31 May 2009

Asylum is still a numbers game

Barry Cohen | May 26, 2009
Article from:  The Australian
IN the late 1890s, Moishe Koziwoda departed Russian occupied Poland in a vegetable cart to escape 30 years’ national service in the tsar’s army. Being Jewish, he was guaranteed the filthiest and most dangerous jobs. Few Jews survived.
From Germany he travelled to England where he found safe haven enabling him to send for his wife Zelda. After having three children in England they sailed to South Africa where they had a further three. Restless souls, they departed South Africa for Australia. Later they tried Canada and the US before deciding Australia was the country for them. Those of his family who did not have his prescience perished in the gas chambers of Chelmno and Auschwitz.
So what’s special about the Koziwoda family? Only that they were my grandparents.
Almost a century after they left the villages of Pajeczno and Dzialoszyn, I “returned”..
Thanks to the generosity of the Polish Government and the mayor of Pajeczno, who opened the village archives, we departed with a treasure trove of my family’s history.
“When the Nazis arrived in Dzialoszyn in June 1940, they took all the Jews out in the fields and shot them immediately,” the mayor recounted. The matter-of-fact way he said it chilled my blood. “However, in Pajeczno they kept all the Jews – numbering about 500 – in a ghetto in the Jewish quarter bordered by Kosciusko Street. They remained there for about one year until one day they rounded them up and put them in the church, where they kept them for a week. While they were there, the Polish people tried to help by smuggling food to them but eventually trucks took them all away. Most were never seen again.” Pajeczno and Dzialoszyn had been made, as Hitler promised Europe, “Judenrein”.
It is difficult to describe my emotions at the time. At first I was numb, trying yet again, to comprehend how people – any people, let alone the most sophisticated in Europe – could behave this way to fellow human beings. Then my numbness turned to bitterness, anger and frustration. Bitterness at what those monsters had done, anger at the Allies’ failure to do more to rescue those whose lives were in peril, frustration that so many of the perpetrators had escaped without trial or punishment.
To this day I cherish a fading sepia-toned photograph of my great uncle and aunt Mendel and Mindel Koziwoda and their children: Itzik, Charna, Malka, Mania, Yidel, Moishe and Faigele. Only Itzik (Jack Cousens) survived Auschwitz to be granted refugee status in Australia where he raised a family and lived into his early70s.
No one should be surprised therefore that I have sympathy for those now seeking refuge in Australia. Had Australia and other democracies shown a similar generosity of spirit to the millions of Jews desperate to escape Nazi Germany, many more would have been saved.
At the Evian conference in France, in July 1938, 32 countries met to see what could be done to help European Jewry. Former Australian PM and then high commissioner to Great Britain, Stanley Bruce recommended that Australia accept 30,000 over three years. On December 1 the then minister for the interior, and later PM, John McEwen, announced Australia would accept 15,000.
In the parliamentary debate that followed, Albert Green disgraced the Labor Party with an anti-Semitic rant that would have been more apposite in Nuremberg. Unfortunately, neither John Curtin nor Ben Chifley, who followed Green in the debate, bothered to disown him. That was left to Labor’s William Maloney and United Australia Party’s Percy Spender.
Kristallnacht in November 1938 and the outbreak of World War II ensured only a fraction of the 15,000 made it to Australia. Our bureaucrats were not a great help. Only Jews with sufficient money were eligible for visas. If they had sufficient money they were branded as “criminals” in Germany and prevented from emigrating.
How many should Australia have taken: 30,000, 300,000, three million? There was always going to be a limit that would be too many for some, too little for others. Which brings us to the present debate in Australia about refugees, illegals, asylum seekers; call them what you will. It’s still a matter of numbers.
Since World War II Australia has taken some 700,000 refugees and people in humanitarian need. Australia’s record of taking refugees is one of the best in the world. The target this year is 13,750.
That won’t satisfy those in the media and academe who seem intent on proving that Australia is a deeply racist and xenophobic nation. For them, our treatment of Aborigines and the White Australia policy is proof positive of that. The abandonment of the White Australia policy by the Holt government in 1966 and the continuing efforts of successive governments to improve the lot of the Aborigines is conveniently overlooked.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the reaction to John Howard’s statement: “We will decide who comes to this country and the manner in which they come”. For the chattering classes this was final proof that Howard was a racist. What they overlooked was that his words could have been used by every PM from Edmund Barton to Kevin Rudd.
When challenged to name one government since Federation with a different immigration policy, they mutter about “compassion”. I’m all for compassion but tell me what that means in numbers? Howard could have chosen his words more carefully but he merely reiterated the policy of his predecessors. No Australian government, and for that matter, no government in the world has an “open-door” policy.
The immigration debate has always been about numbers but it’s about time those who wail about Australia’s lack of compassion look at our record in providing a welcome to the world’s dispossessed and tell us precisely how many more refugees they would admit. Double, treble, quadruple? I’ll go along with that, but spare us the hypocrisy of indulging in the politics of the “warm inner glow”. Tell us, how many or if they would prefer an open-door policy?

Barry Cohen was a minister in the Hawke Labor government between 1983 and 1987.

Scroll to Top