Celebrations for Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre's 70th anniversary

SHARING STORIES: Forty-eight years after arriving as a migrant, Lois Salvisberg now volunteers at the Bonegilla centre. Picture: MARK JESSER
SHARING STORIES: Forty-eight years after arriving as a migrant, Lois Salvisberg now volunteers at the Bonegilla centre. Picture: MARK JESSER

A New Zealander who had become a Swiss citizen, Lois Salvisberg perhaps wasn’t a typical new arrival to the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre in 1969.

“I didn’t mind it, we were used to camping,” she said.

“The food was good, we actually had a French cook where we were. I had never been to Australia, but it wasn’t that daunting.”

Ms Salvisberg, now of Wodonga, is one of more than 300,000 people who passed through Bonegilla between 1947 and 1971.

A volunteer at Bonegilla Migrant Experience for the past six years, she will join its main 70th anniversary celebrations on November 18. The event, to run from 11am to 4pm, will feature mini-museum exhibitions, live music, an author talk, performances and European-style food.

Wodonga mayor Anna Speedie encouraged former residents and their families as well as the wider community to share in the centre’s milestone.

“There is a real sense of place for so many people and we really do hope that some of those people take the time to come back and really give us the opportunity to capture their story as well,” she said.

“Taking time to reflect on our history and understand and appreciate where we’ve come from.”

As millions of people left Europe seeking a new life after World War II, an army camp at Bonegilla was transformed into a migrant reception and training centre.

New arrivals, many of whom spoke little English, lived there while they were processed and allocated jobs.

Ms Salvisberg, her Swiss husband and their two children, aged one and two, spent several weeks at Bonegilla before moving to first Perth, then Mount Isa for work. Daily life at the centre was busy and the shared facilities sometimes basic.

MEMORIES: Lois Salvisberg, of Wodonga, talks with Wodonga mayor Anna Speedie ahead of the 70th anniversary celebrations of the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre. Picture: MARK JESSER

MEMORIES: Lois Salvisberg, of Wodonga, talks with Wodonga mayor Anna Speedie ahead of the 70th anniversary celebrations of the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre. Picture: MARK JESSER

“They had scrubbing boards, no washing machines, a little spin dryer, I was the only one who was using it,” she said.

“The toilets, there was not much privacy so I must admit that I used to try and slip over there when nobody much was around. 

“I remember having a shower at about 3 o’clock in the morning because that was the only way I’d get some hot water.”

In one letter to her parents, she mentioned the noise of so many different languages being spoken around her.

Ms Salvisberg returned to Wodonga in 1979 and now volunteers at the Bonegilla centre weekly, helping with tours, greeting visitors and hearing their stories.

Cr Speedie said the centre had created a great legacy through the contributions of former residents and their descendants.

“It’s certainly added to the vibrancy of not only Wodonga, but our nation,” she said.