Australians might be finally showing interest in the stories of refugees, but only those we’ve chosen to welcome. By John Hirst.

John Hirst
The happiest refugees

Beneath Australia’s peace are hidden stories of horrors suffered elsewhere. Tens of thousands of refugees have come here with experiences almost unimaginable to their Australian hosts.  

The first wave of refugee-migrants after World War II lamented that even when Australians were friendly they seemed strangely uninterested in their experiences of war and life on the run. The government certainly did not encourage such explorations. It told Australians to accept these migrants not because they had suffered terribly but because they would be useful. 

There are now many memoirs written by refugees, but none has acquired mythic status, a story that a nation takes to itself. The best prospect is the best-selling book The Happiest Refugee, by stand-up comedian Anh Do. As a small child he escaped from South Vietnam with his extended family after the communist takeover. They reached Malaysia by boat and from a refugee camp there were brought by plane to Australia, which is how most Vietnamese refugees arrived. Twice on the sea voyage they were attacked by pirates, who ordered them to strip so they could rob them of all the valuables they had hidden. They also yanked out gold fillings from their teeth. 

The second gang of pirates had something worse in store. They took Anh’s aunty, naked, into the wheelhouse and one pirate dangled a baby boy over the side, threatening to drop him into the sea. This was too much. The men on the refugee boat stiffened to fight back; at all cost the baby had to be saved. The pirate captain, sensing the determination he faced, called off his men. The aunt returned to her people and the baby was saved. The baby was Anh’s younger brother. Neither Anh nor his brother would have survived to reach Australia but for the action of a young man on the pirate ship who stood apart while the pillaging progressed; as the pirate ship turned away he threw a gallon of water to the refugees.

In their first weeks in Australia, Anh’s parents were constantly saying “What a great country!” They could not believe their good fortune. Nuns brought them huge bags of free clothes from St Vincent de Paul. Then they discovered the Vinnies shop where good clothes were very cheap. Uncle Dung found a beautiful fur jacket for 50 cents and bought it hoping he would soon have a wife to wear it.

The generation of World War II refugees are now passing away, except for those who were children at the time. Two documentaries have been made recently about child survivors – perhaps in film rather than books their stories will lodge in the national imagination.

The One That Got Away, from Sam Lawlor and Lindsay Pollock, tells the story of Tomas, now Tommy. He’s a smart, charming go-getter, a Jewish lad who survived on his wits after the Nazi occupation of Hungary, even working briefly for a German army officer. Tommy had to move on when a health inspection threatened to reveal his Jewishness. In Australia he prospered, marrying six times and remaining on good terms with all his exes. 

The doco follows him back to the places in Europe where he was on the run. The love interest of the film is whether he will marry one more time – to his childhood sweetheart whom he met when both were hiding from the Nazis. She, too, ended up in Australia. The film was shown at the Jewish International Film Festival in Melbourne in 2012 but strangely has not yet been seen in cinemas or on TV in Australia, the land of Holocaust survivors. Tommy, much nicer to his six wives than Henry VIII, should be an Australian icon.

Sophia Turkiewicz’s Once My Mother is showing in select cinemas now. Her mother, Helen, was left an orphan in prewar Poland, where she survived on the streets before being taken in by an uncle who made her work while her cousins went to school. She remained illiterate. When Russia invaded, with thousands of others she was deported to work camps in Siberia. We see the icy vastness, steam trains with humans in their cattle trucks, and the backbreaking work. 

Helen escaped over the border into Persia and from there was given refuge in northern Rhodesia. She became pregnant to an Italian prisoner-of-war also being held there. As a single mother, she was ineligible for settlement in Britain, but Australia took her. She became a great Australian patriot, but she did not ask much. She had a house, furniture, food and a husband, whom she married so she could get her daughter out of an orphanage where she had to leave her while working. The daughter hated her for this abandonment; the film also tells of her coming to understand and admire her mother, whose odyssey to Australia must be the most extraordinary.

At the Melbourne launch of her film, Turkiewicz contrasted the welcome given to the refugee boats in the 1940s with the turning back of boats today.  Actually Australia still accepts hundreds of thousands of migrants, now by plane, and a quota of refugees, too, if their places have not been taken by unauthorised arrivals. 

Like it or not, the great majority of Australians have indicated that they will accept authorised but not unauthorised arrivals. Helen Turkiewicz and Anh Do were authorised arrivals. The rising numbers of unauthorised arrivals in recent years have led governments to put them into detention camps to deter the rest. So even genuine refugees got a taste of Kafka and barbed wire before emerging into the community. 

If the present policy of stopping the boats continues to work, there will be no need for deterrence. All the people held on Manus, Nauru and Christmas Island, refugees or not, could be freed to live in Australia. That would give to this sad tale in our national life at least a happy ending. 

What stories these released prisoners might tell. Their astonishment at Australia will be different from that of Anh’s parents.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 2, 2014 as "The happiest refugees".

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John Hirst is an emeritus professor of history at La Trobe University. His most recent book is Australian History in Seven Questions.

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