From Wartorn Europe to Australia

A retired schoolteacher from Adelaide with a PhD from Flinders University, Peter Brune is a brilliant scholar who has published eight books about Australian military history. When I was one of the judges, his 2014 Second World War history Descent into Hell was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Prize for Non-Fiction. As with most of his work, Suffering, Redemption and Triumph has been edited by the extremely capable Neil Thomas. Unusually, Thomas also played a key role in its publication and is involved in its promotion.

This scrupulously researched book, which focuses on the “first wave” of immigrants after the Second World War, is based on more than forty lengthy, often heart-rending interviews with former “displaced persons” that Brune conducted between 1999 and 2022.

After the war, large numbers of displaced persons came to Australia to escape the horrors of war-torn Europe. Under our Mass Resettlement Scheme, they came from Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece and Hungary. From 1947 to 1954 over 170,000 such immigrants arrived in Australia. The extraordinary, life-changing, sometimes harrowing war experiences of these men and women, and subsequent arrivals, Brune argues, “gave them the courage and hope to start a new life”.

Suffering, Redemption and Triumph explores how the thousands of immigrants who arrived from 1947 until the 1960s had the determination and resilience to make new lives for themselves in Australia. Drawing largely on their own words, Brune evokes the reception these immigrants found on arrival and their initial responses to living in an utterly different culture. Their reflections on their journey here and how they coped are inspirational. But it is salutary to note that, in the 1940s, immigrants escaping Europe were often described in the Australian press as “aliens”.

Many early refugees were Jewish, or political prisoners who had also survived the concentration camps. Others, Brune writes, “had worked in Germany and Austria for years as forced labourers sent from the lands of German conquest”. In addition to POWs who had endured years of torment, “there were the seething mass of fugitives desperately trying to stay ahead of the rapidly advancing Soviet Army as the war had drawn to a close, or those who made their frantic bid for freedom just after the Soviet occupation”.

Brune makes a compelling case that the arrival of such a diverse range of people was instrumental in helping create the multicultural Australia we now inhabit. As a crucial part of his lucid exposition, Brune analyses the immigration policies of Ben Chifley’s federal Labor government, and the selection criteria applied to assess applicants, both of which were driven by the Immigration Minister and future Labor leader, Arthur Calwell, the often controversial MHR for Melbourne. For economic and security reasons, Chifley and Calwell saw the need for a larger Australian population. Both were also acutely aware of a moral obligation to provide a new home for Europeans sufferings the ravages and deprivations of war. So, Australia conducted a bold political and cultural experiment. But, given the entrenched White Australia policy which most Australians then supported, as Brune writes, “to have even contemplated Asian immigration at that time would have constituted political suicide”.

All of these issues are highlighted in Calwell’s under-rated 1972 memoirs Be Just and Fear Not. He is often remembered as the Leader of the Opposition who lost three federal elections, but Brune rightly argues that Calwell’s “contribution to his country as the inaugural Minister of Immigration constitutes one of the nation’s most remarkable achievements”. I thoroughly concur with the assessment that, from July 1945 until the Chifley government was defeated in the December 1949 election by a Liberal Country Party coalition led by Robert Menzies, “Calwell displayed a unique degree of foresight, pragmatism and statesmanship”. At a personal level, Menzies and Calwell liked and admired each other.

An even-handed scholar, Brune understands that the “critical value of history to any nation must surely be not only the celebration and commemoration of its triumphs, but also the lessons learnt from its failures”. A prime example in this book is that no meaningful study of the first wave of Australian post-war immigration could be complete without an examination of those Nazi collaborators, avoiding trial or execution, who gained entry to Australia during the early post-war years. Brune examines in detail the Immigration Department’s selection processes during that time. He draws heavily and to great advantage on the extensive research of ex-communist Mark Aarons, first aired in a series of radio broadcasts in 1986, and in 1989 and 2001 published in two influential books, Sanctuary! Nazi Fugitives in Australia and War Criminals Welcome: Australia, A Sanctuary for Fugitive War Criminals since 1945.

Almost all these active supporters of the Third Reich who came to Australia were strongly anti-Semitic and anti-communist. In a key chapter, “An Immoral Episode”, Brune reveals that, as early as 1949, the “scandal of Nazi collaborators and communists arriving by ship” was taken up by the print media, especially the Sydney Sun and the Daily Telegraph. Brune endorses Aarons’s claim, “There is sufficient evidence that, in some cases, ASIO turned a blind eye to war criminals once they reached Australia, as long as they were strongly anti-communist.”

It is undoubtedly true that the overwhelming majority of post-war white Australians, including most politicians and public servants at the time, were insular in their attitudes and had little understanding of what had happened to the displaced persons who arrived here. In part this was due to “the tyranny of distance” depicted so accurately by Geoffrey Blainey in his book of that name. Among the many positive contributions in Suffering, Redemption and Triumph, Brune has chronicled some stark examples of the horrific war experiences of refugees, about which the general public was utterly unaware. An even cursory knowledge of what they endured would have engendered, he argues, “an appreciation … and most of all, compassion for their plights and admiration for their resilience”.

Brune’s book identifies among Australians “a frequent sense of jealousy toward the migrants’ work ethic; the problem of the language barrier; and the perceived failure of migrants to abandon their culture” and a perceived tendency to congregate in their clubs. However, Brune also identifies a lack of understanding by many immigrants of the prevailing culture of ordinary Australians. As he thoughtfully concludes, “They too had their beliefs, their attitudes to politics, to the workplace, to the structure and behaviour of the family unit, to the role of the female in that family; and to child-rearing. Their perceptions of Australians, therefore, were no less insular and restrictive than was the case in reverse.”

Some displaced persons from Europe who had experienced the terrors of war had a longing to re­unite with family and friends still left in the “old” country. But with their immigration to a new land also came, as Brune puts it, “the chance for security, for a fair day’s work and, therefore, the chance to improve their lives”—and the lives of their children. By any standard, the vast majority “achieved all that both they and the Australian nation could have dreamt of”. But they did so much more.

One example of eloquent mangled English comes from Jeka Cupkovic, a young Serbian refugee featured on the book’s cover, who after a four-day journey by plane, arrived in Adelaide in May 1961 to a future husband she had never met but who had organised the paperwork for her to come here. Jeka’s decision to accept his offer from such a distant land was primarily because of the plight of her mother—if Jeka left Serbia there would one less person in the family to feed—and a determination that in Australia as a wife and mother she would not suffer the poverty she experienced in Europe. During her interview with Brune, Jeka says:

We had not enough to eat. It was really bad. And my youngest brother asked my mother, “Give me something to eat.” And he said, “Why you born me if you not got to give me to eat?” And I got sorry for my mother, and I realised, I was thinking what happens if I marry somebody [in Serbia] and my kids tell me like my brother tell my mother? … and I think what can I do with my life better than I got there.

On a more uplifting note, the story of Salvatore Foti, an immigrant from Italy who arrived at Sydney in June 1953, is inspirational. He later established Foti International Fireworks. Along with his son Vince and their crew, Salvatore presented the stirring fireworks display at the end of the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. It was a magnificent success.

Vince Foti told Brune what he witnessed after most of the crowd had left the Olympic Stadium:

One can speak of a special moment in their lives and their experiences that happen in that moment. My indelible moment that I still relive, that euphoric memory, happened when I noticed my father seated on a bench near the stadium exit. I went and sat with him, saw a tear in his eye, and asked if he was OK. He smiled and said, “My son, from a small career in a small town in Sinopoli, Italy, I have had this great opportunity to showcase our art in this world spectacle. Son, I am proud of the family’s achievement. My prayers have been answered.” How good is that?

Suffering, Redemption and Triumph will have wide appeal, not just to the families and friends of immigrants, but to general readers fascinated by Australia’s military and social history. It includes a number of extremely useful maps, copious endnotes, and a five-page bibliography, plus twenty grainy black-and-white photographs of some of the interviewees. But it’s a shame there is no index, which would have been helpful in negotiating this large and important book.

An overdue addition to Australia’s history, this well-produced, sturdy paperback is worthy, in the best sense of the word, and often revelatory. I hope Brune soon publishes a volume about Australia’s second wave of immigrants since the 1960s.

Suffering, Redemption and Triumph: The First Wave of Postwar Australian Immigrants
by Peter Brune

Big Sky Publishing, 2023, 436 pages, $32.99

Professor Ross Fitzgerald’s most recent books are a memoir, Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey and the co-authored Grafton Everest fictions The Dizzying Heights and The Lowest Depths—in which Russia’s dictatorial president, Vladimir Putrid, is assassinated.


5 thoughts on “From Wartorn Europe to Australia


    My dad who had escaped death many times fighting in an ABDA force in the East Indies, Pacific and indian Ocean and on regular patrol around Australia married by proxy, an Aussie girl whom he had met and courted in Sydney. Shortly after the war had ended and because he was still on active service his new bride went to live in a war torn European city with my dad’s family until he was discharged from active service and eventually made it home to start married life. Conditions were pretty tough but my mum rose to the challenge, learned the lingo, and made a home of cramped, shared accommodation with dad’s family. Meanwhile I was born and that necessitated roomier digs. Rental housing was practically non existent and to make things even tougher Dad was told to go to the back of the queue. Evidently, risking ones life many times over for the war effort granted no favours. That decided things. Dad was pretty fond of Australia. He’d even spent some of his R & R’s working on sheep and wheat stations in central NSW ‘humping’ wheat after the harvest. He also liked what he saw of Sydney while he was stationed there. So, we moved to Australia. Because dad did not want to be beholden to the government for our passage and have to live in a migrant camp, he paid our way with his meager war service pay. It was a smart move because dad had the freedom to move his nea family where it suited us all.
    Dad got a job straight away, and part of the deal was cheap rental in a sprawling house in a NSW country town in a farming community. Mum also got a job as a waitress at the local cafe.
    Had Dad and Mum decided to stay in a war torn European country life would have been much harder and we all would have missed out on the blessings of life in Australia where you could have relative freedom from bureaucracy, work hard and get ahead. Those halcyon days are gone now. Unfortunately, Australia has become another country run by bureaucrats and politicians who mostly seem to serve themselves rather than their fellow Australians.

    • Sindri says:

      What a fascinating story! ABDA as a command was a catastrophe that just buckled before the Japanese, which is not to downplay the courage of the troops under its command. One of my ancestors suffered horrendously as a prisoner in the aftermath. Glad your dad made it here!


        I believe my dad survived the Second World War by the grace of God. During one ABDA campaign off Bali his ship was holed by eleven five inch projectiles and was forced to limp back to Freemantle. Many Japanese torpedos were launched against Dad’s ship. Fortunately none hit otherwise it would have been the end for his ship and surviving crew. My Dad survived many heroic exploits during the war and lived to be almost one hundred.

  • Brian Boru says:

    I turned off the ABC this morning as the commentator was reading the “acknowledgement” before the cricket broadcast. He said something like paying respects to elders, past, present and emerging. I am always angry when I hear that because among those elders are pedophiles and rapists and I certainly do not wish to pay any respect to them. I can only wonder why cricket fans would want to do that.
    My egalitarian welcome is as follows; I think it is more like what most Australians believe.
    We are a land of migrants, from the very first in their canoes or who even walked here. Those who came in chains, those who fled famine, those who fled or survived genocide and war and it’s consequences. To those who came by jet plane yesterday. We acknowledge that in our past, as in most nations, bad things have happened. But we strive to be one people, equality of opportunity for all, no privilege by birth or class, truly one people. Welcome to you all.

  • Farnswort says:

    “Brune makes a compelling case that the arrival of such a diverse range of people was instrumental in helping create the multicultural Australia we now inhabit.”

    Perhaps so. However, it should be noted that, despite ethnic differences, the post-war European migrants shared a common civilisational heritage with the existing (mainly Anglo-Celtic) Australian population. Moreover, they were encouraged to assimilate and become new Australians. At the time, Australia had a confident sense of national identity and sought to preserve a degree of cultural cohesiveness and continuity.

    Sadly, Australia no longer believes in itself, no longer encourages assimilation, and now accepts extremely large numbers of culturally distant migrants year after year.

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