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18 March 2014

Australia's asylum seeker synonym

Alice Herz-Sommer, believed to be the oldest survivor of the Holocaust, died recently in London aged 110. Her survival is a herculean feat in itself. Her optimism and gratitude for her life is even more remarkable.

An accomplished pianist at age 39, Herz-Sommer was sent to Therezienstadt camp in 1943 and liberated by the Russians in 1945. When the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia she made a fateful decision to stay in Prague, with her son and husband, to care for her sick mother. Most of her family fled to Palestine.

In 1942 her 73-year-old mother was transported to Thereizin, then a few months later to Treblinka extermination camp. Herz-Sommer recalled, even in her final years, that acute despair:

This was the lowest point in my life. She was sent away. Till now I don't know where she was, till now I don't know when she died, nothing. When I went home from bringing her to this place I remember I had to stop in the middle of the street and I listened to a voice, an inner voice. Now, nobody can help you, not your husband, not your little child, not the doctor.

This must have been a time of huge emotional and spiritual devastation. In all the losses and trauma that Herz-Sommer recounts, this seems to have been a turning point. She returned home to play and master the difficult 24 etudes of Chopin. For up to eight hours a day, she was immersed in this task. Perhaps it was then, as she said in later interviews, that music became her religion, that it began to 'save [her] life'. Her entire family was musical and music was her 'language'.

Music did literally save her. When Herz-Sommer and her son Rafael were sent to Thereisenstadt camp in 1943, they survived as performers in musical shows. These shows were staged by the Nazis to exhibit to the world the humane conditions in the camp. She and other artists were to feature in a propaganda movie. It depicted the camp as civilised and cultured, a haven for the many cultured Jews of Prague.

Fake money for fake cafes and fake shops, and fake children's play grounds were set up to dissemble for the visits by the International Red Cross. In truth many Jews were starving, dying or being sent to the death camps. The world was shown a good place, while its macabre truth was hidden. It was displayed as a Jewish settlement with rose gardens. Thus the IRC was tricked and taken in by Hitler.

Perhaps this is why the BBC, with its viable memory of the perfidy of Hitler, was so scathing in its disbelief regarding the recent words of Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Bishop was being quizzed regarding the violence at Manus Island. The interviewer said, of the policy towards refugees, that it 'seems uncivilised' and 'inhumane'. 'Not at all', replied Bishop.

The interviewer, John Humphrys, continued: 'But [Nauru and Manus] have been described as 'breeding grounds for rape, riots, malaria and mental illness, that bear the look of concentration camps.' Humphrys also asked why asylum seekers couldn't be treated more humanely rather than savagely. After all they are people fleeing from danger and asking for help. Bishop cited stopping the boats and the drownings, and keeping an election promise made to the Australian people.

The BBC interviewer was incredulous:

'You are essentially operating a kind of Guantanamo bay ... in some ways even worse.' Bishop went on to say that she was undeterred by critics, including the UNHCR.

Germany had been a signatory to the Geneva Convention 1929 - a precursor to the Geneva Convention of 1949 - but only 'complied' in a limited way. It was this that allowed the Red Cross to visit Thereisenstadt, but also made it vulnerable to being duped by the fake humane setup for visitors' eyes.

Currently our Australian Government and the Opposition are showing scant respect for the United Nations Convention on Refugees of 1951. Declaring those seeking asylum to be illegals and pushing them back without assessment of their refugee status does not adhere to Australia's obligations as a signatory to the convention.

Julian Burnside QC, a respected human rights lawyer, has said that those seeking asylum are entitled to request refugee status at any country they can reach. He dismissed arguments from some conservative critics that the 'irregular maritime arrivals' are jumping a migrant queue. Apart from questioning the suggestion there is any queue to jump, he said that:

'Etiquette became irrelevant when someone was running for their life.'

I wonder how many people like Herz-Sommer might be on those boats and imprisoned indefinitely, within Manus or Nauru.

Herz-Sommer could be an inspiration to us all. Despite the horror and loss that she suffered in her own life, she considered life to be a gift and a thing of great beauty. Her son died in 2001 aged 64. She said, of her son's death, 'He died without pain, for this I am grateful ... We must always look for the good. Even in the bad there is good.' Herz-Sommer continued playing music two hours a day, until her death.

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