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Australia's asylum seeker holocaust


Alice Herz-SommerAlice Herz-Sommer, believed to be the oldest survivor of the Holocaust, died recently in London aged 110. Her survival is a herculean feat in itself. Her optimism and gratitude for her life is even more remarkable.

An accomplished pianist at age 39, Herz-Sommer was sent to Therezienstadt camp in 1943 and liberated by the Russians in 1945. When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia she made a fateful decision to stay in Prague, with her son and husband, to care for her sick mother. Most of her family fled to Palestine.

In 1942 her 73-year-old mother was transported to Thereizin, then a few months later to Treblinka extermination camp. Herz-Sommer recalled, even in her final years, that acute despair:

This was the lowest point in my life. She was sent away. Till now I don't know where she was, till now I don't know when she died, nothing. When I went home from bringing her to this place I remember I had to stop in the middle of the street and I listened to a voice, an inner voice — Now, nobody can help you, not your husband, not your little child, not the doctor.

This must have been a time of huge emotional and spiritual devastation. In all the losses and trauma that Herz-Sommer recounts, this seems to have been a turning point. She returned home to play and master the difficult 24 etudes of Chopin. For up to eight hours a day, she was immersed in this task. Perhaps it was then, as she said in later interviews, that music became her religion, that it began to 'save [her] life'. Her entire family was musical and music was her 'language'.

Music did literally save her. When Herz-Sommer and her son Rafael were sent to Thereisenstadt camp in 1943, they survived as performers in musical shows. These shows were staged by the Nazis to exhibit to the world the humane conditions in the camp. She and other artists were to feature in a propaganda movie. It depicted the camp as civilised and cultured, a haven for the many cultured Jews of Prague. 

Fake money for fake cafes and fake shops, and fake children's play grounds were set up to dissemble for the visits by the International Red Cross. In truth many Jews were starving, dying or being sent to the death camps. The world was shown a good place, while its macabre truth was hidden. It was displayed as a Jewish settlement with rose gardens. Thus the IRC was tricked and taken in by Hitler.

Perhaps this is why the BBC — with its viable memory of the perfidy of Hitler — was so scathing in its disbelief regarding the recent words of Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Bishop was being quizzed regarding the violence at Manus Island. The interviewer said, of the policy towards refugees, that it 'seems uncivilised' and 'inhumane'. 'Not at all', replied Bishop.

The interviewer, John Humphrys, continued: 'But [Nauru and Manus] have been described as 'breeding grounds for rape, riots, malaria and mental illness, that bear the look of concentration camps.' Humphrys also asked why asylum seekers couldn't be treated more humanely rather than savagely. After all they are people fleeing from danger and asking for help. Bishop cited stopping the boats and the drownings, and keeping an election promise made to the Australian people.

The BBC interviewer was incredulous. 'You are essentially operating a kind of Guantanamo bay ... in some ways even worse.' Bishop went on to say that she was undeterred by critics, including the UNHCR.

Germany had been a signatory to the Geneva Convention 1929 — a precursor to the Geneva Convention of 1949 — but only 'complied' in a limited way. It was this that allowed the Red Cross to visit Thereisenstadt, but also made it vulnerable to being duped by the fake humane setup for visitors' eyes. 

Currently our Australian Government and the Opposition are showing scant respect for the United Nations Convention on Refugees of 1951. Declaring those seeking asylum to be illegals and pushing them back without assessment of their refugee status does not adhere to Australia's obligations as a signatory to the convention.

Julian Burnside QC, a respected human rights lawyer, has said that those seeking asylum are entitled to request refugee status at any country they can reach. He dismissed arguments from some conservative critics that the 'irregular maritime arrivals' are jumping a migrant queue. Apart from questioning the suggestion there is any queue to jump, he said that 'Etiquette became irrelevant when someone was running for their life.'

I wonder how many people like Herz-Sommer might be on those boats and imprisoned indefinitely, within Manus or Nauru.

Herz-Sommer could be an inspiration to us all. Despite the horror and loss that she suffered in her own life, she considered life to be a gift and a thing of great beauty. Her son died in 2001 aged 64. She said, of her son's death, 'He died without pain, for this I am grateful ... We must always look for the good. Even in the bad there is good.' Herz-Sommer continued playing music two hours a day, until her death.

Lyn Bender headshotLyn Bender is a Melbourne psychologist. Follow her on Twitter @Lynestel

Topic tags: Lyn Bender, asylum seekers, holocaust



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Existing comments

Alice's story is a powerful one. Such a will to live and to live with dignity and purpose. Her love of music sustained her. The Holocaust was a shameful, never to be forgotten episode in history. Maybe Alice's film "The Lady in Number Six" should be shown in Australia's Parliament.

Pam | 17 March 2014  

If Manus Island is akin to a concentration camp, then what word would you use to describe the policy of Labor and the Greens that lured over 1000 poor souls to their deaths? The use of the word Holocaust in this context is another example of leftist hysteria and is an affront to those Jews who were massacred in WW 2. If we went back to the Gillard/Rudd/Greens border policy what would we get? Boats were coming non stop. People were drowning every month. One poor soul dies on manus Island and you call it a Holocaust. I am one of many Australians who feels the current policies are MORE humane and more concerned with protecting life than the previous ones.

Michael T. | 17 March 2014  

MT, my sentiments exactly! Well put.

HH | 17 March 2014  

I sometimes wonder if this is a refuge for right wing Catholics like MT and HH who are happy with all the LNP policies. Then I remember that it was the right wing Catholics that voted to support Hitler, who was also a Catholic, as long as he left the Catholic Church alone. I believe the same deal was done with Mussolini in Italy. i wonder of history is repeating itself?

John | 17 March 2014  

Michael T. and HH seem to be unaware that the bipartisan policy on asylum seekers is "Stop the boats", not 'Save the people'. The words, "Operation Sovereign Borders" emphasises the intention of saving Australia from an imagined foreign invasion. How long will something like 60% of the Australian electorate be so blind or unconcerned about the savagery meted out by our government towards people fleeing persecution and/or war in their countries of origin?

Ian Fraser | 17 March 2014  

I could not agree more. Comparing Manus and Nauru to Auschwitz, Belsen or Dachau is just naive. More than that, it's sneakily dishonest and a cynical attempt to drum up hysteria. Up to 14 million people died in those camps in conditions of appalling brutality.

Alge Percharkis | 17 March 2014  

NO-one was lured to their deaths by any Australian policy, why do the likes of Michael T follow on that lazy line? Refugees make the choice to come here and that is their legal right no matter how much you whinge. What we are doing now is trafficking people who didn't drown and pretending that people are no longer dying.

Marilyn | 17 March 2014  

Cannot say anything other than 'Congratulations' on a great article!

Robyn Thurston | 17 March 2014  

Actually, I.F., it's all of the above. If we stop the boats, we prevent boat deaths (1100 at least under Rudd/Gillard/Greens), we protect our borders (unlike Europe, which is increasingly destabilized by uncontrolled influxes of refugees and growing more impatient of it by the day) and then we can bring in refugees from across the world we select as the most suitable. Once we've staunched the expenditure on boat people, we'll have more to spend bringing in refugees from camps across the world. Are you opposed to spending our finite aid resources on refugees in camps, rather than on people who arrive in boats who may or may not be asylum seekers? Marilyn, after the candid admissions of boat owners about the effect of Rudd/Gillard, and the almost zero arrivals under Abbott, surely you're not STILL pushing your line that Rudd/Gillard policies had nothing to do with the elevated boat levels (and so deaths)?

HH | 17 March 2014  

John, as a matter of history, it wasn't Catholics who supported Hitler: it was overwhelmingly Protestants. Try this: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/religion/2645044/posts Also: Hitler wasn't a Catholic. Except maybe in the loose sense that Henry VIII was Catholic at the end of his days, or that Marx was Lutheran, or that Stalin was Russian Orthodox.

HH | 17 March 2014  

On the 2nd of March Ms Bender found herself, "... confronting a future potential holocaust of gigantic proportions." She was referring to climate change. Two weeks later we have "Australia's asylum seeker holocaust". Might we anticipate a third 'holocaust' before the month is out? And what to make of this, in reference to asylum seekers: "I wonder how many people like Herz-Sommer might be on those boats and imprisoned indefinitely ... "? Does what the detainees are "like" make a difference to the horror of indefinite detention, or is it enough that all of them are human beings?

J Vernau | 17 March 2014  

It is al very well to fire shots at Tony Abbott but we needd to remember that it was the Rudd- Gillard government that started all this, continuing the tradition started by thhe gutless Kim Beazely who let John Howard get away with the Tampa deception. As a rusted on ALP voter that is the really disappointing thing and Bill shorten should disown the Rudd Gillard approach. I have writtent otto my local ALP member proposing this but I'm not hopeful.

Robert Glass | 18 March 2014  

I am stunned at the response of some of these people. Are the conservatives now trawling through all media,news and social commentaries to rubbish and offend those who disagree with the current political agenda of the right. What ever happened to governing for all. If you can really defend what is happening to these "people" who are in our "care" then I worry what sort of country we are leaving for the next generation . Our once great name as a country that was friendly , just and fair and quick to fight for the oppressed is a fading flickering light, More shame when our elected representatives don't care and add to this impression.

Shane Hogan | 18 March 2014  

However people came to Australia, and for whatever reasons, and no matter what we think of that, let us not lose sight of the appalling conditions in which they are incarcerated - onshore and particularly offshore. The shameful truth is emerging - we all know about the conditions on Manus and Nauru. How can we allow this to continue? We should all be ashamed of ourselves - bring on the exposes and make accountable the people responsible, whatever their position.

Ali | 18 March 2014  

Thank you Lyn for your inspiring article. I am desperate to do something that counts. How can I be part of a groundswell that begins to bring change to our country's lack of compassion and resistance to accepting those who are fleeing terror and violence.

Penny Carroll | 18 March 2014  

I too read Alice's story some time ago and was deeply moved. I have read many of the Holocaust survivor story as a tribute to their suffering and the lives that were so brutally ended. I feel I owe it to them as long as I live. Iti s my personal tribute. As a descendant of a family which suffered in the Holocaust, from murders and deportations in WW2, I cannot in any way compare Jewish or Christian deportees to Belzec, Birkenau, Sobibor or Chelm to the people on Manus Island who are not killed or denied food or shelter. Hitler planned a genocide - those coming here are not victims of a genocide, nor is Australia planning one - if someone thinks so, might I suggest a reality check or a sympathetic counsellor; those fleeing Hitler had no country which would accept them; and those Jews and Christians who fled were mainly penniless while most of the boat people have come with money. Yes, some Jewish and Christian refugees had some money but their only alternative was death and in any case they were not able to take out anything but a fraction of what they owned. The boat people have no comparable situation and it might well be offensive to Holocaust survivors and their descendants to compare them in any way. In addition to hear reports from some boat people that their aim was to get a better economic life in Australia, really differentiates their situation from anything Alice and the Holocaust survivors suffered. I am all for humanitarian help for refugees. If the intake from the originating refugee camps is not increased and encouraged (which I support) then we will see more deaths at sea, more profits for criminals pushing the illegals out to sea - and in reality for those who don't like it - more Manus Islands. In the twenty first century Australia is able to access the refugee camps near the countries of origin - my plea is for stopping the criminal boat people trade and increasing the humanitarian intake of refugees from camps who have no money and no one to plead for them. Illegal boat people have money, make noise and access criminal networks to get here. Poor refugees left in camps have few advocates - why not think of the gifted people among them - why are people so silent on the burgeoning refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan? To encourage boats to Australia is to encourage Manus Island - and is to encourage the profiteering of criminals.

Skye | 18 March 2014  

Not much point in hyperbole, hand-wringing and tears of anguish at the murder of an innocent asylum seeker in a primitive outburst of racial hatred in an undeveloped foreign country compared with the apparent prevention of hundred of deaths at sea by a conservative Australian government. The government is responding to the disaster that was the brainchild of the sadly flawed ALP, once the socialist party of concern for our fellow men that has morphed into the party of the socialism of attrition and hatred. Things ain't going to change in the foreseeable future, I'm afraid.

john frawley | 18 March 2014  

There seems to be little understanding that people who have no hope, other than to escape, are willing to risk their life in the attempt. Cruel treatment in detention centres is anti-Christian. Jesus was an activist against the ruling politician of his time. Was he simply a 'lefty'?

Zia | 18 March 2014  

HH try looking up the Reichskonkordat which was signed in 1933 and you will understand what I mean.

John | 18 March 2014  

The basic flaw in the arguments of Michael T and HH is that there are based on the hypothesis that banishment to Papua New Guinea and Nauru is the only way of stopping the boats. It is not. There are alternatives. For some dispassionate facts and analysis see Frank Brennan's article in Eureka Street on 30 September 2013. Alan Hogan Lavender Bay

Alan Hogan | 18 March 2014  

A deep, constructive article. I've always thought "stop the boats" is just a screen to hide the real aims of the policy - "stop the refugees" and "anywhere but here". Now it seems our government wants to dump them in Cambodia. On this form Bangladesh will be next on the list. The hardline anti-Labor commentariat points the finger at one side and ignores the sad bipartisanship we now have on refugees. Rudd stopped the boats... Morrison stopped the boats... wow, big deal. PS I don't care if more Catholics or Protestants voted for Hitler but I seriously doubt many realised just what they were getting into when they voted for him.

Brett | 18 March 2014  

Lyn, you write "When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia...". Please note that there was no Naziland the army of which occupied Czechoslovakia. It was German army. At the beginning of World War II a great majority of Gemans supported Hitler and his expansionist policies. Let us adhere to the facts and not attempt to rewrite history.

Chris L | 18 March 2014  

Hugh Henry Have you apodictically definite, certain, quantifiable evidence to prove that the Labor/Greens/Rudd/Gillard policies have led to the deaths of thousands of boat people?

David Timbs | 18 March 2014  

To connect ‘Holocaust’ with the deaths of 'Asylum Seeker' is an affront to over 6 million Jews massacred in WW2. How can ONE unnecessary death on Manus Island be compared in any way with those Jews deported to Belzec, Birkenau, Dachau, Belsen, Sobibor or Chelm? My father was present at Dachau and the smell haunted him to his grave in 1996. Most of those who promote any parallelism between the Holocaust and ANY event that takes place in Australia fail to comprehend the full significance of what they say. Similar assumptions attach to the massacres of Aboriginal people. Again this shows a dearth of understanding of what happened in the Holocaust. The total population of Indigenous at the time the First Fleet arrived is assessed as ONE million. The massacres are nowhere close to this. Hitler planned a genocide - 'boat people' are not victims of genocide, nor is Australia planning one. As has been said, “If Manus Island is akin to a concentration camp, then what word would you use to describe the policy of Labor and the Greens that lured over 1000 poor souls to their deaths?” Even that cannot approach the horror of the Holocaust.

Karl H Cameron-Jackson | 18 March 2014  

It is difficult to decide which Government plan, in the face of an explosive wave of desperate and despairing refugees, was the most regrettable. (A); the lack of realisation by the Labor Party that showing common humanity and compassion would be like suddenly taking the lid off a pressure cooker and causing a boil-over; OR (B) the cold calculated cruel and inhumane treatment meted out to those refugees who dare to come to us begging for asylum. Possibly winning the prize (if there is a prize) would be those who embrace attitudes like those put forward by M T and HH?

Robert Liddy | 18 March 2014  

AH - thanks: for starters you've done something none of the regular detractors do here: offered a constructive alternative. But the fact is that the boats have stopped (for now), and so Manus/Nauru, it seems, is going to be a diminishing problem as the people there (most of whom arrived before the Coalition came to power) are sent away/voluntarily leave, or else are determined to be genuine asylum seekers. Fr Brennan's suggestions, aimed principally at stemming future boat arrivals (now a non-problem), don't substantively address the vexing issue as to what to do with the current inmates ... unless we include his mention of the Downer solution - flying all those without visas back to Indonesia and taking the same number of people proved to be asylum seekers from refugee camps there. This suggestion is worth considering ... but it's not indubitably better than the current policy, may well not be as effective a deterrent ... and will not attractive to the current Manus Is. inmates who are without visas, I'll wager. Finally: Fr Brennan admits that he himself supported the 2008 Rudd so-called "reforms" which had such catastrophic results. That's an honest admission, but it doesn't reflect well on his grasp of this issue. It was patently obvious what was going to happen.

HH | 18 March 2014  

Alge Percharkis: "Comparing Manus and Nauru to Auschwitz, Belsen or Dachau is just naive. More than that, it's sneakily dishonest and a cynical attempt to drum up hysteria. Up to 14 million people died in those camps. in conditions of appalling brutality." They died one by one. If there had been more people protesting there would likely have beenmany less. If we just accept the current policy doubtless our 'one' will grow. Leaving people with no hope of any future is at least as bad as solitary confinement, which is enough to break the spirit of most people, even if they have not been through the trauma many refugees have experienced

Robert Liddy | 18 March 2014  

The fact of our punishment of people - for that is what it is - makes it easier for us to continue and increase that punishment. The Stanford Prison Experment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment) showed this. The road to hell is paved with small steps and it is easy to justify and excuse each step, as some of these responses demonstrate. I am ashamed.

Peter Horan | 18 March 2014  

HH. as regards Europe being destabilised by refugees..at least they have the compassion to try and answer a need, whereas Australia is so interested in ''protecting her borders '' that perhaps we have lost that integrity we once all seemed to cherish. I wonder what HH would suggest be done with all those genuine frightened people claiming refuge in Europe. From the tone of his letter...it leaves me wondering

Bernie introna | 18 March 2014  

I think we still have a survivor - a 94-year-old who is coming next week to speak to our school and I understand she is the survivor of a concentration camp. I'll get back to you on this.

mary ellen | 18 March 2014  

For all those saying the holocaust is nothing like now I want you to think about this. The holocaust lasted a few years, the genocide of Hazara Afghans has been happening for 150 years, the civil slaughter in Sri Lanka lasted 35 yers, the Iraqis have suffered wars and starvation and invasions since 1959 when the US helped to install Saddam Hussein, the Iranians have been suffering terrible abuses and repression since the coup helped by the CIA in 1958 over threw the democratic government, the slaughter of Palestinians after the jewish invasion has now lasted a century, the Tibetans have had 60 years of oppression, the Burmese Rohingya are non humans to the region. Who do claim they should wait until we think we might choose some of them when most of them have nowhere to apply except here.

Marilyn | 18 March 2014  

Alice Hert Sommer, the last survivor of the holocaust has recently died. But many sons and daughters of the holocaust's victims are still alive. And to compare the holocaust to illegal immigrants flying to Indonesia,,then paying thousands of dollars to people smugglers to come to the country of their choice, is just immoral. I hope than none of my Jewish friends whose parents were in the concentration camps, look at today's issue of ES. One of my friend and his sister, German Jews spent the war years in a Catholic Boarding school and their parents in the attic of a Catholic Dutch family who took great risks in Holland, and saved a Jewish family. They were refugees, they escape to the nearest country, with little possession, but Germany invaded Holland. I think that Eureka Street, should be more careful when publishing articles that would hurt many people.

Ron Cini | 18 March 2014  

David Timbs, since we don't have "apodictically definite, certain, quantifiable evidence" that even you exist, it seems that you (if you exist) don't have the standing to require this level of certainty in practical matters. Perhaps you (if you exist) tacitly acknowledged as much by not, from memory, demanding this level of certainty from former Labor minister Chris Bowen or his department when they produced in September 2011 the figures which point to around 1000 deaths over the period of the Labor/Greens government. For both reasons, your question can't be taken seriously.

HH | 18 March 2014  

HH: That's the expected two bob's worth of tortured semantic nonsense for an admission that you are proving nothing about the Rudd/Gillard governments 'luring' thousands to their deaths. As usual, assertion is not proof. And your contrived answer cannot be taken seriously. That kind of faux arm wrestling stunt doesn't work. You need to know that.

David Timbs | 19 March 2014  

Lyn, great article. It's impossible not to agree with your argument. Those who continue to blind themselves to Australia's cruel and shameful treatment of refugees are just idiologically driven. I cant imagine how anyone could make some of these comments and call themsleves christian or for that matter Australian.

Andrew Teece | 19 March 2014  

Thanks Lyn Bender for having a tilt at this difficult subject. And +1 to Andrew Teece. My tilt - T'is unfortunate that 'Holocaust' has been referred to, when perhaps the true meaning being sought is a holocaust of souls. I'm sad that so many of my countrymen hide behind political and ideological correctness when confronted with the suffering of fellow beings. Seems Bender has a true heart that hears the anguish and the pain of innocents. That some asylum seekers may have had opportunity to buy passage to Australia by boat or whatever, means merely that they have had opportunity. Many others immigrating to this land are using the same lingua franca but are able to do it legally and without question re the resources they use and bring with them. Perhaps they aren't on a boat, because they didn't have the big stick of an otherwise inescapable oppression driving them. This business of queue jumping being used to demonise is a furphy. All innocent until found otherwise. All immigrants deserve 'best of breed' recognition; how are they so different from our ancestors that had the courage to come to a foreign land and start again? Sure, these days the well heeled immigrant can use this country as a refuge rather than a new home, but my observations tell me that the vast majority from the strife ridden parts of this globe that come here are attempting to create a New Life in Australia. Give them a break, including those unfortunates that reckoned a leaky boat was the highway to freedom.

Mich Cook | 20 March 2014  

Looking for the good. Well, the primary and lasting lesson yielded by the Third Reich is: Target an 'enemy set'. Any 'enemy set will do'. Evidently. Hammer the 'target set' with all the malicious, malignant and malign force you can muster Enforce the insensateness to critique Exploit the talented and giftedness of the 'target set' only to further your lustful sating Recruit many many others to your cause; some will come willingly, others will be coerced by violence, others by a perverted sense of preening glamour ... convenience … suchlike Employ all resources you can lay hands on ... plunder to the point of hair and gold teeth fillings; convert human flesh to wax … to finance the production and employment of exterminators of the 'target set', the inconvenience When the rest of humankind is roused, from contentment and apathy, to action; and to counter and to ineluctably prevail against your focus on the inconvenient, organise a comfortable homicide of select collaborators and their progeny Suicide comfortably. ===== Keynes pointed up that: "Long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead." 'Theresienstadt' is the correct spelling and that is simply established by a www search.

(Ms) Margaret T. Newman | 13 April 2016  

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