TO BONEGILLA FROM SOMEWHERE
by Wanda Skowronska
(Connor Court Publishing, 2013, 290pp, $29.95, ISBN: 978-1-922168-73-3. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Wanda Skowronska has been a regular contributor to Annals and an occasional contributor to AD2000. Her articles have always made for stimulating reading and hence her latest book, To Bonegilla from Somewhere, is very welcome. It will be of particular interest to the many readers with roots in Eastern Europe.
The author's first hand account makes for enthralling reading and is backed up by plentiful photos. And most significantly, the book sheds light on this country's recent history involving the mass migrations of the post-World War II period.
Most of the displaced persons (DPs) who came to Australia at the end of World War II ended up in Bonegilla in the state of Victoria – the largest migrant camp in Australia's history. This book recounts the journeys of two DPs among the many Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Ukrainians and Czechs who passed through there.
The majority were Catholic, some were Protestant, but all had no illusions about the brutality of the Soviet Union. The DPs were the collateral damage of World War II and especially the 1945 Yalta conference involving Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill which ended up handing over a third of Europe to the Soviet regime, to the perpetual amazement of those being 'handed over' by the big players at this conference.
In reality the war did not end on victory day for these victims of Soviet ambition. Furthermore, the prisoners and displaced in Western Europe knew they could not return to countries whose new communist leaders did not want them anyway. And so they waited for years in DP camps in Germany until accepted by another country.
Australia would accept about 180,000 DPs and about half of these passed through Bonegilla, most of them Poles. There had never been such a large single movement of people into Australia – and certainly not of such a large mass of Christians accepted for settlement here at any one time.
The book specifically recounts the harrowing journey of Bogdan Skowronska and Valerie Klucknieka, the author's parents, who had survived several near-death experiences before they arrived by sea at Port Melbourne and were then transported to Bonegilla via rail through country Victoria.
It tells of a near forgotten period of post-war Australian history which has had a crucial influence on the future of this country. It was a time of peace and prosperity in Australia and yet these new arrivals brought burdens of memory deriving from their traumatic wartime experiences, incomprehensible to most Australians.
While Bonegilla left different impressions on its former inhabitants the author writes of the camp:
"This place was the first I can ever recall on the earth. It was a kind of Eden for me, a mélange of European manners, possums, open land, stories of intense and remembered worlds from far away. In a strange way, I felt I was Bonegillian before I knew I was Australian for like most children who lived there, the stories of our families seeped into our very being - as transmitted memories from a kind of European dreamtime, a dreamtime which had turned into an abyss of loss on the one hand and of compelling curiosity on the other. Their stories were our stories too and the very fragmentation of their lives were pierced into our consciousness as children and all throughout the years to come."
Bonegilla, in its first phase, became a kind of Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Vienna, Riga or Vilnius in the bush. Australia had never seen anything like it nor had the DPs ever seen anything like Australia. It was a place where dark lines of history in the 20th century intersected with peaceful Australia. It was a place where the geopolitical significance of the stories of the inhabitants had yet to be told, assimilated and understood.
In the meantime, Bonegilla hinted at a new dream - of hope far away from the horror on the other side of the world and became a place of special memories, a place of physical and spiritual refuge and a significant facet of Australian immigrant history.
This book will resonate especially with readers who have memories of the changes occurring in Australia's social and religious fabric in the late 1940s and early 1950s, following the influx of new settlers from southern and eastern Europe. It will also enable those of us with Anglo-Celtic roots to better appreciate what these new settlers had to endure in making new lives for themselves.
Meanwhile, this story has had its sequels with the later waves of arrivals from trouble spots like Vietnam and most recently from various parts of the Middle East.