A Canberra woman has reflected on the legacy that her Hungarian-born parents left to Australian migrant history, during their stay of almost 19 years at the Bonegilla Migrant Centre in the 1950s and 1960s.
Trixie Makay’s reminiscences were prompted by photographs taken by her father, Laszlo Makay, and published recently on the Bonegilla Migrant Experience Facebook page.
The photographs were among many that Laszlo took at the camp after arriving there in 1951.
Like so many Europeans of his generation, Laszlo’s life was upended by World War II. Conscripted into the Hungarian Army in 1941, he served five months in Stalin’s Russia where hardship and lack of freedom sparked in him a life-long dislike of communism.
Some of his experiences during the war and in the years immediately afterwards were undoubtedly traumatic but friends later remembered that Laszlo always preferred to focus on the positives of life, and didn’t let the dark clouds of the past defeat his optimism for the present and future.
In 1951, Laszlo was accepted as a migrant to Australia and while waiting for his ship, he met Eva Goercsoes and fell in love. However, the couple had to sail on separate ships to Australia, leaving Laszlo at Bonegilla with a six-month wait for the love of his life to arrive.
They were reunited at Bonegilla and married at a Catholic church in Wodonga in June, 1952, celebrating that night with friends at the Bonegilla Recreation Hall.
Unlike many migrants who were quick to move away from the camp, the couple remained there on staff to make a new life in Australia and in 1963 they started a family with the birth of daughter Trixie.
Camp life was home to the little girl who learned to speak Hungarian and German before English.
Years later, Trixie fondly remembers the family’s life in the camp, noting that her parents “weren’t in love with the place” at first but conditions had significantly improved by the 1960s.
“I have beautiful memories of our time there,” Trixie said. “I made a lot of good friends and we had a pretty ideal existence by the time we got to the mid-sixties.
“I think for people there in the fifties it would have been a lot more challenging but by the sixties and noting my parents were on staff, there was a swimming pool, a cinema, friends – we had a good life.”
Eva worked as a nurse and Laszlo worked first as a patrolman at the camp, and later as catering manager. The food at Bonegilla was notorious among its European residents, who were no fans of the main fare on offer – fried mutton chops – so Laszlo set about making a difference.
With new attention to the people who actually had to eat the food, he began to make it more appealing to European palates by employing cooks of varying nationalities and giving diners a choice of meats, vegetables and desserts.
“I think the food definitely did improve out of sight once people learned to include the European ways,” Trixie said. “Before that, it (the food) was a big shock to the system for new entrants, so dad and the catering team helped to improve it.”
As part of the food transformation, Laszlo collected recipes, copies of which survive today.
One of his legacies arose from his use of a camera, snapping images of daily life in the camp and of family and friends enjoying themselves at the Hume Weir – images that today serve to chronicle the small things that made up the community life at Bonegilla over many years.
When the camp closed in 1970, the family moved to Canberra where Laszlo transferred with the Department of Immigration, bringing with him a love of community that was forged at Bonegilla.
“I think the Bonegilla experience helped to shape his feelings about community and what was important so when we moved to Canberra he was very keen to make sure we mixed not just with Hungarians but forming wider friendships and that made us Australian,” Trixie recalled.
When the family came to Canberra, Eva joined the public service at the National Library of Australia where she saw out her working life. Eva died in September 1990 at the age of 65 and Laszlo passed away in December 2014 at 96, after a rich and rewarding life.
They left behind a legacy that helped to define the Bonegilla Migrant Camp as a central plank in Australian immigration history and a gateway to a new life for thousands of new arrivals who went on to call Australia home.