Benalla Migrant Camp 1949-1967

Migrant Stories

Swist Story

Swist family history for Benalla Migrant Camp website, written by Stephanie Merry (Swist) January 2020.

Boleslaw and Franciszka Swist, along with their daughter Irene, had been granted Displaced Persons status by the International Refugee Organization (IRO) after World War II. They were both Polish and had been slave labourers for Nazi Germany during the War.  They met in 1948 in a DP camps in Southern Germany and experienced many hardships together including the death of their first born son Karol. They came to Australia in 1950 as part of the Australia Governments involvement with the Displaced Persons Resettlement Scheme (DPRS).

Franciszka was pregnant with their 3rd child at the time, passage was by plane instead of the more common long trip by ship. After processing at Bonegilla then transferring to Rushworth, they were moved to the Benalla Migrant Camp around 1952. They lived at Benalla Migrant Camp for about four years - from 1952 to 1956 - with their four daughters Irene, Celina, Halina & Danuta.  They had another 3 children after moving from the camp.

As part of the DPRS, migrants were obligated to complete a 2 year work contract, Boleslaw was assigned work as a carpenter with Victorian Railways. His work took him away from home Monday to Friday leaving Mum to care for the children. Dad remained with VR for 41yrs until he retired in 1991. Mum worked as a cleaner in later years.

Although employed in their work contracts migrant families looked to supplement their income with a second job, seasonal work provided the perfect answer. The weekend and holidays would see families drive out to surrounding towns to spend the day picking hops or working in the orchards around Shepparton.

My sisters have told me of their happy memories at the camp, they recall the communal kitchens and bathrooms and the camp hall where concerts were held. They recall the fun they had playing with other camp kids, the mixture of languages from so many nationalities in the playground and the small fence built at the front of our hut to keep the little ones together. Accommodation was 1 small room and they remember a grey blanket hung from the ceiling being used as a room divider to provide a little privacy. There was no running water in the rooms and residents used tin cans to carry water from the communal taps or the laundry into the rooms for drinking and washing. Mum inventively used a small German tin bucket designed for window cleaning (Fenstereimer) to make cottage cheese at the camp, using the handle to hang the muslin cloth off. She continued making cheese this way her whole life.

Boleslaw was president of the soccer club in the 1970's and Franciszka helped out each week selling hot food from a makeshift shed built at the Churchill Reserve ground. I recall being toasty warm in that little shed during cold winter days watching soccer games. Regular fund raising events and grants allowed the building of permanent change rooms around this time. Many migrant families were involved with the soccer club as players, administrators, officials and supporters. Great memories of the 1977 Premiership win.

Franciszka spent her time knitting and sewing clothing for her children. Her most prized  article was a beaded Polish national costume which she spent many hours embroidering. This costume was worn with pride by her daughters at public events such as Benalla Rose Festival parades and functions for the Benalla Polish club.

Boleslaw and Franciszka were looking for stability, a haven from the trauma of war: I think they found that at the Benalla Migrant Camp and later in the town of Benalla.

Footnote by Sabine Smyth:

Steph Merry (nee Swist) supplied a range of original photos and documents. The Swist photos are interesting because they are so varied. One photo depicts the family group and friends in front of a hut, neatly fenced off, as was typical at the time. Another shows a card game with what appears to be RAAF staff - which supports the information I received that the RAAF withdrawal from the camp was gradual and that they initially took a role in the administration - here they are shown at leisure playing cards with the migrant families.


Steph wrote to me in an email: "In about 1957 a Polish priest started visiting monthly from Richmond, as well as Polish Mass we would stage Polish music concerts, plays and us kids would go to Polish school on a Saturday. Hated it then, but am pleased now that I can read some Polish and I can speak quite well.”


"I wore my Polish National Costume from when I was 12 or 13 up to about 16. We formed a Polish dance troupe that later performed at the Rose Festival and other events in Benalla, Albury and Shepparton. Lots of fun really.”

" Most of the dancers were my age or younger, Kristine Orzlowski was the only one who still lived in the camp when we performed, and she passed away around 1993. Janina Bender's mum and Mrs Sikora helped with the singing and coaching us along (she was also a teacher at Benalla High School). Mrs Wisniewski had a wonderful voice, there was a choir at the church with her, Mrs Pawelec, Mrs Fita, Mrs Kropkowski, Mrs Swist (my mum), Mrs Prentki and Mrs Bialy , Mrs Kubiac, Mr Janczekowski and Mr Romaniszyn. "

Stan Manek (formerly Kazimierz Szymanek) sent in this story via email on 25/1/2020

Szymanek Story

My mother Wladyslawa was born in Konopiska, Poland  6 January 1926. Some records indicate that she went to school in Blachownia, Lodz, Poland. Records also indicate that in 1938-1939 she was living at home with her mother and father.

1939-1944 Wladyslawa worked for a German person in Poland. (Forced labour, farm worker).

1944-1945 In 1944 after the Warsaw uprising she was arrested ( reason unknown ) and transported to Ravensbrueck Concentration Camp in Germany. She spent a year there until the liberation in 1945.

1945-1948 Wladyslawa was in “ unemployed camps “ for displaced persons at Rotenburg Camp, Fallsing Camp and Mariental Camp, Germany.

Wladyslawa gave birth to a daughter Janina Zofia Szymanek on the 10 March 1947 at Rotenburg. Germany.

Our records say that Wladyslawa stated ....” She had no news from her family” and “ My country is occupied by the Soviets, I cannot return”.

In 1949 through the International Refugee Organisation, British Zone, Germany, Wladyslawa applied for emigration from Germany with her daughter Janina. Through the IRO Group, resettlement to Australia (emigrants), she departed from Bagnoli Camp Italy on the ship ‘ SS Hellenic Prince’, sailing from Naples in March 1950, arriving in Melbourne, Australia in April 1950.

After being processed through the Bonegilla Migrant Camp in Victoria Australia, being an unmarried mother, Wladyslawa and her daughter Janina were sent to Uranquinty N.S.W. where there was a Royal Australian Air Force Camp. Her son Kazimierz Szymanek was born there on 16 October 1950.

Wladyslawa Szymanek, Janina and Kazimierz were then relocated to the Benalla Migrant Camp in Victoria in 1952. Janina and Kazimierz were registered in the camp school.  Living at the Benalla Camp Wladyslawa  had another daughter Wanda Ciepiela who was born 6 August 1954. In 1956 Wladyslawa married Janek Ciepiela at the Benalla camp, (she is in the centre of the picture holding Wanda, Janek is on the right). Later in 1956 they all moved to Wunghnu, Victoria where they had a son Edward John Ciepiela born 8 May 1957.

Wladyslawa Ciepiela was Naturalized as an Australian Citizen in Numurkah, Victoria on the 7 March 1967. She passed away on the 8 June 1994 at the Goulburn Valley Base Hospital in Shepparton, Victoria.


‘Women are good at forming friendships,’ Quentin Bryce told a gathering at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, on 14 May 2015. ‘The friendship of women, their solidarity, is very important to their survival and growth as people.’ She was referring to the women of the Queensland CWA branch her mother belonged to and found much joy and fulfilment in. 

But the former governor–general’s comments apply just as pertinently to the informal, unstructured group of migrant women who lived, worked and raised their children in the Benalla Migrant Centre. Unlike the CWA members, the majority of these migrant women were sole breadwinners. They had to work to support themselves and their children. They had few choices. With only functional English, no opportunities for further education or training, they were stuck in menial, low-paying jobs, either in the camp itself – in the mess hall kitchen – or in the Bush Nursing Hospital or chain or clothing factories. Apart from their immediate families, they had only each other for companionship and mutual support.

They knew they were disempowered. Whatever relatives they communicated with by letter were a long way away, in Europe. There was no extended family handy to consult or rely on. But there was Father Wosniczek, the Polish priest. It was he who arranged for Krystyna and me to attend St Joseph’s and later the FCJ Convent, on scholarship. Although I was separated from my friends at Benalla High School, I enjoyed the educational opportunities I received at the convent.

Educated women such as Mrs Zieds, literate in two or more languages, worked in a camp administration role, as translators and communicators of the Director’s instructions over the PA system. Her position valued good grooming and her salary enabled her to look smart and sound confident. She also had her own accommodation, near the school, separate from the rest of us. By comparison, the less well-educated women, assigned to unskilled work, seemed diffident and far less sophisticated.

In 1957, when I was 10, my family left Scheyville Migrant Centre, near Richmond, NSW, to get away from our father, Kazimierz Topor. He had a history of violence. Benalla was our refuge. My brother, Ludwik, sister Krystyna and I were enrolled in the Aerodrome School on 12/12/1957 with, ironically, my father’s name on the school register, not my mother’s name, Maria Topor. It was our mother who took us to the school on our first day and our mother who was our primary carer. This was the first evidence I had of my mother’s invisibility in the eyes of camp authorities. She had no status in her own right. We hoped our father would never find us, but he did.

Communities are a two-edged sword. They can nurture and support, but they can also create dependency. Much depends on how much power communities have. The community of migrant women I knew during the late 1950s and mid 1960s were battlers in every sense of the word. When they came to Australia, many of them were already socially, economically and educationally disadvantaged, only to have those disadvantages compounded by what seemed like a one-way set of obligations and responsibilities under a patriarchal system.

Apart from occasional, usually prurient interest in our lives, no-one in the town seemed to care about us or our stories. Value lay firmly on our mothers’ economic contributions and their children’s indistinctness: nothing else seemed to matter.

For years, whenever I opened my mouth, people would immediately say, ‘You’re not Australian, are you?’ It wasn’t said unkindly, but our accents marked our Otherness. This had the effect of reinforcing our sense of identity as migrants. Instead of striving to be and sound like the townies, we prided ourselves on our differences. For example, I was shocked one Friday afternoon after school to hear Krystyna farewell one of her St Joseph’s classmates in broad Australian. It felt like a betrayal of some kind. She was born in Australia – affectionately dubbed a ‘kangaroo’ – by our family, so perhaps she felt she needed to blend in. In a nation fond of characterising people it comes as no surprise that some ethnic groups find their strength and identity in resisting pressure to blend into a national ‘blancmange’, and in maintaining their cultural distinctness with pride.

Living on the edge of Benalla, next to the airport, we were physically separate from the town – fringe dwellers of sorts, objects of occasional curiosity and sometimes scorn. Neither our mothers nor we, as children, were ever invited to anyone’s home in town. Only former migrants living in a Housing Commission houses would invite their friends to visit. The solidarity forged in the camp held across the ‘border’ that was Samaria Road and, later, across the suburbs of Melbourne.

I had only entered townspeople’s homes as a Girl Guide, gaining experience for my badges or doing odd jobs for senior citizens during Bob-A-Job week. With the power of books, films and television, our experience of how others lived was largely vicarious.

When my brother was 14, he and a town girl, Jill, had a crush on each other. They must have met at high school. She offered me her discarded tennis racquet which I collected from her large brick house in Coster Street. That was the first time I saw how a girl a year older than me lived. She had her very own, beautifully decorated bedroom, filled with possessions. A kookaburra sat in the stained glass round window that faced the street. By contrast, our few possessions fit into a small chest of drawers and a narrow wardrobe – standard Department of Immigration issue. Jill’s interest in my brother was short-lived and we never became friends, but I bashed a ball against the massive garage doors near the camp’s entrance until the warped racquet was no longer usable.

As children we were heir to our mothers’ lack of confidence and direction in life. We had no role models – except that of the battling single mother, tenacious and enduring. Although we were ‘feral’ – left to our own devices while our mothers worked – it’s surprising how few of us ‘turned out bad’. Our parents must have instilled in us core values of decency and acceptable behaviour which were, no doubt, reinforced by weekly attendance at Mass. In fact, we had a community of mothers admonishing and guiding us when our own mothers were at work.

Outside the camp we were diffident and self-effacing. Within the safety of the camp, however, we played loudly and joyfully, unfettered among our own. We made up secret languages and wrote letters in invisible ink, knocked on doors and ran away, climbed trees, spied on people, especially young lovers – much to their annoyance – and played games such as Klipka. The idea was to place a 3-inch piece of wood whittled to a point on each end – the klipka – into the air with a plank from a fruit packing case and count the number of continuous airborne hits of the klipka. The winner was the one who could keep the klipka in the air longest. Well-formed klipkas were collectables.

While the adults idolised President John F. Kennedy, the children played Countries, a game that reflected the Cold War tensions of the time. A line would be drawn in the school playground dividing ‘the world’ into two teams, invariably America and Russia. Players would raid each other’s territories for items – usually stones, sticks or marbles – placed at the boundary of ‘the world’. The idea was to return to your own country with booty and without being tagged. If you were caught, you were a prisoner. Whichever country lost all its booty or all its people lost the game.

Marbles, knucklebones, Puszka (Kick the can), hide-and-seek, and cat’s cradle were other favourites, as were French knitting and handball. There was no end to the variety of games. With only low-tech items needed, everyone could play something. As we got older, games shifted indoors with the advent of board games such draughts, Snakes and Ladders, Ludo, Monopoly, and Chinese Checkers. Later again, listening to trannies, dancing rock’n roll and going to the movies marked our mid-teen years.

We prided ourselves on our physicality, dexterity, speed and strength, attributes soon recognised with alarm at Benalla High School. The ‘camp kids’ had to be separated at sports, otherwise we would have been invincible.

At the convent where I spent four years, the farmers’ daughters couldn’t understand how a kid like me with a funny name, strong accent and living in a tin hut in the camp, could top the class in English, term after term – and I wasn’t even Australian! No-one expected us to excel and, whenever we did, their sense of entitlement was challenged and made then uneasy. It seems not so different nowadays with the generally low expectations of marginalised people, including indigenous children, by the wider community.

Whatever abilities I had were recognised by others long before I did. For example, I wouldn’t have gone back to TAFE to complete my secondary schooling if it weren’t for the prompting of my boss – the third one I had trained. Promotions were not for young women, however promising, but for future breadwinners, that is, men.

It’s ironic that the traditional paradigm endured in my Sydney government department workplace years after I had left Benalla camp. The ‘big boss’ was an ex-Army Major and my immediate boss was an Anglo who, despite his struggles to successfully complete the HSC – his third attempt enabled him to study Economics at university – made an appointment for me to enrol at East Sydney Tech. He insisted I was ‘bright enough’ to pass first go, but I resisted for two years before enrolling. A whole new world opened up when I not only passed the HSC but also earned a Commonwealth University Scholarship.

A decade later, banks still wouldn’t grant me a home loan because I was a woman, despite the fact that I earned more money at the time than my husband. In fact, when I married my husband I was fortunate to have also ‘married’ his extended family. In the banks’ eyes, my value didn’t lie in my proven achievements and potential but in my association with my husband. The patriarchal paradigm raised more ire among women of my generation than it did before the feminist revolution. So what chance did our mothers have to move out of the camp when such inimical attitudes and practices prevailed, and still do in far too many quarters?

I longed for the day when I could change my name – no could pronounce it or spell it! I toyed with various Anglo names I could assume under deed poll. But when marriage presented me with the perfect opportunity to become Helen Stanley, I couldn’t do it. I hung onto Topor because that is who I am. It is a confirmation of my identity. My children carry the Topor name into their surname: Topor-Stanley.

Disempowered, disregarded and devalued, our mothers sought strength and comfort from each other and their growing offspring. Whatever dreams they had for themselves and their children were silent, unseen and unheard. By not leaving the camp earlier, they were judged as lacking initiative. Authorities saw all too clearly the psychological barriers for leaving, but they were blind to the structural inequalities that kept the women there far longer than was desirable for everyone concerned.

The stories of these women and their children must no longer remain hidden. They must be made public. The flourishing of their offspring is a testament to their parents’ frugality, hard work and endurance, as much as to their compassion for and solidarity with each other.

© Helen Topor

16 May 2015

Wysocki Story

(e-mailed to Sabine SMTH by Ludmila Walsh nee Pandik on 10th April 2020)

Our grandfather Mykola (Nikolai) Wysocki was born in 1889 to Yakov (Jacob) and Maria Kolecnik.  The Wysocki siblings totalled five brothers and three sisters.  The family were rural landowners in Zynkowszcyna, Ukraine.  One story told was that  when a family member married everyone came together to build a small house on the property for the newlyweds.

His history is scant but one part that's known is that he spent time as a prisoner of war in Austria and at the conclusion of World War 1 he returned home mainly on foot, also carrying with him the learning of a second language which would become an advantage as part of his future.

Our grandmother Aleksandra was born in 1900 the youngest of fourteen children to Nikofor and Agafia Worowki/Vorovki, who also resided in Zynkowszcyna, Ukraine.  Presumably, her family also were rural landowners.

During the Russian revolution of 1918 when Ukraine became part of the Soviet Socialist Republic all lands were confiscated and the Ukrainian people were  forced to work under a Communist regime.

Mykola and Aleksandra met and married and themselves became parents to five children of which the fourth was our mother Lubov, or Luba born in 1927.   Between 1932-1933  Joseph Stalin created the worst man-made famine in history upon Ukraine's population resulting in approximately 4 million deaths.   Somewhere in this time frame Mykola made the decision to move the family elsewhere.

The story told was that they arrived at a Russian farm where the owner kindly gave them permission to live in the barn in exchange for helping run the farm.  During this time they all learned the Russian language.  When it became safe to do so they returned to their home village but unfortunately lost their youngest, Yakov (Jacob) through illness.

During World War the German army invaded various regions in Ukraine and this is where Mykola's language skill became handy because he was chosen to translate for the command and secondly, report any suspicious activity in the area (apparently he chose not to co-operate with this request).  However the moment came when the able-bodied populace were transported to Germany's Labour Camps.  Mykola and Aleksandra's second children -the twins Mihail and Halya- were first to be forwarded separately,  followed by parents and our mum at some later time.  They worked in the camps and mum had an extra job in hand washing children's clothing for a family in which she received payment in bread and jam.

Upon the cessation of war in 1945 grandfather attempted to rescue the twins from the British Zone but this was considered too dangerous. They never saw them again.   It was not until between 1955 and 1957 they received information from the International Red Cross that Mihail and Halya had been repatriated and still living; correspondence commenced between them from this moment on.

Between 1947-1949 mum underwent vocational training within the Co-operative Society Womens' Tailor Shop supported by the International Refugee Organization (IRO),  gaining certificates as a Masterhelp, a Second Class Dressmaker and eventually First Class Dressmaker/Tailor at the Re-settlement Centre, Ludwigsburg.

Mum met and married Aleksandr Pandik in Germany prior to emigration. As we understand there was a choice for the displaced population:  repatriation, Canada or Australia.  Grandfather Wysocki was adamant that "they needed to get away from Europe as far as possible".  The choice was made.  The four of them embarked the S.S. "Castelbianco" at Genoa in 1950. When the ship passed through the Suez Canal grandfather was resourceful enough to trade a precious thick featherdown quilt (known in Australian English as a 'doona') for a Pfaff pedal sewing machine for his daughter; and a very precious machine it became.   Arriving in Melbourne everyone was transferred by train to the Bonegilla Holding Centre for processing,  with a number heading towards their final destination:  Benalla Migrant Camp.        (We have been informed by Sabine Smyth that we are the only family she has heard of, to have three generations included on arrival at Benalla Migrant Camp.)

Note: I will continue with the rest of the story under Pandik.  Dad's history is a lot shorter and I will include more camp life as I recall.  I have written the above history as I know it but if you need to precis this please do so.

Pandik Story

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.


Zajac Family We sailed from the port of Naples Italy on 22 September 1945 arriving in the Port of Melbourne on the 19th October 1949 on the Ship FAIRSEA. My Mum Elfriede, my Dad Jozef, my Sister Inga and myself Franz Josef. We had all our worldly possessions in two wooden crates and two suitcases. We were processed in Melbourne and taken by train to Bonagilla from there we were transferred to the Benalla Holding Centre. My Mum was born in Wiesenfeld a small farming village in the Upper Franconian district of Bavaria Germany. She was one of five children of Josef and Berta RUB with only two surviving the war. My Dad Jozef was born in the same village as the late Pope John Paul. He joined the Polish Army and was captured by the Germans after the invasion of Poland. He was taken as a prisioner of war and interned in Stalag 13a Sulzbach Rosenburg. From here he ended up as a forced farm labourer on my grandparents farm at Wiesenfeld. As time progressed romance blossomed between my Mum and Dad much to the dismay of my Grandparents, this was a very dangerous situation as there were informers and military everywhere and Dad was regularly checked on by the authorities. After the war ended my Dad was taken by the American Occupation Army and placed into Starlag 13D at Langwasser near Nuremburg awaiting processing. He worked for the Americans at the camp until his release and then rejoined my Mum, my Sister and I in Wiesenfeld. They applied for refugee status through the International Refugee Organisation and were successful. US, Canada and Australia were on offer and the Australian Officials arrived first. We found things very difficult at the Holding Centre, fortunately Dad found work with the PMG and Mum at Latoof and Cahill clothing factory. After about 12 months we moved out into a rental property at 16 Maude St. Life in those early years was tough, we had very little furniture and Dad was away a lot with his job so it was up to Mum to keep things in order We eventually were able to place a deposit on a house at 14 Davey St and this became our family home. Dad retired from the PMG when he reached the age of 65. Mum spent most of her working life in clothing factories in Benalla. My sister and I were educated at St Josephs and the Benalla High School. Except for short periods away Benalla has been our home town since 1949.