Fyshwick's own wartime internment camp
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Fyshwick's own wartime internment camp

Rug shops, air-conditioning outlets, cafes and caryards now line busy Wollongong Street in Fyshwick, but a century ago it was the site for a wartime internment camp.

It was on the then barren fields that 200 German and Austrian nationals lived during a period of widespread fear and paranoia in the dying days of World War I.

Canberra historian Alan Foskett and his Adelaide-based counterpart, Peter Monteath, have both released new books honouring the memory of the Molonglo internment camp, which operated between May 1918 and the end of 1919.

The Molonglo internment camp, at what is now Fyshwick.

The Molonglo internment camp, at what is now Fyshwick.

Commissioned by the National Library, Monteath's book Captured Lives: Australia's Wartime Internment Camps, looks not only at Molongo. It goes beyond the barbed wire of more than 30 of the main internment and prisoner-of-war camps that were spread across the nation during the two World Wars.

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The camps were "home" to people deemed a threat to the nation's security during wartime. They were POWs but also civilians with links to enemy nations, such as Germany and Japan, even those who had been born in Australia. About 7000 people were interned in World War I and more than 12,000 in World War II.

"Imprisonment, incarceration is a theme that keeps popping up in Australian history, from the First Fleet through to the time on Manus Island and Nauru. It's a piece of history that is largely in the dark and it seemed a good opportunity to shine some light in that corner," Monteath said, of the book.

Monteath examines the big picture but also details the stories of individuals to reveal more about the camps. One of his sketches is of the unlikely German Buddhist, Ludwig Ankenbrand, who had spent time in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) before World War I. Ankenbrand was interned at Molonglo where he spent time as the schoolmaster of the school camp.

"They were brought to Australia from other parts of the world, British-controlled territories, and it's hard to make the case they were security risks," Monteath said, of the German Buddhists.

German Buddhist Ludwig Ankenbrand returned to Germany after his internment at Molonglo, where he was the schoolmaster.

German Buddhist Ludwig Ankenbrand returned to Germany after his internment at Molonglo, where he was the schoolmaster.

Then there was the German beer baron Edmund Resch who had become an Australian citizen, lived in Australia for 50 years and had two Australian-born sons running the Resch's brewery but was still interned in the Holdsworthy camp in 1917 at the age of 70, "victim to a policy of targeting businesses with German links".

"Such was the antipathy to Resch that some undertook to give up drinking Resch's beer for the duration of the war," Monteath wrote in the book.

For many internees, their detention was bewildering.

"There were lots of people in both World Wars who understood themselves to be loyal Australians and couldn't really figure out why they had to be interned," he said.

However, Monteath said not all the internments were arbitrary.

"Certainly you can understand why there might have been a desire to intern young men who might otherwise have returned to their homeland and enlisted in the armed forces of an enemy state," Monteath said.

"So there were some justifiable security reasons."

He cites the case of medical doctor and member of the so-called Hitler club, Johannes Heinrick Becker, who had served in World War I and migrated to Australia in 1927, setting up a practice in the Barossa Valley.

"By the 1930s, it was evident to his patients and many others that he had become an avid follower of Hitler and a willing propogator of Nazi ideas," Monteath wrote.

Becker was arrested soon after the outbreak of World War II and detained in various locations in South Australia before being deported back to Germany.

Children were also held in the camps. The Bruhn family lived in both the Molonglo and Bourke camps. Their son Friedrich was born in the Bourke camp in 1917.

Louise Helen and Franz Bruhn with baby Friedrich, who was born in the Bourke internment camp, and daughter Elisabeth, pictured here at the Molonglo internment camp in the ACT.

Louise Helen and Franz Bruhn with baby Friedrich, who was born in the Bourke internment camp, and daughter Elisabeth, pictured here at the Molonglo internment camp in the ACT.

Louise Helen and Franz had met and married in Hong Kong, and were later brought to Australia for internment during the war. In May, 1919, the entire family was deported to Germany, "a country Louise Helen had never seen and whose language she did not speak".

"I think the biggest challenge for adults was coming to terms with not just the confined space, but the confined opportunities. They were cut off from the rest of the world," Monteath said.

"Most of the time they didn't work so there was a good deal of frustration, boredom to overcome. What's remarkable is how many of them were able to adapt to those circumstances, to make the best of the very limited circumstances or opportunities they had available to them.

"They would set up schools, they would perform theatre, they would do artwork. A lot of them had orchestras. They would even set up little businesses."

Sent from the "German concentration camp in Liverpool, NSW", this card's title Frohliche Weihnachten ("Merry Christmas'') was "ironic given that Holdsworthy camp was not a site of great merriment''.

Sent from the "German concentration camp in Liverpool, NSW", this card's title Frohliche Weihnachten ("Merry Christmas'') was "ironic given that Holdsworthy camp was not a site of great merriment''.

The book includes water colours painted by a German national Fritz Bambach interned in the Loveday camp in South Australia during World War II.

"We were contacted by a family member in the UK so we featured some of his beautiful water colours the family made available to us," he said.

Another story in the book is of Japanese pilot Hajime Toyoshima who took part in the raid on Darwin in 1942. He was forced to land on Melville Island and was apprehended by Aboriginal men, who turned him in. Toyoshima was sent to the Hay and Cowra POW camps where he died in the Cowra outbreak in 1944 from gunshot and self-inflicted wounds.

Japanese pilot Hajime Toyoshima, who died in the Cowra breakout in 1944 from gunshots and self-inflicted wounds.

Japanese pilot Hajime Toyoshima, who died in the Cowra breakout in 1944 from gunshots and self-inflicted wounds.

Monteath said the Monlonglo camp in the then Federal Capital Territory was unusual, constructed in the dying days of World War I in mid-1918.

"It was constructed fairly late in the piece with the expectation many more [detainees] would be arriving there," he said.

As Alan Foskett details in his book, The Molonglo Internment Camp: A Unique Part of Canberra's Heritage and History, the Australian government built Molonglo originally in response to a request from the British government that it accommodate 3500 German and Austrian nationals, then interned in China. The camp was built, complete with watch tower, but the China plan never transpired.

So instead, another internment camp, the harshly-run Bourke camp, was closed down and 200 Germans and Austrians transferred to Molonglo, arriving from May 27, 1918. The camp closed in 1919, the families were deported to Germany and the buildings became the Molonglo settlement, to "accommodate single men and about 110 families moving to Canberra to work in the emerging national capital".

But before then, to be interned at the camp, must have been a traumatic experience, Foskett believes, even though he believes their treatment was humane. "These people were basically intelligent, industrious, caring people incarcerated because of their origin, not because of any threat they posed to Australia or its allies," he wrote.

As Foskett said, those families interned at Molongo had "been rounded up in places such as Fiji, the British Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea" and shipped to Germany, "from where they did not come".

Children at the Molonglo internment camp.

Children at the Molonglo internment camp.

Foskett said while Molonglo was referred to as a "concentration camp" by the media and others, it was "not a fair description of the community that was thrown together there".

"Although family life may have been difficult and the environment harsh on this exposed, windswept site, the military unit, under the command of Brigadier General Reginald Spencer Brown, did all they could to make life tolerable for the internees," Foskett wrote.

"The principal grievance for many of the families was why they had been interned in the first place as several of them were Australians, had direct Australian connections or were naturalised British subjects."

Monteath maintains that despite the fear and the paranoia of "the other" during the wars, humanity did win out in some of the interment camps.

"If you create an atmosphere of war, you fan the flames of xenophobia and that's what happened in Australia in both World Wars and, to some extent, that is what we have now," he said.

"And, yet, you see from the experience of both world wars, once Australians came to know these people, they found they were human beings like everyone else, really.

"I think a telling part of the story is that men, in particular, went out to work in Australian communities, often on farms, and in some cases formed very enduring relationships with the people with whom they worked. So these men, these prisoners, typically, who had been the enemy turned out to be, as Australians discovered, decent human beings with whom friendships could be formed."

Professor Emerita Joan Beaumont will launch Captured Lives at the National Library on September 13 at 6pm. Peter Monteath will also speak. The event is free but bookings should be made at the library's website.