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20 September 2011

Uncovering Traces: German-speaking refugee musicians in Australia

George Dreyfus and Felix Werder Image: George Dreyfus and Felix Werder  

In his new book, Dr Albrecht Dümling traces the destinies of many German-speaking refugee musicians who arrived in Australia between 1933 and 1945. Some of them made Australia their home for a short while, some for the rest of their lives, and many professional musicians were forced to abandon their careers and take on other work to secure their entry to Australia. The following article is an edited extract of a longer one, written by Dr Dümling for the Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal (November 2008, Vol. XIX, Part 2), and reprinted on Resonate with kind permission of the author and the Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal. The book Die verschwundenen Musiker. Jüdische Flüchtlinge in Australien (The Vanished musicians. Jewish refugees in Australia) can be ordered online through the publisher's website as well as from other sources such as Amazon.de.

When in the 1930s German Jews were desperately looking for a new home, they tried to get information about all possible places in the world. Detailed information was to be found in a magazine entitled Jüdische Auswanderung: Korrespondenzblatt für Auswanderungs- und Siedlungswesen (Jewish Emigration: Magazine for Emigration and Settlement). The 1937 issue contained a detailed article on the conditions for emigration to Australia and the living conditions there. Of course, the then current White Australia Policy was mentioned in that article, and also the popular slogan 'One continent, one language and one people'. That motto was supported (as was explained) by the Australian government and also by the trade unions. Referring to that, the article continued: 'Because of these two powerful influences, the Australian immigration policy at the moment intends to prevent all mass immigration, but - now that the economic crisis has been almost completely overcome - to allow single immigration on the understanding that the immigrant will assimilate himself swiftly - mastery of the English language being a main characteristic for that - and that he is, in addition, of use to the country in his profession.'1 It was made clear that under such conditions only a very limited number of refugees would have a chance of being accepted in Australia.

Looking back to the 1930s, Australian historians also have a rather critical opinion about the chances for Jewish immigrants. At that time, this continent was not yet the home of multiculturalism as we know it today. Paul Bartrop, in the foreword of his book Australia and the Holocaust 1933-1945, mentions 'an unsympathetic and anti-refugee Australia' produced by the government and the popular will.2 That attitude was based on fear of foreigners, the economic crisis and antisemitism. Suzanne Rutland points out that this negative attitude toward refugees was widespread even among Australian Jewry, which represented only a very small minority (0.4 per cent) of the population.3 Hilary Rubinstein, in her book The Jews in Australia: A Thematic History, reports that Australian Jews tended to project their own prejudices onto these refugees.4

Following the 1938 Evian Conference [an international conference in Evian, France, called together by the US president Franklin J Roosewelt to discuss the increasing numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution], Australia was asked to change its restrictive position. In December 1938 John McEwen, the minister of the interior, promised to accept 15,000 German refugees during the next three years. But since these quotas were connected with special conditions and reservations, it can be argued (as Malcolm Turnbull has) that the effect of this 'liberalization' was in fact a limitation.5 Another reason why the positive effect of the extension of quotas was so inadequate was the start of the Second World War; after September 1939, no more refugees at all were allowed to enter the country. Thus the quota of 15,000 was never reached.

Who did finally arrive - and how?

For German Jews the fine arts, and especially music, often played a central role. For those people Australia was not an attractive destination, as the magazine Jüdische Auswanderung confirmed. There, under the title 'Social Conditions of Australian Culture' the following information was found:

'Sports and movies play an enormous role for the general public, while the more intellectual problems of art and science receive little attention. The average Australian newspaper contains many sports reports, movies reviews, and society news. On politics and economy you can find hardly anything, on art and science next to nothing.'6

Consequently, the chapter 'Prospects for immigrants' explained: 'The prospects are very bad for other free professions, such as writers, editors, actors, musicians, which might be explained partly by the low total population of Australia, partly with the superficiality of culture as described above.'

As a consequence of those discouraging conditions, one is astonished that musicians from Germany and Austria did disembark in Australia at all. They had left those countries as refugees, no longer allowed to perform there, but when they arrived in Australia they did not always dare to admit the reason for their travel, since they feared being confronted with new problems. This fact makes it sometimes difficult for researchers to discover who came as visitors, exiles or emigrants, and to differentiate among those groups.7 Indeed, there were quite different ways for those refugee musicians to arrive in Australia. There existed at least seven categories, which are briefly described as follows.

Without any doubt, the most comfortable way to land in Australia was on a concert tour. Prominent examples were the pianist Jascha Spivakovsky and his brother Tossy. Jascha Spivakovsky had been born in Russia in 1896, but owing to anti-Jewish pogroms he fled with his family to Germany. In Berlin he continued his musical education with Moritz Mayer-Mahr, a former pupil of Franz Liszt, Clara Schumann and Anton Rubinstein. Already in 1910 Jascha received the renowned Blüthner Prize. Following a most successful concert tour to England, where some reviewers called him a genius of overwhelming passion, he decided to go overseas. In December 1921 he started his first concert tour through Australia. There he won the heart not only of many music-lovers but, especially, of a young girl from Adelaide who later became his wife.

Once this German-Australian connection was established, the young pianist did not hesitate to return to Australia in 1929 for a second, again enormously successful, concert tour. This time he played the Australian premiere not only of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, but also of Max Reger's enormous Variations on a Theme by Johann Sebastian Bach. In April 1933 the pianist arrived for a third time, now with two other wonderful musicians, his brother Tossy and the cellist Edmund Kurtz. When these three members of the Spivakovsky-Kurtz Trio arrived in Australia, they heard about Hitler's coming to power and decided to leave their brilliant German careers behind and stay on this continent. Jascha's wealthy parents-in-law supported this decision by buying a big house for the young couple, the Toorak villa of a former lord mayor of Melbourne. Here, those refugee musicians were safe from Nazi persecution, but far away from an international audience.

Another comfortable way to turn up in Australia was arriving with a permit to perform as a musician - in other words, upon invitation connected with the offer a job. One such a case is that of Curt Prerauer, a conductor from Berlin who had left for London in 1933. One year later he visited Australia as a member of Benjamin Fuller's Royal Grand Opera Company and then decided to stay.8 The lawyer, pianist, and conductor Hermann Schildberger, active in the Jewish Cultural League in Berlin, had originally wanted to emigrate to the United States but he could not get the necessary documents. He would certainly never have received the rare opportunity of a job offer from Australia had it not been for Rabbi Hermann Sänger (Sanger, as he became), another refugee from Berlin. Since Sänger, educated in Paris, Geneva and Cambridge, had dared to criticise the Nazis publicly, the Gestapo had forced him to leave Germany in 1936. Via London Sänger came to Melbourne, where he became the charismatic rabbi of a struggling, non-Orthodox congregation in St Kilda. In 1939 he heard that Hermann Schildberger was now also desperately looking for new opportunities. In that situation, Sanger did send him an invitation to be the new musical director of Temple Beth Israel in St Kilda. With this letter Schildberger was able to obtain an official entry permit for Australia. In early August 1939 he arrived in Melbourne with his wife and their young son. But one could not live on the income from such a small position at the Temple. To earn his living, Schildberger had to find several other jobs, for example as a piano teacher or as a conductor of different choirs, even at Methodist churches.9

Occupation: violinist - intended occupation: domestic

Another method was arriving with a permit as a non-musician. The majority of the refugee musicians from Germany and Austria did not arrive in such a comparatively comfortable way, but under greater difficulties. One interesting example is Richard Goldner, once the best viola player in Hermann Scherchen's Musica Viva Orchestra in Vienna. When German troops invaded Austria in March 1938, this musician, coming from a Jewish family, immediately tried to escape but since he discovered limited quotas in most countries, he became interested in Australia. Goldner heard that musicians were not welcome there, but since his brother was able to make jewellery, they both were allowed to enter the country based on that non-musical profession. After his arrival, however, Richard Goldner auditioned for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra where he was immediately offered the position of principal viola - but the Musicians' Union vetoed that since the candidate was not naturalised, so instead Goldner designed jewellery with his brother. During the war, the Army discovered his talent as an inventor. Only after the war was he able to return to his original profession and to work as a musician in Australia. One of the earliest things Richard Goldner did in 1945 was to found a chamber orchestra, which became Musica Viva Australia, today the biggest chamber music organisation in the world.10

A similar case is Alfons Silbermann, who had been trained in Cologne as a lawyer, conductor, and music critic. He was welcome in Australia only when, in his application, he falsely indicated 'cook' as his profession. Also Ellen Byk, once a quite successful violinist in Berlin, had lost her job because of the racial policies of the Nazis and tried to survive in Australia. In April 1938 she sent a letter to Sir Bernard Heinze, then very influential as a conductor and as Ormond professor at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium, asking him for a teaching position. She included reviews from such leading German newspapers as the Berliner Tageblatt, Vossische Zeitung and Börsen-Courier. But even the conductor answered in the negative, saying that he could not help. That German musician arrived in Melbourne in April 1939 - exactly one year after her first letter to Heinze. In the meantime, her situation in Berlin must have become much worse, especially after the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938.

How did Ellen Byk-Cohn succeed in coming to Australia? In order to receive the necessary landing permit and visa, she had had to name a person in Australia who would give her a job or some other guarantee. She had found such a person - not a musician but a physician and professor of obstetrics at the University of Melbourne. Somehow Ellen Byk must have known that man who finally saved her life. In order to get a landing permit and permission to stay, this musician - like Goldner and Silbermann - had to give up her profession. Before landing in Melbourne she filled out a form called 'Personal Statement and Declaration', giving her name, nationality, profession and other personal information. Here Ellen Byk stated that she was a German-born Hebrew and wanted to settle in Australia permanently. She gave her last permanent address as Halensee, which is an elegant section of Berlin. When the official form asked for her occupation and profession, she wrote 'Violiniste' - but when asked for her intended occupation in Australia, she wrote 'Domestic'. This was, of course, not what Ellen Byk really wanted, but to give up her profession was necessary in order to be accepted by the Australian authorities. On that form she also named Robert Marshall Allan with his address, and then declared that this would be her proposed permanent address in Australia.11

Ellen Byk was lucky to know such a man. Allan, from 1944 dean of the faculty of medicine at the Melbourne University, gave her the chance to settle in Australia by offering her a job as a domestic. He was not Jewish, but a lifelong supporter of the Presbyterian Church. In an 'Application for Admission of Relatives or Friends to Australia' he had written: 'I, Robert Marshall Allan ... desire permission to introduce to Australia the following person: Ellen COHN, Age 51, Berlin Germany, Markgraf Albrecht Strasse. Present Occupation: musician, Intended Occupation in Australia: Domestic Duties'.12 He gave assurance that he had enough income to guarantee her living. Since that application was dated 30 November 1938, Ellen Byk-Cohn must have contacted him immediately after Kristallnacht. In her desperate position she was ready to give up her profession, if that was necessary for her survival. She stayed at the professor's home until 1944, when he suffered a severe heart attack. The refugee now had to look after herself. After years as a domestic, only in 1945 - by then 58 years old - was she able to resume teaching the violin. By then, six years after her arrival in Australia, not even the Musicians' Union could object to that. When she died in 1968 in Armadale, Melbourne, at the age of 81, the death certificate described her as a music teacher.

The Orama and the Dunera

A very special group among the refugees to arrive in Australia were the children who came in July 1939 aboard the ship Orama. That transport, arranged by Jewish Welfare, was the only children's transport from Germany via England to Australia. Among the 17 children who then arrived in Melbourne - seven boys and ten girls between five and 12 years old - were the brothers Richard and George Dreyfus from Berlin. With the help of money, their father had been able to get his boys aboard that transport, originally reserved for orphans and children from poor families13, but after their parents also managed to get to Australia in October 1939, it was discovered that the two Dreyfus brothers were neither orphans nor from a poor family. They then had to leave the Larino home in Balwyn, where all the children from that transport had been brought, and lived together with their parents. The two brothers attended public schools in Melbourne, where the musical talent of George Dreyfus was discovered quite early. He became a member of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and eventually one of Australia's best-known composers.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, no more refugees were allowed into Australia. However, an exception was made for those people who in 1940 were sent from Britain, after having been interned there as 'enemy aliens'. One single ship, the Dunera, arrived in September 1940 after a terrible voyage. The men aboard landed in Sydney against their will, for they had been promised that the ship would travel to Canada. Among the 2,542 men from Germany and Italy aboard were 2,288 refugees, mostly Jewish, plus 251 Nazis and 200 Italian Fascists. The refugee group comprised several musicians, among them the eminent pianist Peter Stadlen from Vienna (who soon returned to London) and the Jewish cantor and composer Boas Bischofswerder with his son Felix (later Felix Werder), both from Berlin. They contributed to the cultural life that the refugees organised in the desert camp of Hay in New South Wales, where they were interned.

The majority of these so-called 'Dunera Boys' were allowed to leave Australia during and after the war. There remained 913 men, among them Felix Werder, who was to play a major role in the musical life of Australia, both as a composer and a music critic. Hilary Rubinstein comments in her book The Jews in Australia: 'It is tempting to agree with James Jupp's assertion that these 913 have contributed more in every field of endeavour than any single shipload of immigrants either before or since'.14

Another British ship, the Queen Mary, also docked in Australia in September 1940. Aboard were 267 internees from Singapore, the majority of them Jewish refugees, who then were taken to the Tatura internment camp. Among the internees were again some valuable additions to Australia's musical life. The pianist and organist Werner Baer, born in 1914 in Berlin, had, like his friend Schildberger, originally intended to emigrate to the United States. But he was not in a hurry, since several Jewish organisations in Berlin had offered him jobs. After Kristallnacht, however, Baer was taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. With the help of his young wife in December 1938, he luckily was released from that notorious camp and obtained a passage to Singapore. There, both of them quickly managed to live a rather comfortable life, after Werner Baer received a job as professor of piano, organ and advanced music theory, first at the Far Eastern Music School, then at Raffles College. After a three-month residence, he became municipal organist and established the first series of subscription concerts there. Had the war not happened, Baer certainly would have stayed longer in Singapore. Following his arrival in Australia he was interned and finally released, once he had applied for the Australian Army.15

Impact of the refugees

The German and Austrian refugees who had arrived as 'enemy aliens' from England and were then interned at the camps of Hay and Tatura used to call themselves 'Her Majesty's most loyal internees'. They organised camp life with a mixture of Prussian and British discipline, and the majority also showed their loyalty by mostly speaking English. Quickly adapting to the new surroundings was rather typical for that group. Under the refugee quotas of 1938, preference was to be given to Austrian and German Jews 'because on the whole they have become more assimilated in European ways, say, than the Jews of Poland'.16

This assimilated behaviour can also be recognised in the songs produced and sung in Hay. Texts and melodies of the most popular songs were written by a refugee from Vienna, who in Britain had changed his name to Ray Martin. In his song 'Loyalty' he told his story and that of his fellow inmates:

We have been Hitler's enemies
For years before the war.
We knew his plans of bombing and
Invading Britain's shore.
We warned you of his treachery
When you believed in peace.
And now we are His Majesty's
Most loyal internees [...]

But not all internees in Hay and Tatura were ready to assimilate. There was also a group of those who felt terrified being so far away from home - exiled. One of them was Felix Werder, who had brought with him a tiny copy of Friedrich Nietzsches's esoteric philosophical treatise Thus Spake Zarathustra. It was at the second camp, at Tatura near Shepparton in Victoria, that he discovered the collected writings of Johann Gottfried Herder, a German philosopher and poet closely associated with Enlightenment, Sturm und Drang, and Weimar Classicism.

Herder had been quite important in his time, but was rather neglected in the twentieth century. One would not have imagined in one's wildest dreams that his writings would be available at an isolated place like Tatura, but Felix Werder found these German books there, read them, and was deeply impressed - for example by Herder's argument that language determines thought. Thus the Australian internment even intensified his connection to German culture. Like Arnold Schoenberg, another of his artistic heroes, Werder tried to follow only the inner consequences of his beliefs, without looking at the conditions of his new surroundings - his exile.

It was here, in Tatura, that in 1943 he composed his grim and atonal Symphony No. 1 - which would remain unperformed for many decades. It is interesting to note that Ray Martin, who had so quickly adapted to the British way of life, returned to England immediately after his release. Felix Werder, on the other hand, who always believed in the superiority of German culture, remained in Australia. As a composer and music critic for Melbourne's newspaper The Age, he always insisted, not without arrogance, on the value of European traditions, and thus contributed to cultural pluralism. Not only his published reviews showed that attitude, but also his collected essays18 - and above all his compositions, including orchestral, vocal and chamber works, plus compositions for opera and music-theatre.19

Between 1933 and 1943, 190,000 Jews had gone to the United States and 120,000 to Palestine. Australia during that period received only 9,000 Jewish refugees - a comparatively small number, much less than the number of Jews who arrived in Argentina, Brazil, China, or even Chile. However, if one looks at the small population of Australia, it is a lot. 'As it turned out, Australia took more Jews in per capita terms than any other community save Palestine.'20

The contribution of those refugee musicians to the musical life of Australia has not yet been fully discovered. Up to this day there is not much knowledge about the influx of German-speaking refugee musicians in Australia. This is partly due to the musicians themselves, who for a long time did not want to talk about their fate.


1 'Infolge dieser beiden mächtigen Einflüsse ist zur Zeit die australische Einwanderungspolitik darauf gerichtet, jede Masseneinwanderung zu verhindern, Einzeleinwanderung aber jetzt - nachdem die Wirtschaftskrise so gut wie völlig überwunden ist - zuzulassen, sofern die Gewähr dafür gegeben ist, daß sich der Einwanderer schnell assimilieren wird - wofür die Beherrschung der englischen Sprache ein Hauptkennzeichen ist -, und daß er außerdem durch seinen Beruf dem Lande Nutzen bringt.' From: 'Australien,' in Jüdische Auswanderung. Korrespondenzblatt für Auswanderungs- und Siedlungswesen. Edited by Hilfsverein der Juden in Deutschland e.V., Autumn 1937, p. 28.

2 Paul Bartrop, Australia and the Holocaust 1933-1945 (Melbourne, 1994).

3 S.D. Rutland, 'Jewish Refugee and Post-War Immigration,' in: James Jupp (ed.) The Australian People. An Encyclopedia of the Nation, its People and their Origins (Angus, NSW 1988), p. 647.

4 Hilary Rubinstein, The Jews in Australia: A Thematic History, Vol. 1: 1788-1945 (Port Melbourne 1988, p. 216.

5 Malcolm Turnbull, Safe Haven. Records of the Jewish Experience in Australia, National Archives Research Guide, 1999, p. 20.

6 Ibid., p. 43.

7 In a lecture during the conference 'Verfolgung, Rettung und Neuanfang. Jüdische Musiker und Kompoisten im nationalsozialistischen Deutschland und in der Emigration' (Persecution, rescue and new beginning. Jewish musicians and composers in the National Socialist Germany and in the emigration), organised in December 2000 by the Technical University, Berlin, in cooperation with the American Academy Berlin, I discussed terminological problems, showing that it is not always easy to differentiate between deportation, exile and emigration.

8 John Carmody, 'Curt Prerauer', in Australian Dictionary of Biography 1940-1980, vol. 16 (Melbourne, 2002), p. 28-9. See also the entry on Prerauer in the German online dictionary 'Lexikon verfolgter Musiker und Musikerinnen der NS-Zeit' (Lexicon of persecuted musicians of the Nazi era) prepared by the author for the University of Hamburg.

9 See the entry on Schildberger in the German online dictionary 'Lexikon verfolgter Musiker und Musikerinnen der NS-Zeit', prepared by the author for the University of Hamburg.

10 See Michael Shmith, 'Richard Goldner - the Musical Moses', in: Musica Viva Australia: The First Fifty Years (Sydney 1996), pp. 4-7.

11 NAA file A12508.

12 NAA file A261.

13 Cf. Glen Palmer, Reluctant Refuge: Unaccompanied Refugee and evacuee children in Australia, 1933-1945 (East Roseville NSW, 1997), p. 45. See also the entry 188 Albrecht Dümling on Dreyfus in the German online dictionary 'Lexikon verfolgter Musiker und Musikerinnen der NS-Zeit' prepared by the author.

14 Rubinstein, op. cit., p. 198.

15 See the entry on Werner Baer in the German online dictionary 'Lexikon verfolgter Musiker und Musikerinnen der NS-Zeit' prepared by the author.

16 Rubinstein, op. cit., p. 167.

17 More songs from Hay can be found in Paul R. Bartrop and Gabrielle Eisen (eds.), The Dunera Affair: a Documentary Resource Book (Melbourne 1990).

18 Felix Werder, More Than Music (Melbourne: Council for Adult Education 1991); More or Less Music, (Melbourne: Council for Adult Education, 1994).

19 Surprisingly there does not exist any biography of the composer Felix Werder or other detailed studies.

20 Bartrop, Australia and The Holocaust 1933-1945 (Melbourne 1994), p. 14.

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