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Symbols of Survival

Prisoner of war and internee objects in Victorian cultural collections

The internment of civilian and military populations was widespread during the twentieth century. The Australian experience of imprisonment is complex: Captured Australian soldiers faced years in Asian and European camps, often returning home traumatised or suffering physically. Australia also interned enemy soldiers and civilian residents with ties to enemy nations.

The physical objects created by internees and by the societies that imprisoned them can tell stories not found in archives. Prisoners expressed themselves through art, doctors built tools and internees made furniture to fill sparse barracks. Similarly, authorities used the internee experience to tell stories, and the image of the prisoner could be used to communicate power or compassion depending on the audience.

These objects are comparatively rare in military collections, as internees faced obstacles when producing physical objects. Lack of access to materials, hostile guards and strict rules, low morale and poor health all contributed to their scarcity.

Victorian Collections provides a window into the story of internment. This story uses objects drawn from Victoria’s collecting organisations to explore the internee and prisoner experience.

Internment Order: Bernhard Hermann Gerstle biographical collection.

Tatura Irrigation & Wartime Camps Museum

Prisoners found themselves personally confronted by powerful forces. Military defeat, bureaucracy and the rapid pace of events all contributed to disempowerment on an industrial scale.

In 1941 the Gerstle family, German nationals, were captured in Iran after an Allied invasion installed the pro-British Shah. Herman was shipped to Australia and interned at the Tatura Wartime Internment Camp in Victoria. These documents trace his experience as an internee and his subsequent naturalisation as an Australian citizen.

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Postcard: German Prisoners of War at Verdun.

The capture of prisoners is often used by combatant nations as a propaganda tool. The image of mass groups of captured enemies became a staple of newsreel footage during the Second World War, and was used by both sides to signify inevitable victory.

During the First World War this image was communicated in other ways. This postcard photograph of captured German soldiers during the battle of Verdun shows how prisoners were often used as pieces in the larger propaganda and psychological war.

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Photograph: Dr & Mrs Stuerzenhofecker & family.

Tatura Irrigation & Wartime Camps Museum

Internment took many forms. For soldiers it involved years of segregation by gender, class and race, a separation from their previous lives with no end date. For civilian internees it could be more flexible. Interned in peacetime environments, sometimes families and communities were interned together.

The Stuerzenhofeckers were Templers, a German religious sect based in Palestine. During the Second World War more than 500 Templers were sent to Australia and interned in Tatura. Many of these families remained in Australia after the war.

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Sign - Red Cross Junior Competition.

Federation University Australia Historical Collection (Geoffrey Blainey Research Centre)

Internment of civilian and military populations impacted on families, who had little contact with captured soldiers. The Red Cross was often the only link between prisoners and their families.

Fundraising was a way for people on the home front to contribute to the care of distant loved ones. The Red Cross held competitions, dances and public parades to raise funds. This poster describes fund raising activities designed to contribute to the Prisoners of War Fund.

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Gift Box. Australian Red Cross Box WWII.

Red Cliffs Military Museum

Memoirs speak of the importance of Red Cross care packages. Food, clothing and medicine sent by family members or Red Cross programs helped to supplement meagre rations and make cold European winters or hot tropical summers more bearable.

This package was sent to Private T.H. Anderson, an Australian prisoner in Germany during the Second World War, and included socks, chocolate, clothing and a razor.

Red Cross packages also introduced basic materials into camp economies, as prisoners used the string for shoelaces and the wrapping paper to write or draw on.

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Model Ship.

Montmorency/Eltham RSL Sub Branch

Violence, hunger and illness in camps all created the potential for death or injury. Low morale and boredom could add to the danger, and camp inmates found various ways to pass the time.

Art, cultural practice and the creation of practical tools could contribute to wellbeing. Prisoners built models, painted pictures and made medical equipment, often working with black market materials and hiding their creations from guards.

This model was made by Australian prisoners of war, and is inscribed ‘To Auntie Helen, many thanks for everything from P.O.W.s Singapore’.

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Changi Box.

Colac RSL Sub Branch

Many objects made by prisoners were destroyed or confiscated before being brought home, and often only the hardiest pieces survive. This intricate aluminium work box was made by an Australian in Changi prison, Singapore. It is described as being made ‘For Molly’, possibly a wife or girlfriend.

Many RSL Sub-Branches have similar objects in their collections, a sign of the importance to veteran communities.

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Photograph: Japanese Women.

Tatura Irrigation & Wartime Camps Museum

Internees often expressed themselves through performances, music, and other cultural activities. For many, the act of organising a dance or a play was a way to regain lost personal agency in the face of despair and imprisonment.

Prisoners of war organised events such as these with few resources and little support from authorities. The effect of being reminded of civilian life could be important to morale.

Here Interned Japanese women demonstrate their traditional costumes. Often a photograph or concert program is all that remains of these events.

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Changi Key.

Waverley RSL Sub Branch

Sometimes prisoners or internees managed to bring significant objects home after release. Some were taken by force or simply collected during the chaos of liberation, while some guards and internees traded or gifted mementos.

This is reported to be one of the only surviving keys to Changi Prison. Donated to Waverley RSL, it is a nationally significant symbol of incarceration and wartime imprisonment.

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Painting: ‘Jack’ by Phil Berry.

Federation University Australia Art Collection

The impact of wartime incarceration on the people who live through it can be life changing. This haunting painting by Phil Berry describes the effect of wartime internment on his uncle Jack:

‘As a child I spent the majority of my holidays at my uncle and auntie’s. Uncle Jack was a prisoner of War at Changi during World War 2. Repatriated to Australia he was emaciated and clutched his prize possession, an old spoon. Part of his daily life during the extreme hardship of the camp, the spoon was a symbol of his survival, a constant in extreme uncertainty. Home again Jack married, started a family and embraced peace. A kind and gentle man, I was fortunate to have known him. The coming of peace had given back what war had nearly taken away.’

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