Rebuilding Jewish Life in Australia

With the proclamation of V.E. Day, the Allied peoples of the world celebrated. In Sydney, thousands jammed Martin Place late in the afternoon, shouting, waving flags, laughing and singing. The spontaneous celebrations continued on well into the night in the city and in Kings Cross. But for many Jews in Sydney, particularly those who had family in Europe, victory was not a time for celebration. They knew that the news to come would not be good.

Many Holocaust survivors sought to establish new lives in Australia, which seemed to them a very inviting place; it was a highly-favoured haven. It was geographically as far from Europe (and their European memories) as possible, and offered its citizens freedom and democracy.

During 1945 the Australian-European Search Bureau published lists of survivors, which it shared with the Red Cross and the Australian Jewish Welfare Society. In August 1945 Australia's Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell, instituted a Close Relatives Reunion Scheme. This scheme made Holocaust survivors with family already in Australia eligible for immigration, but had a quota of 2000 immigrants for the first year and then 3000. This was still far lower than the pre-war quota of 5000 per year.

Some survivors were accepted into Australia on the basis of their work skills. Nevertheless, proportional to population size, only Israel accepted more Holocaust survivors than Australia.

The Australian Jewish Welfare Society was instrumental in obtaining entry permits for, receiving, integrating and rehabilitating immigrant Holocaust survivors. The Society assumed responsibility for the employment, housing, medical care and English tuition of survivor immigrants. One very special group they brought to Australia was 300 Jewish orphans, who arrived between 1947 and 1950.

Jewish immigrants arriving at Pyrmont, Sydney, 1946

Despite difficulties including shipping shortages, quotas imposed on Jewish passengers per ship and local xenophobia towards non-British immigrants, approximately 15 000 survivors settled in Australia in the four years from 1945. Although they brought with them little by way of wealth or possessions, these immigrants did bring a strong commitment to hard work. They shared with other immigrant groups the usual difficulties of adjustment to a new language and culture, but in addition, they had to cope with the psychological trauma of their Holocaust experiences. Their ability to put the past behind them and to forge new lives for themselves is a tribute to their courage and an inspiration to us all.

In total, about 35 000 pre-war Jewish refugees and post-war Holocaust survivors had immigrated to Australia by 1961. These people have become loyal and grateful Australian citizens. The Australian ethos of a 'fair go' enabled many to achieve success in both psychological and material terms. Holocaust survivors have made significant contributions to Australia in fields as diverse as industry, theatre, art, medicine, architecture, academia and more. For many, this has been their way of giving something back to the country which has given them so much.