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Displaced Persons and Public Memory

by Jayne Persian,
Department of History, University of Sydney

Around 170,000 Displaced Persons (DPs) arrived in Australia between 1947 and 1952. The DPs were sent to reception and training centres upon arrival before commencing a two-year indentured labour contract. There were 13 camps in total, with Bonegilla (Vic) the largest and longest-lived, holding around 320,000 migrants from more than 30 countries between 1947 and 1971.

These camps recently have been used as sites within which to locate individual and group history within a larger framework of celebratory multiculturalism.

Commemorative activities have included collecting artefacts, curating museum exhibitions and online exhibitions, publishing oral histories, producing visitor leaflets, creating information displays, erecting monuments and plaques, and even one proposal, at Greta (NSW), to recreate a migrant heritage park on site. At Bonegilla there is now a new open-air commemorative centre which includes a short documentary, a wall of immigrant faces and voices, pamphlets and a cluster of silhouette statues.

Have such attempts worked to fix the camps as memory sites for Displaced Persons and their children?

The Case of Bonegilla

If any of the migrant camp sites were to successfully attract DPs, other migrants and Australians in general, it would seem to be Bonegilla, which has been called ‘a symbol of the hopeful journey, that physical and spiritual template so indelibly at the heart of Australian history’. Apparently, however, the Bonegilla Migrant Experience Heritage Park has had difficulty in attracting visitor numbers and the 120-seat cafĂ© which was built in 2005 has yet to be leased. Even though the regional tourism body is supportive, Bonegilla is not yet one of the obvious places in Albury to visit.

Many of its difficulties obviously come from the fact that it’s located in an isolated rural area that isn’t easily accessed by elderly migrants or their families. Nonetheless, a pragmatic emphasis on the tourist dollar is perhaps misplaced. One local advocate described Bonegilla in 1998 as ‘the seed that has enabled the flower of cultural diversity to grow and enhance the fabric of Australian culture’, a somewhat mixed metaphor which leads to the question: do Australians really celebrate multiculturalism as an integral value of contemporary Australia? And, if they do, are they willing to travel, or even stop in, at a place few Australians have heard of in order to pay their respects to what has been termed the founding place of multiculturalism? The answer to these questions, as the visitor statistics to Bonegilla show, is a resounding no! Bonegilla is not (or at least not yet) our Ellis Island.

Bonegilla isn’t even really a site for migrant pilgrims. The DPs and their children that I have had a chance to interview as part of my doctoral research have provided a variety of responses when asked about Bonegilla. One remarked: ‘I only have vague recollections. It doesn’t resonate with me’. Another asked rhetorically: ‘You might go there once but why would you go there again?’ Yet another queried: ‘Who is going to go all the way over there to have a look at things like that?’

Other camps have similar problems, although there are regional variations. It seems that the DPs are rather ambivalent about commemorating particular sites. Most of the site commemorations are initiated by those who have never been DPs, and, among the DPs themselves, reunions based on people rather than places are the most successful of the commemorative efforts. Apart from reunions, other successful commemorative activities now appear to be website-based and institution-led.

As far as DP memory and commemoration are concerned, multiculturalism can be seen as a flawed, or failed, historical narrative of nationalism. An emphasis on the tourist dollar is similarly misguided. This leads one to ask whether camp sites have been ‘constructed’ as public memory sites, rather than revealed or re-constructed.

Citation: Jayne Persian, Displaced Persons and Public Memory. Australian Policy and History. April 2010.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/displaced-persons-and-public-memory

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