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From Wartorn Europe to Australia

25 August 2023 134 views No Comment
By Ross Fitzgerald

A retired schoolteacher from Adelaide with a PhD from Flinders University, Peter Brune is a brilliant scholar who has previously published eight  books about Australian military history. When I was one of the judges, his 2014 Second World War history Descent into Hell was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Prize for Non-Fiction. As with most of his work, Suffering Redemption and Triumph has been edited by the extremely capable Neil Thomas. Unusually, Thomas also played a key role in its publication and is currently involved in its promotion.

After World War 11, large numbers of ‘displaced persons’ came to Australia to escape the horrors of war-torn Europe. This scrupulously researched book, which features the “first Wave” of immigrants after World War 11, is based on more than forty lengthy often heart-rending interviews with displaced persons that Brune conducted between 1999 and 2022.

Under our Mass Resettlement Scheme, these displaced persons came from Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece and Hungary. From 1947 to 1954 over 170,00 such immigrants arrived in Australia. The extraordinary, life-changing, sometimes harrowing, war experiences of these men and women, and subsequent arrivals, Brune argues, “gave them the courage and hope to start  a new life.”

Suffering Redemption and Triumph explores how the thousands of immigrants who arrived from 1947 until the 1960s had the determination and resilience to make new lives for themselves in Australia.  Drawing largely on their own words, Brune evokes the reception these immigrants found on arrival and their initial responses to living in an utterly different culture. Their subsequent, quite  detailed reflections of their journey here and how they coped are inspirational. But it is salutory to note that, in the mid and late 1940s, postwar immigrants escaping Europe were often described in the Australian press as ‘Aliens’.

Many early refugees were Jewish, or political prisoners who had also survived the concentrations camps.  Others, Brune writes, “had worked in Germany and Austria for years as forced labourers sent from the lands of German conquest.” In addition to POWs who had endured years of torment, “there were the seething mass of fugitives desperately trying to stay ahead of the rapidly advancing Soviet Army as the war had drawn to a close, or those who made their frantic bid for freedom just after the Soviet occupation.”

Brune makes a compelling case that that the arrival of such a diverse range of peoples was instrumental in helping create the multicultural Australia we now inhabit. As  a crucial part of his lucid exposition, Brune analyses the immigration policies of Ben Chifley’s federal Labor government, and the selection criteria applied to assess applicants, both of which were driven by the Immigration Minister and future Labor leader, Arthur Calwell, the often controversial MHR for Melbourne. For economic and  security reasons, Chifley and Calwell saw the need for a larger Australian population. But both were acutely aware of a moral obligation to provide a new home for Europeans sufferings the ravages and deprivations of war. In so doing, Australia conducted a bold political and cultural experiment. But, given the entrenched White Australia Policy which most Australians then supported, as Brune writes “to have even  contemplated Asian immigration at that time would have constituted political suicide.”  

All of these issues are highlighted in Calwell’s underrated 1972 biography Be Just and Fear Not. Often remembered as the Leader of the Opposition who lost three federal elections, Brune righly argues that Calwell’s “contribution to his country as the inaugural Minister of Immigration constitutes one of the nation’s most remarkable achievements.” I thoroughly concur with the assessment that, from July 1945 until the Chifley Government was defeated in the December 1949 election by a Liberal-Country Party coalition led by Robert Menzies that “Calwell displayed a unique degree of foresight, pragmatism and statesmanship.” As it happens, at a personal level Menzies and Calwell liked and admired each other.

As an even-handed scholar, Brune understands that the “critical value of history to any nation must surely be not only the celebration and commemoration of its triumphs, but also the lessons learnt from its failures.” A prime example in this book is that no meaningful study of the first wave of Australian postwar immigration could be complete without an examination of those Nazi collaborators, avoiding trial or execution, who gained entry to Australia during the early postwar years. Brune examines in detail the Australian Immigration Department’s selection processes during that time. In Suffering Redemption and Triumph he also draws heavily and to great advantage on the extensive research of ex-communist Mark Aarons, first aired in a series of radio broadcasts in 1986, and in 1989 and 2001 published in two influential best-selling books. These are  Sanctuary! Nazi Fugitives in Australia and War Criminals Welcome: Australia, A Sanctuary for Fugitive War Criminals Since 1945.

 Almost all these active supporters of the Third Reich who came to Australia were strongly anti-Semitic, and anti-Communist. In a key chapter titled ‘An immoral episode’ Brune reveals that, as early as 1949, the “scandal of Nazi collaborators and communists arriving by ship” was taken up by the print media, especially the Sydney Sun and the Daily Telegraph.  Brune also endorses Aarons’ claim that “There is sufficient evidence that, in some cases, ASIO turned a blind eye to war criminals once they reached Australia, as long as they were strongly anti-communist.”

It is undoubtably true that the overwhelming majority of postwar white Australians, including most politicians and public servants at the time, were insular in their attitudes and had little understanding of what had happened to the displaced persons who arrived here. In part this was due to ‘the tyranny of distance’ depicted so accurely by Geoffrey Blainey in his book of that name. Among the many positive contributions of Suffering Redemption and Triumph,  Brune has chronicled some stark examples of the horrific war experiences of refugees, about which the general public was utterly unaware.  An even cursory knowledge of what they endured would have engendered, he argues, “an appreciation … and most of all, compassion for their plights and admiration for their resilience.”

Brune’s latest book has usefully identified the initial apprehension about Australian culture experienced by many refugees. It also cites “a frequent sense of jealousy toward the migrants’ work ethic; the problem of the language barrier; and the perceived failure of migrants to abandon their culture and (to congregate) in their clubs.” However, Brune has also identified a similar lack of experience and understanding by many immigrants of the prevailing culture of ordinary Australians. As he thoughtfully concludes,  “They too had their beliefs, their attitudes to politics, to the workplace, to the structure and behaviour of the family unit, to the role of the female in that family; and to child-rearing. Their perceptions of Australians, therefore, were no less insular and restrictive than  was the case in reverse.”

Some displaced persons from Europe who had experienced the terrors of war had a longing to reunite with family and friends still left in the ‘old’ country. But with their immigration to a new land also came, as Brune puts it, “the chance for security, for a fair day’s work and, therefore, the chance to improve their lives.” And also that of their children. By any standard, the vast majority “achieved all that both they and the Australian nation could have dreamt of.”  But they did so much more.

One example of eloquent mangled English comes from Jeka Cupkovic- a young Serbian refugee featured on the far right of the books’ cover- who after a four-day journey by plane, arrived in Adelaide on 1 May 1961 to a future husband she had never met but who had organised the paperwork for her to come here. Jeka’s decision to accept his offer from such a distant land was primarily because of the plight of her mother – if Jeka left Serbia there would one less person in the family to feed – and a determination that in Australia as a wife and mother she would not suffer the poverty she experienced in Europe. During her interview with Brune Jeka says: “We had not enough to eat. It was really bad. And my youngest brother asked my mother, ‘Give me something to eat.’ And he said, ‘Why you born me if you not got to give me to eat?’ And I got sorry for my mother, and I realised, I was thinking what happens if I marry somebody (in Serbia) and my kids tell me like my brother tell my mother? … and I think what can I do with my life better than I got there?”

On a more uplifting note, the  story of Salvatore Foti, an immigrant  from Italy who arrived at Sydney in June 1953 is inspirational. Salvatore later established Foti International Fireworks. Along with his son Vince and their crew, Salvatore presented the stirring fireworks display at the end of the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. It was a magnificent success.

On 26 April 2022 Vince Foti emailed Brune about what he witnessed after most of the crowd had left the Olympic Stadium.  “One can speak of a special moment in their lives and their experiences that happen in that moment. My indelible moment that I still relive, that euphoric memory, happened when I noticed my father seated on a bench near the stadium exit. I went and sat with him, saw a tear in his eye, and asked if he was OK. He smiled and said, ‘My son, from a small career in a small town in Sinopoli Italy, I have had this great opportunity to showcase our art in this world spectacle. Son, I am proud of the family’s achievement. My prayers have been answered.” How good is that?

Suffering Redemption and Triumph will have wide appeal, not just to the to the families and friends of immigrants, but to general readers fascinated by Australia’s military and social history. Brune’s latest work contains a number of extremely useful maps, copious endnotes, and a five-page Bibliography, plus 20 grainy black & white photographs of some of the interviewees. But it’s a great shame that there is no Index, which would have ben helpful in negotiating this large and important book.

An overdue addition to Australia’s  history, this well produced, sturdy paperback is worthy, in the best sense of the word, and often revelatory. I  hope that Brune soon publishes a later volume about Australia’s second wave of immigrants since the 1960s.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald’s most recent books are a memoir, Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey and the co-authored Grafton Everest fictions, The Dizzying Heights, and The Lowest Depths – in which Russia’s dictatorial president, Vladimir Putrid, is assassinated. All three books are published by Hybrid.

Quadrant, July-August 2023 pp 107-109.
Suffering Redemption and Triumph: The first wave of postwar Australian immigrants
by Peter Brune
Big Sky Publishing, 2023, 436 pages, $32.99.


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