Australian Jewish community and culture

The Holocaust and survivors' stories

After 1933, Hitler's assumption of power in Germany saw the rise of Nazi persecution of European Jews. This created a refugee problem which, by 1938, had reached crisis point. At this time Australia was identified as a suitable place of refuge due to its democratic traditions and small population.

Several resettlement schemes proposed the purchase of land in Australia using funds provided by wealthy philanthropists (like Baron Maurice de Hirsch) to provide a safe haven for persecuted Jews. In May 1939, the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonists dispatched Isaac Steinberg (1888-1957) to investigate the feasibility of purchasing 7 million acres in far Northwestern Australia on which to settle 75,000 Jewish refugees. Known as the 'Kimberely Scheme', it was the intention of this project that Jewish settlers would help develop pastoral and agricultural industries in this sparsley populated region.

Australians first became aware of the Holocaust during World War II following the announcement, on 17 November 1942, of the massacre of Jews in German-occupied Poland. Welfare groups soon formed around the country to raise funds and collect goods for Jewish relief. In 1943, Prime Minister John Curtin was presented with a resolution confirming the 'parlous state of European Jewry' which was endorsed by all Australian Jewish Communities.

Even before the end of the war, Australian Jewry began to think about post-war immigration.

Even before the end of the war, Australian Jewry began to think about post-war immigration. In the aftermath of allied victory, confirmation of the Holocaust brought the full enormity of what had occured to wider public attention, and sensitised Australians to the need for many European Jews to find a new place to call home. Determined to do everything possible to assist in the rehabilitation of Holocaust survivors, many Australian Jews actively sponsored emigration to Australia.

The enormity of the destruction levelled on European Jewry by the Holocaust first became clear with allied liberation of the concentration camps. Among the early outsiders to bear witness to the Holocaust was Muriel Knox Doherty, an Australian-born nurse. Doherty arrived at Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in July 1945, two months after the British had liberated the camp from the Nazis on 15 April.

Faced with the mammoth task of nursing thousands of sick and starving survivors, and establishing a hospital at Bergen-Belsen, Doherty's Community Letters were sent to groups of family and friends. Often written by candlelight early in the morning or late at night, these letters record Marton Doherty's personal insights into life at Bergen-Belsen, and document a little known facet of Australian wartime involvement, also offering a valuable woman's perspective on war and its aftermath. Doherty remained at Bergen-Belsen for a year. In 1945 she was awarded the Royal Red Cross Medal (1st Class) for her work there.

 Survivor's stories

Hilda Friend speaks about 'Kristallnacht', 1938

Friend recalls her experiences on the 'Night of Broken Glass', 9-10 November 1938, during which a series of Nazi co-ordinated attacks against Jews took place in Germany and Austria.

Charlotte Melkman speaks about life under Nazi rule, 1940-1945

Melkman recalls life as a Dutch Jew during the early years of World War II and her subsequent transportation to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Edith Adler speaks about a life in Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1944

Adler recalls her arrival in Auschwitz as part of a transport of Czechoslovakian Jews from the Theresienstadt Ghetto which included her entire family. 

Tom Foster speaks about life in a Ukranian Labour Camp, 1944

Foster recalls his experiences working in a labour camp for boys, his survival against the odds and the importance of friendship. 

Olga Horak speaks about life in Bergen-Belsen, 1945

Horak recalls her experiences of concentration camp life during the last days of the war and following the allied liberation.