“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.
(emailed to sabine.smyth@gmail from firstname.lastname@example.org 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.