EXCLUSIVE

August 9 marks the 70th anniversary when Parkes Migrant Centre opened

When Millie Schillick from Melbourne drove through the streets of Parkes in January, she felt an instant bond, a re-connection with the town.

She felt at peace in a place she once lived 70 years ago - she felt at home.

And most of all, she felt pride.

Pride for the childhood and life she was given thanks to her hard working, resilient, devoted and, as she described, "brave and brilliant parents [Ivan and Sonia Schillich] who gave so much for so little in return".

Life was tough but it was very different times back then.

Today, August 9, marks the 70th anniversary of the opening of the Parkes Migrant Centre, located at the Parkes Airport that was formerly a World War II Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base and training school.

At the end of WWII, Australia opened its borders to migrants who were displaced from Europe as a result of the destruction of their homes.

As many as 20 million people had been displaced from their home countries, with about seven million in Allied-occupied Germany - many had no homes to return to or could not return.

Australia accepted more than 180,000 migrants between 1948 and 1952, with nearby migrant centres - also known as hostels or camps - located in Parkes, Cowra, Orange, Bathurst, Lithgow, Goulburn and Leeton.

Much of the early accommodation consisted of disused army huts or military bases - migrant families were permitted to remain there between three to 12 months, and were given English lessons and work to assist with re-settlement.

Several thousand migrants passed through the Parkes camp, which was smaller than many other camps, accommodating about 2000 migrants.

Just six days prior to the Parkes migrant camp opening, the Schillich family arrived in Sydney from Naples, Italy aboard the immigrant ship 'Castel Bianco' as part of the WWII Displaced Persons Assisted Passage Scheme.

"I was very small, I was about two but I remember a bit about it," Millie said.

"We were one of the first lots of WWII European Displaced Persons - people with no homes, families or country - to arrive here.

"My parents had lived in refugee camps in Germany and Italy since the end of the war."

They couldn't return to their own countries because Millie's father Ivan, who was born in Siberia in 1918, had been a Soviet soldier and then a Prisoner Of War for the Nazis. Her mother Sonia, born in Ukraine in 1926, became slave labour when the Germans invaded her country in July 1941, separating her from her family and home.

"She was taken where the German Army went so when the war ended she was in Germany unable to return to Ukraine," Millie said.

"My parents had met during the war when dad was stationed in mum's home town in Ukraine, they were separated, then found each other again and escaped to Italy.

"When the war ended they became Displaced Persons unable to return to their countries of origin due to political reasons, so they were forced to live wherever they could.

"These refugees were stateless...destitute and sought re-settlement but only a handful of countries were taking refugees to fill labour shortages and Australia was one of them."

Ivan and Sonia - eager to escape the civil and political unrest taking place in northern Italy where they were living - applied to the International Refugee Organisation to go anywhere in the world there was peace and quiet.

"My parents had been through eight years of living with world war and civil unrest, and were prepared to leave Europe for anywhere, hopefully to Canada or America which were most people's first choices, but the waiting lists were too long and they were eager to get out of the squalid, starving life of refugee camps," Millie said.

"Australia had a ship ready to leave, they were eligible, and so off they went."

The family arrived at the Bathurst camp, where Millie said most migrants who landed in Sydney went to for processing.

And so began the compulsory two-year work contract carried out anywhere in the country.

My parents had lost everything they had including their countries, homes and families so this new country had to be their new home.

Millie Schillick

"Like every other migrant camp in Australia then it was run-down and mostly unsuitable for living accommodation but these people had to be put somewhere," Millie said.

"They (my parents) were supposed to stay for a few weeks at Bathurst to learn English, be trained in the Australian way of life and be given jobs, but I contracted scarlet fever.

"I was put into an outside wooden toilet which had been converted into an isolation room and stayed there for a month until I recovered. A few children died of malnutrition and diseases around the same time so my parents were not willing to work away from the camp and were given work there instead of dad being sent far away to jobs in Newcastle, Cooma or Port Kembla.

"We lived in a partitioned off room in a Nissen hut with a broken window, rusted tin roof and unclad wall, but it was better than the dormitories of the long huts at the camp."

The family moved, travelling by train, to the Parkes migrant camp, which they found to be in slightly better condition. They were put into a small spartan room with thin partitioning in a long hut with shared toilets.

"My parents were surprised at the flat, dry landscape with a few strange looking trees about - far different from a rustic, ancient city on the Adriatic Sea in Italy," Millie said.

"Dad was given jobs in Newcastle, Maitland and Wilcannia but it meant him being away from us for weeks or months. A lot of other men went because they were desperate for the money, but he refused to leave as he did not want to be separated from me and mum again."

FARM WORK: Ivan Schillich and his Aussie friend Johnny (a RAAF pilot) pitching hay on a local farm mid-summer 1950. Photo: Millie Schillick

FARM WORK: Ivan Schillich and his Aussie friend Johnny (a RAAF pilot) pitching hay on a local farm mid-summer 1950. Photo: Millie Schillick

Instead he was given local jobs such as clearing rocks off farmland, pitching hay, and cleaning out railway or cattle yards, but he was used to the heavy labour from his POW years. Though it wasn't nearly as hot in Europe as it was in central NSW.

Ivan was a high school geography teacher before the war, he spoke 10 languages, played four musical instruments, and was very artistic and talented. But his qualifications were not recognised in Australia and he was a common labourer. Sonia had just finished high school and was only 15, with dreams of becoming a pilot when the war broke out.

"It was normal for the survivors not to want to talk about their war years. I grew up watching and hearing my parents and their migrant friends talk in low voices about the war, cry a lot and generally keep their war stories to themselves," Millie said.

"Parkes was the complete opposite in every way to being in Italy, everything was different so a lot of adjustments needed to be made - even the sun and sky were different, much brighter and bluer than Europe's.

"The Australian people were also different and treated us differently... These Displaced Persons were foreign to them in just about every way.

"My parents had lost everything they had including their countries, homes and families so this new country had to be their new home.

"The Parkes migrant hostel was the first place they settled into - primitive and rural as it was, even to poor refugees, but my parents had endured so much suffering, loss and uncertainly for the past 10 years in Europe that at least in the Parkes camp they had a room to themselves.

In Parkes they were not in fear of being beaten or shot, they had food every day and [paid work]... That was worth moving to the other side of the world for - for freedom.

Millie Schillick

"In Parkes they were not in fear of being beaten or shot, they had food every day - even though it made a lot of people unwell as they were not used to greasy mutton and canned veggies.

"In Australia they had peace, security, the opportunity to start a new life and to save to buy their own home because they were now being paid for the work they did. That was worth moving to the other side of the world for - for freedom."

Life in the camp, Millie said, was good - they made plenty of friends, some lifelong, who had similar backgrounds to them and for Millie, there were so many kids, one of her fondest memories.

"Little kids like me had no toys or playgrounds but we had lots of other kids to play with," she said.

"We were minded by whoever was not working on the day. Sometimes when our minders snuck a primus stove into their rooms, they would cook their own food and we would get potato soup or cabbage and onion, and even spaghetti - cooked the European way.

"We all remember how hard our parents worked, often at terrible jobs given to them, and how much we had to sacrifice as children because we were so poor and made fun of for being who we were."

Sonia began working at the Golden Key Cafe in Clarinda Street, located at the time on the left hand side to Chamberlain Square, and, like every other migrant, was missing her own type of food, so she started making Italian style coffee and sandwiches, which became very popular.

She later took a job at the Paragon Cafe as a waitress and continued to make her coffee. She worked here for a few months until her and Ivan were offered a job at the Cambridge Hotel.

CONNECTION: Millie Schillick came to Parkes in January on a special visit to see her first Australian home when her family arrived from Italy in 1949. She stopped in at the Paragon Cafe where her mother used to work. Photo: Millie Schillick

CONNECTION: Millie Schillick came to Parkes in January on a special visit to see her first Australian home when her family arrived from Italy in 1949. She stopped in at the Paragon Cafe where her mother used to work. Photo: Millie Schillick

"We had lived at the migrant camp for about eight months so we were very happy to leave it and move into the little fibro shed in the backyard of the hotel, even though it was pretty much like the hostel," Millie said.

"At least now they had their own private room and a kitchen to use to cook their own food."

New publicans Mr and Mrs McLean had just taken over the hotel in 1950 and hired Ivan and Sonia to help restore and repair the run-down pub, as well as to work in the bar and kitchen, and clean rooms.

"They were very kind to my parents who appreciated their hard work, treated the new migrants respectfully and even allowed them free beer and cigarettes," Millie said.

"Dad said it was long, hard hours but they loved it. Word got out to the camp site that the Cambridge had migrants working behind the bar so pretty soon the hotel became their migrant watering hole."

"While living at the Cambridge I used to help mum change the beds, do the dusting and fold up linen so I got to know the inside of the hotel very well."

Sonia also used the skills and experience she gained as a barmaid at the hotel for the rest of her working years.

CAMBRIDGE HOTEL: A young Millie Schillick at the back of the Cambridge Hotel in Clarinda Street, Parkes 1951. Photo: Millie Schillick

CAMBRIDGE HOTEL: A young Millie Schillick at the back of the Cambridge Hotel in Clarinda Street, Parkes 1951. Photo: Millie Schillick

By this point Millie had started kindergarten at the Family Catholic Church - known as the Holy Family Catholic Church on the corner of Currajong and Browne streets.

She has fond memories of swimming at the Parkes Pool and exploring the streets of Parkes with other children.

Her dad loved going rabbiting and bush walking on his days off and would take Millie with him as they loved to wander together.

"I remember the many hours spent at the swimming pool, frying under the hot sun happily and you could tell who the migrant kids were - they were the ones wearing underpants as swimmers as most of us couldn't afford the proper bathers the Aussie kids wore," she said.

"I also remember walking up the hill with my parents to go to church every Sunday.

"Mum would visit her two Russian friends who were still working at the Paragon Cafe to 'do coffee'.

"Business in Parkes and surrounds boomed from the migrant influx and everyone was enjoying themselves. Of course, most migrants had many war scars to heal and bad memories to come to terms with so often alcohol-fuelled arguments would start at the camp between previous 'enemies' of war.

"The ongoing food complaints at the camp had been resolved by putting on migrant cooks and kitchen hands, serving up spaghetti, sauces, sausages, goulash, soup and good bread.

"Plus home-made wine started being served and the townspeople smelt, ate and watched in awe at the assortment of delicious foods laid out on the tables at the camp social nights.

"I don't know where they got the garlic, but I know that the olive oil was ordered in through the pharmacy as it was a medicinal item then, but lard was still used as the oil was expensive."

Still technically working under their two-year work contract - though Mr McLean didn't agree with it telling them "you are not prisoners here" - Ivan had saved enough money to buy a block of land.

He found a cheap block near factories in the western suburbs of Melbourne and signed a contract with a builder to build a two bedroom weatherboard house.

The two-year contract was officially over in August 1951 and the family had plans to leave by Christmas when their new home would be ready. But Mr McLean was dismayed and very disappointed at the news, asking them not to go as he was secretly planning for Ivan and Sonia to take over the hotel as the new publicans, because his wife Thomasina was not very well.

"My parents were equally disappointed at this news as they loved living and working in Parkes," Millie said.

"Dad said it was the best years of their lives, he spoke fondly of Parkes and the McLeans.

"They heard through friends at the Parkes migrant camp Thomasina had passed away in mid-1952 and Mr McLean had left the hotel. It was sad as it could have turned out different for all of us."

WHERE IT BEGAN: While in Parkes in January, Millie Schillick visited the Cambridge Hotel, where she spent so much of her childhood, meeting now owner Nicole Usher. Photo: Millie Schillick

WHERE IT BEGAN: While in Parkes in January, Millie Schillick visited the Cambridge Hotel, where she spent so much of her childhood, meeting now owner Nicole Usher. Photo: Millie Schillick

The Parkes migrant hostel closed on May 30, 1952 but not without protest from the people of Parkes who didn't want to lose the migrants and valued their contributions to the community.

Ivan continued to work as a labourer in Melbourne at factories around Brooklyn. He built bungalows for new incoming migrants and renovated houses for the next 30 years, a trade Millie said he learnt at the Cambridge Hotel.

Ivan passed away in March 1991, aged 72, from lung cancer, as he had worked for James Hardie Industries, and Sonia passed away at 87 in September 2012.

Millie travelled the world for five years, got married, ran her own clothing boutique for 25 years in Perth and is now living in Melbourne's west in her parent's retirement house.

"I would like to thank the people of Parkes for the wonderful days and life we had there as new Australians. I know the people of Parkes did appreciate what these WWII refugee migrants did for them, and for Australia," Millie said.

Millie visited Parkes from January 18-22 this year to celebrate her birthday and revisit her past, where life in Australia began for her and her parents.

She also visited the Bonegilla (in Victoria) and Bathurst camps which were among the largest migrant hostels in Australia.

She visited the Parkes Pool, her old school and church - and met up with Rosanne Jones of the Parkes Historical Society, family historian Dan Fredericks at the Parkes Shire Library, Cambridge Hotel owner Nicole Usher and Bill Barber of the Parkes Aviation Museum to learn more about the past.

"I went to the church on a Sunday morning, sat in the same place up the back as I used to as a child, and the feelings of those early days came flooding back to me - of the peaceful little town, light filtering through the church windows," Millie said.

"It made me wish we had never left Parkes when we did.

"Thank you to the people who were so nice and helpful to me when I visited Parkes in January.

"When I arrived in Parkes I felt like I was home - I felt more at home in Parkes than I do living in the western suburbs of Melbourne.

"It was the people, it was in the air that night - I felt like I belonged there, I felt nostalgic and I was welcomed everywhere I went. I knew my way around town, that's the irony."

"I was swamped with feelings when I visited the old camp at the airport, I cried seeing the foundations of the buildings there and knowing my parents had gone through so much to get to where they were and where I am today. I saw the commemorative plaque at the old camp site, recognising and thanking them (us) for our contributions."

Millie would like to dedicate her story to her dearest parents and all WWII migrant Displaced People who passed through the Parkes migrant camp.

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