Ruthi, a young girl in internment: by Melinda Mockridge and Ruth Simon
Ruth Simon, née Gottlieb, can still remember what it was like to live in an internment camp, behind barbed wire at Tatura during the Second World War.
Ruth, now in her late 70s was transported aboard the Queen Mary with her mother and father in September 1940 – one of the ‘Singapore group’ of interned enemy aliens whose lives were so dramatically changed following the outbreak of war. The internment agreement between the British Straits Settlements authorities and the Australian Government allowed for the indefinite detention of those designated ‘enemy aliens’, on Australian soil. Ruth’s family had come to Malaya from Austria and her family had lived there for some years. They had been granted British citizenship and were waiting for their certificates to arrive when the decision was made in 1940 to intern them.
Ruth was 3 years old. For her, the experience made a lasting impression. Interviewed many years later for the current exhibition, Art Behind the Wire, at Duldig Studio, she recalled the trip from Sydney to Tatura:
I remember going on the train and I remember it being dark and you couldn’t look out the windows – I suppose they had shutters and I remember my mother explaining to me it’s because they didn’t want people staring at us; of course it was obvious they didn’t want us looking out.
She recalled her mother Johanna’s first reaction to the newly built (and very basic) camp at Tatura as being one of shock – when she saw the chicken wire ventilation in the huts which would be their accommodation, Ruth recalled that her mother exclaimed, ‘Don’t tell me the blowflies are that big!’.
There were 25 children under 12 sent into internment, and at least two were born
during the time in internment, including Ruth’s brother, Ronny, who was born on
New Year’s Day in 1942 at Waranga Base Hospital. It is believed that this was just
the second time children had been interned in Australia, the first being those
interned outside Canberra at Molonglo during the First World War.
Surrounded by adults, ‘everyone was uncle and aunty’, she recalled the difficulties
of living in such close proximity, the lack of privacy and water, the memory of playing
with friends, and the freedom of being able to roam the camp and the friendliness of
the camp guards.
Special thanks to Ruth Simon, and Tatura Museum for permission to reproduce
material from the collection of Mr Helmut Seefeld.