From the Baltic to the Pacific

Patrick Ferry and Sadaf Zecharia
Monday, 28 November 2022

In November 1947, over 800 men and women from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania arrived in Fremantle. They were the first of 170,000 European 'displaced persons' resettled in Australia after the Second World War.

Between a rock and a hard place

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania won their independence from Russia after World War One. However, this proved to be short-lived. In 1940, the Soviet Union invaded and re-annexed the three Baltic states. Nazi Germany then seized control but were forced out by the Red Army in 1944. After the war, nearly 200,000 Baltic refugees were in 'displaced persons' camps in Germany. Very few relished the prospect of being repatriated to the Soviet Union.

Populate or perish

Meanwhile, 16,000 kilometres away, Australia was seeking to rapidly increase its population. This was now regarded as critical to its development, and even survival in the post-war world.

Although British migrants were preferred, Australia soon had to look further afield. The Baltic refugees caught the attention of the Australian Government. Hardworking, fiercely anti-communist and European, they seemed ideal for assimilating into 'white Australia'.

July 1947, Australia signed an agreement with the International Refugee Organisation (IRO). In the first year, Australia agreed to resettle 4,000 displaced persons, the majority of whom would be Baltic. After that, 12,000 displaced persons would be resettled annually. In return, displaced persons would be required to complete a two-year work contract in specified locations.

Marketing the migrants

Many Australians remained hostile towards accepting non-British migrants, even if they were European. To minimise opposition, the Immigration Department ensured the first group of Baltic refugees were relatively young, of fair complexion, and non-Jewish. The term 'New Australians' was also coined for them.

Bound for Bonegilla

On 30 October 1947, the Baltic refugees departed Bremerhaven onboard USS General Stuart Heintzelman, an American troopship. They arrived in Fremantle on 28 November. After a few days ashore, they transferred to HMAS Kanimbla bound for Melbourne. When they arrived on 7 December, they were greeted by Minister Calwell. They then boarded trains for the Bonegilla Migrant Reception Camp near Wodonga in northern Victoria.

Building a multicultural nation

From Bonegilla, the Baltic refugees were assigned to their new jobs across Australia. These included coal mining in Victoria's Latrobe Valley and railway fettling in South Australia. Some of the women were allocated positions as typists in Canberra. Two years later, a special ceremony was held in Canberra to mark the end of these contracts. Now they were free to work and settle wherever they liked.

More displaced persons soon followed, including people from other 'Iron Curtain' countries such as Poland and Yugoslavia. In August 1949, the 50,000th displaced person arrived in Australia: 7 year-old Maira Kalnins from Latvia. Maira was welcomed in a blaze of official publicity, but refugees (Baltic or otherwise) often remained the target of everyday racial abuse. Indeed, the terms 'Balt' had become derogatory slang for European refugees in general. Despite this, people from the Baltic states proudly treasured their cultural identities and traditions.

By 1954, more than 30,000 people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania now lived in Australia. They and their descendants have contributed much to Australian life. Amongst the most prominent have been industrialist Sir Arvi Parbo; olympians Ilsa and John Konrads; footballer Tommy Raudonikis; sculptor Ieva Pocius and South Australian premier Peter Malinauskas.