Elise and Wolf Klaphake, 1900.
Elise and Wolf Klaphake, 1900. (Courtesy of Zita Klaphake)

Wolf Klaphake, 1900–67

Wolf Klaphake was a German-born scientist. In 1935, he emigrated to Australia. From 1940 to 1944 he was interned as an 'enemy alien'. He died in Sydney in 1967.


Wolf Klaphake stood out – in more than one sense. He was six feet eight inches tall (203cm), lean, with fair (later grey) hair and blue eyes. Most of the few surviving photographs depict an earnest-looking man.

Wolf Klaphake was a chemist by training, but also excelled in other branches of the natural sciences such as physics and botany. He was a gifted linguist and a student of ancient Chinese cultures and religions.

From Zeitz to Casula

Klaphake was born on 5 March 1900 in Zeitz, a small town in southeastern Germany. Today Zeitz is known not only for its historic buildings, but also as the home of Europe's largest collection of prams.1

Wolf's father, Josef Klaphake, was the director of the local abattoir. When Wolf was one year old, his father died. Wolf, his sister Kitty and his mother moved to Leipzig, where Wolf went to school. After a six-month stint with an artillery regiment in Belgium, he returned to Leipzig to attend university. In 1923, he graduated with a doctorate and moved to Berlin to work as a chemist for the Schering-Kahlbaum company. 2

In 1935, Wolf Klaphake and his wife Maria emigrated to Australia. They initially rented a house in Melbourne on Riddell Parade, Elsternwick. They moved to Sydney in 1936, renting on Maclean Avenue, Chatswood. Klaphake worked first as a consultant chemist, and then for Industrial Microbiology Pty Ltd. This company was set up to fund Klaphake's research and then exploit the inventions he would make.

From 1940 to 1944, Klaphake was interned in the Orange, Tatura and Loveday camps. In spite of his internment, which he considered grossly unjust, Klaphake decided to remain in Australia. He applied for naturalisation soon after his release.

After the war, he and his second wife Alice bought a property at Casula in Sydney's outer southwest, where he built a house and a laboratory. He continued to work as a consultant chemist until his death in 1967. He and Alice had two children.

'Like a very gifted child in school'

Wolf Klaphake was gifted, eccentric, naive, intelligent, stubborn, charming, withdrawn, romantic, uncommunicative, generous, intense, exuberant, repressed, depressed. There is little doubt that he was extraordinarily talented. His neighbour in Casula once described him as being 'like a very gifted child in school'.

Immigrant or refugee

Wolf and Maria Klaphake arrive in Melbourne on the Moldovia, in The Star, 14 October 1935.
Wolf and Maria Klaphake arrive in Melbourne on the Moldovia, in The Star, 14 October 1935. (La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria)

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.

'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. 3

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.

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). 4

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.

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. 5

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.

A rainmaker?

Trans-Australian Railway photograph of a condenser cooler at Cook, 10 December 1917.
Trans-Australian Railway photograph of a condenser cooler at Cook, 10 December 1917. (B3104, 4302253)

Before his emigration, Wolf Klaphake conducted extensive experiments in Yugoslavia to develop a dew condenser. He was hoping that Australian government authorities would enable him to test his invention in Australia.

Dew condensers

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Wolf Klaphake invested a considerable amount of time and money in developing a dew condenser. The idea to generate water by condensing atmospheric humidity was not new.

Klaphake studied processes for dew condensation that had been used in Europe and other parts of the world. In 1933 and 1934, he visited England for several months to learn about dew ponds. He built at least one large dew condenser in Yugoslavia.

Shortly after his arrival in Melbourne, he gave a talk to the Society of Industrial Chemists, in which he outlined his idea. 6

Water for Cook

Two of Melbourne's daily newspapers considered Klaphake's arrival in 1935 aboard the Moldavia newsworthy. Under the headline 'Drawing water from air is aim of scientist among Moldavia arrivals', the Sun News reported on 15 October:

Dr. Wolf Klaphake, from Berlin, bearing a credential from the noted British scientist, Lord Rutherford, and an invitation from the Premier of South Australia (Mr. Butler), has a plan for drawing water from air to put before the governments of Australia. He has been working on the invention for 10 years, and he said yesterday it was practicable wherever there was humidity of at least 50 per cent.

Klaphake had met the South Australian Premier, RL Butler, in London. As a result of that meeting, Klaphake proposed a project to erect a dew condenser at Cook in the Nullarbor, along the Kalgoorlie–Port Augusta railway line.

In the waterless Nullarbor Plain, the procurement of potable water presented a formidable challenge to the authorities. Bore water was not fit for human consumption, and for many years seemingly the only alternative to trucking the water all the way from Kalgoorlie was to build water condensers fired by coal. But the costs of running the condenser at Cook were prohibitive. In 1918, a report by the Commonwealth Railways Transportation and Stores Branch found that it was cheaper to truck water to Cook. 7

The scarcity of potable water remained an issue at Cook until at least the 1950s.


Lord Rutherford had recommended Klaphake to Sir David Rivett, the chief executive officer of the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Rivett asked the Public Works Department to cost Klaphake's idea. In February 1936, he told Klaphake:

I have received from Mr. Mackennal, the Works Director, a sketch which he has prepared of the structure which you suggested to him for erection at Cook, and also his estimate of the cost of putting this up. The estimate is £16,000 ... This seems to me to rule out further consideration of your plan as a practical operation. I am quite sure that the government would not for one moment entertain a suggestion for expenditure on this scale. 8

Rivett's rejection was a severe blow for Klaphake.


After Rivett had dismissed the Cook proposal, Klaphake stopped pursuing the idea of building a dew condenser. Instead he devoted his time to a new project: the development of a process for the fermentation of household garbage. This scheme may have appeared as ludicrous to the CSIR as that to condense atmospheric humidity.

Entrepreneur HJ Davys, who funded Klaphake's research, was concerned that the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and Germany would lead to Klaphake's internment. On 1 November 1938, Davys wrote to the Australian Prime Minister to seek an assurance that Klaphake would not be interned given the national importance of his research.

After the outbreak of World War II, Klaphake's research attracted suspicion. In 1940, Military Intelligence received a report from the local mayor, a Mr Harrison:

Mr. Harrison reports that Dr. Klaphake, of Dundas, has a 25 h.p. motor, is breeding bacteria, but [this] is supposed to be for the purpose of turning ordinary garbage into fertiliser. It is stated, however, that nothing goes into the place and nothing comes out. Harrison is going to try to sell him some garbage to see if he will buy it. 9

A pioneer

Klaphake's idea to build a dew condenser was not as far-fetched as it may seem. Today scientists at the University of Bordeaux are rediscovering Klaphake's research. It appears that his ideas were ahead of his time.

A postcard found among Klaphake's papers suggested that he built at least one dew condenser on or near the island of Viš, off the Croatian coast. In 2002, a team of scientists led by Daniel Beysens of the International Organization for Dew Utilization (based in Pessac, France), visited Viš and found the remnants of two of Klaphake's dew condensers. The scientists wrote a report about their expedition to Croatia to locate traces of Klaphake's experiments. 10

Nazi or anti-Nazi

In March 1942, Klaphake asserted that he was pro-British and anti-Nazi.
In March 1942, Klaphake asserted that he was pro-British and anti-Nazi. (MP508/1, 255/741/381, p. 7)

When World War II began, the Australian security services raided the German consulate in Sydney and intercepted its mail. They found records with the names and addresses of Nazi Party members living in Australia. According to these records, Klaphake was member 3452978. But throughout his internment, he insisted that he was opposed to Nazism.

Demonstrating his allegiance

In 1933, Wolf Klaphake developed a new process for the production of synthetic camphor. He sold the patent rights to the IG Farben Corporation. When he made plans to leave Germany for good, senior managers of this influential firm persuaded the Nazi authorities to allow him to transfer the proceeds from that sale to an Australian bank.

But there was a price to pay: his IG Farben contacts advised him that he needed to demonstrate his allegiance to the Nazi regime by applying to join the Nazi party NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – National Socialist German Labor Party). He lodged an application from London, shortly before his final departure from Germany and, as he never paid dues or attended meetings, thought that that was the end of the matter.

'A vital agent of Nazi Germany'?

The Australian security services were suspicious of Klaphake because, unlike many others who claimed to have come to Australia to escape from Hitler's Germany, he was non-Jewish, able to transfer a considerable amount of money from Germany, and associated with IG Farben, a firm crucial for the German war effort. When it transpired that Klaphake had been assigned a Nazi Party membership number, their suspicions seemed to have been confirmed. The officer charged with translating and evaluating Klaphake's papers, which had been seized when he was arrested in June 1940, concluded in June 1941:

It is reasonable to say that Dr. Wolf Klaphake was a vital Agent of Nazi Germany abroad. Items in this exhibit show him to be representing a firm of I.G. Farbenindustrie in Berlin – one of the largest Munition manufacturers in Germany at the present day – and to have been financed by the German Government through this firm. 11

This assessment was shared by other intelligence officers working for the Australian security services.

Protestations of innocence

For four years, Wolf Klaphake wrote letter after letter to the authorities in which he protested his innocence.

Repeatedly Klaphake argued that everybody in the camps knew that he was not a Nazi. In July 1942, he wrote to the Commandant of the Tatura No. 3 camp:

Every Hitler-sympathizer inside or outside the internment camps knows by now, that I am sincerely supporting the cause of the Allies in my heart … Do the Authorities not know it yet? 12

He assumed that everybody knew about his anti-Nazi views because of his behaviour in the camp: he did not take part in the singing of German Nazi songs such as the Horst Wessel Lied; he refused to sign a form allowing the Australian authorities to communicate his whereabouts to the German government; he did not accept the Reichsgeld, the pocket money paid to loyal Germans by the German government; and he did not make friends with people who were known to be Nazi sympathisers.

Throughout his internment, he demanded to be segregated from German Nazis. Whenever the authorities gave him the choice, he opted to be interned with other anti-Nazis. In 1942, when his wife Maria was interned, the Klaphakes were accommodated in camp 3D, together with Italians, Jewish refugees from Singapore, and a very small number of other Germans who refused to have anything to do with the Nazis in the camps.

For four years, he failed to convince the security services of his innocence. Several factors account for this failure. The authorities failed to understand his motivation to come to Australia. If he was neither Jewish nor a committed socialist, why then did he leave Germany? Why had he been on friendly terms with IG Farben directors? Why did he meet the German consul after his arrival in Australia?

But Klaphake's failure to convince the authorities was also due to his inability to understand them. Like most other internees, he did not know why he was interned. How could he prove his innocence if he did not know why they thought he was guilty? On 16 October 1942, he wrote to the Tatura 3D commandant:

I beg the Authorities of this country, the sole Authorities I recognize, to tell me ... what the reasons for my internment are and to give me the chance of defending myself.

Internee N1275

Photograph from Wolf Klaphake's internment dossier.
Photograph from Wolf Klaphake's internment dossier. (D1901, K1056, p. 13)

Wolf Klaphake was interned for more than four and a half years, from 10 June 1940 until 30 August 1944. This was far longer than most enemy aliens who abhorred the regimes of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

Fear of fifth columnists

In the first nine months of the war, the Australian Government was anxious to avoid repeating the World War I experience of mass internments of enemy aliens – despite vociferous public demands for their immediate internment. Only small numbers of Germans and Austrians were interned in September 1939, and many of them were released in early 1940. In February 1940, the Secretary of the Department of the Army reported:

Of the 5100 persons over the age of 16 years who have been registered as German citizens, 234 are now interned and 23 are placed under certain restrictions ... No other restrictions have been placed on the remaining German citizens at liberty, other than the requirement to register, to report themselves weekly to an Aliens Registration Officer, and to obtain a permit if they wish to travel outside the Police District in which their place of abode is situated. A very liberal interpretation has been placed on the latter. 13

But the military situation in Europe and fear of fifth columnists in Australia moved the government to change its policy. In the first week of June 1940, the Germans embarked on a major offensive in France. The fall of France, and the capture of large numbers of British troops on the European mainland, seemed to be only a matter of time. Between 6 and 10 June 1940, all over Australia hundreds of enemy aliens were rounded up and interned.

Those interned in June 1940 included many German and Austrian refugees. In October 1940, the Director of Military Operations and Intelligence circulated a memorandum outlining the rationale behind the internment of refugees. It demonstrated that the Australian security services understood little about the circumstances under which refugees had left Germany. It claimed that 'virtually all the refugees in Australia from Germany left Germany by definite permission of the Gestapo' and stated that the onus was on refugees to prove their innocence. 14

The logistics of internment

The Australian Army set up internment camps in all Australian states except Tasmania: Gaythorne in Queensland; Liverpool, Orange and Hay in New South Wales; Tatura in Victoria; Loveday in South Australia; and Harvey in Western Australia. 15

Before the construction of purpose-built camps in the second half of 1940, prisons such as Long Bay Gaol and Bathurst Gaol in New South Wales and Fremantle Gaol in Western Australia, and army barracks such as the Keswick Barracks in Adelaide were also used to accommodate internees.

About a third of all adult male enemy aliens of German and Italian nationality, and almost all Japanese men resident in Australia were at some stage interned during World War II.

Orange – Tatura – Loveday

Wolf Klaphake was first interned in Orange, New South Wales. The Army had transformed the local showgrounds into an internment camp to accommodate the hundreds of men who had been arrested between 6 and 10 June 1940.

In August 1940, he was moved to Tatura in northern Victoria, where he was first interned in the main German compound (Tatura No. 1), and then, for a few months, together with other anti-Nazis, in Camp No. 4. 16

In late January 1942, Klaphake and other anti-Nazis were transferred by train to Loveday in South Australia's Riverland district. During that train journey, two German internees died while trying to escape – in order to enlist in the Australian armed forces, as their fellow internees later claimed. Three months later, Wolf Klaphake was back in Tatura to be reunited with his wife Maria, who had been interned in March 1942.

After his wife's release in February 1943, Wolf Klaphake was transferred back to Internment Camp No. 14D at Loveday – a transfer he tried to prevent by making what appeared to be a suicide attempt.

The Military Intelligence officer attached to the Tatura internment camps reported in March 1943 under the heading 'Suspicious Incidents':

On 26 Feby 43, N.1275 W. KLAPHAKE, an internee whose wife had been released from No 3, some weeks previously, was to have travelled under escort with O.W. SPECK to Loveday. When the time came to have him brought from the compound at No 3, it was discovered that he was fast asleep and subsequent efforts to awaken him were of no avail. He was evacuated to Waranga Hospital, still asleep ... KLAPHAKE on examination by M.O. was found to haven taken an overdose of sleeping draught. 17

Wolf Klaphake was released from Loveday on 30 August 1944.

Mental torture

The cover page of the newsletter Brennessel, 1 February 1942, at Tatura No. 1 internment camp (MS 11610).
The cover page of the newsletter Brennessel, 1 February 1942, at Tatura No. 1 internment camp (MS 11610). (La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria)

Wolf Klaphake detested the Nazis, but he was interned in camps dominated by men loyal to Nazi Germany. He intensely resented being interned together with Nazis, who considered him and other anti-Nazi internees traitors.

Among enemies

Usually, the Australian authorities interned enemy aliens according to nationality rather than political beliefs or religion. As a result, refugees and other anti-Nazis had to live in camps run by their antagonists.

Internment camps were internally administered by internees, and camp leaders were chosen by the internees themselves. Most of the local German internees hoped for a German victory, and many were sympathisers, if not members of the Nazi Party. Life in the Tatura No. 1 camp, which housed the majority of the local Germans, was therefore organised by men with strong Nazi sympathies. Each year on 20 April, internees celebrated Adolf Hitler's birthday. On 9 November, they commemorated the anniversary of the failed Hitler putsch in 1923.

At Tatura No. 1, the German internees published their own newsletter, Brennessel ('stinging nettle'). The artwork used on some of the covers is evidence of the ideological orientation of the German camp leadership.

A fellow internee, Baldwin Goener, described one of the 9 November celebrations in a memoir. Goener was German-born, but naturalised. He lived in Queensland. He was not a committed Nazi, but participated in events put on by the Nazi leadership in the internment camps. He was interned in Tatura No. 1 at the same time as Wolf Klaphake. He recalled:

A day of remembrance, in honour of the first thirteen Members who gave their lifes for the party, sacrificed at the Puch in 1923 at Munich; this was a real beautiful event ... To each side of the stadium were burning the flames of remembrance and at the centre at the back wall hung a huge Swastica. In front of it stood the chosen speaker of the party, who opened the ceremony with a speech and during that the national flag went up to the top of the flagpole and flew in the glow at the reflection of the fires. 18

Unpopular with the Nazis

Peer pressure meant that it was often difficult for the non-Jewish German internees to absent themselves from social events organised by the camp leadership in Tatura No 1. Those who refused to attend the 20 April and 9 November commemorations were branded traitors and ostracised. But unlike most of his fellow internees, Wolf Klaphake was unwavering in his opposition to those running Tatura No. 1. He never actively participated in the Kameradschaftsabende, social events in the evenings, when the internees sang German songs, including the Nazi hymn, the Horst Wessel Lied.

Other internees testified that Klaphake was uncompromising in his anti-Nazi stance.

Klaphake suffered because he was interned with people he considered his enemies. In October 1941, he wrote:

For more than sixteen months I was forced to live with my antagonists ... [The] authorities ... do not know of the abyss which opens everywhere between a Nazi and an anti-Nazi, and I have learned during this terrible time of internment with Nazis to what mental torture this co-internment amounts. 19

Anti-Nazi and loyal to Australia

Individually and collectively, the anti-Nazi internees repeatedly stressed that they should be treated differently from those who were interned on account of their sympathies with Nazi Germany, and tried to lobby the authorities for the establishment of a camp exclusively for pro-British or anti-Nazi internees.

Klaphake signed some of the petitions drafted by other anti-Nazi internees. He also wrote numerous letters himself, in which he raised the issue of the separation of Nazi and anti-Nazi internees. In September 1943, for example, he asked the Army Inventions Board to support his application for a transfer from Loveday to Tatura:

I herewith ask your Department whether they could assist me with the proper Authorities so that I be transferred to a non-nazi camp in Victoria until a time when I will be permitted to work for the Australian War Effort more efficiently than I can from an internment camp – but not to a nazi camp, because then I would rather stay here in the desert. I have never been a nazi and will have nothing to do with them. 20

But Klaphake's protestations that he should not be interned in the same camp as German Nazis were listened to half-heartedly. The authorities were convinced that he, like other refugeees who were interned for several years, was a closet Nazi himself.

The death of Francesco Fantin

Refugee advocates supported demands by German anti-Nazi and Italian antifascist internees to be separated from their fellow countrymen. The Anglican bishop Venn Pilcher was one such advocate. Throughout the war, he lobbied the government to respect the civil rights of refugees and to release internees with anti-Nazi credentials. He was particularly concerned about the fact that the Loveday camps housed both fascist and Nazi, and antifascist and anti-Nazi internees.

On 16 November 1942, Pilcher's worst predictions came true when the Italian antifascist Francesco Fantin was murdered by a fellow internee in the Loveday 14A camp.21 Pilcher wrote a 'Personal & Confidential' letter to the Minister for the Army, Francis Forde:

You may remember that on August 10, I wrote to you asking you to separate the Refugee Internees from the Nazi Internees ... I pointed out that ... there was quite a possibility that this fighting might lead to murder. What I then warned you as possible has now actually happened ... The news of the disregard of the principles of [the Geneva] Convention by the Military Authorities travels round the world and can scarcely be said to be good for Australia. 22

Military Intelligence seemed to have been less concerned about the murder than about the fact that information about the murders had been leaked to Pilcher and to the Anglican bishop of Canberra, Burgman. On 11 January, the intelligence officer dealing with the case suggested that Pilcher's and Burgman's mail be scrutinised.

Anxious to help

Purification of water by electric current: ground elevation of rectangular apparatus.
Purification of water by electric current: ground elevation of rectangular apparatus. (MP76/1, 1001, p.26)

The Army Inventions Board was set up in 1942 to harness the skills and knowledge of technical experts and the ingenuity of ordinary Australians for the war effort. More than 20,000 submissions reached the Board over the next four years. 23

While interned, Wolf Klaphake made numerous submissions to the Board. The inventions he proposed to develop ranged from a portable apparatus for the production of drinking water to a tracer bullet.

For the benefit of this country

Undoubtedly, Wolf Klaphake was extraordinarly talented and knowledgeable. He was willing to make his wide-ranging expertise available to the Australian authorities, even after he had been interned by these same authorities.

'It makes me so sad that I could do such a lot to the benefit of this country and I am prevented from doing so by this ridiculous internment', Wolf Klaphake wrote in a letter to his wife from the Orange Internment Camp.

Klaphake's many submissions to the Army Inventions Board were taken seriously, but none was developed by the Board. 24 Without access to a laboratory and a library, Klaphake found it difficult to convince the Board of the merits of his ideas. In July 1942, he told the commandant of the Tatura Internment Camp:

Amongst other products for pharmaceutical use I can make a German preparation called Cardiazol, extensively used in this country before the war for healing heart diseases and mental disorders. It is unobtainable now, but I am interned. Or to mention other products of minor importance, but essential in the general war effort. There is a lack of cork stoppers, I can make a substitute, there are no flint stones, I can make them from the raw-minerals. I can enable a man to land on a waterless island in the Pacific and obtain drinking water within 24 hours with the help of a few tools. The Invention Board in Melbourne know about my processes of obtaining water, they ask me for more details. How can I give the precisest details when I am forced to live a life fit for cattle? 25

Wolf Klaphake was not the only internee who made submissions to Board. Others included German patent attorney Walter Jordan and journalist Walter Stolting. Both were of German-Jewish extraction and identified as anti-Nazis. Like Klaphake, they were interned for more than three years. 26

Liability or asset?

The Security Service and Military Intelligence considered Klaphake's expertise a liability rather than an asset. Summarising the material gathered on Klaphake, an officer of the Australian intelligence services wrote in October 1941:

Has an extensive knowledge of treatment of various bacteria, and both he and his wife are reported as having a wide and thorough knowledge of research chemistry. Could thus render great service to an enemy if so inclined. 27

Klaphake failed to prove his loyalty to the Australian authorities and to convince them to utilise his talents. By 1943, he began to realise that his expertise would not be as sought after as he had initially assumed. It never dawned on Klaphake that his offers of help, accompanied by long lists of projects he could accomplish if released from internment, could damage rather than aid his cause.

Learning Chinese

Loveday internment camp in South Australia was a bleak and depressing environment for Klaphake and other internees.
Loveday internment camp in South Australia was a bleak and depressing environment for Klaphake and other internees. (Australian War Memorial)

While at Tatura and Loveday, Wolf Klaphake took up Mandarin. After two years, with no access to native Chinese speakers, he began teaching fellow internees. Learning Chinese, reading Chinese poetry, studying Lao Tzu and playing mah-jong were his means of escaping the reality of internment.

Student type

Klaphake was a gifted linguist and had always been interested in languages. He is said to have been able to read or speak more than a dozen languages, including Sanskrit and Arabic, even before his internment.

When Klaphake was interned in June 1940, he had probably for some time been interested in the writings ascribed to Lao Tzu, then believed to be an older contemporary of Confucius (551–479 BC). In Tatura, he began studying the Chinese language to more fully appreciate Chinese thought and literature. He was a fast learner. Although he did not have access to a native speaker, he was soon able to immerse himself in literary texts in Mandarin.

Asked in May 1941 by Judge Clyne, Chairman of Aliens Tribunal No. 1, how he was occupying his time at Tatura, Klaphake replied:

I am learning Chinese. I am very interested in religion, and I have not studied [Taoism] yet. This is one of the most interesting of religions, and I am doing a sort of preparation for reading [Lao Tzu], who is recognised as the founder of this religion. 28

By early 1942, Klaphake's knowledge of Mandarin was sufficient for him to teach other internees. There were not many takers for his Chinese language classes, but those who went through his 'school' thought highly of him.

In China 3000 years ago

Klaphake's language studies were therapeutic. They focused his attention on a task that was pleasurable and unrelated to the context of his internment. Soon after his transfer from Orange to Tatura, he wrote to an Australian acquaintance:

Thus I am condemned to learn Chinese. I will never need it a bit [but] it is very fascinating and it keeps me away from everyone and everything – at least I thought so. 29

Sometimes his language studies allowed him to escape the reality of the Tatura and Loveday camps. 'Most of the time I am in China three thousand years ago', he wrote to his future wife in January 1944. 30


Klaphake was a passionate mah-jong player and taught other internees this ancient Chinese game. Mah-jong is a kind of domino game. It is made up of four sets of 34 tiles. Traditionally, mah-jong tiles are made of bone or ivory with a bamboo back. Each tile is engraved with a design. [FN4]

Mah-jong was Klaphake's conduit to the outside world. 'Is he popular with anybody', the Austrian-Jewish internee Fritz Tramer was questioned about Klaphake when he appeared before the Aliens Tribunal. 'Well, he has a very reserved personality', Tramer replied. 'He is silent all day long until we play mah-jong.'31

Chinese = Japanese?

In March 1944, an intelligence officer based at the Loveday Internment Camp noted in a report about Internee N1275:

Well-educated and well-mannered Internee. Student type. His behaviour has been excellent. He speaks many languages including Chinese. 32

But the Army and the Security Service had not always approved of Klaphake's language studies. The Australian intelligence agencies were generally suspicious of enemy aliens with language skills. Many of the German and Austrian emigrés and refugees who, like Klaphake, spent three years or more in internment, spoke at least three languages. Proficiency in languages other than English and German tended to be noted critically in reports compiled by Australian intelligence officers.

In Klaphake's case, it was not just the fact that he spoke several languages other than German and English, but that he was learning an Asian language. In August 1943, Captain Whitehill, in charge of the Loveday 14D internment camp, wrote in a report that because Klaphake:

practised and taught 'Chinese', which we thought at the time might easily be converged to 'Japanese', he was consequently placed under surveillance, as a doubtful character. 33

The military authorities did not encourage Klaphake's language studies. When he tried to get a Tibetan dictionary from the University of Calcutta, the district censor returned his letter because the airmail service was not to be abused for a purpose as frivolous as studying Tibetan:

I am returning herewith an airgraph from the above internee addressed to the Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, requesting help in obtaining a dictionary and literature on the Tibetan language. This facility ... is available to internees only 'for special reasons in connection with emigration or urgent family matters'. Under no circumstances can the enclosed airgraph be [considered] as coming under these categories ... [It] is suggested that Camp Commandant exercise his powers of withholding approval more rigidly. 34


In March 1944, a Senior Medical Officer had examined Klaphake and recommended his release on medical grounds.
In March 1944, a Senior Medical Officer had examined Klaphake and recommended his release on medical grounds. (D1901, K1056, p. 154)

Wolf Klaphake did not cope well with being interned. In spite of his ability to let himself be transported to China 3000 years ago, he barely survived the 1542 days he spent in Australian internment camps.


Klaphake was particularly upset about being interned together with Nazis, about not being told about the reasons for his internment, and about his inability to convince the authorities of the sincerity of his attitude towards Australia. In January 1942, he wrote:

I am told that internment is not a punishment, but only a man who has never been held captive under humiliating circumstances by his friends, can say so, and I can say from my own sad experience that my internment is the most severe punishment I could think of and I envy a murderer, only because he knows the reason for his confinment. 35

But in 1942, Klaphake was still hopeful. He was optimistic that he would find out why he was interned, that he would be able to demonstrate his loyalty to the Australian authorities and that he would soon be freed. But his optimism did not last. By early 1944, other anti-Nazis had been released. He felt that there was nothing he could do to obtain his release. In July 1944, he told his wife:

You are mistaken when you think I am pessimistic. I am not in general but I am very pessimistic and sceptical with anything that has any connection with the authorities of this country and after my experiences that is not surprising. On the contrary I firmly believe that whatever happens to me I will never be so bad off as I am here, even if I should be ill or starving. 36

Afraid of becoming insane

Rather than working towards a long-term goal – release from internment – Klaphake pursued short-term objectives. Each day behind barbed wire presented a challenge. A notebook found among his papers contains what appear to be diary entries, except that they are not dated. They could have been written during those last months in the Loveday internment camp:

To force myself to stand the weariness, I made my idle mind aware of time. There – that's a second gone – gone for ever – its misery cannot come back. There's another to join it. This wretchedness cannot go on for ever. The seconds will see it through, at last. Another’s gone – by so much I am nearer to release from it, however release comes.

Attempts by friends to cheer him up often failed. In a letter written in 1944, he declined the offer of a food parcel: 'I am not interested in eating, even if it is to the detriment of my physical well-being. All I do is to try to occupy my mind; to get interned is a way to get insane'. 37

Ill health

Klaphake's depression was exacerbated by other health problems. In January 1942, he complained in a letter to the Tatura camp commandant:

I suffer badly of asthma and a weak heart, an illness which was considerably aggravated by my internment, particularly by the rough Victorian climate in the winter. At the time of my [Aliens Tribunal] hearing I was in such a bad state that I was entirely unfit for the ordeal of a court-case. 38

But the 'rough Victorian climate' was mild in comparison to the harsh climate in Loveday where he spent the last 17 months of his internment. When he appeared before the Aliens Tribunal for a second time, in April 1944, Klaphake said:

My health has been very bad. I suffer from pulmonary emphysema, which causes asthma. I have taken ephedrine for that, and adrenalin. The condition is made worse by dust. Ephedrine is the only relief I have, but it is making me nervous, and causing ill health. 39

Mount Omei

Wolf Klaphake in the 1950s.
Wolf Klaphake in the 1950s. (Courtesy of Zita Klaphake)

After his release from internment in 1944, Wolf Klaphake settled in Sydney. He bought a property at Casula, which he named Mount Omei ('The Raised Eyebrow'). He continued to work as a consultant chemist from his own laboratory. He died in 1967. He is survived by his second wife, Alice, and his two children, Van and Zita.

Becoming an Australian

About six months after his release from internment, Wolf Klaphake applied for naturalisation. 'Now as ever it is my wish to settle in this country and become a naturalised citizen', he wrote in a letter accompanying his application.

In January 1945, when Klaphake lodged his application for naturalisation, Australia was still at war. Both the Department of the Interior and ordinary Australians were reluctant to support applications from German citizens whose internment seemed to be evidence of their lack of loyalty to their adopted country. The applications of former internees were only processed after at least one year had passed since their release from internment.

On 2 March 1945, Maria Klaphake died in Sydney, aged 41. Her husband claimed that his internment was to blame for her death. Maria and Wolf's marriage was no longer a happy one in the final years of her life, but she remained a loyal supporter of her husband to the end. Her own internment was, at least partly, due to being Wolf's wife.

'I can also recall distressing interviews with Mrs. Klaphake when her husband was interned', the Investigation Branch's DA Alexander wrote in a letter supporting Klaphake's application for naturalisation. 'I have no doubt that the internment of her husband and her own voluntary [sic] internment adversely affected her and possibly hastened her death.' 40

Klaphake's application was granted, and he was naturalised in September 1946. Earlier he had handed back his German passport, and signed a statutory declaration saying that he did not intend to retain his German nationality.


In 1946, Wolf Klaphake married Alice Wilton. Two children, Van and Zita, were born soon afterwards. The Klaphakes settled at Casula in Sydney's outer southwest. They bought a property on Grafton Road (today's Leacock's Lane) and named it Mount Omei 41. He set up a laboratory there and, for a while, pursued his earlier idea to produce fertiliser from household garbage.

In the 1950s, Wolf became increasingly interested in the parasciences – in what lay beyond the borders of the natural sciences that he had once studied at the University of Leipzig. His business brought him neither riches nor fame. In the years before he died in 1967, he made a living by manufacturing toilet cleaner in his laboratory.

Wolf never returned to Germany. In fact, he never ventured far outside Sydney. His mother, sister and nephew came out to join the Klaphakes at Casula in the early 1950s, but soon returned to Germany.

Wolf Klaphake died of cancer in 1967. His last public appearance was before the Special Federal Court of Petty Sessions, where he appeared on 15 and 23 June 1967 to testify that his son Van, who was a conscientious objector, had been brought up 'with an abhorrence of violence'.

After Wolf's death, his widow, an accomplished artist, turned his laboratory into an art gallery. Mount Omei had a second life: as the centre of the art scene in Sydney's southwest.


  1. See Zeitz city website.
  2. For chemical processes invented by Klaphake while he was working for Schering-Kahlbaum, see the European Patent Office website (search for 'Klaphake').
  3. Wolf Klaphake, statement before the Aliens Tribunal, 24 April 1944, NAA: D1901, K1056, p. 3.
  4. To learn more about the history of the Institute for Sexology, visit the website of the Magnus Hirschfeld Society (in English).
  5. 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.
  6. Klaphake's article is available online on the Rex Research website. For further information about Klaphake's condensation technique, see also Robert A Nelson, Air Wells and Dew Ponds.
  7. Acting General Superintendent to Commissioner Commonwealth Railways, 6 June 1918.  NAA: B300, 1343 Part 1, p.3
  8. David Rivett's reply ended Klaphake's hopes that he would be able to interest the Australian governments in financing his dew condenser.  NAA: MP76/1, 1001, p.9
  9. 'Report from Mr. Harrison (Suburban Mayor)', nd (c. May 1940).  NAA: ST1233, N20785, p.805
  10. A description of the dew condenser project is available on the International Organization for Dew Utilization website.
  11. N Bell, Translator's Report, 12 June 1941, p. 3.  NAA: D1901, K1056, p. 87
  12. Wolf Klaphake to Commandant Camp 3D, 16 October 1942.  NAA: MP70/1, 36/101/150, p. 4
  13. JT Fitzgerald to Secretary, Department of Defence Co-ordination, 26 February 1940. NAA: MP508/1, 255/702/137
  14. 'Military Security – Refugees: Internment: Fifth Columnists', p.2, encl. with Director of Military Operations and Intelligence to all commands, 31 October 1940. NAA: MP729/6, 29/401/273, p.5
  15. For a useful website about Australian internment camps, see
  16. The Irrigation and Wartime Camps Museum at Tatura, Victoria is run by the Tatura & District Historical Society. The Society has produced a video about the Tatura camps, Collar the Lot (1997), available from the museum (Hogan Street, Tatura VIC 3616). See the website at
  17. 'Intelligence Report No 9 for Week Ended 27 Feby 43', 2 March 1943, p. 2, NAA: MP70/1, 37/101/185 PART 2.
  18. Baldwin Goener, typscript manuscript, n.d., 3DRL/3559, Australian War Memorial, Canberra (spelling as in the original).
  19. Wolf Klaphake, statement, 9 October 1941.  NAA: MP529/5, 3, p. 168
  20. Wolf Klaphake to Army Inventions Directorate, 21 September 1943.  NAA: MP76/1, 11763, p. 7
  21. More has been written and said about Francesco Fantin than about any other World War II internee. His life has been the subject of at least one play and of numerous academic articles, most recently Clive Morton's 'Francesco Fantin: Wartime murder and cover up', in Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, vol. 18, no. 6 (2003), pp. 256–72.
  22. C Venn Pilcher to FM Forde, 9 December 1942.  NAA: MP742/1, 255/12/12, p. 136
  23. See Fact Sheet 199 – Army Inventions Directorate, 1942–46.
  24. Wolf Klaphake's numerous proposals are documented in National Archives of Australia series MP76/1.
  25. Letter from Wolf Klaphake to the Commandant of Tatura 3D, 17 July 1942.  NAA: MP70/1, 36/101/150, p. 14
  26. Precis of Case, 31 October 1941.  NAA: D1901, K1056, p. 82
  27. Wolf Klaphake, statement before Aliens Tribunal No. 1, 21 May 1941.  NAA: MP529/3, TRIBUNAL 1/KLAPHAKE, p. 30
  28. Wolf Klaphake to CE McKenzie, 24 November 1940.  NAA: MP529/2, KLAPHAKE/W, p. 21
  29. Wolf Klaphake, letter to Alice Wilton, 8 January 1944.
  30. To find out more about mah-jong, access the website of the Mahjong Museum.
  31. Fritz Tramer before Aliens Tribunal No. 1, 23 May 1941.  NAA: C329, 954, p. 15
  32. Jones, 'Report on Internee N.1275 KLAPHAKE Wolf', 27 March 1944.  NAA: D1901, K1056, p. 158
  33. Whitehill, 'Report on Internee N.1275', 2 August 1943.  NAA: D1901, K1056, p. 247
  34. RC Hunter, District Censor, to Group Camp Commandant, Internment Camps Barmera, 10 June 1944.  NAA: ST1233/1, N20785, p. 327
  35. Wolf Klaphake to the Commandant of Camp 4 Tatura, 26 January 1942.  NAA: ST1233/1, N20785, p.286
  36. Wolf Klaphake to Maria Klaphake, 17 July 1944. Intelligence officers read Klaphake's letters and made excerpts of passages they considered noteworthy.  NAA: D1901, K1056, p.116
  37. Wolf Klaphake to Alice Wilton, 15 April 1944.
  38. Wolf Klaphake to Commandant Camp 4 Tatura, 26 January 1942.  NAA: ST1233/1, N20785, p.238
  39. Wolf Klaphake, statement before the Aliens Tribunal, 24 April 1944.  NAA: D1901, K1056, p.3 
  40. Letter from DA Alexander in support of Wolf Klaphake's application for naturalisation.  NAA: A435, 1947/4/77, p. 13
  41. Literally 'raised eyebrow', but probably named after the sacred Buddhist mountain Emei Shan in Sichuan province, China.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017