The voyage from Italy – and an italian potato salad

A Melbourne Food and Wine Festival event took me to Bonegilla last weekend for the first time. Readers who are not in Australia (and even those who are) may not have heard of this place, which is about 300km from Melbourne on the shores of the Hume Weir. But for over 170,000 predominantly European migrants in the period immediately after World War II, it was their first temporary home in Australia. My parents arrived there in May 1950 but their journey began many months before that in Italy.

mamma e papa

After World War II, my father, his family and many of his friends became war refugees (or displaced persons). The town of his birth, Pola, and the whole region in which it had been the capital, Istria, was no longer part of Italy. It was now Yugoslavia and my father and his family were among many who decided to take what they could carry with them and leave. He met my mother in a town Monfalcone, owning only a couple of sets of clothes, a portrait of himself in military uniform painted by a former girlfriend and a copy of La divina commedia by Dante. They married in 1948 however he wanted more from life than living with his in-laws in a small town and working in the local ship-building yards. His studies in Rome had been interrupted by the war in 1939 and he had dreams of going to America or Australia, both of which were accepting migrants from war torn Europe.

mamma peeling potatoes

So in late 1949 and part of 1950, they moved through a number of camps in Italy (Cinecitta’, Versa, Barletta and Bagnoli) waiting for a berth on a suitable ship to either the USA or Australia. Life in these camps was hard work. You were expected to contribute to the running of the camp (see the photo of my mother above, looking miserable peeling potatoes). There was a feeling of excitement and anticipation in the camps, which were full of people from countries like Poland, Romania, Russia and Latvia. My mother tells a story of my father disappearing for an hour one day and returning with a 30 piece set of solid silver cutlery. He had bought it from a Polish man (who was selling all his possessions) and paid 30,000 Italian lire for it, which was a large sum of money in those days. Papa’ reasoned that they would now have a beautiful set of cutlery to use in their new country – mamma just despaired – it wasn’t quite what she had in mind to buy with their precious money! He gave me the cutlery as a gift a few years ago – and it is indeed beautiful and even more special to me because of this story.

about to board the General Greely1

Finally they managed to secure two berths on the General Greely, an American ship departing on 18 April 1950 from Naples, headed for Australia as part of the Displaced Persons Resettlement Scheme. The ship had 1271 displaced persons (DPs) on board. The DPs had free travel to Australia in exchange for two years of work. They were not allowed to return to their country of origin for that period without repaying the government the cost of the journey, effectively acting as (as written on an information board at Bonegilla) an “effective and controllable pool of labour” for the Australian government to help reconstruct the post-war country. My father took the photo above from the camp in Naples and it shows rows of suitcases on the left and crowds of people on the right, waiting to board the ship that would take them to a new life full of hopes and dreams of a better world.

On the ship, men and women were in separate quarters which were like large dormitories. Blankets were hung between beds so that there was some privacy. The toilets had no doors so the ladies would go in pairs so that each would take turns to stand in front of the open cubicle. Meals were usually eaten standing up as there were not enough tables and chairs to accommodate the large number of passengers.

the General Greely

The DPs would have to show their identity papers prior to getting their meal. Several times, my mother’s identity card was whisked away when she presented it to receive a meal and personnel would take her to see one of the ship’s senior officers, who was over 60 years of age. Under the pretence of teaching mamma some English, he would joke around and then try to make a pass at her. She fiercely resisted, quickly excused herself and ran along the corridor and down the stairs to find my father to tell him. And he just laughed at her as he said that nothing had actually happened! Apparently the same officer tried this routine on other girls on the ship. What a rascal!#%!! However my mother, as you can see in the photo below taken on board the ship, was a 22 year old beauty so it comes as no surprise that officers were interested in her. And my father in the photo below cut a dashing figure in his cap on the deck.

bella mamma on the general greely

papa' on the general greely

After some 4 weeks on the ship at 4pm on 12 May 1950 they arrived at Station Pier in Melbourne. Mamma says that it had just stopped raining when they sailed into the port and there was a beautiful rainbow. She told my father that she thought they would be happy in Australia as the rainbow was a sign of good luck. Early the next morning at 8.30am and again at 9.30am, trains took off directly from Station Pier taking the 1,271 displaced persons on the long slow trip to a number of migrant camps, including the one at Bonegilla. The photo just below is of the Forum Theatre in Melbourne, taken by my father from the train taking him to Bonegilla. The photo after that is at the Bonegilla Migrant Experience museum. You can see that the train was indeed right next to the ship – no time for sightseeing for these migrant workers!

the forum 1950

photo from Bonegilla

In honour of my mother and the hundreds of potatoes she peeled at camps whilst waiting for a ship to take her from Italy to Australia, I am sharing with you a recipe for an Italian style potato salad. My father loved cold cooked potatoes in salad – though he just wanted potatoes, thinly sliced garlic, olive oil and vinegar in his! I have jazzed it up a bit and it is something my husband and I often have on a Sunday night in the warmer months.

Next blog post: Arriving in Bonegilla (and facing the reality of food and cooking in Australia in 1950).

italian potato salad landscape

Potato Salad
patate in insalata
Serves 4 as an entree or side dish
750g small potatoes (I use Kipler), well scrubbed and chopped into pieces
15 – 20 cherry tomatoes, halved
Handful (approx 300g) of green beans, ends trimmed and halved if very long
2 tablespoons capers, drained and rinsed
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
40g (approx) kalamata olives, pitted and halved
fresh basil for garnish
Dressing:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons basil pesto (recipe)
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar (or to taste)
Zest of one lemon
sea salt and black pepper to taste

Start by boiling the potatoes (unpeeled) in lightly salted water for 15 to 20 minutes or until fork tender. Let them cool. Steam or microwave beans until just tender. Plunge beans in chilled water when cooked so they stay green. Place cooled beans and potatoes in a salad bowl. Toss in the onions, olives, capers, tomatoes and mix with your hands.

To make the dressing, place the pesto, olive oil and vinegar in a clean jar. Put on the lid and shake until well incorporated. Add the dressing to the salad and toss gently. Add salt and pepper to taste. Grate on some lemon zest. Serve with a glass of pinot grigio as an entree or as a side dish for a main.

You could also add a tin of good quality tuna chunks in olive oil (like Calippo or Sirena), using that oil in the dressing instead of other oil. This will make the dish your entire meal!

 

38 Comments

  • 1cruzdelsur says:

    Amazing and beautiful story. Many others traveled to other countries as well as Argentina. Congratulations for your blog.
    Cruz

    • Thank you for your comments Cruz. You are right – Italians migrated far and wide. I have cousins who went to Argentina and I know there are lots of Argentinians with Italian roots. What an amazing time of migration it was

  • Seb says:

    Hey Paola I just read your blog on Bonegilla very good I enjoyed it. I have been there a few times n know the place very well. Very interesting n historic n memorable place for a lot of displaced migrants.

    • Thanks Seb. Did your family also go through Bonegilla? It is amazing to think what our families went through to have been able to give us the great life we enjoy here in Australia

  • Babi says:

    A lovely documentation of a part of our family’s history. Brava e grazie!

  • Sally Collins says:

    That is a wonderful story Paola. I’m trying to get my mum to tell me about her life before she arrived in Oz and then her experiences settling here and her early years of marriage but it is not easy. Did you do a bit of research on your own as well or is this all from your mum and dad?

    • Hi Sally, the personal stories are from my mother but the rest is from the Australian National Archives. There is a huge section on migrant stories, passenger lists, arrival times of various ships etc. Some of the migrant records (though not those of my parents…yet) have been digitised. I found photos of my aunt, uncle and a cousin in the digital records. Just amazing. It is so important to get these stories from our parents – enjoy getting your family’s from your mother. And thanks for your comments

  • Albert says:

    Wow! What a fabulous and moving account of your parents’ journey. Bonegilla is a special place for thousands of migrant families. You’re absolutely right; what our folks went through, after having endured half a decade of misery while Europe was torn apart, is nothing short of heroic.
    Looking forward to reading your next blog. I’ll be able to compare how thing changed between the early ’50s and the late ’57 when my folks arrived in Bonegilla. Not by very much I suspect.

    Ciao Paola,
    I’m off to get some stuff to make your “Bonegilla Salad”!

    Albert

    • Apparently the Italians caused a riot in Bonegilla in 1952 and as a result the food got better – so 1957 might have been a bit better (not much I imagine, they still would have had mutton on the menus at nights….). How they all suffered to give us a better life.
      Enjoy l’insalata di patate!

  • ambradambra says:

    Ah yes, migrant camps. We were at Greta (in the NSW Hunter Valley) for a couple of months in 1955 and apparently some of my father’s mates took me into town one hot day and gave me about 1/3 glass of beer to drink at the pub. Result = 8-month-old baby does a merry dance.

    • Does the camp at Greta (or the remnants) still exist? They dumped our parents in such far away places. Beer might not have been too good for a baby (so you like beer these days?!) though since I stopped being bottle fed I had “bevanda” (water with a splash of wine). So much better for kids than soft drink!

    • rbmobile says:

      Hi. Ths is great news. Actually my dad was in greta 1955. Ennio burich. He wasnt thr long because I thnk thy found him a job as a bread baker. I wonder if you knew him. ? He later settled in melb. Married a parenzana had 5 sons. Worked at schipano bakery brunswick area.
      Rob rrbmobile@netspace.net.au

  • Albert says:

    Riot? Trust the Italians! You’re right though, by my folks account, things hadn’t changed much by 1957. As you say, mutton every other night, real coffee a scarce commodity and the only olive oil you could get was in tiny bottles from the chemist’s. My dad made a hot plate out of mum’s up turned iron (when she wasn’t doing his shirts with it) so they could do a modest amount of cooking and heat the caffetiera in the mornings. They did it hard alright, but they were resourceful.

    I must make the pilgrimage to Bonegilla one day. I’ve been past several times but never with enough time to call in. I have very vague recollections of it, I was barely two when we left there but my brother remembers it well.

    I think you’ve “tweaked” a few heartstrings with this blog Paola. Great work!

    Albert

    • I will write more about the riot in my next blog post. It is very funny. They had an iron propped between two bricks in the museum – just like you describe. The lengths that Italians (and indeed many Europeans) go to for food! Amazing that you were also there, albeit as a toddler. You really should visit, I am sure it will be an amazing experience Albert. A presto!

      • Sally Collins says:

        I’m pretty sure there was a miniseries made and shown on tv about the riot some years ago. Might have a look on the web.

  • Hey Paola hai scritto una bella storia ! It brought tears (literally) to my eyes as I read your post and remembered my in laws from Abbruzzo Italy 1952 and my parents voyage from Alexandria Egypt to Melbourne Australia 1966 – I thank God everyday for the good life we have been given here all because our parents too a hugh risk and left their war torn country for a new start in Australia.

    • The fact that it bought a tear to your eye made me get teary too. Memories like these are so important to understand where we came from and appreciate our parents (if we are lucky enough to still have them). Grazie for your comments Amira X

  • What a great post! LOVE the photos – you are sooo lucky to have those! Looking forward to the next installment.

  • What an amazing story Paula! Thanks for sharing it! So lovely! I am so privileged that you gave me this beautiful potato salad to eat yesterday! It was so amazing! Glad to have the recipe now!

  • Suzanne Apps says:

    Hi Paula It’s Suzanne Apps here. Thanks so much for your great work and creating a blog document of your parents experience.

  • Hi Paula,
    Enjoyed your story so much. My parents were also from Pula Istria region and were on the same voyage as your parents. You told your parents story so well I literally had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. Our parents went through so much for a ‘Better Life’ what sacrifices they made leaving their network of family behind. I have visited the home my parents left in Pula and feel very emotional following their footsteps.
    I have forwarded your story to my siblings. Your photos of the journey are incredible I kept looking in the photo of them in Naples trying to see my parents.
    Thanks again for such an accurate, warm account of their story.
    Loredana

    • Dear Loredana, I read your message with such excitement. Your parents were on the General Greeley? Oh how amazing. Did our parents know each other? Are yours still with us? Please email me on italyonmymind@gmail.com I am dying to know more. I love that you found this blog post.

      • My son is a foody and he found your blog and forwarded it to me.
        My parents are no longer with us. If yours are maybe they can recall my parents dad was Rocco Perusco and mum Caterina Perusco. I have just forwarded your story to another close friend of my parents who also came over on the General Greeley her name is Stephana Drandi. I am the youngest child. My parents went on to Adelaide as dad worked with shipping
        and they settled in Largs Bay. I was brought up there in an area with quite a variety of European neighbours all with the same plight as our parents.
        I think we are so lucky to have so much culture in our background and so proud of our parents for the hardship they sustained and the resilience it taught us. Pula is such an amazing place. Full of history, my mother came from a farm in Kuichi about 30kms from Pula and the produce and wine is amazing. Have you ever visited it?
        Look forward to hearing from you again.
        Loredana

      • rbmobile says:

        guys. My names Rob. And I was reading all the info on bonegilla. And to my amazement. My mother Vittoria lacosegliaz was on that general greely. And she was 13yrs old and she was telling me the full story of her voyage to Australia from Naples.1950  she come wth her parents Vittorio and Antonia Lacosegliaz . They too were born in istria. Actual place was Parenzo . So I find ths info I just read. so interesting and my mum was getting upset as I was reading it to her.  Bcos before I read these stories. Mum was telling me about hr voyage and the iota recipe. I cant believe it. Mygod.  Maybe 1day you can ring my mum and chat wth hr. Also. My grandfather worked wth Bruno bacchia in healesville sawmill 1950. Bruno was married to a neopolitan lady bcos he was a sailor. He had 2daughters and a 3rd in Australia. Called Vanna. Im am writing all ths as my mum remembers and the Bacchia family left healesville few years later and moved to Melbourne. Frm thr we lost touch.  Though we heard Bruno’s wife josephina died of cancer sm years later. Bruno had a cousin here in Australia. And the wife was called lidia. Thy lived in the suburb of box hill 3128 melb. Occasionally thy went to my grandfathers italian club in footscray called istriana social club. And ths particular cousin was a school teacher. It all ended whn my nonno 93 passed away 2003.   Also my father Ennio was born in trieste and hs father strangely enough was also born in pola. My father and mother met here in a dance hall in melb like thousands of othrs  married in 1960 and had 5 sons. Sadly my dads no longer wth us. Could u pls put all ths info on ths site.so othrs can read it too. Thy may find it interesting.  If u need to contact us . My details are below. Takecare letme know your thoughts.  Ciao ciao

        Rob

    • Rob says:

      guys. My names Rob. And I was reading all the info on bonegilla. And to my amazement. My mother Vittoria lacosegliaz was on that general greely. And she was 13yrs old and she was telling me the full story of her voyage to Australia from Naples.1950  she come wth her parents Vittorio and Antonia Lacosegliaz . They too were born in istria. Actual place was Parenzo . So I find ths info I just read. so interesting and my mum was getting upset as I was reading it to her.  Bcos before I read these stories. Mum was telling me about hr voyage and the iota recipe. I cant believe it. Mygod.  Maybe 1day you can ring my mum and chat wth hr. Also. My grandfather worked wth Bruno bacchia in healesville sawmill 1950. Bruno was married to a neopolitan lady bcos he was a sailor. He had 2daughters and a 3rd in Australia. Called Vanna. Im am writing all ths as my mum remembers and the Bacchia family left healesville few years later and moved to Melbourne. Frm thr we lost touch.  Though we heard Bruno’s wife josephina died of cancer sm years later. Bruno had a cousin here in Australia. And the wife was called lidia. Thy lived in the suburb of box hill 3128 melb. Occasionally thy went to my grandfathers italian club in footscray called istriana social club. And ths particular cousin was a school teacher. It all ended whn my nonno 93 passed away 2003.   Also my father Ennio was born in trieste and hs father strangely enough was also born in pola. My father and mother met here in a dance hall in melb like thousands of othrs  married in 1960 and had 5 sons. Sadly my dads no longer wth us. Could u pls put all ths info on ths site.so othrs can read it too. Thy may find it interesting.  If u need to contact us . My details are below. Takecare letme know your thoughts.  Ciao ciao

      Rob
      rbmobile@netspace.net.au

  • Ciao again Loredana, did you know that you can find the records of your parents arriving in Australia in the National Archives? Look through their website. I have found your parents as well as (I assume) your siblings Amalia, Antonio & Ferrucio. What a big commitment traveling so far with such a big family!
    I have been to Pula several times, I took my father’s ashes there last year and scattered them in the sea near Verudela. Very moving.
    How lovely to have found you through my blog.

  • […] ← The voyage from Italy – and an italian potato salad […]

  • […] Related posts on italyonmymind: Rabbits, spaghetti, sausages – a migrant’s life The voyage from Italy […]

  • Rob says:

    guys. My names Rob. And I was reading all the info on bonegilla. And to my amazement. My mother Vittoria lacosegliaz was on that general greely. And she was 13yrs old and she was telling me the full story of her voyage to Australia from Naples.1950  she come wth her parents Vittorio and Antonia Lacosegliaz . They too were born in istria. Actual place was Parenzo . So I find ths info I just read. so interesting and my mum was getting upset as I was reading it to her.  Bcos before I read these stories. Mum was telling me about hr voyage and the iota recipe. I cant believe it. Mygod.  Maybe 1day you can ring my mum and chat wth hr. Also. My grandfather worked wth Bruno bacchia in healesville sawmill 1950. Bruno was married to a neopolitan lady bcos he was a sailor. He had 2daughters and a 3rd in Australia. Called Vanna. Im am writing all ths as my mum remembers and the Bacchia family left healesville few years later and moved to Melbourne. Frm thr we lost touch.  Though we heard Bruno’s wife josephina died of cancer sm years later. Bruno had a cousin here in Australia. And the wife was called lidia. Thy lived in the suburb of box hill 3128 melb. Occasionally thy went to my grandfathers italian club in footscray called istriana social club. And ths particular cousin was a school teacher. It all ended whn my nonno 93 passed away 2003.   Also my father Ennio was born in trieste and hs father strangely enough was also born in pola. My father and mother met here in a dance hall in melb like thousands of othrs  married in 1960 and had 5 sons. Sadly my dads no longer wth us. Could u pls put all ths info on ths site.so othrs can read it too. Thy may find it interesting.  If u need to contact us . My details are below. Takecare letme know your thoughts.  Ciao ciao

    Rob

    rbmobile@netspace.net.au

    • Hi Rob, I sent you an email response – my mother is the “Lidia” (actually her name is Livia) that you wrote about! My mother remembers the Istriana social club – she and my father Nello Bacchia went there by train from Box Hill maybe twice in the early 1950s. My mother doesn’t remember any names of people that she met there though. I would be more than happy to talk to your mamma. I will email you my contact details. Ciao paesano!! Paola

      • rbmobile says:

        s very amazing !  I was reading your blog wth so much interest and it was like .mygod. Is ths real. And yet 5mins before mum was telling me abt General Greely  bonegilla and hw popular the potato dishes were. Even today she does Polenta con fegotto (liver) she toldme backin italia. ths was poor mans food. However now its delicacy.My mums abit old fashion wth ths internet. So slowly slowly Im introducing it to her and you knw what.  She luvs it now 🙂

        I even bought hr an.ipad and show hr. hr hometown. Also we watch Lidia’s cooking italy. mums eyes are glowing.  Actually Lidia’s from istria.Pola and hr dialetto is exactly the same as ours. My dad was triestino & mum frm Parenzo so all 5 sons speak el dialetto triestin a casa. Even le barzelette are so funny whn u hear it in our dialetto. Words that u havent heard for years.. words that my dad use to say 40yrs ago

        I remember when mum and I went to italy several times now. And whn we visited Parenzo. Mygod. She knew every part every road . La scuola. La cantina.. it really was amazing. Aftr 40yrs she remembers. 

        Ciao Ciao

    • Hi Rob,
      Have just read your family story with ties to the General Greely. I was born in Australia but my eldest step-sister was about your mum’s age when she came over with my parents. Her name is Amalia Perusco.
      Maybe your mum was a friend of hers on the trip. Who knows.
      Ciao Loredana

  • HeartRome says:

    Paola,
    I only just came across your blog and IG feed. Love it – especially your pics. I’m from melbourne but currently living in Rome. I used to work in multicultural affairs so know the story of bonegilla very well. Love the post and look forward to trying this potato salad! My blog is http://www.heartrome.com – swing by and say hi some time! Baci Maria

    • Ciao Maria, great to hear from you. Thanks for the feedback on the blog and I love that you know all about Bonegilla and that you are from Melbourne. I have seen the name on your blog – maybe in the Italy Magazine awards? I will definitely swing by grazie cara ! I love that you currently live in Rome. A presto Paola xx

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