“They were not very nice to us, I must say, the Australians. They used to call us all names. We were all ‘Nazis’, you know, coming here from Germany.”
An audio clip from this interview with Hermine:
So, what is a normal day like for you?
I sit here, I do some cooking and do my crocheting. Of course, I shower and everything. That’s all I do. Unless I go out. I don’t go out very often.
When you go out, where do you go?
Someone from the council picks me up and takes me to the centre there. We do things for the community. Everyone does something. I do crocheting. That is once a week. Once a month they take me shopping for one and half hours. That’s good and then I get a lady who comes every two weeks to clean my house. All this is from the council. It’s good. I go shopping with Vicki once a week.
Have you always lived in Melbourne?
I was born in Germany. I came out here when I was 15 years old in 1955 with my family. We were naturalised in 1960.
What do you remember of life in Germany before 1955?
It was very bad. Houses were ruined. I grew up when the war started. I was five years old, nearly six when it finished. It wasn’t very nice. My mother said – I can’t remember myself – “You knew where to go”. We had to go to the shelter. The siren went. I used to go and take my doll. “First”, Mum said, “you always had to go the toilet. You got a big shock, I think. Then you got your doll.” My sandwich was always packed in my bag. I just took off because I knew where to go. Everyone had to go for shelter. I remember, everyone was dressed in black. There were no lights. Everyone had no lights. We all had to run to the shelter. You could see the planes overhead.
I think the war was finished. I’m not sure. Mum was the only one in a big house. We were on the third floor. On the second floor, there was a little boy with a broken leg. Mum looked after him and me and my sister. My sister was very young. One year younger than me. All of a sudden this aeroplane came really, really low, near the third floor, and Mum said, “Shut the window”, as it must have been summer, and I couldn’t shut the window because of the force of wind. And she said, “Come, come, come, we go”. We ran down all the stairs to the front door, which had blue glass on top. He must have come around the side and hit my Mum; she nearly got killed. There was blood. He was going to kill us. We had to run around the big house. In the back was the toilet. There was machine gun fire striking all along the house from the plane. I don’t know what nationality it was. He didn’t catch us. Somehow we got out of it.
There was no money. No one really had money. Everyone was poor. My father had a property in east Germany and of course, like the people who come now, they had to get out of east Germany; all the Germans had to get out including my Dad. My father’s mother had about 25 acres, so real property, which had two houses or three houses on it. She came home from working in the garden or something and there were two communists standing there. She was not even allowed to go into the house. They had machine guns. So all she had were these things from the garden. She had to go to her sister and they all moved over to Germany. This was after the war, after they closed all the borders. They came to us, because my father married my Mum in the west. They stayed with us and we found them somewhere to stay. Now of course all the borders are open again but the land was never returned. They lost everything. Like the Syrians today, some of them. In my father’s will we had a share in a quarry. She had a granite quarry and it was put in my name. We would have been very well off if we could have stayed there. This was in the east of German near Poland and today it belongs to Poland. All the Germans had to get out. My friend was born in the Ukraine and her Mum was German and her father died in the war and they had to get out. And then of course the communists started.
What I can remember was I had to go do the shopping. We knew the people. It was a small town, not a big town. Everyone knew you. I hated that. Us girls only had school to 16. No, I had school to 14. That’s all I had. Then we had to go work in people’s houses. I had to. All the girls did. I didn’t like it. A job came up in my town. A factory opened. My friend and I got a job sewing buttons on shirts. That was good. I liked it. But that was only six months before we had to come here.
I had a good friend through school. Otherwise I don’t remember much. We were not allowed out much. The snow was coming down. We were not allowed out because Mum only had one pair of shoes for each of us. When we came home from school our shoes had to be dried for the next day. We were not allowed out. Sometimes she let us out. So we didn’t go out very often.
How did your family decide to come here?
My mother decided to come. She knew someone who lived in Melbourne. That lady came to visit and Mum was friends with her and that lady said, “Come to Australia”. My father didn’t have a job. There were no jobs in those days. And six to feed. Mum decided to come here with Dad.
We came on the ship from Perth to here. The houses were all flat houses with white roofs. So different to what we had back home. Houses there had steep roofs because of the snow. That was no problem here. Anyway, it was lovely. I liked every bit.
The ship arrived in the evening in Port Melbourne. We spent the night and then in the morning Mum and Dad had to go to immigration. Everyone had to go to Immigration. My father was stamped as a labourer. Everyone was a labourer. We came out free. We didn’t have to pay. I think we were the last ship that came out free. Then in the morning we had to go on this train to Bonegilla somewhere near Albury. It was cold. It was June. It was freezing in Melbourne. It was very cold. It took us a long time to get there. We arrived in the evening and it was raining. I remember that. And everyone was told where to go. I don’t know how Australia did that. Thousands of people. A thousand people. Some left but most of them were there. We had to sleep in the army barracks, the Germans here, the Italians there. Everyone had their own place. There were blankets. We were cold. We were so cold. It didn’t matter how many blankets you put on. It was real cold. So we all huddled together so we shared all the blankets. Then in the evening we went out and we couldn’t understand – the possums came. This is the first time we saw possums. Because we had to go to the toilet. It was so funny. We used to give them bread and they held it in their hands and us kids loved that. We had to stay six weeks there. Then we came here to the Broadmeadows army camp where there was big immigration centre.
They were not very nice to us, I must say, the Australians. They used to call us all names. We were all ‘Nazis’, you know, coming here from Germany. We were very quiet in those days, because you never know.
How did you find a house? How did that work?
In the hostel where we were. I don’t know how Mum found out. Someone must have told her to write or talk to someone about getting a house because Mum could not work. We were six kids with a little one. I was the oldest. So Mum did whatever she was told and we got one of the first housing commission houses in Broadmeadows. They were wooden houses .. really good.. The street was not made yet. It was so nice. I remember eight of us sitting around the kitchen table and Mum saying, ‘This is ours, now’. We paid it off. And it was good. Today these houses are so small. You wouldn’t fit eight people around a table.
And of course we went to work. Factories. I did my nursing. I was an enrolled nurse. I worked at a big centre in Greenvale for old people. It’s still there but not used. My father went to work. He was a stone mason as well as a draftsman. He got a job down at Fawkner Cemetery. When the owner died he had no job so with some other friend he went to Royal Melbourne where all the animals are and they looked after the animals. The zoo? No the hospital. They’ve got animals there for testing. That’s what he did. When my father was sixty five he started having Alzheimer’s and it got worse and worse and worse. He really got the Alzheimer’s so bad. In the end he had to go into a home. Mum couldn’t look after him anymore.
Mum was always good. We always had something to eat. In Australia we could eat nice things because we had money. Not like before. We could eat meat. Because in Germany all you had was a little piece of meat on a Sunday.
Some years after I started nursing, my nurse friend was sacked … In those days you had to live in the nurse’s home. One night six people got the sack and my friend was one of them. The matron locked the door at midnight. The people who lived on the floor let the girls arriving late in through the window. The matron didn’t like that so six of them got the sack. My friend was one of them.
We decided we would go around Australia. I was in my mid-twenties. We went to Sydney. We met our husbands and we stayed there.
When I first went to Sydney with my nurse friend we worked at the Repat. I went out with someone who worked on a ship. We met some people from the ship, a Swedish ship. They came here every six months; it was a cargo boat. One of them was an Australian who lived in Sydney. He was an electrician on the ship. He was on holiday and he decided to buy a car. He took us out. There was another couple with us. This is where I went through the windscreen of the car. It was his fault. I was unconscious. I didn’t wake up for ten days.
While I was in the hospital I was visited by some of the crew from the ship and they said I should apply for a job on the ship. I did eventually and I got a job working on the ship. I needed to have a passport. I got a job cleaning and cooking for the senior staff. From Sydney we went to Brisbane, the Panama Canal, Jamaica, Charlestown, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, the St Lawrence seaway, Canada, Detroit, Chicago and then back home to Sydney.
What was life like in Sydney?
Very nice. I shouldn’t have come back here.
There was no, “Where do you come from? Blah, Blah, Blah?” I don’t know. I really enjoyed it. And of course, my husband and I decided to come down here, which was the silliest thing we ever did.
How long did you live in Sydney?
About twenty years. And I’ve been back in Melbourne about thirty years.
How has life been like since you have been back in Melbourne?
Not as good. One reason is my family. … I looked after my mum for about five years before she went into a nursing home.
If someone saw you in the street who didn’t know you, what would they be surprised to know about you?
That I have more experiences and have more stories than some people. I’m glad I did all those things.
This interview is part of the This Is Us Australia project. If you are interested in taking part, and would like to find out what is involved, please use our CONTACT page or email us at thisisusaustralia at gmail.com.