On this day: Tassie’s Jewish homeland plan

By Naomi Russo March 23, 2016
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Was Tasmania a viable Jewish homeland option during WWII? A young Melbournite Critchley Parker thought so.

ON 28 MARCH 1942, a 32-year-old Australian man named Critchley Parker Junior set off into south-western Tassie’s wilderness in search of an area that could become a new home for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe.

Critchley wasn’t Jewish, but, prevented by illness from partaking in WWII, he had taken up this cause with a passion. Some historians say his fervour stemmed from his love for an older Jewish journalist for The Age named Caroline Isaacson. 

As the son of a wealthy media owner, Critchley’s influence was not insubstantial. His plan was to settle Jewish refugees in the stunning but notoriously difficult terrain of south-west Tasmania. It’s still one of our remotest areas, which leads one to wonder if this was ever a viable option.

Proposals for resettlement 

A number of options (other than Israel) for Jewish resettlement had been mooted since the turn of the century. Australia in particular was of interest to Dr Isaac Steinberg, a Jewish-Russian politician who had begun the Freeland League in the USA in 1935. 

North-western Australia had originally been put on the table by Isaac for the resettlement of 75,000 refugees, and he had won some substantial support for ‘The Kimberley Plan‘. However, the idea was shelved as the Japanese threat to Darwin escalated. Critchley then proposed south-western Tasmania.

Critchley convinced Isaac he should visit Tasmania with him to meet with surveyors and key politicians and stakeholders.

Document’s show that Tasmania’s premier Robert Cosgrove was open to the idea, having toured Port Davey in 1941. Cosgrove went so far as to write in a report that: “My Government accepts in principle the proposal that a settlement of Jewish migrants should be established in Tasmania”.

In early 1941 Critchley and Isaac embarked upon a trip, but Critchley took sick on the plane and the visit was cancelled. Then, in early 1942, Critchley returned in an attempt to survey the area once more. This time, however, he was alone.

Charlie King, the only real local resident at Port Davey, dropped Critchley off and they agreed that if Critchley was in distress he would create smoke signals and King would send for help.

“The Paris of Australasia”

In the past Critchley had walked extensively, and at one point he also trekked across Lapland, eating preserved reindeer meat and braving severe weather. However, he suffered from tuberculosis, a chronic infection that generally establishes itself in the lungs and weakens the body.

Nonetheless, the first two days of the trip went well and Critchley wrote in his journal of the astounding beauty surrounding him. He became convinced Tasmania was the perfect opportunity for a Jewish settlement, writing extensive notes about it, describing its industry and trade potential.

Far from simply providing somewhere for Jewish refugees to settle, Critchley wrote that the settlement could become the “Paris of Australasia”.

On the third day of his trip however, the weather turned bad. He sent a distress signal to Charlie, but his signals were impossible to see and then the weather rendered the rest of his matches useless.

Critchley developed pleurisy, a lung inflammation, and became too weak to head back. With dwindling energy and supplies, he wrote to Steinberg that “To die in the service of so noble a cause is to me a great satisfaction; if, as I hope, the settlement brings happiness to many refugees and in so doing serves the state of Tasmania, I die happy.”

Critchley eventually succumbed to the infection, passing away in his tent, which was found months later littered with his extensive journal entries and plans.

His death also saw the end of plans for Australia as a home for Jewish refugees, and the Curtin Government roundly rejected the idea a few years later.