Benalla Migrant Camp 1949-1967

Migrant Stories

Horst and Margot ARENDT

Written by Doris Arendt who interviewed her mum Margot on March 31st 2020.

(Sent in as email to Sabine Smyth 2/2/2020)

Both Horst 23 and Margot 20 hated the cold in Germany and they wanted an adventure – Horst’s brother Lothar saw an advertisement about moving to Australia in a local newspaper and he, Horst and Margot decided they would go.  The advertisement asked for people to migrate to Australia where the “sun shone for 13 months of the year”.

Horst, Margot and Harald left Germany 13th March 1960 on the Castel Felice from Cuxhaven, Germany. Lothar remained behind at this stage and was to travel to Australia later.

The cost was 250 marks – the Australian government subsidised the rest. They wanted young families to come to Australia – when the boat left the harbour they played a Freddy Quinn song called “Faehrt ein weisses Schiff nach Hong Kong” which translated means “A white ship is sailing to Hong Kong” which Margot remembers to this day.

The Castel Felice docked in Melbourne, Australia 23rd April 1960 .

They travelled to Bonegilla from Melbourne by “choo choo” train as they all referred to it.

First stop was in Benalla and they were fed a meal of mashed potatoes, mashed pumpkin and sausages and white bread and coffee– no one knew what the food really was – but everyone ate it as they were hungry.

From Benalla they travelled on to Bonegilla – arriving at night time. The train stopped in the middle of nowhere there was no platform. All the men disembarked first and helped women and children. 

First stop was the canteen to be fed, from there they were allocated barracks – they had one room with three beds – with the heavy grey army blankets. April was cold and raining – and they put two beds together and put Harald in with them to keep warm.

They stayed at Bonegilla for 3 weeks and then they were sent to Benalla as there was work for cleaners at the Benalla Migrant Camp – Horst worked as a cleaner and Margot also obtained work at Renolds Chain Factory.  

They stayed at Benalla Migrant Camp from May 1960 to January 1961.  The Camp was very full – food wasn’t too bad. It had a hospital, kindergarten and school. Margot had her 21st birthday at the camp – the accommodation was very basic but at least the showers had doors – unlike Bonegilla where there were no doors on the showers.

Horst (not enjoying working as a cleaner) then went to work on the Snowy Mountain Scheme – with Bruno Bonin where he stayed for 4 months.  Meanwhile Margot and Harald stayed in the camp.

Horst did not enjoy being apart from his family so he then applied for work in Shepparton where they moved with the Bonin family and all worked as tomato pickers in Undera for 4 months.

When tomato picking finished Horst and Margot and Harald  moved out of the house they shared with the Bonin family and rented a garage for about 6 months – Lothar had by this time arrived in Australia and also joined them in Shepparton.  Horst worked at Mooroopna Water Works and also got Lothar a job there. Their second son Eddy was born at this time in September. Eventually the water works project finished and Horst got a job at Campbells soups.

Horst, Margot, Harald and Eddy and Lothar moved to Benalla in 1962 and both bought land in Witt St. Horst then bought 4 huts from Les Plum which interestingly were from the Khancobin Snowy Scheme and he fashioned together a house which miraculously is still standing today.

Horst worked various jobs over the years including working for Terrets Timber Mill, State Rivers building Lake Nillachootie, and Lake Mokoan. When Lake Mokoan was completed he found work at Thomas Carr (later Benalla Spinners). They needed someone who could speak German and English as they had a german engineer coming to set up the machines.

Margot also worked at Cleckheaton during this time.

Horst and Margot went on to have three more children, Ron, Doris and Andrew.

 


Arndt Story

This story is still under development.

Paul, his sister Waltraut and his parents Kurt and Elfriede Arndt arrived in Australia from Germany on the migrant ship Fairsea in 1956. They lived at Benalla Migrant Camp for several years after being transferred from Bonegilla, in the late 1950s.


The Bateman Story

Brian Bateman wrote this via email in February 2018.

My name is Brian John Bateman and I am the eldest son of Frederick Talbot Bateman RVM 1926-1991. Fred was discharged from the RAAF in 1946 and upon returning to Melbourne gained employment as a Commonwealth car driver. He mostly drove Arthur Caldwell who at the time was the Minister for Immigration. If Caldwell travelled by car to Benalla to establish the BMC then it is very likely that Fred was his driver on each occasion.

We moved to the camp late 1949 and Fred was in the administration office but most known for the fact that he drove the camps motor vehicles . bus ,truck and fire engine. The bus was frequently used to transport the soccer team to away games and social occasions to nearby river retreats with an 18 gallon keg of beer strapped to the rear luggage rack. The fire truck would be gone for days on end fighting fires near the high country. The truck was multi purpose but most famously very decorated for the Royal visit in 1954 and you have this photo with Fred standing on the right. I got to sit in the truck that day driven of course by Fred.

He was also manager of the soccer team which won 5 out of 6 premierships in their region which included Dookie Agricultural College , Wangaratta and others to which I travelled as a mascot. John Torrens will be able to name all the teams in the competition. We did travel to Bonegilla to play but they were not in our region. Training nights I would run behind the players as they trained for upcoming games. I would marvel at their skills with head and feet and understood that at least 4 had been international players for their country. There is little doubt that those who located to Melbourne were the forerunners of the development of soccer at that time

When we arrived at the camp we lived in one of the many huts. Sometime shortly before my brother Peter was born in October 1951 we had moved to the house at the entrance which had a huge water tank in the backyard. I was reprimanded many times for climbing up the tank

I attended the camp school 1950/51 by which time i spoke many languages and not English and much to my annoyance was relocated to Benalla East primary. Later in 1954 Fred had accepted a position in Melbourne and we had to move to Benalla West where i attended that primary school. Fred would hitch hike to Melbourne and return every other weekend

The main hall was a centre of activity especially as each Christmas all the camp children would receive a present from Father Christmas. I must say these were very enjoyable and laughter filled days for a young boy and all my friends were similarly aged migrant children.

The social events of the soccer team were memorable as many would bring foods that they had made ; breads ,rounds of cheese and cured meats. Again a forerunner of our changing diets.

The nursing sister was Norma Meney who was a very close friend of my mother, Lorna. They has grown up in neighbouring small towns in the Mallee. Norma was a dedicated nurse who never married and i was advised that at one point in time had the highest qualifications of any nursing sister in Victoria and possibly Australia. The camp was in very good hands. Last year she celebrated her 100th birthday in Kerang near to her home town of Quambatook

My parents would maintain contact with some of the camp people who also moved to Melbourne. None more so than George Hodaskis (spelling?) and his wife whose name escapes me. I last saw George mid 60’s and his infectious nature and laughter i will always remember

They were heady but most enjoyable years

Best wishes to all


The Benalla Aerodrome School SS 4651 opened on 16th November 1949 to cater for the children of migrants living at the Benalla Migrant Accommodation Centre. The Department of Immigration (who managed the camp) provided four huts to the Department of Education, one to be used as a dwelling for the head teacher and the other three, each partitioned, for classrooms.

Assistant teachers had single rooms and their meals were provided with the camp administrative staff. The enrolment as at 9th July 1951 was 174 pupils. An additional army hut was added the same year. On 11th September 1963 Benalla East Primary School began to cater for the children of SS4651 and the camp formally closed.

Please also look at the photos taken by June Cracknell (later Humphries), a teacher at Benalla Migrant Camp 1956-1959.


Bialy Story

The Bialy family came to Australia on the Migrant Ship SS Castelbianco in December 1951. Mr Bialy's sister Maria, her husband Wally and their two children already lived in Australia, and there was plenty of work, so they decided to emigrate for a better life.

Joseph Bialy told his story, which was written down by his daugher Simone and sent in via email in early 2013:

"My name is Joseph Marion Bialy. I lived in the Benalla Migrant camp from 1951 to 1959. I was born in Hildesheim, Germany in 1948 to Polish parents. When we migrated to Australia, my family consisted of my parents Maciej & Stanislawa Bialy, myself and my younger brother Kasimir. Later, while still at the camp, our family expanded to include my sisters Sophie (dec,) born in 1954, as well as twins Helena and Kristina who were born in 1959, three months before we left the camp.

On arrival in Australia, we were transported to Bonegilla, then to Rushworth and finally to Benalla. There was a theatre, where all sorts of activities would take place. Movies were screened there, from memory, every night. They screened all types of movies, but my favourites were the cowboys and Indians movies. I also remember things such as concerts, the opera and the ballet coming to the camp, and these shows would be performed in the theatre.

There was a resident Priest, Father Wozniczek. He lived in one of the huts and the church was located at the back of the hut he resided in. While I lived at the camp, I was an altar boy at Sunday mass. I remember father used to deliver the sermons in both English and Polish. Mum sometimes cooked in the hut. We would go to a local farmer to buy the eggs. There was also a “corner store” type shop at the camp.

The men had to go out and work, sometimes they had to stay away where they worked. Often this created difficulties. My father’s first job in Australia was fruit picking in Shepparton. He would stay away and work all week and come home on weekends. I remember my little brother crying when Dad came home because he didn’t recognise him at first. We would have to pay a little extra board money to house Dad for the weekend when he was home.

I remember living at the camp as one of the best times of my life. I always had someone to play with and when I didn’t, I made my own fun and got up to mischief. The camp was like its own community, it had most things that you would need. There were people of all different nationalities, all living there together. "


Bihun Family

Sabine Smyth contacted Wasyl Bihun by phone and email in Oct-Nov 2012, to gather the following information.

Wasyl Bihun’s family is from the Ukraine but arrived at Benalla Camp in 1951 from a German Farming Labour Camp. According to Wasyl they came to Australia because when they were in Italy/Bari waiting to board, 'the ship to Canada was full.'

They brought out a shipping box of cooking utensils, because they thought Australia was a very primitive country. When they found out they could have obtained all their pots and pans here, they regretted leaving more precious family belongings behind.


Bitneris Story

Sent in via email by Fred Bitneris in 2015

My family, my mother, sister Christine and I (Fred) moved to Benalla Camp in 1951 via Bonegilla. My sister moved out in 1960, I moved out in 1959 to go to university and my mother stayed until 1969.

We originally came from Lithuania, but during the war we became refugees and stayed at a displaced persons Camp in Traunstein, Bavaria called 'Kurhaus'. We all came to Australia in June 1950.

Fred writes: "The 'camp' has a wonderful collection of memories and history and human stories that you will not find in any media format. The influence that the 'camp people' had on Benalla's culture during the 1950's and 1960's is immeasurable in many ways."


Braumberger Story

Eddie Braumberger writes this via email on 13 July 2014:

“My father was Rudolf Braumberger, born in Munchenthal (Muzlowice) in Poland and my mother was Bronislawa Braumberger born in Przybysowka, Rzesow, also in Poland.

They got married in Sokal, Poland in 1938 and their four children Gertruda (Wanda) - born in Cielaszu, Poland in 1939-, Jozef (Joseph) - born Drutte (ex concentration camp) Germany in 1947, Albert – born in Wattenstedt (ex concentration camp) Germany 1948 and finally me, Edward (Eddie) also born in captivity, at Somers Migrant camp, Mornington, Victoria Australia in 1952.

After the war my parents moved through a series of IRO (International Refugee Organisation) camps before migrating to Australia. I believe my family did go to Bonegilla first and then to Somers Camp (possibly 1951/2) where my father worked at the Naval Base at Hastings. My mother and us children were sent to Benalla camp in 1953/4 while my father worked in Melbourne for the MMTB (Melbourne Metropolitan Tramways Board). My mother and the boys left Benalla camp in 1959 to live in Preston. My sister is married and still lives in Benalla.

These are our ship passenger numbers from the Hellenic Prince on which we travelled to Australia in 20th April 1950, arriving in Fremantle:

  • 0537 BRAUMBERGER Albert Germany
  • 0534 BRAUMBERGER Bronislawa Poland
  • 0535 BRAUMBERGER Gertruda Poland
  • 0536 BRAUMBERGER Jozef Germany
  • 0533 BRAUMBERGER Rudolf Poland

Brunner Story

Written down by Sabine Smyth after interviewing Anna Castles, nee Brunner in late 2012. Then edited by Anna in December 2019.

Anton (Tony) and Anna Brunner (six months pregnant with Anton Jnr (Butz), and children Anna and Gertrud  from Bavaria in Germany, came to the camp in Benalla in 1955 and stayed for three years, until 1958.  Elisabeth and John were born after they moved to the Housing Commission home in Russell Street.  Anton & Anna lived out their lives in Benalla.  One of the photos in our collection shows Anna Jnr in the camp's kindergarten bathrooms.

It was obvious that Anton Brunner and his wife Anna, were the life of the party. They were charismatic people who were proud of their German heritage, and these images as well as the stories told by their children demonstrate their love of music, socialising and dancing.

Anton Brunner used to wear his national costume “ Lederhosen' with pride and according to his son Butzi (Anton Jnr) he had a fantastic yodelling voice and was often asked to perform and do the 'plattler' dance at Shire Council functions in the old Town Hall.I

Footnote:

Anna was interviewed in 2018, for the Benalla Migrant Camp Short Film (link on this website). In her interview Anna explains what it was like to be a German when her family migrated to Australia, shortly after the Second World War.


Submitted 23rd April 2020 by Anita Elberts nee Bruns (Aivars’ daughter)

THE BRUNS STORY 

This information was gathered from the stories and records of my dad, Aivars Aldis Bruns and his sister Rasma Eimanis (nee Bruns).

Dad left Latvia with his mum, Austra Bruns and younger sister, Rasma on his 10th birthday in 1944. Dad’s father, Martins Bruns was a senior lieutenant in the Latvian Army and had managed to secure a place for his family on the last army ship leaving Riga. As refugees, they initially lived in the small farming community of Pokrent, Germany, where my dad’s younger brother Juris was born in 1945. With the arrival of the American Army in Germany, dad’s family was moved to a displaced persons camp in Lubeck, where they spent 5 years. Towards the end of this time they ended up in a camp in Fallingbostel. As they were one of the last few families remaining at this camp, they were included on a plane to Australia, that was meant to be for pregnant women and very young families. The plane, which was named “The Flying Tiger” flew out of Bremen airport in Germany and landed in Sydney. From here dad’s family travelled by train to Bonegilla. That was a month before Christmas of 1950.

After a couple of months, dad and his mum and two younger siblings were transferred to Benalla migrant camp. Dad’s father was sent to Sydney to work for the Metropolitan Sewerage and Drainage Board, where his job was to dig trenches. As dad was 16 years old, he was considered an adult and had to complete the two year Australian Government work contract. He was assigned to work for Army Canteen Services in Benalla. In his free time he earnt extra money picking pears and peaches for local fruit growers. Dad’s mum secured a job at the Italian clothing factory “Latoof and Callil” in Benalla. She did piece work, sewing pyjamas for Coles stores. Dad’s younger brother went to kinder at Benalla migrant camp. His sister was 13 years old at the time, and was enrolled in Year 1 at Benalla High. She recalls having to catch a bus to high school and finding it very hard to fit in. The European migrants were called “Balts” by the other students. She couldn’t speak English and struggled with the text books and history exams. On the other hand, she did quite enjoy the practical classes such as cooking and needle work. She said that the practical classes got her through high school. There is a photo of dad and his sister and their father standing outside the school bus in the website photo gallery.

(Inserted by Sabine Smyth: One of the Bruns photos shows the ‘’Blue Terror’’ (as recalled by Aivars Bruns on his visit to Hut 11), a blue bus that lived at the camp and was used to drive the migrant camp children to the public secondary school.)

During his time at Benalla migrant camp, dad lived in the staff quarters with a friend, while his mum and two younger siblings were allocated one room in the curved tin barracks. Dad’s sister recalls it being extremely hot in the barrack. There was no insulation and the floor was bare concrete. They shared communal showers and toilets in a corrugated iron toilet block. They had their meals in a large communal dining room. The food was simple, and often included lamb chops, which were very fatty and quite foreign to the traditional Latvian diet. There was a big hall with a camp canteen opposite to it. Dad’s sister recalls the canteen being more like a milk bar that sold icecream and milkshakes.

Social gatherings and dances were held in the big hall. The Latvians at the camp started a Latvian folk dancing group and the young people would take part in rock and roll dances in the hall. It was at one of these dances that dad’s sister met her future husband. They also travelled to another hall on the outskirts of Benalla to attend square dancing evenings with the local community.

After about a year, dad’s father was able to secure a position as a camp inspector at Benalla migrant camp and moved back from Sydney. His position also meant that the family was allocated a slightly more spacious 2 room “apartment” in the square staff barracks. Their new rooms were closer to all the amenities. Dad’s father went to great pains to personalise their little home. He built a small picket fence and decorated the front with vines. There is a photo of dad’s mum and two younger siblings outside their Benalla migrant camp home in the website photo gallery.

After two years of working in the army canteen, dad was allowed to go back to high school. He completed his matriculation at Benalla High in 1954. A year later dad’s family left Benalla and moved to Fawkner (on the outskirts of Melbourne), where they bought their own house and dad started working for the Country Roads Board, whilst studying subjects towards a Civil Engineering Diploma in the evenings. The friendships with other Latvian families that had been made during their  time at Benalla Migrant Camp were strong and impactful, and continued in their social and Latvian Community life for many, many years.

Written by Anita Elberts (nee Bruns)