Elizabeth looked at her new born daughter Gyargyike with a mixture of happiness and concern. It was 1942. She and Andrew had only been in the royal city of Szekesfehervar Hungary for a brief time after fleeing from their ancestral home in Lugos, Romania. In the changing borders of Europe this Hungarian family had found themselves on the wrong side of the new border and had fled to their Hungarian homeland. Elizabeth had no idea that in just over two years she’d once again be on the move as a refugee, but was acutely aware of the dangers to her homeland as Germans and Russians competed for mastery of Europe. She prayed her new born daughter would survive the turmoil of the times. Little did she realize these upheavals would see them one day settled in Australia after a brief sojourn in Germany at the end of World War II. It was at the German border in 1945 as they fled from the Russian army that German Immigration renamed Gyargyike. From now on in official documents she would be known as Georgine.
The day the family left Ashbach Germany was a day of joy and hope. Safely in their possession now were important documents entitling them to free transport and entry into their new home Australia. Now that they were leaving, neighbors in the village became friendlier and wished them well on their journey. There’d be less families competing for limited resources in this war ravaged country Ashbach on their departure.
The train took them through the Swiss Alps to Naples Italy where they were to board a ship destined for Australia. The family burst into a joyful Hungarian hymn as they passed through beautiful scenery in the alpine region. The horrors of flight from their native land were swept away as they anticipated a bright future and prosperity at last.
But they’d temporarily forgotten they were refugees, and Italy too had suffered greatly from the Great War. On arrival in Naples they were surprised to find themselves locked into a barbwire encircled camp with hundreds of other refugees. Italians were fearful of being swamped with refugees from other parts of a Europe which had been leveled in allied bombing and where work opportunities were few. They wanted to be sure these refugees moved on.
Refugees bound for Australia were assigned to an old troop ship. On board were 1,500 men, women and children. Families were unable to stay together because of the way the ship’s accommodation was arranged and men were billeted separately to women.
Gyargyike found sleeping space in the women’s section of the ship. Her brief excitement evaporated with each day’s experience in these crowded conditions. She found comfort in family meetings each day on deck and watched with interest the kaleidoscope of cultures begin to unfold on their journey.
As they passed through Suez Canal and entered the Red Sea children’s excitement grew. Her father had told them Red Sea was where the ancient Israelite Nation had escaped from Egyptian enslavement, and Pharaoh’s army had perished in the sea as they gave chase. She almost fell overboard climbing on the rail guards to try and see Pharaoh’s army on the bottom of the ocean, but fortunately an alert onlooker was there to rescue her and explain that was long ago.
Gyargyike recalls violent storms as they made their way into the ocean to the south, and their ship breaking down en route to Australia. Eventually the ship was fixed by an Austrian refugee engineer, but stormy conditions continued until they were close to Australia’s shores. During those long weeks adult refugees were too seasick to visit the dining hall on a regular basis, and children unaffected by sickness were often the majority in the ships dining room. Gyargyike and her sisters were particularly excited to find jars of peanut butter set out on each table not having seen that product before, and went from table to table sampling this new delicacy.
The original plan was for all to disembark at the city of Perth, Western Australia, but for reasons that were never divulged they were diverted to Adelaide, South Australia for processing.
Officials were present at the docks in Port Adelaide to meet and help settle the new arrivals in a temporary camp while their documents were processed and work assigned. Each family member had responsibility for a portion of their limited belongings and Gyargyike was handed the family’s important documents to carry from the ship. On the swaying walkway from ship to dock she lost balance and documents fell into the ocean. Her parents cried out in alarm. Would this mean they’d not be permitted to land?
The sailor helping passengers disembark from the ship saw those important documents fall from the hands of the little seven year old as she sought to steady herself on a shaking walkway, Glancing at her parents he saw the look of horror and desperation written on their faces. Without further thought the sailor plunged overboard to retrieve floating documents before they were swept under the dock by wave action. There was a general commotion as everybody stopped to watch this event and sighs of relief as documents were recovered and the sailor pulled from the water. The documents were wet, but were still readable and eventually cleared for disembarkation’
The family looked out the window of their bus as they were transported to the holding camp for processing immigrants. Adelaide was so different to Europe in 1949. The city was laid out in grand style with large parks separating city and suburbs, but where were the people? There were so few of them in such a large area of land, so unlike Europe with its teeming dispirited population and villages which had the imprint of thousands of years habitation. The whole of Europe would fit into the Australian continent with room to spare. All of a sudden they felt alone in a strange land.
The language barrier reinforced their feelings of isolation. Gyargyike remembers being fearful to go to the restrooms separate from living quarters in this refugee camp because of the man laughing at her from the trees. It was much later they all realized it was the Australian Kookaburra bird she’d heard and been frightened by. Once in a while they’d be visited by officials or representatives of community organizations who’d explain what was planned for them in German. Father Andrew had learned written English during his school days and found he could understand what was written, but none of the family had spoken English skills.
Gyargyike’s reflections on childhood in Australia were of constant family striving for acceptance and prosperity in this unfamiliar country. She recalls the unhappiness of her father when he discovered there was no work available for the skills he’d used in Europe painting murals, creating statues for churches and fine door and mantle piece carvings for the castles of the aristocracy. Government assigned work on the railways went against his artistic temperament.
Then there was those cross cultural adjustments which caused tension in the family as children quick to adopt local customs were in constant conflict with rigid European folkways. Gyargyike wondered if there would ever be a time when she would move away from the double life that required she act a certain way at school, and later work, and have to live an entirely different lifestyle when at home. She longed for that day to come.
And that day did come for her. As she reached maturity she determined to marry an Australian and fully integrate into her new culture. In 1964 her dreams were fulfilled as she exchanged marriage vows with her Australian husband and started a life she could now call her own.
Copyright Ian Grice 2011. All rights reserved.