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21 Apr 20

Prisoners and internees

At the outbreak of the First World War, the Australian government passed laws that allowed greater control over the population. These included tightening censorship, banning a number of political organisations and registering enemy aliens who were perceived as posing a threat to national security. Civilians were under scrutiny and thousands were interned in the former prisons of Berrima and Trial Bay, and the purpose-built Holsworthy camp in New South Wales, which held up to 6000 people. The internees were nationals from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as British and Australian nationals with German ancestry. In the early 1900s there were around 100,000 Germans living in Australia, and they made up the fourth-largest group of immigrants, after those from England, Ireland and Scotland. At the end of the war, the great majority of internees were repatriated; the German migrant community was dispersed and almost disappeared, as many Anglicised their names and did not make their heritage known.

At the beginning of the Second World War, the internment process started again, and camps were established in most states. They were located in remote areas where prisoners of war and civilian internees would be far removed from Australian society. Thousands of Germans and Italians were interned, as well as Australian nationals with German or Italian backgrounds, and enemy aliens who had been detained by Australia’s allies abroad. In July 1940, the Australian government agreed to accept the transfer of 6000 internees and POWs from the United Kingdom, but only one ship was dispatched: the military transport ship Dunera, which carried 250 Germans associated with the Nazi regime, 200 Italian fascist sympathisers and around 2000 German and Austrian men, mostly Jewish, who had escaped from Nazi-occupied territories only to be interned in Great Britain as enemy aliens. The infamous voyage lasted fifty-seven days and was marked by conflict, stress and fear, as well as overcrowding and terrible sanitary conditions.

The men aboard the Dunera disembarked in Sydney, and were interned in the camps in Hay and Orange, and later in Tatura, Victoria, for an average of two years. Many of the so-called ‘Dunera Boys’ were highly skilled and educated, and included numerous professionals, scientists and artists such as Hein Heckroth, Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack, Heinz Henghes, Klaus Friedeberger and Erwin Fabian. The internees set up a canteen, shop and cafe, produced magazines and organised sporting events, plays, concerts, lectures and art classes. At the Hay camp, Heckroth taught drawing and painting, and art history classes were given by Ernst Kitzinger and Franz Philipp. Hirschfeld Mack lectured on colour theory, which was his area of expertise from the time of the Weimar Bauhaus, where he worked alongside Paul Klee. Hirschfeld Mack fled Germany in 1936, and was working in Wales when he was interned and deported. During his internment he made several woodcuts depicting daily life in the camps. The most poignant is Internment camp – Orange N.S.W, 1941, which shows an isolated figure fenced in by barbed wire, beneath the southern sky, a very long way from home. The barren environment in which the camps were located could not have been more different from the familiar European landscape, and was a fitting backdrop for images of displacement and isolation.

Like Hirschfeld Mack, Erwin Fabian fled Germany and found refuge in Great Britain; he was studying at the Polytechnic in London when he was classified as an enemy alien and deported at the age of twenty-five. Fabian made numerous watercolours and monotypes in the camps, and remembers mixing printer’s ink with boot polish to print them. His emotionally charged, and sometimes nightmarish, images reflect the chaos and uncertainty of internment and war, and incorporate the extreme light and at times surreal features of the Australian landscape.

In 1941 many civilians were released and repatriated after having their cases assessed, and in 1942 a number of internees could volunteer for the Australian Army and its Labour Corps as a way of leaving the camps. Many of the Europeans interned during the Second World War stayed in Australia, at least in the short term, including hundreds of the Dunera Boys. Hirschfeld Mack taught art at Geelong Grammar School and settled near Melbourne after retirement, and Fabian became a prolific artist and friend of Australian modernist painters, such as Josl Bergner, Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan. Fabian has since stated that the internees did not know how lucky they were to have lived so far from the trauma, destruction and genocide of the war in Europe.

These works remind us of the power of art to convey the experience of trauma, destruction and death. An artwork is a subjective response that offers a document altogether different from a photograph or film. It is still the case today that the artist has a crucial role to play as a witness and chronicler of war.

Petra Kayser is Curator, Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria