Thursday, 12 February 2015

Who Were These People?

This photo from our family album is partly responsible for prompting me to start this blog:

Resident Lithuanians with new arrivals, Perth, 15 February 1948
It was taken in February 1948, a few days after my parents first set foot in Australia. They had arrived on 12 February as displaced persons (DPs) on the International Refugee Organisation's transport ship USAT General M B Stewart. My mother BronÄ— is second from the left, her friend Elena KepalaitÄ— is fourth from the left. Behind them is the city of Perth, Western Australia.

There may be other new arrivals in this photo as well - someone might recognise them? - but the intriguing thing for me was that they were met by Lithuanians who were already living here. My father noted in his diary that there were five families with Lithuanian heritage living in the vicinity at the time. Word quickly got around and the first contacts were made at Graylands Migrant Hostel on 12 February; three Lithuanian men, who had lived in Australia for 17, 15 and 12 years, came to meet the new arrivals. The Sunday outing depicted in this photo, a few days later, may represent one of the first recorded social contacts between earlier migrants and the new wave of DPs.

The new arrivals didn't waste much time in organising themselves. Four days after arriving in Australia, on 16 February, they celebrated Lithuanian Independence Day at the Graylands hostel, inviting the local Lithuanians and the hostel management to the event; the program was presented in Lithuanian and English, with a local girl - Adele Kurtinaitis - translating into English;
  • Adele Kurtinaitis was born in Western Australia in 1927.  Her parents Liudvikas and Katarina had arrived in Australia after the First World War and settled at Northam, near Perth. Liudvikas described himself as a labourer when he obtained his Australian naturalisation certificate in 1939, but was able to send his daughter to the University of Western Australia (first year Arts, 1945). She may have had an affinity for languages, choosing to study French and German.        

A few days later, on Saturday 21 February, the locals organised an outing to the horse races;
  • the diary records this as a strange experience, but notes that the races were extremely well organised.  They were taken there by a local, Juozas (Joe) Brown, who my father described as being a pleasant fellow.

By early March 1948 this batch of new arrivals had left the Graylands hostel for the eastern states; many of the men had been sent to temporary rural jobs while the women were sent to larger migrant hostels such as Bonegilla. They had new challenges, new futures to build. Contact with the local Lithuanians in Perth had been short-lived, yet it showed that the new migrants already had well-established compatriots in Australia.

My generation was brought up in the context of the DPs and their stories. There was little mention of the earlier settlers and their histories, who in most cases did not actively participate in the new community structures subsequently established by the newcomers. The following blog posts will seek to uncover some of that earlier history.  We may even be able to identify the other people in the photo!

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