Lubeck, Germany in late 1947
Melbourne in December 1947
Bonegilla for 4-5 weeks
Stroud, Hunter region, NSW
Timber cutting in Stroud with Estonian men’s choir. They met on the first boat of post-WW2 Displaced Persons to Australia and formed a choir on the journey over.
Warragamba Dam near Sydney; car assembly line for Harding & Johnson, air conditioning manufacturer and storeman for the NSW Government Printing Office (Sydney); dairy farming and cattle business in Bungawalbyn and cattle farm in Goolmangar (northern NSW).
[I was brought up on a] small farm with my brother and sister in Estonia. My mother died when I was three years old. My father married second time. He had five more children.
My early days were looking after cattle on another farm. Some pigs, sheep, chooks too. I couldn’t get much education because we had big family. That was our country that time, life was not that easy.
My schooling was very small, only the first school, sixth year. That’s why my spelling was no good at all!
You must sign [to the Estonian army] at 21 years. Something like 1933, I was only one year in the army. Then I went another farm to make a living. Big family – we got to get money somewhere else. I bought this wallet peacetime in Estonia. Then you can buy anything what you want.
When the Second World War started that was the beginning of the pact between Germans and Russians. Germans’ idea was you take the small countries and we take [Poland]. Russians occupied our country. They just walked in. You couldn’t say nothing. They let you live there but Russian Government own this land. All collective farm.
I went to a [Communist-run] tractor school for three months. But we didn’t need three months to learn to drive tractor, it was more political life. We had political meetings every night.
Estonian people hated the Russians that time. Russia did terrible things to the people [sent to] Siberia, but when Germans come in they gave land back. They were more educated.
Germans had pretty bad luck. They went a long way in Russia and caught very cold winter. Tanks were abandoned. I didn’t volunteer but Germans took all men from the Estonian army. They could take our soldiers anytime. Hitler didn’t want to lose any soldiers.
That was before I [got a wounded shoulder on the Eastern Front in Estonia]. I couldn’t use this hand at all. They were good doctors, you know. Germans know some expert long way from where I was. I was two days away. They carried me to hospital in night time. There weren’t any troops there. I was lucky I didn’t get [a tattoo]. People who did got into terrible trouble [as] foreign soldiers serving German army, even in [post-war] refugee camps.
Germans, they took me [to another] hospital. I was eight months in Czechoslovakia. When I got out, I was taken to Denmark with three more Estonian blokes. I had little bit German money. When you get there, we get money changed but couple days after, changed more on black market.
[When war ended], we was that kind of people that no-one wanted. I was [a Displaced Person]. We lived in Germany for two years. That was called a refugee camp. It wasn’t that bad. It was free. It wasn’t prison, you know.
We get food, the same as German people. We start getting [food] baskets every once in a while from America. It wasn’t much but there was good things. A little bit of chocolate, American cigarettes, little tin of coffee. We take the coffee to Germans for a bag of potatoes through the black market.
I made this [suitcase] when I was in Germany. We had a lot of ideas, but we couldn’t go [anywhere]! We get some material, some plywood from houses damaged from war. We got lots of time, we didn’t have much to do.
How did I end up in Australia? That was very easy. Australia wanted people to work at big places like Warragamba Dam [near Sydney].
No, [I hadn't heard of Australia before]. That very simple – I wanted to get as far out from Russia. I didn’t want to go back to that country. Nowhere near. That time was not very safe in Europe. That was after war and everything in Europe was very short. You can’t buy building materials or food.
[But] Canada come first. My papers was all ready to go but just last few days the ship was full. Australia come before the next Canada ship and we go on first transport when Australia started taking migrants in – Labor Government send to Germany to pick up all these people.
First transport was a thousand but wasn’t only Estonians. It was Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. It was American ship, General Heintzelman. Very, very good ship. All food and everything was excellent. First class. Nice and clean. We had American cigarettes which was very important that time!
I got plenty of friends on that ship, lot of us Estonians. One bloke started singing and picked up some 30 men and start practising on the ship.
We landed at Fremantle. We didn’t stay, just three or four days. We get another ship (the HMAS Kanimbla), Australian ship, to Melbourne. It was still carrying troops.
We didn’t stay Melbourne, we went first Bonegilla [migrant accommodation]. Pretty good. That time we was pretty hungry and I couldn’t say any bad things. Not at all. We had a two year contract. Australian people who want some man to work, just take name and send them there. They keep us 27 [from the choir] together and we work in the bush. We were felling timber, making material for masonite company. We didn’t have very much trouble to sing in Australia. Australia was very keen to listen Estonian songs, you know.
After, we went near Warragamba Dam. We come to work the right time and back the right time. We were free people. We didn’t have any controls. We did what we wanted to.
I was pretty busy and working close to Estonian people. We didn’t have that much time but I wanted to learn English. That dictionary been printed in Sweden – it wasn’t hard to get books from agent in Germany. Wasn’t that cheap but that was when we were working and had little bit money.
Sydney, we didn’t go altogether. People start wanting men, then people make up how many men they wanted, then they come up to the camp, camp sort it out and send.
Almost two years [in Australia], I got married. I meet my wife first time [through] Estonian people just across the road in Sydney, in Matraville.
When two year contract finished, I go to work anywhere. That time was a lot of work in Australia, get job anytime. I work in Sydney motor car company eight and a half years, Harden and Johnsons. I loved it but over the years it changed with different management. They got hard times, quite often happened in motor car industry – doesn’t sell cars easily and got to put man off. I didn’t think they would put me off, but they did.
I got another job. They make the air conditioners. I get another job. Plenty of work. Last job in Sydney was government printing office.
But I got out the city to the land. I must get the land. Farm – that was in my blood. I was born on the land. You can’t forget. Some blokes forget very quick, but I didn’t where I was born. [We moved to] Bungawalbyn dairy farm [in northern New South Wales].
We didn’t have any [dairy] experience. That was terrible! I was too old. I was over 50. I never milked cow myself because that kind of work, my country, always women did it. But milking wasn’t that bad. After milking, the washing up, that was terrible. You got to get very clean. But we get better and not take that long.
No, I didn’t [miss Estonians]. Not any near where I been living. I tell you truth, it didn’t worry me very much at all. I didn’t want to go back there anyway. I make up my mind when I got out. I didn’t think I could live very long at the time. I didn’t have any money and I wanted to get out of that country.
When I got out, I didn’t have any place to go back. That was still Germany and after short time, the Russians took it over again and controlled long time. Terrible. I fear people were still looking for me. But I tell you the truth, I love that country.
Now Estonia is free country again. I feel very good. I think they’re doing very well. They got own independent country, like here.
Andrea Fernandes, NSW Migration Heritage Centre
22 June 2007
With assistance from Jenny Kena and Lia Chinnery nee Kena
Mr John Kena died on 19 April 2010, in his mid-late nineties. The Migration Heritage Centre is grateful for his recollection which has been recorded in Belongings for posterity.