Dr Michelle Bootcov, Sydney Jewish Museum Curatorial Department
In 2018 the NSW Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) entrusted a unique collection of 434 documents to the Sydney Jewish Museum. Its surprising contents referenced Quaker involvement with European refugees in the years leading up to World War II, disclosing the dire circumstances of those who appealed for safe harbour in Australia. This parcel of documents reflects a global network of altruistic intentions and influence, tempered by harsh realities and ponderous bureaucracy.
Quakers, or “Friends” as they refer to themselves, have worked for humanitarian causes since their establishment in seventeenth century England from Christian origins. Soon after Hitler came to power in 1933, the Society of Friends in London established a committee to assist the persecuted. As violence escalated, “non-Aryans,” conscientious objectors, opponents of Nazi ideology and other “undesirables” lost their jobs and control of their lives. In Vienna, the Quaker’s Centre was “besieged with people”, that were “like eels caught in a trap”.
In 1938, the German Emergency Fellowship Committee (GEFC) was established in Sydney. Initially aimed at helping German “non-Aryan Christians”, they quickly expanded their remit. Their correspondence, anchored by their President and Chairperson, Camilla Wedgwood, forms the core of the Quaker Collection. At the time she was an anthropologist and Principal of the Sydney University Women’s College. Dr Rudi Lemberg (a German biochemist who migrated to Australia in 1935) was the GEFC Secretary, Allan Clunies Ross (a businessman) was Treasurer and Dr E. Sydney Morris (the NSW Director General of Health) was also on the executive committee. They were all volunteers. Wedgwood told a friend that she was Chair “because my name is so English that no one however prejudiced could pretend that I was either a Jew or a scheming German, and I have a certain aura of respectability” (not least because she was part of the Wedgwood-Darwin dynasty, but also because she shouldered most of the burden).
The collection encompasses a diverse cross-section of people, including stateless people making direct appeals, English and American Quakers working in Europe on their behalf, Australian governmental responses, and extraordinary ordinary-Australians offering assistance. Letters request assistance with migration, seek contacts for work, thank Camilla for her help or provide references. They also close the door on hope. Some are formal, others are infused with emotions of desperation, optimism or trepidation. Many intercede on behalf of friends, community or family members. While several display foresight and forward planning, others are pleas of last resort.
Not all are from western Europe and occasionally they exhibit cross-continental collaboration. The GEFC received a request from Jakob Tenenbaum, a Jewish engineer from Lvov, Poland via Colonel Josiah Wedgwood, in London. Camilla’s father worked tirelessly for the refugee cause, but was unable to help in this instance. Rosika Schwimmer, a prominent pacifist-feminist wrote from New York on behalf of Eugenie Meller (a preeminent leader of the Hungarian feminist and pacifist movement) and her Jewish family. Both Tenenbaum and Meller were unsuccessful. Camilla’s sister Gloria Oppenheim, wrote from Rustenburg, South Africa for help with Oskar Moser, his wife Josephine, sister-in-law (Anna Hartmann) and mother-in-law, as they had applied several times for Australian landing permits. When their permits were granted, their landing fee was cabled from a Hartmann relative in New York.
One document alone names 40 people granted permission to land in Australia. Having a guaranteed offer of employment and the £200 landing fee gave people their best chance. Agricultural experience and domestic work were amongst the best pathways to acceptance by Canberra. Erika Wolff a multilingual typist and stenographer arrived in Australia in 1938 with plans to be a governess. In Britain, the Quakers set up agricultural training centres and the GEFC made placements at training farms in Bathurst, Wagga and the Hawkesbury.
“Being a fellow Quaker I would naturally like to do what is possible” wrote Camilla Wedgwood about Ludvig Heinemann, but no job could be found for a jeweller in Australia. Mr W. Hamburger wrote a desperate but dignified letter in March 1939. He had a background in forestry and sawmills, and a certificate of proficiency in English from the University of Cambridge, but had no success through the German Jewish Aid Committee in London, the Australian Jewish Welfare Society or the Australian government. He explained “we in our loneliness set our entire hope upon Australia”.
Medical doctors and musicians had poor prospects. “Two of the strongest trades’ unions in this country seem to be the Medical Association and the Musicians’ Union, and both are taking a very hostile and dog-in-the-mangerish attitude towards refugee and other foreign migrants,” wrote Wedgwood. Twenty-nine-year-old Dr. Irene Katz-Pulgram was especially fortunate; she was granted a permit and able to requalify, however, gynaecologist Dr. Rudolf Huebel did not receive that opportunity. Although he retrained as a manicurist/pedicurist to improve his prospects, the GEFC were unable to guarantee his employment in Australia. The outcome for a female dentist who retrained as a sweet maker in the hopes of setting up a shop remains unrecorded.
The volume of correspondence to and from the GEFC was enormous. Swamped with work, Wedgwood admitted, “to work like this, one has to develop the hide of a rhinoceros.” Her humanity however is obvious and she took a firm line with the Australian government, articulately and tactfully arguing for solutions. The GEFC worked cooperatively with international organisations, with the Australian Jewish Welfare Society and with various church committees. When war broke out though, military shipping gained priority over passengers. There was little more the Society of Friends could do.
The value in the Quaker Collection lies with its contribution to holocaust archives. It reveals transnational networks of Quakers, humanitarians, pacifists and concerned citizens. It adds to the textured narratives of victims and advocates, perpetrators and survivors. Importantly for the museum, it provides additional testimony, and is a wonderful resource for research into the Australian response.
This article was originally published in the 2019 Yearbook of the Sydney Jewish Museum. It is not our usual practice to publish material that has appeared elsewhere, but we thought that this article would be of considerable interest to many Friends who would not otherwise see it.