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1948: Former slaves from Baltic States welcomed to Australia

This video is made available by British Pathé newsreel archives. In the light of Australia’s response to people fleeing danger in these early years of the 21st Century the contents will touch hearts for nostalgia’s sake but will also induce tears. It is hard to listen to, especially so for ones embroiled in modern day calls for the restoration of kindness and compassion towards asylum seekers and refugees. Why did we change? Why are people treated with hostility today?

The presentation is glossy and shiny with a classic 1940s orchestral newsreel soundtrack. It tells the story of eight hundred and forty refugees from the Baltic States housed in the Bonegilla Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre near Albury in Victoria.

An eager narrator exudes excitement. He also offers some particularly poignant / painful quotes:

Australia’s migration policy has determined that never again shall our new citizens be forced to fend for themselves.

How we would love to hear these words today where thousands of refugees struggle in our communities and are forced to rely on charities for help.

As refugees tuck into a bowl of stew, his patriotism overflows:

Australian food has already worked wonders for these people, who as Nazi slave labourers, existed on a diet of ersatz* coffee, turnips and three grain soup.

When a group gather to enjoy the outdoors, he says:

All a fine type, under thirty and thirty-five, they are what this country needs.

When I think of unaccompanied minors barely supported in our communities; of children who had their childhood stolen and were harmed for life in On and Offshore detention; of the fit and capable young men and women damaged from being incarcerated for endless years without meaningful activity… Such words are hard to hear. Most of those who came to Australia for help were healthy when they arrived. Years of medical neglect took ate away their strength. All were oozing with energy and potential. They were just what this country needed. They still are!

A refugee girl reads from a scripted speech:

We who were driven from our homes are overjoyed to be welcomed as new Australian citizens. Those horrible years now seem like a nightmare. Many of us have lost all their relatives and so cannot reach their loved ones. Australia has given us the opportunity to start life anew. We hope you will like us.

I am happy for her of course but sad for friends with similar stories who, after eight years, the ninth has now begun, are still not free to start their lives anew. The face of their welcome is as far removed from those featured in this video as the East is from the West.

True to 1940s form all of the action is staged - of course it is and I hope to look deeper into the political rhetoric and events of this time period to understand who the power broker were and what immigration really looked like. Regardless, this video presents the image the Australian government wanted the world to see. They wanted Australia to be known as a compassionate welcoming nation that was excited about embracing young and vibrant souls. Australia was a nation that understood how to spot potential. Australia was the perfect migration destination. Policies designed to deliberately harm and drive people back to danger were clearly distasteful in 1948.

When her speech is ended the girl is distracted by a sound and turns excitedly towards it. She points towards the sky …. Look a Laughing Kookaburra, she says and we are treated to a short transition to footage of Kookaburras in a tree.

Next we see the reception centre’s first wedding, a Latvian lady is marrying an Estonian man serenaded by male refugee choir singing a Schubert hymn... again the narrator oozes:

A beautiful shy bride starting life in a new land. May they find the happiness and prosperity denied them in their homeland, now behind the Iron Curtain.

Surreal when I think of the married couples forcibly separated, sometimes for years and the fathers and mothers with children denied the right to live together as a family.

Finally, the refugees march off into the sunset … and the eager narrator says:

New citizens, eager, alert, youthful, marching out to meet a new life. Marching out into a great country which is indeed, a Land of Opportunity.


*Ersatz is a German word, literally meaning ‘substitute' or ‘replacement.' In English we use the term as an adjective, it is a noun in German. Ersatz goods are substitute goods, notably inferior to the product they replace.

In the opening months of World War I, replacement troops for battle-depleted German infantry units were drawn from lesser-trained Ersatz Corps, which were less effective than the troops they replaced (Wikipedia 2021).

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