The Migrant Journey
Mary van de Graaff (2013)
‘Go on, Mary, tell the class your news!’ My fifth grade teacher nudged me. I mumbled and stumbled as I told my classmates that my parents had decided to migrate to Australia after the summer holidays and I would never come back to our school or neighbourhood. Silence fell.
It was inconceivable! We were all born in the same area at the beginning of WWII and had huddled together in crowded homes, bomb-shelters and basements. We had all started pre-school together, attended the same church, enjoyed school picnics and girl guides together. Except for those who had died, nobody had ever left our area.
‘It is like a funeral,’ one girl remarked. As eleven year olds, we could not comprehend why anyone would willingly leave everything they loved for an unknown future in the wilderness of Australia. My aunts warned us that we’d all become homesick and cry your hearts out. Why move away? My father had a job. We had a nice home, nice clothes and good food.
By the time our departure date was set for 3 September 1952, it had taken my parents three years to obtain assisted passage because the Australian government enforced certain restrictions. Initially, they only wanted farmers to work the land and breed farm animals. Then, with the influx of migrants causing housing shortage, they needed builders, bricklayers, carpenters, electricians and plumbers. My father had been trained in his father’s business. Grandpa, Wilhelmus van der Rijken, owned a whole block in our street. He owned a hotel with bar and dance hall. Next to the hotel Grandpa owned a delicatessen/grocery store and behind the hotel he had a large bakery. The family had comfortable living areas adjoining the hotel, above and behind the grocery store. As the youngest son, Dad had inherited the delicatessen/grocery store and his eldest brother the hotel and bakery. The shop had been plundered many times during the war whilst the family evacuated during heavy bombing raids but my parents had built it up again and the shop flourished. By 1948 we were living very well. Dad employed a shop-assistant and delivery boy and Mum had a live-in maid and a cleaning lady to maintain the household. Then, twice in succession, my parents were swindled by people they had really trusted and consequently lost their business and home. Dad’s relatives blamed Mum for the catastrophe and they decided to migrate to Australia to get away from hostile family.
We had our medical examinations, X-rays and passport photos taken. Dad vowed he would take on any work whatsoever and, just when all seemed to be in order, there was another blow. All the migrant hostels in Australia were full and we had to arrange our own accommodation! It was devastating because my parents did not know a single soul in Australia. Then, out of the blue, a young, newly ordained priest came past. He told my parents he was sailing for Melbourne soon and would speak to the bishop about their plight. A few months later we received confirmation that accommodation was available for us in Daylesford, Victoria.
When my parents produced that letter at the Australian Embassy in The Hague, our documents were finalised and we were told we could take a maximum of four cubic metres luggage. They further advised not to take any blankets, fur coats or woollen winter clothes as we would not require them in Australia. Consequently, my mother gave away her beautiful fur coat, my older brother Bill’s new camel hair coat, and our cousins flaunted the sheepskin coats, which had kept my sister Jose and I snug and warm. Our first winter in Victoria was miserable. My parents swallowed their pride and gratefully accepted second-hand warm clothes from church organisations.
Our departure from Holland in 1952, with my parents sobbing in the arms of their relatives was enormously gloomy. I could not understand why anyone would knowingly inflict such unhappiness upon themselves. My father was 37 and my mother was 34 when they sailed into the unknown with eight children and Mum six months pregnant with her ninth child.
We soon learned that the ‘Ms Fairsea’ was an Italian liner with a Greek crew and Indian cabin, kitchen and dining room staff. As we checked in, my father and eldest brother, Bill, who was thirteen, were told they had to sleep in a large dormitory below sea level whilst my mother and seven children were allocated a 16 berth cabin to share with two other families. It was about the size of a standard lounge room, no chairs or tables and only standing room between the double bunks. The Indian cabin staff brought small calico hammocks and explained, mostly in sign language, they had to be tied between the bunks for the babies. As children, we soon marked our territories and stashed our suitcases under the bottom bunks. Our 18 months old sister, Lotty, was placed in the hammock and the lady in the bunk opposite placed her baby in a hammock whilst she and her three children shared four bunks. There was also a lady with a teenage daughter.
When the dinner bell went, we joined the crowd to the massive dining room and took our allocated seats at an enormously long table. We were fascinated to see some carafes filled with water and others with red wine. The bowls, with strange black and green things, were called olives. We had seen many pictures of the Last Supper showing Jesus drinking red wine but found nothing sacred about drinking vinegary Chianti! Although Olive trees were mentioned in the Bible, and should therefore be sacred, we spat them out!. As our food was placed in front of us, we heard the ship’s engines rumble and felt the ship move. We were on our way to a distant land. Before going to sleep, we peeped out the portholes trying to work out which coast we were passing. We were on a great adventure and it felt exciting and luxurious not having to attend school, not having to do homework, nor chores such as washing up or running errands to the local butcher or greengrocer.
After passing the Bay of Biscay, the ship berthed at Lisbon where we saw huge nets with large green oval objects being hauled onboard. Over dinner we learned the fruit was called water melon. It was the last fresh fruit we ate for the rest of the voyage. Everyone was out on deck to see the distant lights as we passed through the Strait of Gibraltar which was a fairytale entrance to the Mediterranean Sea where the temperature was pleasant and the sea calm. We enjoyed the sunshine and sunbathed on the decks.
Because of political unrest around the Suez Canal, nobody was allowed to leave the ship when it berthed at Port Said. We were warned to keep our portholes closed so that traders, who gathered around the ship in little boats, could not sneak aboard. It was intriguing to see these agile, dark people, wearing long biblical robes like Jesus, selling very colourful merchandise from wobbly, fragile looking boats. Passengers threw coins into the water and little dark children dived down and resurfaced with coins glistening between their teeth. They seemed totally unafraid. Because the Suez Canal is quite narrow, ships have to wait in line all day to pass through in single file convoys. As the metal ship lay idle in the blistering heat, temperatures soared to 44oC on decks but, without ventilation in the cabins, it must’ve reached close to 50o. My mother felt ill and flung off her corset which had concealed her pregnancy. No shipping line wanted the responsibility of taking women over five months pregnant. She struggled to the deck gasping for air. A lot of heads turned when Mum’s dark secret was so blatantly revealed.
The journey through the Red Sea seemed very slow with the sun beating down on the ship all day creating a very oppressive heat inside the cabins.
Whether it was due to contaminated water or food loaded onboard at Port Said, I don’t know, but by the time we reached Port Aden, hundreds of people had contracted a gastric infection. We all had to queue for inoculations at the ship’s hospital. By morning, my three year old sister, Coby, had developed a high fever and had cried all through the night. I drew her closer towards me on the bottom bunk to comfort her but she let out a fierce scream. ‘Look at her little thigh!’ I yelled out to Mum. ‘She has a huge red swelling the size of a football from her hip to her knee!’ Coby had always been a tiny, fragile child. I carried her around like a doll. She was admitted to the crowded hospital with blood poisoning obviously caused by an infected needle.
Volunteers were called up to nurse the sick. We later on met a young woman called, Betty Schneider, in Bendigo who remembered nursing Coby. Three babies died within a week and a morbid atmosphere hung over the hot stuffy, crowded ship. One doctor described the conditions aboard as worse than freighting animals. We were all seasick and my pregnant mother seemed to heave up more food than she consumed.
After passing through the Gulf of Aden, we were out on the open Indian Ocean and there was a pleasant breeze. As days went by, strong winds developed and the ship rolled and pitched day and night over the high seas. Mum took very ill one night and asked me to fetch Dad. With the ship creaking and groaning and puffs of steam hissing from pipes, I was terrified as I found my way to the pitch dark dormitory in the depths of the ship where hundreds of men lay sleeping. I trembled in my nightgown and bare feet. A friendly man’s voice from the dark void whispered, ‘Hey, little girl, what are you doing here?’
‘I am looking for my father,’ I stammered. ‘My mother is ill’.
‘What’s his name, dearie?’ he asked very kindly. As I stood there in the dark, I heard the man whisper to other men and eventually my father emerged from the dark. I clutched his hand tightly as I led him to our cabin.
Two women in dressing gowns barred the passage way to the women’s quarters and would not let my father pass. ‘You should know that men are not allowed beyond this point,’ one angry woman scolded Dad, casting a look of disdain.
‘If your wife is ill, we’ll take care of her,’ she replied tersely.
‘Go and ask Mum what is wrong, Mary,’ Dad nodded in submission. I ran messages between Mum and Dad for a while but my whispering and opening and shutting the door, woke the two other women in the cabin who grumpily got up, talked to Mum and I walked back to Dad explaining the women were taking care of Mum. Dad retreated back to the men’s area and I curled up next to little Coby who angrily kicked my cold feet away from her.
The next morning, our family gathered together on deck, as we did most mornings, for fresh air. Dad settled Mum on a little fold-up fisherman’s seat whilst we squatted on the bare deck boards. There was a strong wind and it was raining heavily, the ship pitched and rolled, groaned and creaked and we all clung to each other. I don’t recall any of the young people, who occupied the deck chairs, ever offering Mum a seat.
Suddenly, a young man next to us jumped up and shouted, ‘Look at that! It’s a cyclone!’ The sky was slate-grey and we could not see well through the rain. Then Dad pointed to what looked like a huge elephant’s trunk and I did not understand why it upset the adults. Soon, a crowd gathered watching and panicking about the cyclone sucking up water from the ocean and becoming larger, heavier and darker.
Then someone came running towards us screaming, ‘There’s another one on the other side!’
‘That’s impossible!’ an older man exclaimed in disbelieve.
All heads turned to the other side of the ship. The solemn voice of the captain came over the ship’s microphone, announcing we were heading for even rougher seas and there was a great danger of being washed overboard from the decks. It was safest to stay in our cabins and lie on our bunks until the storm had passed. Dad helped Mum, picked up two of the little ones and we all clung to each other until we reached the slippery metal steps with hand rails to move to the lower decks. The ship was tilting so much, the bow seemed to dip completely below the water and we could hear the propeller rattle at the stern as it came above the water. Even though the crew had tied up what they could with ropes, the ship rolled from side to side, sloshing and breaking everything on the decks. From the kitchen and dining rooms we heard crockery, cutlery and pots being smashed about and saw injured and bleeding crew members being carried to the hospital. It was terrifying.
Even in our bunks, we had to cling to the metal rails so as not to be thrown out. We were all seasick and grabbed towels because it was not safe to walk to the toilet block. Then we heard a thud and my little sister Anne, who was five at the time, let out a piercing scream. Her head was stuck between the metal bunk and the metal walls of the ship. We saw her kicking her legs in the air with panic.
‘Hurry up! My head hurts and I am bleeding!’ she sobbed. Mum and I rushed to her aid and started pulling her by the shoulders but her head was tightly clamped as if held in a vice. Anne went quiet and her body went limp. We called out to some crew members. One went off to get some tools and eventually unscrewed part of the bunk and slowly lifted her little head and gently rolled her onto the bunk. She opened her eyes and pouted, ‘I hate this ship!’ Mum hugged her and soothed, ‘We all hate this ship. Not much longer now,’ as she mopped up Anne’s bleeding nose and ears, gave her some water and a lolly to suck. Anne settled down after we had made a cocoon from her sheets and tied her down. We clutched our way back to our own bunks.
After 18 days on the Indian Ocean we reached quieter waters. The shores of the Promised Land came into view and there was enormous excitement on the decks as people caught the first glimpses of Port Fremantle. Mum was too tired and miserable to move but Dad was anxious to take his six eldest children for a walk in the sunshine on solid ground.
We were all eyes as we walked uphill towards a row of shops. What intrigued us most was the weatherboard homes with corrugated metal roofs built on very uneven ground. They seemed to be tucked into the rocks. So unlike the rows of double storey brick terrace homes in Holland.
‘Come on! Hurry up,’ Dad urged us. ‘You’ll see plenty more homes when we reach Melbourne.’
A broad smile spread on Dad’s face when he stopped outside a green grocer because we had not had any fresh fruit or vegetables for over three weeks. A middle aged couple returned his happy smile and uttered kind sounding words we did not understand. Dad picked up some oranges and, waving them towards us whilst pulling out a pound note from his wallet, said, ‘Children. They have Veetameen C, Veetameen C, you understand?’ He tried to convey that his children needed Vitamin C but could not string a sentence together. The poor shop keepers had no idea what he was saying. Rather embarrassed they explained that most of the fruit was stale. They were expecting fresh fruit the next day. My father tried even harder to clarify his needs. Eventually the shop keeper cut the bad spots off the oranges and cut the rest of the fruit up into bite-size portions and Dad made us eat it on the spot. The lady beamed with delight at having provided us with some nutrition.
Five days later, on the 8th of October, we reached Port Melbourne where a row of taxis were waiting. Photographers and reporters crowded the gangplank anxious to take our names and photos for their newspapers. Fifty years later, I searched the micro-fiche records at the National Archives but could not find anything in the papers about our family arriving.
As we gathered our luggage, Dad ran ahead and waved a bit of paper under a taxi driver’s nose, showing the address of our destination, ‘The Gables Guest House, Hepburn Road, Daylesford, Victoria’. The driver mentioned Spencer Street Station and he duly drove us there. Dad did not know he was being robbed when the taxi driver charged five pounds, (half a week’s wage) for the short drive. At the station, Dad pushed the address under the grid to the ticket seller, bought rail tickets for his brood and we soon boarded a train into the unknown.
We had no idea where Daylesford was, or how long the journey would take, but we were on solid ground, people were friendly, the sun was shining, we had survived a treacherous voyage and ready to embrace the new life that awaited us.