Beautiful Balts: From Displaced Persons to New Australians

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Kevin Bain shares his thoughts on Jayne Persian's book on post-WW2 immigration, 'Beautiful Balts: From Displaced Persons to New Australians' and what we can learn from it today.

IT WAS the stories of her Russian and Ukrainian in-laws that began Jayne Persian’s interest in Australia’s resettlement of post-World War Two refugees.

Her PhD-cum-book includes many stories, and goes beyond them to reflect on the various narratives of that wave of immigration and its historical context. In Australia, post-war immigration was not promoted as a moral responsibility to a devastated Europe but as an economic (national development) policy with political (Cold War and defence) benefits. It was also seen as a project with substantial (domestic political) risks.

Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell revealed his pragmatism in a 1971 interview:

"What I was interested in was the defence of Australia and its development … it would be wrong to say I was primarily interested in seeing that we gave a haven to oppressed peoples anywhere ... [it was] the desire of the Americans to remove displaced persons ... born in the Baltic states — Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia ... and the Americans were paying for it all."

His PM, Ben Chifley, swiftly gave his approval and about 170,000 displaced persons came to Australia between 1947-52, mainly from Poland, the Baltic states, Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Russia. For the New World recruiters, blonde, blue-eyed Baltic people were the cream of the crop and Jews were not — a racism rationalised by Anglo Australia as preserving harmony.

For refugee supplicants, disguised motives and identities were everywhere. The camps were “sociological and psychological cauldrons” of divergent loyalties around ethnic, political and class identities; disempowered elites, pro and anti-communists (either for or against repatriation), nationalists in exile versus refugees, with much trauma and dysfunction present.

Gaming of the assessment process led to an elevation of Cold War identities, with some ethnic groups promoting themselves as anti-communist. This was in tune with a permissive approach by Australian recruiters to extreme-right and ex-Nazi candidates, including anti-semitic and violent émigré groups from Serbia and Croatia, and left-wing Jewish candidates were not helped by this bias.

Under ASIO boss Charles Spry, extradition of alleged war criminals was resisted so they could continue to spy on other migrants, with some only brought to justice in recent decades.

In 1946, it became clear that large numbers of refugees were unwilling to return to their homes in the Communist orbit, leading to a new definition, elevating the individual’s “dissidence” with the state. The now familiar definition in the 1951 Refugee Convention based on a 'well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion' was adopted. It was aimed at unwilling repatriates to Communist states, and formalised the now familiar yet simplistic binary between acceptable (asylum seeking) and unacceptable (economic) migrants.

(The author uses the term "displaced persons" or DPs frequently, to mean all people resettled by the UN International Refugee Organisation after World War Two, which is broader than today’s meaning: Those who have not moved outside the political borders of their state of origin, to be contrasted with refugees who have crossed into a different country.)

Most refugees were sent to regional centres due to rural labour and urban housing shortages, but probably to keep them out of sight, too. However, recruitment started to dry up, as reports filtered back to Europe of families splitting up due to indentured labour in remote locations and harsh living conditions. The author reports that 20 per cent of the 10,000 Lithuanian immigrants had left Australia for the U.S. by 1958. Strong workhorses were sought for manual jobs — the old, infirm, disabled, single mothers and those with many dependents were not welcome.

Nor were teachers and educated people, a Yugoslav linguist reporting that her husband:

“ ... used to cut wood every day for months, just to get tough hands ... Other people did the same.”

Professional bodies in veterinary science, dentistry and law didn’t want foreigners; 300 medical doctors with European certification were excluded from registration by the Australian registration body (at that time known as the British Medical Association in Australia). How ironic that we now celebrate the Dunera boys, who were sent here as POWs in 1941 and later made their mark in professional fields. They have been described as the most significant import of intellectual capital in Australia’s history.

As the arrivals mounted up, Persian says the government upped the “celebratory propaganda” aimed at social harmony. The purpose was to promote the (White) “Australian way of life”, with culture replacing race as the normative unifier in the program. Because sympathy was seen as the precursor to contempt, indentured labour – not charity – was the selling point to promote acceptance of these non-British migrants. The emphasis on conflict avoidance showed the fear in ruling circles from a large influx of non-British migrants into a population of British nationality (not “Australian” until 1949) and 98 per cent of whom were of British descent.

The civic welcome from the Good Neighbour Movement often had patronising middle-class aspects and did not provide practical support. Some New Australians felt “naturalisation” had become “neutralisation” in a high-speed assimilation program. In Sydney, there were 38 nationality-specific groups in 1953 and the émigré diasporas were energetic in efforts to retrieve their loss of culture, status and family. Despite their comfort in difference, they were encouraged towards sameness — to abandon their identity except for special occasions when their folk dancing charmed the locals.

This began to change in the late 1960s, as pluralist organisations – churches, sports groups and scouts – became sites which participated in migrant identities and multicultural aspirations emerged. An explosion of literature – life writing, memoirs and exploration of dispossession and difference – brought to old Australia new and suppressed perspectives of “who we are”.

According to the Australian Heritage Database, the Bonegilla Migrant Experience near Wodonga presents the multiple ways of responding:

‘Wariness, hostility, compassion, neighbourliness and indifference associated with “taking in strangers”.’

Despite many flaws in the settlement process, Jayne Persian notes the “extraordinary political will” during those times to improve entrenched public attitudes and asks what we can learn from this for today 'to make use of a refugee crisis for national gain'. One development is that we now have clear proof of what was unproven then — the incentive to succeed by outsiders and disadvantaged people is a powerful force.

Beautiful Balts – From Displaced Persons to New Australians, by Jayne Persian (NewSouth Books, June 2017), RRP $39.99

Kevin Bain has advocated for refugees through the Mornington Peninsula Human Rights Group.

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