Interview with Rick (Ricardo) Grubissa, 20th November 2012 at Benalta Cafe, with Sabine Smyth.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wladyslaw and Janina Janas, both from Poland (Rudno and Jankow near Krakow) arrived in Australia on 14th January 1950 with their small daughter Barbara. First they were sent to Bonegilla and then to Rushworth Holding Centre, because presumably, Benalla Migrant Camp was full.
When they finally arrived in Benalla the same year, they stayed until August 1952 (about two years) and their second child, son Peter was born in the camp in March 1951.
The chest was kept all these years Barbara reflects, as a memory piece "Because it held all our family's worldly possessions at one time."
Written down by Sabine Smyth after a phone conversation with Barbara (nee Janas) in late 2012
Sent From Denmark via Email Dec 2019 from Margit:
We arrived from Denmark on 12.11.1956 with the ship "Castel Felice" . Sailed from Cuxhaven, Germany to Freemantle Perth and then to Melbourne. Our family: Svend Jørgen Jespersen, born in 1927, Marie Jespersen, born in 1931, Margit Lillian Jespersen, born in1952, Johnny William Jespersen, born in 1956, (all of us born in Denmark).
The 2 first weeks in Australien we lived in Bonegilla Immigrant Camp.
At Benalla my father Svend worked first at the sawmill J.A.Terrett & Co. Ltd., Benalla and later supervising by the Benalla railways, building the new railway in Victoria. My mother Marie Jespersen worked first a few months at Latoof & Callil Ltd., Benalla. Then about 3 years at Renolds Chains Ltd., Benalla.
I, Margit Lillian Jespersen went about 3 years to school in Benalla Immigrant Camp.
My brother Johnny William Jespersen was in the kindergarten in Benalla Immigrant Camp.
We left Australia/Melbourne on 10.03.1960 with the ship "Flamingo". Sailed from Melbourne to Sydney and then to Perth.
Arrived Bremerhaven, Germany and then the train to Denmark.
I am so sorry to read that the Benalla Migrant Camp is closing down now. But I am happy to read the history, things and photos will be sent to the Immigration Museum Melbourne or Museum Victoria.
Thank you very much for all your done for that the history in Benalla Migrant Camp will be left in the future.
Sorry my english is not so good.
Kind regards from
The Klopsteins Family (Latvia)
Emma Gotleib Klopsteins (nee Bruvers) arrived in Freemantle, Western Australia with her two sons, Harijs (Harry) and Elmars (Jim) on 5th January 1950 aboard the Skaugum. Residents of the Latvian capital Riga, Emma and 6 year old Harijs had fled Latvia in 1944, making their way across Poland, into Germany and eventually into a British managed Displaced Persons’ Camp in Germany, where Elmars was later born. The family spent five years there before migrating to Australia.
At this time the Australian Government had agreed to assist with the resettlement of Europe’s Displaced Persons. At the same time, for the security of the country, the Government had adopted a policy of increasing Australia’s population. The Government was happy to accept entire families as well as widowed or single women with children. The war had torn families apart and many of the women who came to Australia with children had little information about the fate of their husbands. Emma was one of these.
The Klopsteins’ voyage to Australia started from Naples on the Anna Salen but this ship broke down in the Indian Ocean and all passengers were taken to Aden. They were subsequently collected by the Skaugum, empty on a return voyage from Australia, which was diverted to Aden. When the Skaugum docked in Freemantle it was carrying 1,543 displaced persons, of whom 477 were children. The newspapers reported that 56 of the children had been treated for measles and 30 children were hospitalised for other health issues, but that generally the health of the passengers was good. The other newsworthy issue had been the concern of customs officers who had to gather up cigarettes thrown from the ship by exuberant passengers, excited at their arrival in this new land.
Emma Klopsteins and her two sons, together with 1400 other passengers, were taken by train to Northam and then by bus to Northam Migrant Camp. An insight into camp life comes from The West Australian, Friday January 6 1950
“From the time the first train is due a continuous meal will be available at the camp. This will consist of cold meats and salads, mashed potatoes, fruit, bread and jam. Iced tea and coffee will be provided to the adults and the children will be given equal parts of iced milk and water. Scrambled eggs and bread and butter will be prepared for children under three years.”
Emma, Harijs and Elmars lived at Northam and later at Cunderdin Migrant Camp until, after two years in WA, they were moved to Benalla Migrant camp. The reason for the move to Benalla is interesting. A condition of migration to Australia had been an agreement by Emma to work for two years in whatever job was found for her. “Unsupported mothers” as they were referred to posed problems for implementing this practice because childcare was an issue. Benalla Camp, with its two factories in close proximity, offered a solution. Schooling and childcare was provided in the Camp and mothers were placed in jobs at the factories.
Emma worked at the Latoof & Callil factory for several years and then in private service. She remained a resident of “the camp” until shortly before its closure in 1967. Emma passed away in Benalla in 2000, aged 88.
Harry made his life in Benalla, marrying local girl Andree Arnott and raising his 4 children there. Harry passed away in 2012 aged 74.
Elmars (Jim) initially worked with the State Electricity Commission in Benalla but then moved away to Melbourne, married and raised 3 children. The family moved around Australia with Jim’s work, eventually settling in NSW. Jim now lives in Sawtell, NSW.
Emma never again saw her family in Latvia. It was many years before she could correspond with them. Whilst this loss was great she felt safe in Australia and considered herself lucky.
Interviewed Thursday 25th October 2012 at Nina's home in Smythe Street with Son John (Janek) present.
Notes by Sabine Smyth
Nina K's Story
Nina Kolodziejczyk (nee Klos) was born in Poland on 15th August 1927 and was 14 when WW2 broke out. After being driven from Poland Nina settled in Germany, and met Stanislav K whom she married in Coburg, Germany. As a 23 year old, with two small kids in tow, Janek (6 years) and Evey? (2 years) she remembers that their small family left Germany to make a better life. They journeyed on the migrant ship Hellenic, via Hong Kong.
The K's arrived in Bonegilla on 14th February 1950 in the middle of the summer heat. Nina remembers they all cried from the shock, and they had no money to pay for ice creams or cold drinks for the kids who especially suffered from the extremely hot weather. No need to say the accommodation huts were also stiflingly hot and they all slept very poorly. Nina says she thought it felt 'like hell', the hardest time of her life.
After six long weeks had passed, Stan was finally assigned work as a grape picker in Redcliff and Mildura. But the family had to stay behind in Bonegilla, and Stan returned once a fortnight which cost them 9 pound in fares. After a while Stan found permanent work in Shepparton, on the railways. At that time Nina insisted she wanted to be closer to her husband, so Nina and the kids were allowed to transfer to the Rushworth camp. By then the weather had turned and it was freezing. "I sewed four blankets together so we had ceilings because there were no ceilings at all and we were so cold."
Stan bought an old motorbike so he could travel to work and back, but Nina says it always broke down and most times he ended riding an old bicycle to work instead.
We stayed in Rushworth until Christmas and then we were able to transfer to Benalla, where Nina worked at Latoof and Calill and also in the hospital, as a domestic worker and cleaner.
Nina said by the time she arrived in Benalla, she had enough of camps. She was keen to move to a house as soon as possible.
Ask about these notes:
Nina said she made a friend on the ship, who was pregnant. She said if you arrived together you stayed friends for life.
John says he remembers life at the camp as good for kids. I remember we played two games, one called Pushki, the other Klimpi. 'It was a ball game. You had jam tins, tennis balls and wooden sticks, that was all, and it kept us enthralled."
From notes written by Zigie to Sabine in 2012
As a 16 year old, Zigie and his parents, brother and sister lived in Hut 43 at the Migrant Centre in Benalla. It was their first home in Australia. The family migrated from Latvia in 1949 and arrived in Benalla via Cowra in NSW. The Kulbars family stayed in the camp until 1960. Zigie worked in the Camp Stores from 1955 to 1957 and his father was employed as a patrol man for the Immigration Department.
Zigie always believed that the migrant camp site has special significance for Benalla and should be preserved.
There is a media release with a photo of Zigie and detailing his failed appeal to save the camp, published around the time of the camp being dismantled/demolished in the 1990s.
Zigie who arrived at the camp in 1949 told me when he visited the exhibition in March 2014:
“There was a dance every fortnight, and a ball with a proper band once a month. The Migrant Camp hall was a fabulous venue. The band that came to the balls was the German Camp Band from Bonegilla. They played waltzes, tangos, even 'oompa' music."
After Zigie passed away, the following Eulogy was passed onto me via The Ensign (12th January 2023). I have posted it, unedited below:
Vale Zigie Kulbars
Zigie Kulbars was born on June 14, 1934 in Latvia to Zenija (Jenny) Kulbars and Jekabs (Jake) Kulbars. Zigie had a sister lrena and a brother lke. His early childhood was disrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe.
To escape the Iron Curtain they had to ﬂee their home in Riga, Latvia’s capital city, leaving all their possessions.
The family ended up in Germany in the Latvian Displaced Persons Camp.
Zigie’s schooling was disrupted as a consequence of the war. He used to lie on his back staring up at the sky watching the American aircraft. He was lucky that during an air raid.A bomb had landed next to him, and his mum, as they were running to a shelter. It did not detonate.
Zigie spent some time with the Latvian Boy Scouts which he enjoyed. Unfortunately Germany was making some changes to the organisation during the war. He did not like this and at one time ran away to be confronted with some soldiers saying that he was now in Belgium. He remained in Scouts until 1948.
Zigie’s family listened to a presentation and visit from Arthur Calwell in Germany encouraging them to come to Australia.
Zigie and his family immigrated to Australia on July 30, 1949 on the SS Skaugum.
On arrival he was 15 years old. The family was sent to the Cowra Migrant Camp then to Bonegilla (Albury/Wodonga), and finally to the Benalla Migrant Camp.
Zigie attended classes in Benalla to learn English and became an interpreter for his family early on.
His first job was at Harrisons hardware as a storeman in January 1951 where he remained for three years.
Zigie did a year of National Service where he enjoyed driving tanks.
He was very proud of the fact that he guarded Queen Elizabeth on her 1954 Tour of Australia at Goorambat, overnight on March 4, 1954.
His next job was for the Department of immigration at the Benalla Migrant Centre where he was employed as a storeman.
His would also chauffeur the Camp Director to functions. He would later get a job at Reynolds Chains in Benalla in 1957, working as a storeman and forklift driver.
At Christmas he would carry Santa on the front of his forklift in a large basket ﬁlled with presents.
Local children would delightfully wait to Santa arriving and many great photos were taken.
Zigie also enjoyed socials at Renolds and would take to the floor with sawdust on it doing the Foxtrot. He also assisted doing first aid for all employees.
While living in Benalla he sould meet Margaret Whinray on a date organised by friends.
They fell in love and were married on August 26, 1961 at the Tungamah Church of England. Laurie Whinray was their Page Boy.
Their son Philip was born on August 1, 1963 followed by Dean on June 11, 1967.
Zigie was very social and liked to go fishing with his father Jake. He enjoyed playing bowls in Benalla, and also when he went to the Sunshine Coast.
He loved a good party, attending many at work and the Migrant Camp.
Zigie also enjoyed going on hunting and fishing trips with his son Dean.
Zigie joined St Johns Ambulance as a volunteer in the Brigade.
He enjoyed many years service assisting in first aid, which unfortunately included the Southern Aurora Crash on February 7, 1969.
Sadly Margaret lost her Best Friend’s husband in this crash as the Goods Train Driver. Zigie was unaware of this until later.
Zigie would go on to work as a labourer for a short time and at Active Tyre Service, after Reynolds Chains closed. Later he would work in several roles at the Benalla and District Memorial Hospital.
Zigie was at the forefront of promoting the Benalla Migrant Camp. He was disgusted that the camp fell into disrepair after the Army left.
He had lived there, at hut no 43 until 1960, and felt its the history was forgotten.
He was also keen to see a museum exhibition created which now exists at the former camp site.
Margaret and Zigie moved from Benalla early in 2000 to Sippy Downs at the Hibiscus Retirement Resort. Here they spent nearly 20 happy years.
In 2011 Margaret and Zigie celebrated their 50th Wedding Anniversary. Zigie’s mother, Jenny, celebrated her 100th Birthday March 1, 2014 and lived to 101.
Zigie went into care for dementia at St Vincents Care Services, Maroochydore, where he was beautifully cared for by staff. He sadly passed on November 13, 2022.
This world is a better place for all that he has done and is remembered for.