Benalla Migrant Camp 1949-1967

Migrant Stories

Submitted via email to Sabine Smyth Dec 27th, 2019

Benalla Migrants Camp, MEIERS  time there, 1950-1955

I Freda, the youngest in the Meiers family write this.
My mother Hilda with her three young children, Gaisma, Ausma, and Ted (Teodors) fled from their native country of Latvia when the Russians invaded their country during the latter part of WW2.  Karlis their father was killed fighting against the Russians.

It was only after my mother, sisters and brother arrived in Germany as ‘Displaced Person’ that I was born.  At that time we had been placed in the American Zoned DP Camp at Wurzburg.

I was 4 years old when the family set sail for Australia on the ship ‘Nelly’ in hope of a better life.

We arrived in June 1950 and after a short stay at the Bonegilla Migrant Camp, not far from Albury, the family was settled into the Benalla Migrant Camp along with many other Displaced Persons.  At that time Gaisma was 12, Ausma 10, Ted 8 and Freda nearly 5.

Our family was given two small rooms in one of the Nissen Huts.  They were very hot in summer and cold in winter.  Life was not easy for the adults but as far as I can remember I had a happy childhood at the camp as there were lots of kids to play with and school to attend.  My saddest memory was when our ‘Lassie’ dog was shot along with other strays at the camp.

I enjoyed the country life and much spare time was spent at a popular swimming spot by the Broken River and then there was the fun of catching yabbies.

Under the resettlement scheme immigrants of working age had to work for two years wherever directed by the government. My mother went to work as a machinist at the Latoof and Callil clothing factory and she worked there until we were able to leave the camp and head for a new adventure  in Melbourne in 1956.

The Benalla Migrants Camp and its history should never be forgotten. 
Thank you Sabine for caring and for all your hard work; well done!

7/1/2013 via email Story on former BENALLA MIGRANT ACCOMMODATION CENTRE: Hello, my name is Irene Van Rooyen (nee Michel) and I was born at the former Benalla Migrant Accommodation Centre, in September, 1954. My parents were Jan and Jadwiga Michel and they were post-war immigrants from Poland. They arrived in Melbourne in March, 1949. They were sent to Bandiana first, where they got married. They had a meager Wedding reception, which consisted of a can of pineapple pieces and a bottle of champagne. That’s all they could afford. They were then transferred to the Migrant Accommodation Centre at Benalla, (known by the residents as the Migrant Camp), where my father worked in the kitchen as a Chef. I remember finding a Recipe book once for vegetable soup, with ingredients listed as for “100 Men.” A member of each family would usually go to the communal kitchen with their aluminium or tin containers to get their food rations. Because my father worked there, we would get extra rye bread or soup, if there were leftovers. The immigrants at the Centre lived in humble accommodation – tin Huts, which used to house Australian troops during WW11 – with either tin or cement sheet? roofs, which probably contained asbestos. It would’ve been unbearable inside during the extreme 40 degree heat of an inland Australian summer. There was no airconditioning, no indoor toilets and no-one had heard of television or computers, yet. There were communal toilets and communal laundries, where the women would congregate to talk and do their washing, using wooden washboards. The women mostly stayed at home and looked after their families. Some (like my mother) worked at the SPC Cannery or picked Hops or worked at the local Benalla Hospital. The men also, either worked away, or worked in the kitchen or at the local Reynold’s Chain factory (where my father later worked). I remember being happy there as a child and Life was very simple. My earliest memories were of going to the Director’s Office at Easter time and him giving me a bag of chocolate Easter eggs. We would also often go to the Canteen, situated near the entrance to the Camp, which sold everything from exercise books and pencils to polish kabana and german rye bread, to smoked herrings (in jars marked as “Rollmops.”)There was also a dining room, where there were often Dances held, where the residents would go to smoke, drink and eat and just have a great time. I also remember riding my tricycle along the roads, as there were very few cars. I would often play in the park with the other children whose parents came from various backgrounds and nationalities – such as Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Austria – but we were like one big family. It was here that I first heard different languages spoken and I am sure that it was due to that reason that I have gained an affinity for Languages and grew up to be a language teacher, today. We moved out after my sister, Annie, was born in 1957. I will never forget my time and experiences at the Centre – it helped to lay the foundations for who I am today. Sadly, most of the older past-residents have passed on now. Irene Van Rooyen 31/12/12 Irene’s sister Annie McNeill (nee Michel) writes: " At Easter, even when we moved out of the camp, we prepared everything that we would eat on Sunday morning breakfast (to be eaten after mass) and put it in a basket, decorated with palm leaves and I used to ride my bike to the camp and the Priest would bless the food for us to eat the next day.  This included Kranskys, coloured boiled eggs, salt and pepper, mustard, bread and butter. "I feel it was good to have this Centre for the Migrants, as they were able to support one another, have a sense of belonging and adjust to a new country, life and be a stepping stone to a new future. It must of been so hard for them - especially those with young families." Sent via email December 2012

Mohren Story Manfred Mohren wrote to me in 2013: "I can tell you that my parents migrated from West Germany with three children (my sister, my brother and me) in 1960. I was seven years old at the time. We landed at Station Pier and boarded a train that took us to Bonegilla (stopping at Seymour). We only stayed in Bonegilla for a number of days as my father was desperate to obtain work and none seemed to be available (as far as I can recollect my parents telling me). So we were transported to the Benalla Migrant Accommodation Centre, where we stayed until it closed in 1967. During our stay there my father was able to secure a job as Supply Officer and he was, in fact, appointed caretaker for the period 11 Dec 67 - 15 Jan 68 (after the camp closed).

Family gathers for special visit to Benalla in mother's memory It would have been Margaret Nikolsky's 100th Birthday on January 31st 2014 and all but one of her five children, and one grandchild came back to Benalla to joyfully celebrate this special occasion in her honour. Like many post-war migrants, Mrs Nikolsky came to Benalla in 1950 with her husband Peter, two small children, no English and not much more. The Nikolskys were housed at the former Benalla Migrant Camp where it took them six years to save up for their first own home in Dunn Street. And then Benalla is where they stayed, for the rest of their productive lives. Margaret Nikolsky was best known for her piano accompaniment of the performances of the Polish Dancing Group. The Polish Dancing Group began at the former Benalla Migrant Camp in the early 1950s and kept going for many years afterwards, proudly participating in the Benalla Festival Parade and countless local celebrations. Mrs Nikolsky and her husband Peter also played an important role in the early years of the migrant camp, helping arrange many music and theatre performances. These were held at the former Benalla Migrant Camp Hall and involved the children at the camp. Sabine Smyth, who recently re-launched an extended photographic exhibition featuring over 200 photos of life at the Benalla Migrant Camp, said that "If I were to name the five most well regarded people in the camp during its 18 years of operation, Mrs Nikolsky's name would be amongst them. Many migrant families have at least one precious photo taken of their child, with Mrs Nikolsky, after she had helped to coordinate or direct a performance or play. Her work over many years, in preserving Polish music and culture would have been such solace to so many people who were mourning the loss of their culture and homeland. She continued with this work in the camp even after her own family had moved out." Mrs Nikolsky was Polish and her husband Peter was Russian. Both were well-educated, and Mr Nikolsky's profession in Russia was as a lawyer and ballet master, however in Australia they both started all over again, because they had no or very little English to begin with. Mr Nikolsky worked at Renold's Chains and Mrs Nikolsky at Latoof and Calill, two factories prominent in the 1950-1960s who no longer exist today. Margaret's son George Nikolsky recalled : "On weekends we would fish and hunt rabbits like most people, to supplement our food and survive. We also picked hops and tobacco at Myrhee and we cut firewood, for extra money. Life was hard, but simple." "I have memories of us mostly having to rely on canned food because we had no fridges. Spam, canned spaghetti - I reckon tons of it." To conclude their visit, which began with a family pilgrimage to the Nikolsky graves at Benalla Cemetery, everyone had a special tour of the Benalla Migrant Camp Exhibition which they found very joyful and moving. Mrs Nikolsky's son Victor commented that " It is important to remember this time in our family's history but also Australia's history. Migrants made such an important and enriching contribution to Benalla. We love coming back and realising through the stories in this exhibition how fondly our mother is remembered and how her story is interwoven with this community'. Photo Caption: The Nikolsky Family, Left to right Grandson Brenton Nikolsky , Irene (Nikki) Cotter nee Nikolsky from Hope Island Queensland, Sandra (Ursula) Steven nee Nikolsky from Geelong West, George Nikolsky from Mackay (wife Robyn was held up by the cyclone) , Victor Nikolsky and his wife Sarah from Elwood, Brenton's wife Jessica. Not pictured is Rita Nikolsky also from Queensland, who was unable to come.

We came to Australia on the 13 April 1950 and went to Bonegilla, from there on to Rushworth camp and then to Benalla. My mother, father, sister Janina and I. My mother worked in the hospital dining room. It was called the Bush Nursing Hospital then, and my father worked on the railway, as did many of the men in the camp. They would go off Monday morning and come back Friday afternoon.

They would have movies in the cinema hall every Friday night so after dinner we would all go to the movies. My father would give my sister and me some coins for a Violet crumble bar which I would enjoy while watching the movie in the camp cinema.

My brother Janek and younger sister Anna were both born in the Benalla Camp hospital and I remember the Midwife visiting my mother while she was pregnant and ushering me out of the room.

If you were sick you went to the camp hospital. I had the mumps once and was isolated from the rest of the kids which was a very lonely time for me. When I got out of hospital the Polish community were putting on a play and were holding auditions for “Snow White”. I went and auditioned – I don’t remember why? I got the part of Snow White. Very exciting time it was, with rehearsals and then the actual play. There were also several dance numbers: a sailors' dance, a ballet dance and the Krakowiak. I was also in all the dances. Mr Gregory (my teacher at the camp) got everyone in class involved in making me a crown to wear for the play.

Christmas time was a great time of year as we got ice cream for dinner and chicken. Also the Polish community would send around an angel and devil to check on all the children to see if they were good. I always dreaded their visit. My mother always threatened me by saying she would say I was bad. When asked if I was good I would say yes, then look at my mother and she would nod. Yah! Saved for another year.

In winter we would go mushrooming around the country side and you would have to go early as some else could beat you to the spot. My mother would boil the stuffings out of those mushrooms, drain them, and then fry them – delicious.

I remember on hot summer days waiting for the sun to go down then pouring buckets of water onto the hut to try and cool it off. And going to the canteen and buying a bottle of cold lemonade and having a glass – just the best drink ever.

Bathing, washing clothes, doing dishes, were all very interesting experiences. I have lots of stories, happy and sad stories to tell. Sad like when the pubs would close at 6pm and all the men would come staggering home. One in particular would always have a fight with his wife and the police would come and haul him off into jail – every Friday just like clockwork. And the culling of cats when they would overrun the camp. At first they would give a warning of the event and to stay inside then walk around the camp shooting them, we would sit in our huts and listen to the sound of gunfire. That must have bought in a lot of complains because after that they would just walk around and catch the cats and take them off and gas them. You can imagine as kids what sort of images that would bring to us.

I have lots of camp school memories, religious memories, summer days, the camp food as so on.

Regards, Maria Zintschenko – sent to Sabine Smyth originally by email October 2013 and edited/approved for the website Dec 2019


Added Footnote: Name: Dymitr Omielczuk. Died: October 2000 Burial Location: Berwick Cemetery



Migrant Centre Memories:


How did the local people interact with the migrants?

Margot Paez: The locals didn’t “fully embrace” what the migrants had to offer. There seemed to be a distinct “divide” between the migrants and the locals – perhaps even mistrust of them driven by a lack of understanding as to how they came to be here? Also the generational divide may have been a problem for the locals (that they’d fought in First/Second World Wars and distrusted these “foreigners”. Ie. Who were these people? Where exactly did they come from? Were they allies or enemies? etc). This lack of understanding was based on ignorance mostly, that the locals just didn’t really know much about the situation in Europe during and after the war. They had little comprehension of these people’s experiences.

The migrant women didn’t have time to socialize with local women, they were either working in factories/hospital etc or spending a lot of time growing/producing food. Nor did they necessarily have the language (their kids would often do the translation), so their involvement in tennis clubs, bridge clubs, “school mothers’ clubs” etc, was probably limited, therefore they never really got the chance to get to know other local women on a social level.

Food production and preparation was so different to typical “anglo” ways of doing things. The Paez family, for example, were surrounded by migrant families and benefitted from their diligence in producing fruit and vegetables. These vegetables, (many of the varieties never having been seen by the locals before) were given to the Paez’s by throwing zucchinis, capsicums, etc over the back fence! Many generous offerings were given to the Paez’s, including delicious “preserves” such as dill pickles in glass jars.

What kinds of activities/functions/events were shared by both groups?

Cabarets? Dances? “Good Neighbour Council” (Who were they? Did they organize social events? Not sure about this organization……..)

Ralph and Margaret Paez attended many cabarets at the Migrant centre but there weren’t many other “locals” there. Margaret was always so impressed by how beautifully dressed the women of the migrant camp were. Their clothes were so elegant, beautiful shoes, hair etc (European “style” and flair).

Renold Christmas parties were a yearly social highlight for kids especially.

How were the migrants “viewed” by the local people (in terms of their employment at Renold Chains)?

Story of Ralph Paez in local pub being confronted by a disgruntled Benalla local who was upset by Renold’s employment of migrants over locals. Ralph was given a “boot up the arse” as described by his brother-in-law who was with him at the time (probably a symbolic action of “you should be looking after your own kind and not those “I–ties” and “shame on you”) as he was leaving the bar by a local man who felt that the chain factory bosses were more interested in employing migrants than the locals. Ralph’s brother-in-law, Jim Redpath, decided to take it up with the bloke who dared kick Ralph. A bit of a tussle between Ralph’s “minder”, Jim and the “arse kicker” ensued….. Nothing too serious, however, it probably signified underlying resentment by some community members.

How did the local Benalla children interact with migrant children?

The migrant and local kids somehow sorted out their own “arrangements”– often playing/fighting in a single session!

Margot Bright (nee Paez) – As a child, Margot lived in the same neighbourhood as many migrant families (who were living in both Commission housing and a few in private housing). She remembers playing with those children in the street – many of them went to the Catholic school, whereas Margot and her siblings went to Benalla East State School, so that she played with them after school and on weekends. She remembers being mates with the Pryslipski (Ukraine ?) kids who lived across the road, but were former residents of the Migrant Camp. Margot and Lasha (Lee?) would get on Margot’s bike (Lasha standing on the back parcel seat), go down to the Migrant Camp, and tear around the camp shouting insults at the kids there. Often there were rock or “clod” throwing fights where the Anglo kids, often just siblings, in this case Margot and her sister Deborah, forming an alliance, “warring” against the “Balts” across the street (in this case Meadows Ave). Alliances would chop and change depending on the day or mood of the participants. Insults would be shouted at one another as “clods”/rocks were thrown. The street was the main playground for the kids and it was only when their Mum called out for them to come in because it was tea time, would they stop their “play”. (Often it was the migrant kids who would be the ones preparing food so perhaps they had to go in earlier).



Deborah Paez: We lived at 12 Meadows Ave until we moved to the company house in Samaria Rd when Dad was promoted to General Manager of Renold Chains in about 1963.

In those days (the mid-1950s), Meadows Ave was divided in 2 by the old Tatong railway line. The north side was comprised entirely of council houses: the south side (our end) were all private houses. Migrant families lived on both sides, but most lived in the council houses. All had lived in the Migrant Centre upon arriving in Benalla.

Our neighbours on both sides and across the street were migrant families (the Pryslipski family (parents, children son Miklos(?)known as Mick, daughters Danutia and Lasha (not sure of spelling), the Nesser family (kids Bogdan or Bobby, and Maria), and the Hesky family (2 daughters, very reclusive), and Mr. Olivera down the street.

The Tatong railway line fell into disuse late 40s/early 50s (?) and when the rails were torn up soon after, the whole stretch became a playground for ALL the kids. 'Battles' were certainly fought, but I remember them as being more between the 'north' and the 'south'. The ones between us and our neighbours were mere skirmishes. As often, we were 'allies' (eg. Margot's and Lasha's sortie into the migrant camp). So it was less about anglos vs bolts (that's how we thought 'Balts' was spelt. We had no idea what it meant but knew it was an insult) than it was about territory.

To put things into perspective though, you were just as likely to see kids playing together (allies, tiggy, brandy, hidey, skippy, queenie, poison ball, etc) as you were to see them fighting. It was the nature of childhood then; a glorious lack of adult interference for a considerable part of the day - as long as you were home for 'tea' and before dark.


The migrant kids certainly lived different lives from us anglos. They didn't have nearly as much freedom as we did. They all had 'real' jobs and responsibilities in the home; not just, as for us, a matter of putting away your toys or tidying your bedroom; they tended vegetable gardens, cleaned toilets, prepared meals, washed, ironed, scrubbed. Both parents worked full-time, often over-time and on weekends.

I remember being absolutely astonished by the fact that kids had to do hard work ... every day! I can also remember how the Pryslipski kids dropped everything and ran home instantly when their parents called them inside. Their parents were scarily strict compared to ours, in our eyes!

 I got to see inside the houses of our neighbours only a few times (kids didn't play inside much in those days, unless it was raining or really cold), but I remember them being much darker than ours, windows heavily-curtained, with cold lino floors in every room, no rugs or carpets (although there were usually one or two tapestry rugs hung on walls), sparsely furnished (no comfy furniture), meticulously clean, with strange religious icons and pictures on the walls. And the houses smelled different to us kids, because of the  'strange and mysterious' foods cooked in them. 

(She has promised more to come…….)


Pandik Story

(e-mailed to Sabine SMTH on 10th April 2020)

Aleksandr Pandik born in 1926 to Evgenin and Anna (Tupalova) Pandik in Konstantinovka, Ukraine.  His brother Nikolai was twelve years younger, born in 1938.   In 1941 dad was walking in the street when, without warning, a German convoy forced him onto a vehicle for transportation to Germany.  He was only 15 years of age.  (He never saw his parents and brother again).  There he worked on the trains as a fireman along the Rhine River between Koblenz and Mainz.   At the end of the war (between 1948 to 1950) he was moved to different camps: Frankfurt, Ludwigsburg then Pforzheim receiving vocational training through the IRO (International Refugee Organization) as an auto mechanic.   They also conducted English lessons for everyone. 

He met Luba Wysocka, who was also receiving vocational training as a seamstress, living in the camp with her parents, Mykola and Aleksandr Wysocki.  They married in 1950 in Pforzheim and through the Resettlement Program the four of them received paperwork for emigration to Australia. Aleksandr chose Australia as he wanted to get as far away from Europe as possible.

The departure was via Genoa, Italy on the S.S. "Castelbianco" sailing to Melbourne, their final destination being the Benalla Migrant Camp.  I was born in the camp hospital and christened in the non-denominational chapel.  Michael arrived four years later.   Our address was Hut 36/7.   As youngsters we would have been oblivious to the fact these huts had thin walls, no running water, heating or cooling but it was a home.

Everyone had a role to play in this community:  whether rostered for kitchen duty in preparing or cooking meals, the hospital, laundry and toilet blocks maintained as well the required gardening.  The largest building was the community centre which not only served as a dining hall but for various entertainments.  Amongst the huts kids attended various birthday parties.   One recreational activity involved walking to the nearby Broken River where the adults would swim and picnic in the cool shade of the trees.  

A story told by mum was that apparently I was partial to onions and made a habit of knocking on hut doors asking if they had ’boolki’ (an abbreviated version of the word tsiboolki: onions).  One memory was a Christmas pageant with Saint Nicholas dressed realistically in European style costume, however the character known as Black Peter looked absolutely evil fully dressed in black trousers overlaid with a black and grey tunic.  His head was covered in a black cap (horns added) and protruding from his mouth was a long black/grey tongue. In one hand he held a pitchfork.  Poor mum did her best to calm down a very upset child …

Eventually a house was purchased close to the town centre where a huge vegetable garden was established along with a decent sized chook pen.  Grandma, for many years, would walk to the camp pushing our old pram containing two large enamel buckets filled with her home-grown 'ohirki' or ogorki - cucumbers set in a brine added with garlic and dill - which she went on to sell.  On every occasion she would return home, naturally, with two empty buckets.  I think quite a few people will remember the" little lady with the cucumbers".

One year a dinner dance was held at the camp and mum wore a distinct chocolate-coloured chiffon ball gown.  The fabric had shots of burgundy and green which caught the light and shiny beads centered on the bodice. A pair of soft apple green suede stilettos set off the gown.  The shoes no longer exist but the gown together with an embroidered white blouse and a mushroom coloured crepe dress with bolero I have donated to the Benalla Migrant Camp historical collection created by Sabine Smyth (Benalla Migrant Camp Inc.).  

We think that the right decision had been made in choosing to settle in Australia.  Throughout her life our mother from time to time would maintain that, "Australia is the best country in the world", and state: "You'll never go hungry here".


Sabine, memory of camp life is tiny because of my early age (some photos are proof).  If you need to condense please feel free to do so.  The dress colour I may not be so clear with so please correct where necessary.  Also, the embroidered blouse you have, judging by its size, was a blouse made by mum for me to wear.


Prentki Family 23 24 25 26 27 23Agnes (left) and Irene Prentki in Polish National Costume, approx. 1957 with unknown woman who may possibly be Krystyna Krypciak24Fr Wosniczek with children in front of Nissen Hut, at Birthday party. Helena Molenda is on the very right, Lila and Agnes Prentki are second and third from the left, and Irena Buczek is the little girl in front of Fr Wosniczek25Christine (Krista) Ryan (nee Romaniszyn) and her father Michael holding her hand, are the second and third person from the left. All are standing in front of a Nissen Hut, unknown person at back 26Catholic Priest to the Camp, Father Feliks Wosniczek and children. 27Agnes' father, Edmund holding Agnes, and Irene at right Agnes' mother Emilia and her father Edmund were both born in Poland. Her older sister Irene (Murray) was born in Germany. The Prentkis travelled to Australia by ship from Naples in Italy, via the Suez Canal. Agnes' family arrived in Australia in 1948 and went straight to Bonegilla, where Agnes' father worked at the Bonegilla Pine Plantation for 2 years to work off his assisted migration scheme labour contract. Her family then arrived at the Benalla Migrant Camp in 1950. Agnes is a camp baby, born at Benalla Migrant Camp hospital in 1951. The family stayed in the camp until sometime in 1955, when they had earned enough money to move out into their own house in Benalla.

The Pruks Family, Mrs Jenny Pruks, Inge, Mart and Ruth Pruks. 1952-1966. (sent in via email March 2020)

Our family came to the Benalla Migrant Camp in 1952, but we had journeyed a long way to get there. My mother Jenny Pruks and father Albert Pruks fled war-torn Estonia in 1944.  We travelled across Europe by night to avoid the shells and the bombs which fell continually during the day and we eventually arrived in Germany. We were shunted around several Displaced Persons camps until we settled for some time in the German town of Geislingen. This is where my young brother Mart was born, but when he was barely 5 months old, our father died, leaving us destitute and alone.  Our mother was faced with a desolate and hopeless future, having left her beloved family in Estonia with no possibility of ever seeing them again. Sixty years later, Inge Pruks is featured in a documentary about Estonians in Geislingen, Coming Home Soon, (2018), a film directed by Helga Merits.

We left Germany to sail to Australia in the ship called the Anna Salen. My mother, brother Mart and I arrived in Fremantle on New Year’s Eve 1950. The authorities did not allow us to disembark until the next day because it appears that, to suit their statistics, they wanted the migrant numbers to appear as arrivals in 1951. So our first steps on Australian soil were on 1st January 1951. We were transported to the migrant camp at Northam, where we stayed for a year. Conditions were primitive, we had never seen so many flies, and the heat was unbearable. We lived in unlined Nissen huts which had only blankets hanging from the ceiling to divide the space into separate ‘rooms’. I remember lying on a top bunk and reading the stamp on the corrugated iron of the hut: Lysaght Orb Australia. They were the first English words I learnt, and I would say them over and over, frontwards and backwards, trying to make sense of them. Of course they are a brand of corrugated iron. I was seven years old and my brother was two.

After a year, we were again moved off to another destination on the other side of Australia. I remember the long train trip across the Nullarbor, the stoppages in the desert landscape, where people would throw loaves of white bread out of the window towards the Aborigines who were waiting patiently nearby, and they in turn would throw us wooden carved figurines of animals such as the kangaroo or the koala. It took 5 days to cross Australia in those days, and our journey was almost over.

When we arrived in Benalla it was good to have a room to call our own. It was much better than the hanging blankets of Northam. We soon settled into the daily life of the Benalla Migrant Camp and we stayed there until it closed in 1967.

My mother worked hard at many jobs, saving her meagre earnings with the hope that one day we could buy a house in Melbourne. In our family education has always been a priority and my mother knew that sooner or later her children would have to leave Benalla to go and study in Melbourne. There were not many Estonians in Benalla, and what my mother missed most of all was the chance to join an Estonian choir. Choir singing is a valued part of Estonian culture and every town and village has its choir.  So singing was very important to our mother, and the first thing she did when we moved to Melbourne was to join the choir in Brunswick. But even in Benalla I would often hear her soprano voice rising above the soapsuds as she did the washing.

Benalla offered me a chance to follow my musical education. I was able to learn the piano from Miss Eunice Finley who lived on the other side of town in Benalla. At first, because we had very little money, I would have a lesson only every second week, on Saturday afternoons when most of my friends headed off to the local cinema. But gradually, as I began studying more seriously for the AMEB exams I was able to attend every week. I practiced on a rickety old piano at the Camp. The keys would stick and I would have to stop to pull them up as my fingers flew over my scales. But I loved playing and successfully completed all my exams to the final Grade 7. I have passed on my love of music to my two sons who are now both musicians.

I can’t say that I ever felt discriminated against at school because I was a migrant. I loved primary school at the Camp, and soon looked forward to life at Benalla High School. At first there used to be a bus which took us to the high school. But when that stopped we had to walk, and it was quite a long way. I had no money for a bicycle, but one of my favourite teachers at the high school, Miss Jewell, who was my maths teacher, gave me her own bicycle when she bought a new one for herself. From then on I was mobile and getting around was easy. My other favourite teacher was my French teacher, Miss Dorothy Milne. I loved French and a lady at the camp, Mrs Lewinski, would kindly give me her time to help me read French fairy tales. I later learnt from her son Oleg that she went on to be a teacher after leaving Benalla. I myself ended up doing French Honours at Monash University, gaining a French Government Scholarship to continue my studies in literature and film at the University of Grenoble (France) and the Sorbonne (Paris).

Life at the migrant camp was rich with all sorts of activities. It was a safe environment and we could play outside until after dark. My best friend was Nelda Gravitis and we would do everything together. We read Enid Blyton together. We even wrote a novel together, with each one contributing alternating chapters. We would walk to the nearby First Bridge to gather blackberries, or make wire nets to catch yabbies in the creek. In Spring we would pick wild daffodils and jonquils and present them proudly to our mothers. We learnt how to deal with leeches at Stones, the local swimming hole, and had fun swinging on the ropes someone had attached to the trees surrounding the waterhole. We knew how to mend a puncture in our bicycle tyres, and if we needed anything, there was always an older friend to help us.

We invented complicated games throwing a simple tennis ball against the big garage doors, and when the rains came we would gather tadpoles into jars and watch them develop. We were all multilingual by the time we were teenagers, as we learnt each other’s languages through osmosis because we all lived in such close proximity and heard our mothers calling us or talking to us in their different languages. I knew instinctively what Nelda’s mother was saying to her in Latvian, even though I had never had any lessons in Latvian. And Nelda was the same with my native Estonian. The migrant kids won all the prizes in the regional French competitions because foreign languages were so natural to us.

Life was never boring at the migrant camp as there was always so much to do and so many friends to play with. We were a mini United Nations but our differences never got in the way. I feel I was fortunate to spend such a happy childhood after the trauma of World War II, privileged to enjoy the freedom and possibilities offered by the Australian Government to us ‘New Australians’ living in the Migrant Accommodation Centre in Benalla.

But my story is not complete without the arrival of my little sister Ruth, who has her own story to tell.


Ruth Pruks  12  May 1953 to 1966


My mother met my father at an event in Benalla, possibly one of the dances held in the Cinema Hall in the Benalla Migrant Camp. My father did not live with us.

I was born in the Benalla Bush Hospital, just across the road from the Benalla Migrant Accommodation Centre - a first generation Aussie!

My mother recalled a visit from a Social Worker asking her if she would like to put me up for adoption as in 1953 it was considered a social embarrassment to have a child born out of wedlock.            But my mother was adamant she would never give me away.

 When I recounted my story about living in a migrant camp to a work colleague she was astonished  to hear that my family had lived in one for 14 years. Why so long? Well it was easier to leave the Camp if you had a husband who was the bread winner than it was to be a single mother with 3 children and little or no income. Generally, two parent families left the camp as soon as the man of the house had secured permanent employment, single mothers and widows stayed much longer.

The best thing about growing up in the Benalla Migrant Camp was that you could always find someone to play with. There would be impromptu games of “British Bulldog” or tin hidey, or other    inventive games such as “Klimpi” or “Lands” and marbles.  Ball games would be played against the wall of the large utility garage near the entrance of the Camp. The Creative Leisure Centre run by Mr Van der Staal provided many activities – ping pong, hookey, painting, crafts, musical productions, plays –my brother Mart was one of the three wise men, Melchior in the Christmas Nativity play and he also played mouth organ in a group. I myself acted as a cowboy complete with moustache and dangerous rifle.  We had a lot of fun.

The Benalla Aerodrome teachers were Mrs Spry Grades 1 & 2 , Miss Helen Cook Grades 3 and 4 and  Mr Spry Grades 5 & 6 in 1962. Elaine Spry, their daughter, would sometimes read story books out loud to us. Stories like “Ping the Duck”, “Little Black Sambo” and “Babar the Elephant” kept us enthralled.  Mrs Spry taught sewing which I detested.  Most families had the radio, and this too  opened the world to us. We were all united in our love of serials, and at 6 o’clock we would rush home to the sounds of ‘Tarzan, King of the Apes’ blaring out of many a hut. There was also “Kokoda Trail” and the hilarious “Yes, What!” with Greenbottle and his team. Television only came later and we would crowd around a shop window in the town to watch whatever channel was broadcasting. The one family that had TV was always popular. If you happened to pass by and see a blue light flickering inside you would tap on their window and call “Could I come and watch TV?” The answer would always be “Yes come in!” The little room would be crowded with children sitting wherever there was space.


I played my part in heating the school. The classrooms had a large cast iron stove near the front of the room which was the only heating the classrooms had. Early each morning in winter my brother Marty and I would help our mother by setting the fires in the stoves while she dusted.  We became quite expert at setting the fires, scrunching up bits of newspaper and carefully laying down kindling wood before placing the heavier burning wood on top so it was ready for the teacher to light before the start of class each day.

In 1963 the Benalla Aerodrome School closed and I then attended Benalla East Primary School to complete Grade 6. The following year I started at Benalla High School.

The Migrant Camp also had a library which was run by Mrs Tippett.  She was my godmother and I like to think that it was she who instilled a love a libraries and books in me.

On your birthday your name would be called out over the Public address system. “Would Ruth Pruks come to the Admin Office”. This was really exciting!   You would then be presented with the gift of a book.  The label inside the cover named   R.U. Bain as the Director of Benalla Holding Centre and The Department of Immigration, Holding Centre, Benalla was responsible for providing the books as gifts.

The Canteen was run by Mr Varnik, my godfather. His family was Estonian which gave my mother an opportunity to speak her native language otherwise she would speak German to her other friends.   The majority of families were  Polish, German or Latvian. One family had come from Denmark.  It was easy to pick up phrases uttered by irate mothers…   “Hotch tu domu!”  (Come home!) was a Polish phrase I got to know.  I also knew a smattering of German as my best friend was of German/Polish background.

On one of my visits to the Canteen, Mr Varnik asked me if I had collected all the bottle tops needed to spell “I Love Tarax” for a competition I wanted to enter. “I have all of them except the T”,  I said. He went into the storeroom and came out with a box.  “Here, take this.”  It was a Brownie camera! The competition’s prize! Thanks to Mr Varnik’s kindness I had a camera that I could use to take family photographs, some of which are attached to this story. My brother had a Box Brownie camera that he had bought with the money he earned from his paper boy round and that was our first camera which we used to record our family.

What a thrill it was when my brother gave me his bike. Instead of walking everywhere I could ride! We rode our bikes to Casey’s Weir, about 6 miles out of Benalla. My friend Anna and I would ride along the Hume Highway searching the verges for empty lemonade bottles that had been thrown out of car windows by long distance travellers on their way to Sydney or elsewhere. We would take the empty bottles and cash them in at the local Milk Bar. Those were the days when Victoria had a bottle deposit scheme. Pretty soon we’d have enough money to buy a Two-in-One ice cream or a Choc Wedge from the Canteen, or even go to the Saturday matinee movie in Benalla.

When the ‘gurki lady’ visited the camp I would rush home to ask my mother for sixpence so I could buy one of those famous pickled cucumbers.  I still remember the welcome sight of the old pram the lady would push around the camp. It contained two white enamel buckets filled to the brim with cucumbers.  One fat cucumber would fit into a mug, which was then topped up with delicious brine.

In autumn we would scour the Benalla Aerodrome for mushrooms and bring them home by the bucket load. Our mother would cook them on a Primus stove at home and turn them into a delicious    creamy sauce.  

Living in the country gave us other opportunities. We would spend the day by the river, swimming or catching yabbies, or we would frequent one of the farms and be exposed to another way of life. Horse riding, feeding chickens, a calf sucking at your fingers in a bucket of milk, seeing  a horse get broken in, chasing mice out of the feed bins – these are  all  vivid memories for me.

 We children had freedom to go where ever our adventurous spirits wanted to go, We developed self- reliance, independence and resilience along the way. All in all, I had a wonderful time living in the Benalla Migrant Camp.   


Radzic/Patjens Family

What Wally (Ewald) Patjens told me (Sabine Smyth) in September 2013 :

"My father died in the war, and my mother Mariechen Patjens married a Yugoslav, Svetorzar Radzic whilst she was a refugee in Germany. They migrated to Australia in 1950, for a new life and a new beginning. We left from Germany on the migrant ship 'General Heinzelmann". My sister Ingrid was born in Germany. My youngest sister Christina was later born at the Benalla camp.

I was very young but I remember the food stop in Seymour after we arrived in Australia and went on a train. When we arrived in Bonegilla, we were registered, then transferred to Benalla.

I remember little of life at the camp. I have lasting memories though of the sense of community. We have stayed friends with the Kaladzic Family who built near us, after we left the camp. I also remember the Moriartys; they were friendly Benalla locals and took us for drives, to picnics and to Yarrawonga. Karin Salkowski (Wally’s sister, nee Patjens-Radzic) adds that: Our parents did not divulge a lot about their time at the camp and now, our memories are fading.