Also – remember the others

Today, Red Poppy badges adorn the suits of men and women across the world – on the 11th day of the 11th month of every year we remember that World War I ended. It’s Remembrance Day for those who were killed during that war and observed by the countries of the Commonwealth (formerly known as the British Commonwealth).

At 11 am today I stood still and silently for a minute or two as so did all other shoppers and staff at a stationery store I happened to be in at the time.

Standing like that, in respectful silence, the memory of my grandfather Vicko appeared in my mind from nowhere! And I thought: Yes grandad, I remember the stories you used to tell me when I was a child; how you suffered humiliation and utter despair while interned in a concentration camp within the Commonwealth from 1914 to 1918, just because your immigration papers said you were a citizen of Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Vicko, cca 1925

I remembered him telling me that he resisted being taken to the concentration camp by insisting that he was not an Austria-Hungarian citizen, that he was a Croatian. Then the officers told him that “the country of Croatia did not exist”, then he replied: “But Croatian nation of people exists”. Regardless, he spent the years of WWI interned in the camp only to be deported in 1919, along with thousands of other innocent people like him, back to Croatia, i.e. into the newly proclaimed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

Searching National Archives of some other Commonwealth countries one finds:

  • Within one week of the declaration of war, all German subjects in Australia were declared ‘enemy aliens’ and were required to report to the Government and notify their address.
  • In February 1915 the meaning of ‘enemy aliens’ changed. It came to include naturalised migrants as well as Australian born persons whose fathers or grandfathers had been born in Germany or Austria.
  • Concentration camps, later renamed into Internment Camps were established at Rottnest Island in Western Australia, Torrens Island in South Australia, Enoggera in Queensland, Langwarrin in Victoria and Bruny Island in Tasmania. In New South Wales the main internment camp was at the Liverpool-Holsworthy Military Camp (western Sydney) where between 5000 and 6000 men were detained. Women and children of German and Austrian descent, detained by the British in Asia, were interned at Bourke and later Molonglo near Canberra. Former gaols were also used, with men interned at Trial Bay Gaol and Berrima Gaol.
  •  In the United Kingdom during WWI enemy aliens were assessed by Internment Tribunal Boards and several internment camps were established.
  • In Canada the War Measures Act was enacted on 22 August 1914, and gave the federal government full authority to do everything deemed necessary “for the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada”.
  • There were more than 80,000 Canadians who were formerly citizens of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. These individuals had to register as “enemy aliens” and report to local authorities on a regular basis. Twenty-four concentration camps (later called “internment camps”) were established across Canada, eight of them in British Columbia.
  • And the facts continue in the same fashion across the rest of the Commonwealth.
  • Other countries of the Commonwealth like South Africa also had concentration/internment camps.

Although not a member of the Commonwealth USA had similar systems in place. From April 1917, people in above category were required to register at their local post office, to carry their registration card at all times, and to report any change of address or employment. The same regulations and registration requirements were imposed on females on April 18, 1918. Two camps were esrtablished: Fort Douglas, Utah and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.

While history books and individual stories tell us that physical abuse, torture and such crimes did not occur in such concentration/internment camps one thing is true for sure: thousands innocents suffered gravely – humiliated by being assigned a number, photographed and finger printed like criminals … and yet until WWI they had lived years of an orderly hard working life in those countries, contributing significantly to the economy.

Today I remember not just those who lost their lives in battles of WWI for the Commonwealth but also the tens of thousands of those who lost those years of their lives in concentration/internment camps.

They have been forgotten, their suffering suppressed from public’s view and mind. They too lost their lives then, if not in body then in spirit.

They deserve remembrance! Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb), B.A.,M.A.Ps.(Syd)

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