Voyage of the Damned

I have just finished reading the harrowing true story of the 1939 sea voyage of almost 1,000 Jewish men, women and children fleeing Nazi Germany to seek asylum in Cuba. Their ill-fated journey aboard the Hapag Cruise Liner, St. Louis, was chronicled by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts in their 1974 book ‘Voyage of the Damned’. I knew a little bit about the story, but only recently got my hands on a copy of the book.It is a tragic and shameful tale of self-serving politicians, paranoid nationalists, hard-hearted individuals and the wretched refugees who sailed around the world, desperately seeking landfall in any country that would take them; only to be returned to Europe where most of them suffered the horrors of refugee detention and Nazi death camps.

Thankfully, the world now has an International Convention on Human Rights, and a UN High Commission for Refugees because the end of Nazism was not the end of refugees.

Last week, I read David Marr’s opinion piece on the recently published Neilsen Poll in which 53% of Australians are in favour of allowing asylum seekers to land in Australia in order to have their refugee claims properly assessed. Given the hysteria that these few thousand arrivals each year seem to generate, it is pleasing to know that the majority of Australians, while not liking or trusting asylum seekers, are at least willing to give them a fair go and let them make their claim – something this country has, for decades, agreed to do, and never been poorer for it.

But as long as our Pollies get the impression that ‘turning back the boats’ is a vote-winner, they will continue to do it, and voyages of the damned will continue. Nauru was a shocker. Now it may be Malaysia.


~ by Garry on August 24, 2011.

2 Responses to “Voyage of the Damned”

  1. GWL,
    LDN and self were shopping in Randwick back in those days when you were a year or so younger than you now are, and when you used to visit, but we never mentioned about the budding friendship we were nurturing with a haberdashery store owner whose experiences were worth listening to. He was was tattooed with a number by those animals who ran the death camps in Europe during World War 2, but he never spoke much of his incarceration. A gentle friendly soul who had regained much of his dignity through his years in Australia, and we were sorry when we were eventually posted back to Brisbane, as, I believe had we remained in Sydney we could have become firm friends. Of course that was over thirty years ago now, so I guess he has gone to meet his Maker by now.


  2. My first real encounter with a refugee was in 1990 when Tamara and I sat down for a couple of hours with a Vietnamese man, now an Australian citizen, living in Brisbane. He came here on a leaky boat during the great exodus from Vietnam in the 70’s and was, at the time we spoke to him the pastor of a vietnamese church in Darra.
    Since then, whether it was Afghan, Southern Sudanese, Iraqi, or El Salvadoran, the people I have had the privelege to get to know a little have humanised the harsh political debate for me.
    I’ve stood with a mate, late at night, outside the house of a nervous Sudanese family in Toowoomba who were dreading the return of a carload of yahoos who were rocking their roof and shouting abuse for entertainment. Goodness knows what we were going to do if they came back. We have taken refugees into our home to live with our family. I have carted innumerable pieces of furniture, advocated with bureaucracies, addressed public gatherings, been shouted at on the footpath for calling for a compassionate approach to asylum seekers, stood looking through the razor wire at Villawood detention centre; but, like you, it is the brief moments of friendship and conversation that you mention that stay with me and have made me a better person.
    I’m glad noone is asking me to ‘solve the asylum seeker’ problem, because I don’t have the foggiest what solution there is, but basic human compassion still lives and I guess that’s all we’ve got in the end.

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