Even frogs croaked differently | Ballarat's Ukrainian story

Begonia Festival 1963.

Begonia Festival 1963.

This picture has the distinctive, curious tones of 1960s film stock. Deep reds, aquas, washed out greens. On the mounting board, Ballarat is spelled ‘Ballaarat’, with a stylised cursive ‘Begonia’ and a full-block, black-capital FESTIVAL.

In the background various vehicles date the image: a Volkswagen Kombi, Hillman Minx, FE Holden; the wide fins of a Chevrolet Bel Air.

It’s a picture of a decorated Bedford truck. The truck belongs to carters Kennedy Murray Pty Ltd, who had their office in the former Cobb and Co. building near the railway gates on Lydiard Street.

Under the cherry tree is written on the side.

On the back of the paper-flower strewn lorry sit a group of children in traditional Ukrainian costume. One boy with short back-and-sides waves to the throng on the footpath watching the parade.

The picture's caption says ‘BEST DECORATED ENTRY, presented to UKRAINIAN NATIONAL GROUP’.

The year is 1963. It’s the second year in a row the Ukrainian group have won the award, a symbol of these new migrants’ deep love for the country they have left, and their wish to show themselves in the best light to their new hosts, to proudly display their culture.

It captures an image of a changing, diversifying Australia - and yet that symbolic diversity will inevitably disappear, despite the adoption of multiculturalism as a government policy. 

Vera Owczarenko leads a traditional dance in Ballarat in the 1950s.

Vera Owczarenko leads a traditional dance in Ballarat in the 1950s.

Ukrainians migrating to Ballarat were proudly determined to keep a link to their homeland in this strange new country where “even frogs croaked differently to those in the Ukraine” as one man observed in 1949.

They formed a language school, scout groups, a dance troupe and orchestra, and threw themselves into the life of Ballarat for almost four decades.

Over 50 years on, three descendants of those original ‘New Australians’ look back at the life they had in Ballarat.

It is the story of how a nation’s migrants found a new home on the other side of the world and strove to fill it with their cultural heritage.

The Begonia Festival award for 1963, the second year in a row.

The Begonia Festival award for 1963, the second year in a row.

1: DEVASTATION AND DISPLACEMENT

Russian troops retreat through the ruins of Kiev, Ukraine, 1943.

Russian troops retreat through the ruins of Kiev, Ukraine, 1943.

In the years following the utter devastation of the Second World War, the population of Europe’s eastern countries were left scattered and impoverished.

Words do little justice to the brutality and depravity that marked warfare in the east of the continent. The city of Kiev, capital of Ukraine and one of the glorious landmarks of Europe, was left in ruins. Civilians suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of both sides.

Much of the fighting on the Eastern Front took place on the soil of Ukraine. It’s estimated that anywhere between five and eight million people died there, and the country, food bowl of the Soviet Union, was laid waste in the fighting between Soviet and Axis forces.

During 1943, Hitler declared the Ukraine within the ‘zone of annihilation’. His plan sought to drive famine throughout the Soviet Union through, among other means, driving all production from the annexed Ukraine back to Germany.

Effectively it made Ukraine in its entirety one of the battlefields of Operation Barbarossa. By the war’s bitter end, Ukraine lay prostrate. Seven hundred of its cities and towns and over 28,000 villages were destroyed. The country’s manufacturing base was shattered. At least 120,000 Ukrainians registered officially as displaced persons, and perhaps half a million were deported from Poland back to Ukraine in 1946, a year of shocking famine. 

Little wonder then that, when offered the opportunity to escape starvation and reprisals by emigrating to the other side of the world to an unknown future, many seized the chance.

And there two great forces had come up against each other and were striking against each other like hammer and anvil, and the wretched people were in between, with no way out; each individual wanted only to live and not be maltreated, to have something to eat, and yet they howled and screamed and in their fear they were grabbing at each other’s throats... - Anatoly Kuznetsov, Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel

2: POPULATE OR PERISH

Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell addresses Baltic migrants in the early 1950s. Picture: The Age.

Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell addresses Baltic migrants in the early 1950s. Picture: The Age.

Australia had come through the war relatively unscathed, but with the awakened realisation that it was no longer a dominion of the empire that had spanned the globe.

In reality, it hadn’t been since the end of The Great War, but the upheaval that the Japanese invasion of South-East Asia brought to the region gave rise to a feeling of deep-seated insecurity. The British had lost all but Hong Kong and were divesting themselves of the Malayan States in the face of the Emergency.

The Dutch were gone from the East Indies, the Portuguese from Timor. The French clung to tattered shreds of of an idee fixe of their culture in Vietnam.

To our north, nationalism was stirring among the long-colonised states. And Australia, a country of just seven-and-a-half million predominantly white people, was seeking to consolidate and develop itself as a bastion of the west in the deep Pacific.

John Curtin’s wartime minister for information Arthur Calwell is often credited with coining the phrase ‘populate or perish’. In reality it had existed in the minds of those thinking about the future of Australia for many years. A headline in the Burnie Advocate of May 1938 quoted the phrase verbatim when reporting the winner of an essay competition on the topic.

Calwell was the catalyst, champion and ideologue of post-war migration. In a parliamentary speech in 1945 as Australia’s first ‘minister for immigration’ he spoke of the need for a boosted population. The great post-war immigration program had begun.

If Australians have learned one lesson from the Pacific War it is surely that we cannot continue to hold our island continent for ourselves and our descendants unless we greatly increase our numbers. - Arthur Calwell, August 2, 1945

3: OUR NEW HOME

Ukrainian migrants at a cultural function in Ballarat, 1950s. Picture: Vera Zylan.

Ukrainian migrants at a cultural function in Ballarat, 1950s. Picture: Vera Zylan.

From the beginning Calwell and the freshly-minted ministry made it clear that his ‘New Australians’ would be coming from Europe, and preferably Britain. Calwell was a divided man. He spoke Mandarin and advocated for a Chinese immigrant family in distress, but also sought the deportation of Malay and IndoChinese refugees after the war. 

When W. Macmahon Ball, Professor of Political Science at the University of Melbourne, published Case for a Quota of Asian Migrants in the Melbourne Argus on 17 October, 1949, Calwell responded with his own article, I Stand By White Australia. 

The unavoidable realpolitik was immigration policy at the time existed on a longstanding policy of a white Australia. Both sides of politics supported the status quo.

Serving Ukrainian food at a function in the 1950s. Picture: Vera Zylan.

Serving Ukrainian food at a function in the 1950s. Picture: Vera Zylan.

During the war Calwell had moved quickly to release any internees of European origin found not to be a security threat. Now he travelled to Europe to observe potential immigrants and secure ships for their transport. With the assistance of Jewish community leaders in Australia he approved the resettlement of many thousands of their persecuted.

While Britons moving to Australia remained at around half of the total number of immigrants, Calwell looked to southern and eastern Europe as well – Italian, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Dutch, Yugoslavian, German, Czechoslovak, Estonian, Russian,  – and Ukrainian.

Many Australians did not take kindly to the ‘reffos’, the ‘DPs’ or ‘Balts’ as they were called. Assimilation was the desired and expected outcome of the government. In reality the laminate of egalitarian mateship masked a deeper mistrust of the foreign.

Traditional costumes on display at St Columba's Hall, 1960s.

Traditional costumes on display at St Columba's Hall, 1960s.

The new arrivals found themselves housed in camps, largest of which was Bonegilla near Albury-Wodonga. A former army camp retaining the austerity of its former life, basic attempts were made to give it some warmth – sheets strung as dividers, lights over beds.

Crash courses in English were delivered, and work was assigned irrespective of a person’s training or background – an engineer would be a farm labourer, a ballerina sent out to learn typing. Medical degrees were ignored. If work required a family to be divided, that was the outcome.

‘Perhaps the most important thing is to learn to speak the language of Australians. They are inclined to stare at persons whose speech is different. Speaking in your own language in public will make you conspicuous, and make Australians regard you as a stranger ... [try] to avoid using your hands when speaking because if you do this you will be conspicuous’. - Commonwealth Department of Information, Your New Homeland.

4: COMING TO BALLARAT – THEIR STORIES

In the 50-plus years since that truck carried the pride of Ballarat’s Ukrainian youth through the streets, much has changed.

The Ukrainian school is long gone, as are the scout camps, the dances and orchestra. Assimilation in the long term rather than the short has absorbed the great and great-great grandchildren of those first migrants.

Childhoods in the hot, sparsely treed countryside so alien to their parents, used to the snow and the thick pines of the Ukraine, are vibrant in their memories.

Stephan Salo, Vera Zylan and Roman Popowycz holding images of their Ukrainian cultural childhood in Ballarat. Picture: Lachlan Bence.

Stephan Salo, Vera Zylan and Roman Popowycz holding images of their Ukrainian cultural childhood in Ballarat. Picture: Lachlan Bence.

Roman ‘Roy’ Popowycz is a bear of a man, deep-voiced with a mutton-chop moustache, a third-generation representative of those Ukrainian refugees who found their home in Ballarat following the war.

He recalls vividly his parents and grandparents’ determination to succeed in both forging a new life in their strange country of adoption and preserving for their children a memory of the culture they were forced to abandon.

“My parents were only children when they arrived here. They were forced to flee.

Migrants at a function in the late 1950s.

Migrants at a function in the late 1950s.

“After the war they couldn’t go home. They had no home to go to. Migrants came out here on a contract; they had a two-year contract with the government. They worked their contracts back, everybody in different places… the Snowy Mountains Scheme, Rocklands Dam, the railways; in the sugarcane industry in Queensland; in ordnance factories.”

Roman’s parents came to Ballarat to work on a farm, and like so many migrant experiences, found it a fraught business. The farm partnership dissolved and they were left with a young family in then rural Mount Clear.

The Ukrainian youth orchestra at St Columba's hall in the 1960s.

The Ukrainian youth orchestra at St Columba's hall in the 1960s.

Despite their hardships, the Popowycz’s determination to maintain a link to their heritage led them to establish a Ukrainian language school at St Columba’s Hall in Ballarat. Originally catering to 16 families, it fostered the history and language of Ukraine among their children. Importantly it preserved the culture: food, music and dance.

The school had an orchestra, and great pride was taken in hand sewing the costumes for traditional dances. One of the migrants was a bootmaker by trade, and created the traditional long hussar boots for the dancers.

“Stephan played a banjo mandolin. Vera played the piano. My brother played a violin. George played a squeeze box. John played a trumpet. That photo was taken at St Columba’s Hall. But probably none of it would have eventuated without Vera’s mum.”

Father Bowden ministering to Ukrainian Catholics at St Therese of the Little Flower in 1977.

Father Bowden ministering to Ukrainian Catholics at St Therese of the Little Flower in 1977.

“ Most of us were Ukrainian Catholics. There were one or two families that were Orthodox.

“There are differences between the Catholics and the Orthodox, but I think we stayed more together because we were Ukrainian moreso than anything else. You have differences but the religions are very much similar in true form, because we all celebrate on the Julian calendar. 

“The priest would come up every couple of months, and Stephan’s dad would take him around.

Best decorated entry in 1962.

Best decorated entry in 1962.

“That particular truck was built at my parents' house in Mt Clear, the village on the back of the truck I mean. As a child I can remember, whoever’s house, you went to three four weeks before and all the ladies were there making the flowers. I can remember every bit and piece of it as it came together.

“I can remember that coming together a couple of days before the Begonia Festival. Everybody was at our place, hammer and nails and whatever else. All the flowers are crepe paper.”

Vera Zylan, nee Owczarenko, is a dancer in many of these pictures. She says her parents nurtured Ukrainian culture outside of the weekend school as well.

Vera Zylan dancing a traditional Ukrainian hopak at a demonstration in Ballarat in the 1980s. Her husband Richard is kneeling beside her.

Vera Zylan dancing a traditional Ukrainian hopak at a demonstration in Ballarat in the 1980s. Her husband Richard is kneeling beside her.

“My mother was only a child, 11, when she had to flee; 17 when she arrived here. She was very passionate about Ukraine.

“I was very fortunate that I was very accepted at school, although with a name like Owczarenko it was a bit tricky. I was often called Vera ‘O’ or Vera Ov. Your name really stood out among the Smiths and Browns and Walkers.

“Because I had a friend who was part of the Ukrainian community, another only child, and we were at school at the same time, there was always that friendship that you could fall back on. If things went tough at school or if you had a bit of a problem, you always had each other.

A young Vera Owczarenko with a partner dancing the hopak in Ballarat.

A young Vera Owczarenko with a partner dancing the hopak in Ballarat.

“With the parents it was a bit… they had the community for that friendship and the language… well not all of them were that proficient in the English language. That came a bit with time.

“As young kids it was always a highlight to be able to take part in the Begonia Festival, as we would be dancing on them on the back of the truck and often afterward there would be little dances going on and performances, once the procession finished.

“It was a highlight to be able to display what we’d learnt.

Traditional Ukrainian hopak

“The community helped each other build their homes, and through the church

“The Ukrainian priest would come to Ballarat, to Saint Therese of the Little Flower near the lake. That brought them together and gave them a sense of connection even though they were stranded in this country until they could build up friendships with neighbours and workmates.

“By 1977 the community was starting to dwindle. Our kids grew up and became teenagers, some of them moved out of Ballarat to go to school, families moved. With a lot of mixed marriages, the church recognised this and they ran Masses in English. At Noble Park they have many different nationalities come to Mass, come to the Ukrainian church.

Vera with her parents, husband and children.

Vera with her parents, husband and children.

“Nothing really happens here now. As an association we had to close down because we didn’t have enough members. For many years my mum had been a contact person for the multicultural association; she was so deeply involved in Ballarat.”

Stephan Salo, the scout and banjo mandolin player, became a schoolteacher in Ballarat.

Ukrainian boy scouts in Ballarat in the 1960s.

Ukrainian boy scouts in Ballarat in the 1960s.

“My parents came from the Ukraine to Beechworth with about four or five other people, and then they all came to Ballarat because there was no work in Beechworth at the time.

“When I was growing up, being a male in Ballarat and Ukrainian, we all tended to go to the same schools, primary school, secondary school, tertiary. There was a group of us, we weren’t isolated. I went to St Paul’s (Technical College) – there was about three or four Ukrainians there.

“We had a scout organisation operating in Ballarat at the same time – the school, the orchestra and the scouts. We had camps held out at Pax Hill.

Ukrainian girl guides at camp in the 1960s.

Ukrainian girl guides at camp in the 1960s.

“It (the Ukrainian community) has died off to such an extent that the Ukrainian priest recently came to Ballarat to bless the homes, and there were just three families.

“The Ukrainian community in Geelong was very big at the same time, but it’s dwindling too. The 11 o’clock Mass in Melbourne is all in English. If your great-grandmothers want to see their great-grandchildren, you don’t go to the early Ukrainian mass, you go to 11 o’clock in English.”

This year’s Ballarat Begonia Festival is on the weekend of 11-12 March.