LOTHAR BÖHMER (R36407)
Lothar Böhmer was born on 16 January 1921 in Zwickau, a coal mining area of Saxony in eastern Germany. He was the middle child of nine born to Alexander Paul Böhmer and Olga Rosa née Carpy. After finishing basic schooling in Zwickau, he completed an apprenticeship as a baker, following family tradition. He worked at that trade for just over twelve months before joining the merchant navy as a cook and baker. He went to sea in June 1939 with hopes of seeing the world, intending to return home to Zwickau eventually.
In August 1941, his ship, the “Sturmfels”, one of the fleet of the Hansa line ships based in Bremen, was trapped in Bandar Shapour, Iran with a number of other German and Italian ships at the outbreak of the Second World War. Bandar Shapour was a port at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and was surrounded by desert with a very hot climate. It was not a pleasant place for an extended stopover.
During their almost two year stay there, the sailors got to know a little of the country of Iran. Photos from this time indicate that the sailors made several trips to Tehran, where they were billeted with German families, visited Shiraz and enjoyed holidays in the mountainous region of Damavand. During the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in August 1941, the German and Italian ships at anchor in Bandar Shapur were targeted by the British.
In an operation spearheaded by the Australian ship, the “Kanimbla”, the ships were captured and the (surviving) sailors taken to an internment camp in Basra, Iraq where they joined many German expatriates living in Iran, similarly taken prisoner. After a few weeks in camp they were first transported to Bombay on the “Rohna”, in very unpleasant conditions and from Bombay to Australia, via Singapore on the New Zealand troopship the “Rangitiki”. Arriving in Adelaide on 19 November 1941 the men, almost five hundred in number were taken by train to the Loveday internment camps in South Australia.
This was in the Riverland region, located south of Barmera near the Murray River. The men from the merchant navy were initially classified as ‘enemy alien’, like their fellow compatriots captured in Iran, but after six months were re classified as Prisoners of War, German, Merchant Navy, (PWGM) and transferred to Camp 13 Murchison, near Tatura in country Victoria.
Their officers were sent to the nearby Dhurringile mansion which became part of the Murchison camp. Added to suffering caused by the loss of freedom behind barbed wire and being housed together with one thousand men, was the irregularity of the postal service making some sort of connection to family at home in Germany even more difficult. It took many months for the details of his internment to be forwarded to his family in Zwickau so they had an address to write to.
In one of the few letters that Lothar wrote home that remain, he tells a little of life in the camp: "we get up in the morning, have roll call three times daily, and in the evening we go for walks around the boundary of the camp, surrounded by barbed wire and sentries." He had the advantage of something to keep him occupied during the otherwise long days; he worked in the kitchens, preparing and cooking food for 500 men.
In the Murchison camp, the sailors from Iran joined the many men of the German Armed Forces, as well as sailors captured from various ships around the world imprisoned there. The bond between the sailors from various ships was especially strong and some of these friendships became lifelong. After over five years behind barbed wire, he was finally recommended for release at the end of 1946. His status was changed back to civilian and he was transferred to Tatura Camp 1.
On 21 January 1947 he was released to outback Mudgee, in the central west of New South Wales about four hours’ drive from Sydney. He worked there as a cook on a station called ‘Erudgere’. He learnt to improvise as best he could, learning to cook mutton, boiled fruit cake, scones and other Aussie delicacies hitherto unknown to him.
Over the following years he had many different and varied jobs, only some that he had trained for; all as basic means of survival and to make a living, while learning to improve and communicate in English. He met and married his wife Irene Beilharz (1926-1990) within two years of release from internment, having met her while both worked in Olinda, Victoria.
She had her own story of internment during the Second World War. She was a member of the Temple Society and had been born into the German Templer community in Haifa, Palestine. She was transported to Australia in July 1941 as a fourteen year old and spent five years in Camp 3 in Tatura.
Lothar joined the Temple Society after he married Irene, but he never forgot his roots in the Lutheran Church. They worked hard and paid off a house in an outer suburb of Melbourne while raising a family of four children and also supporting Irene’s ageing parents and other relatives making a fresh start in Australia. They only managed to visit Germany as tourists; the first in 1979, in Lothar’s case after a forty-year absence. As his parents had died in 1950 and 1951, the family reunion that was so yearned for and written about during the years of internment and beyond never eventuated.
Success in Australia came through the hard work and diligence that he and his wife put into creating a new life here, helped with a good dose of the ‘fair go’attitude prevalent in post war Australia.
"Written by Doris Frank, L. Böhmer's daughter, 01/07/2020"
Visiting Iran, 1940.
Bayswater, Victoria, Australia, 2007.
July 4th 1944, Lothar Böhmer's letter from camp to his sister, Elisabeth Böhmer in Zwickau.
Dr. Pedram Khosronejad | Adjunct Professor
Religion and Society Research Cluster | Western Sydney University
Fellow | Department of Anthropology | Harvard University