Australia prepares to receive European Jewish refugees

The Australian Jewish community, many of whom were refugees from Eastern European pogroms, had long been concerned about the security of European Jewry. Their worry intensified with the rise of Nazism and violent antisemitism that threatened to destroy the European Jewish communities.

By the late 1930s, there was increased urgency for the Jews from European countries to emigrate. In 1938, the Australian Jewish Welfare Society (AJWS) and the Jewish welfare societies in each state readied themselves to assist with immigration. Following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the news of the murder of European Jews began to filter through to the distressed, but helpless, local Melbourne Jewish community. By the end of the War, the Australian organisations – the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), the United Jewish Overseas Relief Fund (UJORF) and AJWS, with the latter two merging into the Australian Jewish Welfare and Relief Organisation – were focused on rescuing survivors of the Nazi persecution. In the face of Australian resistance to Jewish immigration during these desperate times, the Australian Jewish community organised public rallies and appealed to the Australian Government to relax immigration laws to allow Jews entry into Australia. To overcome some of the objections to Jewish immigration, the AJWS offered to guarantee accommodation and jobs for the homeless refugees. These were the circumstances in which the Buchenwald Boys were granted landing permits to settle in Australia.

The AJWS's initial allocation of 33 of the Buchenwald Boys to Melbourne soon grew. (Benjamin, Rodney, A Serious Influx of Jews: a history of Jewish welfare in Victoria, St Leonards, Australia 1998, p231) Many of the Boys who landed in other Australian cities wanted to join their friends from the orphanages and boat journeys. They told how they saved money in order to move to Melbourne. Moniek R told how Jewish Welfare had arranged for him to stay in Adelaide, but that he felt alone there and wanted to be with his friends in Melbourne. Benny G arrived in Perth on the boat, the Cyrenia, in August 1949. The Jewish Welfare assisted him in finding a job. However, he moved to Melbourne to be with the other Boys whom he said had become ‘like family’ to him. Ben E told how, after landing in Fremantle, he was sent to Sydney. He told of the kind Jewish family with whom he was billeted. He stayed in Sydney while he learned English, but after a year or two decided to join his friends in Melbourne. Ben had been communicating with Sam L whom he met in Switzerland, and who had settled in Melbourne. Sam invited Ben to stay with him in his lodgings in Carlton.

Friendships began in Switzerland and consolidated in the early days in Melbourne. Ben E was best man at Sam and Esme L's wedding.
Friendships began in Switzerland and consolidated in the early days in Melbourne. Ben E was best man at Sam and Esme L's wedding.

During the interwar years, a large proportion of the European Jewish immigrants, particularly Polish Jews, had settled in Melbourne. Therefore, the Melbourne Jewish community had developed a social character centred on the Polish Jewish community’s values. This, in turn, attracted more Polish Jews. The Jewish Yiddish culture, nurtured in the shtetls of Poland, appealed to some of the Boys who were looking for the familiarity they remembered from their childhoods. Yossl B recalled that upon his arrival in Fremantle the Jewish Welfare representatives who met his boat, the Napoli, told him that he was to go to Sydney. He objected because he had heard that there were more Polish Jewish people in Melbourne than in Sydney, where most of the Hungarian Jewish refugees had settled. Jack U explained that, on his arrival in Sydney he was met by David Abzacs, an envoy of the Jewish Welfare and Relief Fund who assisted him with finding accommodation and a job. However, Jack said that he moved to Melbourne because he heard that there was more of a Jewish or Yiddish life there. He heard that Melbourne had a Yiddish newspaper, theatre and library.

Some of the Boys, such as Bernie K, did not come directly to Melbourne. Bernie was one of the Buchenwald children who, along with over 730 other young Holocaust survivors, went to England under the auspices of the Central British Fund for German Jewry, a Jewish organisation that assisted Jewish refugees. His brother, Joe K, wrote to him to come and join him in Melbourne. Another young Buchenwald survivor, Andre Z, had initially settled in Sydney where he met his wife, at a Jewish dance. She was from Melbourne and had been visiting Sydney as part of the Jewish Maccabi sports carnival. They married, had their first daughter in Sydney, before moving to Melbourne in 1959, where their second daughter was born. Andre met fellow Buchenwald Boys, Joe S and Sam L, when he attended a Hakoah soccer match. Through them he befriended the other Melbourne Buchenwald Boys. Melbourne Buchenwald Boy, Benny G, met and married a young woman who was from New Zealand. They moved to Auckland, where their three children were born. Benny kept in close contact with the Melbourne Boys and after some time, Benny and his family moved “back” to Melbourne where he could be with his friends, the Buchenwald Boys. Others liberated from Buchenwald, such as Ari K and Leon J, joined the group many years later, once they discovered their own connections with the survivors of Buchenwald.

In whichever capital city the Boys arrived, they were welcomed by representatives of the state’s Jewish welfare organisations and members of the Jewish Welfare Guardian Society, who had sponsored their passage and provided accommodation.