Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

The Search for Nazi War Criminals in Australia

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies

The Search for Nazi War Criminals in Australia

Article excerpt

Leslie Caplan. The Road to the Menzies Inquiry: Suspected War Criminals in Australia, Preface by Suzanne D. Rutland and Introduction by Sophie Caplan. Darlinghurst, NSW: Australian Jewish Historical Society Inc., 2012. Pp. 170. ISBN: 9780987105592 (paperback) $35

The Jewish community commenced campaigning against the entry of Nazi war criminals into Australia soon after they started arriving in 1947 under the Labor government's Displaced Persons immigration scheme. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) and state Boards of Deputies worked closely with the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, compiling dossiers on arriving Nazis, lobbying the federal government and publicising allegations in the media. Formed in 1942, the Jewish Council's members included prominent community leaders and represented both sides of politics, but with a distinctly leftist leaning. In fact, some leading members were communists, causing bitter schisms inside the community and eventually resulting in the Council's exclusion from the Jewish mainstream as the Cold War intensified in the early 1950s.

This infighting blunted the campaign against Nazi migration, which was eventually terminated when Robert Menzies's government blackmailed the community in the early 1950s. The late Syd Einfeld was ECAJ president at that time and, as historian Suzanne Rutland has recorded, Einfeld stated that Menzies's Immigration Minister, Harold Holt, had threatened to extend the government's "blockade of the [International Refugee Organisation] subsidy for Jewish refugee migration to Australia" and implied "that if the community continued its anti-German migration campaign, Zionist funds would also be frozen" (Rutland 1988: 334-335).

Einfeld had also told me a similar version of these events in early 1986 as I was finalising the ABC Radio National series Nazis in Australia. I had approached Einfeld to confirm what I had been told in 1977 by the late Sam Goldbloom. A left-wing Jewish Council leader, Goldbloom recalled that Einfeld had spoken at a hastily convened meeting in the early 1950s. According to Goldbloom, the ECAJ president reported that Holt had warned community leaders to call off the campaign or "the Australian government would block the transfer of any funds raised in the Australian Jewish community" to support Israel.

The community was faced with an agonising choice at this time. Would it pursue the men who had murdered their families and friends, or would it contribute to the future of Jewish political, cultural and religious life by helping to build Israel? Reluctantly, the Jewish leadership opted for the future, a decision that was strictly adhered to for 35 years. Eventually the issue was virtually lost to communal memory.

The late Leslie Caplan's The Road to the Menzies Inquiry: Suspected War Criminals in Australia peripherally deals with this and other fascinating historical background. The real strength of this monograph is, however, Caplan's account of what occurred when the issue was revived in 1986. It was originally written as a BA Honours thesis in the mid-1990s and supervised by internationally renowned Holocaust historian Konrad Kwiet, who served with distinction as the official historian to Australia's war crimes investigators in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It is a highly unusual thesis, combining historical research with an invaluable firsthand account of Caplan's own seminal role as ECAJ president in 1986 in successfully campaigning for an official inquiry into the presence of Nazis in Australia. By then the threat of the government blocking the transfer of donations to Israel had long passed and was mostly forgotten.

So, too, was the 1961 decision of Robert Menzies's government to close the chapter on Nazi war criminals in Australia. In refusing the Soviet Union's request for the extradition of Estonian war criminal Ervin Viks, Attorney General Garfield Barwick declared that Australia had the right to accept "people into this country, to enable men to turn their backs on past bitternesses and to make a new life for themselves and for their families in a happier community. …

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