Bonegilla …
as their parents
learned the Fresh Start music:
physicians nailing crates,
attorneys cleaning trams,
the children had one last
ambiguous summer holiday.
Les Murray, ‘Immigrant Voyage’ from Ethnic Radio: poems,
Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1977.
Between 1947 and 1971 about 309 000 people arrived in Australia via the Bonegilla
Reception and Training Centre in North-east Victoria. Bonegilla was the largest and
longest-lived post-war migration reception centre. It usually accommodated about
3 000 people, but could and did hold as many as 7 700 at one stage. Almost all were
drawn from non-British European countries.
Bonegilla was a young person’s place. Very few of the adults were over 35 years-ofage. Sometimes as many as one in three of the migrants and refugees were under 16.
Migration was generally a preserve of the young.
1. How did Australia try to meet the challenges involved in the reception of children,
teenagers and young adults as part of its post-war mass immigration program?
2. How do those who were young remember their arrival experiences at Bonegilla?
Front cover: 98.332 Albury LibraryMuseum (ALM)
Policies, facilities and services
Prizing the young
In the immediate post-war years Australia
wanted to increase the size of its population:
a large workforce would boost economic
development; more people could better defend
the country. The most desirable migrants were
work-ready young men and women from the
United Kingdom and from Europe. They would
help the nation with its immediate post-war
reconstruction needs. Those yet too young for
the workforce were a longer-term investment
in population growth. Even though there was a
post-war baby boom, the Government remained
anxious to address demographic problems
arising from the low birth-rate during the
depression and war years. Young immigrants
would overcome the decline in youthful age
Herald-Sun Photographic Display, ALM.
A carefully selected group of 839 young men and
women arrived at the newly opened Bonegilla Reception
and Training Centre in December 1947. They were
plainly meant to illustrate to the Australian public
the kind of attractive and industrious young migrants
who wanted to come to Australia from the European
Displaced Persons’ camps. The average age was about
23years: seven of them were less than 18 and one, Irina
Vasins, was a 14 year-old girl.
As a priority Australia sought employable
young men and women from the United
Kingdom. It also entered an agreement with the
International Refugee Organisation to take in
non-British Displaced Persons, first selecting the
young and able. It accepted displaced families
from mid-1948, and the number of children
arriving increased rapidly after April 1949 until
the scheme ended in 1953. Overall children
comprised 25% of all the Displaced Persons
Australia accepted. More were born after their
parents arrived.
Border Morning Mail (BMM) 2 July 1949.
When Arthur Calwell visited Bonegilla in July 1949 he
‘had a word for every child he passed.’ These were ‘the
little boys and girls whose courage and valour might
in the future be needed with that of the children of
native-born Australians to preserve this country if ever
it is attacked.’
Publicists selected children to present positive images of
immigration as program milestones. Left, Maira Kalnins,
aged 7, Latvia 1949 was selected to be the 50 000th
Displaced Person and, then, Isobel Saxelby, Great Britain
aged 6, was selected to be the 100 000th post-war
Children were prized as it was thought they
would be readily adaptable.
A surge in migrant numbers from 1948 to 1951
put pressure on reception centres like Bonegilla.
To make way for the increased number of new
arrivals, it became imperative to move people
out to workplaces as quickly as possible. Yet,
family accommodation remained difficult to
find. Consequently holding centres were opened
to accommodate dependants when there was
no workplace accommodation near a family’s
breadwinner. The holding centres were usually
in former air force and army camps in a wide
scatter of country towns. Women and children
were sent from Bonegilla to Holding Centres in
places such as Uranquinty, Cowra, Scheyville
and Parkes (NSW), Benalla, Somers and
Rushworth (Vic).
‘When we bring alien children here
they can be more readily assimilated,
will learn English and will absorb the
Australian point of view more quickly than
adults.’ Arthur Calwell, Commonwealth
Parliament Debates (CPD) May 1945.
‘Their children who are attending
Australian schools will grow up
Australian.’ BMM 28 May 1949.
‘Some of the adults will never learn the
language, but it is the children we look to.
They will make the best migrants.’ Henry
Guinn, Director of Greta, 1953.1
The surge in numbers put pressure on schools.
So, for example, enrolments at Wodonga primary
schools doubled between 1948 and 1951. There
were insufficient classrooms, and classes had to
be held in church halls. Parents were alarmed at
class sizes of 70.
‘Of all the migrants Australia desired,
the best were children who were of
an impressionable age and who could
be moulded to the Australian way of
life.’ Alexander Downer, Minister for
Immigration, 1958. CPD 14 August 1958
Young workers were needed and they could
be expected to settle quickly into jobs where
they would learn and follow Australian ways.
Classrooms and playgrounds would help the
nation absorb the children, the most malleable
of the new arrivals.
Meeting the challenges of receiving
young displaced persons
Providing for young new arrivals
Initially reception facilities and services for the
children did not match the welcoming rhetoric.
The Army Camp at Bonegilla was equipped to
accommodate fit young adult men and women.
Army indentured food did not meet the needs
of children. Language classes were designed for
adult workers. There were no playgrounds.
96.123, 96.99 ALM
Many of their children of migrants employed at
Bonegilla initially attended nearby Mitta Junction
School where they joined in the full range of school
NAA A12111, 49/22/12
As a result of the 1949 health scare measures
were taken to improve not only the hospital but
also the accommodation facilities for children.
Blocks were set aside for families with very
young children. Newly renovated family huts
were heated and equipped with a hot plate and
bassinettes. Parents had access to a refrigerator
in each block. The block kitchens got additional
supplies of eggs and milk. Parents with young
children could use a special infants feeding room
at flexible times.
‘Mr Jobling, School Inspector explained to
Wodonga Mothers’ Club that there were
no plans to provide separate schools for
migrant children. ‘… It was desirable that
migrant children should become “part of
our own country” and they should mix with
Australian children…. Who would want it
otherwise?’ BMM 15 February 1951.
In September 1949 there was a health scare.
Recently arrived children died: 19 in all, 13 of
them at Bonegilla. There was a flurry of activity
to explain that all was well at Bonegilla. An
inquiry found that children suffering from
gastro-enteritis had been on a ship-board diet of
boiled water for a prolonged time. The inquiry
was also critical of how the Bonegilla hospital
was under-staffed and inadequately equipped.
By January 1953 immigration authorities
were boasting ‘Child Migrants Have Put
On Weight! Many of the migrant children
attending the National Fitness School at
Bonegilla were too fat to take part.’ BMM 8
January 1953.
Calwell told Parliament that, ‘The deaths are tragic
reminders of the conditions of privation under which
children are still forced to live in war-devastated
Europe… [The deaths] should encourage Government
‘to redouble [its] efforts to bring to Australia as many
as possible of these innocent victims of war’s cruel
aftermath…’ CPD 7 September 1949, p.5.
Herald-Sun photographic display, ALM.
The health scare of 1949 increased awareness that
more children die during war and its aftermath from
starvation or illness than from violence. Displaced
children from former war zones were vulnerable.
Herald-Sun photographic display, ALM.
Health official explained that Bonegilla
Reception Centre took special care
of children who showed signs of
malnutrition. A nourishing diet was
supplied. There was a 200-bed hospital
staffed with two doctors and eight
Australian nurses. They were assisted
by a nursing and domestic staff of
over 100 migrants, including six who
were practising doctors in Europe and
others with nursing experience whose
qualifications were not recognised in
Receiving families
Not everybody was convinced that Australia
should be encouraging immigrants other than
those who were work-ready. They argued that
workers who came with dependants were more
expensive for government to support than
single workers. It was difficult to place men
and women with families in employment, as the
housing shortage made it difficult to get family
accommodation. Further, government had to
supply education, hospital and other social
services to support dependants. Nevertheless,
the Australian Government persisted with family
migration. Young single workers might suit the
needs of the workforce, but families seemed to be
a long-term investment in population-building.
Displaced women who were widows, deserted
wives or unmarried mothers with children
were often redeployed specifically to Benalla.
Authorities worried that they would become
long-term residents as their job prospects were
low. At Benalla some factory work was available
to them.
The absence of a mother meant that inappropriate
responsibilities were often thrust on children,
particularly daughters.
Mr Lalic, Yugoslavia 1948, arrived as one
of several displaced men without wives
but with young children. He found a job
working on the Snowy River Scheme, but
was unable to provide accommodation
for all of his six children. He took his two
eldest boys, Steven, 14, and Merko, 10,
with him to Cooma. This left his eldest
daughter, Milicia, 13, to care for his other
daughters Ljubica, 8, and Boja, 2 and his
other son Ranki, 6 at Uranquinty. Milicia
did that until she married in 1950. That
left Ljubica to look after the youngest two.3
‘Family migration is best for both adults
and youngsters. Adults can be helped to
settle down through their children, and
young migrants whose parents are with
them tend to do better here than those
without family ties.’ Immigration Advisory
Council Report, 1960.2
Not all the accompanied children arrived or
stayed in cohesive family groups. Australia
accepted non-British children only if they
arrived as members of a family. Nevertheless,
at least two groups of unaccompanied youths
were directed to Bonegilla. The first group of
unaccompanied displaced youths, aged 16 and
17, appeared at Bonegilla towards the end of
1949. They were orphaned street kids. Regarded
as the ‘toughest bunch’ they became the
charge of Jerzy Sikorski as mentor and liaison
officer. Sikorski had the reputation of being a
stern multi-lingual disciplinarian. After a few
weeks they passed to the care of Child Welfare
Departments in NSW and Victoria, which were
to place them principally in rural work. Another
similar group of unaccompanied young refugees
arrived in 1957 after the Hungarian uprising.
They were sponsored by the Federal Catholic
Immigration Committee, which arranged for
their employment and accommodation.
It was not uncommon for families to fall apart.
Some parents found that they had to pass over
job opportunities because the accommodation
that accompanied the job was inadequate for
their family. A few placed their older children
with institutions or put them up for adoption.
Separation of dependants to holding centres
placed pressure on fragile marital relationships
and parents sometimes went separate ways.
Government expected the churches to assist
the newly arrived. Resident chaplains from
a variety of denominations, but principally
from the Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian and
Orthodox churches, offered pastoral care and
support. Unlike other migrant donor countries,
the Netherlands provided welfare officers who
lived and worked at Bonegilla and provided
assistance to Dutch assisted migrants. From
about 1951, when assisted migrants began to
arrive, qualified social workers were appointed to
help individual families work through problems.
Displaced men and women, with children but
without partners, proved difficult to place in jobs
and accommodation. Displaced men who needed
child carers were sent to Holding Centres.
Improving conditions for young
assisted migrants
plainly impressed with what they saw on their
inspection of Bonegilla. It would continue to be
Australia’s major reception centre.
In December 1950 the Commonwealth
Immigration Planning Council and the
Immigration Advisory Council held a rare
joint meeting at Bonegilla. Together they
made arrangements for Australia to enter
into agreements to receive more non-British
migrants as the Displaced Persons scheme drew
to a close. The non-British would be welcomed
as assisted migrants, but they would still
be directed to reception centres and then to
workplaces. The immigration authorities were
Assisted migrants, even more than displaced
persons, tended to migrate as family units
rather than as single young adults. About half
of all assisted migrants arrived as members of
a family. To meet their needs and, indeed, to
continue to attract them, the Department of
Immigration began to give greater attention to
how it provided for the reception of children.
NAA A12111, 51/20/16.
NAA A12111, 51/20/18.
Children performed a special concert for visiting
immigration authorities.
Official visitors were pleased with the care provided for
children at Bonegilla.
BMM 26 July 1952.
A Dutch family unpacks in a recently renovated accommodation unit in 1952. The crudely
finished army huts were divided into private cubicles as part of the improvements to attract
and retain assisted migrants. Unlike the huts, the cubicles were lined, ceilinged and painted.
Caring for the very young
At Bonegilla newly arrived assisted migrants
insisted from the start on better arrangements
for their children. The Dutch, one of the first
groups of assisted migrants, organised informal
school classes conducted by volunteer parents.
A primary school opened at Bonegilla in 1952,
but initially enrolled only the children of resident
staff. In 1953 a class began to help transient
children with English. A crèche was established
to care for the very young when their mother was
hospitalised. Pre-school kindergartens began for
those over two and a half. The crèches and the
kindergartens had qualified staff. They were
equipped with appropriately sized children’s
furniture, toilets and wash basins. The migrants
themselves used money from an amenities fund,
which drew on profits from the canteen and the
cinema, to provide decorative murals and even
a toy house. They established a hobby hut for
boys and girls. The Department of Immigration
installed outdoor play equipment, including
sand pits, swings and slippery dips. Trees were
NAA A12111, 56/22/58
Dawson photograph album ALM.
Dawson photograph album ALM.
NAA A12111, 49/22/24.
Pre-schools, kindergartens and schools played
important roles in helping to assimilate both
the children and their parents. They provided
opportunities for the children to acquire
language and social skills. Teachers encouraged
parents to support their children’s schooling.
They invited mothers to social meetings. They
visited them and encouraged them to take part
in school and community activities. They issued
newsletters that gave advice, for example, on
the choice of children’s winter clothes.
‘Pre-school training is essential to
the migrant child to ensure that he [/
she] enters school life with confidence.
Confidence that will be gained by a
familiarity with the Australian way of
life and language and a feeling that he [/
she] is on a fairly equal footing with the
Australian child, a footing which may well
colour his [/her] whole future life.’ Olga
Leschen, Social Worker, 1952.4
Migrants urged the employment of special
teachers to give intensive language training
in small groups at school. In 1970 the
Commonwealth took action and provided
financial assistance to meet the costs for
preparing and supporting teachers of special
classes for migrant children. This aid flowed
after Bonegilla closed. Even later, from 1978 on,
new emphasis was put on teaching and learning
ethnic/ community languages.
BMM 21 August 1959.
BMM 21 August and 1 October 1959.
children on
excursions to
Wodonga to see a
bakery or to learn
about trains.
‘Our New Citizens –And They Come
From Sweden.’ Transient children,
whose parents were awaiting a
work placement, had separate
classes during the few weeks they
were at Bonegilla. The classes
focused on teaching English and
‘the Australian way of school life’.
The special classes were still large.
Four teachers taught 150 in 1959.
Recreation officers organised leisure activities
for reception centre residents, paying particular
attention to the young with games and
competitions at the YWCA, sports days, concerts
and dances. Special occasions warranted special
attention at school and through the Centre as a
whole. School concerts for parents and visitors
were carefully prepared. There were a variety of
Christmas and Easter celebrations according to
different national traditions. Birthday (or name
day) celebrations did not vary as much.
Government emphasised the role parents had to
play in helping their children.
Government inquiries in 1956 worried that
‘migrant parents tend naturally to cherish
much of their old life – the costumes,
culture and language of their homeland.
Some carry this too far. Their children also
err, and too often tend to reject completely
anything which is not Australian.’
96.1449 ALM
An inquiry in 1960 found that ‘most
[migrant children] settle down more
quickly and apparently more easily than
we had expected’. Most teachers estimated
it took one to two years ‘to settle down’.
Nevertheless, they emphasised the
importance of acquiring, English if young
people were to participate in the social
life of the school and the community.
The report urged a national campaign to
encourage parents to speak English in the
home ‘for their children’s sake’.5
98.326 ALM
A survey of NSW schools in 1968-69 prompted
further inquiries into the education and needs
of migrant children. Again knowledge of English
was seen as the prime factor determining the
ability of young people to settle easily. Up to 37
per cent of primary school pupils and 20 per cent
of secondary school pupils were reported to be
having language difficulties.6
98.391 ALM
98.201 ALM
Recreational facilities and organised events
provided healthy diversionary activities that
helped the idle avoid mischief and trouble. But
they were also part of the assimilation process
appropriate to a ‘Reception and Training
Centre’. It seemed that an effective way to
achieve assimilation was to help the young
mingle with others. Through games and play
they would ‘settle in’, ‘adapt’, ‘make themselves
at home’. ‘feel one of the gang’. Hopefully they
would eventually ‘develop a sense of belonging’.
They would ‘feel attachment to Australia’.
about eight times. The Border Morning Mail
saw that occasion as a lesson for the children, a
demonstration of all the freedoms of democracy’.7
At Bonegilla the young were becoming BritishAustralians and the framed pictures of the
Queen in all pre-school and school classrooms
helped them accommodate to that idea.
During the 1960s facilities and services for the
young were improved further. Indeed, publicists
took many photos to boast of the kind of care
available in migrant accommodation centres for
the young who were newly arrived. These photos
might attract potential immigrants. They might
also reassure the Australian public that the
nation was taking good care of the health and
well-being of its youngest new arrivals.
Some celebrations involving the young at
Bonegilla were directly intended to help
them assimilate by addressing their national
allegiances. In 1953 there were coloured
lights, fireworks and a gala dance to celebrate
the Coronation. For the children there was a
sports day, party food, balloons, a medal and
free afternoon films. The Border Morning Mail
decided that the enthusiasm for the celebrations,
‘show how ready these people are to accept
British traditions and institutions’. In 1954 five
buses carried Bonegilla children to Benalla for
the Royal visit. On the way the children sang the
National Anthem, ‘God Save the Queen’, ‘lustily’
A film, ‘A World of Children’, produced in 1961
by the Children’s Library and Crafts Movement,
showed children enjoying Bonegilla as one great
playground. The film reassured anybody anxious
about absorbing large numbers of non-British
people. This reception centre was working well.
The sun and river at Bonegilla helped produce
new Australian citizens.
Improving care for the very young
NAA A12111, 54/22/27.
NAA A12111, C61/22A/29.
NAA A12111, C61/22A/39.
NAA A12111, 56/22/1
Teenagers and young adults
Through the 1960s and 1970s the annual
Citizenship Conventions, which Government
organised to address arrival and settlement
issues, gave increasing attention to the support
for teenagers and young adult migrants who
may not have had a full Australian schooling.
They looked for ways to help adolescents with
English and with career development.
One departmental report found that many high
school aged migrants seemed to resent the
dislocation that came with the decision their
parents had made to migrate. Parents worried
about them growing away from their families.
Teachers and others found that, until they
learned English, some teenagers were ‘lonely,
difficult and aggressive’. In and out of school they
tended to segregate themselves from others. It
was difficult to meet their needs in overcrowded
NAA A12111, 56/22/54.
Ava and Ingrid Scheibenreif, twins aged 16, Germany
1956, attended an interview for employment in the
presence of their father the day after they arrived at
protests Special efforts were made to provide
additional recreation activities to help maintain
the morale of those forced to stay longer at
Bonegilla. Boxing tournaments and additional
volleyball and basketball competitions were
Then, as now, there were problems in finding
a clear age marker for the transition from
childhood to young adulthood. The charges for
accommodation rose progressively after a person
reached 16 years. Youth wages, particularly
for girls, were not high. After meeting
accommodation costs, young people on benefits
were frequently left with only five shillings
‘pocket money’, irrespective of age.
The Commonwealth Employment Service
provided special youth counselling. The PMG
and State Railway Departments offered jobs that
entailed training and provided accommodation.
The YWCA and the Salvation Army provided
accommodation for young people allocated work
in the cities. Migrant school leavers could access
the English language tuition opportunities open
to all adults. Government provided language
classes in workplaces, at night and via the
media. Ethnic groups provided opportunities
for the young to mix with others and make
friends in church and sporting communities.
Such measures helped ensure that those too old
to enjoy a full secondary schooling in Australia
could find friends and meaningful employment.
Many did not.
Authorities worried that young workers might
prefer to have better paid dead-end labouring jobs
than a low paid apprenticeships or traineeships.
Where parents were in unskilled jobs, language
deficiencies were ‘likely to perpetuate the low
social economic status of families’. The young
might ‘remain in unskilled jobs for the rest of
their lives’. Further, many young migrants were
not joining Australian youth organisations at
the same rate as their native-born peers.9
Children under 16 were admitted as nonworker dependants and did not have to fulfil a
two-year work contract. Over 16 they might be
permitted to continue at school if their parents
were able to provide for them, otherwise they
were directed to jobs. All males were placed as
labourers and women as domestics irrespective
of age, education, qualifications or experience.
The jobs could be distant from the places where
parents were sent. Young adults seem to have
been considered not an integral part of a family.
Younger migrant children did better. An
analysis of the Census of 1981 showed that
first-generation immigrants with primary or
secondary schooling in Australia did as well
with respect to occupational achievement as
other children. They succeeded in gaining access
to post-secondary education at a higher rate
than the rest of the Australian-born population.
With little or no schooling in Australia, nonEnglish speaking migrants, other than those
from Northern European countries, were more
heavily represented in unskilled or semi-skilled
manual work.10 Many talented people remained
misemployed. Schooling in Australia did alter
life chances.
In times of economic recession jobs were hard
to find. Young men grew impatient with delays.
They became bored and uneasy with their
prolonged stays in Bonegilla. Many took part
in loud and effective protest demonstrations
in 1952 and 1961. Emergency employment
was found for most present at the times of the
Receiving young post-war
Australia plainly prized young immigrants and
encouraged migration in family units. Initially
reception facilities and services for the children
did not match the welcoming rhetoric. Prompted
by the bad publicity associated with the 1949
health scare, immigration authorities made
changes. It was not until about two years after
the first contingents arrived that conditions for
the young improved. Even then, concern was
increasingly raised about the well-being of older
children, teenagers and young adults. At and
beyond the reception centres, young newcomers
needed assistance to learn English, to join in
community life and to find work in which they
might realise their potential. Measures taken to
meet the needs of the young had mixed success.
Meanwhile, the needs of the host society seemed
to be being met. The workforce was expanding
with young workers. The migrant young were
reported to be doing well at school. There were
few reported incidents of social tensions related
to absorbing the young. The migrant departure
rate was low especially through the 1950s. There
were encouraging rates of inter-marriage and
naturalisation. Those who had little Australian
schooling had employment and other problems.
But overall, it seemed to the authorities that,
the migrant young proved adaptable and readily
assimilated, just as politicians had predicted.
How do the young remember their reception?
Endnotes – Taking in Young Immigrants
C Keating, The History of the Army Camp and Migrant Camp at Greta, NSW Department of Urban Affairs
and Planning, Sydney, 1997, p.66.
Commonwealth Immigration Advisory Council (IAC), First Report on the Progress and Assimilation of Migrant
Children in Australia, Citizenship Convention, February 1960.
S Morris, Uranquinty Remembers, Uranquinty Progress Association, 2001, p.80 and NAA A437/1, 1949/6/385.
M-A Jordens Aliens to Citizens, Allen & Unwin, 1997, p.70.
IAC Report, Progress and Assimilation of Migrant Children, 1960.
IAC Report Migrant Youth in the Australian Community, 1971.
BMM 4 June 1953 and 6 March 1954.
IAC Report, ‘Migrant Youth Participation in Community Life’, 1965.
NAA A445, 179/9/5; SP446/1, 100.5/1PART1.
M Wooden et al, Australia immigration: a survey of the issues, AGPS, Canberra, 1994, p.168; Jock Collins,
Migrant Hands in a Distant Land, Pluto Press, Leichhardt, 1991, 2nd ed. p.12.
In 2007 the Block 19 remnant of the former
Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre was
placed on the National Heritage List. As a
result, efforts are being made to conserve the
site. The National Heritage Listing indicates the
importance not only of the buildings, but also of
the oral and written records associated with the
broadly throughout that state. She lets the
immigrants ‘speak for themselves’ but is aware
that ‘We know that the perceptions and memories
of those interviewed have been influenced by the
passage of time, by the age of the storyteller,
by the process of telling and retelling the story,
and by the retrospective understanding of the
situation.’1 The way memories are solicited and
recorded affects what people recall.
‘Bonegilla hold powerful connection for
many people in Australia…. [It] forms
an important part of Australia’s recent
collective memory and has become a
symbol of post-World War II migration.
It represents the role of Australia as the
‘host’ nation….Bonegilla and its associated
oral and written records yield insights
into post-war migration and refugee
experiences.’ Commonwealth of Australia
Gazette, 7 December 2007.
For those who were young on arrival, migration
is remembered as a family experience, recalled
through the prism of parental anecdotes and
photos, as well as through direct observation.
They recall different arrival experiences, but
there is much that is common about their
memory pieces:
• Children are skilled eavesdroppers and
voyeurs, sensitive to nuances of language and
gesture. At Bonegilla they paid close attention
to their parents’ anxieties. They were aware
of shifts in their family’s fortunes even if
they were not always sure how those shifts
might impact on their own life choices. Many,
perhaps most, tend to see Bonegilla as a place
their parents endured. The young themselves
do not seem to have been impressed with the
harshness of the buildings and surrounds, but
understand their parents’ unease.
• Children know the world more sensuously
than adults: they have eyes for the immediate
detail. They recall new sensory experiences in
what were strange surrounds at Bonegilla.
• Many young people remember migration as
a great adventure and Bonegilla as a holiday
camp where new friendships were easily
made. They generally recall unorganised play
more readily than organised recreation.
• The young who were long-resident at Bonegilla
have kinder memories than those that were
• Bonegilla was a personal transition place,
somewhere between the old and the new. It
stimulates reflection on how the newly arrived
began re-creating themselves. It reminds
them of the challenges involved in learning
English. It evokes memories of former selves
and remembrance of a variety of feelings, such
as optimism, wariness and uncertainty.
Unlike the other places that so far appear on
the National Heritage List, Bonegilla draws on
living memory. Visitors have left a large number
of photographs and memory pieces at Albury
LibraryMuseum. Many date from a reunion in
1987, others from exhibitions and festivals in
1991, 1997, 1999, 2006 and 2007. Some come
from From the Steps of Bonegilla travelling
exhibition. Most are pithy manuscript entries in
a comments book. Several are two or three pages
long. A few are longer published works.
Such memory pieces are prized as eyewitness
accounts that carry the authenticity of the direct
witness. They are the raw materials that help
humanise histories of immigration. They make
it possible to tap or reflect on the feelings and
thinking of the newly arrived. Together they
point to recurrent group preoccupations. They
indicate perceptions of the character of the
centre - its natural and cultural settings. They
explain facilities and reception processes from
the point of view of migrants.
Nonja Peters has written about migrant
experience in Western Australia, both at specific
migrant accommodation centres and more
Family fortunes depended, as always, on health,
jobs and housing. Many children remember
Mother crying. Some remember the stresses of
separation when Father was required to work
elsewhere or they had to go with Mother to a
holding centre. Some recall Father’s occupation
prior to migration, and the indignity of his
first labouring jobs, that might have involved
his working in the wood yard or cleaning the
toilets at the reception centre. Anger about the
non-recognition of overseas qualifications has
remained long after Bonegilla.
Not all families found they could cope with the
stresses migration put on intimate relations.
Some marriages fell apart. Some children
distanced themselves from their parents. Some
were made distant.
‘Tensions existed between [my father,
Romulus] and my mother [Christina],
dating back to Germany, and deepened
by her romances with other men on
board ship and now also in the camp at
Bonegilla. More than once my father was
told, “Control your wife, she is stealing our
husbands”. When a woman from Bonegilla
visited her husband [at the work camp on
the Loddon River] she told my father that I
was neglected and running wild.’ Raimond
Gaita, Germany 1950.4
‘I remember Mother being heart broken.’
Iliana, Italy 1958.
‘My Mum did not enjoy it.’ Ole, Denmark
‘It was a difficult time for my mother.’
Anita, Norway 1970.
‘Children take things in their stride,
but I can remember my mother and
the other women bursting into tears
when we first arrived at the huts that
comprised Bonegilla.’ Rudy van Acker, The
Netherlands 1952.2
The family of Stephen Klepiak aged 9,
Poland/Germany 1958, came from war-torn
Germany not as displaced persons, but as
assisted migrants. Stefan recalls becoming
street-wise in Mannheim, collecting bits
and pieces from war-ruined buildings
and stealing to get food. In a memoir, he
tells of the testy relationship he had with
his Polish father and German mother.
Virtually unsupervised at Bonegilla, he
had an exciting time. He rarely attended
school. Instead he did shopping errands in
Albury and Wodonga for the young men
he befriended at the Centre. He scrounged
coins and cigarettes. He stole food and
anything of value, as the opportunity
presented itself.
‘It was hot. A family of 7. Dad went to
Melbourne to look for a job, so we had to
stay behind for six weeks. It was a lonely
time of my mother with the children.’
Nellie d K 1953.
Michal and Vera B, Ukraine 1949,
remember the bus taking the men away
to work. ‘The women cried as they did not
know where the men were going’.
‘He was a maintenance man [with the
Water Supply Department] and very good
at it, but he never got his tradesman’s
ticket because his English wasn’t good
enough. He used to get very angry and he’d
come home and say, “Look I can fix those
things better than qualified tradesmen, but
they won’t give me the ticket even though
they know I can do the work”. I think
his pride was very badly hurt.’ Eleonora
Ventura aged 8, Italy 1954.
Pino Bosi, Italy 1951, recalls becoming
troubled when his father was allocated
work as a labourer, even though he had
been an engineering contractor employing
hundreds on road, public building and
chairlift projects in Italy.3
John Z aged 7, Czechoslovakia 1949,
remember his father lost his social service
benefits because he refused to go to Cooma.
His father did not want to be separated
from his family again, as he had been
when he was sent to a Nazi work camp.
When the next job offer did not provide
sufficient family accommodation, he
negotiated a foster agreement in Latin
with the local priest for John to go to an
Albury couple. They used Latin to make
the arrangements.
For many children Bonegilla was a break from
the usual – a holiday. Transients did not have
to go to school and had a carefree existence. The
Murray River and the open paddocks around
it provided opportunity for newcomers to
familiarise themselves with their new country.
This was Australia.
At the time and in retrospect Bonegilla seemed
to be part of what was a great adventure. Many
recall the joy of imaginative play and discovery
in a strange new place.
‘It was an adventure.’ Orfeo aged 19, Italy
1952; Panayiotis, T, Greece 1953; Renst
S Germany 1953; Sergio aged 18, Trieste
1954; Helga aged 10, Germany 1956; Hank
vd M aged 11, The Netherlands 1958; and
Klaus G, Germany 1961.
The young seem to have spent a lot of time
swimming, boating, walking, picnicking and
mucking around about Lake Hume. Family
photographs continue to associate Bonegilla
with wet cossies and bare feet.
‘I arrived with a bunch of young fellows,
all adventurous, and I think we all coped
very well and had a ball.’ Ernst Sudnik,
Germany 1953.
‘Bonegilla for kids was marvellous because
you had more freedom than you had at
home.’ Willie Barber, 1954.
‘It was part of a big adventure before
settling into a stable home again,’ Monika
aged 6, Germany 1961.
‘I always enjoyed the evenings when all
the families and their children would get
together, and go for walks etc.’ Jose aged
13, Spain 1961.
Bonegilla Holidays
96.756 ALM
97.56 ALM
96.1527 ALM
01.342 ALM
b121 ALM
Children recall fears of sunburn, swooping
magpies, nasty spiders, possums, bull ants and
snakes. Bonegilla was a place to learn about
tadpoles, lizards, dragon flies - and catapults.
Some remembered magpies carolling and crows
cawing. One remembered being startled by the
appearance of red bottle brush. Nearly everyone
remembers climbing trees.
The shower blocks were ‘airy’. One recalled
being embarrassed at the thought of being seen
by others when showering (Ines R aged 11, Italy
Many were impressed with the fierceness of the
seasons at Bonegilla.
Of a morning the hot sun would noisily
heat up the corrugated iron huts. Each
hut became ‘a tin playedagram’ with its
‘crackcrackcrackcrackcrack’. PiO aged 4,
Greece 1954.5
‘I remember playing with multi-coloured
Christmas beetles while trying to avoid
giant bull ants busily building their nest
mounds in the dry powdery earth.’ Eddie K
aged 5, Poland 1952.
‘They displayed a dead brown snake at
school which fascinated me as did the frill
neck lizards.’ Herman H aged 6, Germany
‘Just the sound of black crows each
morning waking us very early and lots
of stray cats from which we caught
ringworm.’ Phyllis K-W aged 7, South
Africa 1958.
‘We were suddenly attacked by ferocious
black and white birds that came flying low
and straight at our heads.’ Elisabeth B,
aged 6 1952.
‘A man had brought a time of jam and put
it on the ledge above his bed. By standing
on the bed I could see a possum sitting
on the ledge digging his paws into the
jam and lick, lick, lick.’ Valentia Gillard,
Ukraine 1951.
‘My sister and I were very cold and
developed lung infections. The hut was
unheatable. We were transferred to the
hospital but my little sister died.’ Flora
F-M, The Netherlands 1951.
98.225 ALM
‘Oh, I loved it. I saw a calf being born in a
paddock. I named every field and looked
at every tree. Hearing kookaburra and
magpies in the morning was Australia to
me – it still is. We saw snakes and went
fishing in the lake. It was wonderful.’
Doina (Himan) Eitler aged 10, Rumania
1949. BMM 27 June 1979.
‘At Bonegilla there were lots of rabbits and because the
food was so bad, the young men used to go and snare
rabbits and my mother would buy butter, and they’d fry
the rabbits in onions.’ Eleonora Ventura aged 8, Italy
‘As a child of ten years, it was just too
strange to understand.’ Hildegard A,
Germany 1957.
Few of the young seem to have been upset by
the rudimentary accommodation facilities at the
Centre – the eating halls, toilets and ablution
blocks. They do remember the strangeness of
having to respond to dinner bells and queuing
for meals. The deep-pit latrines left a vivid and
unpleasant memory. One remembers being
afraid of falling into the deep hole (Anon 1956).
B.1254 ALM
The young remember the food as being plentiful. Unlike
the adults, few remember it as stodgy or complain about
the frequency with which mutton was served.
The young remember food indulgences: milk
arrowroot biscuits and loads of bread, butter
and jam. They remember their first encounters
with a whole pineapple, large peaches and the
gritty pleasures of eating Milo dry from the tin.
‘Often, a loss of understanding develops
between migrant parents and their
children, who normally become fluent in
English within a short time and deficient
in their knowledge of their parents’ native
language. A “double generation gap” is
created because migrant parents and their
children lose a common language in which
to communicate freely. It leads the parents
to become confused and resentful, and the
children to feel ashamed of their parents’
imperfect English and differing outlooks
and habits.’ Arvi Parbo, Estonia 1949.7
I remember –
‘Vanilla ice cream in a tiny wee little cones.’
Valentina Gillard, Ukraine 1951.
‘Rectangular ice cream which we called
“isis crim”.’ Mauro d N, Italy 1961.
‘A truck came selling watermelons. I never
had watermelon before.’ Anne H 1952.
‘Eating sheep for the first time’. Heidilona
Bierbaumer-Albiers. The Netherlands
‘The food was good, but I didn’t like the
junket and jelly.’ Anon, 1967.
‘I thought the fruit salad was chopped up
vegetables’. Anon.
‘In the cafeteria I first encountered a
toaster, and regularly sneaked back for
more toast’. Bernhard Mittelstedt, aged 5,
Germany 1954.6
Children had to learn about the social setting
of Bonegilla as well as its natural surrounds,
smells and tastes. Living in close proximity to
strangers and sharing communal facilities was
a challenge. Children were hushed and told not
to make too much noise.
NAA A12111, 57/4/2
In 1956 Mrs Anna Stahls aged 86, Latvia, was reunited
with her daughter and grand-daughter under an Operation
Reunion scheme permitted by the Soviet Government.
Migrants had to sponsor relatives wanting to join them
in Australia and provide accommodation in places other
than reception centres. The Lutheran World Service
provided loans to help pay fares, when it could.
There was the danger of getting lost. ‘The
huts all looked the same.’ Inara K, aged 10.
‘I never felt lonely.’ Jose 13, Spain 1961.
‘Bonegilla was a great equalizer.’ Helena,
The Netherlands 1962.
‘There were many “aunties” to watch out
for me.’ Anna Piotrowski, Belgium 1950.
Children had to bridge worlds between old world
and new world languages. Elderly relatives were
unlikely to learn English.
Laime Zole, Latvia 1950, remembers
going to the cinema at Bonegilla with her
gran and whispering the story line to her
in Latvian through the show. She and
gran preferred musicals and would sing
the songs as they walked home after the
show. Her step-father insisted that Laime
become literate in her own language.
The young seemed to make the switch to English
more easily than their parents did.
‘I had to translate for my mother, and
the whole family hierarchy was upended
because I was virtually in control of what
as going on….. Now she and Dad were
dependent on us. That was very difficult.’
Eleonara Ventura aged 8, Italy 1954.
During the 1950s and 1960s there was no
special provision in schools to help newcomers
to acquire English. They were expected to pick it
up ‘sitting next to Nelly’.
‘We always speak English at home, but
I still speak Ukrainian to my father
although I am not good at it any more.’
Zeno Katschmarsky, Border Mail 13 Sept
‘We learned English under the buddy
system. One Aussie and one New
Australian had time together away from
the classroom.’ Tom G Germany 1954.
‘Our simple method was to sing to them in
English, and they were very quick to pick
up the language.’ Jack Dunn, headmaster
Bonegilla School, 1952-59, BMM 7
December 1987.
‘We did a lot of sign language to
communicate and our lessons were
mostly drama, music, games, dance and
handwriting.’ John Brissett aged 19,
teacher at Bonegilla 1968.
Jules Visser was called on to translate
the Director’s speech of welcome. The
Director always urged newcomers to learn
English as quickly as possible and to use
it often. Visser would translate this advice
but added, in the language the Director
could not follow, that they should also not
forget to teach their children their native
language. Otherwise the young would lose
contact with their homeland and their kin.
The young found ways to communicate with
others from different nations. Sometimes it was
via German, the language most likely to be held
in common when migrants came from Eastern
Europe. There were other ways, too.
From Greta came the story of a proud
headmaster telling how a Latvian girl had
impressed visitors singing nursery songs.
When she was asked to sing some from
Latvia, she said ‘I have forgotten them all’.8
‘In [my] class [at Bonegilla] there were
students from over ten different nations
and no-one could speak English, let alone
Australian. Of course, the kids all learned
a bit of each other’s languages – all the
swear words first.’ Stefan Klepiak aged 9,
Poland/Germany 1948.
Language differences carried very personal
‘The first [three] months were absolutely
horrible. The feeling of being trapped in
your own body, not being able to express
anything, or not being able to let anyone
know what you needed or how you felt or
understand anything.’ Eleonara Ventura
aged 8, Italy 1954.
‘The teacher anglicised my name to,
heaven forbid, “Shirley”. ‘Menna S Finalnd
aged 10, 1958
‘It got confusing being Christoula and
Christine at the same time’, aged 6, Greece
‘[Beyond Bonegilla] I became Margaret and
he was Jack. Jack, Jim or John, those were
the three names they gave Yugoslav men
usually. Women could become Margaret or
Maria. If you said, “My name is Branko,”
nobody would call you that. They just said,
‘You are Jack.’ You could be Small Jack,
Big Jack, or Black Jack [or] different Jims
or Johns.’ Gordana9
Border Morning Mail 21 August 1959
Playing a singing game at Bonegilla. School presented
language challenges. Non-English speaking primary
and secondary school aged children report initial
bewilderment and confusion for the first three months
and difficulties through the first years.
Those who came as secondary school
students retained an accent, principally
because phonation gets fixed at about
13 years of age.
Migrants were recruited to work at the Reception
Centre. Many migrant staff lived with their
families at Bonegilla for years. Staff families were
housed in separate more comfortable staff blocks
supplied with a richer diversity of food rations.
The children of staff attended the Centre preschool or primary school. They mixed together
while their parents attended social functions at
the Hume Public Service Club. They went on
staff club family picnics. They were more likely
than the transient young to have opportunity to
enjoy a wide range of recreational facilities and
After two weeks at Bonegilla Janina
Rozanski, Poland 1949, was sent to Cowra
where she had a baby girl. She wanted to
call her new-born daughter ‘Helen’. When
she registered the birth, the official could
not understand her and called the baby by
her name, ‘Janina’ instead.
Native-born children of policemen, chaplains,
administrative officers and others employed at
the Reception Centre add colours and shapes to
the kaleidoscope of memory fragments that are
very similar to those provided by the migrant
youth they mingled with. However, memories of
the long-resident children, like those of the longresident adults, are deep and often affectionate.
Their parents had found secure and well paid
work at the Reception Centre. They and their
families lived in a safe, secure, predictable and
familiar community. The long-resident have
generally become Bonegilla champions and
remember the achievements of the Centre with
pride. For the long-resident children, Bonegilla
has the nostalgia of being the place where they
grew up.
NAA A12111, 55/22/80
Many children remember being hospitalised, usually to
contain the spread of infectious diseases like measles,
chicken pox, whooping cough or scarlet fever. Parents
remember their hospitalisation, too.
Sometimes misunderstandings stretched beyond
language to cultural practices.
‘Every weekend [the resident staff/ migrant
and non-migrant] gathered at the [Hume
Public Service] Club, the kids all played
outside and the parents all mixed together
inside. The kids drank a lot of Coca Cola’.
Carolyn (Guinn) Stedman, daughter of
Henry Guinn, Director of the Reception
Centre, 1954-65.
‘Harriet was in Bonegilla hospital for many
months. I was only allowed to visit her
once a week on Sundays for 30 minutes. I
used to crawl on my tummy through the
grass to catch sight of her; she was out on
the veranda, you see. It was just inhuman
to do that to a mother and there were quite
a few of us.’ Inga Krain, Germany 1950.
Alf Besford, a Police Constable at Bonegilla,
1959-64, organised learn-to-swim and lifesaving
classes. He started a scout troop composed
mostly of the children of resident staff and
nearby farmers. Bonegilla scouts enjoyed the
camaraderie and challenges of survival camping
in the nearby district.
‘We lost our little girl after four months
here. She got measles and died of
meningitis. She got buried the same
day in Albury. No church service. Very
depressing for us, because they did not
ask us anything. They just arranged it the
way they liked. I am very sorry. I would
have liked her to have had the blessing
of the Church.’ Anon (via Jan Toner) The
Netherlands 1956.
‘…scouts kept them busy and out of trouble
for some time. Going camping and learning
a lot of new things, as scouts do, was very
good for the kids’. Stefan Klepiak, aged 9,
Poland/Germany 1948.
96.1409 ALM.
NAA 12111, 54/22/28
The talented Astra Ramans and Gerda Schymitzek
founded a Eurhythmic Exercise Group. Realising they
had quite a few very able youngsters in the group they
organised a pantomime, ‘Snow White and the Seven
Dwarfs’. They followed that with other productions
including ‘Scheherazade’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’.
Margaret Walker, teacher, c.1957, recalls morning
sessions at the pre-school with the children of
Reception Centre staff and afternoon sessions with the
transient children who would play happily together even
though they were each speaking a different language.
98.67 ALM
02.207.103 ALM
Bonegilla teams were frequently successful in district
competitions. ‘We had the best basketball team.’ Elles E,
Greece 1959.
A Creative Leisure Centre opened from 3.30 to 9.30pm.
It had a large library and a small theatre/hall for
basketball and indoor games. Children 6-16 years could
model with clay, sew, work with wood, cook or, later,
watch television.
96.971 ALM
A tennis court was available to resident children. They
remember being coached by parents, locals and even
by visiting tennis stars. For many, tennis was a new
glamorous sport: ‘[Before Bonegilla we thought] tennis
was the sport of the rich and famous’. Gerda Schymitzek,
Germany 1955.
98.064 ALM
The young and not so young, the long resident and
the transients played football. Being good at sport
helped win friends and esteem. It bolstered Bonegilla
community feeling.
Getting work
reasons – one, I wasn’t big and strong
enough, and two, because he knew from my
face that I was from Southern Italy…. [The
Bonegilla revolt] happened over forty years
ago but in my memory, and I’m certain
in the memories of those who were there,
those three months in a military camp, far
from our country and our dear ones, were
the worst three months of my life.’12
Bonegilla was primarily a labour exchange. It
received new arrivals and accommodated them
before they took up work placements that were
organised for them. Most young men and women
spent only four or five weeks at the Centre. Their
principal concern was with the kind of job they
would be allocated.
PiO aged 4, Greece 1950s, was too young to
remember Bonegilla, but as a playwright
and poet he has reflected critically on the
way migrants were seen as ‘industrial
cannon-fodder’ or ‘wogs for cogs’. All the
men were labourers and all the women
domestics. PiO uses typography creatively
in his poetry.
When the interview with
the Employment Officer began – he very
politely asked me
what it was I would like to do?, and I said
“If i
told you that would it make any
difference?”, and
he said [frankly speaking] “No” but
it just sounds good when I ask you that….10
Making friends
At Bonegilla, the young found companionship
readily with people of the same age. Without
transport and with little money they found ways
of entertaining themselves. Teens caught up
with other teens at the Y, the cinema and at the
canteen. A café across the road offered escape to
a world of milk shakes, coca cola and a juke box.
Walks and picnics also offered escape from the
gaze of adults even more cheaply.
Those who worked at the Reception Centre, both
the migrants and the native-born, remember
making friends readily.
‘I spoke five languages and this was
helpful. My job was as a typist, but I
also did a lot of interpreting, timesheets
and wages. My work was very varied….
Sometimes we worked overtime at the
finance office, but it was always fun. The
young men in the office showed me how
to play cricket, I was the youngest there
and everyone in the office seemed to look
out for me.’ Eleonora Conolly aged 18,
Yugoslavia 1949.
After leaving Bonegilla George Kotsiros
aged 19, Greece 1955, wanted a job
with the State Rivers Water Supply
Commission. ‘He said “What sort of job
do you want?” I said, “Anything. Pick and
shovel, jackhammer or anything at all”.
I went to the work site and they gave me a
‘I accepted things at Bonegilla as I thought
it would be temporary and I would be
out of there after one week. But as time
went on many of us become frustrated.
At the end I was told that my trade was
not recognised in this country and that in
fact the promised job did not exist. I felt
cheated.’ Giuseppe Paneghel, Italy 1952.11
‘I found this incredible mixture of
Europeans, many highly educated from
places I scarcely knew existed. I recall the
wonderful conversations, the lively dances
in the Club, the lovely days swimming in
the lake and rivers, the walks through
the very Australian countryside. Despite
mess food and tiny rooms, I loved my time
at Bonegilla.’ Joan Mitchie, language
instructor, 1955.
Giovanni Sgro aged 21, Italy 1952, was
closely involved in the unrest when there
were no jobs available in 1952. He recalls
the long wait for offer of employment, then,
feeling angry when a would-be employer
rejected him. ‘As soon as he saw me this
man knew that he didn’t want me, for two
‘The front of the canteen was also a very
important meeting place for us singles.’
Bernhard Rust aged 20, language
instructor, 1948.
Enjoying good company – and solitude – in a densely peopled place.
96.1153 ALM
96.969 ALM
03.083 ALM
B121.2 ALM
98.064 ALM
Friendships sometimes led to romance, courtship
and even marriage. Quite a few moved quickly
to early marriages. Perhaps young people felt
more confident in confronting the strange and
new if they were coupled.
B121.2 ALM
Veronika Preusche and Rolf Tesmer,
Germany 1959, lived and worked at
Bonegilla for three years. After they left
they still made their way back to get
married there, ‘as it seems like home to us’.
BMM 6 December 1967.
‘My first boyfriend in Australia. He was
German and played the guitar beautifully’
Sylvie, aged 15, The Netherlands.
Young Dutch teenage girls remember the
Greek boys living in Blocks close by ‘it was
very scary for my older sisters and myself’
Elisabeth K aged 13 and Margaretha J,
aged 18, 1962. ‘I was told to watch out
for all the single men who were there’.
Wilhemiena vd B, Netherlands 1952.
My wedding reception was at the milk bar
across the road with milkshakes and ice
cream. My father and mother lent their
rings for the ceremony. Eugenia Choinska,
Poland 1949.13
02.066 ALM
A wedding reception at Bonegilla.
However, with language difficulties and remote
from loved ones and friends, many young men
and women felt lonely.
Many tend to follow the pattern of comments
already on the page. They seem to be written for
other visitors or exhibition/ site curators.
Similar comments recur. As already explained,
many visitors recall Bonegilla as a holiday camp.
Most visitors seem to come to Block 19 to pay
tribute to their parents for the sacrifices they
made in migrating to Australia, in search of a
better life for themselves and for their children.
Many see Bonegilla as something their parents
endured. They dwell on the hard coming their
family had of it.
‘I was even propositioned by a young
Italian man who said I looked like his
mother and he wanted to marry me. He
obviously thought in his loneliness that a
wife who spoke English would be useful. I
naturally declined, but he kept on following
me around the camp. I was worried. I
asked the people in the office to send me to
Sydney. They agreed in the end, but I had
to pay the fare myself,’ Franca Arena aged
20, Italy 1959.14
Quite a few indicate they were too young to have
anything but hazy memory of the Centre. Others
have no direct memory; they were born after the
family left the Centre. Still others are children
of the children. They tell how ‘Vats Mumma
and Vats Tavis’ or ‘Oma and Opa were here’.
Bonegilla is part of family history with which
visitors seek connection. Visitors seem to come to
Block 19 Bonegilla to capture its ambience and
its implications for individual lives. They want
‘to place their parents as well as their own lives
in a historical context’.16 The search for family is
also a search for self.
‘I remember returning from a term at
Boarding School when the Centre was full
of single men. My cousin and I went to
the pictures one night to meet a couple of
girlfriends and the whole theatre turned
around and wolf whistled. I think there
were only seven females at the pictures
that night.’ Carolyn (Guinn) Stedman,
Marriage statistics in 1961 showed that about
half of the post-war migrants had partnered
with a native-born Australian. However, Italians
tended to marry each other. So did the Greeks.
Authorities became increasingly concerned
about the balance of the sexes in the young adult
migrant population. In 1967 and 1968 only 1 in
40 of all single migrants to arrive was female.
Efforts were made to broaden the opportunities
to sponsor single women from Italy and Greece.15
‘Mum and Dad left for Australia to give
me a future and a hope. For them it meant
leaving family and security. That’s love.’
Jorge G, Spain 1963, Block 19 visitor 8
April 2007.
‘I came to see where my father, Mario, first
lived in Australia. I am to grateful to my
father to have made such a huge decision
to leave Italy and to give his family a
wonderful life in Australia.’ Christine I,
1956 , Block 19 visitor 2 March 2007.
Visitor Book Memory Pieces
‘My parents hated it and were treated
badly. In spite of this they made a
wonderful life for the rest of their family
born in Australia. Thanks Mum and Dad
for your sacrifice. Anka S, 1961, Block 19
visitor 16 March 2008.
Like all pilgrims, visitors come to tell rather than
be told. The photographs and memory pieces
they have left indicate a variety of migrant
experiences related to different backgrounds,
times of arrival age and gender. Migration is
a bitter/sweet process, and the memories vary.
Some feel favourably about the reception they
and their families had at Bonegilla. Some do not.
‘My mother and father came here and
they were not happy!!! Parents came with
seven children – primitive – insult to our
culture and heritage. We were not taught
the language.’ Gerda, Block 19 visitor 8
December 2006.
Visitor book comments are brief and often made
hurriedly. They convey in bold, broad-brush
terms impressions that come quickly to mind.
in 1952 of Latvian and Polish displaced persons
and lived there until 1957. She has pondered
why so many Bonegilla stories have been told
and why her parents seemed comfortable at such
a strange place. She admires their resilience.
In her maturity she has come to regard the
centre’s impermanence as a reminder of the
unpredictability and transitory nature of so
much in life.
‘My mum says, “I hate this place” ’, Anon,
Block 19 visitor, 19 April 2009.
‘I have no memories of my time here. I do
have a real understanding of the hardships
[my parents] faced and knowledge of why
I am who I am.’ Nada P 1963, Block 19
visitor 28 February 2007.
For most [Bonegilla] has some peculiar
place in the heart, more so than one would
expect of a place one passes through….
[The buildings] have nearly all gone.
However, these empty spaces housed
people with dreams - their dreams not
of gold but respite, perhaps some sanity
and peace – the lives of people learning
new things, grasping at new threads of
happiness, streets, gatherings.
Child migrant memoirs
More considered reflections on the migrant
experience of the young appear as memoirs or
histories in print, on the web or as poems, plays
and novels. There are some thoughtful works by
post-war child migrants like Andrew Reimer,
who did not arrive via Bonegilla. There are also
the careful observations of some native-born
children that help sharpen the understandings
gathered from former residents. Such writing
indicates that the experiences of those who
arrived at Bonegilla were probably not very
different from those of people who came other
‘I have come to understand, as have so
many others, that [Bonegilla] is truly an
iconic place in the land where the “journey”
takes on so much significance for the new
Australians as well as the original ones’.18
In an autobiographical memoir, Andrew
Reimer, Hungary 1947, pondered his growing
up in an immigrant family during the years
the Bonegilla Reception Centre was operating.
Reimer observed that the first years of financial
insecurity had replaced the much greater perils
of war for his refugee family. Their unhappiness
lifted over time with improvement in family
finances and way of life. It seemed to Reimer
that ‘Language holds the key to the newcomer’s
experience. It determines the extent to which the
migrant may find a congenial place within his [/
her] new world’. He recalled ‘living in a state of
almost total incomprehension’ during the first
months of primary school. Through his teens
Reimer actively discarded the old. He aped his
peers, broadening his accent and ‘spitting with
gusto’. He feigned insatiable interest in cricket
and football in a concerted effort to become
‘indistinguishable’. Yet try as he might he found
it was impossible to wipe the slate clean: ‘your
otherness cannot be expunged’. Gradually, as
he grew older, he began ‘letting Europe back into
his life’. Reimer, like many migrant children,
saw that to survive his parents had learned
to be distrustful of others. He wondered if he
inherited their suspicious nature and general
Glenda Sluga, a daughter of migrant parents,
published the first full-scale history of Bonegilla
itself in 1988. She worried if Bonegilla’s history
might be ‘appropriated into the mainstream of
immigration history, drowning out immigrant
voices’. For her there were many Bonegilla
histories: there was ‘a myriad of voices, the
plurality of the migrant experience and the
constant renewal of cultural traditions’.19
Musings of the native-born
City-based journalists only took notice of
Bonegilla in its times of crisis – the health
scare of 1949 and the protests of 1952 and 1961.
For them it became notorious as a bleak and
unhappy place. That notoriety set the tone for
later musings. As the Reception Centre closed
in 1971, Ian Marshall, a Melbourne journalist,
penned a harsh farewell.
‘Little Europe closes its doors …. [Bonegilla
was] a little Europe in a bleak, improbable
landscape of 1941 army huts and gum
trees under a hot summer sky…. [It was] a
depressing first impression of Australia….
It wasn’t a holiday camp.’ Melbourne
Herald 2 October 1971, p.23.
Unlike Reimer, Wanda Skowronska did pass
through Bonegilla. She was born at Bonegilla
For the young, particularly for those who were
long resident, Bonegilla was not so forlorn. In
1979, eight years after Bonegilla closed, Tony
Wright, wrote a series of five memory-based
articles for the local Border Morning Mail.
He interviewed many who had remained in
the local area principally because they had
worked at Bonegilla and became long-resident
in the district. As a young man, Wright looked
to those who were now his age. He told stories
of the difficulties associated with the migrant
experience. He told of both resident and official
achievement. The reception centre got some
things right.
surrounded by the barbed wire of the former
army camps. They were learning new ways
while their children had a break before facing
the challenges of the early settlement years.
Bonegilla, Nelson Bay,
The dry-land barbed wire ships
From which some would never land.
In these, as their parents
learned the Fresh Start music;
physicians nailing crates;
attorneys cleaning trams,
the children had one last
ambiguous summer holiday.
‘An inordinate number of them [the
children] have attended university and
have entered the business and professional
worlds. They have become the reality of
their parents’ hopes and dreams when
they uprooted and took the painful step
of cultural transplantation. The Bonegilla
creative leisure centre was a garden in
which the seedlings of immigration were
allowed to grow. Australia is the land
which their fruit has flourished.’ Tony
Wright aged 25, journalist.20
Ahead of them lay
the Deep End of the schoolyard,
tribal testing, tribal soft-drinks,
and learning English fast,
the Wang Wang language.
Ahead of them, refinements:
thumbs hooked down hard under belts
to repress gesticulation.
ahead of them, epithets:
wog, reffo, Commo, Nazi,
things which can be forgotten
but must first be told….
The young remember Bonegilla
Tony Wright marvelled at a Christmas nativity play
in which no performer spoke. Mime was appropriate
when neither the performers nor the audience shared a
common language.
Those seeking family and self-in-family see
Bonegilla as a place where past and present
meet: a place from which uncertain futures
unfolded into now known fortunes. Memories
are malleable and perhaps subsequent family
and individual fortunes have pushed at and
shaped their recall. Perhaps, too, present day
community concerns about current migrant and
refugee reception processes, particularly the
setting up of detention centres, have blurred
recall of their own arrival experiences. Bonegilla,
for many, has become another place of pain and
The poet Les Murray married Valerie Morelli,
Hungary 1950, who had lived at Bonegilla
as a young person. He dedicated one of his
early collections of poetry to her and the other
displaced persons who arrived with her. Murray
empathised with migrants from war-devastated
Europe finding they were to be accommodated at
Bonegilla and Nelson Bay migrant camps, still
Memory pieces, both those hastily written and
those pondered, form patchworks. It is possible
to detect repetitions, threads, themes in the
patchworks. Like its nearest international
equivalent, America’s Ellis Island, Bonegilla
presents ‘a multi-vocal and fragmented heritage
landscape’.23 To those who experienced it, its
meanings, now as then, are ambiguous.
BMM 22 December 1968.
Endnotes – The Young Remember Bonegilla
Nonja Peters, Milk and Honey – but no Gold, 2001, pp.xiii.
D & M Eysbertse, Where Waters Meet, Erasmus Foundation, Melbourne, 1997/2006, p.30.
Pino Bosi, ‘Requiem for a Migrant Father’, Readers’ Digest, June 1974, pp56-61 quoted in AR Corkhill, The
Immigrant Experience in Australian Literature, Academia Press, Melbourne, 1995, p73.
Raimond Gaita, Romulus, My Father, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1998.
‘Mrs Jonans’ in PiO, Big Numbers, Collective Effort Press, 2008.
Migrant Stories, Immigration Bridge,
Australian Citizenship Convention press release, 11 January 1970.
C Keating, The History of the Army Camp and Migrant Camp at Greta, NSW Department of Urban Affairs
and Planning, Sydney, 1997,p.66.
W Lowenstein & M Loh, The Immigrants, Hyland House, Melbourne, 1977, p.84.
‘1/- Welcher’ in PiO, Big Numbers, Collective Effort Press, 2008.
M Moss ed. Taking a Punt, City of Darebin, 1997.
Giovanni Sgro, Mediterranean Son, Scoprire il Sud, 2000.
Monica Wiench & Elizabeth Drozd eds, Polish Migrant Stories, Australian-Polish Community Services Inc,
Melbourne 2006.
Franca Arena, ‘Recollections’ in A Curthoys et al, Australians from 1939, Fairfax, Syme & Weldon
Associates, Broadway, 1987, p.366.
BMM 6 May 1961; NAA A2179, 1964.
Tes Lyssiotis, quoted by Glenda Sluga. ‘Dis/placed’ in Meanjin vol. 48, no. 1, 1989, p.159
Andrew Reimer, Inside Outside: Life between two worlds, Angus & Robertson, Pymble, 1992
Wanda Skowronska, Bonegilla Journey, private publication, c.2001, p6.
Glenda Sluga, Bonegilla, 1988, pp.137-138.
BMM 30 July 1979.
Les Murray, ‘Immigrant Voyage’ from Ethnic Radio: poems, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1977.
Sara Wills, ‘Between the hostel and the detention centre: possible trajectories of migrant pain and shame
in Australia’, William Logan & Keir Reeves eds. Places of Pain and Shame: Dealing with Difficult Heritage,
Routledge, London, 2009, pp263-280.
Luke Desforges & Joanne Maddern, ‘Front Doors to Freedom, Portal to the Past: History at the Ellis Island
Immigration Museum’, Social and Cultural Geography, 5, 3, September 2004, p453.
References – Taking in Young Immigrants and The Young Remember Bonegilla
Interviews: Inga Krain, George Kotsiros and Eleonora Conolly interviewed by Bridget Guthrie,; Bonegilla Scouts by Jean Whitla,
Wodonga Historical Society, June 2006; Anna Piotrowski by Barry York, ho-vn2053172, National
Library Oral History; I interviewed Laime Zole, Jules Visser and Carolyn Stedman.
Memory pieces of Stefan come from Stefan Michael Klepiak, The Bonegilla Kid, self-published,
Hervey Bay, 2007; Eleonora Ventura and Janina Rozanski from Catherine Murphy ed. Boat Load of
Dreams, United Trades and Labor Council, Adelaide, 1994; Joan Mitchie, Marie Ashley, Bernhard
Rust from Lois Carrington, A Real Situation, Tara Canberra, 1997; Jose from Glenda Sluga, Bonegilla
‘A Place of No Hope’, University of Melbourne, 1988.
The other memory pieces quoted and the photographs used have principally been drawn from the Bonegilla
Collection at Albury LibraryMuseum unless otherwise cited. Full names are given only where visitors have
given explicit agreement to be quoted or pictured.
The Bonegilla Migrant Experience Heritage Park
The Bonegilla Collection at Albury LibraryMuseum
Author: Bruce Pennay OAM, Charles Sturt University
Acknowledgements: This publication project was supported by funding from the Australian
Government through the Department of Environment Water Heritage and the Arts. Albury
City Council provided initial seed funding via its Cultural Grants scheme. The Bonegilla
Migrant Experience Heritage Park Steering Committee is grateful for that funding and for
the support it gets from Wodonga and Albury City Councils and Parklands Albury-Wodonga.
Series: At Bonegilla
The Army at Bonegilla, 1940-71
Calwell’s Beautiful Balts
Never Enough Dutch
Food at Bonegilla
Receiving Europe’s Displaced
The Young at Bonegilla
Related works
Albury-Wodonga’s Bonegilla, Albury Regional Museum 2001
Reading Bonegilla: a guide for secondary school teachers, Albury & District Historical Society, 2008
Published by: Parklands Albury-Wodonga
PO Box 1040, Wodonga 3689
ISBN: 1834-6359
© 2010