Australia’s last Dunera Boy, Bern Brent, has passed away at the age of 100.
“It’s hard to believe the death of a 100-year-old man could come as a shock,” Brent’s daughter Joanna said at her father’s memorial.
“When someone asked how he was doing, ‘Still vertical,’ he’d sing out.”
Only the weekend before his passing, Brent had spent a special Shabbat in Melbourne with the family of Peter Danby, his close friend who had arrived on the HMT Dunera with him.
According to the president of the Dunera Association, Ron Reichwald, there may be only two surviving Dunera Boys worldwide following Brent’s passing.
Born Gerd Bernstein to German parents Otto and Helene, Brent spent the first 15 years of his life living in Berlin before leaving in 1938 on a Quaker Kindertransport to London. There, he was interned as an ‘enemy alien’, transported to Australia on HMT Dunera and interned in Tatura, Victoria.
In the years following, Brent served in the 8th Employment Company before teaching English in Asia under the Colombo Plan. His parents joined him back in Australia – his father survived three years in Theresienstadt, but his grandmother and aunt were murdered there – and he married Jean, welcoming children Barbara, Peter and Joanna with her.
In previous interviews, Brent said that being sent to Australia was “the best thing that could have happened to me”.
Brent was an active member of the Dunera Association, participating in reunions until the pandemic and appearing via video link last year at the 82nd anniversary event held at Jones Bay Wharf, where the HMT Dunera docked in 1940.
Reichwald said, “Bern’s passing marks the end of an era and that it is now up to descendants and friends to perpetuate the Dunera story.”
Joanna said her father loved travel and “being practical”.
“It was explained to me early that if you wanted to get the most out of life, you should be ‘practical’ about your choices,” she said.
“This meant I was a well-travelled 12-year-old and I had also stayed in every el cheapo one-star hotel that Dad could find. It was a matter of pride for him to find the most basic pension, eat a simple breakfast with the landlady and take public transport – never, ever a taxi – to sit in the best theatre seats money could buy.”
Joanna also said Brent enjoyed many “final” visits to Berlin, especially after his wife passed away and he could travel again.
“He spent his 90th birthday with us in Beijing. The next year we all went to Berlin for another final fling,” she said.
“Then, when we lived in Geneva, Dad visited every year and a final Berlin fling became a much-anticipated annual event. Even after we moved back to Australia – and it was no longer ‘practical’ – (we took) Dad back to Berlin again in 2019.
“This one turned about to be the real final fling. Although, without COVID, I think there may have been one more fling.
“When Dad wasn’t reading me Damon Runyan stories, he was reading me the Greek myths.
“I can see Bern journeying into the underworld, chatting to the ferryman – he’ll have taken the cheapest travel class, of course. I can picture him, ear-bashing all the Greek philosophers, explaining why they should be more practical, hosting lunches and looking for a new chess partner.
“Dad is in his element there. Still vertical, holding court.”