THE sharp grass seeds became embedded in my socks and occasionally punctured my skin. Rough stones lay over the ground and a group of Friesians looked at us curiously. Overhead, green rosellas chattered as they took flight from the nearest grey box eucalypt. A prevailing wind blew across the fields and seemed to chase white clouds across the otherwise bright blue sky. We were a few kilometres from Tatura, a small township in the heart of NSW’s Goulburn Valley, on the site of what was once Internment Camp 3.
On September 28, 1940, with my parents and about 270 other Austrian and German refugees, I had been brought here as an enemy alien. Only two days earlier, we had set eyes on beautiful Sydney Harbour for the first time, from the deck of the great Queen Mary, then the largest ship afloat. It had taken seven days to sail from Singapore, our island refuge following the rise of Nazism.
Recently, as I walked among the cattle, I visualised the spartan corrugated huts arranged in neat rows that had once covered this farmer’s field. I found myself looking around for the barbed wire fences that figured in most of my father’s drawings. It was hard to imagine that we lived here for nearly two years. Yet this was the cradle of my memories, where my toddler mates and I had sung rhymes, played games and squabbled over a few meagre toys. This was where I had helped my father tend the flower beds.
These and other memories flooded back as I sat on stone remains, watching horses grazing in yellowing fields that seemed to stretch endlessly to the horizon. I picked up the jagged fragment of a chunky beer glass, probably once used by our guards. There was one guard for every five inmates. Somewhat intimidated by the rifles slung over their shoulders, I nevertheless presented them with camp-grown flowers, but when they came to inspect the hut for clandestine radios or cameras I huddled in bed closer to my mother.
That night there was no moon, but the stars lit up the night sky. I saw again the floodlit internment camps over the rise — the seven camps round Tatura, Rushworth and Murchison were the only pinpoints of light in a valley blacked out for the war. But enemy bombers would not attack this target and we were safe in what would become our new homeland. No wonder my father wrote in 1941, Tatura ist ein paradies (Tatura is a paradise).
Back home in Melbourne, I picked the last grass seeds out of my socks and placed the beer glass fragment on the front porch and pondered how Internment Camp 3 near Tatura had assumed a new reality in my mind.