Negotiating Cultural Identity on the Stage: Maria Dronke, a German-Jewish Actor in New Zealand

By Tempian, Monica | Shofar, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Negotiating Cultural Identity on the Stage: Maria Dronke, a German-Jewish Actor in New Zealand


Tempian, Monica, Shofar


1,100 Jews found refuge from Hitler in New Zealand before 1940. They experienced both geographical estrangement and cultural alienation in a British colonial setting still profoundly influenced by its settlement phase. How did the new arrivals adjust to the Dominion way of life? What factors aided their survival and acculturation at the "edge of the Diaspora"? The present article addresses aspects of acculturation and integration of German-Jewish artists in New Zealand, questions of cultural identity, and the retention of Germanness and Jewishness abroad, using the biography of the actor Maria Dronke as the lens through which to examine these issues.

For Jews trying to escape Nazi persecution in the months following the German Anschluss of Austria and the Reichskristallnacht pogrom of 1938, emigration was no longer a matter of choice but rather a mattet of survival. About 130,000 people of Jewish descent had left Germany by 1938, followed in 1938-39 by another 118,000.' Among those who left Central Europe up until 1940, about 7,000 were accepted in Australia,2 and a further 1,100 disembarked as refugees in the "little island country" of New Zealand. It can no longer be discovered how many refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe applied for immigration to New Zealand in the 1930s, as the archives recording the number of applications have been destroyed. In her study of Refugees from Hitler, Ann Beaglehole estimates that the applications were at least ten times as many as those ultimately accepted.3 New Zealand's immigration policy in the years 1933-1939, based on the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act of 1920, aimed to enforce the principles of what was informally known as the "White New Zealand Policy," thus restricting the entry of immigrants of non-British origin: "New Zealand, a country of immigrants, has always carefully selected its settlers. Age, outlook, occupation, religion and race have been the criteria to choose immigrants."4 Unlike Australia, New Zealand did not set a quota for refugees to be accepted on strictly humanitarian grounds aftet the 1938 Evian Conference, nor did it implement a standard set of rules for processing applications. The most important selection criterion remained "the suitability of the immigrant for absorption into the Dominion's population,"5 In September 1938 the New Zealand High Commissioner's Office in London made clear to refugees that only a very limited number of applicants for an entry permit would have a chance of being admitted to New Zealand:

The New Zealand Government is not at present encouraging immigration. . . . In the case of persons not of British birth or parentage, it is necessary for such persons to obtain permits from the Minister of Customs at Wellington before they may proceed to the Dominion. The High Commissioner has received advice from his Government that it has recently found necessary to discontinue the issuing of such permits except in very special cases. It is considered, therefore, that it would probably be hardly worth your while making application.6

In retrospect. New Zealand historians are rather critical of the country's strict immigration policy and the public attitude towatds refugees. Lazarus Goldman, in his book The History of the Jews in New Zealand, writes:

Desperate appeals from Europe flowed in pathetic streams to nearly every official Jewish and non-Jewish organization. Highly qualified professional men begged for immigration certificates, solemnly promising to do any kind of manual labour. After von Rath's assassination, the volume of heartbreaking appeals increased unceasingly, some stating it would probably be the last letters they would be able to write, and pleading for mercy's sake to be allowed to come to New Zealand.7

Nancy Taylor, in The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War, 1939-45: The Home Front, mentions anti-refugee attitudes in the New Zealand public based on fear of foreigners, the Depression, and antisemitism. …

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Negotiating Cultural Identity on the Stage: Maria Dronke, a German-Jewish Actor in New Zealand
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