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Today's quote:

Sunday, May 17, 2020

My once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage is still going ahead

Never met Lutz Preusche but I want to do what he did: stand in front of the super-sized photo of the entrance to the Bonegilla Reception Centre and have my picture taken


Muslims have their pilgrimage to Mecca; Australia's "assisted migrants" have their pilgrimage to Bonegilla which they should go on at least once in their lifetime.

I passed through those gates in early August 1965. As I wrote elsewhere:

"We disembarked in some sort of organised chaos at Port Melbourne and soon afterwards boarded a train for the inland town of Albury from where we were taken to the Migrant Centre at Bonegilla. Remember the movie "The Great Escape"? Well, Bonegilla was a camp along the lines of what you saw in that movie - except that Bonegilla was a darn sight worse. We were put into corrugated-iron huts in what had been an old Army Camp - and I believe the old Spartans enjoyed more comforts than did the inmates of the "Bonegilla Migrant Centre". Although we were in the depth of the Australian winter (which can be pretty cold in the Australian inland), there was no heating, and only a threadbare ex-Army blanket to ward off the cold at night. For somebody who had just avoided conscription into the German "Bundeswehr", it seemed a poor exchange.

Deep blue skies and brilliant sunshine during the day made up for the freezing nights. It was two days after I had arrived in camp and while I was "thawing" out in the midday sun when another German who had come off the ship with me, told me about a "German Lady", a Mrs Haermeyer, at the camp's reception centre who was offering to take three or four recently arrived German migrants back to Melbourne to board at her house. I had been "processed" by the camp's administration on the first day and knew that in all likelihood I was destined to be sent to Sydney to work as labourer for the Sydney Water Board. So what did I have to lose? In record time I had myself signed out by the "Camp Commandant", my few things packed, and was sitting, with three other former ship-mates, in a VW Beetle enroute back to Melbourne.

My Bonegilla Reception Centre registration card
Date of Arrival 8 Aug 1965; MOI (?) 10/8/65

The "German Lady" had turned out to be a very enterprising roly-poly German housewife who with her German husband, a bricklayer, operated something of a boarding-house from their quaint little place at 456 Brunswick Road in West Brunswick in Melbourne. The place seemed already full to overflowing with young Germans from a previous intake, with bodies occupying the lounge-room sofa, a make-shift annex, and an egg-shaped plywood caravan in the backyard. My ship-mates joined that happy crowd but I was "farmed out" to a nice English lady across the road who had a spare room. The very next day the "German Lady" took me to the local Labour Exchange and in seemingly no time had secured me a job as 'Trainee Manager' with Coles & Company which had foodstores all over Melbourne. There I was, refilling shelves with groceries whose names I did not know, and had I known them would not have been able to pronounce, and helping blue-rinsed ladies take their boxes full of shopping out to their Austin cars. I still joined the others for breakfast and dinner in the "German house" and also had my laundry looked after by the "German Lady" but I was already making my own way in Australia. Looking back, my life seems to have been full of such serendipitous encounters because more good luck was to follow!

Full of hope and full of myself in 1965

During the first days in Melbourne I had written to Hans in Canberra
[... Sometime during the voyage and under circumstances which I have long forgotten, I had made friends with a young German who had come out to Australia many years before with his parents as a child. He was now married and on his way back from a trip to Europe with his wife, baby, and mother-in-law with whom he had revisited his own hometown and that of his Yugoslav wife. This friendship was going to have a major impact on my future life in Australia, and to this day Hans and I have remained good friends ...] to let him know where I was, and before long he was on the 'phone to me suggesting that I might want to come up to Canberra. I didn't need much persuading! Hans got me a job as storeman/driver in the hardware & plumbing supplies company of Ingram & Sons in Canberra's industrial suburb of Fyshwick. I drove an INTERNATIONAL truck and delivered anything from ceramic floor tiles to bathtubs and roofing iron to building sites all over Canberra. Not that I had a driver's license for a truck or had ever driven a truck before in my life but this was Australia, a young and vigorous country still largely devoid of formalities, and an even younger city, Canberra, still in the making: Hans simply took me down to the local Police Station where everybody seemed very impressed with my elaborate German "F├╝hrerschein" and where I was promptly issued with a much simpler but oh so much more useful Australian driving license. I kept at this job for a few months but after I had almost burnt out the truck's diff at Deakin High School while bogged down in the mud with a full load on the back, and a slight but still embarrassing collision with the rear-end of another vehicle just outside the British High Commission, I thought it best to cash in my chips while I was still ahead.

I had earlier on answered an advertisement by the Australia & New Zealand Bank for school-leavers to join their ranks and, to my own surprise and joy, was accepted. I joined the ANZ Bank and, in keeping with my new "status" as a "Bank Johnny", moved from the migrant hostel on Capital Hill (now the site of the new Parliament House) into Barton House, one of Canberra's many boarding houses in those early years."

Well, as the saying goes, " ... and the rest is history." Today, fifty-five years later, the big WHAT IF questions in life have been replaced by "What's for dinner and what's on the telly tonight?" Somehow I've got this far! Sometimes it seemed like driving a car at night. I could see only as far as the headlights, I couldn't see where I was going and very little of what I passed along the way, but somehow I managed to make the whole trip all the same.

However, the trip won't be complete until I've come full-circle and made my pilgrimage to Bonegilla to stand in front of that super-sized photo of the entrance to the Bonegilla Reception Centre to have my photo taken.

Googlemap Riverbend


P.S. Read the full story here.