Ingrid Armstrong-Boehk

BOUND FOR AUSTRALIA

It was in September 1954 when my family joined about a thousand people in boarding the Migrant Ship ‘Anna Salen’ at the harbour of Bremen, Germany. We were about to leave our home country forever. A band on the wharf played the age-old song of ‘Must I now leave my home forever’ and there was barely a dry eye to be seen, neither among the travellers nor among the people they were leaving behind. Coloured paper streamers danced in the breeze from ship to shore like umbilical cords until a gust of wind tore them apart. A few last sentences like: ‘good, luck, we wish you well, and ‘write soon’ still drifted through the air as the ship’s siren announced its departure.
.My mother hid her tears behind a handkerchief, my father tried with clenched teeth to control his emotions, and my little sister who was still too young to understand this life-changing event, happily waved at the people on shore who were growing smaller by the minute. I too, felt quite sad at leaving behind all I had ever known, but on the other hand, at fourteen years of age, a sense of curiosity started to grow inside of me, and I began to look forward to the great adventure that lay before us.
Our destiny was Australia, a country, which many people knew very little about. It could not have been easy for my parents to come to this life-changing decision, but the post-war years in Germany with hardly a chance of employment and very little money, must have been a very difficult time. Australia, the country of boundless opportunities seemed like Paradise to many Germans at the time.
When I told my friends about our forth-coming immigration, the remarks some of them made, had scared me a little. ‘Don’t you know that there are kangaroos in Australia who wear boxing gloves?’ One of them asked and warned: “if you get in their way they’ll knock the living daylights out of you.”
‘Not only that’, said another, ‘there are poisonous snakes as well. They crawl into your bed at night and bite you, and within minutes, you’ve had it.’
“Personally,’ my girlfriend said, “I’d be scared stiff to go to Australia, ‘cause you have to sleep in a tent in the bush, and all these black-fellows walk around everywhere with their boomerangs. They can quite easily hit you over the head and you’ll be a goner.’ Her eyes opened wide as she went on: ‘you might even have to marry one of them. Good Grief!’
When I heard all that, goose pimples started to crawl all over my body. In my minds eye I saw myself in a little grass skirt fighting with black people over a piece of raw kangaroo meat.
That’s enough,” another friend interrupted their doomsday predictions. ‘Do you want to give Ingrid a heart attack before she has even left?’ I think that the people over there are just as civilised and intelligent as here. Why else would they breed so many rabbits? I actually read somewhere that they have high fences, build two metres into the ground to stop the rabbits from eating all the fruit and vegetables in peoples gardens.’ Then she added rather thoughtfully: ‘mind you, I don’t quite understand just why the breed so many rabbits.’
I must have looked rather pale when I got home from school that day. My mother immediately felt my forehead, thinking I might have a temperature and asked if she should give me a dose of castor oil, which I, of course declined vehemently.
After I had told her what had been said to me at school, she said: ‘now, now dear. Don’t let any of that silly talk upset you. I’m sure you’ll have nothing to be afraid of.’
That evening, my father came home with a scout knife that had all sorts f gadgets attached to it, from compass to screwdriver, to scissors etc. ‘This will come in handy,’ he said. ‘You never know when we might need any of these.’ That too might my heart beat a little faster with nervous apprehension.
Well, if I hadn’t been so lazy at school, I would have learned a little more about the fifth continent. But I hated geography and pretended to be deaf in both ears when it came to that. And I didn’t know then that I would actually be going there myself some day and learn more about this mysterious country and its people. Probably more than my teachers would ever know.
My throat ached with un-cried tears as I said ‘good-bye’ to my friends on the day of our departure. I didn’t want anyone to see me cry and bravely waved at the small group that had gathered outside our house. For a very last time I let my eyes roam over the familiar environment of our small hometown where I was born and had lived for fourteen years. I planted each little detail firmly in my mind, the tall church steeple, the river where I used to swim, and the old castle on the hill, so that I would never forget any of it. Would I ever see all this again? I wondered as the truck drove us away.
Once on the ship, I began to enjoy all the activity around me. The captain and his crew were all excellent hosts caring a lot for their human freight. There was entertainment galore, with film – dance – and game nights. And people forgot about their home-sickness and their fear of the Unknown. There were so many exiting things to be seen. It was then that the ‘Anna Salen’ was dubbed ‘the Swinging Anna’. Travelling through the Middle Ocean, I watched the albatrosses soar high above the ships masts. Ever-hungry seagulls landed continuously on deck fighting over each little crumb that they might find. I saw schools of flying fish emerging unexpected from the ever-murmuring ocean, their silvery scales reflecting in the sun. Far-off coastlines awakened my imagination, and at night the stars that shone from a velvet-blue sky were of such brilliance as I had never seen before. The sight of them made me reflect on the insignificance of humankind by comparison to the infinity around us.
Our voyage took us through the Suez Canal, where there was also a lot to be seen. In some parts the channel seemed so narrow that one wondered how the ship could get through. People in turbans and in long coloured robes groomed their camels on the shore, washed their clothes or knelt on mats to pray to their God. The sight of endless deserts of white sand and rolling dunes awakened memories in me Aladdin and Sinbad, Sultans und Princesses of stories I had read in the ‘Tales of Arabian Nights’
Eventually our ship docked at Port Said and we were allowed on land for a few hours. The steep narrow streets were surrounded by unusual and white buildings that looked as though they had been copied from a picture book. We walked past people in bright coloured robes and live cows decorated with flowers. There were men in uniform, wearing red hats with black tassels. We were told that they were police officers.
Eventually, my father spotted what seemed to be an ancient hotel. ‘Maybe we can get a beer in here,’ he said to my mother and two accompanying friends. ‘Let’s go inside’, and yes, he got his beer alright. In big letters the label read: ‘Muenchner Export Bier’ (exported from Munich). ‘A piece of home,’ dad laughed and thoroughly enjoyed it. At the table next to us sat two dark skinned gentlemen. It turned out that one of them was a hips captain from Madagascar as my mother who knew a few English words had understood. The captain seemed to like my blond hair and blue eyes – I think. He excused himself, left the lounge, and returned moments later with a small bottle of expensive French perfume which he smilingly handed to me. This was when my father began to wonder what the man might have in mind for me. One had heard it many times over that blond European women had been kidnapped to serve as concubines in harems in the Far East. So he pulled his scout knife from his pocket, waved it through the air, and said: ‘nobody is going to touch my wife or daughter or they’ll have t deal with me. Is that understood?’ Suddenly, out of the blue, two policemen grabbed hold of him and started to march off with him. My mother chased after them and begged them as best she could, to please let him go. But they were determined to keep their prisoner. Luckily, my father’s friend who had observed the incident in shock disbelief, produced a packet of tobacco from his pocket and offered it to one of the policemen who didn’t seem to mind a bit of bribery. They let my father go, and the five of us ran back to the ship as fast as we could.
Several days after we had continued our voyage, a severe storm developed. Black clouds covered the previous bright sun, and the day grew as dark as night. A strong wind blew and house-high waves, tossed the ‘Swinging Anna’ about like a tennis ball. Luckily, this didn’t last for too long. But oh, how I wished then, that I was back home in my own familiar bed. Many of the passengers were sea-sick for the very first time, including myself and a lot of us were hanging over the ship’s rails to donate our lunch to Neptune, Lord of the Seas.
Exactly five weeks after our departure from Bremen, the ‘Swinging Anna’ docked at Port Melbourne, Australia. A golden beach as far as one could see, lay before us. Behind it I saw modern houses and factories; and traffic noises drifted towards us. Friends and family members of some of our co-passengers waved and laughed and cheered with excitement as they collected their loved ones. But there was no such reception for the four of us. We had to get onto a train that took us to a migrants’ camp in Bonegilla NSW.
During the journey, which took several hours, I observed the landscape that flew past the window. There ere endless paddocks with herds of cows and sheep, and rabbits jumping through sun-burned grass. But I didn’t see any tall fences as my friend ad suggested. I also saw several kangaroos and they didn’t wear boxing gloves either. Koalas, some with their babies on their backs, sat in eucalyptus trees whose scent filled the air, chewing the leaves. I marvelled at various trees with beautiful coloured blossoms in pink, yellow, and red, and saw flocks of rosellas and cockatoos startled by the noise of the train. We sped towns and cities and the odd person I saw looked, much to my relief, exactly the same as we did.
The migrants’ camp consisted of wooden and half-round steel huts with shower blocks that stood in the open, and a canteen that was chocca-block full of people of all races and creeds.
We had hardly settled in our new accommodation, when later we were told a few days that we would be transported to another camp in Queensland, where the women and children would be staying at the camp while the men were supposed to be working in the cane fields several miles away.
Again we had to endure another long train trip. The new camp was in the middle of the bush which seemed to me like an impenetrable jungle. Perhaps my friend back home had been right after all? I wondered anxiously. Scared half out of my wits, I searched our immediate surrounds for poisonous snakes and wild looking black fellows, but much to my relief, I didn’t see any of the kind. What did scare me however, were the huge lizards with blue tongues and big frills on their necks, which often appeared from right under our feet. Many a time they caused me to scream in fear, and the kookaburras, which are well known for their loud laughing noises seemed to be laughing at me for being such a scaredy-cat.
It was just over a week later when my father together with some other men, came limping from the cane fields back to the camp. They had walked for many miles. The Queensland sun, late in October, had done a lot of damage to the German men’s white skin. Some of them were badly sunburned with blisters on their backs, arms, and legs. The food rations at the camp however, were only for women and children, not for the men. This also meant that they had no beds to sleep in. The situation was worse than it was back in Germany during the post-war years. I slept with my little sister so that dad could occupy my bed, and my mother and I shared our meals with him. Each slice of bread was put into a drawer until we realised that ants were eating themselves fat on it. We didn’t have any dishes to keep the bread in, not even a piece of newspaper. The boxes with my parents belongings were still stored somewhere, waiting to be collected.
About two weeks later, fate intervened and sent us to Heyfield, a small town in Gippsland. How things developed there, can be read in my booklet ‘Memories of Heyfield, my adopted Hometown’.

 

All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Ingrid Armstrong-Boehk.
Published on e-Stories.org on 20.02.2008.

 

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