Displaced Persons

Displaced Persons

After the Second World War, Australia's population was barely 7.5 million, with most people living in the big cities of South Eastern Australia. Great concerns were expressed at the time about Australia's many open spaces and the fear of 'the yellow hordes in the north' created such slogans as 'populate or perish'. After the war the Australian Labor government, under Ben Chifley, started an urgent recruitment program in Europe to attract immigrants.

This Immigration program, directed by Arthur Calwell, opened the door to thousands of Displaced Persons (DPs) and British migrants. Between 1947 and 1951 about 170,000 immigrants came to settle in Australia. A considerable number of these Displaced Persons, or Refugees, were well educated and had fled their place of birth for fear of either the Germans or Russians.

Most of these men and women had been living in camps all over Europe in horrific conditions, even after the war ended. No wonder they tried to migrate to any country that would accept them. To gain access to these countries, they had to pass a selection process that could be rather daunting. The process used by Australian officials in Europe, could be very unpleasant, to say the least. Men were forced to strip completely whereas women were required to strip to the waist. Apparently the main reason was to check if a man had his blood group tattooed under his arm. If he had, he was rejected as being an ex-member of the Gestapo or SS. His nakedness was also a way of identifying if he was a Jew, and therefore not very welcome in Australia at that time.

When selected for entry into Australia, migrants then had to survive a voyage on some very inferior ships. These ships, commissioned by the International Refugee Organisation, were often ex-troop carriers or modified war ships. Many migrants came from land-locked countries and had never before seen the sea or ships of that size. They were to find that the voyage to Australia was sometimes not much better than that endured by migrants of a hundred years before. There were many deaths on board, particularly among the children, from malnutrition or heat exhaustion. Dysentery was also a common ailment. Some ships' captains would carry a pistol with them, as a deterrent to unrest among passengers.

In return for their passage and settlement in Australia, DPs or Refugees had to enter into a two year contract with the Australian government which obliged them to work wherever directed, even if it meant that their families were split up. In June 1949 the first prosecution took place in Adelaide over the failure of such a contract. The migrant was given six months gaol and deported after failing the dictation test. (A dictation test of fifty words could be given in any language a migrant was most likely unable to speak or write!) Most of the work allotted to the DPs was of an unskilled or semi-skilled nature and little notice, if any, was taken of former educational or professional qualifications. Their talents and experience were of no importance. All men became labourers and the women were employed as domestics.

The first port of call for most of the DPs and other migrants was Fremantle, Western Australia, where some would disembark for the Northam Immigration Centre sixty kilometres north of Perth. Most however, would leave the ship in Melbourne and be transported to the Commonwealth Immigration Centre at Bonegilla in Victoria. In South Australia camps were established at Gawler and Smithfield. At Woodside more than $72,000 was spent on upgrading facilities in readiness for accommodating more than seven hundred wives and children of DPs who were working all over the State, in places where there was no possibility of their families joining them.

In the early days Australians were often intolerant and suspicious of these newcomers who had names very few could, or would, pronounce. Instead they were generally referred to as Balts, Refos or Wogs. Later these new arrivals were referred to just as 'bloody new Australians'. However, many lasting friendships were made between workmates, neighbours and school children. This often occurred in the early days at Leigh Creek where many of them would find their way. However even in Leigh Creek surnames remained a problem and several of the early migrants found it easier to shorten their names or change them altogether to something Australians were able to pronounce. However a move in South Australia to change or anglicise New Australians' names was strongly resisted. Even so, one of the nicest compliments paid to Australia and Australians was by Irma and Alexander Psenicnik and their daughter Mary-Anne who voluntarily changed their surname to Webb. It was their way of showing their gratitude to the first friends they made in Australia.

Many of these DPs had previously lived in either concentration camps, prisoner of war camps or other detention centres. When they arrived in Australia life often did not seem to have changed very much. Once here, the government quickly 'distributed' them to some of the most isolated places in the country. Thus these early DPs received free transport to work, free working clothes after they arrived, free food in the camps, and free job placements anywhere in Australia, regardless of qualifications or experience. Some of these jobs included the building or maintenance of railway lines, working in mines or blast furnaces, harvesting sugar cane, fruit-picking and the building of the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

Several of the men who had worked out their two year contract at the Snowy Mountains Scheme looked for a warmer place and finished up in Leigh Creek. Johnny Barez liked the climate and the people of Leigh Creek and stayed until his retirement and then moved to Copley. When Nikolas (Nik) Militch arrived in 1954 from his stint at the Snowy, the tents and general conditions in Leigh Creek seemed palatial to him. He too stayed until his retirement thirty-seven years later.

In South Australia alone more than 2,500 migrant men were employed by the South Australian Railways, often in very isolated places, such as Edward Creek near Oodnadatta, where Australian workers were unwilling to go. Even without the consideration of the isolation and many other disadvantages to which these men were subjected, the government admitted that they had 'rendered valuable services both in construction and in transportation'. Despite this the Australian government had agreements with BHP and the coalmining industry 'not to employ any unnaturalised displaced persons for its operating staff'. The practice was to 'employ displaced persons only on those jobs least attractive to Australian workers' and to 'take advantage of the availability of these persons to effect desired transfers of Australian workers wherever possible', and to 'give them the benefit of 'picking' wherever possible'.

Many of the DPs had endured very similar conditions in Europe at the hands of Hitler and his henchmen. To exacerbate the situation even further, there was still the language barrier, isolation from friends and family and the occasional less than friendly treatment from their Australian workmates. This some way explains why some became alienated from Australian society and the eventual admission of several of them to Glenside and other mental institutions.

One of the first DPs to arrive in Leigh Creek was Andrius Bajorunas. He came from Lithuania via the Bathurst Army Barracks in July 1948. Because of the housing shortage at Leigh Creek he was most welcome, as single men could be housed in tents. He was employed as a labourer for seven months before being promoted to Bulldozer operator, working on the landing strip for the airport. Although happy with the job, he was also very happy to leave after his two years were up. A few months after his arrival Bajorunas was followed by a group of young DPs, all of whom were in their early twenties. They had only recently arrived in Australia and came straight from Lithuania, via Germany.

Among this group were Vaclovas Navakas and his brother Vytautas who had been directed by the Commonwealth government to go to Leigh Creek. The brothers were allotted a tent and shared it for the next two years. Due to the persistent labour shortage at Leigh Creek, the Chief Engineer informed the Board in Adelaide that an application had been made to the government for 'a total of three hundred Balts'.

ETSA representatives would later visit the migrant centres to recruit some of these men. One of the first groups of DPs arriving in Leigh Creek, from the Bonegilla centre in Victoria, were forty-three single men mostly from Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. They had been recruited for ETSA by William Dennis Monkhouse. Some of the Poles in this group were Tadeusz Barszcz and George Bilinski. They were with Edgar Zeibots from Latvia, whom they had befriended during their stay at Bonegilla.

Among the Lithuanians in this group were a number of nineteen and twenty year old high school graduates. Some of the later recruits were Vladimire (George) Luksa, his wife Irma and her sister Astra. They were DPs from Latvia where Luksa had served as a sergeant in the Latvian Army. After the war he worked as an assistant camp leader in one of the many DPs camps in Germany. Luksa was promised $20 per week plus overtime. It was enough to entice him to come to Leigh Creek while his wife and her sister stayed at Bonegilla. Upon his arrival in Leigh Creek he was shown his accommodation in the tent row. The next day, 4 January 1951, he started work in the kitchen. A few weeks after he had settled in, Luksa organised for Irma and Astra to come to Leigh Creek. They were given lodgings in the single women's quarters. Later they moved into a Nissen hut in 'Hollywood' where they stayed until transferred to Adelaide. Luksa eventually became a mess supervisor and later successfully applied for the job of meter reader in Adelaide.

Another 'apartment' at 'Hollywood' was occupied by Laszlo and Magdalena Leolkes, their daughters and new baby Peter. Although the accommodation was rather spartan Magdalena had made it not only livable but had turned it into a home. It was shown to Sir Willoughby and Lady Norrie, as a model of what could be done with such limited accommodation. They were among the lucky ones. Several of the early arrivals in Leigh Creek were married men, whose wives or fiancees were still living in camps either in Europe or somewhere in Australia. As many as 180 couples were forced to live apart in South Australia in 1949. The first Christmas Eve that 'Hollywood' was occupied, a group of carol singers, on the back of a truck, called in on their rounds while all was dark and silent. When Giselle Kapochany's beautiful soprano voice began to sing 'Stille Nacht' under the starry sky, one by one doors opened onto lit rooms, and voices from many countries joined in.

Some of the best known, and most successful DPs to arrive in Leigh Creek were the Leolkes family from Hungary, Polish-born Adam Jamrozik and Lithuanians Vytas (Bill) Doniela and Jurgis Glusauskas. After only a short time in Leigh Creek Glusauskas felt the need for a Lithuanian-language newspaper. On his way to Australia, he had brought a typewriter and Gestetner, and in 1948 began to produce a bi-weekly newspaper. After work, his tent became an editor's office and printing room. The first Lithuanian newspaper in Australia, Australijos Lietuviu, was born in Leigh Creek on 12 September 1948, and has continued until this day.

Although Glusauskas was the driving force behind the venture, he was assisted by several other Lithuanians including the young Navakas brothers Vaclovas and Vytautas. The first edition of this publication contained ten pages of Australian and Lithuanian news and had more than two hundred copies printed. The Postmaster at Leigh Creek bluntly refused to postmark them and in the end Jurgis had to do it himself. Glusauskas was also heavily involved in trying to get Lithuanian displaced persons out of Germany to other countries. While in Leigh Creek Glusauskas kept up an extensive overseas correspondence. In publishing the Lithuanian language newspaper he was often assisted by Juonas Norkunas, Jonas Vizbaraz, Andrius Bajorunas, Jonas Langevicius, Martynas Lumpreiksas, Vytas Doniela and many others.

The paper was received by Lithuanians all through Australia with great joy and disbelief that it could be, and was, produced 'under such extraordinary conditions, where journalists, editor and printers worked in a coal mine during the day and still found time to produce a fortnightly paper by night'. After his departure from Leigh Creek in 1950, Glusauskas completed an Economics degree at the University of Adelaide, changed his name to Arminas, which was easier to pronounce for Australians, bought a small printing press and continued his involvement with Lithuanian publications.

For the next seven years he was the editor of the Adelaide based newspaper Adelaide's Lietuviu Zinios. On top of all this Arminas still found the time to organise many charity functions to collect money for the Lithuanian Sunday school and High school in Germany. Even though Arminas, and others, were often referred to as Balts and Nuts, Leigh Creek must have provided the right kind of stimulus for them. Many of them did extremely well once they had finished their two year indenture agreement with the Commonwealth government. Within a few years some of these DPs had established themselves in such professions as Chemist, Architect, Lecturer, Author and Publisher.

ETSA also recruited actively from Northam in Western Australia. Here Charlie McMillan called in looking for thirty labourers. While at Northam he was assisted by Adam Jamrozik, a DP from Poland, who could speak English. He was able to convince enough men to make the trip from Western Australia to Leigh Creek. Obviously his task was not all that difficult. None of these people had ever heard of a town called Leigh Creek Coalfield, but all were eager to earn their living and discharge their part of the contract. This group consisted of several Poles, including Stanislaw (Stan) Markiewicz, Euzebiusz (Smokey) Chmielewski, Tadeusz (Teddy) Praschifka and W. Karykowski, who had known each other in Europe, and some Hungarians, Serbs and Czechs. When they arrived at Telford station and saw the rows of tents, one of them said something like 'Not on your Nelly!' and took the first train back.

The others stayed and worked out their two year contract. Another Polish migrant who arrived in May 1949, but stayed a little longer than two years, was George Bilinski. He started as a labourer in the Lobe B open cut. Four years later he transferred to the Coal Preparation Plant where a year later he was promoted to Leading Hand. In 1957 Bilinski became one of the first to operate the new coal preparation machinery at North Field, which had recently been opened up. After twenty years of dust, heat, glaring sunlight, and noise he transferred back to Lobe B when work was re-commenced at that site. This time however he worked the machinery from a dust and sound-proof airconditioned control room with tinted glass windows.

His two friends Zeibots and Barszcz, who had arrived with him in May 1949 also stayed for many years. Tadeusz Barszcz left Leigh Creek in 1954 for Port Augusta, but returned, soon after his wedding in 1969 and stayed for four more years when he won a job at Torrens Island. Edgar Zeibots was still in Leigh Creek many years later and very much part of the community. There were others who also endured it for more than twenty-five years despite the often primitive conditions on the field and in the town. Waclow Korol came to the field in 1949 from Poland and worked on both tractors and draglines. Zivota 'Big Jim' Delmas arrived in Australia in 1948 from Yugoslavia, started in Leigh Creek in 1951 and was still there after thirty-two years.

He worked as a Caulker, Jackhammer operator and Brick maker before becoming a Town Services Assistant in 1973. This position he held until his death at the age of sixty-four on 15 August 1983. Josef Urban, (Sugar Joe) arrived in April 1955, at the age of thirty-two, and stayed until his short-lived retirement in 1982. He died on 29 September 1984 and became one of the first to be buried in the new town. For most of the DPs who came to Leigh Creek, the two year contract meant only eighteen months. Due to Leigh Creek's isolation and primitive conditions at that time, the government gave a discount of six months on the contract. Eighteen year old Vytas Doniela was 'released' from his contract after only twelve months to continue his University education. Having started in Leigh Creek loading sand on trucks he progressed to making cement bricks, working in the kitchen, and becoming a fitter's mate, all in one year. After starting his studies at the University of Sydney he eventually graduated with a BA Honours and later a Master's Degree.


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