A Wangaratta couple who only learned they were both child residents of the Bonegilla migrant camp after they were married have returned to the site for the first time since they almost - but not quite - crossed paths in the camp as toddlers.
Zenon and Stasia Hertik were Polish immigrants who arrived at Bonegilla with their parents in 1950. As fate would have it, Stasia and her family left the camp just ten days before Zenon’s family arrived, and later Stasia’s family returned to Bonegilla – but Zenon and his family had moved out just four days earlier.
Both were aged about two at the time. Stasia can’t remember the camp but Zenon has recollections of “cicadas and heat”.
About fifteen years later the young couple met at a birthday party in Melbourne, unaware of their shared Bonegilla connection.
They married a short time later and moved to Wangaratta, where they raised two children, and it was not until later that they realised they had both lived at Bonegilla at almost exactly the same time.
Yesterday, after an absence of more than 70 years, they returned to the Bonegilla Migrant Experience to see where their Australian adventure began.
“It’s taken all this time for us to get to get to Bonegilla to check out our family history and it was amazing, truly amazing, to find out things we didn’t know,” Stasia said.
“Our parents spoke of certain things (about Bonegilla) but there were things they probably didn’t want us to know, so it’s been a real journey.”
Busy with work, family and life in their beloved Wangaratta they did not immediately recognise the link to their shared past.
“We both knew our parents were Polish but we didn’t really make any connection to us being in the same place at the same time until after our son (Steven) was born but we started putting a few things together and a couple of years ago our daughter (Michelle) started asking a few questions – so I suppose you could call it fate,” Stasia said.
Michelle joined her parents for their return to Bonegilla this week, a visit the family greatly enjoyed.
A lifetime after their time at the camp, the couple are very happy that their parents decided to leave war-torn Europe for a new life in Australia.
“Seeing the barracks close-up, Bonegilla was a very peaceful place with all the facilities people needed to get their lives back on track,” Zenon said. “They (our parents) had the foresight to provide us with a better life in Australia.”
Stasia agrees the decision of both sets of parents to move to the other side of the world after the war was a good one.
“What would it have been like if we had stayed in Poland or Germany?” she said. “But we’ve had a great life here!”