A frank story. part 1, Town hall fire and family storms.
Those first few weeks, after when Holland was liberated, were filled with joy and pride, with dancing on the streets and kids waving little orange flags. Swaggering Anglo soldiers with keen girls on arms. Loudspeakers, urging us in English, to come out of hiding and that the war was over.
One of the worst problems of the war which caused my dad untold misery and almost brought my mother’s ingenuity to breaking point, was the tobacco problem, or rather, the lack of it. My father was hopelessly addicted to tobacco smoking. The chance of having tobacco during the occupation was not unlike and perhaps even on par with the chance of becoming obese. The shortage of tobacco was worse than shortage of food, at least for my dad. It must have been at its worst just shortly after liberation. My mother urged me to walk the streets and follow those smoking Canadian and English soldiers who were our liberators. ‘Put the cigarette butts in this little box’, she urged me. What a wonderful wife my dad had. What a magnificent carer of a woman. The problem was that there was stiff competition from bigger and stronger kids who were sent on the same mission. I was faster though and managed to get many cigarette butts and came home feeling a bit like a soldier myself. Dad soon unpicked the butts and rolled ciggies, lighting up the second hand Camel and Lucky Strike like a king, tomorrow would never come. it was the first time that awareness seeped in my psyche that taking action could have rewards and a world of possibilities had opened up.
The next phase of my awareness of our family and Frank was when my dad was going upstairs above our living quarters to murder someone with a knife. A stated before, we lived on the edge of Rotterdam and occupied the second floor in a street that had a continuous row of three to four story apartments built around the 1920’s or so. The attic was occupied by us children as sleeping quarters. This attic could be reached by walking past the 3d floor and climbing another flight of stairs. The third floor was occupied by a woman called ‘Trudie’, who by my father and at a certain time, was under an advanced threat of being knifed. The problem was that the children’s day-time and night-time sleeps were apparently often interrupted by noise coming this woman’s upstairs living quarters. I don’t know or remember any particular noise but it was a terrible contentious issue and my parents were often quarrelling about this dragon of a woman upstairs with her noisy behaviour. My mother could well have nagged my father into taking action, but knifing the dragon surely was not the most appropriate way of dealing with a problem, was it? Anyway, what with war, hunger and cold, no food and tobacco and awakened crying babies, father was driven to the edge of his endurance, if not also his sanity. Babies were crying again and the knife was handy. Upstairs he went, knife in hand and mother in pursuit, this time trying to calm things down, prevent slaughter. It was only one floor up, and what the heck, he will show what a real man is capable of. Somehow, mother prevented murder and a few years later we moved to The Hague. It was a prudent move!
Years later, during 1961, there was a repeat outburst from my father in Australia, but this time aimed at the Superintendent of Sydney’s Callan Park Mental Hospital, Dr Harry Baily. Fortunately, by then father had matured enormously and lost his predilection for knives. It was going to be a two handed job around a neck. If only my father would have succeeded. He would have saved at least twenty five lives, but of that later on… It was during that episode in Rotterdam and the trouble upstairs, that during the middle of one night we were all woken up with a terrible scream. I, for one reason or another was still downstairs, perhaps I slept there, but remember going to the stairs were the noise was coming from when Frank was hurling himself down the flight of stairs, head over heels, in total fright. He had seen a ghost and a white sheet floating through the bedroom. The terror of that event equalled the explosions of those V1’s or V2′ and the blame for this event was sheeted home to that Trudie woman upstairs, who, according to my parents’ late night whisperings, had done the deed to get even with my father’s attempt in doing away with her! I my memory of that time, it was the turning point of how I perceived Frank to be. I started to see Frank as being different and out of the ordinary.
In any case, it was a sagacious move on my parents part and possible future attempts at more homicide, that we all move to The Hague in 1948, and M/s Trudie was wiped out forever from our family that had now grown to five children . The only time her name was mentioned was during historical reminiscences, years later, when amongst much family mirth and coy laughter from father, the knifing incident was brought up again, usually around Christmas time with my parents annual festive glass of sherry.
The trip and move to The Hague was arranged by a removalist. My parents and Baby Herman in lap sat at the front with the driver and the other kids inside the covered truck but at the front of the interior which had a window overlooking the top of the driver’s cabin. Frank, John and I had already reached the stage of collecting cigar bands and marbles. The marbles were won by knocking opponents out and collecting those marbles that were in the ‘pot’. Standing up in the truck and keen to spent time with mischief, I started rolling a couple of marbles over the front cabin and subsequently over the driver’s window. The truck soon came to a sudden halt and a very angry removalist got out, climbed in and without a word gave me a hard smack, took the bag of those dearly won marbles climbed back in his cabin. I am not sure why my parents did not deal with the problem, perhaps used to much mischief twenty four hours a day, marbles rolling over a driver’s window were a mere bagatelle.
The arrival of the removalist and truck with goods and inhabitants has got lost in my memories accept that the driver was big enough to give back those marbles. During the evening most of the furniture must have found a place somewhere on the floor and would have included the children’s large bed. Our bed was a wooden affair with planks across the width of a double timber bed frame. The mattresses were in three parts and made of kapok which my mother used to air outside at least once a week. I suppose some of us were not totally nonstop toilet savvy and the war would not have had the most soothing effect on the nerves of children that grew up in that period. As the first evening grew more and more hysterical amongst the three of us, at least in my father’s eyes, and we were suffering from loud laughter and endless farting under the blankets, dad felt the need for discipline and letting off his steam as well. It had been a hard day and his tobacco might have run out at a most inopportune moment as well. He grabbed a little stick and started to flay us kids who were already experienced enough to dive with split second precision under the blankets. When we got out from under the fart laden blankets we noticed the little stick had broken. However, the break was not clean and resulted the end bit hanging onto the main part which was now flipping and flopping about whilst my poor dad was wildly trying to bring us under control. It had enough of an impression for memories to have etched so firmly in my conscience as if only yesterday. The other event worth mentioning about this triple-kids-bed was that as we grew up and became more and more apt at mischief, the wooden planks would bow under the increasing weight and mucking about and slip out from within its framework with mattresses and timber slats all ending up on the linoleum floor. A total disaster as my father would have to fix it all up, with an anxious mother soothing things in the background and possibly pregnant again.
The move to The Hague was not only to prevent a bloody massacre on the third floor in our street in Rotterdam but also because dad was now working In The Hague. The council owned flat had three bedrooms, a large balcony with the whole street’s bottom dwellers having gardens and chicken. It was still the time when chooks featured wide and far even in cities. The horse and cart would deliver bread and milk, other type of horse-drawn services was funerals and rag and bone merchants who would pick up disused rags, paper and vegetable scraps. There were also smaller wooden wagons with ferociously large dogs that were somehow pulling the carts from underneath. Another plus was that we were twenty minutes from the beach and a similar distance from the port of Scheveningen which had a large fish market with, amongst many fish smelling items, had baskets of small prawns sold to highest bidder. It also had a large pier sticking out into the North Sea. This was the perfect spot to watch the fishing trawlers coming in with their first catch of herrings from Doggersbank off the English coast. This was always a dangerous trade when the boats then were sturdy but small wooden vessels and used only sails during the storm season. Wives would wait with huge shawls, wooden shoes and long black dresses wrapped around sturdy thighs. Many a husband and father were lost to storms and high seas then.
I loved going to this fish harbour and remember going there almost daily on school holidays helping out with stacking large cane baskets in which fish and prawns were held that were to be auctioned or sold. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing more desirable than to come home smelling like the sea and its inhabitants. I soon befriended some of the people there and often as a kind of reward for helping in my very limited primary school way, was given a few handfuls of small prawns and some fish. My parents loved the spoils but were not so keen on the ever present fish smell that permeated the whole house.
Apart from the three bedrooms there was a dining and lounge room. At some later stage when there were 6 children, the lounge room was converted to my parent’s bedroom. In winter the heating was done with two coal fired cast iron heaters. The coal was stored on the large veranda in its own little shed. No one was ever locked up in there. This locking up of children in coal sheds in Rotterdam might have just been confined to the Van Dijk family. As far as I know, this was not a typical punishment for children. The house also had a large hall which was used to park my parent’s bicycles. The bicycles played an enormous role in Dutch domestic life and dad always rode his bike to work. The bike had to be carried two flights down in the morning and the reverse when he came home. I think at one stage he used to hang the bike from a hook on the stairs. The flat that we lived in was on the second floor and did not have anyone living above us. The danger of noisy neighbours from above must have been carefully investigated after the Rotterdam torment.
Brother Frank is a worry.
Frank had now become somewhat of a worry and my parents tried to get him to adjust to school, make friends and behave reasonably. There was something not quite right. He did well but all too slowly. His writing was immaculate but he could not work around writing a little less perfectly and keep up with the rest of the class. Another issue was his overriding sense of using difficult words and expecting instant recall. He would get angry if his memory not instantly came to the rescue when trying to put a sentence together. He also wanted to learn all the countries capital cities. Frank did have a friend named Joop Kinker, he lived around from us and we always walked past his house on the way to school. The house where he lived smelt as if a gas tap was permanently open without ever being lit. Either that or tonnes of cabbages were fermenting on a permanent basis. Our apartment with its harbour and fishy sea side smell was like a fragrant florist shop by comparison. I never figured out what it was or what was going on inside, and Joop Kinker never divulged the secret of that part of his home either.
As time went by, we slowly started seeing Frank as somewhat embarrassing to have around our circle of friends which was terribly cruel. Children grow up at some stage to be liked and accepted. Standing out was only acceptable if connected to something one did for praise or rewards and one felt confident enough not to be seen as a fool. It was not as if he was seen as a fool as much but more by being regarded as oddly different. It was as if almost everything he did was antagonizing to the world around him. Neither I, nor brothers were at an age to understand, let alone be helpful or mature enough to consider this ‘strangeness’. My parents did try and get a grip on the problem but thought that somehow Frank would grow out of it and that in time it would all pan out for the best… Well, it never did.
The distance from the beach and sea was as close as one could wish for at any age, let alone for me and friends. We soon found and discovered the joy of outrunning waves or try and catch rabbits in the sand dunes. We used to put loops of wire staked into the sand in front of the burrow in the hope of catching a rabbit next day. We never did, I guess the rabbits were too smart and the family just had to do with the prawns and fish that I scavenged from the fish market… The remnants of German occupation were still everywhere along the Dutch coastline. Bunkers and miles of connecting underground tunnels were an adventurers dream come true and with small bottles filled with kerosene and cotton wicks and box of matches we explored the underground tunnels and bunkers. Holland was reeling under the cost of rebuilding it’s bombed out cities, rail-ways, bridges, roads and all other infrastructures, so demolition of German bunkers did not have a high priority. The American Marshall plan was a God send aiding the recovery of Western Europe from the ravages of war but it took years of toil and hard work to bring the country back on its feet. In the meantime some of those war torn structures were the playgrounds for lots of children including me and friends. Jumping from ever increasing heights into the sand below from bunkers was a sport occupying us for hours till we unearthed and found a German revolver. It had rusted solid but so was our fear of anything to do with guns that we held it down towards the ground till we arrived at the police station where it was handed in.
Town hall fire.
The next chapter of possible interest to readers might be the burning down of a disused council building, perhaps it might even have been a Town Hall, my memories of the event is clearer than the origins of the actual building. I came home from somewhere, perhaps from shopping at a department store called Vroom & Dreesman, which was in the city centre which I either walked to or, depending on family financial status, perhaps even caught the tram to… My mother used to scan the specials in the paper that this store advertised for sale every Thursday. There was a picture of the items and the reduced price. My mother was an economist on a grand scale and squeezed every cent before it would leave her wallet. Indeed so embedded was her frugality that even the grease proof paper in which the butter was packet would be scraped and scraped until we actually had most of the paper spread on our sandwiches as well. The same with tins and bottles, her spaghetti was often just boiled noodles with the remnants of a rinsed out tomato sauce bottle and some cheese spread on top. Later, as I grew older and bolder I would imitate my mother by standing at the sink shaking my bum as if scraping or rinsing the very life out of every bottle or butter package.
Anyway, back to the burning Town Hall story. I must have been sent to buy either a bra or large woman’s underpants or both that were on ‘special’ that day because they seemed to be the only items that I can ever remember having bought for my mother in that department shop. I must have felt some embarrassment, why would I otherwise have the memory; surely there are more important items to remember from shopping expeditions? With the six children in our family to be fed, my mother’s budget was ruled by an iron will to survive and as a minimum at least have food, government issued stamps limiting the number of items one could buy, scrimping and saving was on everybody’s agenda.
Coming home with the ‘special’ bra and underpants safely packed under my arm I was greeted by a huge crowd and fire-truck sirens. The crowd was thick and amongst them I noticed my 2 youngest brothers. The disused building was chock full with superfluous clothing and blankets and many other items donated as a result of the monster storm on the first of February 1953, when the North Sea took revenge aided by moon and king tide in breaching dykes, causing the deaths of almost two thousand people by drowning and exposure to howling winds and cold. The generosity shown by the world was overwhelming. It came out that my brothers had broken into this building with a box of matches and candles. They had climbed through an open window and rummaged around, lit a candle and had an adventure that those boys and girls of that age are so fond of having. Mothers at that time with large families were not around all day to check on brood and were much more relaxed then, streets were safe and kids grew up by hook and by crook. They had a right to play on the streets that was unquestionable.
Of course, the lit candle was forgotten about and those dear brothers of mine continued with their explorations inside that warehouse. All I can remember is coming home and large billowing clouds of smoke reaching skywards near where we lived. The front row of spectators watching keenly the fight between fire and its enemy, the fire brigade, included my two brothers. Their excitement knew no bounds. At that time, my parents had just gone through the first stage of applying to immigrate to Australia. We had seen a short movie at an information evening run by the Australian Consulate. It was so cheery and sunny in Australia; my parents were totally taken in by it… I remember seeing postmen jumping from letterbox to letterbox delivering the post and the newspapers were thrown from a moving car into enormous looking front gardens. Not a cloud in the sky. Afterwards we all walked silently home in the ever seemingly permanent rain. I think it was then that my parents decided to take the risk in coming to Australia.
The evening after the burning down of the warehouse, there was a knock on the door and two friendly suited men asked to be let in. They were just after some information about the fire that afternoon, and asked if all the children could be around for some casual questioning and possible information about the fire. None of us, especially not my parents were aware that any of us could have started that fire. The detectives asked everyone and none were admitting anything, then one of them took the six year old on his lap and simply asked; which one had the matches, was it him or him, pointing to two other brothers? Soon the finger was pointed and the game was up. This was such good psychology and the two little ones cheerfully admitted to having started the fire.
Father of course thought then that the chances of coming to Australia were in ruins. Nothing of course was made of it, and we all came here, February 1956. Australia was happy to have us and Holland was happy to see us go!
Australia here we come.
The Van Dijk family with their coal shed of convenience for the incontinent toddlers also had six children by the end of the war. They had stayed on in Rotterdam but in 1951 decided to immigrate to Australia. From then on we received countless reports of the fabulous earning and riches that they had found in Sydney. Father Van Dijk was a concrete form worker. His expertise was much in demand in Australia, whereby filling plywood forms with concrete was just beginning to take off. Reports from Australia of own bathroom and ‘cake with cream’ eating every Sunday after church started to erode my father’s stubborn resolve to make the most of family life in Holland. After all, the Marshall plan had just started to kick in. The bombed out buildings and streets slowly started to be cleared and optimism was bubbling up, the system of buying limited foods with Government issued stamps started to phase out and above all, our Christmas stockings started to fill out much more substantially. Instead of getting knitted socks and underwear in the stockings we got real presents and real toys. I even received a stamp album with pages that were screwed in and had a hard cover, also a soccer ball and meccano sets as well. Things generally started to look up. Meat appeared at least once a week on the table, and we would be peeling mandarins on the way to school after the lunch break. I used to buy a cucumber from pocket money and even ice cream.
The Van Dijk’s persisted with the propaganda though and I often thought years later that those letters were a way of assuaging themselves of having made the right choice after all, and that all the loneliness and hardship, the friends and foes left behind, the strangeness of foreign language, the kids having to wear uniforms to school, and getting hit by rulers and the cane, the heat and flies, were all worth the sacrifice, even though at times, the price extracted in leaving home and hearth must have been so overwhelmingly heavy and so sad.
Hence all those letters, not so much to convince us but more to balm their own pain. I was perhaps fourteen when my mother received yet another letter in which the Van Dijk’s wrote about having bought a car that was both a sedan and half truck. Now, I was impressed. Imagine some sort of button that would convert the car from sedan to truck. Was it some kind of conjurers trick or a morphing technique now available in Australia and originally from America? In Holland the cars were getting streamlined and trains travelling faster but cars that were both sedan and truck were unimaginable. The Van Dijks also wrote that they now lived in a house that had a bathroom. We were made to understand that the house with bathroom was theirs and as they had already lived in Australia a number of years, we assumed that at least their material dreams were coming true. All their sacrifices had been worth it. Own house with own bathroom was not to be sneered at. This bathroom was what grabbed my mother’s attention the same way as the sedan car into truck conversion took mine.
Our large family lived in a typical apartment situated in a street of rows of housing with ground floor and two stories above, with each floor being a separate living unit. A type of living quarter that was typical of many European cities. Those living quarters had comfortable living areas, bedrooms and basic kitchen and toilet. No bathroom. My mother used to send us sometimes to a public bathhouse, which from memory was a very steamy affair, with an attendant banging on the door if your time was up. The speed by which one had to get undressed and then soap and rinse was for me a task of great tension and nervousness. The threat of door banging by an angry adult took all joy away. I suppose my mum must have, as she was want, economise and gave just enough money for a minimum shower. The more traditional way of cleansing family bodies was for my mother to announce that the day had come finally for all of us to tub. It would not be far wrong in saying that this was probably a world -wide habit during the early fifties, when only the well heeled had a bathroom, tubbing was the norm for most. Sometimes the tubbing was somewhat advanced with a gas boiler filling up those large zinc coated tubs with hot water, or in rare cases a cast iron bath. My mother used the Saturday afternoon, perhaps twice a month, for this cleansing ritual. In between we were expected to give a wipe “here and there” with a damp cloth. With us five boys we would have been generous in sharing those damp cloths not really worrying too much which cloth had wiped what and at least adhering to the basics of personal hygiene. I am not so sure about the very cold frosty mornings, when the ice on the windows indoors might have been less then conducive for wiping body segments.
The tubbing started with the eldest and then worked itself down to the youngest, all in the same water. The water had to be reasonably hot for it to last for the five of us. This meant that for Frank it would have been too hot which meant jumping around outside the tub and testing with toe till it was safe to go in without scalding. I was next, usually by then the water was getting perfect in temperature and I would linger as much as possible. Of course mother would not tolerate that as the next three still had to have their tubbing. Adrian, the youngest had the worst of worlds, a water temperature close to being cold and a layer of scum from the previous job lots. Not much use being the Benjamin here!
Whatever the history of Oosterman bathing, it is my opinion that the claim by the Van Dijks having their own bathroom was what finally decided my parents to go to the Australian Embassy to apply for Emigration to Australia. There was going to be an information evening with film and questions and answers type of thing. The event was very nice, informative and the colour film was a knock over if not knock- out as well. The unforgettable freedom of the delivery of the newspaper, thrown from a driving car, all rolled up and smack bang in front of the occupier of a glorious sun kissed house under biscuit coloured roof tiled pergolas, who in morning coat and smiling broadly picked up the paper from front verdant lawn, with one hand and a wave to the deliverer of good tidings with the other hand. A friendly toot on the horn from the 1952 Holden in answer, made it all just perfect. The house that received the thrown news-paper was bathing in Southern Hemispheric sunlight and a dazzling halo of white painted fence at the front almost replicated the toothy smile of the man in morning coat picking up the Sydney Morning Herald paper. The next bit of film was a slight repeat. This time it was the postman delivering the good tidings, leaping over similar white painted picket fences, friendly chat with a female house owner this time, before his next leap. I remember worrying a little about all this chucking and leaping. Was it a cultural habit in Australia to do things by driving, chucking and leaping so much? Anyway, I decided to do as much practise jumping and running as possible, certainly wanted to make a good impression in case we would be accepted as possible immigrants.
The move to Australia was looked upon with some consternation by my school friends. Why Australia? The opinion uttered by some of my parent’s friends was in the order, that they heard “it is a boring country, no life”,” everything is shut on Sunday”. “There are no cafes where you can get together for a glass of beer”. Not very helpful comments hardly made it any easier dealing with a permanent separation from all those friends and family members, uncles, aunties. It installed some trepidation and up till this day, some fifty years later, I must admit there was more than a tinge of truth in what they were telling me at the time. I don’t think I will ever lose the memory of arriving in Australia’s Fremantle WA on a Sunday.
Life on Board.
Back in February 1956, Fremantle on that Sunday, when we landed, was devoid of people. After having been on board for almost 4 weeks and finally arriving, we of course, wanted to get a look at our chosen country ’Australia’ and meet and look at some inhabitants. Not a soul to be seen, only other boat migrants, who were as perplexed as we were!
Going back to Holland and the immigration story, we had to go through all the form filling, medical examinations, x-rays and as soon as we were accepted for the initial approval, more interviews and finally a date whereby we would leave and travel to the promised land of “own bathroom” and “half sedan and half truck cars”. Australia!
I can’t remember the actual packing of furniture or any other belongings that got shipped over before our departure day. I was taken out of school and was set to work delivering fruit and vegies for a fruit shop. They were mainly deliveries to Embassies which were a rich vein of never ending tips. The tips were the start of an awareness of the value of having a bit of money. It never left me. Of course, the bulk of my earnings as a fifteen year old went to my parents who needed every cent for the uncertain future ahead. Even so, I managed to buy a camera and had some money saved up when we finally boarded the ship. The good bye to friends and family members was heart wrenching, but what could one do now? The departure from the Port of Rotterdam was on a rainy and miserable day. I consoled myself by mentally going over the immigration movie of Newspaper and Postal leaping over white picket fences with glorious sun and smiles from inhabitants of far away Sydney. The exploration of all the nooks and crannies of the large boat called ‘The Johan Van OldenBarnevelt gave relief to pangs of sadness and aches and pains about friends that were most likely never to be seen again.
There were quite a few English ‘ten pound’ single men migrants saying their permanent farewells with parents on the quay. I remember,” Goodbye Jack, don’t forget to write to your sister. Cheerio son. Let us know how you are going, won’t you? Yes mum, see you then. Keep well boy,” and with these words of parting they too set sail for Australia.
After a couple of days, the sun came out and weather was getting Mediterranean with passengers settled. I was most impressed with the food and menus that we were asked to choose from. Can you imagine, getting to choose between boiled or fried eggs, beef or pork, mashed or boiled spuds, carrots or spinach, tea or coffee?
After a few days, arriving first in Genoa then Naples and finally Messina in Sicily, where I then witnessed the goodbyes of all goodbyes. Not only to mama, Papa, sorelli and brothers, uncles and aunties, the barber, grandparents, villages and brotherhoods, but also forever and ever with the unrelieved and spine tingling goodbyes that haunt those harbours still. With great heaving, wailings, endless sobbing, and despair soaked up in acres of their best hankies. These were the goodbyes at their best and saddest and so final.
Those were the farewells of no return.
As the ship of Johan.V.Oldenbarnevelt finally pulled away from moorings and thick ropes, huge cries would rise again; reach across the widening gap of water. One old man, and papa to dear son Luigi departing, the best cobbler of the village, so unrelentingly steeped in grief and sobbing, lost his dentures in the water as well as son (going far away,) no doubt to be found that same week by a keen archaeologist of that ancient harbour.
The Dutch way of departing was a bit in between, more practical matters would be discussed. Have you got enough underwear for the six weeks? Don’t forget the cod liver oil. We heard the vegetables are not fresh. Yes, we are doing this for the children, and yes, we heard there are bathrooms in some of the houses in Sydney. The weather is much warmer there and palm trees too. Stop sniffling and fidgeting Gerard!
Next day on board, those sad Sicilians were still hanging over the sides of the boat. Doe eyed and cast towards the shores that had disappeared and gone forever with’ famille en casa con la tavola’. While the young poms were strolling towards the bars that would open up in international waters away from coast and provide tax free alcohol relief. A little orchestra would soon strike up a cheery waltz, such as the much favourite; It’s on the isle of Capri where I met you………Was it Dean Martin? It would be another two weeks before an ’Oh sole mio’ would be tried. Tables would be set up for card games and Tombola. After a couple of days, the red rimmed eyes of the Southern Italians would revert to black again and friendships were being made quickly.
The English bachelors were less forthcoming and seemed more at ease pondering uncertain futures by themselves, perhaps with a glass or two of beer.
The Dutch, of which there were hundreds on that boat, were endlessly counting suitcases, heavy metal strapped trunks and forever pestering the stewards for access to the holds deep down in the bowels of the ship where enormous engines were thundering and roaring towards Australia, to re-check everything, just in case. Their humble possessions would be spread out on decks and inventories were written and re-written by the fathers and mothers. Huge numbers of parental progeny were stalking other kids along endless cream painted steel corridors and getting into checking out friendships or fights.
With spare money earned by delivering flower arrangements and vegetables to Embassies in The Hague, prior to departure, I was keenly betting on the ship’s sweepstake. This is a guessing competition between zero and number nine in the final tally of miles that the boat had covered in the previous twenty four hours, last numbers only. I was amazingly lucky, and it supplied me with enough money for reckless spending on cordials and for paying the on board photo developing. I had an Agfa Clack camera, also earned from those Embassy deliveries, with which I recorded our voyage.
The differences of those goodbyes from family and country between the English, Dutch and Southern Italians were startling and made me realize how difficult it must have been for all of them. Did the English finally end up sobbing as well, perhaps late at night, muffled and under blankets and alcohol? Or did they care less about family and friends than the Italians and Greeks. My dad cried leaving his parents, and so finally too. He never saw them again. We, kids and mum would have a family sobbing every now and then, and over many years.
Fremantle on Sunday ,Better in Melbourne, Best in Sydney.
As hinted earlier, the first Australian Port of Call, Fremantle on a February Sunday, 1956 was somewhat of a surreal experience. I am not sure what the Italian Luigis or Greek Stavrosses thought about it all. Despite my fifteen years of age or because of it, I needed to see and meet new people, our first Australians to be precise. After the whole ship donned Sunday best with coats and ties, pre-pressed and creased pants and frocks, the twelve hundred passengers could not get off the boat quick enough. We all sauntered ‘en masse’ over a large steel bridge spanning acres of industrial rail-lines and rubble, walking for quite some distance when we finally found our way to Fremantle’s first row of houses. Perhaps because of the intense heat and distance we already encountered some passengers who were on the way back to the ship. One Dutchman who we knew from onboard proudly practised his English and said “kept left in Australia” to us, in a strong guttural accent, eyes sparkling. We of course still walked on the right hand side, but not him. He would definitely succeed in Australia! Our eight of us persevered but somewhat uncomfortable in the simmering heat and in all our finery.
Not a soul to be seen. Was this a practise run for a Neville Shute’s film set of ‘on the beach’? This might be the best way to describe what confronted our family walking through the deserted and weather board peppered street scapes, even though the ‘on the beach’ was not written till 1957 with its theme of an Australian town awaiting death from an atomic bomb. Perhaps the feeling of a town without people being visible often acts as a catalyst for many a book or painting. Did Neville Shute visit Fremantle on a Sunday prior to writing his best seller, I wonder? Apart from Neville Shute’s book and film with Ava Gardner, another example of the strange feeling of this typical Australian town on a Sunday, might well be in contemplating a painting by Jeffrey Smart. Of course at that time, those artists were totally unknown in Fremantle and no amount of clairvoyance of its people could have been responsible for the feeling of emptiness in those streets. In fact, there were people there, with here and there a steady radio drone coming from within the cream painted weatherboards. Years later when I learned how to spot signs of life within those curtained and venetian blinded off houses, a cricket score then often betrayed life, even though the desire to be unseen and to remain private was strongly adhered to.
My dad and kids bravely walked on determined to finally say something to someone, preferably a real Australian. We walked up a hill with on top some kind of monument and even the so longed for palm tree finally in sight. Diagonally across from the monument and palm park we spotted a shop with doors open. We made a surge towards this shop, thirsty for any quenching liquid and first contact. We entered the shop and expectations of an introduction and possible handshake were foremost in dad’s mind. A handshake was always done back home and as common as donning a hat to a passerby, or standing up for a lady in the bus or tram. Surely, anyone could sense that we were belonging to the just landed. The shopkeeper seemed totally unaware of our presence and did not even look around from where she was stacking a shelf with her back to us. The situation was not helped when the younger kids started to fidget and the thirst and promised quench was getting more urgent. We had no option though and surely with the noise and restlessness she would finally have to acknowledge us. Was she deaf or mute, possibly blind?
It was none of that, it was just that in that part of the world, customer service was still not to be given under any circumstance, a mere leftover from the days that it was common for people to disrespect authority and not to be seen grovelling to the gov’nr. A fair crack of the whip is all they could hope for and this shopkeeper and her ancestors had been taught and also learnt that the customer was now the person to be kept subservient and waiting. The shopkeeper was the Guv with the whip. Of course, my dad had no inkling at that time of those delicate cultural nuances brought out and exposed in those minutes of waiting for a response from this shopkeeper.
Yes love? Finally a response, but ‘yes love’, did he hear right? A question from female shopkeeper calling someone a’ love’, what was this now about? Dad and family went through war and hunger, changing and moving to other city, had a large family, took a boat to the end of the universe with a marriage and fine wife intact and so strong, and now, finally when on first walkabout in Australia and on a first meeting with an Australian and after a long and hot walk, he was called ‘love’ by a strange woman? This was too much to take in, he quickly pointed at some brown cakes sprinkled with some white flaky stuff, and two large bottles of a luridly coloured soft drink or lemonade. We all bolted as fast as we could. ‘Love’ indeed. It must have been a brothel. Those very first cakes were about twenty years later identified as ‘lamingtons’.
It was a slow walk back to the ship. There was a lot to think about and to digest. The lamingtons were eaten in silence and the soft drink shared amongst the eight of us. I remember being vaguely aware of my friends comments back home about Australia being closed up on a Sunday. I started to feel apprehensive as well as tired and mulled over the shop woman and her strange reluctance to serve us. It was way beyond my depth to accept the day as a rewarding experience in meeting our first friendly and welcoming Australian. I missed my friends. This whole encounter from my very Dutch perspective found the experience bizarre; even now I still sometimes feel that it has never really escaped far enough for my sub conscience to totally dismiss it. It did colour my view of Australia at that time. Of course later on we often laughed heartily about that walk and the shop with its reluctant shop keeper.
Once back on board, the ropes were hauled in and we sailed on through The Big Bite and onto Melbourne. Again we were given a day or so to explore and saunter around. The ship was getting emptied of those that were destined for Melbourne. Many had been booked into a migrant camp called Bonegilla. This time, not being a Sunday, there was life and people with a hustle and bustle that one would expect in a harbour. In Fremantle we did not see any cars that I can remember. There must have been some, surely. Perhaps that surreal Sunday experience just blotted out movement of any kind, car and people.
Melbourne had cars back in 1956. I was of course keenly looking for that modern vehicle that those Rotterdam neighbours who had migrated to Australia in 1951 had so often written about, you know, the car that would morph into a truck and then back into a saloon, just by the press of a button, so I thought. No luck though, but plenty of cars that had some kind of tray at the back which seemed to be used for carrying tools and wheelbarrows. The front had a space for two or three passengers. All in all, the cars looked very old with models reminding one of war time with food rationing, when cars were run by burning wood or coal. Australia was at that time decades behind in design and car models must have been proof of that, or could it just be that people were only buying older cars?
We felt emboldened by many people milling around the water front, including a few rheumy eyed men that were dangling fishing lines in the water. All in all, a vast improvement on the Sunday at Fremantle and all felt much cheerier when not far from the boat we spotted a station and trains. After some searching for an office we bought the tickets to the city and when boarding we noticed the train cabins were made of wooden planks with a brown and cream hand painted colour scheme. Of course the wheels were not of wood and looked solid and were also running on rails made of steel. A man with a push-bike also hopped on and we sat off for our first train journey. The impression so far was that of quaintness, disorder and much rattling. By that I don’t just mean the train. There was this sense of heat and dust with oil smells and tar-pitch, but also, as if missing the train altogether would not be too upsetting. There was no sense of urgency. The man with the pushbike, did he know his destination or where he was going? He was asleep.
It must have been a bit disconcerting for many Europeans to find after arrival this almost total lack of care or sense of regulated order and discipline. This nonchalance, or whatever, it was very different; hopefully everything would turn out alright. The day went without any real problems, as far as just going in and out of a few shops could have provided any undue alarm or consternation amongst our little tribe. We had some fruit, with grapes and even a piece of melon before catching the train back to our home the boat.
After another couple of days, the harbour of Sydney at sunrise was magnificent. The top of the harbour bridge was visible but bottom shrouded in mist, dreams are now coming true. The excitement knew no bounds and we stood transfixed at the rails as the boat slowly made its way to the quay. We noticed a few men with blue singlets and bare armpits on board now. They seemed to know what they were doing, but the bare arms and blue singlets were unexpected. What next? Would we be ordered to strip as well? This was now what our parents had worked towards. Sydney, Australia. A new life for so many from Europe and an escape from rain and crowds, it was all for the future of generations of children, the progeny of migrants that would shape future Australia.
The Van Dijk’s were waiting and waving, I could clearly recognize them and when we clambered down the gangway I noticed signs being held up for ‘carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers etc wanted. Gee, they were picking them of the boats. Truly amazing and everybody looking brown and tanned Soon after I had my first milkshake at the Spiro’s milk bar in George Street and a look at St Mary’s cathedral with the Van Dijk’s. I thought I would politely wait and see if an opportunity would rise to bring up the half car, half truck question, but it remained all too hectic. There was plenty of time though, so I let it rest, happy looking forward to the next adventure.
In the afternoon it was time to board a bus that would take all those destined for Scheyville migrant camp and after we assembled the bus left with motley of different nationalities on board. Our luggage would follow by separate truck. Of course no one knew where that camp was situated. Somewhere in Sydney is what we were told. The bus was thus loaded with many shut jaw clamped migrants on the way to the unknown. We would finally face the reality of what our parents had undertaken. Some of them we befriended during the boat trip over, including a family of Dutch Indonesian born. They were content to be just in a warmer place regardless of anything else. It certainly warm that day, it was a boiler.
I was just happy to observe the Australian newness from the bus window and more than curious what would pass my eyes in this new sub-tropical countries with its promise of leaping postmen on viridian lawns and waving palm trees. It was not to be; just mile after mile of a kind of architectural chaos with hoardings and scrambles of signs all demanding attention. I had never observed any kind of public pleas to buy tyres, cars or even frypans back in Holland. This was (and still is) Parramatta Road in full glory.
Migrant and Nissan Huts.
As it was February and hot, I noticed after an hour’s drive or so, that the bus driver got out but we were to stay put. It was after some time and much perspiration that the driver got back in and we continued. It was well after arrival, a few days later when we were asked by others in the camp, if the driver had stopped. We were told that that was the norm and that bus drivers would just get a ‘couple’ from The Locomotive at Homebush. I believe this pub is now a Pizza franchise.
Our arrival at Scheyville was surprising. My mother first thought those Nissan huts were for the push bikes. I was more circumspect as I noticed mattresses and when I opened a drawer it contained old bread crusts! It turned out that the crusts had been left behind by another Dutch family who also had five boys and one girl. We happened to meet up with them a few years later. They had arrived on the previous ship and had stayed in the same numbered hut as ours.
After my parents accepted that the hut was for people and not bikes, they settled in and unpacked our belongings that had arrived by truck. It was a monumental day. Someone in Dutch shouted out loud, you have all been tricked! None the less, heroically my mum put some cheer on and covered the scant furniture with some odds and ends, a crocheted little pillow cover here and a little picture there, making it as homely as a round corrugated hut would allow.
The afternoon heat and the long drive did not lesson mine and brothers enthusiasm for an immediate exploration of the surroundings. Scheyville was situated at foot of the Blue Mountains, surrounded by paddocks and bush with no housing, shops railway or busses anywhere near it. It was previously used as an Australian Air Force base. It had rained nonstop the previous fortnight and apart from the camp, the surroundings were flooded and we were told, more or less, totally isolated and marooned, but just for the time being. We were assured of enough provisions and plenty of food. A Polish born refugee with an ancient but own car cleverly used to provide a taxi service to the nearest railway station through back lanes and swollen embankments. He was a true entrepreneur and a future Thomas Transport or Lindsay Fox giant in the making. We sat out to look at the surroundings as much as floods and mud would allow it on that first day. Of course, in no time our shoes were caked with mud. The foreignness of a new place excited us no end and I just had to look at grass, trees and above all glorious hills, instead of the flat landscape that we all grew up with. The Blue Mountains in the distance was beckoning already. Coming back at dusk my dad after seeing our muddy shoes, and struggling with Nissan Huts and shouts of ‘ you have all been tricked’ with rumours of some migrants already vowing to go back as soon as possible, could not accept the extraordinary changes overwhelming him. It was all happening too fast and he simply could not absorb the mud on shoes and this total slip in order and neatness. He gave us all a good smack.
Me and my brothers took it all in our stride and had youth to back up any acceptance of strangeness. In fact, it was this foreignness that excited us most. Fancy, on the next day’s excursion finding trees with oranges stuck to them. We climbed the fence, took some and tasted the exquisiteness of an abundance that was hinted at in those informative film clips at the Australian Immigration bureau back in Holland a year or so earlier. So far, it would have been churlish to expect to see leaping newspaper and postal delivery men jumping over fences. There were postal deliveries at the camp but not to those private houses with picket fences and broadly smiling owners.
While the migration camps such as Scheyville and many others generally peppered around the fringes of major Australian cities were a paradise to those escaping the aftermath of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and its horrible gas ovens and barbed wire, or the Russian tanks in Budapest and Prague, for many it was not all that was promised. Indeed, not a hint of those hot corrugated Nissan huts in any of those lovely film clips. Not surprising, the disappointments of some were not helped with stories of self hangings and other horrible suicides that occasionally happened during sometimes very prolonged stays in those camps. The refugees from wars and politics were most content to be at the camp, somewhere secure in shelter and with food. Some of those managed to set up little agencies, support groups and even English classes, basic education facilities. On the whole though this was a camp for those in transition to a more permanent form of housing or as was the case for many a camp closer to Sydney and more importantly work.