66th anniversary celebrations
Hundreds of people with family connections to Greta Migrant Camp will attend 66th anniversary celebrations as part of Refugee Week this month.
Greta Migrant Camp was the biggest migrant camp in Australia, taking in 100,000 refugees escaping war torn Europe after World War II.
The theme of the celebration is Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow starting with a free film night on Friday, June 12.
The 1984 movie Silver City will be shown at Greta Workers Club. Doors open at 6pm and the film starts at 7pm.
An exhibition and official opening will be held on Saturday, June 13 at Greta Workers Club at 10am. The free event will include bus trips to the former camp site, exhibits of memorabilia, photographs and costumes .
A free exhibition will be open on Sunday, June 14 at Greta Workers Club from 10am until 2pm.
There is something soul-stirring about the picture of baby Elizabeth Lodo, in her peaked hat, with the label - DP 796 724 – across her chest.
Elizabeth, now Mrs Matt of Greta, came to Greta Migrant Camp as a displaced person in 1952.
She was five years old.
The daughter of a Ukrainian mother and Polish father, she was born in Coburg, Germany on April 16, 1947.
She never left Greta because it is home.
Her mother Maria died last month after living the best part of her life at Greta – a world away from where she was born and raised. She was 93.
“This is a nice way for me to remember and talk about Mum,” Mrs Matt said.
“She was kind and gentle soul. A beautiful person, she always prayed and never spoke badly about anyone.”
Those admirable qualities equally apply to Mrs Matt, who adored her devoted mother and learned much from her.
These are Elizabeth Matt’s memories of life at Greta Migrant Camp, 1952-1960.
Maria and Jozef Lodo experienced World War II events the rest of us only see in movies.
In 1940, Jozef was caught in organised street action against the Nazis and taken away for compulsory work in Germany.
He worked in Germany, mainly Coburg and Schweinfurt, where he trained as a motor mechanic until liberation in 1945.
He married Maria Lucenko in Nuremberg, Germany on June 15, 1945.
Maria’s recollections of the German occupation went back to 1942 in the village of Studenyky in the Ukraine where she lived.
“The young men and women of the village were rounded up and walked down to the railway station, loaded up into cattle wagons and deported to Amburg in Germany,” she recorded in her family history.
“At Amburg the people were unloaded, processed and allocated to different work areas.
“I was allocated to Kuny Siegert and taken to work for her brother George Siegert on his farm at Dorf Kamezbuch.
“The Siegert farm was a mixed farm of dairy cattle, pigs and crops. I was required to work six days a week from 6am to 6pm.
“My duties consisted of milking cows, cleaning, gathering firewood and general farm duties. It was heavy manual work which was physically demanding.
“On Sundays I was allowed to visit my friend Odarka Krawchenko who was also working at a nearby farm at Kocezricht.
“Odarka was a friend of mine from Studenyky who was deported at the same time.
“I was allowed to walk to visit her farm and was required to wear the OST insignia on my clothing at all times when not on the farm.
“The Siegerts treated me kindly. I was given bread, butter and jam for breakfast. We had a cooked meal for lunch and the evening meal was usually left overs from lunch.
“I worked on their farm from 1942 until 1945 when the war ended.”
Maria then went to Nuremberg to marry Jozef Lodo in 1945.
Maria, Jozef and their baby daughter, the first of Maria’s seven children, travelled to Naples, Italy on a train.
They had to apply to go to Australia but had to wait some time.
Finally, in 1950 they sailed from Italy on board The Nellie to Australia and arrived at various camps, one at Bathurst which was a holding centre for all immigrants, then to Parkes, where baby Janina was born and then to Cowra where three sons were born – Jierzy, Zbignew (deceased) and Wieslaw.
The family travelled by train to Greta and spent eight years there.
Two more sons were born – Peter and John – at Maitland Hospital.
There were always plenty of babies born at Greta migrant camp and there was never a shortage of youngsters to play together.
That was because the wives were left at the camp for months at a time while their husbands went away to work at places such as the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme.
When the men left it was a sad farewell at Greta railway station on board a steam train.
Upon the return of the men, there were great celebrations and a lack of entertainment meant lots of women fell pregnant around the same time.
“There was no contraceptive pill, no television and so there were lots of babies born all the time,” Mrs Matt said.
“We were all different nationalities, us children.
“The camp was a big playing field, a holiday camp for me, like summer time at a caravan park.
“We came from Ukraine, Slovenia, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Italy, Austria and Hungary.
“We all played together all the time.
“Our favourite games were marbles, skipping rope, hop scotch, mushroom picking, hide and seek and tipple topple with sticks and bats.
“We played in the bush and there was plenty of it, we built a cubby house, played cowboys and Indians, goodies and baddies and Tarzan and Jane.”
They also attended a camp school and Mrs Matt’s fondest memories are lessons with Miss Rose who taught them to speak English.
“She was very special to me. My best years at school were with Miss Rose.”
One summer the camp hired a bus and took the women and children to the beach. Most had never seen the ocean before.
“What an ethnic lot we were, they let us loose, we were in awe, we ran straight to the water.
“Another time we were taken to the movies to see The Ten Commandments.
“We took sandwiches in brown paper bags and apples because that’s all we could afford.
“It cost one shilling to get into the movies and all of us were so excited.
“I remember the chatter of Mum’s false teeth as she ate an apple during the movie. That was all we had and it was so noisy.”
The women of the camp got together frequently and were friendly and helpful to one another.
There were lots of young children between them so their time was taken up with child minding, going to the park to amuse the children on the swings and taking care of their living quarters.
It was mainly harmonious among them, Mrs Matt said.
There was no washing machine so on linen day, every Friday, sheets and pillow cases were wrapped in a sheet in the floor on the barracks and fresh sheets were issued along with a toilet roll per person.
Mutton. It was not lamb.
“They fed us sheep,” Mrs Matt recalled. “They would cook this terrible food to feed thousands of us.
“I’m sure the old sheep were picked up out of a paddock somewhere. Sheep that could no longer walk.”
The original Australian-run kitchen produced inedible food and was soon taken over by cooks of all nationalities.
“Let us cook,” the ethnic women said.
“Everything else was thrown out. It was foul.
“So the women cooked soup every Sunday, with spaghetti, cake with crumble, goulash, vegetables with flavour.
“A butcher would come in his van with veal, sausage, continental frankfurts, kielbasa, pork trotters – whatever the women ordered – every Saturday.”
The women cooked outside in huge metal coppers for everyone at the camp.
There were two rows of huts and it was the job of the oldest child to carry the food from the kitchen back to the living quarters.
“I carried two tins across my arms and a pot. I was loaded up to take to Mum and the kids,” Mrs Matt said.
“I would fall into the slop as a 10-year-old trying to carry everything in cans. The ladies in the kitchen would call out to me – Ella (that’s what they called me) – come here, and they would replace it for me.”
Mrs Matt’s favourite meals included borscht, cabbage rolls and pierogi (Polish dumpling).
“I learnt to make pierogi with Mum.
“Now I am famous for my pierogi. The grandchildren come running when I make it.”
The camp huts were either Nissen steel huts or timber huts – silver city and chocolate city, they were called.
There was a shared toilet block, one for women and one for men, for showering.
The barracks were big with 10 rooms in each but the living quarters were sparse and oppressive.
“It would get boiling hot in there,” Mrs Matt said. “I will never forget the day a group of German women arrived in their big heavy coats, in the heat, they came by bus to Greta. The women were wailing and crying.
“They have brought us to hell, we are going to die here, they would say.
“The first thing they saw were the tin huts shining in the sun.
“They were not used to that sort of heat. They came from a cold climate.”
“I am Polish, Ukrainian, German Australian,” Mrs Matt proudly announced.
“They used to call us bolts and wogs. The Australians did not know us back then but things are different now.”
Mrs Matt has since visited the Ukraine, Poland and Germany where she witnessed unreal poverty in what are otherwise wonderful places.
In 1960, Greta Migrant Camp closed and a young Elizabeth moved out with the rest of her family.
Her father had built half a house in Anvil Street, Greta, then he died when his appendix burst.
He was 40, leaving his wife to carry on alone to take care of her family and the community rallied to support them.
“My life was at that camp,” Mrs Matt said.
“Leaving was awful for me. We had to go to our house on a little block of land, it was a prison to me, I felt isolated.
“The camp was the place where I had grown up with my friends, it was happening and alive, we all lived together, we were a community.
“Suddenly, it was over.”
Mrs Matt remembers the Catholic priest offering help because her mother had no money.
“We were given meat and bread, the Dominican convent (in Maitland) donated a green uniform, brown shoes and a port for me, which was all too big, to attend school. The nuns gave me books and pencils.
“We were poor, but we progressed and we became Australian citizens.”
Elizabeth Matt became a psychiatric and aged care nurse, a career she loved, for 30 years, and is now retired.
She visits a Chiang Mai orphanage (Thailand) twice a year these days where she volunteers.
Mrs Matt’s poems have became her creative outlet to express how she felt about life at the camp.
She has three sons (one deceased) and seven grand children, with number eight on the way.
“The grand kids listen to me tell my stories, poor Nana they say and they see the photos and they laugh.
“But they were very happy times for me. I am 68 now and those were the best years of my life at the camp. It was a really special place.”
Mrs Matt remains in touch with friends she made at the camp and reunions are held every six months at Walka Water Works.
“No one else can understand what we went through. It is a bond we will always share.”