RETURN TO BONEGILLA
On the border of NSW and Victoria, Lee Mylne previews the 60th birthday celebrations of a historic migrant camp
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.koendidda.com.au. www.bonegilla.org.au www.destinationalburywodonga.com.au
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