Tag Archives: Australia WW2

Return to the secret internment camp for the first time – and two new discoveries…

It’s been almost a decade since I headed to Millmerran and Western Creek with Roger to try and find the internment camp where ‘Joe’, Nonno Anni and many other Italian men were held in 1942. Back then, hardly anyone knew of the camp, either authorities or locals, and to find its location I was relying on my grandfather’s memories from decades before and scant information I’d been able to garner. For those who’ve read, Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar, you may recall I stopped at a spot out at Western Creek largely on a ‘feeling’. It seems absurd, I know, and hardly scientific. However, since then, more research and investigating has been done by others to locate the camp site and I can hardly believe it but the spot I had a feeling about ended up being the exact right location. So wonderful to discover this (and a bit spooky too perhaps!)

Clockwise from top left: Location of the internment camp Western Creek, the memorial stone, internees in 1942 (Nonno Anni standing on right), with Cec at the crossroads near the camp, Nonno Anni there in 1964 and the possible spot now, Western Creek, at the memorial stone, red dot marks the spot. And centre: Roger at the galley cook area find, and how it would’ve looked based on a similar one from the era still standing.

The second discovery we made was while walking around and deeper into the site, this time in search for where Nonno Anni had his photo taken when he returned there in 1964. I’m not convinced we found exactly where he stood, even though there was a stump where the other tree behind him had been, but nearby, we made a new discovery, the concrete slab where the crude, galley cooking area of corrugated iron had been. Again, by chance.

To return to this location, now confirmed, on the 80th anniversary that the internment camp was there, felt very special. I’d been invited to speak at an event for this back in May but it was cancelled due to rain and I felt sad in not being able to honour the internees that day. I’d vowed to still return to the site anyway when I could, just quietly, and I picked some nearby wildflowers (and weeds – but pretty!) and left them at the memorial stone that now marks the site.

It was lovely to share this moment with both Roger and also Cecil Gibson, born and of Millmerran and Western Creek for all of his 86 years. While others later became involved, for which I’m very thankful, Cec deserves special mention because he was the first local to pick up on this hidden history after reading about it in, Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar, and to contact me. He remained focussed on honouring the history both at the site and the Millmerran Museum, even when much seemed against him at times.

The first internment camps in Australia were established under the Menzies government in 1940 and most of these were full by the time the war really ramped up in 1942 and the ‘overflow’ of ‘enemy aliens’ were interned in unofficial and secret camps in isolated state forest and bushland. While other countries like Canada apologised to its Italian-Canadian WW2 internees in 2021 and the U.S.A. has introduced a Bill towards doing so, Australia remains silent on this. And sadly, most Italian-Australian internees are no longer able to receive an apology. That doesn’t mean it’s not important also for their descendants though and all those others who care deeply for their local history.

To write about this internment camp and what happened to Italian-Australians in the 20th century is the most important part of what I’m fortunate to do. And I don’t think the people of Millmerran were given enough credit with the camp being kept secret from them for so long. All of those I’ve spoken to from the area have had nothing but respect, acceptance and the will to help preserve this history and for that I’ll always be grateful. Zoë x

Thank you if you read until the very end! 😊 I just couldn’t skimp on this one. 💛 xx

Joe’s Fruit Shop and Milk Bar

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Next book out in September…

HarperCollins have released the blurb about the next book! The Proxy Bride will be out on 7th September and I can’t wait to share it with you. 

“In 1939, Giacinta sets sail from Italy to Australia. Decades later, a granddaughter discovers the true story of her family… A stunningly crafted novel of family, secrets and facing adversity.

Imagine marrying someone you’ve never met …

When Sofie comes to stay with her grandmother in Stanthorpe, she knows little of Nonna Gia’s past. In the heat of that 1984 summer, the two clash over Gia’s strict Italian ways and superstitions, her chilli-laden spaghetti and the evasive silence surrounding Sofie’s father, who died before she was born. Then Sofie learns Gia had an arranged marriage. From there, the past begins to reveal why no-one will talk of her father.

As Nonna Gia cooks, furtively adding a little more chilli each time, she also begins feeding Sofie her stories. How she came to Australia on a ‘bride ship’, among many proxy brides, knowing little about the husbands they had married from afar, most arriving to find someone much different than described.

Then, as World War II takes over the nation, and in the face of the growing animosity towards Italians that sees their husbands interned, Gia and her friends are left alone. Impoverished. Desperate. To keep their farms going, their only hope is banding together, along with Edie, a reclusive artist on the neighbouring farm and two Women’s Land Army workers. But the venture is made near-impossible by the hatred towards the women held by the local publican and an illicit love between Gia and an Australian, Keith.

The summer burns on and the truth that unfolds is nothing like what Sofie expected …

The author of Mezza Italiana brings to life a unique point of migrant women’s untold experience, in a resonant novel of family, food and love.”

The Proxy Bride…

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Lorna, Aunty Kate and Maddalena…

I just heard someone in the neighbourhood practising the Last Post to play at dawn for ANZAC Day tomorrow and it gave me goosebumps. As we bring to mind all those affected by war and I think especially of those men in my family who served in both world wars and Vietnam, I thought this year I’d share with you another perspective of how it was for three different women in my family during war…

Lorna, my Australian grandmother, volunteered during WWII for the Women’s National Emergency Legion (WNELs) based in Brisbane. This auxiliary provided first-aid, radio communications, mine-watching and transport driving and mechanics, particularly for the US troops’ Pacific base and among her duties Lorna would drive large transport trucks and buses with her service also taking her to Darwin.

Katherine, her grandmother, who everyone called, Aunty Kate, was born in Australia after her family emigrated from German Württemberg in 1854. Her son, Lemuel was 20 when he signed up to serve in WWI in the 26th Battalion from 1915 until 1919. She received a telegram in 1917 to say he’d been wounded and while he survived some of the worst fighting in Europe against German soldiers he was sent back for more. The family were loyal Australians but how it must have been to have relatives still in Germany on the other side of the war, possibly even fighting against Lemuel.

Maddalena, my great-grandmother, was stranded in Italy with her young son, Elia from 1939 until 1948 throughout WWII and the trying years after. Not able to have contact with her husband and elder son, both interned in Australia, (a particular injustice for Vitale who’d fought with the Allies during WWI), Maddalena persevered through nearby bombings, a visit from German soldiers who took their little food, killed their donkey and chickens and wrecked sown crops, and then, the years of scarcity that came after.

For all those who have been affected by and endured war in all its forms, thinking of you with much respect and compassion.

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Mixed grill and pineapple phosphate soda

1940s Astoria Café menu from when my grandparents, Annibale (Joe) and Francesca waited tables there {courtesy Old Brisbane Album}. With many American GIs in Brisbane at the time items like ‘Yankee Lemonade’ and ‘American Beauty sundae’ made it to the menu along with the expected ‘Mixed Grill’ type of fare and perhaps surprisingly – ‘Double Decker Spaghetti Sandwiches’! The Astoria Café was at the busy corner of Edward and Adelaide streets and an office building now sits at the spot – 243 Edward – though I dearly wish the Astoria was still there.

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