Brachbach, nr. Cologne, West Germany
Frankfurt, West Germany on 6 December 1966
Sydney on 8 December 1966
Bonegilla for two-and-a-half months and a month or two at Villawood
A rental property at Moorebank, SW Sydney.
P&M at Greenacre in SW Sydney, making Italian sausages and salami. I later became foreman.
Production planner for plywood manufacturer Ralph Symonds at Homebush Bay (W Sydney); at Maxwell House in Liverpool and NSW manager for Tasmanian Wood Panels in Lansvale (both in SW Sydney).
My full name is Harry Joseph Wolff and I was born in 1949 in a small town in West Germany named Brachbach, which is about 80 kilometres east of Cologne. That particular area of Germany was rich in slate which was used for roofing.
My parents were both German [and] I have two [younger] sisters. My mother was orphaned and had been brought up by nuns in an orphanage and later adopted. She was a kindergarten teacher. My father had been in the German Army and had fought in Russia, where he took a bullet to his arm. The bullet remained there until he died.
My father’s profession was draftsman/technical designer and he worked for a locomotive company. I started my apprenticeship with that same company. It was a commercial course and one went through various departments within the company such as accounting, export and purchasing. The course lasted for three years, after which one could choose which area one wanted to specialise in.
When I began my apprenticeship, my mother gave me a briefcase which has special memories for me. It is good quality black leather, made in Germany, and I used it to carry a thermos and a square plastic box with my lunch in it to work. The lunch at that time usually consisted of four slices of rye bread and smoked sausage or something similar.
It was during the time of my college course that my parents decided to migrate and I must admit that I completely neglected my studies after that as all that I could think of was going to Australia. The proposed migration came about when a very dear friend of my mother married someone who had spent six years in Australia and they decided to come to Australia. My mother did not want to be separated from her and so it was decided that we would migrate as well.
My father went to the Australian Embassy and when it was found that he was a draftsman, they could not get him here quickly enough. Australia needed skilled migrants at that time and in November of 1966, we were notified that we were accepted and that we would have to go through all the preliminaries and be ready to leave in three weeks.
In the meantime we had to have cholera shots as we were flying over and not coming by ship, as had most of the migrants until then. We did not have time to even box up our furniture and left that task to my uncle to organise. All we left with were a suitcase each for my mother and father, and I had a suitcase and my leather briefcase which contained my records. The records were originally 60 or so in number but the total has dwindled over time, and now I have only a dozen or so remaining. They are 45 and 33 [RPM – revolutions per minute] records all in German. They’re all pretty worn out with the constant use.
On 6 December we were ready to leave and we left Germany at about 5.30 in the morning with three feet of snow on the ground. At Brachbach station we caught a train to the nearest city, where my mother’s friend’s husband waited in a car to drive us to Cologne, from where we would fly by Lufthansa to Frankfurt and then to Sydney. We had stopovers in Karachi, Bangkok and Singapore and from there to Sydney. The whole flight took us about two and a half days.
To me, being 17, it was an adventure. We stood on the tarmac ready to board the bus to take us over to the plane. You know, I had never been so close to a plane before. In my excitement I dropped my briefcase and the records. My heart dropped; my chin dropped; I just stood there!
We had been ‘neutralised’ in the plane when the hostess had walked through spraying disinfectant into the air [and] on 8 December we were in Sydney. None of our group spoke English so that was a disadvantage, but there was a charter flight going to Albury which had a few spare seats and our name was drawn out at random to fly there. We were fortunate in that the others had to go by train to Albury while we did it in style with TAA (Trans Australian Airways).
At Albury we were shocked to find that the terminal was just an old corrugated iron building. We gathered our suitcases and my father remarked at the friendliness of the people who appeared to be waving at us. We very quickly found that they were waving off the flies … millions of them. We had never seen so many flies. What was even stranger was that we were dressed like Eskimos as we had left Germany in a snow covered winter. Here it would have been between 38 and 42 degrees [centigrade]. It was such a shock.
From the airport we were taken by bus to Bonegilla, which would have been 10 to 15 kilometres away. There, I felt happier. It looked attractive and green with parks everywhere. The camp was self-contained and had churches, a cinema, a library, recreational amenities and a canteen. A doctor visited twice a week. We began to feel that we had made a correct decision after all.
When we were in Bonegilla we purchased a record player and we would gather around and listen to the German records that we carried in the briefcase from Germany. They were songs we grew up with and on hot summer nights in Bonegilla, it was wonderful to listen to our own music. We felt comfortable with that music and I think that it helped us bridge those first few months in Australia and to get over our loneliness. There were a lot of melancholic ideas and thoughts and one was instantly transported back to one’s homeland. One of these records in particular, ‘The Happy Wanderer’, became known worldwide and is even used as a marching song by the Australian Special Air Services Regiment.
At Bonegilla we had to learn English and sign an agreement which committed us to remaining in Australia for two years. I found that by mixing with non-German speaking people as much as I could I picked up the language very quickly.
But food was another thing. It was very strange to us. We had so much mutton for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It came in all forms: roasts, chops, steaks. I do not eat mutton now although I do like lamb. The other thing that was strange to us was the plentiful supply of sugar. It was in everything, and coffee and teas were already sweetened even if you did not like it that way. It was placed in the tea and coffee urns and it came out like treacle. There was sugar galore … sugar everywhere! We felt that there was such a glut on sugar in Australia that they had to get rid of it somehow.
We were given a small amount of money with which to buy smokes or whatever but the main request was that we look for work. They assisted in that and in general we could request to be sent to certain towns. Most people wanted Sydney of course, including us, and at last in February we were notified that we would go to Sydney by train and from there to Villawood Hostel [in south-west Sydney] as they had found work for my father.
Villawood was like a ghetto! Not at all like Bonegilla. We lived in corrugated iron Nissen huts and I think that they did that on purpose so that the migrants would get out on their own as quickly as possible. We had an appointment at Chifley Square [in the city]. The interpreter was not sympathetic and told us that he had been a doctor in Europe and here he was a chief clerk in an unemployment office. My father would find his own job within a week as a draftsman at Commonwealth Engineering in Clyde [in western Sydney]. There he was instrumental in working on designing the Sydney-Perth train. Later when Commonwealth Engineering closed, he moved to the Water Board in Sydney’s design branch at the Hilton [Hotel].
In the meantime I had also found employment at a company in Greenacre [in south-west Sydney] called P&M, which is now Primo Smallgoods. I was assisted in finding the job by Father Mica, who was a Czechoslovakian Catholic priest in Villawood. It was an Italian factory that made Italian smallgoods. I commenced straight away and was a general dogsbody. They even named me Armando to Italianise me. I began by earning a wage of $19 a week. That was in 1967.
I still lived at the hostel and they packed a little lunch for me everyday in a brown paper bag. Usually it consisted of a Devon [processed meat] or corned beef sandwich with chutney or tomato sauce and I also received a piece of fruit. After a while I told them I did not need it anymore as I had ham, bacon and salami from the factory for a change and more variety.
I worked there for about three years, during which time I became foreman, and then left to go to Ralph Symonds in Homebush Bay [in western Sydney], a company which manufactured plywood. My mother and sister both worked there as process workers. I had bought a car in the meantime so that we could travel to work together.
From Ralph Symonds we all went to Maxwell House, now Schweppes, in Orange Grove Road, Liverpool [in south-west Sydney], but later we all returned to Ralph Symonds where I worked in the office as a production planner. I remained there for 13 years. Now I work for another plywood company called Tasmanian Wood Panels which is [nearby] in Lansvale, but a Melbourne-based company. I am state manager for the company.
On Easter weekend 1967, we left Villawood hostel as we had found a rental house in Moorebank. With the help of Father Mica, again, we purchased as much second hand furniture as we needed. Of course all did not go smoothly as we moved to the house on the understanding that the furniture would arrive the same day. It didn’t and we put the stove on, left [its] door open, and huddled together on the kitchen floor in front of it.
Father Mica arrived the next day to see how we were getting on and on seeing our predicament, he marched out of the house and returned with about six blankets, an iron and a pot in which we could at least boil an egg. That is how we spent our first Easter in Australia. We stayed there for about seven years and then moved to another rental property at Liverpool. From there we bought our own place in 1976 in Greystanes [in western Sydney]. When my mother passed away with cancer the following year, my father put the house on the market and we split the proceeds. My wife, who I had met at Ralph Symonds in 1976 and married in 1980, and I moved [back to south-west Sydney], where we still reside. My father sadly passed away in 1989.
In 1984 my wife, who is English, and I went to Germany for the first time and also to England. It was all wonderful but I realised that Australia is my home. My decision was made [but] I wanted to become more involved in my heritage and in my tradition. I did not want to completely turn my back on my old life, hence my involvement with the German-Austrian Club at Cabramatta.
The Club had started in 1956 and the building was built a few years later. I am the treasurer and the club has members from a variety of nationalities, however our constitution says that to hold office one must speak, read and write German. Our next generation have other interests and many do not even speak their parents’ tongue. It is sad and is something that is a continuing worry to us.
About 40 years ago we held our first Oktoberfest in Fairfield and it has been going every year since then. The club committee are all volunteers and we all do our share of keeping the club functioning and hopefully it will continue for many years yet.