Diane Armstrong - "The Voyage of their Life"

Author: Diane Armstrong

On March 17, a large crowd gathered at the Holocaust Museum to listen to Sydney author, Diane Armstrong discuss her latest book "The Voyage of Their Life", the Story of the SS Derna and its Passengers. Diane was our guest in 1999 when she spoke about her previous book Mosaic, A Chronicle of Five Generations.

Stan Marks introduced Diane, informing us that we were going on a voyage of discovery with the post-war migrants and refugees who are the subjects of Diane’s book. He commented that uncovering facts can be a nightmare and that Diane must have dug deeply to research this book.

Diane spoke warmly visiting Melbourne, which she does often to meet the wonderful new friends she has discovered through writing the book: passengers and descendants of passengers of the SS Derna. And the passengers have found her too; she receives letters and emails every week since the book was published.

The SS Derna left from Marseilles in 1948 for a 3-month voyage. Diane came out on this boat as a 9 year old with her parents from Poland. She has limited memory of the voyage; she spent a lot of time sitting on the deck, knitting dolls’ clothes.

The boat was overcrowded and in an appalling state. It was a floating United Nations with people from 15 countries. Many passengers were Holocaust survivors. Other passengers were allies of Germany and from the Baltic States, people from Displaced Persons camps, those who were fleeing communism, and those who had spent years in communist gulags in Siberia. All were hoping to find a safe haven in Australia.

The book is about the passengers on this post-war ship, tracing the voyage to their lives today. It parallels the present situation in a number of ways. Australians viewed these passengers with great mistrust. They were called “bloody refos”. There was also a great suspicion of the Jews; they were more alien than the rest.

Why did Diane write this book? She was eager to find out what had happened to the passengers on the SS Derna. At school she longed to be a detective. The storyteller in her wanted to find out if their hopes and dreams were realised.

How did she go about finding these people? As a child her mother had often mentioned seeing passengers she remembered from on board, but Diane didn’t pay much attention to these stories. There was a network of Jewish passengers that her mother had talked about. They stayed in contact and one led to another. The Jewish orphans who had been on the boat and had come to Melbourne or Sydney knew each other and had stayed in touch. She also placed ads in the Melbourne and Sydney Jewish News.

Where did she start with non-Jewish passengers? Diane applied to Australian Archives and received many documents and the passenger list with names and nationalities. There were a lot of Estonians on the boat. She placed an ad in the Estonian newspaper in Sydney. The same day she received calls. The editor and the secretary of the paper had come out with their whole families. The Estonian passengers also kept in touch.

Diane was given a diary of a 17 year-old Estonian girl, written during the 3-month voyage. It was filled with gossip, rumours, intrigue and romance and had been translated into English by the author of the diary for her grandchildren. Another passenger had kept a journal with a record of facts such as the ship is going slowly; the engine has broken down. This was able to verify why the voyage took so long and detailed some of the disasters that happened.

Diane also advertised in other ethnic newspapers and on radio stations. A Latvian woman contacted her, who was 17 years old on the voyage. She fell in love with a stowaway and the captain wouldn’t allow them to marry. Her story was of loss, disappointment, exploitation and courage. Diane could have written a book about her. Everyone’s story and contribution was important and significant. How was she going to choose which stories to include in the book?

Diane proved to be a persistent sleuth. Over a 3-year period, she interviewed 119 passengers and accounted for many more – well over 300 passengers. The passengers included: a Russian princess who was related to the Romanovs; a Nazi spy; newlyweds who spent their honeymoon celibate as men and women were separated. Diane commented that if she had written a novel she couldn’t have assembled a more colourful cast of characters in a more explosive situation.

There were people from 15 countries. Some wanted temporary refuge and hoping to go back when communism blew over (it would take 50 years) the Jews seemed to settle better; they were never going back.

Many disasters occurred during the voyage. The engines broke down and the boat drifted for 3 weeks. The refrigeration blew up and tons of rotted lamb was thrown overboard. The journey was supposed to take 5 weeks and took 3 months. People said that a rowboat would have arrived quicker.

The seven deadly sins were played out; there was a sea burial; there were intrigues, plots and scandals. There was tension among the crew, a mixture of Italians and Greeks who were enemies in the war. Trouble was stirred up between the Baltic and Jewish passengers. There was a birth 2 days before arrival in Australia. Pregnant women were not allowed to travel, but this woman did not disclose her pregnancy on boarding the ship, as she did not expect the voyage to take so long.

There was a huge furore when the ship arrived in Australia. The Department of Immigration had limited the Jewish population of the boat to 25%. But at least 65% of the ship’s passengers were Jewish. Nobody knew exactly how many Jews were on board as many passengers did not admit they were Jewish, including Diane’s parents. Many people concealed their Jewish identity to gain passage, due to the restriction on numbers of Jewish migrants.

The Department of Immigration tried to find out how many passengers were Jewish. In the end they decided not to make a fuss about it and the authorities let everyone land. An escort officer had stirred up rumours that the Jews were communists. To accuse a migrant in 1948 of being a communist is like accusing a migrant in 2002 of being a terrorist. The government tried not to let the press find out, but they did and there was plenty of controversy surrounding the arrival of the ship. Parallels to the plight of refugees today?

The deeper Diane got into her research, the more she realised that this was really the story of Australia – post-war immigration, multiculturalism, diversity. It is the story of people who have overcome incredible odds to achieve what they have achieved in this country. The book is a tribute to the passengers.

The writing of this book has been very inspiring for the writer, not depressing at all. The people who were telling the stories were inspiring and Diane is full of admiration for them. Writing this book has been very life affirming for her. While she was describing the worst in human nature, she was coming face to face with the best in human nature.

The book is not just about the people on the SS Derna and their voyage. It is a universal story about displaced people and their struggle to come to terms with a new way of life. It is about how they tried to blend in, not to be too noticeable, to learn the new language and customs quickly. It is about the struggle to become Australian and learn a new way of life.

Diane believes the Jews adapted the best. There was no way they were going back to where they came from. This was the end of the line. Their whole energy was geared toward building a new life and they weren’t looking back. Perhaps this is because of our long history of frequently being uprooted; this has made us better at adapting to change.

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