HMT Dunera 80 years on: How rough justice changed the life of a child refugee to Britain

DR RACHEL PISTOL AND DR MELISSA STRAUSS

2020 marks the 80th anniversary of when 2,546 men were deported from Britain to Australia on the HMT Dunera. The convict ships of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries may have ceased their travels some 70 years before but that did not stop the British government from again calling on Australia to take so-called undesirables once more. This time, however, the Dunera transported mostly Jewish refugees, their crime being born into the wrong nation.

Melissa Strauss’ grandfather, Steven Strauss had arrived in London only a year earlier, in July 1939. A former teacher had arranged a place for him on a Kindertransport, and a £50 deposit had been made to ensure he was not a burden on the public. Siegfried, as he was then called, had only a suitcase of clothing and ten German marks when he arrived in Harwich, before travelling on to London. He left behind his mother and a younger sister who went on to perish at the hands of the Nazis.

Figure 1. Steven Strauss as a young man

War was declared on Steven’s 18th birthday, just months after he arrived in the UK. All enemy aliens over the age of 16 had to appear before a tribunal to be classified into one of three categories (A – immediate threat and immediately interned; B – subject to certain restrictions but remaining at liberty; C – refugee from Nazi oppression). Not all genuine refugees were categorised as C and, despite coming to Britain as a Kinder, Steven was given a B classification at his tribunal. Initially this enabled him to stay in London although he could not own a bicycle or a radio or travel more than a few miles from his home. This freedom was not to last.

When the German invasion of the British mainland seemed imminent, the order was given to arrest and intern all male enemy aliens aged between 16 and 60 regardless of classification, along with B category women. As a B category, Steven was rounded up in mid-May and sent to Onchan on the Isle of Man. It was not long before 2546 men were selected to be deported to Australia on the Dunera and Steven was one of them. Winston Churchill would later describe this deportation of mostly Jewish men as a regrettable mistake. 

Figure 2. HMT Dunera in 1940

The long and hazardous journey on the Dunera involved massive overcrowding, and mistreatment at the hands of the military guards. The ship came under torpedo attack, sweltered through the tropics and after 7 weeks Steven disembarked in Sydney, Australia. The majority of the ‘Dunera Boys’, as they became known, were taken into the outback to Hay, New South Waleswhere the Australian guards quickly realised these internees were not the dangerous Nazi sympathisers they had been led to believe. Steven remained in various camps in Australia until March 1942 when he was released to serve in the Australian Labour Battalion.

Being a Dunera Boy was clearly an important part of Steven’s life. He attended yearly reunions, kept life-long friendships, and had images drawn in the internment camps on the walls of his study. Steven decided to stay in Australia after the war and studied law at Melbourne University. He was the first non-Briton admitted to the Australian Bar and went on to become a respected judge. 

When Melissa moved to London she learnt more about her grandfather’s life there. On visits home he would tell her about his eventful year from July 1939 to July 1940. He had worked as an assistant master (without pay) in a school in Bayswater and then as a trainee in a clothing factory near Oxford Circus. He took drama classes at Toynbee Hall and had a walk-on part in a production of King Lear at the Old Vic starring John Gielgud and Jessica Tandy. He lived in Stamford Hill and Dalston. These were all places familiar to Melissa, and she suddenly felt a connection to them too. It was only a short time, but London clearly made a strong impression on her grandfather. 

The journey to Australia was terrible and some of the soldiers were later disciplined but Steven was quick to say that Britain had saved his life. He acknowledged it was one of very few places in the world to offer shelter to a large number of children and young people in time of crisis. None of his immediate family survived, and he was sure that he was only alive because he had come to England.

Steven’s story is a reminder to us all that there is a human life behind every person seeking refuge. This humanity is important to remember. Steven said that he’d had a good life. He had been given the opportunity to create a new path and contribute to the place that gave him sanctuary. Stories like his show us what is at stake for children needing refuge now, and the enormous value in welcoming them into our communities. 

Rachel Pistol is a Researcher in the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London and is on the Project Management Board of the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI). She has published widely on immigration history and Second World War internment in the UK and USA including Internment during the Second World War: A Comparative Study of Great Britain and the USA published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

Melissa Strauss works in policy at the National Lottery Heritage Fund, with a focus on intangible heritage, memories, and youth engagement. She is a Clore fellow and is currently researching public participation in museum decision-making. Melissa is a co-founder of the Space Invaders campaign and sits on the steering group for the East End Women’s Museum

Figure 1. ‘Steven Strauss as a young man’. Shared by, and with the permission of, the Strauss family.

Figure 2 (and Banner Image). ‘HMT Dunera in 1940’. Available in the public domain and recommended by the authors.

More like this:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: