Wednesday, 2 April 2014

SILENCES AND SECRETS: The Weintraubs Syncopaters by KAY DREYFUS

SILENCES AND SECRETS: The Weintraubs Syncopaters
Kay Dreyfus
Monash University Press, 2013, $34.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon
Stefan Weintraub and Horst Graff, German-Jewish jazz musicians, were alarmed when, having fled persecution in Nazi Germany, they were then interned in Australia in 1940 in a prison camp in Victoria which was under the de facto management of its German-Australian Nazi detainees, who were menacingly effective at ‘maintaining order’ in the grateful eyes of the Australian military.  This “cruel irony” is one of many noted by Monash University’s Kay Dreyfus in Silences and Secrets, her study of the German jazz band, the Weintraubs Syncopaters.

Exiled from Germany under Hitler in 1933 because they were, mostly, Jews, who played ‘Negro’ music, and who featured in Marlene Dietrich’s The Blue Angel (much to the annoyance of Goebbels who described the film as ‘offal’), the seven-piece band finished a world tour in Sydney in 1937 where their first obstacle was a hostile Musicians Union of Australia with its fiercely protectionist policy on jobs for Australian musicians.

Mass unemployment amongst Australia’s working musicians (estimated at 80% by the union) as a result of the 1930s Depression and the new sound movies, had accelerated the union’s predisposition towards an anti-immigrant jobs policy.  Governmental ‘White Australia’ policies under the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 gave the union a receptive lobbying ear in parliament and conferred practical influence through legislated industrial awards and the arbitration system.

It took patriotic war fever, however, to cause the demise of the band.  A lone, fanciful denunciation about  espionage by the band for the German government whilst on tour in Russia was made in 1939 to Sydney police by a businessman whose Britishness (Australia was ‘Britain beyond the seas’, editorialised the Melbourne Argus in 1940) and war veteran status outweighed, to Australian security agencies, his dubious credibility (he was to be arrested after the war for theft and black-marketeering of Red Cross packages intended for prisoners of war).  As a result, three of the four German nationals (all Jews) in the Weintraubs Syncopaters were interned as ‘enemy aliens’.

With hindsight, “it seems absurd that the Weintraubs Syncopaters, as Jews and refugees by circumstance, should have been suspected of spying for the German Government” but, on the lookout for potential ‘fifth columnists’, the guardians of ‘national security’ regarded all Germans as disloyal and therefore dangerous by definition.

Dreyfus avoids the tempting but facile equation of Nazi anti-Semitic persecution with the war-time treatment of Jewish refugees in Australia.  The Nazi state’s “ultimately murderous program of cultural purging” was not the same as the parallel civil rights abuses in Australia despite the similarity of “state-sponsored racist ideologies”.  She recognises the “legitimate military and national security concerns” that shaped Australia’s war-time internment policy, though its intelligence officers proved vulnerable to spy hysteria, less than capable of nuanced understanding of exotic political lives, and often blind to the personal motives behind some private denunciations to authorities such as the accusations against band members, the brothers Cyril and Ernest Schulvater, by, respectively, a vengeful jilted fiancée and a landlady who objected to noisy violin-playing.

Australia was a “reluctant refuge”, where there was no threat of Jewish extermination but where individuals were treated unfairly, though this, too, could be partially addressed through legal remedy.  Similarly, Dreyfus acknowledges, with much sympathy, the legitimacy of the Musician Union’s “desire to protect jobs and working conditions of its [Australian] members”, though she laments that it took until 1960 for the union to realise it was better to organise with refugee and migrant musicians rather than against them.

Dreyfus’ book, betraying its origins as a doctoral thesis, doesn’t always avoid the nose-bleeding academic heights of conceptual abstraction, nor the sluggish narrative meter of bureaucratic and legalistic detail, but the human story is engrossing, and, as briefly alluded to by Dreyfus, its contemporary relevance for refugee policy is clear.

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