As a means to escape the persecution of Jews in Europe, the top end almost became a sanctuary. Sadly, it was put on the backburner.
For another instalment in our occasional series on highlights in Australian history, I would like you to follow me to the Kimberley today. Yes, I know: hot and out of your way. But still, for some it seemed the promised land not so long ago. It all started in 1933, when a Polish writer called Melech Ravitch, realising that Hitler was serious about exterminating the Jews, looked on the world map and saw this great empty island on the other side of the world. It was ideal: far away from world politics and there seemed to be enough room for many thousands of people. He did some research into this country and recognised straight away that its White Australia Policy could suit Jewish, mostly white, migration from Europe and further East. Before he left, Ravitch secured permission from the Australian federal government to travel the country. He also carried a camera and letter of introduction from none other than Albert Einstein. When he arrived, he hired himself a young Aboriginal assistant and an Italian truck driver and went into the Kimberley Desert to see if this place would be fitting to become the new home for the multitude of Jewish refugees that were getting more and more desperate at home. Ravitch kept a journal, in which he wrote (in Yiddish) that he thought most problems in his new environment could be solved by “mehr vasser, veiniker bier” (more water, less beer). Which proves that he got the hang of this Australia-caper almost straight away.
Ravitch, who was a journalist and a poet as well, wrote stories about his adventures which ended up in newspapers and Frayland, the journal of the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonisation, an organisation that had been established in the UK in 1935. Its aim was to find a homeland of sorts, a place where Jews could be autonomous and free, and Ecuador, Surinam and Australia seemed sparsely populated enough to be possibilities. Taking his cues from Ravitch and pushing this idea forward was Isaac Nachman Steinberg. Steinberg, a lawyer, had been the first Commissar of Justice in Lenin’s Bolshevik government, but had soon clashed with the leader of the Russian Revolution. When Lenin did away with due process, Steinberg angrily told him he felt his office was functioning as the “Commissariat for Social Extermination”. He knew he had to get out of Russia when his boss answered, “Well put. That is exactly what it should be.” Steinberg left his home country in 1923, moving to Berlin and fleeing again ten years later, to London this time, where he founded the Freeland League.
In 1938, Steinberg received a letter from JB Cramsie, ex-chairman of the Australian Meat Council, who had read some of Ravitch’s articles and insisted that the journalist had been right in advocating the North of Australia. He suggested 2,500 square miles on Melville Island or the Kimberley, where at least 25,000 “carefully selected, young and healthy Jewish families, whose breadwinners must have either farming experience or artisan training” could establish a “self-sufficient settlement”. When the plan was published in some European countries, Cramsie and Steinberg were flooded with enquiries, and not longer after, Steinberg got an offer of land. Seven million acres, in fact, two million in WA, five million in the NT, all of it owned by the firm of Connor, Doherty and Durack Ltd., who had been grazing cattle there for generations. Michael Durack told Steinberg that despite the reputation of the Kimberley as a place where white men couldn’t live, the land “would grow anything”. His company, he said, was “prepared to relinquish” the place “for a reasonable price”. He was convinced that “it was a country for white men who are prepared to make some sacrifices and work hard”. And he also thought that “Australia is not morally entitled to hold the North unless she makes some attempt to develop it. That is why I am so keenly interested in the proposed settlement”. Seeing that “the Jews in Palestine had made a wilderness fertile”, this was a plan that couldn’t fail.
A newspaper posed that “by their malpractices, they ask for it – and get it. They are never loyal to any country in which they settle. That is how they would get themselves into trouble in Australia, as everywhere else.”
So when Steinberg arrived in Perth in early 1939, he came with a clear proposal. First, a group of a few hundred Jewish scientists would arrive to do a survey of the land. Then, over time, between 50 and 100,000 Jewish refugees from Europe would come in. The Freeland League would provide the money for the purchase (about £180,000, the equivalent of AU$12 million) and pay for everything else. The people would focus on agricultural pursuits, running cattle, planting maise, millet, peanuts and soybeans. Steinberg made it clear, in fact “strongly emphasised…that this settlement would have no political aspirations – no idea of separation or autonomy. The settlers would become Australians, and their settlement a part of the Commonwealth. They would aim to do constructive work for Australia”. All of that sounded reasonable. White Australia wasn’t really using the Kimberley anyway, and it also neatly fitted an agreement made by Australian bureaucrats at the 1938 Evian Conference in London. There, countries had come together to discuss the issue of Jewish refugees, and Australia had consented to accept 15,000 of them – although in the end only 5,085 were allowed into the country in 1939, when the door shut altogether.
When Steinberg arrived, he was taken on an excursion of the land by Elizabeth Durack, the daughter of Michael and a future painter and writer. Soon, the Russian was openly fantasising about “Jewish poems about the kangaroo” and he took that belief with him when he toured Australia to sell his plan. He was especially smart at allaying White Australian fears of the Other, saying that for him it was necessary to “find a country which would benefit by the arrival of the refugees. Humanitarian grounds were not enough. Mutual interests were the only basis on which refugees could enter into a new life and the confidence of the Jewish people in the British Empire was unshakable. Persecuted people are always the best for colonisation,” he stressed. “We can bring to the country the three things it needs most: money, men, and inspiration.”
It was early 1940 by now, and the war had started. This had made Steinberg stateless, and because shipping routes were now blocked, he was marooned in Australia. Making the best of a bad situation, Steinberg travelled the country, finding sponsors of the Kimberley Plan wherever he went. First the Western Australians signed his petition to the Federal Government, that asked to allow settlement to happen. They were the elite: church leaders, academics, most of the unions, the Premier, the Governor-General. The same happened in South Australia and NSW. Daniel Mannix, Marcus Clark, Mrs Fairfax, the Chancellor of the University of Sydney, Supreme Court Judges, the Lord Mayors of Perth, Sydney and Fremantle, historian Charles Bean, writer Nettie Palmer, MP Maurice Blackburn, activist Jessie Street. In the first months of 1940 every newspaper in the country published the petition and its signatories. “The advantages of this project to Australia are obvious,” it read. “Australia may face a population crisis, caused by decline in the birth rate and immigration. War may cause a further drop in both and we may find ourselves without the population necessary to support our growing industrial organisation, our defence responsibilities and our progress.” The Jewish refugees were “young, virile, industrious people who want to settle among us, adopt our culture and become associated with our destiny. They present no danger. All they seek are homes for themselves and their children and the right to live and work in peace, which has been denied to them by the inhuman regimes in Europe. To offer them, under proper safeguards, refuge in Australia would raise our moral status throughout the world.”
Also on The Big Smoke
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- The fraught history between Italian and white Australians
- The place with no beer/democracy: Looking back at the lessons of the Darwin rebellion
Not everybody was as enthusiastic, though. Some unions thought that “young Jews should not be allowed to come here while young Australians are walking the streets” unemployed. There were letters to the newspapers, with one person writing that “aliens obtaining free land in Australia” was a bad idea. A member of the Electrical Trades Union was even convinced that “the race in question (had) nothing in common with the ideals of Australia”. And a newspaper posed that the persecution of the Jews in Europe was their own fault. “By their malpractices, they ask for it – and get it. They are never loyal to any country in which they settle. That is how they would get themselves into trouble in Australia, as everywhere else.” Not all Australian Jews were happy either. Zionists preferred Palestine, and others were afraid that this large group of Jews would attract too much attention, with possible antisemitism as a consequence. Of course, there had been antisemitism in Australia before. The Bulletin had claimed, for instance, that the Boer War had been caused by Jews, and even our greatest general, John Monash, had not always been treated fairly. As a result, Australian Jews had mostly decided to make themselves as good as invisible, afraid for the “survival of the community”.
So there were issues. But in the end, the biggest problem was the outbreak of the war. Menzies and then Curtin were otherwise engaged and the Kimberley Scheme ended up on the back-burner. In 1942, Steinberg left Australia for the US. From his home there, he wrote to John Curtin that “millions of my people, including women and children, are being persecuted for no guilt at all. The dreadful word ‘extermination’ hovers over the heads of the remnants of Israel in a drastic way as cannot even be imagined by peaceful and decent people”. He thanked him for the “bonds of elementary solidarity” and again advocated the Kimberley Plan. In July 1944, Curtin officially rejected the idea of a Jewish settlement anywhere in Australia. His government said it feared that the Jews would eventually drift to the cities and leave the unpopulated areas as empty as they had been before. There had also been an opinion poll that showed that 47% of the respondents opposed the scheme. Partly because they didn’t believe that Jews could be farmers and partly because they were afraid that they would be Communists instead. Also, the secret service had opposed it. From New York, Steinberg called it “an outrage” and a “deep disappointment”. Hoping to persuade one of the rabbis to intervene on his behalf, he was told that “the chief official objection appears to be that (it is seen as) a potential quasi cancerous growth, out of tune with the rest of Australian life”. A year later, a message reached him that his mother had died at Auschwitz. Melech Ravitch eventually ended up in Montreal, leaving his teenage children Ruth and Yosl in Melbourne. There Yosl became a painter, friend of Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd. He migrated to Israel in 1950. His sister Ruth became a dancer and choreographer. She was the only one to stay in Australia. In Melbourne, not the Kimberley.
For this story I have used the following sources:
William Rubinstein Jews in the Sixth Continent, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1987
Kevin Murray “The promised land”, The Age Saturday Review, 24 January 2004,
Hilary Rubinstein The Jews in Australia – Volume one 1788-1945, Port Melbourne, William Heinemann, 1991
Leon Gettler An Unpromised Land, Fremantle, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993
Eileen O’Brien Tasmania Transformed or Transportation Revisited? Immigration to Tasmania 1945-1955, Masters of Humanities Thesis, University of Tasmania, December 1992