Australia’s first and largest migration centre closed its doors more than 40 years ago, but as Karen Fittall discovers, its legacy remains, bestowing a rich cultural heritage on twin townships sliced in half by two state borders and the mighty Murray.
Karen Fittall

22 Mar 2013 - 4:07 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

"I’ll let you do the honours," says historian Bruce Pennay, gesturing to a dented, covered saucepan, part of the 'scent exhibit’ at the Bonegilla Collection housed at the Albury Library Museum. Something about his phrasing – or more likely because he’s slinking away from the pot – makes me hesitate, my brain working overtime, imagining what I’m about to unleash.

Courage finally mustered and lid (gingerly) lifted, even with a token sniff, the aroma that hits my nostrils is strong and, with a previous encounter under my belt, unmistakeable as roast mutton. 'Ahh yes, the mutton," says Lucie Van Aken with a little shudder, as she and I wander through the old kitchen and dining halls at Block 19 out at Bonegilla later in the day.

The only block left of the 24 that made up the original complex – used first as an army camp and then as the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre between 1947 and 1971 – Block 19 is now a heritage-listed site, 12km out of Wodonga. Visiting is like viewing a snapshot of what the more than 300,000 immigrants from 50 different countries who passed through Bonegilla during its 24-year stint in operation, might have formed as their first Australian memory, after pulling up in a bus a few hours after docking in Melbourne.

'Mutton was a bit of a staple," explains Lucie, who arrived in Bonegilla in 1962 from her native Belgium, aged 23, with her husband Jean, two young children and seven shillings and sixpence (about $9 today) between them. 'Even when the meat was something different, the gravy was still made using mutton dripping, so everything always tasted and smelled of one thing: mutton!" A once-over of a typical Bonegilla menu from the mid-1960s proves just how hardworking the meat was, with everything from roast, barbecued and stewed mutton to mutton meatballs, mutton ragú and Bengal mutton curry making an appearance. Something mysteriously called 'mutton cream’ also made the grade.

Lucie’s husband Jean says life at Bonegilla was a culture shock. He says while nobody ever went hungry, the many diverse cultures faced their own unique challenges. 'Everything from the landscape to the possums knocking on hut doors was unlike anything we’d known," Jean says. 'Although there was always more than enough food to go around, we missed our favourite Belgian dishes, like braised witlof and pork-and-veal-stuffed celery. We were introduced to foods we’d never tried before and different cultures struggled with different things. The Italians couldn’t buy olive oil and had to eat pasta with tomato ketchup rather than the rich tomato sauce that they were used to."

At Bonegilla’s core is the fact that it was a reception centre, first for refugees displaced in postwar Europe and later for assisted immigrants, which meant it was a place to learn English and a base from which to find work. Most people stayed for days and weeks rather than months, and, according to historian Bruce, those who found work in the Albury Wodonga region then bought a house and settled and stayed in the area.

In fact, the local population nearly doubled in the years that Bonegilla was in operation and the number of overseas-born residents living in Albury Wodonga increased eight-fold. 'Those who settled would come into town and spend their money, so local delis and cafes quickly worked out what they wanted to eat and did their best to provide it. In other cases, immigrants started their own businesses, stocking the foods that they missed from home. It was not only good for local business, it exposed the wider Albury Wodonga population to a huge variety of different cultures, languages and foods. In many ways, Bonegilla tested the waters and broke the ice for Australia’s immigration policies and future as a multicultural country," explains Bruce.

Salamis, schnitzels and sauerkraut
Drive 10 minutes’ north of Albury’s main street and you hit the suburb of Lavington, home to Peters & Sons, a delicatessen and smallgoods producer that originated back to the early 1950s. Almost 60 years later, the business is still the place to go for German meat products, with everything from leberwurst (liver sausage) to blutwurst (black pudding) produced onsite. Lutz Peters’s father Paul was one of two men who started it all.

'We left Germany in 1952 and I had my third birthday at Bonegilla," says Lutz, a Wodonga local who, up until a few years ago, was still at the helm of the family business. 'Like a lot of Germans, Mum and Dad had had enough in the aftermath of the war and decided to emigrate. While Mum could speak some English, Dad didn’t know a word. But he was ambitious."

Securing a job with the local Albury butcher, Lutz’s father, who’d learned the trade in Germany, soon grew itchy to venture out on his own and, in partnership with Irwin Grabbe, opened the first store specialising in Continental meat products, in Lavington. It wasn’t long before he had opened three more in the area. 'Because of the immigrants coming through Bonegilla, there was a growing demand in the area for the smallgoods they’d grown up eating in Europe. At the time, there was nothing like that available in Australia. So yes, people loved Dad’s shop."

Lutz’s own childhood was crammed full of traditional German fare; dishes such as rote grütze, a berry-based dessert, and potato pancakes called kartoffelpuffer that he rattles off with ease and memories. 'About 10 years after we settled in Australia, Mum’s parents fled Germany and came to live with us. My parents were both great cooks, but my oma cooked wonderful German food. The nice thing is my own children have asked for many of her recipes, so the traditions are being passed on."

Today, the region’s German community continues to gather at the German Austrian Australian Club in Wodonga, a club where Lutz’s father was a founding member. 'We’ve always been a fairly tight-knit community, one that loves having a good time, and that was, originally, the basis of the club. In the early days, it was a way of supporting each other in a foreign country. As the years have gone by, there has been less need for that support, but the club has survived, serving traditional German food such as schnitzels and goulash every Friday night."

The cafe culture
'How did I end up working in cafes?" asks 77-year-old George Kotsiros, checking he’s got my question straight. My own concentration is being severely tested by the garlicky goodness wafting from the kitchen where George’s wife, Toula, is busy. 'I was heading to the Mitta Mitta River from Melbourne, for a water supply job. When I stopped at Wangaratta, I overheard some people speaking Greek in a cafe and, naturally, I wanted to talk to them. They told me about a job going at another cafe in Wodonga. With no experience, I had no intention of chasing it, but I fell asleep on a park bench and missed my train to Mitta Mitta. So Wodonga and the cafe it was."

His siesta delivered George full circle, as he arrived back in the vicinity of Bonegilla, where he had stayed for 23 days after leaving Arachamites, a small Greek village, in 1955. He was just 19 years old when he said goodbye to Greece. 'I arrived on my own after convincing my father to sign the form that the Australian Government had been handing out in our village, because I was too young. They were offering us free passage so I thought I’d go, stay for a while and return to Greece after my adventure. That was 57 years ago."

Today, Albury is still home for George and his family. And he stayed in the cafe industry, eventually opening his own – Rex Milk Bar – where he worked for 17 years.

President of Albury Wodonga’s 80-family-strong Greek Community, George Veneris, also 77, estimates 95 per cent of the Greeks who settled in the area during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s worked in the 13-or-so Greek-owned cafes that flourished at the time. George himself followed his father into the business, running the Spot Cafe with his dad and brother, while his wife Mattie, worked in her father’s Hume Weir Cafe, on Albury’s Dean Street.

'My dad immigrated to Australia from Greece 11 years before the rest of my family, and was sponsored by a friend who had settled in Albury and had his own cafe. As Greeks trying to make our way in a new country, we were passionate about running our own businesses, and cafes provided a way of doing that," he says, pushing a yellowed piece of card – an original cafe menu from the 1960s – across the table.

'Back then, there weren’t any fast-food restaurants or supermarkets around here, so cafes were it, particularly late at night after a movie. The cafes are not only an important part of Greek history here in Australia, but played a big part in the country’s social scene, too. And we served American-style food, which introduced people to that."

Sitting in the house that the couple built 46 years ago, complete with a zucchini- and broad-bean-laden vegie patch in the back garden, Mattie offers me a trinket to take home. 'This is the island George and I are both from in Greece," she explains, pointing to the images of Cythera with its cobalt-blue bays, which are splashed across the key ring. At this point, I wonder where George and Mattie consider home; here in Albury or somewhere amid the photo in front of us.

'I think we’re both Greek and Australian," says George. 'In my heart, I’ll always be Greek, but in every other way, I’m Australian. This great country is our home."


German Austrian Australian Club
Drop in for your fill of German food and beers, which are rolled out every Friday night and for a barbecue lunch on the first Sunday of each month. Live bands playing Austrian music are a regular feature. 5 McFarland Rd, Wodonga, (02) 6024 6905.

Community Wood Fired Oven

 First fired up in 2006, the oven is lit every second Sunday for free community use, with each bake hosted by an onsite coordinator who offers advice and guidance. What to cook? Bring anything from bread dough and pizzas to your favourite vegies and a cut of meat to roast. Bakes run from 11am–4pm, April to September, and 3–8pm, from October to March. Hovell Tree Park, Cnr Wodonga Place and Hume St, Albury,

Coffee Mamma
Serving what’s arguably the best coffee in town, this espresso bar dishes up a shot of history with its caffeine: founded by George Kotsiros’s daughter Antonia in 2003, it (coincidentally) occupies the exact shopfront where George opened the Rex Milk Bar in the 1960s. New owner Matthew Sheridan took over management of the cafe five years ago. 501 Olive St, Albury, (02) 6041 2600,

Peters & Sons
More than 50 years may have passed since the store first opened, but the quality of the German sausages and smallgoods made and sold here remains an experience your tastebuds will thank you for. Our pick is the award-winning pork and apple bratwurst. 317a Urana Rd, Lavington, (02) 6025 1796.

Hume Murray Farmers’ Market
From 8am to noon every second Saturday, Wodonga’s Gateway Village becomes a hotbed of locally grown and produced food, with everything from oils and smallgoods to olives and relishes up for grabs. If you’re there for breakfast, try the tasty and locally renowned 'local produce bacon and egg’ rolls. Gateway Village, Lincoln Causeway, Wodonga, (02) 6058 2996,


The Bonegilla Migrant Experience
Discover where it all began. Open seven days a week, 10am–4pm, guided tours of Block 19’s original huts and exhibitions are available by appointment at a cost of $5 per person. Or download an audio tour from the website to listen to as you wander the heritage site.
Bonegilla Rd, Bonegilla, (02) 6020 6912,

The Bonegilla Collection

Featuring belongings donated by immigrants over the past 25 years, the collection displays suitcases and clothes, and also the written memories of those who passed through Bonegilla. Located at the Albury Library Museum, which is open every day.
Cnr Kiewa and Swift Streets, Albury, (02) 6023 8333,

Photography by Sean Fennessy