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Some people mock & deride refugees. Here’s why you should not


Henry Lowig
Professor Henry Lowig

NOOSA - On Saturday, Father Bob Maguire [@FatherBob] was attacked on Twitter by journalist Chris Kenny, former politician Alexander Downer and once Labor now Liberal political-hopeful Warren Mundine.

The elderly priest who describes himself as “patron of the unloved and unlovely” had drawn a comparison between the barbed wire that fenced in the World War II concentration camp at Auschwitz and the conditions prevailing for refugees on Manus and Nauru, a link which had enraged the three chumps.

I tweeted in response to them: “My father-in-law lost most of his family in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. My wife is horrified at the Australian government's treatment of refugees. She recognises the same elements of cruelty & inhumanity, sickness & death, present in Manus & Nauru.”

I note here, in further defence of Father Bob, the words of the Auschwitz Memorial: “When we look at Auschwitz we see the end of the process. It's important to remember that the Holocaust actually did not start from gas chambers. This hatred gradually developed from words, stereotypes & prejudice through legal exclusion, dehumanisation & escalating violence.”

I want to reprise here the story of my father-in-law, Henry Lowig, written by his grandson Ben Jackson at the time a book on Henry’s life and career was published in 2012. It is a salutary story of hatred, refugeeism and redemption.

Tasmania’s forgotten mathematician is remembered in new book


The Forgotten Mathematician by Martina Bečvářová, Antonín Slavík, Jindřich Bečvář and Vlastimil Dlab, v 50 History of Mathematics Series, Charles University, Prague, February 2012

When Dr Henry Lowig fled from Prague to Hobart by way of London in 1948 to take up a position of lecturer in mathematics at the University of Tasmania, he had just survived not only a very bad War but also an appalling Peace.

Hobart was to become his sanctuary and its university a place of serenity in which he could pursue a lifelong passion for mathematics.

It had been mathematics that had provided him with a small isle of sanity amid the ocean of madness he had experienced in Czechoslovakia during World War II and during what for him was its brutal aftermath.

Henry was born in Prague in 1904 to a Jewish father and a German mother, and it was this blend of parentage that was eventually to cause so much family tragedy and personal suffering.


In 2012 in Prague, Czech Republic, 'The Forgotten Mathematician', a book on Henry Lowig’s life and prodigious output as a mathematician was launched.

Officially forgotten, that is.  Back in the 1940s, to depart the embrace of Communism in his Czech homeland was a criminal act and the perpetrator condemned and never to be acknowledged thereafter .

But Hobart, Australia, welcomed Henry, and he repaid the debt by gaining his second doctorate and lecturing in mathematics at the University of Tasmania.

In Tasmania, a life that had been blighted by war and discrimination - first of all as a ‘half caste’ Jew and then, under post-war Czech rule, as a man of German origin - was transformed by family, career and the untrammelled pursuit of mathematics.

Henry achieved a normality of existence that, a year previously, he had thought unattainable.

Always a studious man, and something of a prodigy, Henry earned his first doctoral degree in 1928 at age 23 for a thesis on periodic difference equations.

The development of his career and research was interrupted in 1938 with the signing of the Munich Pact and the call up of Czechoslovak men for military training. By the time Henry had completed this, and he was by no means a natural born soldier, Europe was on the brink of war.

Things quickly got bad in Prague.  Fascist and anti-Semitic sentiments were on the rise, including within the academic community, and racist regulations were gazetted making Jews and ‘half castes’ unemployable.  Henry’s career was in ruins.

But it was more than a career that was at stake: the livelihood, and lives, of the Lowig family were also on the line. Henry’s Jewish father was arrested by the Gestapo, placed on a register of Jewish residents and eventually shipped off to Theresienstadt concentration camp. A little more than a week later he was dead.

The Jewish side of Henry’s family, except for some cousins who had seen the writing on the wall and fled to England before the war, similarly disappeared.

Henry, by now officially designated a ‘half-caste’ Jew, was unemployed for three years (much of which he spent in Prague libraries with his mathematics) until, in 1943, he was assigned to work as an unskilled labourer at a metal works.

Unsuited as he was for such employment, he regarded it as a mere inconvenience. His more ominous fear was of transportation to a Jewish ghetto, labour camp or concentration camp.

Less than two months after the death of his father in August 1944, Henry’s anxiety was realised. He was transported in a railway wagon to the German labour camp at Klettendorf. Thence followed three other labour camps. The future seemed bleak, many of his fellow labourers were despatched to concentration camps.  But Henry survived.

In May 1945, the German instrument of surrender was signed and Henry was told he was free to go. After eight months imprisonment he returned to Prague where he discovered his mother had been arrested for being German.

Henry intervened successfully to have his mother released but, having been born in the Sudetenland and now regarded as German, in a climate of post-war paranoia he again found it impossible to gain employment.

Bereft of her husband and most of her family, Henry’s mother left for London in 1948, where she would live the rest of her life - a disillusioned and bitter woman. Henry was offered and accepted a position at the University of Tasmania and also left Czechoslovakia, never to return.

In Hobart, Henry was joined by his Prague sweetheart, Libby, who he married in 1949.

He continued his research, gaining his second doctorate, Doctor of Science in mathematics, in 1951.

He and Libby purchased their first house in the suburb of Taroona, had two children and became Australian citizens in 1954. The second – and more normal – half of Henry’s life had begun.

Later appointed a Professor at the University of Alberta in Canada, Henry died in 1995 at the age of 90.


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Philip Kai Morre

Ben - Very interesting real life story of your grandfather who is an intellectual giant. I have read similar stories from refugees and asylum seekers from around the world who are victims of German war who escaped the hell of Auschwitz gas chamber with their last latent powers and inner strength to escape to live another day.

Germany produced many of the top scientists, inventors, mathematicians and technicians but the madness of Adolf Hitler forced them out to develop other countries.

German rocket scientists put Russia and USA in the space race when they escaped from Germany. Aircraft engineers, and other inventors dispersed all over the world and helped to develop their adopted countries.

In a similar way asylum seekers are scientists, doctors, engineers, psychologists etc whom we could utilise them to develop our country.

It's an opportunity to screen those people and get them all to develop our country. They are not criminals in any sense but asylum seekers who escaped from their countries because of political reasons.

Daniel Kumbon

Thanks for this story. It reminds me of a friend, a WW2 vet named Lt Barney Nelson whom I met in America in 1991. He had been fighting in Aitape during the war.

Barney was a descendant of Jewish immigrants who had fled to America. I was overcome with emotion when he told me why his people had migrated there.

"They came here for safety, security and a place where they could fear no one. America was a place to feel safe."

The refugees on Manus island may not be genuine refugees but they are like every other human beings on the face of this earth who wish for good jobs, freedom to own a home, buy a piece of land or start businesses to be successful in life.

Many people who had settled in America earlier were against those immigrants who poured in later in their thousands.

But the American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson thought it was a good idea because he felt America needed them.

Emerson wrote in 1823: "A nation, like a tree, does not thrive well till it is engrafted with a foreign stock."

I would urge the PNG government to consider inviting the Manus Island refugees to settle freely in some parts of this beautiful country being raped by selfish, greedy, bribery paying loggers who came here through illegal means - some even caught in containers at the Madang wharf.

PNG needs to settle genuine refugees whose skills our country definitely needs.

The difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee is that asylum seekers are thoroughly checked by the United Nations to assure they are genuine refugees. If they are not genuine, they are not designated as refugees. About 90% of the men on Manus are genuine refugees - KJ

Barbara Short

Thanks for that story. We forget so soon. A new generation comes along and the old stories don't get passed along. Sometimes the grandchildren are just not interested. Thank you Ben for being interested.

There is much that could be written about the Manus and Nauru refugees. I hope they will all soon be accepted in places where they can be free to live and be happy.

It is obvious that there is this huge unresolved refugee problem in the world today. I'm sure the answer is very complicated.

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