published in ALWS 70th & Bonegilla on September 30, 2020

‘The language of love’

Here you’ll find more memories of Bonegilla. Watch out for red-bellied blacks and Red Rattler trains!

A generic square placeholder image with rounded corners in a figure.
HMAS Kanimbla and the train to Bonegilla, 1947, ARM 02.204. Photo courtesy Bonegilla Migrant Experience.

Diana Semmler 

‘My mother was at the Bonegilla camp from June to November in 1954.  She was only 25 years old. 

Her and her husband came with their young daughter Monika after the Second World War. 

In Germany they had been part of a family fish shop business in a busy town, so coming to the Bonegilla Camp was completely different to what she had experienced.  She and her husband were not prepared for the basicness of the Camp – the food, the huts etc. They brought very few items with them. 

I remember a picture of a little scooter that my sister Monika was standing on when she was on the ship coming over from Germany.

The greasy mutton was totally foreign to their taste and they found it difficult to get used to the food.  In fact, my mother took some initiative and talked to some workers in the kitchen at the camp and smuggled a small primus cooker into the one roomed hut and some food items so that she could prepare food herself.  This was forbidden! 

She found it incomprehensible that many times there was meat being served for breakfast!  She complained to the Kitchen that she wanted cereals for her child.

In Germany my mother was an apprentice corsetier and was skilled at making clothes and bathing costumes.  She made many of my sister’s clothing and some for others too, later. 

When my mother left the Camp, she went to work for a widower in Wodonga, who had been a kitchenhand at the Camp.  Perhaps this is how she learnt more about cooking because later in her life she became a chef for some of the embassies in Canberra, such as the Chinese Embassy.

She used to make the most wonderful plum cheesecakes. My daughter has a book of my mother’s recipes – she was a wonderful cook.’


Pastor Norman Sander

‘The language of love prevailed in spite of general language difficulties. 

At Information Evenings I shared with newcomers regarding Church life, Public and Private Schools, buying of building blocks, getting married, climactic conditions and dangerous snakes …

Questions about snakes usually occupied quite an amount of time. I told them here around Bonegilla there are tiger snakes, browns and black’s with red bellies.

People asked what they should do if they were bitten by a snake. I said ‘Seek medical or hospital help as quickly as possible.’

When they asked what would happen if they didn’t, I replied ‘Well, you will die.’ 

Then they asked that if the red-bellied black snake is not as venomous as the other two, what should they do if bitten by one of those. I gave the same answer about hospital as previously. They asked ‘And if you don’t?’

I replied ‘You will also die – but not quite as quickly.’ 

We were not concerned as to what religion the people followed, we all just wanted to help them in their need.

In adopting this attitude we were sure of doing a Christ-like thing.’

Pastor Norm was Chaplain at Bonegilla from 1960 to 1970


Elizabeth Stolz

‘Dad shared how he felt sad for the people arriving by train, often at night, at a little siding in the middle of nowhere and then being bussed to the camp. They would look so lost, with their suitcases and children clutching their hands. It would move him to tears.

He said, “All I want to do is to do good for these people, for they will be the next generation to build our country”. The people were always so grateful. This was a new opportunity after the harrowing times of the war.’

Elizabeth is the daughter of Pastor Norman Sander


Barbara Mann

‘I was only 14 months old when we arrived from Italy, so my memories are my mum’s.

When they first arrived, the hut they were placed in had wet mud floors and there was dried vomit still on the cot. Not such a welcoming start!

On their wedding anniversary, Mum smuggled in a small gas burner to cook a special meal in their hut. She placed each part of the meal under the quilt covers to stay warm until all parts of the meal could be eaten together!

So many at Bonegilla were carrying scars from World War II. It is the grandchildren who have really reaped the benefits of their decision to come to Australia and from their hard work.’


Pastor Ernie Kiss

‘As I was only a toddler, my “recollections” of life at Bonegilla come from my parents.

Due to World War II and the dire economic situation, my parents were devastated that they couldn’t return to Hungary; their only hope was to emigrate to Australia.

My parents struggled with being so far from their families, but making friends with other migrants made life somewhat tolerable.

The food was so bland that it left Mum with a life-long aversion to lamb! Mum and I were in Bonegilla for four months and joined Dad in Geelong where he had found work and accommodation.’


Pastor John Heidenreich 

‘Pastor Norman Sanders was my uncle.  I remember as a young lad visiting him when he was working at Bonegilla.

The first thing I remember was how far we had to travel from South Australia to get all the way to Bonegilla in northern Victoria. It seemed to be forever!

As a young lad, it made a memorable impression on me that when we finally arrived, we had to get permission from officers to enter and then a big boom gate opened up to let us drive in.  Once we were in there was a sense of freedom to roam around, but it felt weird that it was so difficult to get in.

I remember all the tin huts in the camp and lots of people strolling around, talking in languages that I couldn’t understand.

I also found church interesting.  It was in a big room or shed.  Uncle Norm would preach for 10 minutes in English and then 10 minutes in a language I couldn’t understand! (He was speaking German.) He did this throughout the whole service.  I had never experienced this before.  During the hymns people would sing in their own language.

Later as a pastor, I would invite people on Christmas Even to sing the last verse of Silent Night in their own language. (We had a number of migrants in the Hobart congregation who came to Tassie – some through Bonegilla – to work on the hydro scheme.)’


Ruth Schmidt

‘My husband Clem was the Lutheran immigration chaplain at Bonegilla from November ‘70 until August ’71.  His job mainly involved contacting people once they’d moved on to see if there was any help that they needed.

He only held one informal service in the chapel at Bonegilla. It was on Christmas Eve for mainly Yugoslavian Roman Catholics as there were few Protestants.

Staff at Bonegilla were notified when a ship of migrants was to disembark in Melbourne and prepared beds etc. for them. Often there would only be a handful actually arrive at Bonegilla.

Many people were offered jobs after they’d got off the ship – often by former countrymen. Sometimes they would only be paid at half the wages set by the government.

One day when a contingent of new migrants arrived, one person was caught, wanting to take off again next morning. When asked where he was going, he answered that he was going (walking) to Sydney, not realising the distance involved.

Clem had to conduct all marriages as he was the only chaplain at Bonegilla at the time. One day he asked the usual question “Have you been married before?” and she just laughed and replied “I’ve been faithful to this guy for so many years!”

Several years later, when living in Melbourne, Clem received a notice to attend court as this person was found to be in a bigamous relationship.’


Kurt Engler

‘I arrived in Australia on the 11th November 1970.  I was 26 years old. I came by boat.  It took us 5 ½ weeks to get to Australia from Bremerhafen in Germany.

After arriving at the Pier, I remember being loaded onto a Red Rattler [train] for the journey to Bonegilla.  This was a shock as I had been used to travelling to work in Hamburg on a computerised train! I felt like Australia was about 50 years behind!

It was hot and stinky when I arrived up there at Bonegilla! 

I had very little knowledge of Australia and didn’t really know what to expect.  At school we maybe had a double lesson on Australia.  All I really knew was that it was an island and it had a lot of sheep for producing wool! So, the heat, dryness and flies made a strong first impression.

Initially my friend and I had thought of going to America, but the cost was too high.  Then we thought about Canada, but it was Australia that became the open option. 

I had not told my parents that I was emigrating.  The news came out at a family Easter lunch and my mother was so shocked that the cake fell out of her mouth!

We met quite a few people on the boat journey over and so eight of us decided to share a barracks together in Bonegilla.  I was only there for 3 ½ weeks.

Each morning after breakfast we would spend the morning in English classes and then in the afternoon, we basically had free time.  Sometimes we would go water-skiing on the Lake – we would pitch in and hire a boat.  We were given $2 pocket money each day and I came with a small amount of money.

The food at Bonegilla was really good as most of the cooks were European. (They had been at Bonegilla and now had jobs in the kitchen).

The Camp looked after us and would take us by bus to Wodonga if we needed to go to town.  I got my license in Albury as on that side of the border you didn’t have to do a written test!

When we arrived in Melbourne and were waiting for the train to Bonegilla, we met up with some girls who were known by some of the others on the boat.  One of them later became my wife!  She had also been a refugee.’


Hans Hornscheidt

‘I came to Bonegilla in the March of 1961.  I flew out via Darwin and Melbourne and was then trained up to the siding at Bandiana from where we were bussed to Bonegilla.  The government didn’t want it referred to as a camp, but as the Commonwealth Immigration Centre.

I really came to Australia for pure ‘adventure lust’.  I was 27 years old when I arrived. 

I have many good memories of my time at Bonegilla.

I was lucky in that soon after arriving I was given a job at the Bread house in Bonegilla.  We had bread delivered from a bakery outside the Centre and then we would slice it and distribute it to various blocks around Bonegilla.  I would drive a little van in order to deliver. 

After working here, I then had a job in the General store.  As part of this job I knew what stores were being ordered in.  I can tell you that the ingredients that came in were excellent.  But how they were cooked in the kitchen was not so good!  I felt like they couldn’t do much wrong with baked beans or scrambled eggs, so I enjoyed my breakfasts, but the rest….

To this day I cannot face eating mutton!  We didn’t get very much beef at Bonegilla.

I think that any migrants who could cook well quickly got jobs in restaurants in the cities. 

I made many good friends at Bonegilla.  One of them was a very overqualified Swiss banker and it was through his encouragement that I applied for a job in the bank and worked there as well – first at Bonegilla and then in Albury.

The Bank of NSW would try and encourage the migrants to open an account, even if it was only 1 schilling, as they realised that once opened there was a strong likelihood of them banking when they had work as they wanted to buy houses etc. for this new life.

I also befriended a Dutch bloke and together with another member we formed a jazz band playing jazz and dance music.  We would play for any functions at Bonegilla and even played some Saturday nights at a hotel in Albury.

There are too many stories to tell from my time there!  Although, I remember that at one time one of the Administrators had been in the navy and another man in the office had been a submariner.  They may have crossed paths in their former lives!’


Ivar Schmidt 

‘The buildings we were in were the actual Nissan huts (curved corrugated iron buildings), with no inner wall linings.

Oddly enough I can remember mum looking hot and fanning herself. She told me years later how much she hated the heat initially.

Men often sat in groups. Probably smoking, playing cards and talking. The ethnic groups stuck together for obvious reasons.

Later in Wagga Wagga I was called a nazi (didn’t know what it meant at the age of 6) and had rocks thrown at me, splitting my head open resulting in clips to hold the wound together.

Even in The Rock I remember mixing with some ethnic people. They could well have just been visiting. Do not have fond memories of school in The Rock and Wagga. Queenbeyan was when I started enjoying school. I do remember people in The Rock and Wagga being very nice to us wogs.’

Ivar is Margrit Friebel’s brother. You can read Margrit’s story here.