On the border of NSW and Vic­to­ria, Lee Mylne previews the 60th birth­day cel­e­bra­tions of a his­toric mi­grant camp

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

WERE you here?’’ The ques­tion, from the only other tourist, is quiet and some­what wist­ful. She looks at me in­quir­ingly and I know im­me­di­ately that, un­like me, she has been to Bonegilla be­fore.

As one of about 320,000 im­mi­grants whose first im­pres­sion of Aus­tralia was life in a mi­grant camp near the NSW-Vic­to­ria border, Chris­tine Aarts has made time dur­ing her hol­i­day for a pil­grim­age back to Bonegilla.

Aged 11 when she ar­rived from The Nether­lands with her par­ents and six sib­lings in 1951, Aarts says she has few mem­o­ries of the month her fam­ily, the van Soests, spent here. But, as with many oth­ers, some­thing has drawn her back.

De­cem­ber marks the 60th an­niver­sary of the ar­rival af­ter World War II of the first ‘‘ dis­placed per­sons’’ at the Bonegilla mi­grant re­cep­tion cen­tre. The cen­tre, on the out­skirts of Al­bury-Wodonga, is in the early stages of de­vel­op­ment as a mu­seum and the twin cities will hold cel­e­bra­tions at the end of this year for the place some­times called the El­lis Is­land of Aus­tralia.

In 1947, a large, dis­used army camp was turned into the De­part­ment of Im­mi­gra­tion Re­cep­tion and Train­ing Cen­tre to house newly ar­rived dis­placed per­sons from Europe. Af­ter weeks at sea and a long, slow train trip, their first ex­pe­ri­ence of Aus­tralia was Bonegilla sid­ing, a bare plat­form in dry open bush.

Bonegilla be­came Aus­tralia’s largest and long­est run­ning re­cep­tion cen­tre, tak­ing in more than half the dis­placed per­sons who ar­rived be­fore 1953 and large num­bers of nonEnglish-speak­ing as­sisted mi­grants and other refugees be­tween 1951 and 1971.

Most came from Ger­many, with many also from Poland, Yu­goslavia, Latvia, Ukraine, Hun­gary, Lithua­nia, Cze­choslo­vakia, Es­to­nia, Rus­sia and Ro­ma­nia.

Aus­tralia’s first im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter, Arthur Cal­well, dubbed the first ar­rivals in De­cem­ber 1947 — 839 men and women from Es­to­nia, Latvia and Lithua­nia — ‘‘ the beau­ti­ful Balts’’.

‘‘ It was a very stage-man­aged ar­rival be­cause they didn’t want the Aus­tralian pop­u­la­tion to be scared by a large group of non-English peo­ple ar­riv­ing,’’ says his­to­rian Bruce Pen­nay, of Charles Sturt Univer­sity, one of the driv­ing forces be­hind the Bonegilla an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions, which are sup­ported by fund­ing from the Vic­to­rian Gov­ern­ment and Her­itage Vic­to­ria.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of pre­dom­i­nantly non-English-speak­ing fam­i­lies, rep­re­sent­ing more than 30 na­tion­al­i­ties, spent time liv­ing in the old bar­racks at Bonegilla, al­though it’s un­likely any of them called it home. Ac­com­mo­da­tion was ba­sic, with com­mu­nal bath­rooms (most with pit toi­lets) and kitchens as well as a hospi­tal, church huts, cin­ema and sport­ing fields. It was iso­lated and self­con­tained, and some­times had a larger pop­u­la­tion than Wodonga.

Only rem­nants re­main of Block 19, one of 24 ac­com­mo­da­tion blocks; it is be­ing con­sid­ered for in­clu­sion on the Na­tional Her­itage List. The un­lined cor­ru­gated-iron huts and kitchen area, once full of life, are quiet now.

In part of one build­ing, the lo­cal Dutch com­mu­nity has cre­ated an ex­hi­bi­tion, Where Wa­ters Meet, based on a book by Mar­i­jke and Dirk Eys­bertse.

A brown card­board suit­case sits at the end of a ‘‘ farm-gate’’ bed, wire mesh topped with a thin mat­tress and the grey army blan­ket that each ar­rival was given, along with a mug, plate and set of cut­lery. Any­thing that was lost had to be paid for. The food was ‘‘ mut­ton for break­fast, lunch and tea’’, to their de­spair. On the wall hangs a poem, The­Be­gin­ning : With­nail­she­fixed­his­pho­to­graph in­Bonegillaon­the­wall, be­tweenawind­mil­land­some­clogs an­daneigh­bour’sshawl. Twosuit­cas­esun­derthebed his­newha­ton­thechair. Thi­sis­the­wayhe’ll­startafresh, with­fourset­sof­clean,white un­der­wear The in­ter­pre­ta­tion cen­tre, which opened in 2005, is called the Be­gin­ning Place. It fea­tures a lis­ten­ing wall, with the recorded voices of mi­grants telling their sto­ries. At the end of the wall there is a space to sit and watch im­mi­gra­tion de­part­ment news­reels from the 1950s and a short film out­lin­ing the his­tory of the cen­tre. Brochures de­tail­ing a self-guided walk are avail­able. In an­other struc­ture, a cafe built as part of the $2 mil­lion de­vel­op­ment sits for­lorn, the lack of reg­u­lar vis­i­tors mak­ing it un­vi­able for now. They trickle in, with the odd or­gan­ised tour bring­ing larger num­bers.

‘‘ Last Aus­tralia Day week­end five buses of Greeks from Melbourne ar­rived,’’ says Pen­nay, who be­lieves the im­mi­gra­tion pro­gram caused ‘‘ the most far-reach­ing de­mo­graphic change in Aus­tralia since the gold rush’’.

To­day, he says, more than 1.5 mil­lion Aus­tralians have a di­rect fam­ily or per­sonal con­nec­tion with Bonegilla.

Pen­nay pro­nounces the name as Bonegilla, while oth­ers — in­clud­ing those who lived at the camp — say Bonny-gilla. When I ques­tion him, he tells me Bone-gilla is the Abo­rig­i­nal word for ‘‘ where wa­ters meet’’; in this case, the Mitta Mitta, the Murray and the Kiewa rivers. But some­where along the line, the Euro­pean mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion stuck.

If the un­var­ied meat-and-pota­toes diet was a source of dis­may to the mi­grants, they soon set about putting things right. Many of them stayed in Al­bury-Wodonga af­ter leav­ing Bonegilla and set up restau­rants, cafes, del­i­catessens and smoke­houses to pro­vide familiar food to home­sick ar­rivals.

Lutz Peters, who was two when he ar­rived with his par­ents in 1952, runs the small­go­ods busi­ness that his fa­ther, Paul, es­tab­lished af­ter leav­ing the camp. Paul Peters was a mas­ter butcher in Ger­many and soon found work in Al­bury. He and a part­ner, Ir­win Grabbe, be­gan a butch­ery and small­go­ods-mak­ing busi­ness that sup­plied the Bonegilla camp kitchens and later ex­panded into four shops in Al­bury and Wodonga.

‘‘ They em­ployed 15 peo­ple at one point and when they needed a good butcher my fa­ther would go out to Bonegilla. He em­ployed quite a few peo­ple from there and my par­ents also gave peo­ple a place to stay when they left Bonegilla,’’ Lutz Peters says from be­hind the counter of Peters & Son, in the Wodonga sub­urb of Lav­ing­ton. The shop does a brisk trade among the many peo­ple of Aus­trian and Ger­man de­scent who live in the area.

‘‘ My fa­ther cre­ated a mar­ket for veal and small­go­ods; there was noth­ing in the way of that for them be­fore. He saw the op­por­tu­nity and had am­bi­tions to have his own busi­ness,’’ Lutz says. ‘‘ I was born in Ber­lin, which was un­der Rus­sian con­trol, and who knows what might have hap­pened.’’

At Sch­midt’s Straw­berry Win­ery at Al­lans Flat, out­side Wodonga, a third gen­er­a­tion of the Sch­midt fam­ily is car­ry­ing on the busi­ness es­tab­lished by their grand­fa­ther Jo­hann af­ter he left Bonegilla in 1956. Since 1975, the fam­ily has been pro­duc­ing straw­berry wines and liqueurs as well as farm-fresh ber­ries in sea­son.

Bonegilla’s lo­ca­tion, not far from the Hume Dam on the Murray River, was a bonus for fam­i­lies, with many en­tries in the vis­i­tors’ book re­call­ing swim­ming in the dam and pic­nics on its banks. Bonegilla and the Hume Dam (now Lake Hume) are just two of what Pen­nay calls ‘‘ jew­els on a neck­lace’’ to be dis­cov­ered in the Al­bury-Wodonga re­gion, fol­low­ing a 30km loop start­ing and end­ing at the her­itage-listed Al­bury rail­way sta­tion.

A $13 mil­lion mu­seum and cul­tural cen­tre for Al­bury, which opened last month, is the new home for the Bonegilla col­lec­tion. The cul­tural precinct in­cludes a new in­te­grated Al­bury City Li­brary Mu­seum, an up­graded and ex­panded Al­bury Re­gional Art Gallery, the Con­ven­tion and Per­form­ing Arts Cen­tre and the Murray Con­ser­va­to­rium of Mu­sic. Lee Mylne was a guest of Tourism NSW.


The Bonegilla Mi­grant Ex­pe­ri­ence Her­itage Park is on Still­man Road, off Bonegilla Road, about 12km from Wodonga. Guided tours, run by a for­mer Bonegilla res­i­dent, and ac­cess to Block 19 build­ings can be ar­ranged through the Al­bury-Wodonga Gate­way Vis­i­tor In­for­ma­tion Cen­tre, phone 1300 796 222. Cel­e­bra­tions to mark the 60th an­niver­sary of the open­ing of the mi­grant camp will be held on De­cem­ber 8-9. There is a wide range of ac­com­mo­da­tion in Al­bury-Wodonga: Koen­didda Coun­try House, in the Indigo Val­ley near Yackan­dan­dah, is a Ge­or­gian man­sion built in the 1850s, with dou­ble rooms from $235 to $290 a night, in­clud­ing break­fast. More: www.koen­ www.des­ti­na­tion­al­bury­

A new life: Clock­wise from left, a bed­room re-cre­ated in Block 19; chil­dren at play in the late 1950s; bath day; a sculp­ture out­side Block 19; and shar­ing a laugh on wash­ing day

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.