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A young woman’s journey to Bonegilla

In 1944, Helena Gimis - better known as Marga - was living in Ogre, Latvia, with her husband Verners and infant daughter Anita. She was also pregnant with a son, Aldis, to be born in March of 1945.

Marga had grown up in the countryside of Salacgrive, near the Estonian border, and had dreams of opening her own sewing salon.

Unfortunately the reality of the war rendered the dream impossible, with Latvia under German occupation and the Russian forces encroaching at pace.

In 1944, Verners was drafted into the German army. He’d avoided this twice previously due to his work in a flour mill that supplied the forces, but was eventually called to active duty and suddenly forced away from his young family.

“That was the last time I saw him,” said Marga.

“He went without saying goodbye. He left a letter in the shipyard before leaving with a few words – they don’t know where they’ll be going. To look after everyone. Love for Anita and mum and everyone.”

As she waited for word from her husband, news arrived of the Russians drawing closer. 

“One night the German’s were on top of us,” she said. 

“They came down and said ‘you have to go out, you have to leave this place because we are putting mines underneath to blow up the mill.’”

Alongside her mother Emilija and daughter Anita, Marga made the decision to go to Germany to escape the Russians and, hopefully, to reunite with Verners. 

She had also caught word from her nephew that her name was on a list alleging she’d been involved in the Latvian Youth Army and would be sent to Siberia if caught.

At first they landed at a German displaced persons camp in Poland, before making their way into Germany where Marga gained work at a factory.

After the war they lived in the American zone, hoping to hear word from the Red Cross about Verners. Hearing nothing, she made the difficult decision to board the USS General W. C. Langfitt transport ship to Australia.

Arriving in 1949, Marga, Anita, Aldis and Emilija passed through the doors of the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre, part of the more than 300,000 migrants who made the same journey.

After a few weeks at Bonegilla they moved again to Cowra, where Marga eventually remarried before settling in the Gold Coast. 

Amazingly when Anita was 13 word arrived that Verners was still alive and had looked for them after the war. Sadly, he passed away before they could be reunited.

Marga returned to Latvia twice, once in 1973 and again in 1994. 

Fast forward to 2024 and Marga’s great granddaughter Sara now works at Bonegilla Migrant Experience, helping to tell the important stories of people like her great grandmother. 

Her story is just one of the many brave and poignant narratives out of Bonegilla.  

Marga recorded her story so it could be passed down the generations. In this recording, she talked about the heavy responsibility she held and of the courage she found within herself.

“We managed somehow,” she said.

“I had more courage than I have today. I had a lot of courage… I was the organiser of what to do.”

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