Journeys and Legacies of European Jurists in Australia

Over 300 European-trained lawyers, judges and legal scholars arrived in Australia between 1930 and 1960. Researchers at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) are investigating the experiences and legacies of these legal émigrés, many of whom were Jewish refugee lawyers. Funded by the Australian Research Council, the research follows the legal lives of people who studied or practiced law in Europe and then fled to Australia. It uncovers the contributions that these lawyers made to Australian legal education and scholarship, legal institutions and practice, and Australian society more generally. Some of these émigrés also helped to shape international legal responses to the War, including genocide, restitution, reparations and human rights laws. The UTS researchers are Professor Katherine Biber, Dr Sara Dehm and Professor Ana Vrdoljak, together with Eloise Chandler.

In April 1933, Nazi laws mandated the retirement of Jewish civil servants, including judges and academics, and also allowed for the disbarring of ‘non-Aryan’ lawyers from legal practice, with a narrow exception of war veterans. In 1933, around 43% of the 4300 lawyers practicing in Berlin were Jewish. Similarly, at the time of German invasion and annexation of Austria in March 1938, Jewish lawyers made up approximately 60% of the members of the Viennese Bar. By November 1938, all Jewish lawyers were officially disbarred from practice in Germany. They were amongst the millions of people desperate to flee anywhere that might offer safety to themselves and their loved ones. Many soon learned that Australia’s restrictive immigration laws, as well as our legal professional bodies and universities, created barriers for lawyers facing persecution in Europe and seeking refuge in Australia.

Outstanding émigré jurists become refugees from Nazism

One of these was Dr Otto Bondy, who was struck off the Viennese roll of barristers and solicitors. Bondy fled to Australia with his wife, Gertrud, arriving in March 1939 with a red “J” stamped on his passport; the Nazi label given to Jews. Upon arrival, he was classified as an “enemy alien”, fingerprinted, and placed under surveillance, subject to home searches and character checks. Security agency files in the National Archives of Australia reveal that his bookshelves were filled with English literature and German philosophy, and his only hobby was playing the piano. Bondy’s Doctorate of Laws was supervised by Professor Hans Kelsen at the University of Vienna, one of the giants of twentieth-century legal and political philosophy. Bondy was associated with the Vienna Circle of intellectuals, and he had an exemplary letter of recommendation from Oliver Wendell Holmes, a judge on the United States Supreme Court, who was impressed by his thesis.

Despite these accolades, Bondy could not practice law in Australia. At this time Australian legal admissions bodies required European-trained émigré lawyers to be “British subjects”. They also needed to requalify in Australian law. Refugee lawyers often needed to wait around five years to be naturalized as Australians. Also, the significant financial resources required to study, as well as to acquire English language proficiency, were for most a complete bar to legal professional work. Instead, Otto Bondy studied accountancy and began to work as a pay clerk in ship yards, first in Pyrmont and later in Woy Woy. He found other legal émigrés in similar circumstances to himself, and together they formed the Australian Society of Legal Philosophy, meeting to discuss ideas in the lounge rooms of friends around Sydney’s north shore. The Society continues to operate today, holding annual conferences of scholars.

Researcher, Professor Katherine Biber, says “We hope this project will illuminate the history and struggles of refugee lawyers for acceptance in Australia. We want to reveal their contribution to Australian legal education and practice”. “This research enriches our understanding of migrant experiences in Australia, and also the enduring and seemingly intractable lack of diversity of the Australian legal profession and law schools today”, she explained.

Refugee lawyers challenge Australian legal establishment

Another émigré lawyer was German-born Dr Rudolf Kahn, who arrived in Melbourne in December 1938, together with his wife, Johanna, and their 5-year-old daughter, Mary Anne, after having practiced law in London, Berlin and Shanghai. He fled Nazi Germany following the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws that disbarred him from legal practice. In Berlin, he had had a distinguished legal career, including acting as an Honorary Legal Advisor at the British Embassy between January 1930 and October 1933. In Shanghai, he practiced at the British Consular Courts in China and in the Shanghai local courts, as well as holding an appointment as a professor of law at the Comparative Law School of China, Soochow University.

Upon arrival in Australia, Dr Kahn was not initially eligible for re-admission to legal practice on the basis that he was not a “British subject”. Dr Kahn disagreed that he was ineligible and, in May 1939, he appealed to the High Court of Australia, challenging his exclusion from Australian legal practice. However, the High Court upheld the authority of the Victorian legal admissions body that required British subjecthood as a pre-requisite for all practicing Australian lawyers. Undeterred, Dr Kahn advocated to the Australian government to have his naturalization expedited and he was finally admitted to legal practice in April 1940.

Dr Kahn went on to establish a thriving legal practice, including acting for Holocaust survivors in their restitution claims against the German state. In 1966, he received an Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit from the German embassy in Australia in recognition of this ‘selfless’ work. The law firm he established is today known as Kahn’s and it continues to operate in Melbourne.

Researcher, Dr Sara Dehm, explains, “The project shows the complicated history of Australian legal institutions, including the courts as institutions of exclusion. Australia did not readily shelter those seeking protection and a new life, and in fact, instituted significant barriers that prevented the majority of European-trained legal professionals who sought refuge in Australia from resuming their legal careers here”. Following her study of Rudolf Kahn, Dr Dehm says, “A small group of legally-trained emigres and refugees still managed to make a fascinating contribution despite many barriers. Recalling their legal struggles to reestablish their careers allows us to appreciate how they became their own advocates. They forged connections with an astonishing array of local legal elites. They created impressive improvised transnational networks. They regularly corresponded with Australian government authorities, at times arguing their own cases, and at other times, advocating for naturalisation and restitution on behalf of their fellow Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors.”

Making visible the women who were pioneering lawyers and refugee advocates

Even today, there is little acknowledgment of the fact that many of the Australian organisations that assisted refugees in the lead up to and during the Second World War were either founded by, or had at their helm, women. These women include, Camilla Wedgwood and Dora Peyser in New South Wales, and Ada Constance Duncan and Marjorie Coppel in Victoria.

Researcher, Professor Ana Vrdoljak, said “This project has revealed the under-appreciated role of women and women’s activism in advocating for the entry of trained professionals, including lawyers, into Australia in response to Nazi persecution and occupation of Europe.”

Also ignored have been the experiences of women refugee jurists, an omission that jars against the press attention they received when they arrived in Australia. Then, they were remarkable and remarked upon because they were women lawyers, because they were scholars – Doctors of Law – and because many publicly spoke of their experiences as intellectuals, as lawyers, as women, and as witnesses and survivors of the rise of Nazism and fascism in their countries of origin. However, as researcher Eloise Chandler observes, it was these very attributes that made them some of the least desirable emigrants under Australia’s then immigration policy. Something which, subsequently, has created its own challenges in piecing together these women’s stories.   

Chandler explains, “A refugee woman lawyer was much more likely to gain entry as a wife, mother or as someone capable of domestic service, than a scholar or professional in her own right. Australian officials were more likely to record a hidden scar from an appendectomy than information on a woman’s professional qualifications.”

This was indeed what occurred in the archived life of Klara Rudlow, a former Vienna-based Doctor of Law, barrister, Judge’s Associate and journalist. Within weeks of Germany’s annexation of Austria in March 1938, Klara and her husband Ernest were dismissed from their employment in accordance with Nazi racist laws. Klara was Jewish as well as Catholic.

There are many gaps in Klara’s story, fragments of information that the project is currently knitting together. It is known however that within 6 months of their emigration, Klara and Ernest Rudlow founded the first private and commercial translation service in New South Wales. Operating from the Third Floor of 77 King Street, Sydney, throughout the war, Rudlow’s Typing and Translating Service worked across and with the following languages: English, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Polish, Czech, Russian, Portuguese, Turkish and Greek. Around 15 years later, Klara Rudlow was admitted to the New South Wales Bar, becoming the fifth woman barrister in the history of New South Wales.  In 1957 Klara was named as the only practicing female barrister in the state.  By 1960, Klara Rudlow had been admitted as a solicitor and established her own legal practice.

Do you know more?

The UTS researchers are continuing to identify and examine archival and family records relating to European émigré lawyers in Australia. They have begun interviewing relatives, friends and students of these refugee jurists. If you have relevant information to share with the researchers, please contact them using the information below.

For further information, contact:

Professor Katherine Biber
Faculty of Law, University of Technology Sydney

Further readings (short published pieces):