Memories of a Greta camp kid: Paul Szumilas reminisces on migrant camp childhood ahead of reunion

Memories: Paul holds up a photo of the Greta soccer team including his father, which represented the migrant camp. Picture: Lachlan Leeming
Memories: Paul holds up a photo of the Greta soccer team including his father, which represented the migrant camp. Picture: Lachlan Leeming

Paul Szumilas recons you’d be hard pressed to have a more enjoyable childhood than his.

Born at the Greta Migrant Camp to Polish immigrant parents, Paul can still vividly running around with a mob of kids, all fellow children of European migrants.

 “For a kid, life in the camp was fascinating,” he recalled. 

“We ran around playing games. It was great for the kids. Most of us didn’t know what our parents had been through.” 

Operating from 1949-1960, the Greta camp was the largest in Australia, with 100,000 migrants from across Europe settling there after fleeing their World War II-ravaged home continent.

Paul found himself growing up with kids from Italian, Ukrainian, Czechoslovakia, German, Estonian, Lithuanian, Austrian and Hungarian backgrounds, while thousands of men, including Paul’s father, were sent to work on the Snowy Mountains scheme.

“For kids it was terrific, for the parents it was hard, particularly with the men working away,” he said. 

“We grew up with lots of mums. It was very family orientated.” 

Working away did have some notable benefits for the men, Paul explained.

“My dad learnt English quicker than Mum because he was working away. The women stayed at home and mostly mixed with each other, so they didn’t get exposed to the language as much.” 

Migrants lived in either “Chocolate Town” – weatherboard shacks painted brown – or “Silver City”, the old tin army barracks, with the former the accommodation of choice. 

“You didn’t want to live in Silver City – the tin got really hot and they only had flimsy partitions for privacy,” Paul said. He and his family lived in Chocolate Town.

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They moved off the camp in 1959, the year before it closed, but the memories have stayed with him for life. 

His experiences have shaped his life and opinions, and in particular his thoughts on Australia’s current treatment of asylum seekers.

“It’s decrepit,” he said.

“What they do now is they try and put all of them in one spot, behind barbed wire.

“With migrants, all of a sudden (they’re being treated like) it’s immoral to speak English.

“None of us spoke English when we got here.”

He thinks a return to mass employment on huge infrastructure projects, such as the one his father worked on, would help smooth the path of migrants into Australia. 

It’s one of many things he’ll be able to discuss when the Greta Museum hosts the migrant camp reunion for the second time on October 21, from 11am to 3pm in the Greta Community Hall. 

About 50 attended last year, with the museum’s Neridah Kentwell hopeful of attracting double that this year. 

For more information, contact 0427 657 150 or 0478 896 722

This story Memories of a Greta camp kid first appeared on The Maitland Mercury.