Historian Michele Langfield analyses the Australian experience of Jewish refugees after 1937, the Australian agreement to accept 15,000 refugee, and the pervasive anti-Semitism.
30 March 2009
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By the 1930s from the time of the Nazi regime, from 1933 onwards, there were people who saw the writing on the wall and were trying to get out of Germany. We didn’t have – we didn’t have much effect from that until the second half of the 1930s, particularly after the Evian Conference in 1938. But people started to trickle out of Germany, mainly to other places in Europe, but by 1937 we’ve started – we started to get the effect of that diaspora.
There was a conference about the number of refugees escaping from Germany or moving out of Germany at the end of 1938 and we sent over I think it was White who was the representative of Australia. And there was an agreement that we would take 15000 Jewish people over the following three year period. That came into effect at the end of 1938, the beginning of 1939 and of course, war broke out less than a year later and we’d only taken six or 7000 people.
They were happy to help, but the main message was that they didn’t want to import a racial problem. That – and a lot of Jewish people in Australia also supported that, that if we brought in large numbers of eastern European Jews and southern European Jews then this would affect their rather comfortable standing that Anglo Jews that had been here previously had in Australia. So that not only the government, but also Jewish – the Jewish population was worried that this intake and large intake of refugees, Jewish refugees, would increase anti-Semitism in Australia.
Large numbers were Polish and particularly from Melbourne. That’s where most of the Polish group came. The Poles had always been fairly low in the hierarchy of immigrants to Australia, whether Jewish or not. So that was one of the things. I think there was general anti-Semitism in Australia anyway and no matter what national background people came from, it was again, bringing a group of people that they were – they feared would settle together in communities so you’ve got that worry about ethnic ghettos that people spoke about at the time.
I think there was both support and sympathy but also there was quite a lot of antagonism as well. And that was why we had some of these restrictions in place. The government increasingly brought in more stringent landing money requirements so that it started off at 250, would have been pounds at the time that they had to have on arrival and that was far more than maybe a year’s salary for most people at the time. By the time of the end of the 1930s, for Jews, it was 1000 pounds.
Now Jews had been since the Nuremberg laws came into force in 1935, had restricted economic opportunities so they no longer had that sort of money. So, the government was making it – and this was coming from community pressure as well, was making it almost impossible for Jews to come here unless they had sponsors already in Australia.
The government also encouraged the formation of the Jewish welfare society and the Jewish, Australian Jewish welfare society which was formed in 1937, acted as a sponsor and nominator – a joint nominator for groups of Jewish people who came to Australia. And others – the Jewish community themselves all nominated others, even if they didn’t know them. There were people who were very wealthy in Australia, Win (sp?), I know was one of them, people who just sponsored hundreds of Jewish people. And as many as could get here in the time available were sponsored.