|Jul/Aug 2018 Nonfiction|
On a blinding 105 degree day the daughter of an Ingrian Finn argues with the son of a squatter family. They argue over Bonegilla, a half hour's drive away, a place he's never been. "It was a concentration camp," she says, "Not as cruel as Manus or Nauru, but the intent was clear: to make lives miserable."
"You should have been grateful we took you in." He spits the words. "This country gave people like you every opportunity."
Earlier we visit the remains of Australia's biggest migrant camp. Danja's only memory is of her mother's tears. Mitä olen tehnyt? A mother who as a child walked through the shivering German lines from Leningrad to Estonia, and then Finland before persuading her husband a decade later they should emigrate to Australia, not as refugees, but as fee-paying migrants. They arrived to sun-blasted hills bleaching alongside a grey lake clutched by dead trees, the husband, Danja's isä, separated from wife and daughter by a wire fence. Hot winds rattle the roofing on the remaining buildings. Fierce light and heat drains vitality from what is now a museum, a memorial, perhaps even an experience, of immense sadness. Coming to this place and feeling the antipathy of their hosts, the response of many was simple. "I want to die" was not just a thought, but an imperative. Visitors today leave notes. One curling in the heat reads "Send back any bastard who is not grateful to be in Australia and who does not love this great country." Later Danja finds official lists of the dead. Children who die in clusters from preventable diseases and young men, mainly, who shoot or hang themselves or become ensnared in the unseen snaking barbed wire of the lake. The "Reason for Death" column on the official document repeats the same word in a copperplate hand. "Dying." The reason for death is dying, over and over.
Bone-galah, the abusement of a Wiradjuri word conferred when it was fashionable to pay tribute to those slaughtered in the "dispersals" of the 1820s and 1830s, gradually became Bonny-gilla, as waves of European migrants found their first experience of Australia within its confines. Renaming confers ownership, but of what?
What is it about Australia that drives some immigrants to seek oblivion, to utter such words as "I want to die. This country doesn't want me?" How is it that a national culture is predicated on events which include people arriving not as "illegal aliens" but as invited migrant workers promised full economic and legal participation as citizens, only to suffer such fear and humiliation that becoming troglodytes was a better option than dealing with prejudice? Bonegilla, with its achtung orders, barbed-wire borders, its rifled guards, its lump mutton swill and segregated quarters, only allowed survival, but not life. Life happened outside its fences. Bonegilla is now a place without purpose, but the walls still whisper in foreign tongues. This is history, but it describes Australia now.
On a Friday evening in February 1979, two men were fishing in a boat in Sydney's middle harbour, just downstream from the tall concrete arches of Roseville Bridge. On their eastern side were steep thickly wooded banks extending several hundred metres up until levelling off at the boundaries of the north shore suburb of Killarney Heights. In the gloaming an elderly ragged man nimbly climbed down the rocks to the water's edge, keening "Meine Frau ist Tot!" One of the fishermen recalled schoolboy German. "My wife is dead." They rowed ashore and followed the distressed man up the steep rocky incline. Through thick bushland he led them to the hidden entrance of a cave. Inside, they found his wife, her body still warm. Mano širdis kraujavo.
The man was Peter Ziss. Or maybe Steven Petrovic. It was some time, through an interpreter, before he was declared to be Stefan Pietroszys and his deceased wife Genowefa. They had lived in caves and bushland for 24 years and were well known to local residents eager to recount their incorrect understanding; they saw the couple as eccentric Russians who had chosen their lifestyle to escape persecution from the KGB. When he learnt he was to be sent to a retirement home, Stefan protested, saying he just wanted to go back to his cave to die. Bureaucracy won. He died three years later at a nursing home in Maryong on the New South Wales Central Coast, a stranger in a strange land.
Despite having spent more than half their lives in Australia, little was known of this couple. They had appeared now and then in newspaper reports, usually with their names and country of origin incorrect. "A wonderful old Russian couple" a bushwalker told a local newspaper. Reporters suggested they were Ukrainian, Russian, Lithuanian, even German. The name Pietroszys shatters on the Australian tongue.
Stefan and Genowefa came to Australia after post-war immigration officials in Hamburg beguiled them with descriptions of a fair, golden land. They had no choice. Where else could they go? They were aliens in Germany. They feared, with good reason, they would be killed if they went home to Lithuania. In Australia they found themselves surrounded by an ignorance so complete nobody knew their names, their ages, their nationality or their circumstances. And no one cared.
Stefan Pietroszys was born in Vilnius, Lithuania in 1908, completed secondary school and soon after, in 1928, became the education and culture manager for the Vilnius City Council. At some stage he married Genowefa, a factory worker four years his junior. They had no children.
Their early life together was fearful. Vilnius was the epicentre of a region Timothy Snyder calls the Bloodlands. Snyder writes that through the combined slaughtering zeal of Russian and German forces, some 14 million non-combatants died between 1935 and 1945. For Stefan and Genowefa, 1941 was memorable. The Russian NKVD unexpectedly arrested more than 2,000 leaders of political groups, cultural organisations, journalists and government members, murdering them in a single night at a sugar factory in Panevezys on June 26. Stefan, a cultural officer, would have counted himself lucky that he was not among them.
Weeks later the Germans invaded, and Stefan and Genowefa were sent to a forced labour camp in Germany, where they lived until the war ended. They were then consigned to a displaced persons camp in Hamburg. The camp, Funk Caserne, was notorious, Dan Pleasch writes, because the US army in 1945 had placed 1,800 Holocaust survivors there, forcing them to live in an unheated coal store with three toilets.
In 1946 Stefan was interviewed by Australian immigration officials as to his suitability for emigrating to Australia. Australia needed more migrants than Britain could offer, and settled on the idea of recruiting people from the blonde-haired blue-eyed Baltic nations, a cohort who were originally called "reffos," but soon became known as "Beautiful Balts."
It is unlikely that Stefan knew much about Australia, and it is even more unlikely that the immigration officer gave him any details. The immigration officer, under instructions, was on the lookout for sturdy men of Baltic appearance, fit for labouring. Only those of certain ethnicities were accepted. Arthur Calwell, the minister in charge of the newly created portfolio of immigration, was specifically not interested in Jews. On Stefan's form his religion was listed as Lutheran. Just to make sure, the next question asked if the applicant was Jewish. The officer would have glanced at Stefan noting if he had any of the undesirable physical attributes such as obesity, ugliness or a hooked nose. Stefan knew five languages—Lithuanian, Russian, German, French and Ukrainian and for the time was well educated. But like the professors and medical doctors who also passed the immigration test, he was described as being suitable only for general labouring. Not suspected of being Jewish, Stefan's appearance was elided. His physical description is just one word: "average."
Stefan and Genowefa arrived in Fremantle on January 12, 1948. Daytime temperatures that summer regularly topped 35 degrees Celcius (95 degrees Farenheit). The red landscape rippled in the heat. Genowefa had begun acting strangely during the ship voyage, insisting that NKVD agents were among the passengers. She was placed in a Perth mental hospital where she regained her composure. Nonetheless, Calwell personally decided the couple were unfit for Australia and signed deportation orders. They were to be sent on a train with other deportees to the infamous Bonegilla migrant camp in Victoria to await deportation back to Germany.
The couple were given 10 shillings each for four meals on the 3,400 kilometre train trip from Perth to Melbourne. According to Stefan, their papers were confiscated at Melbourne. Fearful of life without identity documents, they absconded, somehow making their way to Geelong, south of Melbourne, living off the land and raiding trash cans before being arrested for vagrancy. At the time to be a vagrant implied you were work shy, a bludger. To be a migrant vagrant was to compound the crime. Not only was the migrant not one of us by way of culture, language, even eating habits, but the suspicion arose that such people were deliberately exploiting Australian charity and kindness. This is one of the official reasons why Bonegilla was deliberately organised to provide basic needs, but no basic comforts. Realising he would be sent to gaol and then to Bonegilla, Stefan used a razor blade to slash his wrists. He survived, and locals through a newspaper campaign raised enough money to have the vagrancy charge dropped. The magistrate ordered they be sent to Bonegilla and be issued with new papers. They disappeared from Bonegilla soon after arriving.
In November 1951 Sydney police charged Stefan and Genowefa with vagrancy and arrangements were made to send them to Bonegilla, but they skipped the train and disappeared once more. A year later, in November 1952 they turned up again at Geelong, were put on another train to Bonegilla, and disappeared again.
There is no record of Stefan and Genowefa's experiences of Bonegilla, but there are many records made by others.
During the late 1940s immigrants disembarking at Melbourne were given yellow identity badges, Davids Stern um Mitternacht schwarz. They were told to pin the badges to their coats. The train from Melbourne to Bonegilla took seven hours and more, usually arriving in a darkened field in the middle of the night. Bonegilla had no siding, just a paddock. The actual camp was some distance off. Armed guards herded the passengers off the train. Women screamed, fearing they were about to be shot.
The camp itself was guarded at the entrance boom gates, and fenced with barbed wire. Men and women were segregated into different parts of the camp. Alcohol was banned as was any form of private cooking. There was no heating or cooling. The food was mainly boiled mutton from ineptly butchered sheep, and boiled cabbage. Loudspeakers blared out instructions in German for 12 hours a day. There was little entertainment. All expenses were debited against the inmates' future wages. As Australia's largest migrant reception camp, Bonegilla received 320,000 migrants from 1947 to 1971. The sheer size of this post-war migration created a two-way process of confrontation, faced by émigrés and the local population.
Arthur Calwell, the first Australian immigration minister, hand-selected the first cohort of émigrés in 1947. They were described in his memoirs as a "choice sample." These displaced persons, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian, were "quality" migrants who were young, "handsome" and "beautiful." His was both the language of commodification and eugenics. Choice of "types" of migrants was a deliberate strategy to sell migrants as a healthful and wholesome commodity to a more than sceptical Australian public. Calwell believed that it was "not hard to sell immigration to the Australian people" once the photographs of early émigrés were released to the press. He later wrote "I failed to realise the number of bitter people in our community who were suffering from xenophobia, the hatred or distrust of the foreigner."
In between their court appearances, Stefan and Genowefa, realising the antipathy this strange new country had for people like them, simply disappeared.
There is no record of where they went or what they did. Officials thought they might be "somewhere in Victoria" and that their circumstances demonstrated the need for a "holding depot" but apart from that, the couple were out of sight and out of mind.
In early December 1953, police, responding to reports that garbage bins were being raided by prowlers in the Sydney suburb of North Rocks, arrested a couple dressed in hessian bag clothes. The woman had close-cropped hair. They had no money. They explained to police that they had been living in the North Rocks area for the last three months, but had been living rough for the last six years. They were charged with vagrancy and appeared at Parramatta Magistrate's Court. The magistrate was told they had absconded from Bonegilla in 1947. Genowefa told the court their identity papers had been taken off them in Melbourne, and, fearful of deportation, they had absconded. Newspaper accounts at the time made much of the fact they weren't employed. "This country is crying out for more self-reliant useful citizens. But in this case it got a couple of ready-made drifters," one newspaper complained. Another complained of how they "sometimes laughed" in court and spoke "in their native tongue" almost as if the utterances themselves were criminal. They should have been grateful for being allowed to come here. The magistrate ordered two days hard labour and then their return by train to Bonegilla. They jumped the train at Uranquinty just south of Wagga Wagga, and walked to a nearby quarry where they lay down to die. They had now been in Australia almost six years.
A week later, a local farmer, peering through the heat haze, saw a couple lying in a searing rock quarry, near death from lack of food or water. They were taken to the Wagga Wagga base hospital. Through an interpreter Stefan told reporters that they had fled the Russians and had worked under terrible conditions at a forced labour camp in Germany.
"We are not wanted in Australia," Stefan said. He said they preferred death to living in a hostile country without friends. Genowefa was sent to Bonegilla, escaping again while Stefan spent a few more days in hospital before escaping. A week later he was found sleeping under a grape vine in a Wagga Wagga backyard, still in his hospital pyjamas. Department of Immigration officials arrived. On January 1, 1954 while being escorted to Bonegilla, Stefan dived out the open passenger window of a car going at 80 kph, hitting the road and rolling into grass. He was returned to Wagga Wagga base hospital in critical condition with a fractured skull. After a few weeks he too was returned to Bonegilla—and promptly escaped.
Somehow the couple met up again. In late July 1954 they were again arrested for vagrancy on a farm near Gundagai and sentenced to three months hard labour. They told the court that they were on their way to meet with the then Immigration Minister Harold Holt. They weren't asked why. After serving their sentences they disappeared again, this time for 14 years.
In 1968 Sydney newspapers reported an elderly migrant couple had been living in a North Shore cave since 1954. Offers of help, including a State Government offer to find a home and provide an old age pension, were rejected by the couple who were clearly frightened by the attention. The story hit the tabloids, and the intense publicity caught the attention of local children, who found the cave and burnt it out, destroying what few possessions Stefan and Genowefa had managed to gather. They fled, and were presumed to be living in the bush in the area. Nothing more was heard from them until 1979, another 11 years, when Stefan announced the death of his wife to the two fishermen.
The cruelty in this story is that Stefan and Genowefa were persuaded to emigrate by a country that wanted their labour but was not interested in who they were. The government was only interested in their welfare so far as it impacted their ambitions to have Stefan and Genowefa reside at a work camp until labouring work was found. The fact that both were former inmates of German labour camps, in mortal fear of returning to their homeland, was of no consequence to the Australian bureaucrats selecting good stock to provide manpower to the Australian economy. Their early Australian experiences compounded existing traumas.
Bonegilla is now an empty lacuna of the soul. Some accounts of living there, especially from children, describe it as happy and carefree. Yet it bleeds trauma. As we walk through what's left of the officers' quarters, with neat storyboard cards on the walls, the hairs on my neck rise. I hold in my hand a pamphlet partly written by a local historian who encourages school children to think of Bonegilla as "Camp Cunning." The people incarcerated there were not to be trusted.
This history is not forgotten because it was barely ever remembered. And that is something Australia prides itself on: a history where nothing much happened. If Bonegilla is a memorial to migration it has failed its basic task. Just as Bonegilla has slipped from public consciousness, the traumas Australians inflict on the refugees at Manus and Nauru will be forgotten. This is a nation built on the belief that the trauma of eventlessness is preferable to the trauma of remembering. Until Australia acknowledges and remembers its deep resentment of the Other, whether the Other be the Indigenous, the Chinese, the Greeks, Italians, Balts, Vietnamese, Sri Lankans, Somalis, Iraqis and Iranians, it will be doomed to mirror Stefan and Genowefa's lives: huddled and hiding, forever fearful of authoritarian gaze.