Online tour to remember the Dunera Boys after 80 years

By John Lewis

The incredible wartime story of the Dunera Boys will be retold this weekend to mark the 80th anniversary of of their arrival in Australia and subsequent internment in prisoner of war camps at Tatura.

On September 1, 1940, the British ship Dunera arrived in Melbourne carrying 2500 "enemy aliens" from Europe.

The men - mostly Germans, Austrians and Italians - were not ordinary prisoners of war - among them were university lecturers, artists, musicians, businessmen and celebrated chefs.

They were sent to hastily built prison camps in Tatura where they wrote, painted, taught, created and even picked fruit before being released at the end of the war to return home. Many chose to remain in Australia.

One of the Dunera Boys sent to Tatura was Erwin Frenkel, the grandfather of Shepparton's Michelle Frenkel.

She said her grandfather's parents and three sisters all perished in the Holocaust.

A classically trained pianist who was born in Vienna, Erwin escaped to England in 1938 where he earned money playing piano in pubs. When war was declared the British authorities put Erwin and hundreds of other "enemy aliens" on board the ill-fated Arandora Star bound for Canada.

When the ship was sunk by a German U-Boat torpedo off the coast of Ireland with the loss of 800 lives, Erwin managed to survive by clinging to a life raft for six hours.

He was then returned to England and put on board the Dunera, bound for Australia. During the 57-day journey the detainees had to endure appalling conditions, including 10 toilets for 2500 men, limited fresh water and the cruelty and ransacking of their possessions by British guards.

Erwin spent two years at Tatura's Camp2 before being allowed to enlist in the Australia army in which he served for four years. He went on to open a Viennese coffee house and become a successful businessman in Melbourne.

Eighty years later, the descendants and friends of the Dunera Boys were due once again to celebrate their story with a series of get-togethers in and around Tatura.

Then COVID-19 arrived to put a damper on meetings and celebrations.

However, this year the Dunera Association will honour the memory of the men who were sent half way around the world to start new lives with a series of online events on Sunday, August 30.

These include a "virtual tour" of the Tatura Museum which houses many of the artworks and artefects from the internment camps.

The events, presented together with Emanuel Synagogue, Sydney, will feature a talk by Dunera Association president Ron Reichwald, and a presentation by Dunera Boy Leonhard Adam's daughter, Mary-Clare Adam from Israel, on her father's life as a judge, anthropologist and artist.

The Tatura Museum now holds a fascinating collection of Leonhard's art including his paintings of life in the internment camps.

Ms Frenkel said the arrival of the Dunera Boys was now remembered as a catalyst for personal change among the boys and for Australia.

“Personally, it is a tradition that I cherish to remember my grandfather, pass along the stories to the next generation and maintain connections with the families of other Dunera Boys who shared the journey,” she said.

She said Leonhard Adam's story was also one of resilience, success and prolific talent.

“His paintings tell a million stories of his life before, during and after internment, as well as his moods, and provide a time capsule of places and times.

“He was also the first person to advocate that Aboriginal people use their traditional designs for commercial purposes - such as painting on canvas or pottery or weaving. It's interesting that this transformational concept was instigated by a Dunera Boy from Germany,” Ms Frenkel said.

People are invited to join this weekend's events from 3 pm to 4.30 pm on Sunday, August 30, for this historic online event. To register go to: