anniversary of the arrival of the HMT Dunera – a British passenger ship – into Sydney, Australia with 2,542 people on board. One of them was Walter Kaufmann.
Walter was born on January 24, 1924 to a Polish-Jewish woman (Rachela Schmeidler) who gave him up for adoption at the age of three. His adoptive parents were a German Jewish couple – Dr. Sally Kaufmann, a lawyer and head of the Jewish community in Duisburg, and his wife Johanna, an artist.
“I had a happy childhood growing up in Duisburg until the Nazis came,” Kaufman, now 94, told The Jewish Press during a recent interview. “I attended high school in Germany until it was forbidden for Jews to go to school.”
In January 1939, Walter, aged 15, left to England to escape Nazi Germany on one of the last Kindertransports that left the Rhineland. A distant relative was supposed to collect Walter from Liverpool station but failed to arrive due to misinformation.
“I stayed in the train station until an employee decided to take me to an asylum for poor people where I remained throughout the night,” Kaufman recalled. “The following day my relative picked me up and took me to his home. He enrolled me into a private boarding school, the New Herrlingen school in Kent, where I studied for a year and a half.”
Walter’s adoptive parents were deported to Auschwitz where they perished.
In 1939, after Britain declared war on Germany, Churchill grew suspicions of all German and Austrian foreigners living in Britain, suspecting them of spying for Germany. So in May 1940, he decided to intern 80,000 “enemy aliens,” aged 16 and above, into camps throughout England.
“I was interned in Huyton near Liverpool for a few days. Then I volunteered for the HMT Dunera because I had hoped to go to America or Canada.”
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 accommodate the internees until the end of the war.
On July 10, 1940, a ship built to carry 1,600 passengers, called the HMT Dunera, left England for a 57-day voyage. On board the ship was an officer, 309 inexperienced guards, one medical officer, 2,000 German and Austrian Jewish refugees (aged 16-60), 200 Italians fascists, and 251 German Nazis.
“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.”
Most tefillin, tallitot, and prayer books were thrown overboard.
Conditions on board the ship were deplorable. Overcrowding resulted in some men sleeping 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. Guards addressed the Jews with the vilest of curses and subjected them to daily beatings with rifles and bayonets.
“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.
“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.”
Strictly observant Jews would not eat the treife meals and survived on dried vegetables, onions, and whatever fruit was available.
The voyage was dangerous. “While in the Irish Sea, I heard a loud bang and then felt the ship rock. A German submarine U-56 had fired a torpedo that stuck the side of the boat but failed to detonate. A second torpedo was launched but passed underneath the vessel. Hatchets were locked and portholes were blacked out. We were afraid of drowning.”
The Dunera sailed to Freetown in Sierra Leone, Takoradi in Ghana and then berthed in Cape Town, Africa for two days. During that time, many of the guards absconded with the stolen goods that were confiscated from the refugees.
The ship then continued on its voyage. To pass the time, intellectual internees conducted classes, debates, and community singing. Chess games were played with pieces made out of unpalatably doughy bread. Shabbat services and Torah classes for the Orthodox Jews on board were conducted by rabbis.
The Dunera’s first port of call was Freemantle in Western Australia. Then it continued to Victoria where 500 Nazis and Italians fascists disembarked and were taken to an internment camp at Tatura.
On September 6, 1940 the ship sailed into Sydney Harbour. 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, which led to the court martial of several British officers and guards.
The “Dunera Boys” – as the ship’s passengers later became known as – disembarked emaciated, pale, unshaven, clad in rags, and some without shoes. They were met at the wharf by reporters and photographers who described the refugees as dangerous with headlines like “Captured Germans Arrive” and “Nazi Prisoners-of-War Arrive.”
Australian soldiers ordered the internees to march in a double line towards waiting trains. They accompanied them on an 18-hour journey to an internment camp in arid New South Wales called Hay.
“We were treated extremely well once the soldiers realized we were not prisoners of war but Jewish refugees. They gave us food and even shared their tobacco with us. The bars of the windows on the trains were knocked out by the guards once they realized who we were.”
The internment camp at Hay was surrounded with a double barbed wire fence, four watch towers equipped with machine guns, 32 wooden barrack huts, a mess hut, and an assembly hall.
“Once we had organized ourselves in the camp, a rich cultural life developed. I continued with my schooling. Classes were conducted by professors, rabbis, lawyers, doctors, economists, linguists, artists, philosophers, mathematicians, and musicians. I spent a year at Hay.”
Concerts, theatre performances, and sporting activities were also held in the camp. A camp currency was devised and printed within the camp to purchase goods from the canteen, pay for concerts, and use for wages.
Three hundred Orthodox internees were placed in separate huts. They ran a kosher kitchen and dining hall. A qualified shochet, Elhanan Loebenstein left the camp once a week under military guard to slaughter animals in a nearby town. He was accompanied by Rabbi Shaul Shaffer and Rabbi J E Ehrentreu. The chaleph (slaughtering knife) was given to Loebenstein by Australian soldiers when he left the camp and taken away after he finished slaughtering.
A yeshiva was organized in the camp by Rabbi E Ehrentreu, formerly of Munich.
In October 1940, the British Government expressed regret for the mistake it had made and, in 1941, sent Major Julian Layton (a Jew) to Australia to assist with releasing and repatriating the internees (which took until 1944). After eight months, Major Layton organized that the internees at Hay be moved to Tatura where there was a more moderate climate.
“I spent a few weeks in Tatura. Then I worked on an orchard in Shepparton for two months picking peaches.”
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 volunteered.
“From 1942-1946 I, together with approximately 900 other internees, volunteered to serve in the 8th Employment Company, a non-combatant battalion of the Australian army.”
“I unloaded cargo from ships in Port Melbourne and transferred goods between trains on the border between Victoria and New South Wales. I also unloaded freight from trains in Albury, New South Wales that were loaded with military supplies, foodstuffs and armaments for troops stationed abroad. I also unloaded ships in Sydney and drove trucks with these goods all the way north to Queensland and Darwin in the Northern Territory.”
Out of 1,300 Dunera Boys who had been set free in June 1942, hundreds chose to return to England. Later on, many others immigrated to the United State, Israel, and elsewhere.
In 1945 many of the Jewish refugees were offered the option of applying for Australian citizenship.
“After the war, I stayed in Australia and worked as a fruit picker, farm laborer, wharfie, sailor, and photographer. I was interested in literature so I joined the Melbourne Realist Writers’ Group. I had some of my first stories published in the Realist Writer magazine. Then In 1953 my first book, ‘Voices in the Storm,’ was published. It was based on my past in Nazi Germany.”
Walter Kaufman traveled extensively to South America, Japan, and Moscow. His experiences and observations from these trips are reflected in much of his fiction and travel writing. Walter was also politically active as a socialist and communist, which steered him to become a socialist writer.
In 1957 Walter Kaufmann settled in Berlin where he published 35 books in English and German. He has received several prestigious literary awards and has acted in two films.