Do not bend

THEY ARRIVED BY mail the other day in an A4 envelope from the National Archives of Australia bearing a stamp that said: Do not bend. The cardboard folder said: Your story, our history.

Impatient, I tore it open, licked my finger and leafed through the glossy copies hungry first for photos of my family when they first came to Australia as refugees after World War II. It was January 1951 when they docked in Melbourne. And hot as hell.

Papa's snap was first: the man being the most important, the head of the outfit and the fittest for the work that needed doing. Ema, my grandmother, his wife was second: the stabilising woman; if only they knew some of her tricks. Then my mother, her sister, my great grandmother in order, it seems, of their perceived immediate work potential. Papa looked good – serious, ready for work; Ema looked as humble as she could but strong and with eyes suggesting her knack for appealing to strangers' kindness. My mother seemed serious and sad at the same time. I know now how she hated her haircut. It had been chopped straight across at the back, looked awful she thought. She was fifteen, but looked twelve. Her five-year-old sister simply looked bewildered. My great grandmother's crooked half-smile – she knew she'd be pulling her weight even if the authorities didn't – reminds me of my own.

These black and white photos are fixed to International Refugee Organisation Resettlement Medical Examination Forms along with each family member's relevant personal details – their education levels, health condition etc. There are ticks, test results, stamps and scrawled signatures that tell a fraction of the lives behind them. The work is slow, but I am excavating my family story.

OCTOBER 2007. WE wake up in Wodonga, Victoria, to the ten-year-drought-dry crackle of an inland Australian bush morning. Its big silence whistles across the building-less plains that stretch beyond the farm cottage's wooden verandah. A late-spring Saturday feels like mid-summer. The temperature is already – has been for weeks – unbearable, pressing down on our heads like only the Australian heat can. Rainless, blue sky taunts green-brown gums, tall, stoic, still and tired, having long ceased to know water. We gulp water from bottle, tap and cup but it's never enough to quench the landlocked, sea-yearning thirst you feel. The ground outside is hard and un-giving beneath my RM Williams-booted-feet (Why did I wear them?). Twenty hours behind are ocean glimpses, two speeding tickets, unfamiliar suburbs and Sydney's frantic, end-of-week traffic.

From there to this: one country, two so different worlds. Why are we here? The answer is a country-mile away. Bonegilla Migrant Reception Centre. We – Judy, my partner of fourteen years, and I – have brought my 72-year-old mother on this road trip to the border of NSW and Victoria on the Murray River. Bonegilla, ten kilometres east, is where one half of my family finally came from the other side of the world by foot, sea, road and rail another, long-ago, drought-stricken time: January 1951.

We have come to visit that past. The dirt road's powder furls up and settles on our navy blue Honda CRV, which knows Sydney pollution's dull layers, not this thick, filmy, finger-printable stuff. The dirt turns to asphalt and we drive at speed on the empty long stretch to keep pace with Brendan, a Wodonga-born farmer and builder, who's driving ahead, knows the way and who owns the cottage we're renting for the weekend. By exquisite coincidence, he's worked on and off for years to restore the old migrant centre. 'I'll take you out there,' he says. For a long time, his late uncle Pat Collins was the Catholic priest there. He has keys to the place.

A thud and we hit a king brown snake as thick as a car tyre, bouncy as a speeding semi-trailer's flung strip of bastard rubber. I swing around to watch the loop and whip of its death dance, consumed with familiar fear and fascination for the Australian bush and its wild, innocent menace. In pre-air-conditioned car days, tabloids loved stories of frenzied dying snakes flipping up into car windows and biting the car's captives. Are the windows shut properly? Is it true that snakes never die until sundown? And then that inevitable, consoling riff: snakes don't like us anymore than we like them. Leave them alone and they will leave us alone.

I came here to report on this trip, to write the story of my mother's return to the first place she knew in Australia, where she ended up after her Estonian homeland fell to Russian invaders and after six years adrift in vanquished Germany's rubble towns and makeshift refugee lagers. Stories from the past will fill my head and unexpectedly unravel me today. As a journalist, I've never been less objective.

WHEN I WAS small, my mother's stories about the war gripped me, though they weren't always meant for my ears, and sometimes gave me nightmares. Knocks on the door from the Russian secret police, running in a field, nearly fired on by low-flying enemy planes, hiding in a church, hungry; one uncle shot dead by the Russians, another by the Germans; suitcases, trucks, trains, two boats leaving for Germany, laid out on the decks like sardines, my mother covered in sick after throwing up, Riga burning in the distance, one boat bombed, not hers, everyone on it dead.

In Germany, no longer hunted, but living among unhinged people in disease-prone refugee camps with little food and no certainty. A father concerned his daughter, with haunted face in undersized dress is malnourished, prompts the girl, my mother, to knock on the front doors of big German houses and ask, speaking her best hoch Deutsch, for apples; saluting Heil Hitler to teachers before the fall of the Reich or getting into trouble for not doing so; Hitler shouting on the radio, a little crazier each time; Germany's defeat.

The Americans took charge. They gave out chocolates and chewing gum and old German army uniforms, dyed black to surrendered former-enemy soldiers, made to work for the Allies. My grandmother addicted to morphine after an operation for kidney stones. She'd send her daughter – my mother – out into ruined German towns to score her medicine with prescriptions bearing her doctor husband's forged signature. Her thighs were covered with bruises and track marks, her eyeballs pinned. The mornings, when she couldn't get out of bed, were the worst, my mother has told me. At first she'd be sleepy from the dope then angry from the need for more. It stopped when her husband had a heart attack and died.

She went cold turkey and things got better after that. My mother went to a holiday camp for children. Her mother met a new man, Papa, and remarried. The cobbled-together family unit migrated to Australia. My great-grandmother wanted to stay, but they dragged her with them even though they had to sign a contract saying she wouldn't be a burden on the state, that they'd support her. Australia's migration policy called for fit workers. Their ship Liguria left Bremerhaven, Germany, on 19 November 1950.

The trip was endless, everyone seasick; they broke down twice forcing unscheduled stops in Southampton and Naples. In Fremantle they had to be towed into port by an Indian cargo ship and transferred to another boat, the Nelly for the final leg. Three years later Liguria was sold for scrap. After two months at sea, they arrived. Melbourne didn't look like a city at all as the train pulled away from it for something even less like one: Bonegilla. Its name meant where waters meet. To them, it was the end of the world.

WE DRIVE INTO what's left of the Bonegilla Migrant Reception Centre, rows of old army sheds on flat ground near the moonscape shores of Lake Hume. It had only been open for three years when they arrived. By 1971, 320,000 post-war migrants from more than thirty countries had been through it. What remains of it is a half-derelict monument to a program that changed Australia forever.

Beginning Place, a grey, modern cement 'commemorative centre' blares out happy-sad music between crackly, voiced-over documentary films of the refugee thousands Bonegilla once teemed with. In one of them, David Taylor, a fleshy-faced former officer at the centre, recalls the migrants' 'peculiar smell', which he noticed around 1949–1950. He put it down to their fear. 'It took several weeks for the smell to go,' says Taylor.

The foreigners' suitcases, clothes and bodies must have been fecund with the perfumes of their past, individual skin oils, breath, wartime illnesses, their ways. Just as second-hand shops, full of old clothes worn and used by hundreds of different people, carry the smells of these lives and merge into a generic musty, stale human smell, smells happen when humanity gathers: the school bus at the end of a long excursion, the crowded aeroplane at the end of a night flight, the gym studio after a body attack class.

Brendan asks my mother if she knew the smell of fear. She smiles no. I know what she's thinking. 'Call that fear?' Fear came earlier, before they fled to Germany, being hunted by the Russians, death or Siberia their sure fate. One quarter of the Estonian population was wiped out. Fear was the Russian secret police (NKVD) and the ominous Black Marias its interrogators drove to houses of non-sympathisers; or being crouched in cellars, bombs raining down on buildings. Australia promised a new beginning, even if it was at the end of the earth. Doubtless some were anxious or suffering post-traumatic stress. The notion that, like cattle facing slaughter, there was a collective smell of fear at Bonegilla hits me in the unpleasant heat as a know-nothing know-all's boast. I bristle when I hear it used to describe the likes of my mother and her family, stoics in the face of wartime challenges to their dignity.

Ignorant, if unintended, put-downs are at the core of the tension that takes hold, as it inevitably does, between people with power and those without it. Who was really afraid when Australia opened its borders to newcomers in the late 1940s? Ethel Hayes was on the Good Neighbour Council, which held afternoon teas and dances for the refugees to help them relax. The displaced persons were, Ethel tells the camera, 'the flotsam and jetsam of Europe'. A man points his stick at writing on a blackboard as migrants learn English aided by training films and his instruction. 'Put the hat on,' says the teacher. A young woman, standing at the front does so. 'I am putting the hat on,' she says. 'She is putting the hat on,' choruses the rest of the adult class. 'Take the hat off,' says the teacher. 'I am taking the hat off,' obeys the woman. And so on.

JUDY HAS THE digital camera cradled in her right hand, on record. Brendan jangles the keys and we're into what used to be an old mess hall where the migrants lined up for lamb stew, white bread and jam. The lamb tasted strange and the white bread was like none they'd known. In the next building, a single cast-iron bed is made up with an army blanket on a sandwich-thin mattress. My mother pats the bedding with her hand. It's softer than she remembers. We tiptoe around the edges of the rooms to avoid falling through broken floorboards.

In the first weeks they slept in a tent because of overcrowding. The days were hot but the nights so cold everyone always wanted more blankets. My mother, the only family member with English, would be sent to ask. It poured with rain and more rain. They put wooden boards down on the sodden tent floor. 'Maybe we've come to the wrong place,' my grandmother said. It was not the Australia they'd seen in the films shown on the boat over. It was worse than Germany's refugee camps. They were expected to be grateful for this?

A publican from nearby Howlong came looking for a cook. My grandmother, who'd barely boiled an egg in her life, applied, got the job and worked there a few months with a friend, earning enough to buy some clothes and other things for the new life. My mother visited her at the pub, hung around with the publican's kids, flirted with the eldest boy who ended up playing footy, she thinks, for Richmond. It's the only thing my mother's ever known about Aussie Rules.

The three of us drive out to Howlong that night to have a drink at the pub where my grandmother worked and lived almost fifty years earlier. At the bar I buy three beers and six tickets for a meat raffle. We sip our drinks out the front of the pub in the town's empty main street. Howlong is not very long. Bleary locals size us up and then chat. My mother tells her story, asks about the town footy hero, who we learn died from grog. The whole pub seems tuned in to our presence. Grudging suspicion turns to friendly over-interest. The getting away is awkward.

After a few weeks at Bonegilla, my mother's parents got billeted to jobs in and around Melbourne, my grandmother at the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital, where she ran the kitchen. Papa went fruit picking. My mother, aunt and great grandmother stayed at Bonegilla waiting to be sent for. Months passed. The call from Melbourne didn't come. My sixteen-year-old mother decided to go to Melbourne by herself, to hurry things along. Sitting at the bus stop near the reception centre, a carload of local boys stopped. They gave her a lift to the station. The train trip was long. At Spencer Street station, when she finally arrived, a man in an overcoat and hat approached her, said he was looking for a tall, slim,blonde woman of about twenty-eight. Had she seen anyone like that? She hadn't but he offered her a lift which she accepted and a cigarette which she didn't. No-one knew she was coming, she told the stranger. He delivered her to the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital to her mother, refused an invitation to come in and was gone in the night. 'You're here,' my grandmother said. 'We've been very busy.' My mother took a job as a hospital domestic and then trained as a nurse. The old lady and the child came to Melbourne soon after, stayed in a rented room, ate meals from the top of a suitcase and lived with the unkindness of the landlord. Wages went under the mattress. You couldn't trust the banks. They rented their own house and later had one built in a new suburb. It had an outside toilet. Papa built a smokehouse for the meats, brewed his own beer and dreamed of going back to the old country, though he never did.

HALF A CENTURY after she lived at Bonegilla, I watch my mother watch the films and hear the sounds of her family's past, their personal wars, journeys, stuttered new beginnings, losses and lives rebuilt. We are remembering loved relatives who fought hard to survive the war and are now dead – my grandmother from failing kidneys at eighty-eight, seen out comfortably in a morphine funk; Papa at ninety, with a necrotic foot, in a Sydney nursing home. 'I wish death would take me,' he prayed in the months before it finally did.

We are three of maybe six visitors kicking the dust of these forsaken, unspeakably hot, Bonegilla grounds this day. Even the weir where the migrants once swam has been defeated by the drought, leaving a barren plain of dry, cracked sandy land behind. Against the drab backdrop, a crimson coloured Rolls-Royce glides into view. It slows but doesn't stop; leaves as quickly as it arrived. I am left imagining a migrant 'made good' story, someone who, like my mother, had a new beginning here and prospered enough to drive down memory lane in a Rolls, only to speed away from it. I speculate they've come to show how high they've risen from army sheds and mess halls, manual labour and the real or perceived smell of fear. Apart from us, there's no one here to bear witness to their rags-to-riches story, if that's what it is.

We leave and stop at the nearby shop to buy cold water. I flick through a rack of memorabilia about the centre and buy a book about its history. The shopkeeper is listening to my mother and me talking and I am suddenly more aware than usual of her European accent. The guy seems more interested than is polite. I want to shield her from his hungry, impertinent attitude. 'Was you here?' he asks my mother. 'Yes, I was,' she replies. 'Did you like it?' he asks with a detectable leer. 'We were grateful.'

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