7/1/2013 via email
Story on former BENALLA MIGRANT ACCOMMODATION CENTRE:
Hello, my name is Irene Van Rooyen (nee Michel) and I was born at the former Benalla Migrant Accommodation Centre, in September, 1954.
My parents were Jan and Jadwiga Michel and they were post-war immigrants from Poland. They arrived in Melbourne in March, 1949. They were sent to Bandiana first, where they got married. They had a meager Wedding reception, which consisted of a can of pineapple pieces and a bottle of champagne. That’s all they could afford.
They were then transferred to the Migrant Accommodation Centre at Benalla, (known by the residents as the Migrant Camp), where my father worked in the kitchen as a Chef. I remember finding a Recipe book once for vegetable soup, with ingredients listed as for “100 Men.” A member of each family would usually go to the communal kitchen with their aluminium or tin containers to get their food rations. Because my father worked there, we would get extra rye bread or soup, if there were leftovers.
The immigrants at the Centre lived in humble accommodation – tin Huts, which used to house Australian troops during WW11 – with either tin or cement sheet? roofs, which probably contained asbestos. It would’ve been unbearable inside during the extreme 40 degree heat of an inland Australian summer. There was no airconditioning, no indoor toilets and no-one had heard of television or computers, yet. There were communal toilets and communal laundries, where the women would congregate to talk and do their washing, using wooden washboards.
The women mostly stayed at home and looked after their families. Some (like my mother) worked at the SPC Cannery or picked Hops or worked at the local Benalla Hospital. The men also, either worked away, or worked in the kitchen or at the local Reynold’s Chain factory (where my father later worked).
I remember being happy there as a child and Life was very simple. My earliest memories were of going to the Director’s Office at Easter time and him giving me a bag of chocolate Easter eggs. We would also often go to the Canteen, situated near the entrance to the Camp, which sold everything from exercise books and pencils to polish kabana and german rye bread, to smoked herrings (in jars marked as “Rollmops.”)There was also a dining room, where there were often Dances held, where the residents would go to smoke, drink and eat and just have a great time.
I also remember riding my tricycle along the roads, as there were very few cars. I would often play in the park with the other children whose parents came from various backgrounds and nationalities – such as Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Austria – but we were like one big family. It was here that I first heard different languages spoken and I am sure that it was due to that reason that I have gained an affinity for Languages and grew up to be a language teacher, today. We moved out after my sister, Annie, was born in 1957.
I will never forget my time and experiences at the Centre – it helped to lay the foundations for who I am today. Sadly, most of the older past-residents have passed on now.
Irene Van Rooyen
Irene’s sister Annie McNeill (nee Michel) writes: " At Easter, even when we moved out of the camp, we prepared everything that we would eat on Sunday morning breakfast (to be eaten after mass) and put it in a basket, decorated with palm leaves and I used to ride my bike to the camp and the Priest would bless the food for us to eat the next day. This included Kranskys, coloured boiled eggs, salt and pepper, mustard, bread and butter.
"I feel it was good to have this Centre for the Migrants, as they were able to support one another, have a sense of belonging and adjust to a new country, life and be a stepping stone to a new future. It must of been so hard for them - especially those with young families."
Sent via email December 2012
Please note that the records retrieved from Benalla Cemetery do not mean that the individuals listed were camp residents, they merely share the surname.
They are presented in that they may be of assistance for genealogical purposes.