Their parents were washed on to Australian shores by the tides of war, some had limited English and few knew where their families would end up in the coming weeks or months – but Paul Crowe’s students had the universal joy of children everywhere and he had the remarkable privilege of shaping their young minds.
Decades later, some of those multi-cultural, transient kids still remember Mr Crowe for teaching them not only the “three Rs” but also how to be little Australians.
In 1954, a young Mr Crowe got his first teaching job at Bonegilla – a place he had never heard of – and soon found himself teaching the children of migrants from across Europe.
He had no pre-conceived ideas of what it meant to teach children from a migrant camp but he did know that the kids – up to 50 in a class – needed guidance, education and support.
Over the following six years he provided all that and more.
“There are lots of memories attached to Bonegilla because it was quite unique,” he said.
“The children were taught in galvanised huts – stinking hot in summer – and there were 40 to 50 in a class so it was quite exhausting but we enjoyed it and it was important to get the children to mix with each other.”
One of the ways in which he achieved that was through sport. He taught them cricket and Australian football and, as a keen gardener, he left another legacy when he and the children planted native trees near a row of huts.
“We planted bottle brushes in front of the huts in Block 17,” he recalled. “The huts are now gone but the trees are still there.”
Looking back, the 89-year-old Mr Crowe is struck by the way in which the children adapted to their lives in Australia, free of the cultural tensions that divided some of their parents.
“We had a lot of Dutch, a lot of Germans, a lot of Poles and of course there was friction among some of the parents but the children didn’t know if the person next to them was Polish or German,” he said.
“They were children and they learned to play with each and get along. Children are children. They were wonderful.”
He was reunited with some of those students – now grownups with children of their own - when he returned to Bonegilla last month for the site’s 75th anniversary commemorations. They were thrilled to see their old teacher and had fond memories to share of their time at Bonegilla all those years ago.
Mr Crowe’s stint at Bonegilla came with an important personal milestone. While studying at the Melbourne Teachers' College he had met his wife-to-be Margaret. Later, when Paul was working at Bonegilla, the couple married and their first two children were born in Albury and raised in their early years at the camp.
Margaret was also a teacher but in those days, women had to stop teaching once they married. Despite that, she was often called upon to help as an emergency teacher and also played an important role in shaping the children of Bonegilla.
This year, Mr Crowe featured in Bonegilla Stories – a series of documentary films made by artist and musician Simon Reich.
Simon was moved by the stories he heard during the making of the films – especially those told by migrants who fled unimaginable trauma in Europe – but the tale of the teacher who changed the lives of young people in a cultural melting pot is one that he’ll remember.
“I would say that he was way ahead of his time,” Simon said. “He was nurturing the children to bring out the best in them and from the sound of it, the students thought he was the bee’s knees and they all wanted to be in his class.”
And for the former teacher, it’s still all about the kids.
“As a young chap of 21 or 22, I didn’t look at the responsibility of teaching migrant children as I would now,” Mr Crowe said. “To me, we had a job to do, which was to teach children with little or no English, and that’s what we tried to do.
“We had a wonderful team there and it was a wonderful experience.”