Reet Simmul Interview

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I left Estonia with my mother and my 7 month old brother in 1944. I was 4 at the time. I can remember that day vividly. We were on the last convoy of ships that actually left Tallinn harbour. The ships were carrying the wounded German soldiers who were retreating as the Russian Army was actually moving into Tallinn.

And then when the war ended in 1945, my mother found out they had displaced peoples camps for Estonians because we were people with out passports. We were refugees with no papers whatsoever. We managed to get into a camp in the American zone. We lived there for quite a few years, 1945-1949.

So many adults did various courses to prepare them for a new life in whatever country they were going to. I personally took part in Sunday school, I was a Brownie and I went to school and started 3rd class primary school. I started learning English in that school, now the other activities in the camps were absolutely amazing. They had various lectures and classes for handicrafts and they actually used the wool that was unravelled from the American army jumpers, unravelled then it was dyed and various traditional Estonian patterns were used.

I can remember my mother had a piece of material that she was going to make a national costume for me. She had the material for the skirt and it was dyed with one of the first antibiotics. It was called Prontosil and it produced this beautiful orange colour. The trouble was by the time she got the other bits necessary for the national costume; I had outgrown that skirt material. So I never really got my national costume.

We did manage to immigrate to Australia as a family. I can't remember leaving Europe. I can remember Bagnoli, the Italian transit camp where we were waiting for the Italian liner the Castelbianco that took us to Australia for the long sea journey. That was a former troop carrier so the accommodation was definitely not luxurious. Women and children were in a huge, huge cabins in part of the boat and the men were in an other part of the boat.

The conditions were very very uncomfortable. We had bunks that actually had double bunks and there were 4 nailed together. People would put blankets up to try to get some privacy. But they were huge rooms, and in the beginning it took quite some time to actually find your own bed.

I came with my father, my mother and my brother who was 6 and I was all of 9 when I arrived in Australia. We sailed into Sydney Harbour and I have a photo of the nose of the Castelbianco and Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background. I had a very bad septic throat at the time and I had a high temperature and my mother insisted we weren't going to see a doctor as I would have been left behind in Sydney. Whereas the rest of the family would have gone to Bathurst.

The journey on the night train to Bathurst was the coldest experience I ever had in my life. We came to sunny Australia, my mother had changed some of the woollen clothing my mother was given by the Red Cross for oranges because we were coming to sunny Australia.

The camp was the corrugated iron huts used by the soldiers. The whole of the landscape outside the camp was very drab, grey grass with the eucalyptus trees. It wasn't a very cheerful first impression of Australia. But my family actually stayed at that transit camp for 2 years because my parents came out on a 2 year working visa. They had to work on government job. My mother was a cook at the camp hospital and my father was a kitchen hand.

I brought my children up with 2 languages and I always felt having another culture should be an addition and make their lives richer, make them understand all people are different and to respect the differences in people. If you expect somebody to turn their back on their heritage, then they will also turn their back on Australian values and heritage if they have actually given up their culture and heritage of their birth.