The Dunera Boys at the Library

And here we are, without the means
Of proving our case
Behind a strongly guarded fence
In a forgotten place.
We wait while the authorities
Consider the release
Because we are His Majesty’s
Most loyal internees.

Oswald Volkmann, 1941

The Dunera Boys: Seventy Years On, a collection-in-focus display of 89 items, opened at the National Library of Australia on 12 February 2010.

In September 1940, in the midst of the Second World War, HMT Dunera arrived in Australia from Britain, carrying around 2500 German, Austrian and Italian internees. Even though many of the internees had escaped Nazi persecution, in mid-1940 they had been classified as ’enemy aliens’, following Hitler’s invasion of France. Their destination was internment camps in Hay, New South Wales, and in Tatura, Victoria. Most of the internees were released by early 1942 and about 850 remained in Australia. The Library’s exhibition presents the unique perspective of the men who unexpectedly found themselves behind barbed wire in rural Australia.

As a relatively new member of the Library’s Exhibitions staff, helping to curate this exhibition brought into sharp relief the strength of the Library’s collections and collecting policy. Marking the 70th anniversary year of the Dunera’s arrival in Australia, my role was to assist the search for collection material that told the story of this compelling moment in Australia’s history. Unlike the Jewish Museum of Australia, the Tatura Museum or Hay’s Dunera Museum, the Library does not have a discrete collection about the Dunera Boys. However, over time, it became apparent that the Library’s fulfillment of its collecting objective ’to ensure that a representative record of Australian life is collected and preserved for the future’ meant that the exhibition was just waiting to be brought together from across the breadth of the collections.

Paul Georg Glass (1891–c.1985)
1st Concert
, program, 10 December 1940.
Manuscripts Collection. Courtesy of Vera Cave

Bern Brent, one of the around 850 Dunera internees who chose to stay in Australia and whose papers are held in the Library’s Manuscripts Collection, was of immediate interest. Among the papers are Brent’s drawings of his hut in Tatura Internment Camp and his notebook from engineering classes taught by fellow internees. From discussions with Brent emerged his personal story of journey from Germany to Australia. In 1938, at the age of 15, Brent left Berlin aboard a kindertransport, a boat train organised by a coalition of organisations to take German and Austrian children of Jewish ancestry to safety in Britain. Brent’s identification card, stamped on arrival in England on 15 December 1938, is in the exhibition. An official telegram dated 26 July 1940 sent to his mother marks the day that Brent, by this time interned in Britain as an ‘enemy alien’, was sent to Australia aboard HMT Dunera. After enduring an eight-week sea voyage and a long train trip, Bern arrived in Tatura, had his fingerprints and photograph taken and was issued with his Australian ‘Certificate of Registration of Alien’. Today aged 87 and living in Canberra, Brent’s assistance with the exhibition has been invaluable.

Some of the stories in the Library’s exhibition came together through multiple collections, providing a glimpse of life in the internment camps. For instance, in the papers of Rabbi Leib Aisack Falk, an army chaplain who assisted the internees, we found two programs, bearing exquisite watercolour drawings on the covers, for a concert held at Hay Internment Camp in December 1940. The programs sit well with a printed ticket, from the Papers of Hans Lindau, for the ’Beethoven Konzert’ held on 15 March 1941. In the Music Collection, we found a copy of the score of celebrated composer Felix Werder’s Symphony No. 1, Opus 6, Tatura (Internment). A multimedia presentation within the exhibition plays an excerpt from this symphony, as well as Werder’s recollections of his time in internment taken from the Library’s Oral History and Folklore Collection. Werder remembers writing ’new versions’ of Handel’s Concerti Grossi for the musicians among the internees, as there was no sheet music. From the Library’s diverse collections, an insight into the rich cultural life within the camps, built on the talents and resourcefulness of the internees, comes into focus.

A recently acquired treasure of the Library, known colloquially as ‘the Lindau box’, gained a depth of meaning from its developing context. Hans Lindau’s collection of thousands of notes on botany, English grammar and phonetics, made from books in the camp library and written on camp toilet paper, emerged as a compendium of the internment experience. Lindau was 46 when he was interned as an enemy alien, having previously lived in England for nine years. He taught English and phonetics classes within the camp. We found his class lists among his notes. The Library collected Lindau’s papers and oral history in the 1970s, among them a series of watercolour portraits presented to Lindau as a Christmas card from his phonetics class in 1942. The card is inscribed: ’Mr Lindau our dear teacher and friend in happy remembrance with every good wish for the season’. In his oral history recording, Lindau reflects on the ‘wonderful mix of intellects, spirits and minds’ in the camp. In the context of the exhibition, the Lindau box encapsulates the internees’ compulsion to make good use of time, the importance of books and the vigorous education program within the camps.

Reading through secondary sources, we searched the Library’s catalogue for every name we came across. This is how we found Margaret Holmes’ address book of the internees she assisted. Holmes was a leading light in the Australian Student Christian Movement, assisting internees in Tatura and, later, when many were released into the Australian Army, to undertake secondary and tertiary studies in Victoria. Placed in the address book was a graduation photograph, inscribed ‘From the first graduate of your “family” in thankful remembrance.’ It was a delightful moment to find an object that reflected the appreciation many internees felt for the kindness of the Australians who assisted them, as this was a strong theme in internees’ accounts of their experiences.

The breadth of the Library’s collection ensured that the process of bringing the exhibition together was rewarding, exciting and often touching. It is hoped that visitors will experience a similar range of emotions in seeing the handwriting and hearing the voices of the Dunera Boys, 70 years on.

Penny Grist
Curator, Exhibitions