Debut Author Chat: Jayne Persian and the Beautiful Balts

Today I am delighted to publish a post written by Jayne Persian, lecturer in history at the University of Southern Queensland, and author of Beautiful Balts: From displaced persons to new Australians. Her book was published this month by Small Publisher of the Year, NewSouth Books. This post is part of my ‘Debut Author Chat‘ series where authors who have recently published their first history discuss their book. 

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Head and shoulders of Jayne Persian

Jayne Persian, author of Beautiful Balts and lecturer in history at the University of Southern Queensland.

Beautiful Balts: From displaced persons to new Australians tells the story of the first mass intake of refugees accepted into Australia: the 170,000 Central and Eastern Europeans who arrived in Australia between 1947 and 1952. Characterised as ‘Beautiful Balts’, they were recruited in Europe by the Australian government, under the slogan of ‘populate or perish’: migrants were needed to bulk up the Australian population, and to solve a post-war labour shortage.

I open the book in Austria’s Drau Valley in May 1945. A 70,000-strong Russian Cossack force was waiting to discover its fate. They had fought with the Germans against the Soviet Union, had surrendered to the British and were hoping to remain in Austria as anti-Soviet refugees. What happened next is now infamous. Many of these men, women and children were forcefully handed over to the Soviets: there are allegations of brutality, automatic fire, suicides. Some people were trampled to death.

Small groups of Cossacks, including Ivan and Nastasia, managed to escape the round-up. Ivan, a Don Cossack, met Nastasia in 1943, when she was working as a forced labourer in eastern Ukraine under the Nazis. Ivan was much older, around 53 years old to her 17, but had offered her an escape from forced labour if she would marry and join him in his journey across Europe. They left Ukraine on 31 December 1943, travelling with the Cossack Army to Italy via Romania, Poland and Hungary. In Italy, in a shed during a bomb attack, her first son was born. Little Maxim died at 14 weeks of age, of malnutrition. From Italy, Nastasia and Ivan journeyed over mountain ranges, evading Italian partisans, to apparent safety with the Cossack camp outside Lienz.  After witnessing the merciless repatriation of their camp, the small groups fled up the snow-covered mountains and hid in ravines, surviving by killing sheep at night, while evading British patrols. After three months of this, Ivan and Nastasia were caught by Austrian police and sent to Kapfenberg displaced persons’ camp.

Book cover

Beautiful Balts: From displaced persons to new Australians by Jayne Persian, published by NewSouth Books, 2017.

Nastasia and Ivan’s story is, of course, not typical of the displaced persons’ story. In fact, there is no ‘typical’ story. ‘Displaced person’, or DP, has become the generic label for those groups of people resettled by the United Nations following the Second World War. Displaced persons in 1945 included Jewish concentration camp survivors, voluntary and forced labourers of the Reich, non-German soldiers in military units withdrawing westwards, and civilian evacuees fleeing west from the oncoming Russian Army. Jewish and non-Jewish Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Belarussians, ‘Balts’ (Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians), Hungarians, Yugoslavs, and nationals of Romania, Bulgaria and Albania all claimed DP status. By 1947, these DPs were joined by Jews escaping anti-Semitism in Poland and Romania, and by border-hoppers, usually young, single men from Czechoslovakia and Hungary who were attempting to out-run the encroaching Iron Curtain. A large and varied group, the common factor for most was a refusal to repatriate to the Soviet Union.

These unrepatriable displaced persons were to become a problem for the Western Allies and were eventually resettled by the United Nation’s International Refugee Organisation in any country that would take them. In order to escape forced repatriation and to present themselves as suitable candidates for resettlement purposes, displaced persons concocted false background stories. So, middle-aged Ivan chopped some years off his age. Rather than hailing from the Don Cossack region, he claimed Nastasia’s Ukrainian birthplace as his own. Instead of fleeing west with the Cossack Army, Ivan claimed to have been a labourer in Germany in the last years of the war, and he had the documentation to prove it.

Nastasia and Ivan lived in various displaced persons’ camps until April 1949, when they were interviewed by Australian migration officials. Nastasia was observed to be 16 weeks pregnant with her third child and labelled ‘fit’ for the journey. Along with their three-year-old son who had been born in an Austrian displaced persons camp, they travelled to Australia on the Anna Salen in June 1949.

I chose to begin my book with Ivan and Nastastia’s story because it was the first displaced persons’ story I heard. Ivan and Nastasia are my husband’s grandparents; their little boy is now my children’s beloved ‘Grumps’, and Nastasia is their much-loved ninety-one-year-old ‘Baba’. I listened to bits and pieces of her story, relayed at her seventy-sixth birthday lunch in 2001, and wondered why I had not heard of the post-war displaced persons.

My husband’s other set of grandparents were also displaced persons, teenaged Ukrainian forced labourers (Theodore from the Polish west and Katherina from the Soviet east) who met in wartime Germany while working on a farm and who then married in a rush of post-war euphoria. I listened to their stories and pored over their black and white photographs of pre-war Ukraine, Neither saw their parents ever again. Theodore, along with Katherina and their infant daughter, made the long journey away from their Europe to Australia and ended up working on the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

As an Australian university undergraduate majoring in history, I was surprised that my knowledge of Australia’s post-war immigration period began with the Italian and Greek migrations of the 1950s rather than with the 170,000 displaced persons who started arriving in Australia a little more than two years after the end of the war. Since my interest had been sparked by family history, my doctoral thesis, completed in 2011 at the University of Sydney, centred around memory and commemoration and, particularly, oral history interviews.

Many Australians whose families trace from post-war migrations are interested in information about their forebears’ migration trajectories, and their settlement experiences once in Australia. My book aims to share some of these stories, with an acknowledgement that family history can be an excellent starting point for researching national and transnational histories.

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Purchase your copy of Jayne Persian’s book, Beautiful Balts: From Displaced Persons to New Australians (Sydney: NewSouth Books, 2017), 240pp, $39.99 from bookshops now.

Have you just published your first history book? I want to help debut authors spread the news about their recently published history. Check the criteria for Debut Author Chat and submit your piece for publication on this blog.

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