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Bonegilla Stories caught on camera

10 Nov, 2022

By the time she started school, Krystyna Mills, nee Koszyc, could speak three languages – English, German and Polish – and knew more people from other parts of the world than most Australian grownups.

The reason for little Krystyna’s worldliness came from the unusual circumstances of her upbringing. The daughter of Polish migrants had the unusual distinction of calling the Bonegilla migrant centre home for her entire childhood.

Now living in Albury, the retired teacher remembers Bonegilla as the perfect place to be a child.

“Not many people grew up in a camp and I wouldn’t have swapped it for anything because it was idyllic,” she said.

“It was carefree, it was filled with lots of love, nurture, people … and children to play with and things to do and adventures to be had.”

Krystyna’s parents came to Bonegilla soon after World War II. Unlike many migrants who moved in and out of the camp quickly, the Koszycs decided to stay and made a long-term home there.

Her father worked in several jobs at the camp and eventually became the supervisor of Block 19, while her mother worked at the hospital. Krystyna, who lived at Bonegilla from birth until she went to university in Melbourne at age 18, completed the family’s commitment to the site by working at the camp’s theatre as a teenager.

She became the longest-staying child resident of the camp and enjoyed a unique childhood in a special place.

Her story is one told by musician and audio engineer, Simon Reich, in five new documentaries entitled Bonegilla Stories, featuring camp residents and workers. The films will screen during this month’s commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the camp opening in 1947. 

Simon drew part of his inspiration for the film from his German father who experienced traumatic events in Berlin during the war and was only 50 metres from Adolf Hitler’s bunker when he shot himself in 1945.

Telling his father’s story in a podcast, Up From the Rubble, Wangaratta-born Simon received two awards in the United States for the podcast’s storytelling merit, sound design and music component, after which he moved on to the Bonegilla Stories project.

“These are quite finite stories because a lot of the people are in their 80s and 90s now and there might be only another five or 10  years to capture their stories first-hand,” he said.

“I’m touched every time I record them because they’re interesting, funny, tragic – all of those things.”

Simon hopes to promote tolerance and peace by sharing the stories, with all their horror and hope, knowing that the cycle of human conflict has so often led to war rather than resolution - but that tolerance can be gained with the right experiences.

Although he cautions against seeing the migrant experience at Bonegilla as a “Disney movie”, he does note that many new arrivals were able to move beyond instilled hatreds and the trauma of the war, helping to build a bright future for multicultural Australia.

“The camp was a melting point for people to start anew and many were able to bury the hatchet and say, ‘the war’s over, let’s move on’,” he said.

As one of the major events of the Bonegilla 75th anniversary, Bonegilla Stories will premiere in the Tudor Hall at 11.30am on Monday, November 21, with Krystyna Mills to answer questions after the screening.

The five films will be shown throughout the week in the Hume Club at Bonegilla, with Simon and interviewees in attendance.

“As I’ve interviewed these people I’ve been amused, hurt and horrified but then I’ve laughed with them because they’ve always had a positive side, no matter how much tragedy they had,” Simon said.

“They’re inspirational, they really are.”

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