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Remembering SA's migrant hostels


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Heidi Brasse was only a small girl when she arrived in Adelaide with her family from Germany, but her father’s diary helps her to remember.

“Food that you could throw to pigs and the beds squeaked like mad. The countryside here, though is really rather beautiful,” noted her father, Christian.

Christian Roth’s diary is on display at the Migration Museum of South Australia as part of an exhibition on migrant hostels, which were introduced in 1946 and remained a feature of the immigration system until the 1990s.

In conjunction with the exhibition, Heidi Brasse (nee Roth) will be taking part in ‘Hostel Reunions’, a sequence of events run as part of a research collaboration between the University of Adelaide and the Migration Museum.

The reunions will give people who lived or worked at the hostels an opportunity to share their stories.

Migrant mostels flourished in Australia from 1946, after Minister for Immigration Arthur Calwell signed an agreement with the International Refugee Organisation which allowed for tens of thousands of migrants take up residence here.

Many migrants hailed from refugee camps in Europe and were pursuing a new life after the Second World War.

In the five decades following the Second World War, tens of thousands of ‘new arrivals’ were accommodated in fifteen migrant hostels across South Australia. SA’s first hostel was opened at Elder Park, on the site of the current Festival Centre, and closed in 1969.

Heidi Brasse and her family spent five months living in three different hostels after arriving in South Australia from Germany in 1956.

Brasse was only a small child when she arrived in Adelaide; however her memories of the hostels are still quite strong.

She recalls her father’s aversion to the hostel food, particularly an Australian favourite: “He always had an aversion to lamb after the time in the hostels, and we never ate it again as a family.”

Her mother also had her struggles. “Mum was homesick initially, actually for the first two years, but never let on. Dad was positive though, a bit more adventurous. He was in the German navy, so he got to see the world.”

The family was initially divided; Heidi’s father living in the Glenelg hostel, because there was greater opportunity for work close by, and the rest of the family staying in Woodside.

“Dad found work as a sheet metal worker, however when he spoke, his accent made the ‘ee’ sound like an ‘i’ which was a laugh.”

Woodside and other large hostels operated as holding centres for women and children. Despite the family being physically separated, Brasse has fond memories of the Woodside hostel.

“I remember in Woodside it was my job to go and collect cocoa in the morning for my mother and brother. It was cold in the hills but I’d go out and bring back the hot cocoa to our rooms in the hostel.”

Eight weeks later they were reunited to live as a family in Glenelg, where they would stay for a few until they found a house in Henley Beach.

Brasse’s family remained life-long friends with the other German families they encountered in the hostel and on the boat journey to Australia. Despite coming to Australia at a young five years of age, Brasse chose to pursue a career teaching her native German in schools.

Many of the migrants stayed in the hostels as they sought to find work or housing in the area. While most residents only stayed for a number of weeks, some remained in the hostels for years.

The hostels were not always hospitable. Often they were converted buildings, dusty, small and in a time without air-conditioning they often grew hot.

“We were man and wife and two children so we had a small living room… two small wardrobes virtually like broom cupboards and a table and two chairs, an easy chair and two very small chests of drawers,” said Catherine Grimshaw, a British migrant who shared her story from her time at the Finsbury Hostel with the Migration Museum in 2000.

The ‘tin huts’, as they were labelled, often incurred drainage problems or electrical failures.

The practicalities of housing great numbers of migrants became problematic, causing the living standards of the hostels to diminish.

Improvements were made over time, but the government wasn’t inclined to raise standards too much – they didn’t want migrants to take up permanent residency in the hostels.

Despite the initial shock, many migrants recall their time at the hostel as pleasant. Most migrants went on to establish new homes in Australia, create networks and stay in contact with their fellow hostel residents.



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