The Dunera: kicking off an exciting life

An excerpt from the Dunera News. (for those who don’t know, the Dunera was the prison ship on which my father was deported to Australia in 1940 with the Battle of Britain raging around them). The exerpt is an autobiographical sketch by Richard Sonnenfeldt (1923–2009)

I was brought up as a German boy but, being Jewish, was lucky enough to be sent to boarding school in England in 1938. I was deported on the Dunera, sent to Hay, but again lucky to be released along with six others, taken back to Sydney and on to the Dunera. The ship developed trouble, we were taken off at Bombay and freed – being left in the hands of the Jewish Relief Committee.
It took six months for the US Consul to verify my credentials and issue me with a US visa. I arrived in New York in April 1941 and joined my family who had caught one of the last boats out of Lisbon. I wanted to enlist but was not accepted due to being of German origin. But a further 18 months on in 1943, I was given US citizenship, drafted and served in the Infantry in Italy and France. Then with the third and seventh armies in Germany and Austria. I saw battle at the Bulge and was there at the liberation of Dachau concentration camp, something I never forgot.

Then it became really interesting. General Donovan head of the OSS, picked me to become an interpreter, in fact the chief US army interpreter. After two months training in Paris we started going to places where we spoke to witnesses, perpetrators, victims and resistance fighters in the preparation of evidence for the Nuremberg trials. I interpreted for Goering, Rudolf Hoess (Kommandant at Auschwitz), Rudolf Hess (Deputy Leader of Nazi Party), Albert Speer (Minister of Armaments) and many others.

The method used was to ask questions or show documents to the defendants, to which the answers were known. In one session Goering interrupted me saying that he resented my pronunciation of his name as “gering” (in German “little nothing”). I agreed to pronounce his name Goering and he agreed not to interrupt my interpreting. My memoirs Witness to Nuremberg are about the trials and have been translated into German. Back in America in 1946 I went through Johns Hopkins University in engineering, followed by becoming principal developer in colour TV at Radio Corporation. I had many interests after retiring and continued the ambition to prove my mettle. With a crew of friends and my son, I crossed the Atlantic in an open cockpit boat at the age of 70, did it three times.

My family, including my grandchildren have visited my place of birth, Gardelegen in Germany. I was honoured by the city, though I did recognise some old party followers. I have also addressed school groups in Germany and talked on TV on the Holocaust. There is an interest especially among the young in Germany to understand the events of the Nazi period.

I would call my Dunera voyage the start of a very exciting life.

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Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
9 years ago

“I was deported on the Dunera, sent to Hay, but again lucky to be released along with six others, taken back to Sydney and on to the Dunera.”

Presumably Hay was some kind of detention centre. Does he explain why he was put back on the Dunera? Or where it was taking him when it broke down in Bombay?