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Our first night in our little home was definitely the best one in our whole lives.   we had no beds, nothing, but army blankets and pillows. We slept on the floor boards in a big huddle, clutching each other all night.   We cuddled the night away.   The hard floor boards felt like cushions

Stewart Street, East Brunswick

Coats, hats and shoes, and Mamma’s well cut army coat.

Together again.

of feathers, in our own house. We were happy to sleep on the boards – as long as we could be as happy as we were then.

 

But school life was different for my girls. Dzintra’s name had been interpreted  as Sandra and she was too afraid to speak up to tell them otherwise.   After school every day the children would wait for them.  As they got out of the school gate the others would taunt and tease them. Dzintra’s long plait was pulled vigorously as they yelled; “Go back to Europe!” Rocks were hurled in their direction and the girls would attempt to run away. Most of the time they didn’t understand half of the insults they endured.

I found out where the children lived and I rapt on their doors.  Having no parents at home, they were very  quiet and polite as they listened to me telling them of the perils of behaving like communists.  The word ‘communist’ must have hit a note as they replied, “No! I’m not a communist!” And from then on, the torment stopped.

My children had survived their new life and we had remained a close and loving unit. I had managed to provide them with much more than I’d hoped to when we’d gone to Bonegilla. The Australian people had helped me establish myself to some extent – but it was I who had battled against all odds and come out on top.

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Visiting the girls made me both happy and sad. The women in the orphanage were kind and loving and yet the children were unhappy – longing for something more – knowing somehow that a part of them was missing. The children in the orphanage had parents with one problem or another. “My mother is crippled,” one little boy said to me and my heart went out to him. They longed to see their parents – whether they had any or not. When I arrived at the orphanage I would instantly be surrounded by children. They longed for a parent figure and it looked like I was it. They called me a ‘real’ mum as though  I was something tangible – a reality – just what a parent looked like. We would sit in the garden, me on a chair and the children all around me. I was the hen surrounded by her eager chicks. They all wanted to talk to me, vying for my attention, showing me anything new. Their little hearts were spilling over, telling me of their worries and the things that are important in a child’s world. Somehow they must have though that a ” ‘real’ mum” would have something  to offer, some magical  maternal understanding that the women of the orphanage couldn’t supply. There were so many unhappy children, mostly Australian, and I couldn’t help them.  I suppose by just visiting I was providing them with some help and hope.  Dzintra and Silvija were standing next to me, their hands on my shoulder, as my lap was occupied by a little girl.

“Mamma,” Dzintra began, “How much money did you make this week?  When will you take us home with you?”

“I earned 8 pounds this week,” I said proudly.

“Oh”, she replied a little dejectedly, “I prayed to God that he would earn you 20 pounds.”

The girls longed for a place of their own, a place where we could be together, by ourselves.

Silvija and Dzintra with the non English speaking children.

I had to get a second job so I went to another mill in Victoria Park. At one mill I worked until four and then the other shift started at five and finished at ten at night. I arrived home from work, so tired and drained both physically and emotionally. I would look at the night sky and the moon and stars and promise myself that tomorrow I would rest, “tomorrow, tomorrow…..” but tomorrow never came. After a full year of tomorrows I had saved 500 pounds – enough for a deposit on a house.

The house in East Brunswick was small, but it represented the victory of my hard fought battle. It was called a dwelling. It had floor boards, walls and a ceiling and it was all I ever wanted.

All I had with me were some grey army blankets and a couple of pillows. A big box and a couple of smaller ones served happily as a kitchen table and seats. It was my own house and I couldn’t wait to bring Silvija and Dzintra to it.

As we left the orphanage, Silvija and Dzintra holding my hands, Dzintra turned around to the other children to proudly say, “we have the best mother in the world”. It broke my heart to hear the cries of the little children saying, “Can we come too with the best mother in the world?”.

 

Part 4 should be the end of this epic. 

Mama with Silvija on the left and her friend Zaiga.

Passport photo of Mamma.

 

Nobody could answer my question of how long we would have to stay in the camp.  We all wanted to make our own money and get out of the rags we were in. I knew that I had to take back my hold on the direction of my life when I heard that my curse had returned to strike again. The officials of Bonegilla were planning on sending the women and children  to a camp in Cowra. I made a definite stand and refused the suggestion saying that I wanted to somehow get back to Melbourne. From then was a turning point of my life in Australia. I made my first real decision – on my own, without others trying to influence me. But as of yet I wasn’t quite sure how to carry out my plans for the future.

I asked the advice of a Lutheran Minister, regarding my plan. He suggested that I put Silvija and Dzintra into an orphanage while I worked and earned money for a place to stay. Seeing as Balts already knew how to read and write English I had no problem finding a few jobs in the newspaper. There was a lot of domestic work advertised but I shunned it, knowing that a domestic job would take up all my time which meant I wouldn’t be able to devote any to the girls. I wanted to be like other Australian families and have a home where my girls could live happily with me. In those days there were no flats nor families renting out spare rooms to strange boarders. Accommodation was going to be a problem, but at least I would have independence and be well on my way to having a normal life once again. The job I took was in a weaving mill and I later took a second weaving mill job.

Getting ready to leave Bonegilla, Silvija and Dzintra became very excited. The social workers of the camp gave the girls beautiful, new outfits consisting of shoes, socks, coats and smart little hats. They were very happy and the other children in our hut were astonished by the new clothes my girls had received. The other children seemed a little jealous – yet they had no need to be as at least they had fathers who could provide for them. The social workers gave me clothes too – but I looked ridiculous in army clothes.  They were well cut and made of wool, but i couldn’t help but laugh at myself. At the office, before we left on the bus for the station, one of the Australian camp secretaries pressed two pounds into my hand and said, “Pay me back when you earn enough money”. I felt very touched by the gesture and realised that Australians had been very helpful and kind to me and in fact to everybody. I felt very at home for the first time in months.

The train journey was very much an adventure for my girls. I told them that we were going back to my beautiful city and they knew what was going to happen once we got there. I had told them of my plan and they seemed very happy. They each held a paper wrapped package full of underwear which were really rags, but I was proud to say they were clean.

During the journey we all looked out the window of the carriage and watched as the skeleton trees passed by with the slight swaying motion of the train. The girls sang Latvian folk songs and I felt so very close to them.

Silvija sang  and danced happily in the carriage, skipping and hopping like a grasshopper. She could barely stay in one place very long. The fate at the end of the voyage didn’t seem to worry her. In her eyes it was play now – worry later. Her bold and fearless voice echoed around the cabin as she sang of the mighty warrior, Lacplesis, and the spirits of the forest. Dzintra sang quietly, her small body clutching my lapels, her head burrowing closely into my chest as she sat on my lap.

Some of this journey and the end of it is on another post which described the differences which can be so marked, even among sisters. So I feel no need to repeat that section. It was from my memories, not my mothers. 

So continuing her account –

I was determined to earn enough money to buy my own house. Loans for women were unheard of, but if I could earn enough money for a house deposit, then I could pay the rest off in installments.  I had an obsession to live like the Australians around me. I was proud that I hadn’t remained in the camp like a worthless refugee. I was going to fight for a normal life – a life I had dreamed about for years.

I walked from Burwood, where the Pastor had been able to give me accommodation with another family, to Malvern everyday as I didn’t have enough money for a fare and I wasn’t willing to waste my money anyway. Every penny was precious.  I found the weaving mill job to be a good one. Even though I had to work very fast I was very good at my job. Everybody I worked with was friendly and very helpful, especially the Australians – both men and women. Even though the women’s wage was 4 pounds and the men’s 8 pounds, I was given a wage of 8 pounds in the first week because I worked very fast.

Every Saturday I would travel to the Melbourne Orphanage to visit Silvija and Dzintra.

Bonegilla Camp. circa 1954.

Looking through piles of old magazines and hoarded paperwork, which at the time seemed terribly important to keep, I came across a piece written by my daughter Leah at the dictation of her grandmother, my Mum.

This is one piece I could not possibly destroy. It’s family history and since I could not do better in articulating her thoughts and being unwilling to transcribe the whole piece, I decided to share some excerpts. This after all is my history also.

With our Red Cross coats

THE CHANCE TO START ANEW – Natalija Holden (nee Kerans-Gedulis)   Part One.

“The officials were waiting to see us all as we disembarked from the ship. Many of the Balts had been under a two year contract – to serve in domestic jobs. (And on the Snowy Mountains Scheme) After the two years they could go where they pleased. However as I was a woman with two small children, nobody wanted me for domestic work, and that was just fine with me as I had bigger and better plans for my future. But for awhile they would have to wait as we got our names checked off and those who didn’t have jobs were put onto the train on the dock which took us on a direct route to Bonegilla.

The train pulled out of the dockyards (This would have been Station Pier) and  travelled towards the city  – it was a beautiful city. I could see the lovely streets, at the time I think it was King Street, and I studied the city as the train momentarily stopped on the bridge. As the train pulled off once again I realised that I had no idea where we were going and I prayed to God that He would bring us back to this beautiful, clean city. Because Dzintra was only small she had no idea of what was happening. We didn’t have many clothes at all and being the middle of July, the weather was very cold. We had always been under the impression that Australia would be hot.

Dzintra asked me in a voice of innocence showing slight impatience; “When will we get to the hot Australia? Here it is so cold!”

The train travelled without a stop and we all sat in amazement as we looked out at the countryside. I thought it looked ugly, and so frightening. The trees were all so dead and their branches hung like skeleton’s limbs; ready to grab us, the newcomers.

When it was early morning, the train stopped at a small station (It was a steam train and needed to take on water) and we all got out to stretch our worn out bodies and get some fresh air. The train drivers coaxed Silvija and Dzintra  over to them and a picture was taken with Silvija at the engine.

I knew that my girls looked different from Australian children. It was because of the way they were dressed. Their clothes had been mended a dozen times over. We looked a sorry sight, but what else could we do? No money doesn’t allow you to buy much at all.

Bonegilla. another camp. From a camp in Germany to a camp in Australia. I was beginning to feel cursed somehow. The huts were in half cylinder shape and were made of tin. (A former Australian Army Base). The beds were wooden camp beds and it was horribly cold. Our names were once again checked off and with our newly issued grey soldiers blankets we headed off to find our hut.

The camp was by no means crowded and the Balts were the only people there. Yet Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians were separated from each other – each being allocated our own huts.

On our first night in the camp, we heard a horrifying noise on the roof. We all froze in our beds, not wanting to think what hideous monsters could be outside waiting to strike. Someone whispered, “It must be one of those wild and dangerous Australian animals!”

“Yes!” someone else offered. “Certainly a lion!”

“Or a tiger!”, suggested another frightened voice from the darkness. More scratching and noises travelled from the roof. “He will jump on us!” The sounds of our shouting summoned the camp manageress who, to our surprise, thought the situation quite funny.

“Don’t worry about him. He’s a good animal. He catches snakes and won’t hurt you”. And she explained to us all the advantages of having a possum in our roof – although we thought he was a nuisance being so noisy in the dead of night.

In all my time in the migrant camp, I never had the pleasure of coming face to face with the infamous snakes. The only snake most of us saw was the one which hung from the end of a rope – it s black body twirling in the wind. The camp authorities had introduced us to snakes in this way – so that we would be able to recognise one if we saw it.

Night time in Australia is frightening and like nothing I had experienced before. The sky is so low; it hems you in and you feel as though if you stand as straight as you can, your hair will brush its darkness.  The Australian sky is scary – brimming with strange and foreign stars. But we were the foreigners. We were the ones who were strange.

The fatty food we were fed made us very sick. Lamb chops and fat soup.  We developed boils on our bodies, and I developed a horrifying boil on my face. Everybody who saw me would turn away for fear of embarrassing me. It was treated and soon disappeared. Like many of the other things around our camp. The men of the camp were called to the office and offered work in the forests, clearing the land. Many men accepted but nothing was available for the women with children.

Since this is quite a long piece, I shall continue on another post.

Our tame “Wild” teens

The era of my early teen years was the late 1950’s. Looking back to what was expected from that new word in the vocabulary “teen” our wildest escapades seem very tame.

Nevertheless, my bosom friends, Pam, Pat and Sandria and I were the young ratbags responsible for many a teacher’s migraine.

We all seemed to loathe Friday Sports afternoons, which were compulsory for all High School students. But it was the one afternoon when the roll call was not taken. Who could possibly chase all the students down at their various sporting activities. And these frequently were the most boring, with teams well over the supposed dozen or so required for rounders (a form of baseball but with a small flat bat. So by the time you actually got to hit the ball, you would have been sitting around on the grass bordering the playing fields for quite some time, cooling your heels.

This was to be avoided at all costs.

So we would hang back until all the main teams had been selected. Leaving only the completely fat and unfit. These poor souls languished around the shelter sheds or sat and slouched on the long grass . In between the teams gathering to play and the has- beens dithering around in a cluster, we would silently slip into the shelter shed. Out of sight. When all had vacated the area, we would simply whip out the side gate and race for my home. This was the closest and available because no one was home during the day. A quick stop along the way at the local Milk Bar to buy a small packet of Craven A cigarettes. Purchased after pooling a few days of lunch monies.

Of course after all this time we would be hungry again. So what better plan than to emulate our heroines from Enid Blyton’s Boarding School books. I can’t remember the titles anymore, but it was always some poor girl who hated boarding school but by the end of the book had become a Prefect. And a highlight of these boarding school days used to be the “midnight feast”.

How to make eating an adventure? Collect the outside ladder, torch, bits and pieces of food, and old blanket, our precious cigarettes, and climb up into the ceiling through the manhole. When I think of it now, I can’t for the life of me see what was so wonderful about opening a can of sardines by torchlight to eat among the cobwebs and spiders in the ceiling. Fortunately it was too hot and disgusting to have our coffee up there as well, so we all came down for that.  Plus our cigarettes which we puffed away until our packet was empty and we were a decided shade of green.

The last time we attempted this escapade, we lumbered around in the ceiling, not thinking to pick our way along the struts, but actually walking on the plaster. So how long can plaster take that sort of pressure? Not long. Pats foot eventually disappeared down a hole, scattering plaster all over the front bedroom.

Poor cousin Juris received a severe talking to about the force of his hammer blows when repairing the outside verandah the weekend before. Seems it loosened the plaster so it eventually gave way to gravity and fell down.

“That” verandah.

A worthwhile career.

Remember when you were still in High School and you and your friends spent a lot of your time debating just what you would do when you finally reached adult stage and went out to work. Lofty ideals and careers come to mind. But how many of us actually went ahead and achieved our career choices.

So many unforeseen events took place which negated those illustrious notions. And instead of a “Professional” position in the world of business, I found that my first job was sewing beads onto garments. 

All is not lost however as I am still proficient and make use of that ability now and then. But did I want to identify myself as a “beader” for the rest of my days? Definitely not! 

So over the years my life revolved around a number of businesses, learning typing and how to operate a switchboard. A stint at the City West Exchange. Remembered mostly because of a very large solid lump on my middle finger. Earned while writing details of wanted telephone connections to Perth which was six hours in delay. Oh weren’t those the days! Well before ringing interstate was as easy as picking up a phone and dialing.

Family circumstances led me to my final employment. It was close to home, a major attraction, though I was dubious about managing to stay in that line of work. It was a new funeral home opening just a suburb away and needing a receptionist. Well, I could do that – easy, peasy!

Two months later, I was also a trained Consultant (well you’re there alone, all day long. What if someone walks in and needs attention immediately?)

Twenty years later I was also a Conductor (no we didn’t need an orchestra playing while I worked) which literally meant “the buck stops here” on a funeral. The roster was horrendous and I rarely got home before 9pm every four week shift.

It was while I was on weekend night shift many years later that I finally realised the worth of what I was doing. 

Going into a Nursing Home at some ghastly after midnight hour, effecting the removal of the deceased into our care on an ambulance trolley and heading for our vehicle, a nurse stopped to let us pass and said “You have an honourable profession!”

And you know what. She was right. Thirty plus years of caring for the grieving and distressed. What an honour!

 

Siblings. Growing up together, just two years apart. But so very different in character. Do we take that from parents?  I’ll let the DNA experts handle that one. One or either of us could be a throw back to some very distant great grandparent. At least in part.

Nevertheless, the differences are there.  We are not clones of each other.

My sister is the eternal optimist. Whatever is happening, there is always a bright side to the situation.  House burn down? Wow, now you can change all the things you really didn’t like. The bank will cough up! Extreme I know. But I can just imagine her saying that – as a comfort of course.

I on the other hand am a realist. No. I do not call myself a pessimist. A pessimist is someone who always sees the dark side of every situation.  I don’t, but I do evaluate every situation “in your face” so to speak so I can judge what my response will be.

A case in point.

Here we are. Two small girls, aged five and seven.  Finally leaving Bonegilla Migrant Camp in Victoria, Australia, where we had been for the past nine weeks.   The long hazardous boat trip from Europe over, and time enough to start getting used to this strange country with the weird scraggy trees.

Standing outside the Army hut with a small group, waiting for the Army truck to take us to the station at Albury. Of course we didn’t know that. Just that it was a dreadfully cold frosty morning and we were leaving.

While we waited Mamma took us both aside and as we huddled together for warmth, she quietly said that she would not be able to stay with us. Some very nice ladies would meet us at the train station and take us to a home with other children to play with. She had to work very hard to save money for a house, just for us, so we could all be together again. No, we could not go with her.

Finally on the train, I climbed onto Mamma’s lap and cuddled her all the long way to Melbourne.

Weeping quietly and whispering  “Now we will say goodbye, now we will say goodbye”.  

My older sister on the other hand, sang every Latvian song she could think of, dancing around the cabin, and turning her feet this way and that, to admire the shine of her new shoes, given to her by the Red Cross.

Some four hours later, we arrived. Mamma handed us our small string tied packages of clothes and left us with two ladies. My goodbyes already said, I walked away dry eyed, clasping one of the ladies hands.

My sisters wails could be heard up and down the station as she was also walked away, reality finally striking.

I’m not saying one attitude was better than the other. Just so different.

Must say it does get up my nose when she says “you’re such a pessimist”. No, I am not. I am a realist

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