(nee van der Waarden)
Amsterdam, Holland on 20 September 1955
Sydney on 28 October 1955
Scheyville for 13 months
Rooty Hill, north-west Sydney
Mum was at Sydney Woollen Mills at Northmead and Dad and my eldest brother were at the Riverstone meatworks.
Mum did invisble mending for a drycleaners in Parramatta and Dad and I worked on the share farm at Castle Hill. I later worked at Sydney Woollen Mills, the same factory my mother did.
I was born in Tilburg, Holland in 1943. The [Second World] war was very difficult. Holland was occupied by Germany; you had to wear name tags and people would get shot for no reason. Dad belonged to the underground [movement] against the Germans. We’ve got this family carving knife and Dad took it off a German. It was a bayonet and he had it cut down; it looks incredibly dangerous. It was very good for a number of years for roasts and cutting bread!
It was an uncertain, unsettling time in Holland after the war. In 1955 Hungary was making noises about war, Mum panicked and we decided it’s only Australia. Maybe no more wars. A safe environment. Friends said you can build your own house. [In] the photos we’d seen, people were always wearing shorts, it looked sunny, it looked wonderful.
I always did crocheting and embroidery at school and made all my outfits I wore on the ship. Loved sewing; other kids played with dolls, I dressed dolls. My sewing box was given as a Saint Nicholas present in 1952. I was a bit annoyed with my grandfather who wrote my name and address on my new box, but I’m so happy he did now.
The photo on the top left of the Belongings page is of my family leaving Amsterdam on 20 September 1955. It was an exciting day and going to Australia was an adventure. You see this huge, huge ship called the Fairsea. Then the hooter went, which meant we had to board. I could see my mum and dad saying goodbye to [our] relatives and I saw my dad crying. That upset me, I’d never seen my dad cry. He was such a strong man. To see him hugging his brother, all of a sudden I really didn’t want to go. I felt incredibly confused, you feel this big hole in your stomach, all of a sudden you realise you’re leaving and may not come back. Consequently my dad never saw his brother again.
Dad was self-employed and I know he didn’t get an assisted fare. Mum and myself were in a cabin with six other women and Dad was with my two brothers and five other men. He found it difficult to be segregated and didn’t sleep at all, he walked all night on deck. The ship was a lovely holiday for us children, we would just run wild. My older brother Nick was a really good photographer [although] he was only 14. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have any of this documentation. He’s so meticulous and he’s still a photographer today.
Port Said, that was our first stop. My younger brother, Henry, and I weren’t allowed off the boat because they were worried about white children being kidnapped, but at the end of Suez Canel there was a place called Aden and we were allowed off the boat there. It was so interesting; the smells, the sounds you expect the Middle East to be. Our next stop was Perth and that was [after] two weeks of just ocean. It was a very turbulent trip. During one of the storms mum fell and she was concussed. We also had food poisoning on our ship. Mum would try any [food] and was the only one in our family who became ill, but half the crew and passengers were very sick. People were sick in the hallways, everywhere. The priest was sick, we had no Sunday service that day.
When we arrived at Perth it was sleety and cold and we just weren’t impressed. We got to Melbourne and it was very windy and we weren’t impressed. When we got to Sydney, Mum and Dad woke us and took us on deck. As we were going through the Heads, the sun was up. You see the huge blue sky, this bridge in the distance and it was so beautiful. It was definitely the best place to arrive in.
We disembarked from Sydney on 28 October 1955. We had no family here, just one set of friends who migrated five years before us. They were meeting us at Circular Quay and we had to be back at the ship a couple of hours later. Holland’s flat and I couldn’t believe how [the house] could be a metre off the ground on one side, and on the other side, level. The lattice work on some of the old homes was so beautiful; I love lace and kept looking at the verandas. I’d never seen corrugated iron roofs and there were quite a few in ’55.
We went back to the ship and went on a long drive in the coach. It was very hot and took 2.5 hours to get to Windsor and then seven kilometres to Scheyville migrant hostel. It was wonderful to see Australian gum trees. My younger brother and I were saying this is just like we thought Australia would be. Then we heard people crying and someone was saying, “it’s a camp”, bringing on connotations of extermination camps in Europe. In the distance you could see these round Nissen huts [that] turned out to be kitchens and dining rooms.
Initially the Australian Government thought our friends would put us up, but they didn’t have room. My dad thought we’d be at Scheyville for a couple of days and we’d find renting accommodation, but in 1955 there was little. Consequently we were in the camp for 13 months and Dad said we’ll buy a block of land and build ourselves. I think the migration program wasn’t really well thought out. They were old army camps and weren’t really [suitable] for families. I don’t know how people managed with little babies. It was fun for us children, the camp was just like a holiday camp, but not so much for our parents. There were no concrete paths so if it rained it was just mud. [When] we had floods in 1956, the camp was isolated for a week; nobody could get in or out.
Dad hated camp life, no privacy, but we had a lovely bunch of people. We were taken to a Dutch block and you have two tiny rooms. There were no power points and no tap. To get your water you had to go to the end of the block and fill a bucket and the shower and toilets were there. Nick used a wardrobe to develop his photos because there was no dark room of course; he got water from the shower building. Mum said to pretend we’re on holiday and made the [camp] fun, she decorated [it] with a few personal things to make it homey. I didn’t have any of my sewing equipment because all our big stuff came in a container and we were allowed four cubic metres [at Scheyville] so it was kept in storage.
Dad took the light globe out and plugged our jug in the light globe point. Other people would run a fridge off the light globe and a heater in winter. There were toasters and radios going and almost every night we had a blackout because of overloading. The supervisor would come and as soon as he was gone, everyone would plug them back in!
There were buses early in the morning and late at night to go to work. There was a steam train at Windsor, it would go as far as Blacktown and then you’d change to an electric line. Mum got a job at Sydney Woollen Mills at Northmead, which meant the bus to Windsor, train to Blacktown, another train to Parramatta and the bus to Northmead; it took her 2.5 hours. Dad was at the meatworks at Riverstone, in the hide section. He absolutely hated it. He’d never worked indoors in his life. Nick was artistic and he had to work there also. His job was to clean intestines and he wasn’t quite 15 then. You think back now and realise how difficult that must have been; people forget about children when they migrate. [Nick] was extremely proud of being able to work and help us buy a block of land at Rooty Hill. We both felt that way – you see I left school at 13.
My younger brother, Henry, and I, we went to school. Some of the teachers were refugees but I had Mr Cole, the Australian teacher. We had 26 nationalities in the camp at that time and he spoke a bit of everything. He was into nature, he took us on walks so he built up a love of the bush in me, but I can’t remember any curriculum. There were lots of children to play with, you had no problem making friends. None of us could speak English so we communicated in all sorts of languages. It wasn’t until I went to mainstream high school that I realised we must have had some sort of camp lingo.
When I started school at Blacktown High, people couldn’t understand me and it was really difficult. My spelling was atrocious. I’m still struggling with that today. Your maths are the same; Australia had the old imperial system and it didn’t make sense to my metric brain. Even in my Catholic lessons, the saints are different in Australia. It’s only the Latin prayers that were the same; that’s the only thing I could relate to.
The girls wouldn’t [make friends] because of this lack of English and the food you were taking to school. You’re just different. I was given first prize for being the quietest child at Blacktown High. The teachers didn’t realise it was because I couldn’t speak much English.
Then it was discovered I was at the wrong school, I should have gone to St Mary’s High. I missed out eight weeks of that school year and [didn't] know anyone I could copy off, so I was way behind.
I loved sewing, I made my own clothes in Holland and thought I’ll excel. The teacher held up an apron and I made my mother buy all the fabric and went home and made it. I brought it in [and] got in so much trouble. [The teacher] kept saying, “your mother made this”. It was supposed to take three months and we had to do it in class. I didn’t realise that, so I got marked a zero.
My mum was an invisible mender, she got a diploma in that and worked for a dry cleaners in Parramatta. The owner rang the big boss, they’d never seen it before. Mum was very proud and they paid her extremely well.
My dad was 49 when he migrated and was probably too old to learn English. In Holland he was self-employed [and had] an international licence, he could travel all over Europe. In Australia he didn’t pass the English test and took two years before he finally got an Australian licence.
It was pretty soon us children who were doing the filling of the forms [and] I went with my mum and dad to the doctor. Sometimes really private things you have to translate. I suppose in a way we’re lucky because being European our alphabets are the same.
When I was at St Mary’s, Dad was offered the share farming job at Castle Hill. We were really happy about moving into a lovely home on acreage. I must have been very strong willed and said I wanted to stay home and work on the farm. My dad left school at 13 and I think he thought that was ok, I’d had enough learning. We had 6,000 chickens and 1,800 fruit trees, mainly citrus. The owners were beautiful people [and] taught me bookkeeping.
The farm is probably one of the better times of my life. Dad and I built all the chook sheds. It was hard work because we had to put in the water pipes. Initially we had to carry buckets to water 6,000 chooks. I made Dad’s lunch, we had so many chooks sometimes we’d have five eggs. We always had chicken for dinner on Sunday and when Dad went rabbiting we’d have rabbit stew for tea. Even with Mum’s income we couldn’t afford the farm [and] after three years, we left and bought a house at Toongabbie where I lived until I got married in 1965.
I met Danny at dancing academy, I was doing ballroom dancing and he was one of the teachers. His parents are Italian-born and he also had difficulty at school because [of] speaking Italian at home. We decided we wouldn’t speak either Italian or Dutch to our children [but] now I regret it. My daughter went overseas and loved Holland and Italy and said, “why didn’t you teach us to speak either language?”. Now that I’ve got grandchildren I teach them Dutch songs, we count in Dutch. I think a lot of people, particularly Dutch, they’ve assimilated so well that they’ve let their own culture slide. It’s only since I went back to Holland that I’ve tried to keep some of that alive, [so] I started writing it down when Mum was still alive. It was the last year of her life and I got so much of her childhood and the difficulty in migrating, how hard it was for her to leave her family behind.
When Dad died, I found a beautiful certificate in his wallet that we weren’t aware of. It was for heroic [acts] during the liberation of Tilburg. A house was bombed and Dad rescued people trapped inside.
I went to the Scheyville reunion in 1997, met one of my classmates and noticed she wasn’t in my class photo. Then I remembered refugee children were photographed separately. There was definitely a distinction between refugee and migrant children – we were caned very rarely, but the Polish children [were] quite frequently, but not by Mr Cole.
I returned to school 30 years later as a mature age student and got a laboratory assistant diploma. My love for craft work continues and I teach tatting. It’s a beautiful form of lace making and goes back thousands of years.
Andrea Fernandes, NSW Migration Heritage Centre
25 July 2006