“Flies, heat, snakes, spiders, the food was very difficult for them to digest, it was like being in a prison, almost.”
Author Annette Janic made her first ever visit to Bonegilla Migrant Experience knowing her parents’ memories of the former reception centre “were not fabulous”.
“Mum said it was a real culture shock, she couldn’t believe what she saw, it was like army barracks, going into a labour camp almost, that sort of feel about it,” she said.
The author of War Child spoke about her book during the two-day reunion that marked 71 years since Australia’s largest and longest-running reception and training centre opened.
Her parents and older brother arrived at Bonegilla in 1950 and lived there for about six weeks before work took them to their new home in Adelaide.
“It was very much what my mum had described, like these army barracks in the middle of nowhere,” Janic said.
“It wasn’t a particularly hot weekend but inside those huts it was very stifling, still, no breeze, there was a fair share of flies.
“It was a very sobering experience to have that first hand experience of what were only ever stories in my head.”
Janic’s mother was German while her father was from Yugoslavia, both displaced by World War II and accepted under the international refugee program.
War Child describes her mother’s early life, a confronting story dealing with difficult topics like sexual abuse.
“I never know exactly how the audience will accept it, but I found that it was really resonating and really touching hearts,” she said.
Originally the book was going to end with her parents’ resettlement in Australia, but research after her mother’s death revealed some unexpected details.
“So I had to go searching for all these secrets,” she said.
Janic said she would now “spread the word” about Bonegilla Migrant Experience and post-war migration.
“It is such an important part of Australia's history and it’s a part we’ve really ignored,” she said.
“And it shouldn’t be because it was that generation who made Australia the multicultural country that it is today and we really should be embracing their stories and their history.
“Bonegilla is a place where we can do that.”
Reunion attracts hundreds of visitors
About 750 people from Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and NSW visited Bonegilla Migrant Experience during Friday and Saturday’s reunion.
Saturday’s guided bus tours into Latchford Barracks were fully booked, with two additional tours added to the itinerary, while about 100 people attended Friday evening’s dinner.
A bus group from Melbourne travelled specifically to Wodonga for the genealogical talks provided by Wodonga Family History Society.
Many people brought photographs, immigration papers and special objects to share, including a backpack used by a family that had the displaced person’s numbers written on it.
Another memento was an engraved silver jug donated by Carolyn Stedwell (nee Guinn) whose father was a camp director for many years.
The previous weekend 220 members of the Ukrainian Association of Victoria visited while Sunday saw 70 Kamphuis family members gather to commemorate the arrival from the Netherlands of Gerardus (Gerry) and Alberta (Betsy) Kamphuis and their eight children on November 5, 1958.
- Receive our daily newsletter straight to your inbox each morning from The Border Mail. Sign up here