Benalla Migrant Camp 1949-1967

Angelina Grubissa


Istria (Croatia) 1952

Interview with Rick (Ricardo) Grubissa, 20th November 2012 at Benalta Cafe, with Sabine Smyth.

  • Country of Origin: Istria (now Croatia)
  • Date of Arrival: 1952 via Freemantle
  • Name of Migrant Ship: SkaugumName of Migrant Ship: Skaugum
  • Rick came to Australia aged 5 yrs with:
  • Angelina Grubissa (mother - 44
  • Umberto ( brother, 18 yrs)
  • Miranda (sister, 15 yrs)
  • Casimiro (brother, 12 yrs)
  • Liliana (sister, 8 yrs)

The past in Istria, before departure for Australia.

In 1947 my mother fled her homeland Istria during the second World War, after her husband Vladimiro  was killed. She finally arrived in Bari, Italy where I was born the same year. Then, in 1952, when I was 5 years old, my mother boarded the Migrant Ship Skaugum to emigrate to Australia. The Only opportunity offered to her at the time

My mother came to Australia as a single parent, a huge undertaking with 5 kids. Having to sever herself from her oldest daughter Maria and her husband Pietro which had to migrate to the USA.  After disembarking at Fremantle (where our whole family is commemorated on a Welcome Wall at the Maritime Museum) we stayed at Northam Holden Migrant Camp in Western Australia (about 90 km from Perth) for a little while years.

We came to the Benalla Migrant Camp by train in the mid 50s. It seemed to take days and days and we were travelling as a group with other migrant families heading for Benalla. People who arrived at camp together, stuck together afterwards. We checked in at the Migrant Centre, which had guards at the gates, and were shown around from department to department - administration, canteen etc.

The camp catered for kids from creche to Grade 6 - we went to primary school there and learnt English pretty quickly.

The accommodation:

There were about 4 people in a small room. The beds were very basic. Wire based camp stretchers. On top of the bed no sheets, and the mattress was thin and lumpy with something like course horsehair inside and the whole thing was held together by leather washers and string. I even remember the fabric on the mattress, it was black and white striped, very fine stripes.

The pillows were hard and lumpy - mum used to get us to collect tumble weed so she could make us softer, new pillows, and that actually worked really well.

On top of the beds we had heavy blankets that were dark grey or charcoal with a duck egg blue stripe, two inches wide.

We were in one of those huts with the round roof - there was only thin lining in the ceilings and in summer it was red hot! There was one light globe, no power points, no fridges in the rooms.

There was no fly wire and the windows only opened a bit. In the communal showers you could see people showering from the outside windows which had no curtains or screens - absolutely no privacy; and about 30 people to one shower block.

Mum had to go to work (at Latoof and Calill) and leave us to fend for ourselves. It was only a walk away from the camp but she left at 6 am.

The administration:

We went to the Administration Block (Mr Baines was the Manager at the camp) and we made our rent payments there each week.

We got our food from a canteen and for the rent you got a food card with your meal entitlements on it and it was stamped when you picked up each meal. There used to be fights for the food and disagreement about who got the best bits and the most. The women used to regularly fight for a better share and as kids we used to watch it and think it was good sport.

The camp food was terrible and we did what we could to supplement it and make things more interesting. Mum used to be very resourceful - we caught rabbits by hand and found mushrooms and weeds for salad.

Life with a single mum.

Many single women who had to work felt they could not bring up their kids the way they wanted to. But they had no choice. Most of the women were on their own and slept on weekends, exhausted. And many men worked away from Benalla and when they came back, there were fights and drunkenness. The police was at the camp a fair bit. Alcohol was a big issue with the older men; many of them badly affected by what they had gone through in the war.

Kids at the camp.

As kids the camp was fun. We were all running around together, finding things to do. Because we had to fend for ourselves, we got pretty independent.  We used to play made up games:" Klimpi", where we cut up a piece  of dowling about 6 inches long, sharpened both ends to a point then made up a batton about 2 foot long  which was used to strike the pointed climpi as it lay on the ground this caused the climpi to be catapulted up into the air and then tapped upwards as many times as possible then an almighty wack with the batton send ing the climpi as far away from you as possible you then multiply the distance by the number of times you were successful in tapping the klimpi whilst it was in the air , the winner of course was the  distance multiplied by the number of taps. neat aye" .

Another game we played  was" Pushka" 6 jam tins would be  stacked  first 3 tins lined up about an inch apart then 2 stacked end on between the two outside tins then one between the 2 there would be a minder which would count to 20  then say 4 kids would run away and hide.The object of the game was to site all 4 kids before any of them could get to the stacked tins and kick  the hell out of those tins and spread them as far away from where they had  to be restacked  by the minder. Sometimes got very frustrating for the minder as it could go on for hours,( as us kids would never give up) before all 4 kids where sited and before they could" kick those cans" (pushkas).   We used to cause ruckus in the huts by setting up the big rubbish bins either end of the hut's outside swinging doors  then bang loadly on the door before running away to hide and watch the fun begin as the full rubbish bins tumbled all over the place. Riding our bikes through the central hallway in the Nissen Huts was good fun until an adult stepped out of there room and was bowled over.

When I reflect on those days, I can see that we kids were never scared of much, and sort of street wise. We had seen a fair bit in our lives and no one could mess with us. We also had curious, adventurous minds and were used to taking risks, which is why I think that I and most migrants I know, made such a good life for themselves in Australia.

Kids used to get into trouble too; we were quite fearless and that means trying out your boundaries. And when you go through tough times as a kid, your values don't kick in until you are old enough to have developed some values for yourself. I was never any good at school, until I changed my mind about getting ahead and paying tribute to my mother's hard work bringing us here. We all came good eventually.

General memories.

The camp used to get rough, the Polish and Germans, war enemies, had to mix. You had to assimilate and get over it though. But still, there were often fights and stabbings.

I remember the night the king died (in 1956) I think, we were all at the pictures in the Camp Hall . The film was Quo Vadis. When the news of the king's death were announced, the lights went on and the movie stopped. Everyone stood up and sang the anthem - we had no idea why because the King meant nothing to us.

I remember there were two night patrolmen at the camp, Mr Taurins and a man we called  Malutki (Polish word for 'small guy'). We would give him cheek and he would chase us all around the camp.

Of course you could say, things were bad then. But I always think like this: Okay, things were bad. But compared to what? The appreciation of my current life style comes from those humble beginnings.

Benalla Migrant Camp School Pupil Register

Name Date of Birth Parent Camp Date
Casimiro Grubissa Sunday 9th October 1938 Angelina 16/04/1952
Liliana Grubissa Thursday 17th May 1945 Angelina 16/04/1952
Ricardo Grubissa Monday 16th June 1947 Angelma 03/02/1953