The Voyage of their Life

On a sultry summer's day in August 1948, 545 passengers boarded an overcrowded clapped-out vessel in Marseilles with light suitcases and heavy hearts. They were leaving behind their familiar world to face an uncertain future in Australia and New Zealand.

They came from displaced persons' camps in Germany, death camps in Poland, labour camps in Hungary, gulags in Siberia and stony Aegean islands. There were those who had been hunted by the Nazis and those who had welcomed them; those who had followed the Communists and those who had fled from them. Among them were a Russian princess, a Polish ghetto fighter, an Estonian submarine commander and sixty-one Jewish orphans.

The epic voyage lasted almost three months and was marked by catastrophe, conflict and controversy until it seemed as though this hellship had absorbed the traumas of its passengers.

As conditions on board deteriorated, tension and violence simmered above and below decks. But romances, affairs and seductions also flourished, and lifelong bonds were formed.

Diane Armstrong set sail on the Derna with her parents when she was nine years old. Like a detective searching for clues, she has managed to locate over a hundred of the passengers. Through their recollections and memorabilia, as well as archival documents, she has recreated the voyage and traced what became of their hopes and dreams. The result is a unique portrayal of a migrant ship and its passengers.

Evocative, poignant and compelling, The Voyage of Their Life is a remarkable human story. It celebrates the spirit and resilience of those who have lost everything yet found the strength to rebuild their lives. It is the story of Australia.

The Voyage of Their Life is now available in a Perennial edition. This includes an interview with Diane in which she discusses how she researched the book and tells of some extraordinary stories that came to light after it was published. It also contains the first three chapters of her novel Winter Journey.

Awards & Nominations

The Voyage of their Life was shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Community Relations Commission Award.

Praise for The Voyage of their Life

Armstrong weaves in these individual tales with great skill. They flow in and out of the narrative in rhythm with the ship’s slow movement from the old world to the new.

The Age

Armstrong’s triumph in this history is to avoid judgment or argument … she allows readers to enter into the mindset of the refugees, to empathise with them

Weekend Australian

The characters become familiar and absorbing … almost unbearably moving

Australian Book Review

She is a natural sleuth … her writing is clear, incisive, yet imaginative

Sydney Morning Herald

[Diane Armstrong] has turned out an absorbing and very human work, laced with drama, love, hatreds and problems with almost Marx Brothers or Monty Python humour. … A rewarding read.

Australian Jewish News

A valuable contribution to the literature of multicultural Australia

Newcastle Herald

meticulously researched and inspired insight into Australian history

Brisbane News

A very moving account … her eye for detail brings these refugees to life

The Australian Way

While it is a good read, The Voyage of Their Life is also an important historical document in that it gives humanity and dignity to the stories of dispossessed people arriving in post-war Australia.

Wentworth Courier

Amazing story of survival at sea and life after World War II in Australia … Armstrong’s story is a remarkable tale of courage, persistence, and finding hope at a time when it appeared that there was none to hold onto.

Travel Link

Using her nose for journalism and dogged detective work, Diane has pieced together a rich tapestry of lives

Friday Magazine

Diane Armstrong’s study of the Derna is an important contribution to postwar Australian history. Her careful research combined with her excellent writing skills make this book essential reading for anyone interested in the development of Australian society.

Dr Suzanne Rutland, Australian Historical Society Journal

The Voyage of their Life

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Australia

ISBN: 0732275075