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Cowra’s other wartime story: A haven for Jews who fled the Nazis

Steve Meacham
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Published: 30 July 2018

Last updated: 4 March 2024

EARLY NEXT MONTH the NSW town of Cowra will celebrate the 74th anniversary of the infamous Cowra breakout, when 1100 Japanese prisoners staged the largest World War II prison escape on Australian soil.

But this pleasant town, which sits in a farming district 314km west of Sydney, has another war tale to tell, the little-known story of a settlement that became a haven for Jewish refugees who had fled Europe in the months before the war.

There’s little left now to mark the Mooringa settlement on the Forbes Road out of Cowra but thanks to historian, and long-time Cowra resident, Graham Apthorpe, the record of an extraordinary period of Australian-Jewish history survives.

Following Nazi Germany’s implementation of the infamous Nuremberg Laws in 1936, expatriate Jewish organisations sought to spirit as many potential victims out of Germany and Eastern Europe as possible. The United States, Britain, even Shanghai, became potential sanctuaries.

In Australia, Jewish leaders appealed to Canberra to take Jewish refugees. And in December 1938 - following the Nazi occupation of Austria and Czechoslovakia - Joe Lyons’ Labor government agreed to take an unprecedented 15,000 escaping Jews.

Of course, it came with conditions, explains Apthorpe, author of two books about wartime Cowra and chair of next year’s commemoration of the Cowra Breakout. “The usual £500 landing fee would be reduced to £200 for those with relatives in Australia and £30 for those with sponsors, provided all Jewish immigrants would be the responsibility of the local Jewish communities.”

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What Australia needed in wartime was food, particularly vegetables, poultry, sheep - and pigs. “The Australian Jewish Welfare Service established two companies,” Apthorpe says. “One was the Mutual Farm Ltd and the other was Mutual Enterprises Ltd.

“The aim was to settle as many of these Jewish refugees into agricultural enterprises as soon as possible to satisfy the government’s requirements and guarantee the newcomers would not be a burden on the Australian purse.”

The refugees were all city folk and few of these men, women and children had worked on the land. Most of the records of the farms they were sent to have been lost but they included, Apthorpe says, “poultry farms, vegetable farms and rice farms”.

The main training took place at Chelsea Park in Sydney’s Baulkham Hills. “Records indicate that in 1940 over 200 people were trained and 25 families moved to their own properties, while 28 married couples were in rural employment along with 63 young men working as farm labourers.

“An additional 52 trainees were in residence at Chelsea Park while several families were awaiting entry in 1940.”

Apthorpe interviewed four of the key characters - Harry Cromer (originally Kramer), Claude Newcombe, Margit Scouller and George Bluth.  Cromer was the last survivor, passing away recently, aged 101.

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Apthorpe also spoke to Kurt Pisk, who is the little boy dressed in lederhosen in the group photo of the Mooringa community. Born in Austria in 1937, Kurt’s parents Fred and Anna fled Vienna after the Anschluss of March 1938, when Hitler annexed their country. During their time at Mooringa, the Pisks were allocated two Italian POWs to help them with the farm work. The Italians earned respect by making rings out of “the King’s coinage” - then, as now, a crime.

Mooringa - a 100-hectare property - was purchased by Mutual Farms in September 1940. During the war it was home to seven Jewish families, with about 14 men working it.

By then, the war had begun - and the Jewish refugees found they had a new problem. As German and Austrian citizens, who had arrived with swastikas on their passports, they were regarded as “enemy aliens” and threatened with internment.

Eventually, Apthorpe says, sanity prevailed. “How can we be Nazi sympathisers when we’re fleeing the Nazis?” they asked. Eventually, they were declared “friendly aliens”.

At Mooringa, the refugees were helped by local families - as is evident from the collection of rare photos Apthorpe recorded (mainly from Harry Cromer’s photo album) that includes images of Charles Greaves, Mel Blume and “Mr and Mrs” Bradford.

It’s a wonder Cromer took any photos at all because he was prosecuted at Cowra Court for “being in possession of a camera”, and it was confiscated - even though he told the magistrate he’d bought it to take pictures of his baby daughter.

But this was typical of the times. The refugees at Mooringa were forbidden binoculars, motor vehicles, firearms, carrier pigeons and even torches - in case they used them to advantage the very enemy they had escaped.

Regulations insisted the Mooringa Jews had to report each week to the local police sergeant in Cowra. That entailed a lengthy trip by horse and sulky - made more difficult because Gypsy, the horse, was blind in one eye and would shy at any impediment.

According to Apthorpe, the sensible sergeant - realising none of the Jews were a risk to Allied security - told them to report once a month.

The photos show the refugees slowly learning how to prosper on the land and survive Australia.

They are shown taking “a smoko” outside a tent. Building their huts. Cutting gum trees into fence posts. Working with horses. Learning to plough and harvest. Posing for photos by the Lachlan river on rare days off and counting themselves among the lucky ones.

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They were still under surveillance. A 1942 report by the Intelligence Section at the Cowra POW Camp noted that there was “a small colony of Austro-Jews at Mulyan on the Canowindra Road”. As Apthorpe points out, both the name of the property and the location were incorrect.

For most of the war, Mooringa was a harsh but happy place. The main problem came at shearing time.

“When the middle aged and highly unionised shearers turned up, Mooringa changed dramatically,” Apthorpe says. “Meals had to be ready at a specific time, and work started and stopped by the clock.”

The community at Mooringa began to disintegrate from 1942 once the Jewish men were allowed to enlist in the Australian armed forces.

By February 1944, the Cowra Guardian was lamenting that “the German Jew Settlement on the Lachlan River” had been sold and broken up “when many of our boys are returning and want a crack at the land”.

See: A Town At War: stories from Cowra during WWII, gapthorpe52@gmail.com.

All photos: Cowra Shire Council and the private collection of  Harry Cromer




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