I’ve been asked about the inspiration behind Suitcase of Dreams. As you know the book is inspired by my grandmother’s stories of life in Australia as a migrant in the 1950s. I wanted Suitcase of Dreams to feel authentic to the migrant experience of the 1950s and 60s and many of the events in the book actually happened to my grandparents. Here’s a little snap-shot of life through their eyes, a few photos of that trip to Australia and the early days in Sydney.
The Skaubryn and it’s luxurious lounge. The hawkers’ boats off the Skaubryn at Port Said.
My grandparents did arrive from Germany on the Skaubryn in 1956. They docked in Fremantle before disembarking in Melbourne and taking the train to the Bonegilla migrant camp, near Albury on the Victorian/New South Wales border. My grandfather was an aeronautic engineer and promised work in Australia but like so many educated and professional migrants, he found out that his qualifications weren’t recognised once he arrived. He travelled up to Sydney to find work and my grandmother and the children later joined him in the Villawood hostel where they stayed for about nine months. He worked as a mechanic and in factories, including the disastrous stint with the engineering firm and my grandmother did work in a textiles factory.
The ‘Australian Dream’! This was the farm at Leppington where they built the garage and which they called home for some years.
My grandmother was European trained but worked for the first time as a photographer in Australia. She began painting while at the Abercrombie River. She loved the Australian bush, the plants, the animals and the landscapes. She was a talented painter and I have some of her works on my walls at home.
A couple of my grandmother’s paintings.
My grandfather started up his own business but although his father had a furniture shop in Germany and my grandfather could do woodwork, he turned his hand not to furniture making but to taxidermy – a specialised craft he had seen as a young man surrounded by the mountains and forests of his youth. He learnt the art from scratch and built up a successful business.
One of the birds my grandfather did.
Although I had such great facts to work with, what intrigued me were the reactions to this vastly different country they’d arrived in – in climate, geography and culture. And this was where my grandfather’s journal became invaluable. Here’s a little snippet of his first impressions of Australia – when they were travelling from Melbourne where they disembarked, up to Bonegilla. He describes the camp, the Australian countryside and his first impressions. This is a translation from German.
We drove through the Australian landscape and it was picturesque. Unforgettable sheep and cattle herds – now and then a small town – and everywhere hilly terrain with individual eucalyptus trees and dams filled with water. It is an impressive picture but similar enough to our country. After a 6-hour train journey we arrived at a stop – it was Bonegilla. Now we got off and were driven by bus for about 5 minutes to the camp.
We assembled in a large theatre where we were assigned our rooms. Then we were driven to the individual blocks by bus. Each block contains about 20 barracks and is like a small village with kitchen, laundry, shower room, etc. Each barrack has 10 small rooms and each room has its own entrance from the outside. From the outside the barracks are covered with corrugated iron, and on the inside they are boarded with hardboard. In each room there is a camp bed with 1 locker, 1 table, 1 armchair, 1 wardrobe with 4 drawers, 1 small carpet. We have 2 rooms, one for us and one for the children.
Now we have our room quite comfortably equipped with tablecloth, pictures and flowers, so we think it is like home. The camp is huge and can accommodate 10-12,000 people. The camp is hilly with trees and bushes planted and very beautiful flower plants available. A large reservoir is located here and you can go swimming and motor boating on the beach. The mountains are about 100-200 m high, a 15 minute walk away. Behind the mountains lie the Australia Alps which you can see well and are still snow-covered. It is Scenic, simply beautiful and very varied. Here you will find everything you find at home only much more beautiful and big in the colour and splendour. The geranium bushes are about 1m high and 1m diameter. The asters grow wild everywhere in the most beautiful colours. Here, our children can also see the first lemon trees, on which ripe lemons hang. The animals are just like home, the sparrows and swallows are sitting on our roofs, cats and dogs walk around, budgerigars and cranes and more. Yesterday we had visits of Opossums – animals are as big as a grown cat, but like a little bear – charming and tame. They came to the roof of our barrack and begged for bread with marmalade.
The first two nights we were pretty frozen and I immediately bought a small electric heater. During the day the temperature in the room is 32 and outside 41 degrees celsius. At night the temperature drops to 12 degrees celsius. We like the climate well and hope that we do not mind if it gets even hotter in the summer. Each block is about 10 minutes away from each other and the camp has an extent of about 5 km 2. Here are available: cinema, theater, canteen, school, churches, kindergarten, hospital etc. The food is good and plentiful. Through loudspeakers one is called to the individual offices to do all formalities. Investigations and x-ray, English test, and employment office.
This little window into my grandfather’s thoughts and personality was very special to me. Not only did I better understand his experiences but I also learnt so much more about him. Even down to his strangely familiar writing style – it’s just like mine!
I hope you’ve enjoyed a little insight into the treasures that enabled me to gain a better understanding and appreciation of what migrants of the 1950s went through. They were invaluable sources that inspired me to write Suitcase of Dreams in a way that was both authentic and personal.