Last week the discovery of Nazi symbols sprayed outside a Wellington synagogue brought shock and condemnation. But New Zealand is no stranger to antisemitism. In light of increasing ignorance about the Holocaust, we need to revisit and acknowledge our history, writes Scott Hamilton.
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Around the world, candles will be lit to honour the six and a quarter million Jews who died in Europe between 1933, when the Nazis took power in Germany, and 1945, when Hitler shot himself amid the ruins of Berlin. Last year a poll found that 29% of New Zealanders knew little or nothing about the Holocaust. When they were asked whether the Holocaust was a myth, a third of those polled either refused to respond or said they were unsure how to answer. Only 18% of young New Zealanders said they knew much about the Holocaust.
Giacomo Lichtner, an associate professor of history at Victoria University, wrote an op-ed on Stuff to explain why he was unsurprised by the findings of the poll. When he has tried to talk to New Zealanders about the Holocaust, Lichtner has often found Kiwis sceptical about the event’s relevance to their country. What, they wonder, could faraway New Zealand have had to do with the tragedy of the Jews in fascist Europe?
But for many Jewish victims of Nazi persecution in the late 1930s, New Zealand was an urgently relevant place. Thousands of them dreamed of finding safety in this country, and applied for permission to travel here.
Eva Brent was one of the Jews desperate to enter New Zealand. In 1938 she was a young woman living in Berlin. Nazi mobs were torching the city’s synagogues, and looting its Jewish-owned stores. Eva and her mother wrote hasty letters to New Zealand’s embassy in London, and filled out the complex forms the embassy sent them.
In the winter of 1939, just a few months before the beginning of World War Two and the closure of Germany’s borders, Eva Brent arrived in New Zealand. Her parents were not with her: New Zealand did not want them. Eva’s mother and father were eventually killed by the Nazis.
In 1988 Ann Beaglehole published an important book about the experiences of Eva Brent and other Jewish refugees to New Zealand. In an appendix to her book, Beaglehole reproduced two form letters used by New Zealand civil servants. The first letter was sent to Jewish and Czech Europeans who had inquired about migrating to New Zealand. The second letter was sent to other Europeans who made the same inquiry.
The letter aimed at Jews used much harsher, much more discouraging language than the message sent to non-Jews. Whereas gentiles were merely told that “it may not be possible” for an application to be granted, Jews were warned that “it would probably hardly be worth your while going to the trouble of making application”. The letter to Jews said that immigration permits would be issued “only in very special cases”, without explaining what a very special case entailed.
Between 1931 and 1940, New Zealand accepted 1100 Jewish refugees, and rejected many more. Figures for the whole period are unavailable, but we know that from 1936 to 1938, 1731 Jews applied for immigration permits and were rejected.
Some countries were more generous to Jews. The Dominican Republic, which is less than a fifth of the size of New Zealand, accepted 30,000 Jewish refugees from Hitler. Switzerland, which is even smaller, also took 30,000. Fifty thousand Jews found refuge in the tiny international zone of the city of Shanghai.
Fascists often seemed more welcome than Jews in 1930s New Zealand. Soon after Hitler seized power, New Zealanders began to return from visits to Germany with admiring reports. In 1934 John Laird, minister of the Mt Albert Baptist church, came back from a conference in Berlin with the news that Hitler had given Germany “unity, peace, security, and hope”. Laird said that Germany’s Jews were to blame for their persecution by Hitler; many of them were “rabid communists”. In 1935 DM Rae, the principal of Auckland Teachers Training College, gave a public lecture on the great things he had seen during a pilgrimage to Germany. Rae thought that Hitler “had given hope” to Germans.
A young New Zealand linguist named Reuel Lochore spent the first half of the 30s studying in Berlin and Bonn. He returned to New Zealand in 1935 with a toothbrush moustache. In an interview with the Auckland Star, Lochore claimed that “Germany did not exist as a nation” until Hitler took power in 1933. Lochore added that Hitler’s murders of his political opponents were part of a “cleaning up operation”. Lochore toured New Zealand lecturing about the need for rapprochement with the Nazis. In one lecture, he boasted about attending a training camp for Nazi stormtroopers.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, one of New Zealand’s largest voluntary organisations, admired some Nazi policies. In 1935 the WCTU’s Auckland section gathered to hear a talk about Hitler’s efforts to cut alcohol consumption in Germany. A South Island branch of the WCTU convened to praise Hitler’s economic policies.
Hitler’s antisemitism resonated with other New Zealanders. In 1931 the journalist and admirer of Hitler Arthur Nelson Field published a book called The Truth About the Slump, which blamed a conspiracy by Jewish financiers for the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. Field’s tome became a bestseller in New Zealand, and also found readers in Australia, Britain, and the United States. The Social Credit Association, which was founded in the early 30s and by 1935 had 225 branches, regularly accused Jews of orchestrating the global economic crisis.
German Clubs had existed in New Zealand towns and cities since the 19th century. They had been places where German migrants could gossip, recite Goethe, and read newspapers from the homeland. After the Nazis took power, the German Clubs became centres for Nazi indoctrination and propaganda. Swastika flags were hung in clubrooms; Nazi songs were sung; intelligence on anti-fascists was shared.
The German Clubs were complemented by “Fascisti” organisations set up by local supporters of Benito Mussolini. In 1934 New Zealand saw its first fascist rally, as the Italian warship Armando Diaz visited Wellington.
The ship was accompanied to the docks by a fleet of local fishing boats flying fascist banners. Its crew disembarked, and marched into central Wellington with a crowd of Fascisti Club members. After being joined by a large delegation from the Returned Services Association, the fascists laid wreaths on Wellington’s cenotaph and offered stiff-armed salutes to the dead of World War One. A few weeks later the Evening Post published a letter from Mussolini. The dictator had written to thank Wellingtonians for the welcome they had given his forces.
In 1936 Germany sent a full ambassador to New Zealand for the first time. Walter Hellenthal was a former air force pilot and a committed Nazi. In an interview he gave to the Evening Post after stepping off his ship, he said that Germans had become a “happy and contented people”, thanks to Hitler.
In 1938 one of the most famous Germans in the world visited New Zealand. During World War One Count Felix von Luckner had commanded a ship called the Sea Eagle, which had captured, pillaged and sunk dozens of Allied vessels in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Von Luckner and his crew were captured and imprisoned on Auckland’s Motuihe Island. They managed to escape in a tiny boat, and were only recaptured in the Kermadecs.
Von Luckner returned to New Zealand at the beginning of 1938, on a tour of the world paid for by the Nazi regime. After disembarking in Auckland, von Luckner told a New Zealand Herald reporter of his “respect” for Hitler. Von Luckner gave talks to large and enthusiastic audiences throughout New Zealand. In Auckland, he filled the hall of the Eden-Roskill Returned Services Club. At Wellington’s Opera House his calls for peace and friendship with Nazi Germany were loudly and regularly applauded.
In the last summer before World War Two, the German naval vessel Kommodore Johnsen toured New Zealand. The ship’s crew of 45 were made very welcome. At New Plymouth they gave a New Year’s concert to an audience that included the town’s mayor and other local worthies. The evening ended with the sailors giving stiff-armed salutes and singing the Nazi Party anthem Horst Wessel, while locals stood respectfully.
After they docked at Auckland in late January, the crew of the Kommodore Johnsen marched up Queen Street in their uniforms, singing Horst Wessel and Deutschland Uber Alles. The New Zealand Herald reported that the “effect of melodious young voices in harmony was very fine, and it caused crowds to flock to the scene”. A correspondent of the Waikato Independent visited the Kommodore Johnsen while it was tied up at Auckland, and noted that “practically every cabin” contained “a picture of Herr Hitler”.
But the most important connections with Nazi Germany were made by the Labour government New Zealand had elected in 1935. Desperate to kickstart the country’s economy, Labour tried to expand and diversify international trade. At the end of 1936, finance minister Walter Nash travelled to London, and tried to convince Britain’s politicians and bankers to help establish a new set of bilateral trade deals among members of the Commonwealth. The British quickly rejected Nash’s complicated proposals.
Frustrated by his reception in London, Nash made an unscheduled visit to Germany, where he was welcomed by Hitler’s regime. Nash and his Nazi counterparts soon negotiated the outlines of a trade deal. By the end of 1937 New Zealand was exporting 500 tonnes of butter to Germany.
Back in New Zealand, the deal with Nazism was greeted with delight. Mark Fagan, the leader of the legislative council, the upper house of parliament, said the agreement had “already brought about a better understanding between New Zealand and Germany”, and thanked Walter Hellenthal for his efforts to improve relations between the nations.
In July 1937, when the trade agreement was being finalised, minister of labour Tim Armstrong toured Germany, visiting factories and talking with leaders of the country’s powerless trade unions. Armstrong declared that “the German people appeared to be very contented” under Hitler’s rule.
Walter Nash was minister of customs as well as minister of finance in the late 1930s, and it was the Ministry of Customs that had responsibility for assessing applications by would-be immigrants to New Zealand.
Although Nash was too busy to attend to the day-to-day implementation of immigration policy, he did comment on that policy in 1939. Replying to a letter from New Zealand’s Quakers, who wanted the country to accept more Jewish refugees, Nash claimed that “there is a major difficulty in absorbing these people in our cultural life”.
His explanation might seem superficially plausible. New Zealand immigration policy had longed valued assimilation; British were preferred as migrants, because they supposedly blended into New Zealand society better than other groups. But why had Nash decided that Jews found it harder to assimilate in New Zealand than other peoples from continental Europe? Since the 19th century, Jews had been important to New Zealand’s political, commercial and cultural life. Julius Vogel was a practising Jew, but he was able to become premier of the colony in 1873. The Hallenstein, Myers and Nathan families had built business empires. There had been little antisemitism in New Zealand before the 30s.
Nash’s claim that Jews found it especially hard to assimilate in New Zealand is so dubious that we might wonder whether there was another reason for his reluctance to allow Jewish refugees to settle here in the late 30s. Did he fear that welcoming too many refugees might antagonise Nazi Germany, and imperil his trade deal?
Nash seems to have left the processing of applications for immigration permits to the senior officials at the Ministry of Customs. The ministry was managed to Edwin Good, who had been made comptroller of customs in 1935, and would hold the position until his retirement in 1946. In 1939 Good wrote a memo for ministry staff, in which he stated that “non-Jewish applicants are regarded as a more suitable type of immigrant”.
In 1938, the Evening Post had published a tribute to Walter Hellenthal, who was taking a leave of absence from his post in New Zealand. The article described the many “luncheons, dinner parties, and cocktail parties” that Wellington’s German Club had organised to make Hellenthal’s stay in the city enjoyable. The Evening Post listed some of the hosts of these parties. Edwin Good appeared on its list. If Good was involved in the German Club, an organisation saturated with Nazism and antisemitism, then he may have had personal, ideological reasons for keeping Jews out of New Zealand.
The troubles of Jewish refugees did not end when they reached New Zealand. After the outbreak of war with Germany in September 1939, refugees were often considered potential or actual agents of the enemy. The same Jews who had been marked for extermination by Nazism were suddenly suspected of Nazi sympathies.
In 1940 the government created a set of Alien Emergency Regulations. Refugees from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Italy were deemed “enemy aliens”. A few were imprisoned on Somes Island (Matiu) in Wellington harbour. Others were banned from leaving their neighbourhoods without permits, and prevented from working in supposedly sensitive areas of the economy – on the wharves, for example. All enemy aliens were barred from owning cameras, maps, shortwave radios and x-ray machines.
The government hired Reuel Lochore, the outspoken apologist for Nazi Germany, to monitor the enemy aliens. Lochore’s fluent German meant he could communicate with many refugees, but his antisemitism and his penchant for opening mail infuriated many aliens. Some compared him to a Gestapo officer.
During the war years Jews also came under pressure from professional groups, who worried about competition from highly skilled migrants. The New Zealand sections of the British Medical Association campaigned against refugee doctors, arguing that they should not be allowed to practise here. In response, the government made it compulsory for refugee doctors to do no less than three years of “training” at the Otago Medical School.
The Returned Services Association repeatedly called for the mass, indiscriminate internment of all “enemy aliens”, and claimed that they were taking jobs that should be kept for soldiers serving abroad.
In June 1945, when the war had been over for only a few weeks, and images of Nazi death camps like Auschwitz and Dachau were shocking the rest of the world, a national conference of the RSA called for the deportation of all “enemy aliens” who had arrived in New Zealand from 1939, and for the confiscation of any wealth they had acquired during their time in the country. The RSA’s demand would have forced Eva Brent and many other Jews to return to a divided, hungry and ruined Germany.
A number of newspapers supported the RSA. The Dominion argued that the refugees had been “given shelter during a storm”; now that the storm was over, they should “go home”.
The Jewish community mobilised against the RSA’s demand. At a rally in Auckland’s synagogue, Jews who had fought for New Zealand recounted their experiences. Critics of the RSA noted how deportation and confiscation had been tools of Nazi Germany. Eventually prime minister Peter Fraser sided with the refugees, and dismissed the RSA’s idea.
The 1100 Jewish refugees who reached New Zealand survived and prospered here. But on Holocaust Remembrance Day, we should acknowledge how many more Jewish victims of persecution could and should have been given sanctuary on our shores.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.