The first great wave of immigrants to Australia began in 1949. They came to Victoria and New South Wales and were then sent to wherever they were needed to work to fulfill their two-year contract with the Australian government. If you came to Victoria, you were first sent to Bonegilla, received some English lessons and then were placed in Melbourne, Tasmania and around Victoria in a variety of unskilled and semi-skilled employment. All able-bodied men and women were housed in hostels, families were sent to hostels such as the World War 2 army barracks in Mildura.
Arriving in Australia in the fifties meant great changes in life style and work for the migrants. Many were political emigrants, who had lived in refugee camps since 1945. They had no choice but to settle in a country that was willing to receive them. At the time Argentina and Australia were the two major sponsors of the so-called “displaced persons”. A large group of Slovenian political migrants chose Argentina, others went to Australia.
Post-war Australia was a country that participated fully in World War 2 having barely recovered from the great depression of the thirties. Australian soldiers fought bravely and a great many did not return. It needed a fresh and vigorous working force to extend roads, develop new industries, and sources of energy and for enormous undertakings such as The Snowy Mountain Hydro-Electrical Scheme. The country that made its fortune on the “sheep’s back”, could no longer rely on wool and its primary resources for its prosperity. Workers were needed, preferably English migrants, who would fit easily into the existing social structures. Since not enough of them were willing to settle in Australia, the decision was made to begin looking among the displaced persons of Europe. The first arrivals were the refugees from the Baltic states, who were found to be most acceptable, because their appearance fitted into the existing Australian population. Other groupings followed closely. Australia needed workers, a great number of them.
The year 1954 marks the beginning of organized community activity. The founding meeting of what was to become Slovenian Association Melbourne took place in St.Albans community hall. About fifty people attended. A great many more came to the dance in the Prahran Town Hall.
Life was hard for the migrants in the beginning. Many had to do physically demanding work to which they had not been accustomed. There was a great shortage of accommodation in the cities. Families were separated. Men were employed wherever needed, and lived in hostels. Families were placed in family hostels elsewhere, often at a great distance from the men. Such was the family hostel in Mildura, in the middle of the grape growing country on the Murray River. The hostel was a converted army barracks of corrugated iron huts, with
administrative, catering, school and hospital sections. Men could visit
only on longer holidays – Christmas and Easter. To be separated in such a way was hard on families. In the meantime the children went to school and learnt English, their mothers found work in the kitchen and hospital. There was another benefit. Women and older children could go grape picking and work in fruit drying factories in the area, and earn additional money towards the day when enough could be saved to buy a block of land and build a home.
Meanwhile, 1951 was a year of extreme heat waves; the temperature was over 102 degrees Fahrenheit, climbing to 112 for more than three weeks. There was no air conditioning, no escape from the heat. The corrugated iron barracks became burning furnaces, people sought shade wherever they could find it, and places below the few eucalyptus trees on the hostel perimeter were at a premium. The coolest place was among the foliage of the grape vines. The greatest memory of the time was the consumption of great quantities of vanilla ice cream, in large heaped soup plates – the only cool thing available, and enjoyed to the full.
By 1952 many Slovenian families were able to move to Melbourne. In St. Albans, an outer western suburb of Melbourne a large farm was transformed into a housing development with large blocks, provided with water and electricity. They cost 120 pounds. This was quite affordable. Next came a bungalow built of cement sheets and divided into an eating/kitchen and a sleeping area, at the cost of 250 pounds.
The family could come to live in the bungalow, while a larger family home could be built. Many Australian houses at the time were wood constructs, raised from the ground and clad with painted board. They were cheaper than brick houses, easy to build and allowed for the circulation of air and faster cooling after sundown. So the majority of new settlers built a conventional “weatherboard house” with the help of a builder and a group of friends as soon as they could afford it.
This was the busy time with plenty of jobs available. Many people worked double shifts. There was one chief aim, to earn enough to build or buy a house, followed closely by the desire to improve oneself, by learning English, taking on a job appropriate to their education and training, and undertake further studies and ensure good education for their children. All this was possible in a country growing by leaps and bounds.
Migrants who continued arriving in Australia and went to work in factories hardly needed English. They spoke German, Italian, Polish and Serbo-Croatian amongst themselves.
English became important only when more than earning money was involved and the migrant wanted to establish himself in the Australian social environment.
What did we miss the most in those early days? There was the lack of variety of vegetables, condiments, meats and breads we were used to in Europe. There was no pasta or tomato paste. Australian tomato sauce was very sweet, served with sausages and pies. Surprisingly there was sauerkraut in tins, that I remember longing for.
There are other vivid memories of those early days. There was the unrelenting heat, that was hard to bear, but could not be escaped. Everyone has memories of the first impact of Australian environment. Mine are of the first Christmas and the heat, the impossibility of eating the heavy Christmas meal, the Christmas tree that caught fi re and my father running out of the house with it. While we kept our memories of white Christmases, we got used to the hot Australian summertime Christmas, real candles were replaced with electric lights, ice cream and fruit salad replaced the traditional dried fruits. We did retain the “potica” our traditional Slovenian walnut cake.
Within two years most settlers who had arrived in 1950 had their own homes and were looking towards establishing their own place in Australian society. Slovenes brought with them their customs, lifestyle, language and festivities and proceeded to develop a Slovenian social environment that suited their spiritual and cultural needs.