Migrations Searching for the Internment Camp Where My Father Was Held
The phrase used was “barbed wire fever”—what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.
I wheel my suitcase through Southern Cross Station in Melbourne in April 2016, passing the electronic ticket machines and sushi stands. I am on my way to a place that my father traveled to more than seventy-five years before, when he was a detainee sent to Australia by the British government. When he arrived, he was brought to an internment camp in the outback, to a town called Hay.
The Melbourne-Sydney XPT has blue-and-orange mottled seats and the marred finishes of a train with at least two decades service; the windows don’t open. I’m in first class because there were no economy seats left. First class passengers in Australia are almost all retirees on discounted fares I’d read. And now, I can see this is true: I am one of the youngest people in the carriage.
I take my place in a reserved seat next to a skinny woman in her late sixties. She has tight-curled hair and heavy makeup applied as if she doesn’t wear it often. She’s calling out comments to a companion in the row directly in front of her, leaning forward to see over the top of the seat. The woman she is talking to, dressed as if they’re on the same team, twists around and calls back to her. I am elbowed off the arm rest. The woman next to me squirms like a child. I look down the aisle, spot an empty space next to a window, and relocate myself.
My father arrived in Australia on the HMT Dunera, a passenger ship turned into a prison ship that left Liverpool, England on July 20, 1940. There were more than two thousand German, Austrian, and Italian nationals on board. They had been living in Britain, and from their homes, were rounded up in a fit of wartime suspicion. The men spent almost eight weeks at sea. Initially, they believed they were on their way to Canada. After some of the men observed the constellations, they realized: There was no place they could be going but Australia.
Out the train window, in the morning sun, the suburbs of Melbourne give way to the brown and bare landscape of autumn. A plump, uniformed train guard walks the aisle checking people’s tickets, and when he looks at mine, observes that my reservation is for another seat. Can I sit here instead? I ask. By the window? No, he says, someone will be coming on later. Can I sit here until they do? No, he says. If someone boards and sees another person in their reserved seat, they’ll think they have to sit somewhere else. People have to sit in their assigned seats, he tells me.
I go to my reserved seat. The skinny sixty-something with harsh eye makeup glares at me. Aren’t there any other seats? She wants to know. I was told to come back here, I explain. But there are empty seats over there, she gestures. The train guard asked me to come here, I repeat. But couldn’t I use one of those other seats until the next passenger comes? She’s very welcome to speak to the train guard herself, I say.
The Dunera Boys, as they would come to be known, sought justice and provided testimony about their voyage in the weeks after their arrival. They described the brutality of the military guards, the lack of soap and clean clothes, the stink and darkness of life below deck, the nights of sleeping snug up against strangers. The ship was overcrowded; there was no private place to take a shit. The British military guards didn’t care or didn’t register that most of the German and Austrian prisoners had fled to England because they were Jewish or political opponents of the Nazis. On the ship, the prisoners’ luggage was looted. My father arrived in Australia with an empty suitcase.
This train will only take me as far as Cootamundra, where I’ll get on a bus to travel the rest of the way. Trains stopped running to Hay in 1986. You can drive from Melbourne to Hay in under five hours, take the Northern Highway to the Cobb Highway and find an abbreviated downtown made up of motels and restaurants for travelers on their way to somewhere else. There is also the Dunera Museum. It is at the town’s disused rail station, where the men from the Dunera disembarked. From there, they walked to a compound of wooden huts surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. The museum’s exhibits are on display in old rail cars. They tell you about the people who were once held here: Italian POWs and civilians, Japanese pearl divers who worked in the Torres Strait, and of course the Dunera Boys.
The woman next to me explains that she and her friend are getting off in Cootamundra. She tells me this so that I will know that we don’t have to share the seats all the way to Sydney. I’m getting off in Cootamundra too, I say. I ask her what she and her friend are doing in Cootamundra. They’re judging a dog show, she tells me. How nice! I lie.
I grew up with an inexplicable and implausible story that my father recited for guests over dinner, for parents of children I played with, for strangers my father had just met. I heard the story—his version of the story—again and again as I was growing up on the dreg end of Manhattan: He was a boy ostracized in his village in Germany, then a teenager in a concentration camp, and then as he became a man he was arrested and exiled again, this time by the British. Arrested by the British? Why? Brought to Australia? No one had ever heard of this. How was this possible?
The woman and her companion shout to each other over the seat backs again. Would you like to change seats? I ask the woman sitting in the row ahead. She has an empty seat next to her. She’s fine there, she says. But if you want to talk to each other, I’m happy to sit where you are, I try again. We’ll see each other enough over the weekend, the woman next to me sneers. I tell her that the train is almost booked solid, that I am in first class because there were no more seats available in economy. Her phone rings—tinkly 1970s rock. She picks it up and broadcasts her conversation. The train’s full! she shouts. There aren’t any seats in economy class! Shock horror! she says, with the sarcasm of a suburban teenager.
My father told the story of what happened to him to during the war again and again, as if recounting it meant that his listener could reach back in time and help. But of course it was unchangeable. And his telling of the story too was unchangeable—like a film script. Over time, after hearing him convey it to so many people, I began to know when he would pause, what he would repeat, what he would need to confirm and explain. And I hated the story; I felt humiliated by it. A boy who, after his release from a concentration camp, after escaping from a country about to go up in flames, encounters more bad luck: arrest, removal, brutality delivered by British guards. Brutal British guards? How was this possible during the Second World War?
But the train ride to the internment camp at Hay is remembered as a kind of deliverance; the behavior of the Australian military so different than the behavior of the British. The men describe Australian guards with slouch hats who offered them cigarettes and chocolate. They remember enormous and fragrant oranges that they savored after the deprivations of the ship. When they saw the flat and vacant land outside the train, they realized they were on their way to nowhere. Even so, they were finally on dry land, off the ship. One of the men painted a kangaroo leaping alongside the train.
When I try to picture my father on the train, I picture him silent. I picture him conjuring a smile when he feels it is required. He looks out the window at the emptiness, and he is struck dumb by it all. After eighteen months in Dagenham, he had just been learning to become English. With his kipper for breakfast, his dawn walks to classes down the coal-choked and cold foggy roads, he was starting to comprehend Britain. He had agreed to stop speaking his native language. He would have to do this to learn English, his teacher said. And I imagine him unable to find the language to articulate any of this.
When I gaze back down the aisle of the train, I can see the pair of empty seats is still empty, so I return to them. A new train guard is working the car. This one’s balding, with a wrinkled brow, built like a failed gym teacher. I have to go to my assigned seat, he insists. When I explain that no one has come to claim the seat, he picks up my ticket and places it in the seat up ahead, the one next to the dog show judge. I hesitantly return to the old seat and, again, the dog show judge elbows me, shifts angrily.
There is a story told about an Australian guard who approaches a prisoner and says to him, “I need to roll a cigarette. Can you hold my rifle?” The story has been told and retold with differing details: The guard has to light a cigarette rather than roll it. Or, the guard needs to take a pee and hands his rifle off.
I am in Australia because my father’s story wasn’t believable and because he lied about many things, everyday things. He lied about arguments he’d gotten into. He lied about where he’d been. He lied about paying the electric bill. The lights went off, and he swore he’d sent the check. We were all in the dark.
I am trying to find out what happened because, when a war movie came on, he stood in front of the black-and-white TV set with its snowy reception, hypnotized, and no one could get him to respond. I am trying to understand his incoherent fury—his rage bursting out of nowhere, especially in the morning when I was still asleep. I am trying to understand why he wound up estranged from every single one of his children. And when I regained contact with him, when he was a sick old man half out of his mind with dementia, when he had been prescribed medication to treat his depression, he seemed at peace for the first time in his life.
During the First World War, the Swiss physician Adolf Lukas Vischer coined a phrase to describe the psychological effects of internment: “barbed-wire disease.” The phrase used more widely during this time was “barbed wire fever,” an early description of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.
I have returned to the empty set of seats, and the train guard has reappeared. He comes upon me like a bully’s bully. He threatens to bring in the police; he threatens to have me removed from the train at the next station. And on it goes. I ask another train guard, can you find a seat for me? I don’t care where it is. I’m fine with economy. I just want to sit somewhere else. The woman next to me is being really hostile. The other train guard nods sympathetically, but she can’t do anything—there are no economy class seats left, and the man I’m dealing with is the train supervisor.
You are the problem, he snarls at me when he sees me again. It’s your attitude. I ask, Do you usually threaten to call the police when a passenger is riding a train they have a ticket for? Do you usually threaten to have people removed from a section of a train they’ve paid to sit in? Do you usually call the police because there’s a passenger sitting in a seat no one else has claimed? Don’t you think that’s a bit extreme? He blinks, moves slightly away. Now, I am telling him: This is my first time in Australia; I’m going to where my father was during the war. Something sticks in my throat as I say this. I don’t mention that my father was interned here as an enemy alien.
Softly, he says he thinks he can find me a seat somewhere. He tells me to hang on and slips away quickly, like someone’s strung out suburban father going for another hit. In the corridor of the train, I sway, my fingertips against the wall to brace myself as we slip down the tracks. The train guard reappears as if he’s gotten his fix. Come with me, he says, and he leads me to a compartment where a big woman and her big silent daughter sit. You’ll be fine with them, he says. And they are fine to travel with. And this part of the train is just what I wanted, what I imagine the trains were like back then—compartments like this filled with men who were smoking, eating oranges, leaning their rifles against the wall.
At Cootamundra, a group of us step out onto an ornate Victorian train platform. I drag my big trolley suitcase to where the buses are waiting. A woman smoking a cigarette calls out: I hope you don’t end up sitting next to anyone hostile on the bus. I laugh reflexively, then realize it is the companion of the skinny dog show judge.
The bus driver checks my ticket and doesn’t say anything about where to sit. I find a place next to a window. There are five more hours to go before we reach Hay, and all I want to do is stare out the window at this place. I thought it was possible that I would be taken off the train, not reach my destination today. But now I am on the bus, on the highway, and the cars are gliding by, and I start to think of a song that I haven’t remembered for a long time. I think about searches that end in heartbreak and “It took me four days to hitchhike to Saginaw.”
And the names of places from my home country start ticking into memory: Seneca, Saratoga, Patchogue, Massapequa, Mahopac. American Indian names, names from long ago journeys—my parents in the front seat of the car, driving the highways of New York State and singing the songs they learned when they first came to America. They’re singing “Roll on Columbia, roll on.” They’re driving and they’re singing and we are all in the car together back before everything went to shit, before my father stood hollow-eyed in front of the television watching war movies and my mother threatened to jump off the George Washington Bridge.
And I start to weep. The road is dark and the bus is dark by then and no one notices. I stare out at the shadows in this flat place, this empty countryside with strange birds on the other side of the planet, and I think, this is not my country. This place is not mine. I press my forehead to the window to get a better glimpse of the emptiness, the alien landscape. And I weep.