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Loss, trials, and compassion: the music of Australia’s Jewish refugees

George Dreyfus, centre, holding a bassoon and Walter Wurzburger, far left, holding a clarinet. JC Williamson production 1949

Loss, trials, and compassion: the music of Australia’s Jewish refugees

After the Nazi invasion of Austria in 1938, Jewish refugee applications to Australia soared to over 10,000. Australia’s immigration policy at the time was clear: in 1937 Prime Minister Joe Lyons wrote that “our population is 99.1% of British nationality and we wish to keep it so”.

At the Evian conference in France, convened to discuss the refugee crisis, the Australian delegate and Minister for Trade, Colonel Thomas White, declared that

as we have no real racial problem we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration.

In order to restrict the flow of migrants, Australia introduced an obstructive “suitability” requirement on the visa application. Musicians were ruled “unsuitable”. Nevertheless, between 1933 to 1943, approximately 10,000 Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia arrived in Australia. Many were musicians, and they contributed in profoundly significant ways to cultural and social life.

These refugees brought entirely new sounds and styles, often confronting for their Australian audiences. Some of these sounds will be heard at Out of the Shadows, a celebration of Jewish music and performance at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

In an initiative instigated in 1936, refugees were sponsored by the German Jewish Relief Fund (later the Australian Jewish Welfare Society), who put aside a sum of £70,000 as guarantee. Preference was given to refugees from Britain and Germany, who were deemed more “suitable” than those from Eastern Europe. The culture of the new land in which the newcomers had arrived was British-focussed and promoted assimilation, not welcoming of difference. There was also residual hostility against German speakers (a legacy of the first world war).

It was practically impossible for musicians to continue their careers in Australia. Talking pictures had already wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of Australian musicians who had been employed in bands for silent picture shows. The Great Depression had contributed to the sense of desperation and mistrust.

Even before the economic downturn in February 1929, a complete embargo on foreign musicians was in place by the Musicians’ Union of Australia, part of a long running battle between the union and cultural entrepreneurs. Many musical careers ended abruptly on Australian soil, and other employment had to be found.

Music at sea

It was an often torturous journey to Australia. Some refugees came via Britain. In May 1940, Winston Churchill ordered the temporary internment of all male Germans and Austrians between the ages of 16 and 60. In a policy move eerily reminiscent of the colonial past, Churchill began deporting these internees. 2,000 Jewish refugees were sent to Australia on the HMT Dunera, alongside German and Italian prisoners of war and a few Nazi sympathisers.

On board, the Jewish detainees were badly mistreated, some forced to walk upon broken glass, their possessions stolen or thrown into the sea. When they arrived in Australia, they were interned in an isolated camp at Hay, NSW. Likewise in 1940, 272 men, women and children were transported from Singapore and held in Tatura, near Shepparton in Victoria. Most of these internees were ultimately released by 1942.

Stories from this period of history are archived in the works of the composers who had been transported to Australia. Felix Werder had accompanied his father voluntarily on the Dunera. He wrote his first Symphony for orchestra in 1943, in strict twelve-tone structure, a method developed by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg that used each note equally without emphasising one.

Very little of Werder’s music is available online; later works like his String Quartet No. 9 continue to eschew standard Western harmony and melody, and demand virtuosic techniques from the instrumentalists.

It’s extremely difficult music to hear, but if you focus on the work as sound rather than music, you will notice Werder piecing together fascinating atmospheric worlds. His avant-garde aesthetic found few admirers in Australia, but he was praised and widely respected in post-war Germany, and performed regularly.

Werder’s father, an Orthodox cantor (someone who leads worship in Synagogue), Boas Bischofswerder, composed his Phantasia Judaica on the Dunera for four voices, and this remains the only surviving creation from that journey. It survives as a composition for violin and piano, but the piano part is unplayable, a sure sign that it was originally composed for voice. (At the festival, this work will be performed by string quartet.)

Trials and loss

Werner Baer and Walter Wurzburger were on the Queen Mary from Singapore and then held in the Tatura camp. Baer’s aspiration prior to the Nazi rise to power was to conduct opera. After he joined the Australian army on his release from the camp, in 1942, he continued to write song settings, many of which are published, almost none available in commercial recordings.

After the war and relocation to Sydney, Baer was approached by the Austrian-Jewish modern dance exponent, Gertrud Bodenwieser, to write work for her company. In 1953 he composed The Test of Strength, described in the original concert program as a

tragic-comic proof that no winner can ever be sure … the man who tames wild beasts is, in turn, tamed by a slight ballerina, but she herself is finally routed by a tiny mouse.

The score is appropriately grand and bombastic, highly narrative-driven (or “programmatic” in musical terms), with bursts of comedic effect and harmonies that sound somewhat like the German composer Richard Wagner. There’s no clear indication of when the full orchestral version of this work was performed, and no recording exists, but the work toured across Australia, in regional centres and capital cities.

Walter Wurzburger began composing seriously in the Tatura camp. He was from a musical family and having already studied jazz with the Hungarian composer Mátyás Seiber in Frankfurt.

In Australia he freely explored his own voice, creating a string trio and a song set to the moving words of Friedrich Nietszche’s poem Vereinsamt (Lonely). The poem speaks of the plight of the refugee, pallid, cursed to wander in the winter, concluding with the line: “Weh dem, der keine Heimat hat!” (Woe is he who has no homeland).

Vereinsamt, Walter Wurzberger, for soprano and piano.

George Dreyfus avoided detention because of his youth. At the age of 10, Dreyfus was sent on a Kindertransport (transport of Jewish children) to Melbourne, where he lived at the Larino home for refugee children, set up by the Jewish Welfare Society.

Dreyfus trained as a bassoonist, and later moved into composition, composing numerous scores for film and television, the most famous being the theme song for the 1974 TV series Rush.

His work Larino, Safe haven has been arranged by the composer for many different formats.

Legacy of compassion

Remarkable stories and cultural material continue to surface from this period of history. Despite a colonial mentality that encouraged cultural amnesia, Jewish refugee composers continued to write works.

Some found recognition in the commercial world; others were relegated to the margins by their uncompromising commitment to avant garde aesethetics. Many were regarded as composing in old-fashioned, Eurocentric styles.

I also suspect that much of this music was classified as cosmopolitan during a period when Australia was focused on building a national identity. Anything that smacked of an international sensibility was viewed as suspiciously close to Communism.

The stories and music of Jewish refugees resonates today. The refugee crisis facing the world at present is of the same magnitude as that of post-war Europe, and paucity of compassion for refugees today is nothing new in our history.

The music of Jewish refugees attests to the creativity, dignity, honesty and circumspection that artists expressed (and continue to express) in the face of indifference and closed doors in the 1930s and 1940s.

In listening to these works, we can initiate conversations about ethics and human rights, and the power of culture to testify to the human experience of displacement with dignity and courage.


Out of the Shadows will run from August 5-10 2017. The Test of Strength will be performed on August 5. Phantasia Judaica will be performed on August 10.

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