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Nadine Helmi, author; Jono Lineen, National Museum of Australia, 7 August 2015

Dr MICHAEL PICKERING: Now this takes us into our next session with our next panel: Internment during World War I in Australia, with our curator Jono Lineen in conversation with Nadine Helmi, author of The Enemy At Home: German internees in WW 1 Australia.

JONO LINEEN: My name is Jono Lineen. I was one of the curators who worked on the Home Front exhibition. It’s my pleasure to welcome and introduce Nadine Helmi, theatre director and curator from Sydney.


JONO LINEEN: Nadine was one of the curators responsible for the Enemy At Home exhibition that was on at the Sydney Museum - in 2011, wasn’t it?

NADINE HELMI: 2011, yes.

JONO LINEEN: We’re going to be talking today about German internment, or internment in general during World War I in Australia. That goes beyond just German internees, of course, because it related to all the different access powers at that time.

We’re just going to have a conversation here. I would like to start by asking Nadine - your background is in theatre as well as curatorial work - how did you get to be interested in this area of internment in World War I?

NADINE HELMI: Well, I was always interested in history. I studied German literature, so I’ve got a kind of academic background anyway. I have written actually plays about Australian history - colonial history. I was very familiar with research - historical research.

As a theatre person in Australia you always look for other interesting jobs - you have to. One of my colleagues who also cooperated in theatrical productions was Dr Gerhard Fischer, now a merited professor of German studies at the University of New South Wales. Gerhard Fischer was an expert in everything that concerned the German community and, in particular, the internment First World War period. He has written a brilliant book called Enemy Aliens, which contains basically all you need to know.

He was asked by the Parks & Wildlife Services at Trial Bay - which had been one of the internment camps during the First World War - to write a report, an in-depth report about this period while it was used as a German internment camp in order to facilitate interpretation. At the remains of Trial Bay gaol - the whole area is quite a tourist area - lo and behold, it turned out while the Germans were there to be the most interesting time of the gaol because the Germans transformed that place a little bit. They wanted to know more about it.

I agreed to be the assistant, field assistant. So I went there. I went through the archives and stumbled upon a couple of black and white photos from the period. Here comes probably my artistic background into play because I thought the photographs that I saw from the internment were just brilliant. I was curious who made them.

Staff at the gaol thought it was a prisoner with a Jerry-built camera, but I could see these photos were done by a professional with good equipment. I did a little bit of detective work and found out that the photos had made their way back to Germany after the photographer was deported. It turned out it was a young barbarian photographer who somehow on an Australia trip ended up interned, stayed five years at an internment camp and ran a photo business photographing everything. The internees could buy the photos.

I discovered a collection of a thousand photos back in Dorfen, close to Munich. I could then determine exactly when the theatre was built, where it was built. I could document just about everything in really brilliant photos.

This guy, Paul Dubotzki, was a very talented young photographer. In fact, he had been asked to board an expedition as a photographer towards the South Pacific. We don’t know how he ended up in Australia. We don’t know. He was so talented. He became a curator and opened an exhibition, which was really very well received, mainly because nobody knew that there had been internment camps in Australia in the First World War. Everybody knows about the Second World War. Virtually nobody knew about the First World War.

The Second World War is known, and of course was traumatic for everybody involved.

However, the internment in the First World War was more important because it meant the disappearance of a previously visible, successful and largely loyal community, the German community, that contributed a lot to this country - really a lot. And because of the internment, which was only the - how do you call? - top part of the iceberg, there was persecution, there was harassment, there were all kinds of regulation. Born from that anti-German paranoia got this community to go completely underground, low key, change their names. We know that German place names were anglicised. The schools were closed, churches, congregations, newspapers. The Germans themselves told their kids ‘Don’t talk German’. I spoke to people who were told they were Swiss, Belgian, Dutch - everything.

After the First World War there was no German community anymore, as a community, as a social cultural identity. It is important to know that. It’s important to know that because a lot of Australians do have German ancestry. In the 19th century the German community, the Germans, were the largest non-speaking ethnic group. There were no Italians or any of those southern European migrants. The Germans were the ones who also were deliberately brought to Australia by agents. Agents went from Queensland also. Generally Australian agents went to Germany to specifically bring over migrants for their agricultural skills and knowledge. The whole wine industry is completely unthinkable without German imports, so to say. Also, of course, the tradespeople, they usually were very successful.

This internment, which is literally not known in Australia, is of bigger importance than what happened in the Second World War. It should be known because that is the history of Australians. That is quite a part of their heritage. Coming from Germany, we just want to know what happened before in our country. I come from a city that was founded by Romans, so I know the Roman history. I think it’s important.

JONO LINEEN: Yes, this is really interesting, because there is almost a state-based reasoning behind this, isn’t there, Nadine? The Hughes government - there seemed to be a two-pronged approach in the persecution, in a way, of the Germanic society within Australia: firstly, to undermine that society, its cultural integrity; and secondly, the economic power of Germany - the perceived economic power of Germany in Australia. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

NADINE HELMI: Yes, definitely, in particular the economic power. That was really something that was the pet hate of Billy Hughes. It was actually largely due to his particular obsession with eradicating any connection between Germany and Australia, in order to divert all trade and everything from Germany to the Empire. Hughes was, himself, Welsh. He had this idea of Germany infiltrating everything and wanting to take the power of the British Empire.

Now, of course Germany had been in existence since 1871, and in fact all of a sudden became a super power. It’s a bit like China now, you know. But Hughes really thought as an extension of the British Empire - whereas Australia’s interest could have been to have a blossoming trade with Germany. In fact, 30 per cent of all exports of Australia went to Germany - our wool and so on. Hughes didn’t want any connections with Germany - any economic activity here by Germans, or by Germans with Australians. What he did, there was the Trading with the Enemy Act, which basically destroyed any German-Australian business connections and also meant that anybody with German descent had to wind up their business. There was a myriad of restrictions. Basically it destroyed any German or German-related business.

The internment helped because the first people to be targeted from the end of 1914, the first people who had been residing in Australia, were the business people, business leaders, leaders of the German community. They were removed. Later on Australia was the place where every German business people from the former German colonies, but also former British colonies, were brought. Those businesses were finished.

JONO LINEEN: Yes. Maybe we could step back to that time. Maybe you could talk a little bit about the attitude in Australia. It seems very strange, looking back in retrospect, that the government could in some way legally take these people and intern them. Hughes didn’t seem to have any problem pushing that through.

NADINE HELMI: No, because the legislative groundwork was provided through the War Precautions Act from October 1914.

On August 10 all people with German descent had been called upon to go to their local police office and register as ‘enemy aliens’. They had to give a lot of personal details. Then the policeman would, upon this, make a report where he would judge, on his impressions, whether this particular person might be not dangerous or ill-loyal, or might have to be examined by the military authorities.

The War Precautions Act - which was amended a lot of times and the definition of ‘enemy alien’ extended and extended - provided for the fact that if the impression arose that you might be not loyal then you could be interned. You didn’t have any recourse to judiciary process, legal counsel - nothing.

And, of course, also the Austrians - it was Germans and people of Austrian descent, which of course at the time included Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, Dalmatians, Istrians. So they eventually all ended up in the internment camp. For these people it was a total shock to go from respected citizens with all rights to basically being treated like a criminal or actually worse because they couldn’t even have legal counsel.

A big role played in this context was dobbing in from neighbours. If you were dobbed in the neighbour would say ‘I’ve heard them sing a song celebrating the Kaiser’. If the policeman who held the reporting card would then judge that as not good then you could find yourself in the internment camp. And that was it. You would not get out for five years, mostly, then deported.

JONO LINEEN: We will get to that in a second. That’s very interesting. So many of these early internees—

NADINE HELMI: Sorry. We could run some of the pictures of the internment camps.

JONO LINEEN: Oh, are there photos? Oh, please, yes.

NADINE HELMI: While I speak, these are photos of – sorry; can you keep your question?


NADINE HELMI: The guy on top in the white shirt is Paul Dubotzki. You can see he put a white shirt on. Put himself on top. He was a little bit vain, I think. But he is very—

JONO LINEEN: Typical artist.

NADINE HELMI: A gorgeous guy and just really an artist. That shows him in Torrens Island, one of the first camps. I will run photos that he took from Holsworthy and Trial Bay. There are photos also from Berrima, another camp, which are part of his collection but they were not taken by him. Anyway, they are wonderful photos. I will explain a little bit more in a minute. You can have a look, otherwise I am worried we can’t see them.

JONO LINEEN: Yes, please. I’d love to see some of them too.

NADINE HELMI: That’s him in his cell. Always with a cigarette.

JONO LINEEN: Nadine, that’s great that you have Torrens Island up there first of all. Maybe we can talk a little bit through the progression of camps, starting with the regional camps and then moving into the centralised systems and especially the problems that the Germans experienced early on in those regional camps.

NADINE HELMI: Okay. Yes, so declaration of war 4th of August. In Australian ports were about 29 German ships. Hughes, of course, had a point, Germany was booming. Germany was starting to be a big competition for Britain with their ships and their commercial float. They had discovered that Australia wasn’t really serviced well enough so there were a lot of German ships actually going to the South Pacific, to Australia, New Guinea, et cetera. There were 29 ships in port. The sailors of those ships were immediately detained and improvised camps for them erected.

These camps, these provisional camps, very primitive, with tents in bushland mostly, existed in all military districts: in Rottnest Island, Western Australia; Torrens Island, South Australia; Bruny Island, Tasmania; Enoggera, Brisbane - what else did we have? - we have, of course, New South Wales. In New South Wales the former training ground, or a training ground of the military in Liverpool was used. So the first inhabitants were the ships’ crews. Very quickly then ‘enemy aliens’ from Australia were interned.

Now the ships’ crews, of course, for them it was normal. There was a war. They would not be sent back to Germany. As I said, the former Australian residents, and some of them born in Australia, some of them not even speaking German, were absolutely shocked that they had to leave their families and were marched into the internment camps.

These internment camps were very quickly filling up. They were so primitive and there was not much regulation, not much control in these camps - in particular Torrens Island. There was physical abuse by the guards; also what would amount to torture, I guess. People were kept outside in the rain for 24 hours or more. So those problems of not being able to cope in these different camps led the military authorities to decide that all the regional camps would be closed and only three camps in New South Wales be established, or maintained in the case of Liverpool.

The Liverpool camp was enlarged and became the largest camp, holding up to 6,000 people in the end. Then two privileged camps were established for the privileged people - one in Trial Bay, which I mentioned. Trial Bay, like Berrima, was in the southern highlands. Trial Bay was close to Kempsey. The disused gaols were then used as internment camps.

Trial Bay was used for those merchant planters, wealthy German business people that were plucked from the colonies; from New Guinea, which was a German colony, Hong Kong, Singapore. Tsingtao was also a German dominion. So they came to Trial Bay, about 580 of them. To Berrima were sent the German captains and officers of the German ships.

I’ll show you photos of these camps. All this happened in 1915. Until then everybody was in the regional camps. Those were closed and then people were shifted or interned in Liverpool, for the normal classes, and that meant mostly the ex-members of the German-Australian community; Trial Bay for the merchants and planters from the colonies; and Berrima for the ships’ captains and officers. Those privileged camps were in fact very privileged because the inmates were allowed during the day to wander in a little radius around their camps.

The poor people in Liverpool had to always remain behind the barbed wire and be under very, very primitive conditions in permanent dust and sand. They definitely suffered much more than those privileged German Germans, so to say, who in Trial Bay could have a bath in the ocean and in Berrima used the Wingecarribee River for their entertainment.

I’ll just quickly show Holsworthy. That was quite late in the picture. You can see all those barracks. People were - shall I continue?

JONO LINEEN: Sure, sure.

NADINE HELMI: People were squeezed in very little cubicles. Mind you, they were built by the Germans. There were lots of German ships’ carpenters who said ‘There’s no place to live’. There were only a couple of tents. They actually designed those - that is the watchtower - barracks which had only three walls and a linen flap, tarpaulin flap. It was very cold in winter, very hot in summer. Pests. To be there for five years was problematic.

JONO LINEEN: Nadine, I found it very interesting that within these camps, whether it was Holsworthy or Trial Bay or Berrima, a very dramatic system of organisation developed in that there were businesses, there was cultural activities. Maybe could you tell us a little bit about that transition from the militaristic kind of overview of the camps to this internal organisation that occurred, and then the development of that in 1916 onwards?

NADINE HELMI: Yes. So the beginning was really, really tough with accommodation, food - everything. Then after a while all participating nations in this war realised that actually they would not walk away after four months as the victor. Everybody thought that, you know, ‘four months of war and then we win and that’s it’. No.

So everybody, the military, the guards and the internees realised ‘we are in here for who knows how long’. So slowly the German internees started to ask to be able to do the internal management of the camp. They did that very efficiently. They had, as Germans do, committees. In fact, I will show you photos of that. Yes, very strict committees. They had elections in fact in all the camps - but possibly mostly so in this one.

So this was the beginning. These were the sanitary conditions. They all sat on a piece of wood. I don’t think that improved much, but a lot of the other things improved.

That was the Kaiser-Wilhelm Straße - Kaiser Wilhelm Street. You know, the whole camp really was turned, over the years, in particular from 1916, when the commandant changed, and he was a little bit more lenient and let the Germans do that internal management. From there the whole thing developed into a mini German town with a lot of shops, restaurants, clubs - really, like a theatre, orchestra. You will see photos of that. And they called it ‘Our town’. You know, that was the Keizer-Wilhelm Straße. Then there was a new town. There was an old town. They had a gym. After a while they built a gym - everything you’ll find in every small German town.

That was the kitchen facilities - very primitive in the beginning. Then what the Germans also did, they established kitchen gardens where they had - I had a garden in Sydney. You know you can plant so much the whole year. So they then could supplement all their food in these gardens. They had that in Berrima and in Trial Bay.

In Berrima I researched that the internees planted things that even the good people of Berrima had never fancied to plant, like watermelons and - I don’t know - more exotic plants.

That was the beginning. That was, you know, one of the cafes. That very quickly evolved. That’s the Cafe Barbed Wire. Yeah, they have a good sense of humour. You know they had to. Oh, okay. Sorry. Sorry. A billiard club. Can you see all those beautiful - they must be the sailors - good looking blokes!

That was the canteen. The canteen was like a supermarket in the shop. The internees got things from Sydney then sold them again. With the money they made they provided infrastructure - recreational infrastructure; built the theatre, orchestra and also sports - well, recreational sports facilities. So this was one of the shops, Seppl’s  Bäckerei. That’s the butcher, of course. This was the bakery of the military. Of course they had German bakers so the bread, I am sure, would have been better than before. Sorry. Sorry.

Occasionally - can I say the nastiest thing I sometimes think?


NADINE HELMI: If you wouldn’t have disappeared the German community maybe public transport would function these days! Anyway, I won’t say anything more.

They also had exhibitions - models of all kinds. People knew in order to survive this ordeal, and the boredom, and so on, and the paralysis in the camps they had to busy themselves. They had schools. They taught languages. They taught painting - all kinds of things. They also had vocational courses. You could become a pastry cook. Whoever could teach something taught it. There’s the painting school. This was the Volkshochschule. That’s an evening college. This was the gym. This is the kind of things they did. They had festivals - big festivals. So they knew they had to exercise their body and their mind. Voila. Voila. That was the theatre. Sorry I go through quickly.

This was actually - in the middle of that you have the story of Overbeck—

JONO LINEEN: Yes, there’s Hansie right there, in the middle.

NADINE HELMI: Yeah, when he wasn’t doing drama he collected ants. So they had elaborate theatre programs, which apparently were better than what you could see in Australia at the time. A visitor said that. The urge was so big to get on stage. Because there were no females, yeah, so after a while the guys said ‘Okay, you know, what has to be done has to be done’. This was Walter Himmelmann. You know, when you take the wig away he was completely bald. He was one of the favourite female actresses. Apparently he got love letters.

There were printing presses. There was design. This was a cabaret devised by the internees called ‘Oh, you, my German concentration camp’. Very funny. ‘Oh, du mein GCC’. More acting photos. Look at these amazing photos. I just, the other day, got an email by the grandson of this bloke who ran the theatre.

Oh, this - you have to see this. I mean when I saw that - look at this. You know they had talented people. Anybody who had any talents would do it. The theatre had to produce a new show basically every one or two weeks because then the audience was exhausted. So very beautiful.

Berrima. That is the Berrima camp - the previous gaol. The Wingecarribee River. These are the well dressed, privileged, probably upper class, German captains. This is the bridge the Germans built. And they built these little huts - that’s the Emden hut - meticulous - along the river. That’s where they spent their day. So they didn’t have it all that bad. I think there was a flooding, so they just shifted it. Look at this. Very—

JONO LINEEN: I heard that the residents of Berrima actually got quite upset because the Germans had created almost a holiday camp along the Wingecarribee, to the point where the commandant actually told the Germans that they weren’t allowed to go there on the weekends. So the residents actually came and used the facilities on the weekends.

NADINE HELMI: Yes. It was very much a little Disneyland. That’s right. Not only that, they did - how do you call that? - anyway, kind of festivals on the water. They had these miniature tour ships. I think this might have been a replica of a Kaiser’s yacht. Yes, I think the Berrima people also had the most money because they still got money from Germany. So there you go. That was the Kaiser’s yacht.

JONO LINEEN: The Kaiser’s yacht, yes; the Hannover.

NADINE HELMI: Yes, that is right. You know, the local people couldn’t trust their eyes what was happening there with those Huns.

Trial Bay. Also those were really privileged because they could go outside. Here, this is a photo where you can see - you know those buildings, that big building next to the track, that’s the theatre called the German Theatre Trial Bay. That was a roll call. These were the cells.

None of the internees got provided with any furniture or anything. They got a storm lamp and something to dress - some dungaree clothes. The rest the internees had to provide for themselves. So they did. That was a cell.

Can you see the little houses? That was the beach cafe they built. Can you see the little houses dotted around the gaol? They built those. One of them, this one here, that white one was the so-called Berlitz School. There you could learn languages. And there was a naval—

JONO LINEEN: Chinese, Malay, French, Italian, Spanish.

NADINE HELMI: Yes. They had all those colonial people - whoever could teach something. You could learn navel engineering. If you made the exam, that was acknowledged in Germany later on. That was the Strandcafe later. It was extended and renovated - as you do in Australia.

This is a proud owner in front of his hut. Now that hut is in a northern German style. Carter   you know it must be a northern German guy.

Another one. Here you can see beautiful photos of the trades. That’s a tailor. Can I just say, see how Dubotzki used the light. I really love that. Obviously he didn’t have lamps. He had to wait until the light would shine through.

Cobblers. This was the laundry Edelweiss - or the other one. There were two. No, it might have been the laundry Diligence - called Diligence. Barbers. That’s Edelweiss Laundry. That was a laundry, in case you’re wondering what that is.

Apotheke, that was the pharmacy. Of course they had newspapers, which have very interesting articles. That was the Welt am Montag editors. More. And the censors. These were the censors. They could write - I have forgotten now - a postcard for a week with 125 words, but of course it was censored. So you couldn’t really write anything of real information, otherwise you’d get it back with a stamp ‘censored’.

That was the commandant - I don’t know which one - of Trial Bay. That was the canteen of Trial Bay - also very civilised. Also the Trial Bay internees of course had still quite a lot of money and could buy what they wanted from Sydney.

That’s my personal favourite. That was the kitchen of Trial Bay. I think that’s a wonderful shot. Also there he probably waited until that light hit these pots.

More butchers. These were the elections in Trial Bay - elections for the president of the Trial Bay internment camp.

This was the hospital. On the right you see Dr Max Herz. He was an example of the naturalised Australian being interned. Max Herz had come to Australia early in 1900, married an Australian woman. He was the first orthopaedic surgeon in Australia. He could do operations that couldn’t be done before in Australia. That was enough to attract him the jealousy of the medical association, and they tried their very best to first intern him, which they succeeded. Then they tried to get rid of him. But a petition of his patients avoided - made that, in the end, they had to keep him here.

JONO LINEEN: But he wasn’t allowed to register with the medical association, even after the war.

NADINE HELMI: Oh, okay. Yes, that’d be right. He had his personal practice in Rushcutters Bay. He did continue to operate on club feet and things like this - an operation that could not be done in Australia because the art, the skill, had not been taught.

Max Herz, a very civilised person. I think a typical example of the German Jewish bourgeoisie. Very educated. Also he ran the theatre in Trial Bay, in addition to being the doctor, and also played the cello.

This is when they built the theatre. This is Dubotzki standing at the stage entrance of the theatre. Theatre in Trial Bay. Wig maker. A lot of theatres here would envy the theatre in Trial Bay. I did, in any case, with all the facilities.

Kurt Wiese. Do you know Ping - The Story of Ping? He is the illustrator. Blokes getting ready to play. The Im weissen Rössl at the White Horse Inn - very famous orchestra.

Let me get quickly to - this is - do I have time to explain?

JONO LINEEN: I think, very quickly, we should talk about the deportation and then we’ll go to question, yeah?

NADINE HELMI: Okay. Here it is: the deportation. So all this lasted until 1918 - in mid-1918 people were shifted from Trial Bay because there was a rumour that a German cruiser had come to free the internees. They went to Holsworthy. Only in 1919 the Australian authorities started a process of what they called ‘repatriation’ which meant, though, for many people deportation. And 6,150 people were deported, and basically prevented from staying in Australia or coming back to Australia. This was particularly hard for people who had resided in Australia and had to leave their families.

JONO LINEEN: I think it is important, Nadine, to point out that 4,500 of those were naturalised Australians.

NADINE HELMI: Seven hundred were naturalised Australians; but 4,500 had been residents of Australia. Not all had been naturalised because it was a bit complicated. If you were naturalised you had to give up your German nationality. You had not a very solid citizenship because you weren’t a British subject. A couple of people were reluctant. Anyway, like it is today, people have no passport. You lived here for 50 years. People thought that’s enough to qualify as a resident. So there were 4,500. Amongst them were 700 who were naturalised, and 70 who were born in Australia - they were people who didn’t speak German.

But on the whole one can say that people tried to also show their loyalty. So this was a total shock, the deportation, for the previous residents of Australia. That was a total shock for them and for their families a tragedy, because they were never seen again.

So that’s the deportation. That is the ship Kursk. It went in May. It transported people from Trial Bay.

JONO LINEEN: Now I think maybe we should try and get some questions in quickly, Nadine, otherwise we are going to run out of time.

NADINE HELMI: Yeah, okay.

Dr MICHAEL PICKERING: I think we have gone—


Dr MICHAEL PICKERING: I am sure nobody regrets it. It is fascinating. I might suggest that we break for lunch and you get asked some questions.

JONO LINEEN: Yes. Any questions please approach Nadine at lunchtime.

Dr MICHAEL PICKERING: Hopefully you will be here for the rest of the day, is that right?

NADINE HELMI: Yeah, yeah, I will be around. Very happy. I have, also, if you are interested, brought a book. This is my book. So if anybody would like to read up on it.

JONO LINEEN: I highly recommend it.

NADINE HELMI: It also contains a slightly different interpretation - not slightly - actually, quite a different interpretation of the whole pre-war situation. So very interesting, I think.

QUESTION: What is the book called?

NADINE HELMI: It is called: The enemy at home: German internees in WWI Australia. I have yet to find it on shelves. I think there’s a little bit of a tendency to not necessarily put it in front of people’s noses. Sorry I have to say this: initially when it came out in 2011 the sales agent of my publisher told me that the War Memorial initially didn’t want to stock it because it tarnishes Australia’s reputation.


NADINE HELMI: Well, just saying that. But the only thing is it’s just the truth. But important is not what happened exactly - because Germans did much, much worse later - but I think people need to know what happened in their country. Okay. I’m available.

JONO LINEEN: Thank you very much.

Dr MICHAEL PICKERING: Feel free to accost this morning’s speakers over lunch.

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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