The enemy alien who loved us
May 24 2003
Count Oswald Veit Von Wolkenstein, Aristocrat and Dunera boy, 1924-2003
Count Oswald Veit Von Wolken- stein. It rolls nicely off the tongue; the sort of name that should be accompanied by a bow and clicking of the heels.
The reality was very different. This most modest of Austrian aristocrats came to Australia not as a red carpet migrant, but as a category-C “friendly” enemy alien on board the infamous Hired Military Transport, Dunera.
Wolkenstein, who has died at 79, rarely used the “Von”, in deference to Australian egalitarianism. He asked that his surname – “it rhymes with Einstein” be pronounced correctly. To those closest to him he was “Ossi” (with a hard S).
He was a warm-hearted, perpetually smiling man who enjoyed a beer and a joke. Given the contradictions in his life and circumstances, this was just as well.
His life began with a typical silver spoon. He was born in Vienna, the second of five sons of Fortunat Graf Zu Wolkenstein-Rodenegg (graf is a title roughly equivalent to earl), and his Italian wife, Margit Locatelli. The family had two castles, the main one at Rodenegg, now part of Italy.
The countess died in 1932, when Oswald was eight. His father, a government minister, wrapped himself in his work, gradually falling foul of the pro-Nazi elements which were emerging at the time. Like the Von Trapp family, with whom they are sometimes compared, the older man formed a family musical group, and Oswald’s role was to play the flute.
The Anschluss – the union of Germany with Austria – came in March 1938, a few weeks before Oswald’s 14th birthday. His father, who did not wish to see his sons in the Hitler Youth or serving in the German Army, decided to quit the country and fled with the family to Britain.
There they were given refugee status, their sponsor being the historian and historical philosopher, Arnold Toynbee. Through Toynbee, all five sons found places at top English Catholic boarding schools; Oswald and his older brother, Christopher, going to the Benedictine college, Ampleforth, and the three others to the rival Jesuit-run Stonyhurst. The separation would unexpectedly influence their lives.
The declaration of war, in September 1939, was followed 10 months later by Churchill’s famed “collar the lot” decree. This authorised the detention of several thousand German and Austrian refugees, including long-term British residents. They were considered “friendly”, but enemy aliens nevertheless. Most were Jews – unlikely converts to Nazism. It was a time when invasion seemed imminent. There was near-paranoia about spies and fifth columnists, including the half-serious jest about German paratroopers disguised as nuns.
Most Dunera “Boys” were men. But Oswald, who had just turned 16, and his brother Christopher were arrested while still at school. In Oswald’s own words: “It was Sunday morning during term time. We were coming out of chapel after Mass. A policeman just walked up and said, ‘I’m sorry, you’ve got to come with me’. The headmaster concurred. The other boys looked on. Everybody was very decent, but it was a shock. I don’t know if you can blame anybody.”
Then followed an uncomfortable few weeks in various places of internment. The three younger brothers, at Stonyhurst, were untouched. Incredibly, so was their father, who was employed in “war work”, first as a butler and then in a munitions factory.
In July 1940, Oswald and his brother volunteered with others for internment in Canada. After some delay, which included the sinking of the sister “prison” ship, Arandora Star, the two boys found themselves on the Dunera bound for Australia, gleaning the actual destination only after the ship reached South Africa.
On September 6, the Dunera arrived at Pyrmont. The two boys and 2000 other internees had their first view of Sydney Harbour through locked portholes. Press coverage was unflattering. Reporters revelled in their dishevelled, “sinister” appearance. One newspaper repeated the claim that some had been carrying out “subversive work in England”.
The next 15 months were spent in Hay and Tatura internment camps. Since they were Catholic and still of school age their situation aroused the attention of Father Walter Koenig, a Jesuit priest who was a fellow internee. He wrote to the Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, who arranged their early release. (It is claimed the prelate made no such effort to assist the Jewish majority.)
The boys were collected from Tatura by the Jesuit provincial and driven to Xavier College, Melbourne, where Mannix, now officially their guardian, had arranged for them to complete their education. They were taken to see him the same night. Oswald wrote in his diary: “Dr Mannix is very kind, tall and has white hair. Went to bed and slept very well in a decent bed again.”
At the end of the war Oswald took a range of university courses, but, as he put it himself, was “more interested in revelling” and did not advance very far. He worked for a radio firm, a car distributor and as a bank clerk before returning to Austria to rejoin his father, who was now engaged in postwar reconstruction.
In Austria he found work in wool classing and processing, becoming a wool buyer, and later a wool futures broker, when he returned to Australia four years later.
In 1959 he married Jacqueline Morath, a member of a well-known Mosman sporting family. On their honeymoon he decided to call on Archbishop Mannix, and to introduce his bride. An aide said: “You can have five minutes.” The meeting lasted three hours.
In 1967 he changed careers again, becoming an insurance representative for the AMP Society.
An avid sportsman, and follower of Australian Rules, he twice broke his self-imposed rule about not using his title. The first was when he wanted to see his beloved Richmond play in an important game. Finding that tickets were sold out, he gave his full name and was immediately offered two excellent seats, without charge. He tried the same ruse, successfully, at a boxing match. Then conscience got the better of him.
Unlike some other Dunera Boys, Wolkenstein showed no anger, either, about the cruelties inflicted aboard ship, which resulted in several courts martial, or the indignities of incarceration. “I was young,” he said, “and looked upon it as an adventure.”
His one grouse was about the “friendly enemy alien” tag. As he once told this writer: “Friendly? Yes. Alien? I suppose so. Enemy? That’s a bit rich. I don’t like that at all.”
He is survived by his wife, Jacqueline, his sons Simon and Julian, and daughter, Lisa.