4 November 2012 - The Case for the Boat People.


Photography Copyright Clancy Tucker (c)


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The Case for the Boat People


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G'day guys,


Here is another enchanting story written by author Kay Koenig from 'Australian Family Stories'. It is very interesting.


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At a recent luncheon party a friend remarked that she could not bear to think of all the starving refugees, waiting for assistance, in various parts of the globe. It was much better not to think about it, she said.

Are you tired of reading about refugees arriving off the Australian coast? Do you wonder about the queues of legitimate refugees that are being jumped?  If there were queues of patiently waiting refugees, would it make a difference?

There have always been people begging embassies for refuge and asking for asylum. Unless they are close by, or in numbers too great to ignore, their cries go unnoticed in Australia.

Just before World War II the number of refugees in Europe was large enough to be noticed.  Swarms of people mobbed foreign embassies throughout Europe desperate to escape the Nazi tide. Most, but not all were Jewish. The reactions of countries to these cries for mercy had a sizeable impact on the fate of the eleven million people who died in the holocaust.  In the beginning the Nazis did not contemplate mass murder. They certainly wanted to rid their territories of Jews. They hoped to achieve this by encouraging them to emigrate. Very few countries were willing to accept Jews. The Nazis then contemplated forming a Jewish colony, somewhere far away such as Madagascar. Mass murder was the third alternative.

The fate of Jews from the Sudetenland is a good illustration.

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In 1938, the leaders of France, Britain, Italy and Germany decided the fate of the Sudetenland. Czechoslovakia was not consulted. Surely the Munich agreement would have included a policy for the resettlement of Sudeten refugees. Apparently it was not considered necessary. Czechoslovakia was expected to accommodate those who did not wish to live under German rule.

In early October, before Germany assumed control of the mostly German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia, they began to leave. Eventually 40, 000 people moved into what remained of Czechoslovakia.  About 20,000 of these were Jewish.  As 1939 approached and it became apparent that a German invasion was imminent, the refugees were joined by thousands of Czech Jews clambering to leave their homeland.  Britain was willing to accept the well educated, the wealthy, those it considered able to advance the British economy.  The United States accepted applications for visas but then took years to approve them.  In Europe, the Swiss response was typical. They refused to accept Jewish refugees because they might cause anti-Semitism in Switzerland.  Australia - well the Australian government considered the Jewish refugees a European problem. Australia was an Anglo-Saxon community they said.  It would not be in the countries best interest to be swamped by large numbers of ethnic refugees.

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Karel Koenig was a Solicitor from Karlsbad in the Sudetenland. While the Munich conference was being held he was in the army defending the Czech-German border. After Czechoslovakia capitulated Karel settled in Prague. Because he had a Jewish mother, Karel realised he would have to leave his homeland. He applied for US visa.  While waiting for the visa that never arrived, Karel worked for the St Raphael Society. This Catholic organisation was assisting Jews to escape Czechoslovakia.  They used false documents, false passports and false certificates of baptism, anything to ensure the safety of the Jews they were trying to help.  They had guides to smuggle people across the border into Poland.  The biggest problem was to find a country willing to accept the refugees. Some South American countries and China were helpful but, there were very few other options.

When the Germans occupied Prague in March 1939, they began arresting people. Their list, of those to be detained, was long. It included those who criticised Nazism, students, academics, members of the judiciary, politicians, union representatives, members of the clergy and, of course, Jews. Karel’s name was on the list. One day in April, he was warned that he was about to be arrested. He was told that he must leave now. There was no possibility of obtaining the correct papers, no more time to wait for a visa. The St Raphael Society provided him with some false documents, a reference and a guide to escort him into Poland.  The guide made the journey on at least a weekly basis. This time he was unlucky. He was shot in the back by border guards. Karel continued to zigzag through the forest and made the crossing into Poland.

He arrived in England in May 1939. He had been admitted, with the approval of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, on the basis of information provided by the St Raphael Society. They said Karel was a Roman Catholic committee member of the Centre Party, that he had a visa for Ecuador and would travel there on 12th May and that he had a cousin living in Sussex who would support him. All of this information was false. In a climate when arrest and possible execution are imminent, escape, not truth, is important.

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For over twelve months Karel lived a charmed life in England. For many months he was a guest of Mrs Allhusen, bridesmaid to the Churchill’s. He walked with Clementine Churchill, in the rose garden of Havering House, listening to her complaints about her husband. He taught German at a school a stone’s throw away from Kenley Aerodrome. This was one of three air fields used to defend London during the Blitz. Years after the war Karel remembered that each day it was covered with camouflage to make it resemble street of houses.  Under such suspicious circumstances, is it any wonder that Karel was eventually arrested, tried at the Old Bailey and transported to Australia on the Dunera?

Karel, and the 2000 other mostly Jewish refugees on the Dunera, were interned for years at Hay and Tatura. This was despite the fact that the British Government realised they had made a mistake and asked for their release. Not only did the Australian Government refuse to releases the Dunera refugees, but they also stipulated that any family members, who travelled to Australia in the hope of being close to their husbands and fathers, would be deported.

Eventually Karel, like many other ‘Dunera Boys’ joined the Australian Army. After the war he returned to University and studied the law again. He practised law in Pitt St Sydney for the next thirty years. He was a member of the International Law Society and was awarded a British Empire Medal for his services to the community. His wife, sons and mothers all perished in the Holocaust.

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In contrast, consider the assistance that was given to refugees from Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War.  Those boat people were welcomed to our shores. They were processed in Asia and flown here by the plane load. Following the Tiananmen Square incident, Chinese students, and also Timor refugees were given refuge in this country.

Was it because the Vietnam War was the first such horror to greet us on the nightly news? Did we feel responsible? Is there now so much bloodshed on television that we are immune to the horrors of Afghanistan? Is it easier to justify our intervention into that country? Are Afghan refugees less worthy of our help?

If you would like to read more about Karel Koenig’s story, his biography is available on Australian Family Stories. It is a ripping yarn, full of luck, adventure, love and tragedy.   If you believe that a picture tells a thousand words, this book is illustrated by over 250 photographs and documents. It covers the first fifty years of Karel’s life and the people and events that affected it.

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Clancy's comment: Thank you, Kay. This is an extraordinary tale. Yes, I agree with you. Australia felt guilty after losing more than 500 Aussie soldiers in Vietnam.


I recommend all of you to visit www.australianfamilystories.com.au. Check out Kay's website if you have an amazing Australian story to tell or a book you have already published with an Australian flavour.


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