Benalla Migrant Camp 1949-1967

Migrant Stories

Emailed to Sabine Smyth 26/4/2014 Benalla Migrant Camp Stay : February 1951 to February 1953 Family : Edward, Emilie and Karin SALWEROWICZ My first recollection of my time at Benalla is a bit fragmented. I remember starting school there and enjoyed it very much, I broke my arm and spent time at the Benalla Hospital and to this day I can still smell the ether that was used. It was mostly Mum and I, as dad had to work wherever he was sent and a lot of the time he wasn’t with us. That made it very difficult for Mum, and I don’t remember her being very happy there, she felt very isolated and missed her family dreadfully. I cannot even begin to imagine what life must have been like, I guess there was the excitement of a new life but also the sadness of leaving loved ones behind. Hopefully this gives you some insight into our life. Regards Karin Smith Siblings Eddie Salwe (formerly Salwerowicz and Helga Salwe (nee Salwerowicz) )and half-sister Karin Smith (nee Salwerowicz) all visited the exhibition in 2013. This is their family's story as told by Eddie. "My mother was Emilie Salwerowicz who is German and my father was Edward Salwerowicz who was Polish. They arrived in Australia in December 1950 on 'The Protea' into Port Melbourne. My parents and older sister Karin were taken directly to Bonegilla before being moved to Benalla. Whilst I do not know the date we arrived at the Benalla Camp my sister Karin is showing in the school register as number 278 on 1. March 1951 and finishing to go to Tullamarine in 1953. My parents became Australian citizens in 1966 and at that time shortened the name to Salwe.

Savickas Story

“My parents Bronius and Dominika Savickas left Lithuania in 1944. They spent three months in Poland and six months in Gratz, Austria, in camps. Then they ended up in Wangen, Germany. I was born there in September 1945 and named Romuald Paul Savickas. My mother worked as a dentist in a clinic at the railway station.

In 1949 the family were resettled to Australia and arrived here after a voyage on migration ship SS Skaugum. On first arriving in Australia they were sent to a camp in Cowra NSW  in 1949. They were then, still 1949, transferred to the camp in Benalla where they stayed until 1953, four years. Paul was a child of four years when he entered the camp and eight when he left. He says the time in the migrant camp is one of the most defining experiences in his life.

"After all the turmoil of the war in my parents’ generation and the rather long transition into normalcy for them, I ended up as the beneficiary of their sacrifice. Life has been good to me."

"In 1953, while I was still in the camp, I saw the film Peter Pan in the hall/movie theatre there. It was the first movie I had ever seen and seeing it made a vivid impression. (...) There were just these simple pleasures for the kids in the camp, like going to movies."

In the Migrant Camp Paul's mother worked as assistant to the supervisor (who was Polish). Paul says: “My father first worked for the government to repay our passage. He then bought a truck and used it to carry firewood from NSW to Melbourne."

In 1953, the family moved to Melbourne when he was 8. In 1957 the Savickas family moved to the United States, changed their name to Stevens as part of US Naturalisation. Paul now lives in Redmond, WA, USA. Through all those years, Paul has kept his mother's dentistry tools as well as her drill.

Information was exchanged between Paul Stevens and Sabine Smyth in several emails, then collated as above by Sabine, which required some editing.


Paul came to the November 2017 Benalla Migrant Camp Reunion (50 Years On) and brought his mother’s tools and drill which he donated to the camp on this occasion.

Christine Gruzewski (nee Schaller) Born 18/6/1942 Country of Origin Germany (former East) Year of Arrival in Australia 1955 We were driven from our home in Zeulenrode near Tuebingen in East Germany during World War 2. I, Christine Schaller and my parents Margarethe and Ernst Schaller, my older sister Ingrid and her youngest child Gerlinde (3 yrs) had already lived in two camps in Germany before we arrived in Australia in 1955. I remember seeing a sign in the Refugee Camp promoting Australia as the 'Land in the sun.' After the war, we came here to make a new start. My father was a fitter and turner, an occupation Australia was looking for. I remember arriving at Bonegilla first and then being transferred to Benalla, still in 1955, after my father got a job at Renold's Chains. 'My father was fully qualified, and had done his apprenticeship with Zeiss (a very well regarded German company) but his qualifications were not recognised. He did skilled work but was only paid labourer's wages. It seemed unfair. But my father said, 'We are in a foreign country, we've got to play to their rules. ' But after working for a while and showing his skill, he stood his ground and demanded a better salary. It was winter when we arrived at the camp and I remember walking up to our hut on wooden planks, because the ground had turned to mush after a recent flood. The camp was very basic and my mother really suffered from the bed bugs. Her whole arms swelled up from the bites and initially the camp management did not do much about it. There was an inspector from Canberra visiting one day and my mother went straight up to him and held her arms in his face and showed him the dead bed bugs in a match box; after that the huts were fumigated properly and things got a bit better. We could not get out of the camp quickly enough though. We probably only stayed 6 months or so. We were absolutely freezing in our draughty, unlined huts. The communal showers were out in the open; a long way away from the sleeping huts and then there was no heating to warm us up either. There were no power points in the huts, so most people would unscrew the light bulb and wire up electric strip heaters. Those huts were 'alight' from one end to the other! I cannot remember the number of our hut, but we were in the row behind the canteen. It could get really rough at the camp - working fathers were away for weeks on end and when they came back, fights and drunkenness were the order of the day. Benalla has been good to us, but people were quite ignorant in the early years. Migrants, especially those without any English, were considered second class citizens. I remember my father being disgusted at the wealthy local farmers' wives who would seek out German cleaning ladies (like my mother) for their thoroughness, but would then not let my mother use the toilet she was cleaning. My father got particularly defiant when one local woman asked my mother to accompany them on their holiday to the beach house at Mornington Peninsula for three weeks, to cook and clean, but then tried to barter down my mother's salary by half because they could not 'afford it'. All their children were at boarding school you see, and this was meant to explain why money was tight. She came to our door to talk to my mother, but my father pushed to the front and told her that if they could not afford it perhaps they should not employ a cleaning lady and slammed the door in her face!' I worked at Latoof and Calill for a while. Those sewing machines were big industrial ones and if you were no good at operating them, you got the sack straight away. The company would just go back to Bonegilla and get a new lot of workers. One of my friends once went to complain to the union man about something, so the union man went straight to management and told on her, and she got the sack too. It was all very strange, and we never had much confidence in the Australian Unions after that. One of my friends started her first business at the camp, 'Hilde's Hairdressing'. She was a fully qualified hairdresser but had to go back to an Australian Hairdressing College to get a new qualification. I went back to camp to Hilde's Hairdressing for a while, until she started up her own salon in Nunn Street. I also worked at the Cosy Cafe in Bridge Street until we started George's Coffee Lounge. I met my husband Georg at the camp. He had long moved out with his family when we got there, but he would come back there to socialise.

Semiotas Story via Jackie Semiotas (Sam Semiotas’ wife, Sam is now deceased) Email 12/10/2017 (I cut and pasted from several emails) About the Photo :It is of Sam Semiotas and unknown child circa early 1950’s.  I would say it was Augustinus, Elana and Skirmantas Semiotas who lived at the camp in 1952-1953. Sam’s sister Joanne Heywood seems to think the family were in the camp for about a year. Sam never talked about that time in his life as he was only about 3 or 4. I guess he may not have remembered it.

I interviewed Regina Sidorczuk at 7 Mitchell Street Benalla on Sunday March 8th 2015 Stanislawa Sidorczuk, originally from Poland (near Lublin) left a German Displaced Persons Camp and travelled to Australia on the MS Skaubryn in 1951. She was at Greta Migrant Centre from 1951 to 1960 and during this time struck up a friendship with Mrs Teresa Banaszczyk. The authorities told the people in Greta camp that it was closing and that they had to be placed elsewhere. The Camp officials said that Stanislawa was to go to Adelaide as they could get her work but for this to happen her three children would be placed at St Stanislaus Home, Woodside S.A. so she could start life ‘as a single woman’. She said ‘No’. According to Regina her mum was a ‘stubborn, obstinate woman who just wanted to keep her family together’. Mrs Teresa Banaszczyk (4) and Mum (3) banded together and left for Benalla as they wanted to stay with their children. She met Mrs Bragiel (2) on the train to Benalla; they became life-long friends. There was another family by the name of Kowalski (2) who ended up going to Adelaide after spending a short time in Benalla camp, also there was a woman who we called Tante, she always dressed in black and wandered the camp at night, she lost all her family in the war. We arrived at Benalla Migrant Camp on January 8th 1960 and left for Sydney seven years later on 10th November 1967. About the families’ time at the camp Regina says: The camp was our life, it was like a babysitter, we children felt safe and enjoyed our freedom and friendships. Regina attended Benalla Migrant Camp School until it closed at the end of 1963, and she said that fortunate for her 1964 was her first year at Benalla High school; the younger kids were sent to attend the Benalla East Public school. Regina said : ‘’Mum worked at Renold Chains and because we walked to the high school, Mum (who loved sewing) swapped her sewing machine against a bicycle so I could ride to school. There was a lot of bartering done amongst the adults.” “Mum did not like the camp, as a person had no privacy, and everyone knew your business. The rooms were very small and you could hear through the thin walls plus there was nothing to help keep the heat out in the summer and the cold in the winter.” We would have breakfast in our rooms as Mum cooked things on a kerosene cooker – things like scrambled eggs and polish sausage. Occasionally she would bring us food from the Camp kitchen and heat it up for us but lunch and dinner was eaten at the Mess hall. The long-timers became friends and treated each other as family. The single parents with children stayed on in the camp while couples came and left all the time, to start their new life in Australia. Recorded by Sabine Smyth Checked by Regina 4th Nov 2015

Sleinis Story Sent in by Gerda Kelly (nee Sleinis) after editing Sabine Smyth’s draft, via email in late 2012. Milda and Janis Sleinis emigrated to Australia from Latvia after war and hardship. They spent some time in camps in Germany and finally left a camp in Flensburg to travel to Australia on the migrant ship Skaugum, departing from Senigalli in Italy. They travelled there in cattle wagons in 1949 with their daughter Gerda and son Edgar. Zanis chose Australia ahead of Canada, because of the warm weather and mild winters. And Australia accepted the Sleinis family as refugees which was important to be able to get your assisted immigration ticket. The family arrived at Melbourne, registered in Bonegilla, then transferred to Benalla migrant camp when Janis was assigned a job at Renold's chains. Gerda remembers the Lutheran Priest only visiting the camp occasionally. " I remember that all the older women, all the grandmothers, cried when he did." The Sleinis family stayed at the camp three years, from 1949 and 1952, until they had saved to build their own home in Union Street. Below is an extract from a 2016 media release written by Sabine Smyth about donating migrant camp history books to Benalla College: “According to Gerda, Benalla brought her parents much happiness after the ravages of war and being displaced. The camp is where their new lives began, and during the three years they lived there they made many lifelong friends. Milda Sleinis lived to 99 years of age and only passed away last year (2015). “   Gerda was pleased that she was able to be part of the formal hand-over of two books about the history of the Benalla Migrant Camp written by well-known Bonegilla historian Dr Bruce Pennay OAM to Benalla P12 College. “Firstly this is significant because the history of the camp should be part of our young people’s learning of local history but also, I was very pleased to be there because of mum’s personal connection to this wonderful school.”    

MY MEMORIES OF LIFE IN THE BENALLA CAMP The Beginning (This story was edited and permission was only granted to use it on 13/11/2019 via email.) Introduction: My name is Irena Slusarczyk and this is my recollection of my life in Benalla MAC. My mother Tosia (Antonina) was a single unmarried mother, 23 years old at the time and I was 3 year old when we left the camp in Neustadt, Germany when we started our journey to Australia. I was born in Lubeck, Germany. Mother was deported to Germany for forced labour in 1942. Mother was advised by her father, against repatriation to Poland; her father was a mason living nearby Krakow with his family and her brother Franek, was a mason like his father, was living in Scotland and then moved on to Manchester, UK. Her brother lives in Wales , U.K. today with his wife and son. We were approved to board on the ship Skaugum 111, ex Naples on 2nd March 1950 having been cleared to proceed . Mother and I had medical checks, were kept longer in Naples for some weeks until I recovered from chicken pox; mother was passed as ‘fit for work’ in Australia. On 28th March 1950 we had arrived in Sydney and were transferred to Bonegilla camp and then transferred to a farm in Bowning, NSW; mother was allocated for domestic work for a farmer’s wife. We were there for a short time, have little memory of this. On the 26.12.50 we returned to Bonegilla; transferred to Immigration Holding Centre Uranquity on 26.1.51 then transferred back to Bonegilla on 13.10.51 after H.C. Uranquity was closed down. We again, were transferred to the Bonegilla camp, my brother Robert was born in Albury Hospital. Finally on the 30.4.52 we were transferred to the Holding Centre in Benalla - we had arrived to stay for the duration until the camp was closed in November 1967. A sad and worrying time for many who had to leave their sanctuary. Camp Life: We had a choice of friends and there was so many of us; we run wild on the camp grounds, quite safe, secure and protected; all of the mothers around corrected our behaviour and directed us as was required. It was a great life for most of the children, we had so much freedom and some of our mothers gave us more freedom and held very loose leashes on their children. I was one of the lucky independent, noisy, active camp kids. The people we grew up with, our life experiences in the camp, has made us who we are today. Certainly, I do not regret the way I grew up in our Spartan accommodation, our poverty, lack of resources available for adults or the children. We grew a strong back-bone and learnt how to cope with almost everything in life – we had strong mothers as a prime example for us! We had to be seen as tough, not to take abuse/harassment and learnt to defend and look after ourselves. It had to be done this way. After all, life was tough and a struggle. Aerodrome School. I enrolled myself as a pupil in the school. My mother sent me to do so, having so little English herself, I had to fend for myself. School was fun; our teachers were great and kind and understanding with us; encouraged us to keep up with school work and involved us with sport – wonderful fun, pushed ourselves as far as we could. A lot of the children were talented with sports but there was so little training available locally. We did well with athletics/soccer/swimming – anything we could get involved in. We watched documentaries often in school; to this day I enjoy them watch them on the television. A summer day, 3rd class room in our school hut, situated between the camp church and the child-care/crèche building; our teacher Mr Spry with a calm, firm voice told all of the children to very quietly sit on top of our desks, not to look behind and do not move. Mr Spry quietly and silently reached for a perhaps a baseball or cricket bat, killed a very large snake had crawled through the open door. Any opportunity we could take absenting ourselves to go to the toilet or at recession/lunch break, we lift the lid of the garbage to ensure the snake was indeed dead. High School: It was not easy in this school; for the first time in our lives we had to study and do home-work and that cramped our after-school activities and play time available for ourselves and our friends. The first week of high school was a shocker; we were surprised to encounter a “welcoming group” of fellow-students, the town girls who would not allow us through the gate. The boys were not involved at all on either side but for the first week, it was on, a fist fight between the girls every morning. They told us to get-out of their school. In our class, the camp boys looked out for us; if we lacked or forgot something, the camp boys walked around our class room and selected the missing item and was given to us for our use. We did return our piffled rulers/pencils/text book etc to the student. It was not acceptable if they heard us speaking in our native language in their presence – we often did it deliberately to give them the pips! We didn’t care. During one of one our ‘domestic-science’ class, one of a few of our young teachers to stay after the class and had a talk with us, showed us much understanding, compassion and explained why the local girls disliked us so much and how to deal with this issue. We felt so comforted and supported from two wonderful teachers; this helped us how to cope. Earning money: Mother was employed in the camp kitchen; we were moved to the staff barracks – they were supposedly better accommodation but, it was not at all. I do not recall owning a key to our rooms – after all, we had nothing of value to steal. My mother relied on me to help out with my younger brothers; I washed and dressed them, prepared their breakfast and took them to the crèche for care, picking up my brothers after school, looked after them, entertaining them with a game or read some books until mum finished her shift at the camp kitchen. Often I took my brothers for a bath in the camp facility, preparing them for bed, reading stories. When the boys were old enough to join in play with their peers with some supervision from myself and help from available mothers, who kept an eye on us. It was a good system and it worked for the working mother and the boys were happy in crèche/child-care and in school later. Life was easier for mum with an income coming through. She did some over-time employment when it was available. For instance – the Annual Ball – mother and some of her peers were invited to help with the food and drinks serving the visitors who attend yearly for the dancing. The working ladies, at the end of their evening were invited to dance by some of the gents there. Nicely done too, the ladies enjoyed themselves, my mother did too. A decision had been made to sew curtains for all of the rooms in the camp and mum was given the extra work, earning more money; a low amount but welcoming the extra shillings per pair of curtains and was happy to do so. Mother enjoyed sewing and she bought a sewing machine, the material, patterns and sewed dresses, school uniforms for me, as well for my brothers and for herself. The working crew in the kitchen in the camp were a close-knit group, enjoyed being working together and often at the end of their work duties, they stayed on for a break for a coffee, cigarettes, lots of laughter and chat before going back to their barrack. Mixing with the locals in town: Most of the staff in shops were nice enough, some changed their attitude to us when they heard our accent – they did not like it, didn’t then and still do not today. It marks us as the ‘wogs/balts/foreigners’. We didn’t care either. We still have strong accents. We were mostly ignored, avoided often but tolerated. They did not like it when we spoke in our native language. We often did it just to annoy them. Our English was fluent and at school our English works. Our life and what we did around the camp and in town: Swimming in the river was fun; a flying-fox attached from tree to tree across the river, leaping into the water. Swinging off rope across the river – great times. A tragic incident at the river years ago occurred: We kept an eye on the younger kids at the river or lake. One day we discovered a steel drum moored at the bank; we jumped and dove into the water. One of the little camp kids named Sofie, copied us; it was quickly obvious to us she could not swim properly at all, urged her out of the water repeatedly telling her she could not do this, go back home. Eventually she obeyed us. We returned to the camp later that day, her parents were frantic, looking for Sofie; A search was organised. We were all absolutely devastated when her little body was found – in the lake. She must have returned there, not observed by anyone of us. A terrible day for the family and for us too. We did not forget and were more vigilant along the river with the younger children, were very strict with our brothers and sister – all the children. Occasionally Benalla experienced severe flooding and we took the opportunity to enjoy the rising waters along Samaria Road outside the camp grounds; we paddled and swam if the weather was warm enough, learnt how to deal and get rid of leaches – what great fun. The night was too quiet and we looked to find something to do - mischief was on the agenda! We annoyed our victims – we knocked on their doors, pestering them enough to interest them in chasing after us. Sometimes the night-patrolman was called to help (that was more exciting for us). We hid ourselves so well we were rarely caught and got away with our terrible behaviour – but what fun it was for us!! The Hangar in the aerodrome was a magnet for the camp kids; we often trespassed on the premises, exploring, searched the planes and bingo!!! What a happy find for the little kids – Free Money, as we called it, was just sitting there, a great temptation and we helped ourselves to the coins, not all of it just a little, enough for an ice-cream or lolly; our reasoning was that if we left most of the coins in the plane it may not be missed. We did this so often and one day…. Oh, we were sprung. There was three of us, all girls including myself were spotted by Mr Pollard, who chased after us with a bull-whip waving it above his head. We were petrified! Dana and Helen were nailed to the road, frozen with fear – I pushed the girls ahead of me, told them to split, one to the right, one to the left and myself straight down the road, reasoning that Mr Pollard couldn’t follow all of us. It worked, we back-tracked to the camp – safe again! We never ever repeated this again. The lesson was learnt. Many years ago, Mr Pollard was living next to my friend’s home, a neighbour; he looked and stared, he wasn’t quite sure he recognised me, I did not enlighten him, but he was trying to place me. A large group of the camp teenagers having decided to take a bike ride to Tiger-Hill – it was a long distance away from the camp. We packed cut-sandwiches, water and cordial drinks and of to our adventure. We got stuck in the mud in paddocks, cursing and swearing in temper, covered in mud on our shoes and pants. Arpard told us to forget about the dirt girls, today, and years later we would all laugh off all the inconvenience and dirt. It was true. Eventually we reached our destination, left our bicycles at the bottom of the hill, climbed to the top, enjoyed the view and sandwiches and a weary group cycled back to home. We occasionally raided gardens in private homes in town, helping ourselves to fruit. We were bussed to the snow fields – Mt Buffalo or Mt Buller occasionally during the winter season. We loved those outings; one day we came across a toboggan, it was just too irresistible and borrowed it and off we went. We did return it to the spot where we found it. What fun! In the summer we were bussed to Lake Yarrawonga during summer most years. One year Helen and I are were sitting on the bank of the lake, looking longingly at the boat moored at the bank. We watched and pondered, wondering….and we did. When the boat pulled away, without a word spoken, we looked at each other leapt onto the boat deck expecting to throw us into the lake. They did not threw off the boat, those kind adults had saw our longing and took pity on us. We so enjoyed ourselves and thanked the owners nicely when they returned from their boat trip around the lake. We gave a ‘royal-wave’ to our camp friends looking at us on the boat. What cheek we had! Activities in the camp: Indoor Games: We were given the “Library” room for the children, could borrow books, we learnt cross-stitch, basket weaving, French knitting, played monopoly, scrabble, fiddle sticks, card games, dominos, chess and checkers. Sometime later we were given a hut for use as a Club House, was used for television viewing, played gymnastics, played music and sometimes danced there. The following games were created by the older creative, imaginative clever boys. We were taught to play these with the older gang and felt we were privileged to be selected to participate in their games. A requirement was to be quick and willing to help our side to win the game. Partia: A great favourite of ours: two teams were selected, Helen, Aina and myself were often chosen possibly because we were thin, quick and agile and willing to shin up a tree or clamber onto a roof, or scuttle under the hut or hid in a garbage bin to aid and ‘save’ and ‘free’ the captured ‘prisoner’ – we were to ‘tag’ to captured prisoner to freedom and in turn capture the ‘enemy’. We did enjoy this game. Pushka: We stacked empty tins in a pyramid form and tried to knock out all of the cans and scored points – similar to playing 10 pin bowling. Palunta: Again a version of ‘base-ball’ with our rules because we didn’t know the rules. Klimpi: A round thick branch was whittled smooth by a knife and shaved into a pencil shape at each end; using a flat plank balancing the klimpi on the bat, balancing and counting each ‘safe-hit’ and wacked it as far as possible. Our secondary schooling has ended and we chose to search for work in Melbourne with friends Helen and Barbara. Mr Bain found safe accommodation in St. Anne’s catholic premises, a huge building where girls boarded there during their training and education facilities attended in the city. This was a good choice for us and we were successful being employed, loving our exciting new life in the city. It was a happy experience for us though with some misgiving. Did we miss our life in the camp? Somewhat yes. But it was the right choice for us. We missed the family and old friends left behind us and caught the train to Benalla as often as our funds allowed us to do so and re-connected to our past there. Our wedding was held in St Joseph’s church on the 4th February 1967; our Polish priest (formerly from our camp) did the service and attended the reception along with friends from the camp.  We left our hut from the camp.   I wonder today whether we were the last couple to leave the camp for a wedding.  The camp closed later that year. I returned to and reminisced walking around the camp for years after the camp closed, until the buildings were dismantled. My mother was apprehensive and unsure about life after the security and accommodation and employment ended in 1967 after the centre was closed; life continued to be a struggle but successful; for the rest of her life she walked around the grounds regularly, remembering and talking about her second home, the camp (after Poland) and had a great affection and attachment for the camp, “home” and the past and missing the old friends, right up to the last weeks of her life before she passed away. I would have never have traded my childhood in the camp for a ‘normal, regular home life” – after all, we would have missed all of the fun!!!

Stanimirovitch Story

(emailed to sabine.smyth@gmail from Alex Dupuis (formerly Stanimirovitch 25/4/2020)

Both Michael and Violette Stanimirovitch were prisoners of war.

They applied for refugee Assistance in France, for Australia 8/12/1946.

On 28/10/1950 both were accepted with their 2 children Nanette and Dushan.

Arrived in Australia 1/01/1951 went to Bonegilla for 3 months then to Benalla Migrant Camp were they stayed until 1956 with their 2 children.

Alexandre was born 31/10 1951 and Raymond 1953.

Michael studied to be an artist (in Paris) prior to arriving to Australia.

Michael held a One Man Art Exhibition in Benalla and a prospective customer gentleman said he loved the way he painted, loved his portraits but would not buy one because his name (Stanimirovitch) was too long.

In 1956 family moved to Wangaratta were they lived and children grew up.

Sadly Michael passed away June 1985 and Violette 27th April 2005.


Emailed to sabine smyth 18th March 2016.

Stugis Story - A Latvian Woman’s Story.

This is dedicated to Marija Purens also known as Stugis, and her journey from Latvia to Australia, it is her experience of making history.

She escaped the Soviet occupation of her native Latvia and survived living in Hilter’s Germany. She miraculously escaped death many times such as when bombs fell around her. After surviving all odds she arrived in a foreign country, two small daughters by her side. There was no welcome hugs, no grief counselling, but instead she was judged as a woman alone.

It is often easier to judge than to understand, thus perhaps by explaining her travels, her journey , one can have insight to the how a person adapts, and survives any given situation.

Marija, was born Riga , Latvia, May 30th 1919. She was born to Janus and Annette Pinkoviski, younger sister to her two brothers. Her life growing up was happy, the beloved daughter in a happy household. Life was comfortable, ordinary people living ordinary lives. Riga was a vibrant place, once known as the Paris of the Baltic's. Marija loved Riga but also loved the country side side, and would often visit her Aunt and Uncle, who owned a farm.

Latvian was a truly beautiful land, freshwater lakes, pine, birch and willow trees , a safe haven for wildlife. The precious ieva tree , when in bloom scented the air with a delicious scent. The nightingales sang. Marija met, fell in love and married George Stugis. Life was good.

Alongside her content life there were changes where happening. In the spring of 1939 the Soviets planned their takeover of the Baltic countries- Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Learning to live in one’s homeland once your freedom is threatened , causes hope and fear to do battle within one’s head.

In October 1939, Marija and George where in the countryside when word came of the Russians tanks advancing. The opportunity arose to leave Latvia right there , right now. They grabbed that opportunity as they were in fear of their lives. They raced back to Riga about half and hour away from where they were. Marija pleaded with her mother, brothers and their families to come with her and George, to catch the train , to follow freedom. As surely death awaited when the Russians arrived. The fear and panic was accentuated , as they could hear the rumble and vibration of the Russians tanks .

With only one suitcase between , and after a quick tearful, heart wrenching goodbye, Marjia and George jumped on the train, leaving all she ever knew, and those she loved dearly behind. Heading through Europe towards Germany, not knowing really where she was going, no idea what lay ahead. Her heart broke and never mended again..all gone.

Marija may have dreamed about foreign soil the high spots like Paris and Rome but this was not they way she had imagined. Fear and terror , not only the train ride, but stepping onto foreign soil was beyond her imagination. Cities no longer, replaced with rubble, starving and lost persons all around, their eyes mirrored her pain. Her soul itself was changing, this forced- by -war metamorphosis was a lonely place. However survival comes hand in hand steely determination , the will to live and to seek options to do so, out weights all fear.

Time was spend in Germany, difficult as it was, Marija and George’s love blossomed, and as a result two daughters were born. First born was Tamara, and a year later Aina.

From Germany the family moved to Italy It was here that George disappeared from Marija’s life, to circumstances beyond her control.

Now she was all alone, totally responsible for her two daughters aged four and three Marija moved into a displaced persons camp. After sometime there Marija embarked on the journey to Australia on the ship Fairsea. The small family unit arrived New Year’s Eve 1949. Stepping foot on Australian soil January 1, 1950.

The decision to come to Australia was made in the transit camp in Italy. Two films were shown to the displaced persons to help them decide between Canada and Australia. In the film about Australia, Marija saw healthy sun-tanned men and women picking the biggest and brightest of oranges. The sky a vivid blue. The people smiling and happy. “This is the country for me, this is the country I want my daughters to grow up in. Australia is the place. Peace , safety , and happiness” it what Marija thought.

Arriving in Sydney, then travelling overland by train to Bathurst, left Marija breathless.

Not form the beauty but from the stark harshness. Where were the orange orchards, where was the beautiful land she was promised? The train took her through drought stricken land. All around was dry, barren dead lifeless trees, dead and dying sheep. The heat was intense..

On arrival Bathurst, she was allocated a room in a hut. Steels beds, rough grey army blankets, tin walls, and bare floor boards awaited her. The food on offer was hard to stomach, mostly lamb floating in fat. The shock was too much, Marija broke down and cried, what had she done? She felt betrayed, let down and oh so afraid. What was she going to do now?

From there she travelled to Benalla Migrant Camp. It was here Marija settled and made her home. Marija found work in various places, such as cleaning at the Broken River Hotel.

Eventually Marija found work at the Benalla Hospital as a kitchen hand , where sheremained until she retired in 1985.

In 1954 , Marija fell in love and that union resulted in the birth of a daughter, Velta. It was 1955, and an illegitimate child was not well received. Against much pressure Marija would not relinquish her child.

The migrant came offered a safe haven, an affordable haven to bring up her children, not the standard she herself grew up with, but none-the-less a survivable option.

Marija had a brief marriage with Alexander Purens, when that marriage dissolved returned to camp. She was away from the camp for about a year.

From 1957 until the camp closed Marija lived there with her daughters.

Tamara left the camp when she was 16 to go nursing, Aina also left at 16, only to return a few years later. Velta spend her childhood there.

Marija lived the remainder of her live in Benalla and worked at the hospital.

The camp was perhaps not the most ideal place for Marija herself, but for her children it was a wealth of happy experiences, which far out weighed the creature comforts of a well to do home. Our lives as children in the camp was so enriching in a way Marija could not have imagined. True she may not provide a home as she was accustomed too when she was growing up, but none-the-less her stay in the migrant camp was our grounding, was our home, and home is where the heart is.

Marija was is the epitome of triumph over adversity, of a woman who happened to live through extraordinary times. To remain a kind and caring person despite being witness of man’s inhumanity to man. Marija is in fact a heroine and well deserving of any and all recognition as do all the displaced persons who arrived and still arrive in Australia…

Sulev Matt, Estonia

At camp 1950-55

Written down by Sabine Smyth from notes after visit to Migrant Camp Exhibition Opening March 8th 2015, with wife Sandra (Sandy)

During the flight from Estonia my mother got separated from my father. We didn’t know that he was actually alive for many years, then found out he had been taken to Sweden and had a new family.

My mother arrived in Australia as a single parent in 1955 and befriended local farmers by the name of Sherwood. They were kind and took us camping in Bright, and for visits to their farm.

Only three or four other Estonian families were at the camp and we grouped up and become friends.

As kids we played dangerously – we played in the wood heap and I used to jump from the tops of the cypress trees that grew along the mess hall.

We were not allowed to speak a foreign language on the school grounds – we would get detention.

We have a photo of us all coming off the ship at Station Pier – it was on the front cover of The Age for the 50 years anniversary since the beginning of migration.

This story was then emailed to Sabine Smyth in April 2020 by Arved Matt:

Matt Family Story

Matt Family Story (sent in via email from Arved Matt April 2020)

Adele Matt and two sons, Sulev and Arved, emigrated as WW2 refugees from Germany to Melbourne in 1949, and were settled in Benalla Migrant Camp after a short stay at Bonegilla Migrant Camp.

Towards the end of WW2, Estonia was under German control, and in September 1944, as the Russians were closing in driving out the Germans from the Baltic States, Estonians were trying to escape, many across the Baltic Sea to Sweden.

Aleksander Matt, who had been conscripted into the German forces, escaped and fled home to Saaremaa, and then to Sweden in a small fishing vessel, together with other men and boys who were in danger of being killed by the Russians. The women and children were to escape also in following days. Adele Matt, with son Sulev, and pregnant with Arved, was about to board a boat to Sweden when the Germans rounded them all up and sent them to Germany, together with the retreating German forces.

Adele and Sulev, together with many others, just avoided the Russian invasion of Estonia by hours. Many who could not escape were captured, emprisoned or killed by the Russian forces.

After the “liberation” by the lesser evil Germans, Adele and Sulev were settled in Oldenburg Refugeee camp. Arved was born in Verden during this period. Adele and Aleksander were separated by the turmoils of war and the aftermath. The horrors of the occupation by Russians, Germans, and then Russians again, were too difficult to talk about by most refugees, but we found out years later that Aleksander had escaped to Sweden and had settled down with a new family.

1949 there were mass emigrations of refugees to all corners of the world, but Adele chose Melbourne Australia as it was the furthest she could get from the horrors of war.

Adele, Sulev and Arved landed in Melbourne in September 1949, transitioned through Bonegilla to Benalla Migrant Camp, where they lived in relative luxury until 1955 when Adele remarried and settled in Wandin North.

We all made good friends in the Benalla camp, Adele worked as a machinist at Latoof and Calill, leaving Sulev (and less so Arved) to terrorise the rest of the camp.

School was complicated for the children, a mixture of ages, ethnicities and languages, and none able to speak English, initially. Somehow we all managed to integrate, communicating in a smattering of Estonian, Latvian, German, Polish, etc, and increasingly in English. Speaking English was compulsory at school, otherwise they got detention.

We as kids had a great deal of freedom, or we thought we did until we were caught by the teachers or the “Dicke Politsei”, and sometimes even our parents.

(The “Dicke Politsei” was not an actual policemen, but an officious security guard who was not keen on kids. He often chastised kids for loitering, screaming at them, thus making no friends with kids who called him names, including Dicke Politsei. )

The parents and children often walked to Benalla Township to shop, or enjoy the gardens and swimming holes in the Broken River. It was great fun and a wonderful atmosphere to grow up in.

We made friends with a wonderful farming family, the Sherwills, who had a farm just outside of Benalla. They often took our family and friends to their farm to play with the animals, and they also drove us camping to Bright. It was great to have local friends outside of the camp to provide a change of scenery and appreciation of the Aussie lifestyle outside the camp.

There were many activities and games that children got involved in, some rather risky but entertaining. Some examples are described below:

The kids used to build cubby houses in adjoining properties, and had to scavenge for materials to make them as comfortable as possible. Residents used to get the old potato sacks from the canteen and used them as doormats.

Belated apologies to the mothers who lost their doormats during a scavenge-hunt (as distinct from “robbery”) for cubby house materials.

The “Dicke Politsei” were on the case, but never found the culprits.

Climbing cypress hedges, swinging down on the branches. This activity caused a camp-wide blackout when one boy landed and released the branch, which whipped up into the power lines causing a short – circuit and blowing the transformer. Sulev and 2 or 3 others were still up in the tree when it happened (so it wasn’t Sulev’s fault).

TAA and ANA regularly used the Benalla Airport, and we were fascinated by the planes landing and taking off, especially at night with all the flashing lights. TAA had an Open Day and they welcomed children aboard showing us the controls, etc.

A group of kids embarked on a ship building exercise, building a canoe from “salvaged” corrugated iron and timber, and “salvaged” pieces of bitumen from the road pavement, which was melted and used to patch the nail-holes and seams of the canoe. It was panel-beaten into shape to hold one kid and launched in the Broken River.

The stability calculations by the “engineers” were apparently awry and it capsized in no time on its maiden voyage, and we believe the remains still rest at the bottom of Broken River.

Maybe a ‘Winged Keel” would have been handy, but it had not been invented then.

Tarzan Swings. A popular summer activity was swinging down from a tree on a rope swing and jumping off into the river. The rope had knots in it for grip, a loop for foothold, or a stick tied to it like a trapeze.

The Tarzan Pool was in the Broken River, near the Monash Bridge in the town. The other pool near the water tower on cnr Tower and Riverview Roads, was a shorter walk from the camp but was smaller, and used only by the “little” kids.

Leeches in the Swimming holes: It was very common to be attacked by leeches when in the swimming holes. Our legs and bodies often had leeches attached. Some merely swiped them off, but the best way was to insert small twigs in the tail and turn them inside out to see the blood that they had sucked out of you.

In 1954 the school took us to Benalla to see Queen Elizabeth on her Australian Coronation Tour. “I did but see her passing by….”, as did Sir Robert Menzies, and, unlike Paul Keating, no gentle pat on the bum.

Peeping Toms. Not appreciated by women of the camp, was the practice of older boys peeping through the nail holes of the shower block walls. The women knew and plugged the holes with toilet paper, but the boys easily pushed out the plugs. A constant battle.

The Camp dentist, one of the residents in the Camp, operated the Camp Dental Service. Sulev went once, but feeling brutalised refused to go again, hiding under the Nissan huts.

Playing “Chasey”, a popular game at the camp. When playing at dusk, Arved was called home by his mum, but he ran away straight into a very low barbed wire fence put up to keep people off an area. He received gashes to the knee and legs, and the scars are still very prominent today.

Broken River floods circa 1954, spread right up to the outskirts of the camp. Many kids excitedly waded through knee deep water to town, against a strong current.