Benalla Migrant Camp 1949-1967

Migrant Stories

The Chlebnikowski Story

My mother, Anna Chlebnikowski was born in Monaczyn, Ukraine. My father, Nicholai, was born in Tarnopol , Ukraine, I assume that my Grand Uncle Peter and Grandfather Wasil, also were from Tarnopol.

My mother, father, Grandfather, Great Uncle Peter and my two brothers Nicholas and Victor, arrived in Australia by ship, the Skaugum on 31st May 1949, from Germany. They had travelled for almost 3months, the food was plentiful and they were well treated, however sea sickness was a serious problem for many, including my brother Victor, who was 17 months old when he arrived in Port Melbourne, Australia. He arrived in poor health. Nicholas, being 18 months older was only mildly affected and arrived in good health.

They were transported to barracks in Bonegilla, the weather was cold and wet and the barracks were in poor condition, with holes in the walls and only blankets to keep them warm. However, they were in high spirits and set about quickly to repair the holes with old cloth, paper and mud. There was no running water, heating or electricity, no proper bathrooms or toilets, no cooking facilities and no shops. None of these things posed as problems, they had endured much worse conditions in the past and were well equipped with skills to solve most problems.

They had been given cigarettes when they had arrived and those who did not smoke, were able to barter their cigarette rations for anything that was useful and available.

Pregnant women were issued extra food and children received milk each day. Victor’s health soon improved and you can see by the photos, that he became a little chubby.

Despite the cold and wet, they felt safe and happy, they were amongst people of their own kind and they made many life long friendships, unfortunately these friends have all passed away.

Shortly after their arrival, the men were sent to work outside of Bonegilla, so the family was separated. My father Nicholai, was assigned to work on tank maintenance in Puckapunyal, there is a photo of him in one of the tanks. He was issued a uniform and was well fed and paid, his wage was 6 pounds 4 shillings, less tax, for 40 hours work, 5 days a week, board was deducted from his wages,1 pound 10 shillings per week. He had no meal allowance, so I am not sure if food was provided for free or he had to pay himself. He was under contract to work up to 2 years, to pay for his passage to Australia. On weekends he returned to the family.

Meanwhile, on 25th July 1949, my mother and brothers were sent to the Immigration Holding Centre at Cowra NSW, where they stayed for 3 months. I do not know the reason for the move, but they were moved again to Benalla on 20th October 1949, where they remained until February 1951.

My great Uncle worked as a gentleman’s gentleman to an army Colonel in Puckapunyal, I am not sure what work my Grandfather did, but I believe he worked on the roads doing manual work.

They had bought with them a suitcase and a trunk. They had lived in Germany for 8 years before coming to Australia, they had worked during this time and so they arrived with clothing, shoes, a button accordion, a balalaika and a few small possessions.

While in Germany my mother worked as a waitress, while my father and grandfather made shoes. My grandfather had been a butcher, in the Ukraine and was used to working with animal skins, so when they discovered that there was a shortage of shoes, they set out to make some. Their first few attempts did not go well, they had to refund the customer’s money, because the shoes were not wearable. Eventually they had success, the only problem was, that they did not have the equipment to trim the leather soles close to the upper and so they developed the style of extended edges, which become highly sort after. The boots that are on display, are one of the pairs that they made in Germany. The chest is the one they travelled to Australia with.

The fact that they had been able to bring clothes and shoes from Germany, put them in a good position, as they were well equipped with the necessities. The button accordion and balalaika brought them much pleasure, singing, dancing and playing cards was how they spent many happy hours with their friends. I remember how they all laughed when they told the story of their run in with the Australian law. By this time they were in Melbourne, in the Alexander Gardens, they were walking through the gardens with their friends, playing their musical instruments and singing, just as they had done in Benalla, only this time, they were stopped by the police and told to stop making a noise in a public place and to move on. This was so funny to them, as this was what people in their home country did each weekend, but they did move on.

Life at the camp was happy and they all felt safe and had plenty to eat. My mother did not work, as she had 2 children and all the meals were provided. From the photos, it is obvious that the children were given bikes to ride and there was free time to go to the park and play.

One of the rumours was, that if a child was born in Australia, then the parents were guaranteed to be able to remain in Australia, so it bought them great joy when I was born in 1951 at the Benalla Bush Hospital, they felt truly safe. Whether this rumour was true or not, I do not know, but they were happy to believe it.

For extra money, my Great Uncle and Grandfather become the resident barbers. They had little previous experience, so once again found themselves in a position where they had to refund money to their customers, because many were not happy, but they improved their skills with time and managed to save some extra money, so when their 2 year contracts finished they had collectively saved enough money to purchase a house in Melbourne, it was very small, so they built extra rooms to it and were able to rent those rooms out to other migrants whose contracts expired. Rooms were very scare at that time, plus families with children were not readily accepted as suitable boarders, so everyone was very grateful to be able to have a room, which then allowed them to find work, which was plentiful and with their 2 years of work experience and knowledge of the language, they found work quickly and after a short stay with my family, were able to move onto buying their own properties.

The refugees camp had taught them the Australian language, customs and gave them skills to be able to adapt into the society quickly and easily, so it proved to be invaluable. They said that the Australian people were generous with their help and most welcoming, they never experienced racial discrimination and found the people to be fair, however some of them did play tricks on them and taught them to swear, telling them that this was the correct way to speak, they soon learnt otherwise.

My parents and their friends were all grateful to the Australian Government for bringing them to Australia and they all lived well in their new country.

I was born in the Benalla Bush Hospital, there is a picture of my mother outside the hospital with my brothers. We left Benalla soon after my birth, to live in Melbourne.

Irene Kornienko.

 


Cracknell Story

Chris Dunster, whose mother June Cracknell was a teacher at the camp in 1956 submitted the following story (in January 2014) :

"Mum arrived at the camp with 3 children, aged 5,4 and 1. She took up the position as Teacher and was there until about 1959. We lived on site and while Mum was teaching we were looked after by the women in the camp. I was 1 year old when we arrived.

Apparently we three children spoke fluent Russian while we were there. Mum met my Stepfather Bill Humphries at the community dances held at the camp. They married in 1960. I believe we moved out from the camp in 1959 and lived in the Black Swan Flats in Arundel St Benalla. Mum was amongst the first teachers at Benalla West Primary which commenced operation in 1960. Mum always spoke fondly of her time at the camp.”


Decker Family Story submitted by Monika Squires nee Decker via email 24/11/2018

 

Parents Johannes, Rosa, and the three children Erna, Konrad and Monika left Germany on the Fairsea ship in late November 1953 arriving in Freemantle, then Melbourne in January 1954.

They were trained to Wodonga, straight to Bonegilla for only a week, then to Benalla camp, where they stayed until some time in 1955 when they moved to Molyullah, to work for Frank Harrison, of Harrison's Hardware (former Benalla Business), on his farm.

While at the camp John (Johannes) worked as a security guard and Rosa worked at the hospital. Rosa later worked at Latoof and  Calill in the factory, over the road from the camp. Erna moved to Melbourne to be a nanny for a doctor and Konrad went to the camp school. Later John purchased some land from Mr Harrison on O'Deas Road and built the family home on the property. In 1958 Max was born and in the early sixties Konrad joined the police force.

 

 


Farken Story

Written down by Sabine Smyth after interviewing Horst Farken in his home in Benalla in late 2012.

Horst supplied a range of photos from his family albums dating from 1960, the year he and his late wife Rena and kids arrived at Benalla Migrant Camp under the Assisted Migration Programme from Bremerhaven in Germany.

Horst remembers: "We paid for our passage. We arrived at Princes Pier and people were given green or yellow tags. We were given a green ticket and had no idea why. Then we found out green disembarks first, good. From there we went in two big train loads to Bonegilla. We could not believe how rickety the trains were. And driving through the yellow landscapes - we thought it was a desert."

"The first stop was in Seymour and that was the first big shock. We had such strange tasting food and about 700 people in that dining room. Everyone got two saveloys and lots of mash. We ate what we could but when we left, we saw 700 plates left with peas. They had that funny added mint taste."

At Bonegilla I remember Ralph Paez from Renold's Chains in Benalla came recruiting and he was looking for a fitter and turner. He interviewed me and I got the job.

"When we got to Benalla from Bonegilla by train, we were picked up in two cars and Mr Pastuszka welcomed us in the camp. Guido Mohren was the leader of the camp committee. Because we were a family with four kids, we got three rooms in the camp - one of the parents, two for the kids.

I used to go hay-cutting on the weekends. Mr Pastuszka was the cook. We used to pick up the food from the canteen and then Rena used to spice it up and make it tasty back in our rooms on a little cooker. I think the conditions for migrants got better and better - by the time we got to Australia, there was no more having to work for two years wherever you were sent. You took what work you could get first and then you looked for better work eventually. "

"I remember in 1962 we got the first TV in the camp's common room. Kids were allowed to watch TV until 4 pm."


Fergin Story

Written by Rozalie Dean (nee Fergin), former resident of the Benalla Migrant Camp, Born - September 1951, Benalla.

The Home Land

Teodor Fergin and Maria Biernacka were both from Poland.

Teodor was a barber and when the Germans occupied Poland, he was employed to work exclusively for the Germans in a barber shop located in Warsaw.  Teodor was also an AK Soldier (Home Army Soldier) who was captured on the last day of the Warsaw Uprising and taken to a POW camp in Germany.

Maria on the other hand, was one of the many rounded up by the Germans and transported to Germany to work on a farm as slave labour.  Maria spent four years working on the farm from 6:00 am to 8:00 pm every day of the week.

End of WWII

After the War, Maria met Teodor through friends at a Displaced Persons Camp.  They married and had a son, my brother Eugene was born in October 1947 in Frille, Germany.

Teodor was unable to return to Poland due to fear of persecution and Maria became a displaced person after her village in Poland was burnt to the ground, family members killed and the territory occupied by Ukraine.

Negotiating the Exit from Germany

The family applied for and was granted IRO Resettlement but prior to arriving in Melbourne the family spent four years in numerous German and Italian migrant camps before departing from Naples on 18 December 1949 to Australia.

The New Country – Arriving at Bonegilla

Teodor and Maria Fergin with their son Eugene arrived at Port Melbourne on 14 January 1950.    As the family disembarked from the USS General Langfitt they were escorted to a waiting train on Station Pier which took them along the Cudgewa railway line to Bonegilla.   Teodor wrote in his travel journal that the day they arrived, “was one of the hottest days on record”.   The migrants found the heat unbearable as they waited in line for the authorities at Bonegilla to process the 1229 new arrivals.

After a couple of weeks in Bonegilla and as part of the Assisted Passage two year work contract, Teodor was sent to pick fruit in the Shepparton region.  A few weeks later the rest of the family was transported to Rushworth Holding Centre.  Their stay in Rushworth was temporary and I believe it may have been for the fruit picking duration only.

A New Beginning – Benalla

In April/May 1950 the family was relocated to Benalla Migrant Centre where their new life began in earnest.  Teodor worked as a labourer picking fruit and tobacco, he also worked in the camp communal kitchen and when time permitted he would earn extra money as a barber and cobbler.   Men at the camp would call in for a haircut and shave or drop off shoes for Teodor to repair and resole.

Maria joined the camp Polish choir which performed locally; she attended the mandatory camp English classes and in 1951 became pregnant with her second child. 

My brother Eugene Fergin was 2½ years old when the family arrived in Benalla.  Peter, as he is now known, attended the Benalla camp school from February 1953 to the end of 1954.

Life in the Camp

The camp was a hive of activity and creativity, the women would make the Huts as homely as possible.   Maria crocheted colourful blankets and cushion covers, she also made flowers from crepe paper.   I recall her saying that she once decorated the Christmas Tree in the Camp Main Hall with crepe paper roses because there were no Christmas decorations available to hang on the tree.

When Queen Elizabeth visited Benalla in 1954 it was a grand day with streets and houses decorated with bunting flags and the Baltic camp children dressed in national costume.   Peter could not escape been dressed for the occasion.

St Nicholas Day, 6th December was another special occasion which brought fear and tears to some little faces and curiosity to others, as St Nicholas arrived at the camp with the Devil and an Angel.  Parents would put the ‘fear of god’ in you to be good.

There were many social gatherings and celebrations, cultural events, births, christenings and marriages.  The migrants not only celebrated their own special cultural occasions but also Australian events such as the Melbourne Cup, Soccer and Aussie Rules Football.

Business as Usual

The post-war migrants had a sense of pride and commitment; many camp residents found work locally at Renold’s Chain factory and Latoof & Cahill Clothing factory, others worked in shops, domestic service and some were even brave enough to start their own business.   

What made Benalla Migrant Camp unique was its proximity to the main town and work opportunities; and based on the number of bicycles leaning against Hut walls, the preferred method of transport was cycling. 

During our five years in the Benalla Migrant Camp, the family had forged many wonderful and lifelong friendships.   Maria would often speak fondly of her time in the camp.   The bond within the camp provided much needed comfort, encouragement and spiritual support; it gave the migrants strength and made them resilient.

Acknowledgment

Photographs by Stan Mosbauer.  Stan was a keen photographer and never without his camera.  The Mosbauer family arrived at the Benalla Migrant Camp in June 1950 and in 1954 moved into their new home in Kathryn Street, Benalla.

Footnote

Burial Location for Teodor and Maria FERGIN

Springvale Botanical Cemetery – Birches, Row AF, Grave 34

 


Gebauer Story

(Below are extracts from a story that was published in the Benalla Ensign, by Angela Townsend in early 2012:)

Born in Breslau-Slizhan in what was then Germany (now Poland), Hans Joachim (Joe) Gebauer grew up in the mining town of Gottensburg. After the war, Joe and his wife Elisabeth decided to emigrate and set sail for Australia aboard the Greek liner Arcadia and arrived at Fremantle in November 1963.

They were transferred to Bonegilla for a short time, before moving to the camp at Benalla Airport in 1963 still.

Joe said the camp had everything one could want, from a picture theatre to a kindergarten, youth club and tennis club. ‘‘A town within a town,’’ is how Joe describes it.

After two years in the Benalla camp, Joe and Elizabeth bought a brand new home in Harold St in 1965, where Joe still lives. The photos are all dated 1963-65.

The Gebauer documents tell the entire story of the family's journey to Australia: the receipt for the fare on the ship, 652 Deutsche Mark ( about 300 dollars of today's money).

An excellent character reference by the local authority in his home town, a 'certificate of leaving' in all the family member's names, two boarding passes, a list of items to be packed, the menu on the Greek liner they travelled on and finally passport photos for the whole family at the time of migrating.

Anna Gebauer wrote on our Facebook Page on 13/11/2017: The Gebauer family was the largest family to migrate from Germany in 1963.

"We had 9 children and 1 on the way. We lived in the migrant centre for two and a half years. Only have good memories of the place."


Golonski Story

Written by Sabine Smyth from notes after interviewing Sophia Arendt nee Golonski in Nov 2012.

Sophie Arendt (Zofia Golonski) of Benalla thinks her family arrived in Benalla Migrant Camp in 1951 or 52. The Golonski family is from Poland, but Sophie was born in Germany where her parents were displaced people living in a camp. Sophie's brothers are Tadeusz (Taddy), Zenon, and Kasimir (Kaz) the youngest. Sophie remembers that as a child, she had a great time in the camp. Zenon was born in the camp.

“I remember there was a delicatessen trader, we called him 'Der Jude" (the Jew). He came to the Migrant Camp once a week, parked around the back and sold us German Sausages, Bread, Rollmops and Halva over the fence. Even when we moved into a house, out of the camp, he used to still come around and sell things to the old customers. We used to know, on a particular day at a set time, here he comes. You could rely on it. "

Sophie remembers: "Before Benalla, we were in Uranquinty Camp. It was in that camp that my brother Tadeusz got Polio. My mother then came to Benalla to be close to the Hospital."

“In winter, the shower block was freezing cold and then you had to walk back to your hut all wet, and it was quite a distance from the rooms."

“It was so hot in summer, it was hard to get to sleep. There was no way to keep cool in the bedrooms, and there were no fly wires. They were just tin sheds. But we somehow just coped."

"The only furniture we had was the metal beds, a bedside table with one drawer, and a small one door wardrobe, where you had no rod for hangers, you just put the clothes inside folded up. On the beds were thin, strange mattresses filled with what we thought was straw. It looked like that anyway and after a while, you had worn a real groove into the middle. The blankets were grey and really heavy. There were ticks, rats and mice there too."

"The walls were a sort of dirty white, white doors, white windows. Most the women made Terylene curtains for a bit of privacy. To hang them up, we just had some nails with wire. “Between the rows of huts there was quite a broad stripe of ground. I remember my father had fenced an area off and we also grew some vegies here."

“My father made lovely pull-along wooden toys to earn a bit of extra money.”


Gravitis Family in Benalla Migrant Centre 1952 to 1959 (sent in via e-mail March 2020)

My name is Amanda Blanche now, but I was born Amanda Gravitis, the fifth child of Alma and Otto Gravitis, born in 1948 in a Displaced Persons camp in Flensburg, Germany.  My father died 6 months later, aged 66, and my mother was left a widow with five children, a refugee in a strange land.

The family had fled their home near Jaungulbene, Latvia, in 1944, in the face of an oncoming tide of Soviet encroachment, after having withstood previous German army onslaughts over their small farming property.  They always thought it would be a temporary measure, - that they would be returning at some time.  It was not to be.

After the war, Australia was looking for immigrants, and they accepted my widowed mother and family.  So we arrived in 1950 on the General Hanselman.  After being shuffled from one migrant facility to another for several months, we finally arrived at Benalla Immigration Holding Centre in 1952.

I was four years old.  I remember the pre-school kindergarten that I attended in Benalla IHC.  I enjoyed being there, playing in the playing area, blowing soap bubbles through a plastic pipe, painting the corrugated iron walls with water and a huge paint brush, and being puzzled as to why it never looked any different once the ‘paint’ dried, having naps in the afternoon on little camp beds.  Then being so excited about finally going to ‘The Big School’!

Well, once at the Big School, we found that we were only in Baby Grade – Kindergarten again.  Not to worry.  It was good.  We had toys to play with, and singing around the piano, stories read to us about Babar the Elephant, and then learning to read about John and Betty.  John jumps and Betty skips – how that sticks in my mind.  Lots of years at school in the next few years.  I remember Mr Spry in 4th class, and the day that a big brown snake poked his head in at the classroom window, and Mr Spry grabbed the blackboard ruler and whacked the snake.  We all went outside to shudder at the big long dead snake. 

I remember that at school there was a school bell, and one of us in 6th class would go and ring the bell to announce recess or lunch time.  Only two dings though.  Any more dings and it would be the fire alarm for the camp.  And there were occasionally fires.  I remember that bell being dinged furiously, but not by one of us, some guy or other, when there was a fire outbreak in the airfield.  The school was right next to the aerodrome.  I remember all the menfolk beating at the flames in the grass with hessian sacks.  They did it, and the fire was put out eventually.

My sister Nelda and my brother Vilis were three, and six years older than me.  I didn’t see them except at mealtimes.  They had their own friends and had no time for me most of the time.  Nelda was always off somewhere with Inge Pruks, and Vilis with Oswald Sturesteps.  I had different friends over the years.  I remember Isabella, a gentle Polish girl, and Stasha, and then Silvija Rits.

There were different nationalities at the camp.  There were the Latvians, Estonians and presumably Lithuanians, and then lots of Germans and Polish people.  At one stage some Italians, and one family of Albanians.  They were special because they were not either Catholic or Lutheran as the rest of us were, they were Muslim.  Otherwise they were the same as us, Silvana used to play with us, no problems.  At school we had scripture once a fortnight, Pastor Wandel came from Wangaratta, the next town.  There was a Catholic Father who came for the Catholics.  On Sundays, we had church/Sunday school once a fortnight too.  Pastor Wandel came for that too, and he brought some younger people with him to do the Sunday school for the children.  I remember Mr Tiit Tonuri.  And now actually I have noticed letters occasionally in the SMH from him – he lives out west over the mountains somewhere.  One of the school barracks was a special church barrack.  There were wooden benches there as pews, and an altar, and a curtained off area.  A blue curtain.  Often I used to wonder what was behind that blue curtain.  And once when my mother was rostered on to tidy up and wash the church vases – I found out.  I had a look – and behind the blue curtain was a beautiful statue of Mary.  Us Lutherans don’t have statues, or graven images, but Catholics are not constrained in that way.

So there were different sets of barracks in the camp.  It was originally an Air Force Camp.  So our school buildings had been the Air Force Training Barracks, but they did have that church barrack.  Then there were the Mess Barracks.  There was a huge Kitchen Complex, which I never got to see.  All of our meals were prepared there.  We attended the dining rooms, and the food serving section.  They gave us good meals.  The breakfasts we used to pick up and bring home to our rooms, for some reason.  We went there for lunch and dinner.  We were all issued with meal cards which had to be shown and one lady would clip the card, presumably so that we couldn’t go for two dinners or breakfasts or whatever.  There were separate cards for milk.  Only the children were entitled to milk rations.  I remember there was one Polish milk lady who was very generous, and would often put in an extra ladle of milk for us.  There was a huge Tea urn.  We could access that ourselves.  I remember we used to bring it home in a container.  Hot tea was nothing special to me, but after school, the cold sweet tea was a real treat to drink.

Another thing that we had cards for was the linen.  Every week we could go to the linen store and change our pillowcases and one sheet each.  And our cards got clipped for that too.

There was a Wash Room in the Ablutions Block.  There were sinks or basins for washing clothes.  There were clothes lines set up in between the dormitory barracks.  There were showers and toilets here too.  There was one bathroom with a bath, but you had to get a key from the Supervisor for that.  Not many people bothered.  There was plenty of hot water for showers.  You did have to walk home across the dusty ground back home though.  It was a long way to go to brush your teeth too.  Actually there were taps outside the ends of the barracks, I don’t remember the details too well – maybe there were taps in other places outside too, for cold water.

The rooms where we lived were just rooms – with a door and a window.  And power for lights.  It used to get cold in the winter.  I remember that my mother had a little primus stove, with kerosene as fuel.  We had hot water bottles, very nice, unless they burst.  The floors were wooden.  If my mother washed the floor it took ages to dry.  There were different types of huts.  Some were semicircular things with doors outside, some were rectangular barracks, still with front doors outside, but then the officers’ barracks, to which we graduated for the last year before we left, which had a corridor down the centre, and doors inside.  That was a luxury!

Our mail we collected at the Supervisors office.  My two older sisters (17 and 18 years older than me) were not with us, they were sent to Melbourne to train as Hospital Aides.  They used to send us a telegram on our birthdays.  That was special – there would be an announcement over the loud speaker – “Attention, attention, please.  There is a telegram to be collected at the Supervisors office for Amanda Gravitis”.  Now that was special.  But besides that the Commonwealth government did not forget us kids either.  We were summoned to the Supervisor’s office on our birthdays and would receive a specially gift wrapped book.  And that was good.  With a special label inside with our names on it.  I still have some of them.  Somewhere.  But I won’t go and look now.

Another special thing was Christmas, for us kids.  One day Santa would come, on the back of a Ute.  And he would be driven to the large community Hall.  And we would all get a special Xmas present, and some goodies as well.  In the school holidays there would be special ‘teachers’ that came to give us things to do, games to play, and we might go on little excursions somewhere for the day on a bus.

Also, every so often, at the Benalla airfield, there would be an Open Day.  And we could actually go in and have a look at the aeroplanes that were there.  There would be flying demonstrations, which we could all watch, and sometimes there would be airmen jumping out of the planes with parachutes, and we would watch them slowly drifting, to see where they would land.

I have many good memories of my time at the Benalla camp.  I was excited when it was time to leave, but very sorry at the same time to leave my good friends who were still there. 

We left at the end of 1959 to travel to Sydney to live with one of my older sisters and her husband.  They had just had a house built in the suburb of Revesby.  Inga had promised our father, in 1948 when he was dying, that she would look after her mother and the three younger children.  We all lived with Inga and her husband Janis for a few years until they bought a new house, and Vilis bought the old house off them.  My mother and my three sisters have since died, so now there is only Vilis and I left of the little Gravitis family who arrived in Australia in 1950, on the third of March – seventy years ago, to the day, of my writing this.

Amanda Blanche/Gravitis,  3.3.2020

 


Interview with Rick (Ricardo) Grubissa, 20th November 2012 at Benalta Cafe, with Sabine Smyth.

  • Country of Origin: Istria (now Croatia)
  • Date of Arrival: 1952 via Freemantle
  • Name of Migrant Ship: SkaugumName of Migrant Ship: Skaugum
  • Rick came to Australia aged 5 yrs with:
  • Angelina Grubissa (mother - 44
  • Umberto ( brother, 18 yrs)
  • Miranda (sister, 15 yrs)
  • Casimiro (brother, 12 yrs)
  • Liliana (sister, 8 yrs)

The past in Istria, before departure for Australia.

In 1947 my mother fled her homeland Istria during the second World War, after her husband Vladimiro  was killed. She finally arrived in Bari, Italy where I was born the same year. Then, in 1952, when I was 5 years old, my mother boarded the Migrant Ship Skaugum to emigrate to Australia. The Only opportunity offered to her at the time

My mother came to Australia as a single parent, a huge undertaking with 5 kids. Having to sever herself from her oldest daughter Maria and her husband Pietro which had to migrate to the USA.  After disembarking at Fremantle (where our whole family is commemorated on a Welcome Wall at the Maritime Museum) we stayed at Northam Holden Migrant Camp in Western Australia (about 90 km from Perth) for a little while years.

We came to the Benalla Migrant Camp by train in the mid 50s. It seemed to take days and days and we were travelling as a group with other migrant families heading for Benalla. People who arrived at camp together, stuck together afterwards. We checked in at the Migrant Centre, which had guards at the gates, and were shown around from department to department - administration, canteen etc.

The camp catered for kids from creche to Grade 6 - we went to primary school there and learnt English pretty quickly.

The accommodation:

There were about 4 people in a small room. The beds were very basic. Wire based camp stretchers. On top of the bed no sheets, and the mattress was thin and lumpy with something like course horsehair inside and the whole thing was held together by leather washers and string. I even remember the fabric on the mattress, it was black and white striped, very fine stripes.

The pillows were hard and lumpy - mum used to get us to collect tumble weed so she could make us softer, new pillows, and that actually worked really well.

On top of the beds we had heavy blankets that were dark grey or charcoal with a duck egg blue stripe, two inches wide.

We were in one of those huts with the round roof - there was only thin lining in the ceilings and in summer it was red hot! There was one light globe, no power points, no fridges in the rooms.

There was no fly wire and the windows only opened a bit. In the communal showers you could see people showering from the outside windows which had no curtains or screens - absolutely no privacy; and about 30 people to one shower block.

Mum had to go to work (at Latoof and Calill) and leave us to fend for ourselves. It was only a walk away from the camp but she left at 6 am.

The administration:

We went to the Administration Block (Mr Baines was the Manager at the camp) and we made our rent payments there each week.

We got our food from a canteen and for the rent you got a food card with your meal entitlements on it and it was stamped when you picked up each meal. There used to be fights for the food and disagreement about who got the best bits and the most. The women used to regularly fight for a better share and as kids we used to watch it and think it was good sport.

The camp food was terrible and we did what we could to supplement it and make things more interesting. Mum used to be very resourceful - we caught rabbits by hand and found mushrooms and weeds for salad.

Life with a single mum.

Many single women who had to work felt they could not bring up their kids the way they wanted to. But they had no choice. Most of the women were on their own and slept on weekends, exhausted. And many men worked away from Benalla and when they came back, there were fights and drunkenness. The police was at the camp a fair bit. Alcohol was a big issue with the older men; many of them badly affected by what they had gone through in the war.

Kids at the camp.

As kids the camp was fun. We were all running around together, finding things to do. Because we had to fend for ourselves, we got pretty independent.  We used to play made up games:" Klimpi", where we cut up a piece  of dowling about 6 inches long, sharpened both ends to a point then made up a batton about 2 foot long  which was used to strike the pointed climpi as it lay on the ground this caused the climpi to be catapulted up into the air and then tapped upwards as many times as possible then an almighty wack with the batton send ing the climpi as far away from you as possible you then multiply the distance by the number of times you were successful in tapping the klimpi whilst it was in the air , the winner of course was the  distance multiplied by the number of taps. neat aye" .

Another game we played  was" Pushka" 6 jam tins would be  stacked  first 3 tins lined up about an inch apart then 2 stacked end on between the two outside tins then one between the 2 there would be a minder which would count to 20  then say 4 kids would run away and hide.The object of the game was to site all 4 kids before any of them could get to the stacked tins and kick  the hell out of those tins and spread them as far away from where they had  to be restacked  by the minder. Sometimes got very frustrating for the minder as it could go on for hours,( as us kids would never give up) before all 4 kids where sited and before they could" kick those cans" (pushkas).   We used to cause ruckus in the huts by setting up the big rubbish bins either end of the hut's outside swinging doors  then bang loadly on the door before running away to hide and watch the fun begin as the full rubbish bins tumbled all over the place. Riding our bikes through the central hallway in the Nissen Huts was good fun until an adult stepped out of there room and was bowled over.

When I reflect on those days, I can see that we kids were never scared of much, and sort of street wise. We had seen a fair bit in our lives and no one could mess with us. We also had curious, adventurous minds and were used to taking risks, which is why I think that I and most migrants I know, made such a good life for themselves in Australia.

Kids used to get into trouble too; we were quite fearless and that means trying out your boundaries. And when you go through tough times as a kid, your values don't kick in until you are old enough to have developed some values for yourself. I was never any good at school, until I changed my mind about getting ahead and paying tribute to my mother's hard work bringing us here. We all came good eventually.

General memories.

The camp used to get rough, the Polish and Germans, war enemies, had to mix. You had to assimilate and get over it though. But still, there were often fights and stabbings.

I remember the night the king died (in 1956) I think, we were all at the pictures in the Camp Hall . The film was Quo Vadis. When the news of the king's death were announced, the lights went on and the movie stopped. Everyone stood up and sang the anthem - we had no idea why because the King meant nothing to us.

I remember there were two night patrolmen at the camp, Mr Taurins and a man we called  Malutki (Polish word for 'small guy'). We would give him cheek and he would chase us all around the camp.

Of course you could say, things were bad then. But I always think like this: Okay, things were bad. But compared to what? The appreciation of my current life style comes from those humble beginnings.


George Gruzewski

Country of Origin Lithuania/Poland

Arrived in Australia in 1950

George Gruzewski was born the son of a rural estate owner in Johampol, near Karnus in Lithuania. Through the war, the family lost all their property and came to Australia via Germany, after staying in about five displaced person camps. A return to Lithuania, and living under communism was not an option.

Georg finally came to Benalla when he was 13 in 1950, with his parents Oskar and Heliodora Gruzewski and his older brother John/Janek. Georg said they settled at Benalla Holding Camp seeing it very much as a stepping stone to a better life. 'We worked very hard and we supported each other.' 'We learnt English at the camp, going to evening classes.'

'I carted hay and wood at first. I worked for Solly Koscher, a Hungarian dentist. His qualifications were not recognised here in Australia, and he could not afford the time and money to go back to university. So he bought a truck and carted hay. We also cut wood around here, to sell it in the city. A good business.'

My parents sent my brother John to university, but there was no money to send me as well. So they helped Christine and I establish our own business instead. My mother Heliodora was the instigator behind establishing a restaurant and ‘George’s Coffee Lounge' in Benalla and we opened on 3rd July 1959.