PHOTO EXHIBIT 21

Fritz Schonbach

Friedrich (Fritz) Schonbach was 18 when Nazi forces invaded Austria in 1938 and he was forced to flee. Born in Vienna, Austria on July 1st, 1920, he grew up the only son of a Jewish businessman from Lemberg in the Austrian-Hungary Empire. While Schonbach’s family was not secular, they observed the most important holidays and Schnobach had his bar mitzvah at 13 as customary. This was the extent of Schonbach’s connection to Jewish religious practices, and by the advent of World War 2 he was lapsed, no longer participating in Jewish religious practices. Growing up in Grinzing, outside the city centre, Schonbach attended a private school with a demographic split evenly between Jewish and non-Jewish students. Due to this reliance on Jewish funding, the school was completely integrated, and was one of the few schools to allow Jewish students to return to official study after Anschluss. This allowed for Schonbach, who was then in his final year of study, to complete his secondary education and final exams unlike most other school aged Austrian Jews at the time. This also proved vital later in allowing him to leave Austria. According to Schonbach, during this time, his family organised for their savings to be housed in a Swiss bank account outside the country, this enabled them to still have access to funds. Using these assets, Schonbach’s parents started organizing a way to get their son safely out of Austria. While many Jews were attempting to flee to America, Canada, or Australia, with Schonbach himself applying for an American visa in 1938, there was no guarantee of access. Family or prior connections to people inside the country could be necessary to secure one of the limited visas available. Without this familial connection, is was unlikely for Schonbach’s application to be approved, and so he and his parents needed to explore alternate means of escape. In late 1928, having completed school and with continued access to funds, Schonbach managed to secure a position undertaking further learning in Switzerland. While there he completed an Oxford certificate in English which he expected would help him in further endeavors, and gain access to safe countries. During this time, Schonbach’s parents also managed to leave Austria, making their way through Italy and then traveling to Argentina where they remained until 1962. Of his extended family, only one of his father’s brothers in Romania, survived the holocaust.

After some time studying, and with the help of an English friend made while in Switzerland, Schonbach managed to gain entry into England, where he gained work with a Jewish tailor in London. Always drawing, Schonbach made his first attempt at using his artistic skill for employment during his time in London to no avail. He found himself becoming increasingly isolated during this period of his life, but everything changed when the war started and he was marked as an enemy alien. During this time, tensions ran deep in the civilian population. Having overheard a conversation in German between Schonbach and another tenant in his apartment building, his then landlady reported him to authorities as a Nazi spy though this was not considered serious. His proficiency with English from his time studying in Switzerland was considered suspicious during the investigation into his conduct and reason for being in the London. His friend who had initially helped Schonbach immigrate refused to testify on his behalf, attempting to avoid drawing attention while tension was rife throughout the country. Despite this, Schonbach was initially released. All people of interest where divided into groups that indicted their level of risk, from group A high security risk individuals to be immediately interred, group B who were doubtful cases but still restricted, and group C those who posed no risk, mostly Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution.1 Schonbach was designated as Category B. However, no long after the paranoia reached its peak, and a call went out that all those deemed suspicious were to be rounded up and interred. Initially interred in England, Schonbach and other internees were moved around to several sites, including Kempton Park, Lingfield Racecourse, and others. Young internees would complete odd-jobs such as washing clothes for the older internees in exchange for loose change they could spend on cigarettes and jam. On July 10th, 1940 Schonbach arrived at Liverpool, along with 2546 other male internees. The majority were of Jewish, aged between 16 and 66, and mostly Germans or Austrians. Among them were 200 Italian survivors of the Arandora Star sinking. There were also 250 German survivors including some merchant seaman and other German nationals. There they boarded the HMT Dunera.

The Dunera had a maximum capacity of 1600, but was grossly overcrowded, instead is carried the 2546 internees, as well as crew, and the 315 British troops meant to guard and oversee the transfer. On boarding the “horror ship” the internees were thoroughly and often violently searched, with all valuables taken and much of their property destroyed or lost.2 The conditions on the Dunera were dreadful with some internees not stepping outside of the lower decks for the entire duration of the 2-month journey, men constantly ill, some were beaten, latrines and washrooms overcrowded and overused. Food could be rancid and inedible during the journey.

“I remember sitting on the floor with a mug of soup, carefully removing the bodies of little white maggots before I drank it,” said Schonbach when recounting the experience years later.3 Despite the horrific treatment, Schonbach was content if he was creating his art. He managed to acquire a stub of paper onboard that allowed him to draw during the voyage and he recorded the conditions as they travelled. Singing, games of chess, and talks abounded for entertainment. On the lower decks the internees also divided into card groups, and those on his table were relatively ‘upbeat.’ These two factors combined made sure that Schonbach avoided the worst of the despair during the journey. The Dunera arrived in Sydney on September 6th to much speculation in the press about the dangerous enemy prisoners. The internees were loaded into five trains over the course of the day. The treatment of the British soldiers to the Australian ‘diggers’ was markedly different, with many internees later remembering the first fresh food and friendly treatment they had received after months at sea. On the 19-hour journey to the camps just outside the small rural town of Hay in Western NSW, the internes were given sandwiches and coffee, traded cigarettes and tobacco with the older Australian guards. Most of the Australian military personnel involved with the camps had served in WWI and were more like the ‘home guard’ or ‘dads army’ than any sort of fighting battalion, with returning soldiers recruited specifically so that younger men would be available for active service. Many internees remarked on the kangaroos which would race alongside the train, something which Fritz documented in his cartoons. Within a week arriving the internees were separated into two camps. Camp 7 was comprised of almost all religious Jews. Camp 8 where Schonbach was located, housed a mix of Catholics, protestants, political refugees including communists, as well as Jewish men. Throughout his time as an internee in Camp Hay, Australia, Fritz documented the world around him with drawings, satirical cartoons, and later in watercolour paintings. During his time in the Hay camp, Schonbach and two other young men created a bi-weekly newspaper that was remembered fondly by the other internees for years to come. In the 1992 Dunera News from May 1986, the open letters column writes “Fred, dear fellow, everyone remembers you. Your drawings made you unforgettable.” If he was creating his art, Schonbach was mostly content. When he was in the camp he took some classes, and taught a few others to draw, but otherwise managed to start selling his art within the camp. He had one sponsor who bought enough to allow Fritz to purchase more paper and watercolours. At such a young age, despite the often-depressing conditions and the prohibiting aspects of camp life, Schonbach managed to view this time in his life as an adventure where he was free to follow his artistic passion.

At such a young age Schonbach found the structure and prohibiting aspects of camp life most restricting. He was a young man stuck secluded without action or women, despite having the freedom to follow his passion. After two years as an internee, he became a member of the 8th Employment Company of the Australian Army under the command of Captain. E. R. Broughton, who he described as a near Shakespearean presence and much loved by all the men. However, the feeling of confinement remained even once he’d left the Hay Internment Camp. His time in service was comprised mostly of the handling and loading of supplies for fighting soldiers overseas. Many men in the company expressed similar wishes to join the fight, and many became disillusioned by their inability to leave the country or engage in active combat. After the war, demobilisation was based on a point system, and some were retained for essential jobs. Schonbach was released from duty by 1946, a demoralizing entire year after the end of the war.

Schonbach was naturalized in 1947, and with his freedom, and the opportunity provided by the Australian Government’s Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme providing the opportunity of further vocational or academic training for servicemen after WWII, Schonbach enrolled in a fine arts program specializing in painting and drawing at the East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School). Initially Schonbach felt like he didn’t need to study as he had always learnt art by ‘doing it’, rather than through traditional instruction. When he was convinced to enroll, Schonbach found himself uncomfortable surrounded by young students who had just finished secondary school, but was comforted by the several other ex-military men also making use of the governmental training scheme to study. He studied with former internees Klaus Friedeberger and Erwin Fabian, and became lifelong friends with fellow art students, Tony Tucson, Guy Warren, and Betty Rooney. By the time Schonbach graduated from his program after three year, he was engaged. In 1950 Fritz married Sydney photographer Beverley June Heydon and they set of immediately to travel across Europe. They decided to backpack through Italy to see all the masterpieces they had only learnt about in art school, they often were completely without money or income, hitchhiking, and sleeping rough. After some months, they arrived in London where June supported them as Fritz found it near impossible to make a living as an artists or cartoonist. They had intended to stay for a while longer, but in 1950 Schonbach’s parents, who were living in Buenos Aires and had expected their son to join them directly after the war over five year earlier, sent them tickets on a steamer to join them. The family was reunited after ten years separated.

Schonbach spent nearly ten years in Buenos Aires, however he was never entirely happy living in Argentina, finding it hard to make a decent wage, and the political climate tumultuous. His cityscapes from this period are incredibly vibrant and full of movement and life. During this time, Schonbach and June welcomed the births of two children and had a sparkling and diverse social life, that included artists, musicians, racecar drivers, photographers, intellectuals, authors, singers, and more. They attended parties that operated like salons with wealthy patrons. Schonbach worked as an illustrator, cartoonist, and occasional translator, while being offset with funds from his father’s shop. He designed the cover for ‘La Muerte y la Brujula,’ a seminal work by Jorge Louis Borges, in which you can see the marked shift in his style post-internment, after his time studying art in Sydney. June worked as a commercial photographer, teachers, and reporter. They had a comfortable lifestyle, but could not earn enough to save, to buy a house or a car and settle in the way they wanted. Seeing that the political and social situation within Argentina was looking no better after Peron was ousted from parliament, by 1959 Schonbach had decided to immigrate to the United States. This process took over a year in which time he was separated from his family. They joined him a year later in 1960, and moved to Washington D.C. where the family remained for 40 years. In 1961, their third child was born. In Washington, Fritz found work as an art director for several publications before striking out on his own to build a successful business as an architectural delineator. In 1990, Schonbach returned to Australia for the 50th Anniversary reunion of the ‘Dunera Boys,’ including a visit to Hay and the Dunera Museum. In 2000 Schonbach and June found themselves making one final move to Vancouver, Canada where their daughter and granddaughter lived. Schonbach remained active as an artist and grandfather until he passed away in 2011 at the age of 91. Throughout his life, art continued to be a central theme and driving force, and the record of his experiences on paper and canvas is evocative and engaging, from the Dunera on.

Written by Laura Kevan as part of the Museum and Heritage Studies Masters

For more information, please see his oral history on the US Holocaust Memorial Website.

A portrait of Fritz 'Fred' Schonbach

Portrait of Fritz Schonbach
(Washington D.C., circa 1966) Photograph by June Schonbach

Collection of sketches 2 (HMT Dunera, 1940)

Collection of sketches 2 (HMT Dunera, 1940)
Schonbach, Fritz Pencil on paper

H.M.T. Dunera

“H.M.T. Dunera” (Liverpool, 1940)
In the Cyril Pearl Collection, AAJ

Collection of sketches 1 (Hay Internment Camp, 1940)

Collection of sketches 1 (Hay Internment Camp, 1940)
Schonbach, Fritz Pencil on paper

Passengers disembarking

“Prisoners disembarking from the Dunera.” (Syndey, 1940)
Supplied by the Sydney Morning Herald ©

watchtower

Hay, N.S.W, The Guard Tower (south) (Hay Internment Camp, 1941)
Supplied by the Australia War Memorial ©

“He Say He Wants to Travel by Liner – Not by Mistake” (Hay Internment Camp, 1941)

“He Say He Wants to Travel by Liner – Not by Mistake” (Hay Internment Camp, 1941)
Schonbach, Fritz Pencil and Watercolour on Paper

“Dunera – Exercise” (Hay Internment Camp, 1941)

“Dunera – Exercise” (Hay Internment Camp, 1941)
Schonbach, Fritz Pencil and Watercolour on Paper