Badenweiller, southern Germany
Naples, Italy on 2 December 1949
Sydney on 12 December 1949
Bathurst for 3 months
Cowra for several months
Boarded with a Polish family in Orange.
I did hairdressing at the Cowra camp. My husband Rudi was assigned to do manual work at the Emmco whitegoods factory in Orange.
Hairdressing from home in Orange.
I was born near Badenweiller, a spa on the Rhine, of mixed German, French and Swiss parentage. When I married my Yugoslav husband Rudi, in December 1947, I was counted as a stateless person, a refugee, along with him. We got a flat and we both worked for money that had no buying power, but only by working could we obtain coupons for food.
At this time the resettlement of the refugees started. People from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Yugoslavia, Poland and Russia would not dream of returning to their communist occupied countries. My husband and his countrymen were told they would be shot as traitors for letting themselves be captured by the enemy. The Allied powers wanted to settle the refugee problem as soon as possible. America was willing to accept people, so were some of the South American states like Venezuela. We decided to apply for America since I had relations there.
My first child was born on 5 February 1949. I was still in bed at my mother’s place when we got the message to be ready for transport on 10 February. I had no hope of travelling all the way to America with a five-day-old baby.
So we had to start all over again for our next destination, Australia. It took us in all five months to get things rolling. Everything was ready for the trip but at the last moment children under the age of two could not travel. This meant we had to wait another 14 months for Mirjana to be two years old, and since I was pregnant again, we were going to have to wait for the next baby’s second birthday.
I helped the Swiss Red Cross temporarily as interpreter and was one of the first to find out about the proposed airlift for mothers with babies. The men were supposed to travel by boat. Several husbands refused to let their wives and children travel alone to a strange country so after a fair bit of negotiation it was decided to let the whole family travel together. We travelled by train to Naples [Italy] and high up in the hills there was an old garrison, Bagnoli, that became a shelter for the next few weeks for us, months for others.
Two hundred women and children were housed in double bunks on each floor at Bagnoli. The men were somewhere else in the large garrison and they had visiting rights between 2 and 4pm. Strict curfews were maintained and if any couples were found in the grounds at night they were locked up. Food consisted of three meals a day with sardines in it somehow. There was an epidemic of typhoid fever and children died daily. We had to bring the children to the medical quarters every morning for a checkup. I prayed all the way there and back. In cases when the child had to stop there, most likely it was the last the parents would see of them. Usually a priest would come and tell the parents the child had died and was already buried.
On 2 December 1949, we left but at the last minute we were told that our pieces of luggage would go by boat, so we quickly took our most necessary items out into our hand luggage. We found out later our luggage went by mistake to Venezuela. We arrived in Sydney on 12 December 1949 after a four day flight from Naples via Nicosia, Teheran, Karachi, Singapore and Darwin.
I missed out on the beautiful sight Sydney must have been from the air as I was airsick. At the airport we were hustled into a bus and started the journey through the Blue Mountains to Bathurst Reception Camp. Mirjana, our 10-month-old baby, slept peacefully in Rudi’s arms when we were shown our quarters. “What’s this!” I said as we entered a little room with two fold-up army beds, one occupied by a sleeping woman, “surely we are in the wrong room?” “No,” we were told, “you only have one child and the other lady has one and your next baby isn’t due for another three months. So it is two couples, two children.” and the bugs.
Are we really in Australia, I thought. How will we sleep tonight for the first time together in a marriage bed since we were separated in the camp in Italy for weeks. One narrow field bed for the three, no four, of us – Rudi, myself, Mirjana and the unborn one.
The other lady in our hut was Polish. Her baby was in hospital and her husband was working in Canberra. She said he came to visit her every sixth weekend, so we wouldn’t be so crowded after all, just the four of us until my husband was sent somewhere to work. “What? Away from me?” I said. “Oh yes, to Orange – that’s only 30 miles from here so he can see you every weekend,” she said.
Rudi eventually started work and I was left on my own with Mirjana. Rudi went with some other men to a factory in Orange . Time went slowly because I had nothing to read, knit or sew. I decided that with the first money I got my hands on I would buy something to work with.
I had to see the doctor in the camp hospital as the baby was due soon. Twenty-four hours passed and I had another girl. I was given some food – two chops, potatoes and peas but still the smell of mutton was there and I couldn’t eat it. I was starving and wanted to cry: no husband to visit, no milk in my breast and they didn’t even bring me the baby. I felt like I was in jail. Nobody came to my bed to see me or give me an orange or an apple. I thought I’d never have to starve in this land of plenty. Mother, why didn’t I listen to you! If there wasn’t any water between here and Germany I could just start walking.
On the Wednesday before Easter 1950 the great day arrived: about 60 women and children, including my friend Rita, went by bus to the Cowra camp. The country was so strange – those great trees looking like ghosts. It was the same corrugated iron huts again. The room was smaller but we had it to ourselves, and two beds.
I was determined to get out of the camp as soon as possible so I decided to start working at my trade as a hairdresser. There were enough women in need of my service and I could save money to get a place of our own. People were really on edge and it didn’t take too much to get into all sorts of fights.
Firstly I wanted to learn to speak English so when the time came for me to take my place in society I could converse with people. Every Friday night Rudi came by train from Orange so I had that to look forward to. I paid a young girl to take the children for walks in my newly arrived though badly damaged pram (which had gone to Venezuela by mistake) so I had free time to work and save.
[When hairdressing] in the Cowra camp we had a box to sit on. Toni was the only home perm you could get in those days. I had no hairdryer so the ladies sat all day long waiting for their hair to dry. But I had to entertain them with coffee and feed their kids biscuits so I made no profit at all!
Then Rudi called me on the phone one day to tell me to get ready to come to Orange to live. His boss and his wife picked us up in their car. I had practised all day to say, ‘Pleased to meet you’, but I found out years later they had not understood a word I said!
In Orange we found a room with a family who had nearly finished their house – Polish people. In the room was our newly purchased double bed, costing £40 . and nothing else. Rudi’s boss returned shortly afterwards with a small table, two chairs and an electric toaster-griller. I was so grateful to them. I started working again and within six months, with the help of a small inheritance, we bought a block of land to build our home on. Later I had two more children, a girl and a boy.
When I lived in Bletchington Street [Orange] I set up a hairdressing operation in the kitchen. It was all migrant women who came to me and they had no money, but they all had started gardens where they lived and they would pay me in cabbages, potatoes, onions and eggs. One Russian woman gave me her old sewing machine in return for two perms.
Two elderly ladies living opposite helped me in many ways. They encouraged me to speak English, although I don’t think they knew half the time what I was talking about – I just chattered for practice. I could read better than talk for I have always loved the written word and my only luxury was the Womens’ Weekly. The two ladies went to see the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh when they visited Bathurst in the ’50s, telling me on their return how beautiful the Queen looked. I asked eagerly, “And the Duck, what was he like?”- How they laughed! But what a silly language English is, why can’t they leave a ‘U’ as it is, not just change it around when they feel like it – how are we supposed to know how to pronounce words!
Well, I have got used to blowflies, mutton, lamb and I am now a naturalised Australian and love this country and its people. I have found health, joy, happiness and sorrow.