70 Years after “Dunera”

September 6, 2010 marked the 70th anniversary of the arrival of HMT Dunera into Sydney Harbour. The Dunera Scandal has not received a great deal of attention in countries other than Australia. But two men from Themar — Julius Kahn, b. 1896, and Adalbert Stern, b. 1917 — were among the 2500 men jammed on the Dunera for a eight-week ‘voyage from hell’ and that makes the story very important to us. Moreover, once we started to explore the story, we learned of other Dunera boys, Wilhelm Guttsmann, for example, a close friend of Bert Stern’s, and two other men related to a Canadian family living in Vancouver. Then we found that the National Australian Archives has digitized the individual records of most of the men on the Dunera, plus the 1000+ pages of government records. This allowed us to follow the stories of the Themar Dunera Boys and understand the differences in each narrative.

Source: NAA: SP11/2, GERMAN/KAHN J

Julius Kahn was one of eight children of the oldest Jewish families of Themar. A master butcher, he moved to Weiden in Bavaria where he worked for two brothers, Hugo and Heinrich Hutzler; he married the brothers’ sister, Therese, and they had two daughters.

Julius was imprisoned in Dachau in the November 1938 Kristallnachtpogromnaht. He was able to leave Germany in 1939, age 43, supported by the British Jewish Refugee Committee, and he stayed at Kitchener Camp in Kent. He was in contact with his niece, Irma Rosenberg, daughter of Julius’s sister, Else Rosenberg (née Kahn); Irma too had escaped to England in 1939 and was living in Suffolk at the time Julius left England. On May 12, 1940, in the first of major roundups of ‘enemy aliens,’ Julius was interned at Kitchener Camp. Two months later, he was crammed onto HMT Dunera. When the British began to repatriate the refugees in 1941, Julius did not meet the initial criteria of being married and having one’s family already in England. He also did not apply to return as part of the Pioneer Corps. Sometime in the early 1940s, Julius was enlisted into one of the Australian Labour Batallions in Caulfield, Victoria; in May, 1943, he was granted parole and moved from the Melbourne area to Sydney. When he learned of his family’s deaths we do not know: Therese and the two daughters were trapped in Germany and deported to Izbica in March 1942. As far as we know, Julius never returned to Europe and remained in Sydney until his death in 1965.

Bert Stern, Themar, c. 1935. Source: Plaut Collection

Adalbert Stern’s story is that of a younger, single man. Adalbert was born in 1917, the son of Selma Bär (née Schloss) and her second husband, Hermann Stern. In the 1920s, he attended school in Coburg, living with the Hirsch family in their Pension for Jewish boys. In the 1930s, Bert trained as a carpenter in order to have skills useful for emigration. He was in Germany at Kristallnacht but cleverly avoided capture. Age 21, he left for England in January 1939, gaining entry to the UK on condition that he work in agriculture. And so he did — picking brussel sprouts near St. Albans. He was arrested on 7 July 1940, much later in the process of internment than Julius Kahn. It is possible that Bert volunteered to go on the Dunera, given the hints and quasi-promises made by authorities that the ship was going to Canada and that this would make gaining entry to America that much easier. Once in Australia, and as the English authorities realized their error in deporting the Jewish refugees, preparations were made for those who were close to gaining visas to the States to go there. Bert’s name is on this list of eligible applicants in late 1940. But, with America’s increasing reluctance to accept refugees culminating with Pearl Harbour, that possibility was quashed. Bert therefore applied for repatriation to Britain and set out for England in July 1942, two years after he had left. He married in England and remained there for the rest of his life. He died in 1992.

9 Lines/two years in the life of Adalbert Stern, 1940-1942. Source: NAA: MP1103/1, E40733

The number of Dunera Boys is dwindling and so their memories are precious: the Dunera Association Facebook page and blog are valuable sources of information and stories; this BBC article and videotape interview of Peter Eden and Willie Field is a must-see. In February 2010, The National Library of Australia in Canberra mounted an exhibit, The Dunera Boys: Seventy Years On.

For further information, see:
Enemy Aliens & Internment in England, 1939-40
57 Days of Hell — The Voyage of HMT Dunera, 1940