How Australia almost became a Jewish homeland
Growing up, I spent most of my time with my family at my grandparent’s farm in Western Australia. I didn’t know how unusual my grandfather was, with his shade house full of the roses and orchids he hybridized, with his robust singing of opera and his dry sense of humor. He was a polite, reserved gentleman who looked and sounded completely different from the regular Australian neighbours. I didn’t know that he’d developed the farm using scientific principles during a period when most farmers were using inherited knowledge, and that, as a result, the farm was very successful and he became known to his friends as “Mr. Science.”
When I was young, I wasn’t curious about how my grandfather had ended up in Western Australia, one of the first men to pioneer a remote area. It was only as I got older and more interested in Jewish life in general that I began to wonder why the son of a German merchant sailor had traveled all the way to Australia and started a farm an entire world away from his homeland. By the time my interest was piqued, my grandparents had already died, as had my mother and her siblings. The only breadcrumbs left were family stories and genealogical documents.
The first thing I discovered was a census record showing that my grandfather was one of 10 children. I’d never known he had any siblings at all! His father had died of tuberculosis contracted in the trenches during World War I and his mother quickly remarried one of the German Jewish refugees flocking to London. The oldest members of my family all said that my grandfather left home because he didn’t get on with this new stepfather.
State records indicate that he traveled to Western Australia by himself at the age of 19. The Group Settlement Scheme, a plan drawn up between the British government (which wanted to get rid of 6,000 men on welfare) and the Australian government (which wanted to settle more land and produce more food), gave men free tickets to Australia and parcels of land in the virgin bush.
More family lore: My grandfather had studied agriculture in England. My mother told me that’s why he was called “Mr. Science.” From 1919 until 1921, he’d attended classes at the Royal Agricultural College in Gloucester, as part of a special program for men who wanted to move to the colonies. Posters showing bucolic rolling hills dotted with clean white sheep had been pasted on street lamps in London. Free ticket to Australia! Land grants! No mention was made of the massive hardwood forests that would need clearing, the high cost of sheep, the lack of water and tools, the impassable roads and the crushing isolation.
Farming might seem like an odd choice for a young Jewish man but in the early days of the 20th century, London was alive with groups that wanted to get Jews out of the dangerous and unhealthy cities and onto the land. In the wake of the Dreyfus trials and the haunting cries to “Kill the Jews!” Theodore Herzl, had suggested mass emigration to Palestine. After pogroms in Kishinev in 1903 had killed and injured hundreds, Herzl, frantic, was willing to take any land and accepted an offer from the British government for a homeland in Uganda. The Jewish community was up in arms. Uganda? What happened to Palestine? The manure hit the fan. Immediately following Herzl’s death in 1904, the Uganda Scheme was shelved.
However, there were still followers of Herzl who felt that Uganda was a better Jewish homeland than no homeland at all. These men formed the Jewish Territorial Association (ITO) to continue searching for an alternate “Jewish Home of Refuge.” Israel Zangwill and Lucien Wolff, the two writers who founded the ITO, researched Galveston, Texas and Angola in East Africa. A parallel group under the direction of Baron Maurice de Hirsch, the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA), formed small colonies at Colonia Lapin near Buenos Aires, and in parts of Brazil, Canada and the United States. Unfortunately, due to lack of agricultural training, the colonies that formed were abandoned and the settlers returned to the cities.
The ITO had long had its eye on Australia, in particular the large northern region of Western Australia that was still unsettled. In 1907, Zangwill met with the Australian Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, to discuss the possibility of a Jewish homeland on the northwest coast of Australia. Deakin dismissed the idea. Three years later, in 1910, Zangwill spoke with the Western Australian premier, Sir Newton Moore, but was rejected again, as Moore was not willing to allow immigrants with strange religious laws to create their own state within Australian borders. Despite the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the British government gave their support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, many felt that it was extremely unlikely that any land would be granted. One of Zangwill’s articles, “The Territorial Solution to the Jewish Question” appeared in “The Fortnightly Review” in 1919. The article was widely distributed in London and triggered intense discussion of Zangwill’s suggested alternate homelands, one of which was in Western Australia.
1919 was a year of transitions for my grandfather. His father had died two years earlier, his beloved grandmother died in the beginning of the year, his mother was about to get remarried to a man he deeply disliked, and his 7-year-old brother, Alexander, was dying. Though I don’t know that the entire plan unfurled in his mind right then, it seems possible, given both his 1919 move to agricultural school and dramatic enrollment in the settlement scheme. My mother told me that my grandfather planned to purchase land before a larger wave of Jewish immigration arrived on Australian shores, and that he believed he would have a financial advantage in being an early settler. I was told that when he arrived in Perth in 1922 — young, strong, educated, wildly handsome — he stood on the gangplank and called out, “Who wants to marry a farmer?” and that my tiny grandmother, looking up at this 6’7” man from the dock, called back, “Me!” Similarly to the biblical Jacob, he worked the land for seven years before he was able to marry my grandmother.
Like all utopian schemes, the Group Settlement Scheme didn’t exactly live up to its promises. Over 40 percent of the trainee farmers walked off their properties due to tremendous hardships and financial pressures, which were exacerbated by the Depression. By 1926, my grandfather was one of only four farmers in the region. He had cleared and planted 200 acres with an ax and an ox, and just a few years later, he began to purchase nearby abandoned farms. Instead of the 161 acres the government had promised him, he had more than 5,000.
For comparison, an American dairy farm might have 400 acres, and grow a hundred acres of corn and soybeans to feed the 80 cows the farmer milks. A farm in New York State might have been settled 200 years earlier, passed down through several generations from father to son, and by 1926, many families would have had electricity, running water, a telephone, a flush toilet, a car and roads for the car to drive on. In rural Western Australia at that time, there was no infrastructure. My grandfather had several large tanks that collected rainwater. He had kerosene lanterns and a wood burning stove, an outhouse and some draft horses and one good riding cow. When he needed to travel down to the city, he rode a horse or walked through the bush, whistling. He lived in a canvas tent, he lived in a humpy, he lived in a tiny wooden cabin, he built a house with three rooms and carried his bride across the doorstep, he built a bigger house with many rooms for all of his children.
In the early 1930s, Melech Ravitch, a Yiddish poet who represented the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization, traveled through Western Australia and up to the Northern Territory. His goal was identifying suitable acreage for a Jewish homeland. Though my grandfather wasn’t currently the landed gentry, the possibility of a flood of Jewish immigration had become far more realistic. Pamphlets such as “The Rich Northwest of Australia: An Appeal to Youth and the Spirit of Adventure” had been handed out in London. Cartoons were appearing in the Western Australian newspapers, showing indigenous Australians peeping out of the bush at a fantastic city labeled “The New Jerusalem.” Every few months, groups of Jewish explorers traveled through the farmland of Western Australia and made their way further north, scouting out water sources and good soil as part of an investigation into the feasibility of the Kimberley Project. A furrier took samples of the local rabbit fur, a tanner carried away skins. Geologists searched for gold and ore.
The Australian government was conflicted about the prospect of tens of thousands of Jews moving into Western Australia. The Jews would never be able to assimilate and become “dinkum Aussies”! Polish Jews “lived as their ancestors lived 2000 years ago!” But they had a problem: Australia was a huge country with a tiny population. Fewer than 7 million inhabitants lived in an area the same size as the United States. Just to the north, Hitler’s ally, Japan, had a population of 69 million. A hostile invasion wasn’t just possible but probable. Unless, of course, the uninhabited land could be quickly occupied. It was the Group Settlement Scheme all over again: England wanted to get rid of their refuJews; Australia needed the Jews to occupy the land and block a Japanese invasion.
The rise in antisemitism in Europe had caused tens of thousands of Jews to flood into London; many wanted to escape Europe entirely. Australia House was receiving 120 applications for visas from refugees a day. A Jewish homeland in Western Australia, a plan that had been vetoed just five years earlier, suddenly seemed like a viable solution to the Jewish Problem.
Michael Durack, the real landed gentry of the Northwest, offered to sell the Freeland League a parcel of land larger than Great Britain in 1938, with the idea that over 10,000 Jewish refugees would emigrate en mass and develop the region. The Freeland League sent a representative, Isaac Nachman Steinberg, out to Western Australia in 1939 to rally support for the creation of a Jewish homeland from amongst the government, clergy, intellectuals and newspapers. Steinberg, a charismatic man, was wildly successful. Everyone knew who he was and what he wanted. Knowing what was happening in Germany and across Europe, he felt tremendous pressure to succeed in finding a country to save the Jews from the Nazis..
The governor, John Willcock, and the Western Australian government gave their official go ahead for the Kimberley Plan in June 1939, though approval for the changes to Australian immigration policy still needed to be received from the federal government in order for visas to be issued and immigration to commence.
Alas, Steinberg was still in Australia, no closer to getting a commitment from the federal government, when German tanks rolled into Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. The Kimberley Plan was officially vetoed by Sir John Curtain, the Australian Prime Minister on July 15, 1944. He is supposed to have said, “How many homelands do the Jews need?”
Among my mother’s papers, she kept several newspaper pages showing the first photographs to come out of Auschwitz. She told me that my grandfather, a stoic man, had wept like a child when he saw the images. “They could have come here,” he said. “They could all have come here. They could have been saved.”
Goldie Goldbloom is the author of the novel “On Division,” which won the 2020 fiction award from the Association of Jewish Libraries and was a nominee for the 2020 Gotham Prize.