The old timber suitcases in Gary Van Den Bogaart’s garage in Lakes Entrance were gathering dust and at risk of deterioration when it occurred to him that “somebody might like them”.
That “somebody” was the team at the Bonegilla Migrant Experience (BME) and Gary was right; they liked the suitcases very much!
The handmade cases were more than 70-year-old family relics. They were a rare and informative window into Australian migrant history and an example of how people in the post-war years made their own way when it came to starting new lives on the other side of the world.
Gary’s father Adrianus had decided after World War II to move his family to Australia to escape hard times in Holland. The family could not afford to buy suitcases for the journey so Adrianus made his own from timber.
The family used the cases to carry their possessions to the Bonegilla Migrant Camp in 1952 and, 70 years later, Gary decided to share them with locals and visitors in Albury-Wodonga.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for Bonegilla because it was the first place in Australia I came to (at the age of four) and I thought, if I keep them in the garage they’ll deteriorate but maybe Bonegilla would like them,” he said.
They were the first wooden suitcases seen by the team at Bonegilla and they’re now a valued part of the site’s collection. They will be preserved in controlled conditions at the Albury Library Museum.
When the family arrived at Bonegilla on the “red rattler” train, Gary’s parents were not impressed – partly because German security guards were at the gate, prompting unpleasant memories of the war. But years later, the elderly Adrianus made a close German friend, helping to ease the memories of the past.
Although the family stayed only a short time at Bonegilla, Gary has vague but fond memories of the “warm waters” of Lake Hume and playing on a swing set with other children.
They later moved to South Australia and enjoyed successful lives as Australians.
“In the long run, it worked out well when my parents found work and settled in, and they were happy,” Gary said.
Now, seven decades after the resourceful family left Holland, their homemade suitcases survive in Albury-Wodonga as another page in the evolving story of Bonegilla’s central role in Australian history.