THE MIGRATION EXPERIENCE.
POST-WAR EUROPE TO AUSTRALIA.
By: Agnes E. Karlik and Joseph Karlik
"Where lies the land to which the ship would go?
Far, far ahead is all her seamen know"
Arthur Hugh Clough
Ocean. Water. Breathe water, sleep water, dream water.
Fifth week of voyage...
At last... LAND AHOY...
Australia, Western Australia, Fremantle.
Dominant thoughts fortyfive odd years ago. In December 1950 to be exact. We were in the midst of a journey of a life-time. Emigrating from Europe to Australia on the Swedish ship "Anna Salen" which left Bremerhafen, Germany on 27th November.
My Father, a film-maker by profession, recorded the journey on 35mm motion-picture film. My Father was in the film industry all his life. As a young man in Hungary, in the early decades of this century he recognised the potential power of the celluloid strip that could bring hitherto unheard-of motion to any photographic scene. He devoted his whole life to the establishment of a technical basis on which a flourishing film making industry could be built. Together, of course, with the performing, artistic contributors of the industry they reached a level of efficiency that made Central European film productions in the 1930-s and '40-s rival those of Hollywood.
The film made on board the Anna Salen was subsequently returned to Germany and widely distributed, representing the first step of becoming a migrant: the journey "out". A short version copy of the production has been in possession of my family ever since, always considered to be a perfect starting point for a future, then vaguely planned follow-up documentary that I could make one day, showing the life of people, families 45 - 50 years later. A historical documentary production that would, although based on the lives of families who arrived on "my" boat, be presenting a cross-sectional historical view of migration and the contribution of migrants towards the development of this beautiful modern country of ours, Australia.
In the mid-eighties the reality of passing time hit me: death.
I cannot wait any longer. Already many of our acquaintances from the journey had passed away. Waiting any longer would mean losing the opportunity to talk with many of the original people. I applied for and received a copy of the original "Ship's Manifest" from the Perth office of the Australian Archives and by now I have sent in excess of two hundred letters. One hundred and sixty of those letters resulted in fruitful contact. Some responded with enthusiasm for the concept bordering on the ecstatic . So far forty of them provided detailed family history with permission to use it in any historical contexts.
The journey actually started for different groups of people at different points in Germany. My father and I, after escaping from the communist terror in Hungary, came from Salzburg, Austria, to Aurich then Sengwarden, both camps in Germany, supported by the International Refugee Organisation for people in transit to various immigrant destinations on the globe. Like ours: Australia.
Why Australia? We did not know - and I am sure I can safely speak for all the other people who were waiting for embarkation on the "Anna Salen", or for that matter, any of the people in the camps, we did not know anything of importance about Australia. We heard it was a hot country. We heard, rust - not green - was the dominant colour. We all heard about kangaroos, their pouches and that they hopped around on two legs. We all knew it is a long,long way away, on the other side of the world. Knowing the distance, we liked it. We, and many others chose it as our new homeland. As far as can be from war-torn Europe. A Europe still more than half ruled by the bloody-minded Russian version of communism. The everpresent possibility of its eruption into more senseless mass-killings at any tick of its bloodstained, archaic, "feudalism versus fur-hatted massmurderers masquerading as liberators of the working classes" coloured clock.
Australia, we heard, declared its "populate or perish" policy.
Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration in Ben Chifley's Labour government of the post-war years, acted on the fears expressed many years earlier by another Labour Prime Minister Billy "Little Digger" Hughes:
"The populations of the world are increasing unevenly...
Japan has now (early 1920's) 80.000.000 of people within an area less than
one twentieth of that of Australia... Where can they find a country as inviting and
as vulnerable as Australia? And if they come here, what shell we do?
To whom shell we turn for help?
Clearly we must prove by our deeds that we recognise our duty to populate
and develop this great heritage of ours.
We must build up our defences..."
The fears of the 1920's came perilously close to becoming the realties of the 1940's. A migration policy had to be established to build up the population. Parliamentary politics demanded a preference for British stock. "Anyone from east of Dover is a wog" was the attitude. Accepting "wogs" might fit within the framework of another hard-and-fast rule,the White Australia policy, but it was a lowering of "standards" according to the mentality of the day. Preference was given to Baltic "Displaced Persons" because they were closest in looks to the desirable "British stock". Necessity of available numbers made the acceptance loop widen gradually until it included even us - "ex Enemy" - Hungarians.
We did not know about all this politicking at the time. Even had we known, it would not have worried us. We were desperate people. Homeless. Made homeless by games played by the than super-powers at Yalta and Potsdam, to name but two of the gaming-rooms.
Australia has accepted us as migrants, that was all that mattered. And now we were getting nearer and nearer to our point of embarkation. Nearer and nearer to the ocean we will ride, to the boat that will take us to our new homeland.
We gained our first glimpse of the "Anna Salen" as she was towed to berth by tugs in Bremerhafen, a North-sea port in Germany.To most of us, having always lived far from the world of big boats, she looked enormous. Her actual 11.500 gross tonnage would put her into a medium size category amongst ocean liners.
Her checkered past was only revealed to us decades later, but it should be mentioned here, as it is so typical of many of the ships of that period.
Laid down as a cargo ship and launched in December 1939 as "Mormacland" she was requisitioned by the US Government before fitting out was completed and she was converted into an auxiliary aircraft carrier. Complete with flight-deck and aircraft handling facilities. Renamed "HMS Archer" she was transferred to the British Navy under lend-lease agreement. She survived the war, was rebuilt as cargo ship named "Empire Lagan". In 1946 she was handed back to America, mothballed, later auctioned as surplus, bought by Sven Salen, Swedish ship-owner. As "Anna Salen" she took her first load of migrants from Naples, Italy, to Melbourne and Sydney. After two more successful trips she left Naples once again with a complement of IRO immigrant, but broke down in the Indian Ocean, had to limp back to Aden. Here her passengers were transferred to "Skaugum". The voyage I am writing about was the first one after the ship was repaired and re-commissioned. She also made several trips to Canada with refugees on board, then in the mid fifties she travelled on the Saigon, mainland China, Australia, Europe run, until bought by Hellenic Mediterranean Line and renamed "Tasmania". Her next owners were the China Union Lines of Taipei. Now she was named "Union Reliance". She served as a cargo vessel to American ports. In 1961 she collided with a Norwegian tanker. The following explosion and fire gutted her. A New Orleans ship-breaker firm bought her, but early during demolition she caught fire again and was, this time totally, destroyed. A sad end to a vessel that, in its time, encapsulated between its steel walls as much hope, as much aspiration of home-seeking settlers as any vessel afloat anywhere in the world. If "hope" could be weighed as plasma-like mind-matter then the "Anna Salen" - like her contemporary sister ships on the migrant run - carried cargo a thousand time in excess of their tonnage capacity - and are remembered by many of us for this reason amongst others - with fond gratitude.
The "Anna Salen"s December 1950 voyage was uneventful in maritime terms. Winter departure from a northern port meant cold weather, bone-chilling winds, rough seas. We passed the white cliffs of Dover, the Bay of Biscay - the milder latitudes of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean Sea. At Suez another conflict must be negotiated. The war between Egypt and Israel. Jewish passengers were not interfered with but confined to bellow deck for the duration of travel through the Canal. Armed guards on decks, merchants in small boats swarming around the ship. The heat of the Red Sea. Still hot after Aden.
Daily newsletter informs everyone about events on board - or in the big wide world if the event is "important" enough. By the diligent foresight of some people copies of many of these "Newsletters" are available and life on board can be reconstructed in accurate detail.The compulsory life-jacket, life-boat boarding exercises were routine stuff. The English language classes, the chess games on deck, the endless discussions of past and future events in a babel of different languages filled the long days between ports. Crossing the Equator was celebrated with the traditional Neptune Ceremony - dunking as many people as possible in the water-filled makeshift canvas "pool". The most enthusiastic participants were of course the sailors and other young males, giving them the opportunity - under the guise of administering the mandatory dunking - to grope and paw many of the young and not so young females. The sometimes genuine - mostly not so genuine squeals of protestation filled the air for the duration of proceedings. A "Certificate of Crossing" was issued to all.
Christmas 1950 was also celebrated on board. The nativity plays performed by children, prepared and taught by caring adults. Memorable occasions, as evidenced by the joyful screams of recognition 45 years later, at a screening of the film of the historical event, by the creator of the little dresses for the performance - performed all those years ago. The creator is a lady who is today an accomplished artist living in WA. Another person recognised and remembered after all these years was the maker of the film, Gustav Kovacs, a Hungarian who played an important part in elevating the film-industry in Central Europe from a celluloid-strip toting amateur enthusiast's game to the cultural mass-influencing media structure it is today. This man was my Father . The above sentence explains the reason why He and I were two of the refugees in this group. After the Russian-backed communist regime grabbed power, he had to flee. They wanted what he had. Laboratory, film-processing factory, technical knowledge. They could rob him of the first two. The other he bought to Australia. The film made on the voyage had to be processed. There were no facilities in Perth. The reason he flew to Melbourne - the reason why I now live in Melbourne, the reason why this project is now organised from Melbourne - was the need to find a place to process the film. He eventually found what was then a rarity even in Melbourne, a processing Laboratory. Hershells, in Agnes Street, East Melbourne. He insisted on doing himself the most important stage of the processing in those computerless days, the light-banding, (allocating a light value to each and every square of the negative). When the Manager of Hershells saw his expertise in action, he was hired on the spot. For well over a decade he contributed to the entertainment of Australian audiences by performing some of the most important back-of-the-stage jobs in the film industry: light-banding, editing and general technical control. One of the small building blocks that contributed to the building of this nation.
The "Anna Salen" reached Fremantle WA. on 31st December, as scheduled.Her immediate departure for Melbourne also happened as scheduled.The order she received a few hours out of port was far from "scheduled". There were politics at work. There was no way she could reach an Australian port heading east, as she was, before the clock ticked past the last midnight of 1950, a fact unacceptable to statistic conscious Canberra bureaucrats. Her complement of migrants had to boost the numbers of the year fast expiring. Never mind about making previously promulgated information to over 1500 people about heading for the larger cities of the eastern states suddenly all false, the order was issued: "Return to Fremantle and disembark all passengers." Thus, suddenly, an unprepared Reception Camp in Northam, WA. was inundated with 1522 unexpected inhabitants.
The "Anna Salen" Docked at the wooden pier of Fremantle Harbour on the 31st December, 1950. 1522 men, women and children migrants disembarked. They came from post-war Europe to post-war Australia.
Golden sunshine, shimmering heat, a town in the westralian Wheatbelt. Shire Offices, bank, church, shops, school. Silos. Towering silos. Open silos, wood and wavy-tin walls propped at an angle on the outside with more wood, grain heaped in the centre to nearly twice the height of the walls. Silos for the golden wheat, the wealth of a vast, hot land.
The grain comes from miles around on trucks, leaves on rails. The sweat of Balt, Polish, Hungarian migrants keeps the rail-tracks straight. Living in tiny tent-towns far from the real town, they work, feed their babies, look after their womenfolk, their school-age children, all living under hot-as-hell by day, cold-as-hell by night canvas. But the grain-wealth gets to the coast, onto boats, for the markets to the World.
Remember the Boat? The old "Anna Salen"? The old man with the huge Motion-Picture making camera balancing on the cat-walks of the boat? Recording the ups and downs of boat-life, "the slither here, slither there" meals when the storms hit, the sea-sickness, the clinging to the rails, the life on ship-deck, the weeks-long existence when there are only crests of watery waves upon watery waves between you and your horizon, - recording the enduring spirit of a journey to a new Homeland.
Wladyslaw was one of the workers on the Railways. He lived with wife Elfriede, three year old daughter Margot in one of the tents. Son Elmar was yet unborn, due soon. Hard work and lots of study gave Wladyslaw a successful career with the Railways that lasted all his life. Today's Mrs. R... M......... is little Margot from tent-town 1951. She is a teacher in secondary schools, president of a Teachers Association of Australia. Margot and her husband have a family of three children, all university graduates. There are many other success stories. In the performing arts the name of a then young boy, J... O..... has become well known all over the country as a prominent TV actor.
In academic fields G..... B.......... has won himself fame and scientific awards for his work in alleviating one of the greatest curses of the Australian countryside - the fly problem.
M... S......made himself a name in the business world, he is now running the biggest giftware distribution company in W.A. Susie Willing, nee Kelemen was 23 months old on arrival. She recognised her family on film at the exhibition and sent valuable, exhaustive information about her parents life after arrival. Her father worked on No.8 Pumping station supplying water to Kalgoorlie.
Their stories must be told, recorded for posterity. It is as much part of the history of Australia, Australia's growth as a respected member of this Family of Nations living on Planet Earth, as are the First Fleeters, the colonisers and the Aborigines who owned and populated this continent long before any of the newer Australians came here.
Ask anyone, anywhere in Australia how close is our way of life today to that of the forties, fifties - and the answer will be a resounding "It is Enormously Different".
But what are the big differences? The food we eat? The clothes we wear? The way we view our neighbouring Asian neighbours? The way we have become the best example in the World of multicultural peaceful coexistence of many religions and languages? And who contributed a large portion of the changes that have taken place?
We all know growing up is a process that applies to individuals as much as to nations. The influences absorbed during this process make us into what we are.And the greatest influence on the growing up of Australia as a Nation was the arrival of the post-war migrants from Europe. Not just the individuals who became enormously successful by various standards of our society, but by each and every one of those persons who arrived on the Anna Salens of that era. The sacrifices made by many in giving up qualifications, hard-learned trades to work in manual labour - because that was the price of admission to a country that needed to "populate".
The sacrifice of giving up, selling treasured possessions salvaged with great difficulty from the home country. Like the way my Father had to sell the last and only remnant of his film-making equipment he was able to board the ship with. The same camera he used to make the film of the voyage, the camera which he finally had to sell in order to clothe and feed his family.
We must record these stories.
I am happy to say my desire to make permanent records of these historic events is strongly supported not only by many individuals, but also by important institutions like The Museum of Western Australia. My contribution to the History Departments 1993 photographic and archival exhibition "Post War Immigration: The Northam Camps" has greatly enhanced the show as evidenced by copies of letters attached to this application, not only from the convener of the exhibition, anthropologist Ms. Nonja Peters, but also from the head of the history department of the Museum. The exhibition won a Special Commendation in the Premier's Inaugural History Awards, and is now a permanent travelling, educational exhibition available to interested communities. Stills from my father's film are the most prominent images used in the promotional material for the exhibition, and if the level of interest and success of the exhibition is any indication my planned documentary based on the film will enjoy equal success. The emphasise I plan to apply to this documentary is best described in the letter I have received from the Head of the History Department, Western Australian Museum, Ms Ann Delroy. She writes:
"...I must write and thank you, on behalf of all of us in the History
Department, for your support in the Western Australian Museum's
project in cultural diversity over the past few years. Your work with
the Anna Salen passengers has proved a wonderful resource for us.
Through them, we have been able to learn many of their amazing
stories, about leaving Europe, about conditions they experienced in
understanding and presenting the history of our state and its people.
It was through your research and contact with many of these passengers
that we were able to borrow objects for exhibition which hilighted migrants'
experiences. Another benefit was that we have been able to advise
individuals on the care and conservation of their precious memorabilia
- documents, household items and work tools. We hope too, in time,
that as a result of you efforts, at least one major collection will come
permanently to the Western Australian Museum - photographs from leaving
a homeland to arrival and settlement, all dated and documented - with
diaries and objects as well.
The importance of you work is re-emphasised every time I recall
the opening of the Northam Camps photographic exhibition at
Fremantle Museum when hundreds crammed the corridors,
many laughing, some crying and all eager to see that part of
their lives recognised. There has never been an opening before
or since quite like it. But in the weeks to follow there were others
to whom this information was a revelation. Many descendants
of migrants contacted us for more information about the experiences
of their parents and grandparents (your work helped here), and there were
many visitors, particularly youths, who had no idea of this part of
our history ("did that really happen here?") We also appreciated
your leaving a copy of your father's wonderful film which you had
transferred to video...
We hope that you will be able to continue your Anna Salen research.
Although you have invested so much of your time and resources in it,
as with any major project, there is yet much to be done and time is
running out. As you are aware, just in the past two years, many
passengers from that 1950 voyage have died. They are the ones with the
memories and the material. Once gone, all that information, and that
part of OUR Australian history, too, is lost..."
I am determined NOT to let that happen.