Immigrant or refugee

Wolf and Maria Klaphake migrated, rather than fled, to Australia. It was only when Wolf was threatened with internment that he began identifying as a political refugee from Nazi Germany.

Wolf and Maria Klaphake arrive in Melbourne on the Moldovia.

Wolf and Maria Klaphake arrive in Melbourne on the Moldovia, in The Star, 14 October 1935.

La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria

'Never happy in Germany' but compliant

The Klaphakes left Germany in 1935, more than two years after Adolf Hitler had formed a government. Wolf Klaphake was a committed individualist and antagonistic towards the Nazi regime. Even before 1933, he had resented the overall climate in Germany, which had allowed the Nazi party to grow. In 1944, he told a tribunal reviewing his internment:

I wanted to leave Germany because I was never happy in Germany. I disliked the attitude of the German in general. The German loves to wear a uniform, and as a boy I did not like uniforms. The uniform outside tends to make the inside uniform too. The German is always entirely right and you are entirely wrong, and that was an attitude I did not like. It was the German outlook, and his assumption that he was always correct, that I did not like. [FN1]

Yet after 1933, Wolf Klaphake kept quiet about his views. The only problem he experienced with the German authorities related to the fact that he held a subscription for the English Observer newspaper – which he duly cancelled after being reprimanded by the Nazis.

'I am 41 years of age' – From the ABC radio play A Doubtful Character
File size: 840kb

Interview with Sydney police

In December 1939, Wolf and Maria Klaphake were interviewed by an Australian intelligence officer at the Sydney police headquarters. Wolf tried to explain what made him come to Australia.

NAA: MP529/2, KLAPHAKE/W, p. 51

Assaulted by Brownshirts

Maria Klaphake, Wolf's Swedish wife, however, came under Nazi surveillance. She was a trained sexual psychologist and had once been associated with an institute for sexual reform in Berlin, probably Magnus Hirschfeld's Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexology). [FN2]

Its staff were considered to be aligned with the far left and many of them were Jewish. The institute was closed immediately after the Nazis assumed power, and some of its staff were sent to German concentration camps.

It was probably on account of Maria's association with this institute that the Klaphakes' flat in Berlin was raided twice by the Nazi secret police. Maria was physically – and perhaps sexually – assaulted.

'Ordinary immigrants'

While the Klaphakes' decision to emigrate was probably primarily the result of Maria's encounters with the German secret police, their decision to settle in Australia (rather than, say, in Britain) was informed by Wolf's desire to develop a dew condenser. As a dry continent, Australia was likely to need alternative sources of fresh water and the Premier of South Australia had shown interest in Klaphake's invention of a structure 70-feet tall, which was supposed to condense a thousand gallons of water per day.

Australia was one of many countries that would have welcomed the Klaphakes. They were young, non-Jewish, highly educated – and, unlike most other people emigrating from Nazi Germany – able to take their savings out of Germany.

Article from the Sydney Morning Herald on migrant selection

Article from the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 February 1939.

NAA: A2927, 41

Like many other emigrés, Wolf and Maria Klaphake were anxious to assimilate.

'We don't like to be called "refugees"', German political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who had emigrated to New York, wrote in 1943.

Before this war broke out we were even more sensitive about being called refugees. We did our best to prove to other people that we were just ordinary immigrants. We declared that we had departed of our own free will to countries of our choice. [FN3]

If they had identified as refugees the emigrés would have only drawn attention to their origins. It was only when he was interned that Wolf began calling himself a 'political refugee'. But then his previous protestations that his scientific pursuits were the only reason for leaving Germany and migrating to Australia were held against him.


[1] Wolf Klaphake, statement before the Aliens Tribunal, 24 April 1944, NAA: D1901, K1056, p. 3.

[2] To learn more about the history of the Institute for Sexology, visit the website of the Magnus Hirschfeld Society (in English).

[3] Hannah Arendt, 'We Refugees', in Hitler's Exiles: Personal Stories of the Flight from Nazi Germany to America, Mark M Anderson (ed.), The New Press, New York, 1998, p. 253.

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