Benalla Migrant Camp 1949-1967

Boleslaw and Franceszka Swist

SWIST Boleslaw and Franceszka

Poland 1950-1957

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 1975 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.”

( Fr Wozniczak had been at the camp and then there were several years without a Polish priest until Fr Slowik travelled from Richmond in 1975.)

"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. "

Boleslaw and Franceszka SWIST
Boleslaw and Franceszka Swist - Poland

Benalla Migrant Camp School Pupil Register

Name Date of Birth Parent Camp Date
Irena Swist Thursday 27th October 1949 Franciska 01/02/1955

Records in Benalla Cemetery for SWIST

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.

Name Died Age Burial Location
Boleslaw SWIST 2001 75YRS ROMAN CATHOLIC External Link
Francisczka SWIST 2008 86YRS ROMAN CATHOLIC External Link
Joseph Thomas SWIST 1989 24YRS ROMAN CATHOLIC External Link
Peter SWIST 1960 ROMAN CATHOLIC External Link
Unnamed SWIST 0 HOURS OPEN GROUND External Link