One of the museum’s most-requested paintings for public viewing is a dramatic watercolour by Sydney landscape artist Samuel Elyard (1817–1910) titled Burning of the Barque India (c 1841). Recently we arranged a viewing for cousins Catherine Bell and John Grant. Their great-great-grandparents John Scott Grant and Ann Grant (née Kilpatrick) were survivors of the ill-fated migrant ship, which caught fire and sank in the South Atlantic Ocean on 19 July 1841.
Last week I was invited to speak about the museum’s work at the Suitcases, boats and bridges: telling migrant stories in Australian museums workshop, organised by Dr Nina Parish from the University of Bath and Dr Chiara O’Reilly from the University of Sydney. The workshop brought together academics, museum professionals and museum studies students to discuss how migrant stories have been collected and articulated in a number of Australian museums, ranging from large government-funded institutions such as ours, to smaller regional, suburban or volunteer-run museums.
Over the past few weeks I have been working my way through a wonderful collection of textiles, handcrafts, photographs and family heirlooms donated by Anu Mihkelson, who as a toddler migrated from Sweden to Australia with her Estonian parents Oskar and Magda in 1948.
The Mihkelson collection is one of the museum’s richest collections relating to Australia’s post-World War II immigration history. Some of the material will go on display later this year in our Passengers Gallery but in the meantime I thought I would show you a few pieces from the collection that combine two of my favourite things – history and knitting!
Anu’s mother Magda Mihkelson was an accomplished knitter who used her needlework skills to help contribute to the family income. She knitted traditional Estonian Haapsalu lace scarves and intricately-patterned cardigans to order, both while part of the vibrant Estonian refugee community in Sweden in the 1940s, and later amongst the rural migrant cane-cutting and mining hubs of northern Queensland, where Oskar Mihkelson worked.
Magda was such a prolific knitter that she even knitted up all her leftover wool as the family travelled by train from Sweden to Genoa, Italy, to board the Lloyd Triestino liner Toscana for the six-week voyage to Australia.
Anu has written a poem about her mother’s knitting that speaks volumes about women’s work, war and displacement, the industriousness of migrants, and the adaptation of European cultural traditions to the Australian context. She has kindly allowed me to reproduce the poem here and I hope you enjoy it.
She knitted when the house was asleep
Occasionally at the child in the cot she would peep
Peace around her to concentrate
With each item a little more money to make.
Jacquard, chevron, cable,
Samples set out on the table
Haapsalu scarves to slip through a wedding ring
Others to wear by those who sing
At an Estonian Song Festival.
Colourful gloves, bonnets, socks,
Patterns counted off graph-paper blocks,
Traditional snowflakes respecting the trust
Of Estonia left behind, in war’s dust.
In Sweden she did this in earnest
For she was a refugee
And her work was done for a fee.
In Estonia it was a woman’s art
To knit, crochet and dress smart
But then in 1944 with her life she fled
Knitting needles now clicked the feelings not said.
The nickel plated needles are worn
Paper ends to hold the stitches, now torn;
Small double-pointed needles
For socks and mittens and cable sweaters.
Crochet hooks in different sizes –
Later the handkerchiefs won prizes.
All the pieces tell a story
Of migration, and someone else’s war glory
My pink jacket and blue skirt with straps
Other cultures fused
The Christening shawl not used
Since I grew and needed a skirt.
All packed in a trunk
I close the lid,
On all she did.
Life was not to be a failure –
Off again, this time to Australia.
At Tully and Mission Beach
For her family safety was within reach
Swim trunks of merino
White angora bolero
Jacket with cherry bunches
Many hours she hunches
The pattern was wrong
It took so long
The client’s payment seemed a song.
Then off to Mount Isa we went
There eight years were spent.
Days were hot and dry
Still, there was wool –
And the winter nights were cool
She knitted, ready for a southern clime,
Sydney … it was time.
You can read more about the Mihkelson family’s incredible journey from Estonia to Australia via Sweden in Anu’s books Three Suitcases and a Three-Year-Old (Kangaroo Press 1999) and The View from Here (self-published 2011).
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration
Imagine you are a young woman. You are about to leave your family and your home and embark on a long voyage to a strange country to settle with your fiancé, who you have not seen for five years. This is Lina Cesarin’s story.
Lina Cesarin came from a small town in Casarsa in the province of Pordenone, Italy. Her father sailed to the USA in search of work, leaving her mother to raise Lina and her siblings. When Lina was 17 years old, she met Rizzieri Cesarin. After a brief courtship, they were engaged for a year before Rizzieri was invited to sail to Australia in search of ‘la bella vita’ (the good life).
In 1951, Lina farewelled her beloved Rizzieri, who had made a promise to send for her when he was well established in Australia. Rizzieri paid for his ticket on SS Surriento and arrived in Sydney on 18 June 1951. After working in Sydney for a couple of months, Rizzieri moved to Cooma in southern New South Wales, where he helped establish base camps for workers on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. During this time, the couple wrote letters to each other and Rizzieri described the challenges of working in Cooma and his hopes for establishing a comfortable home for his bride.
In 1956, the time finally came for Lina to leave her home for Australia. After a heartbreaking farewell to her mother, Lina boarded SS Neptunia, alone, with no friends or relatives on board. On 9 July 1956, Lina arrived in Sydney and was reunited with her fiancé. Just two days later, on a cool winter’s day, Lina made her way to a church in Leichhardt, wearing this beautiful ivory satin dress, with a white lace veil and a pair of gloves. Within a few hours, Lina and Rizzieri were married.
Lina’s experience was not unusual. During the late 1940s to the 1950s, Italian immigration to Australia peaked following the devastating economic impact of World War II. Unlike Lina, some brides came to Australia to meet their husbands for the first time. They were proxy brides, who had participated in a marriage ceremony back in their hometowns with an elected relative, acting as a ‘stand-in’ groom for their absent fiancés. These proxy marriages were arranged based on a few key factors. A young man would write to his family back in Italy, expressing a wish to marry a ‘respectable’ woman who came from a nearby village and most importantly, a ‘good family’. Letters were sent, photos exchanged and the ceremony conducted. When the bride embarked on the voyage to Australia, her husband would be waiting to greet her at the port and they would be introduced for the first time as husband and wife. This process may seem archaic today; however, it must be seen in light of the strong sense of duty held by these women and men. The concept of ‘mia famiglia’ (my family) remained a pervasive and central force within Italian communities, and it motivated migrants to send for a bride with common expectations and values from their homeland, to start a new life in Australia.
This dress is a treasured symbol of the many Italian brides who sailed to Australia, uncertain about how life would turn out in their new country and also, with their new husbands. Lina’s story and the experiences of the proxy brides are an important part of Australia’s migration history. They represent a time when ‘bride ships’ were welcomed to Australian shores by crowds of hopeful fiancés and husbands. These couples went on to establish vibrant social and cultural traditions that contributed significantly to Australia’s dynamic multicultural community.
Object of the Week: Valenciennes lace camisole
This white machine-made Valenciennes lace camisole (00046672) was made in the early 1900s and brought to Australia in 1938-39 by the Strauss family, Jewish migrants fleeing Nazi Germany. The camisole features a lace trim and small holes to thread ribbon and adjust sizing.
Ilsa Strauss (nee Gimnicher) came from a small town in Lower Rhineland called Krefeld, then the centre of Germany’s silk and velvet industry. Ilsa’s parents were Saloman and Meta Gimnicher (nee Fanny Appel). Saloman Gimnicher was a cloth merchant and operated a business with his brothers, and Fanny Appel trained as an opera singer until she married Saloman.
When Ilsa was born in the aftermath of World War I, Germany was in a state of turmoil, with poor economic conditions, high inflation and political unrest. Ilsa was raised by her grandparents in Frankfurt, while her parents worked. Ilsa’s uncle read Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ (My Struggle), and promptly moved to Holland. Her father however refused to read it. From 1935 life became increasingly difficult for the Gimnichers – like it was for all Jews living in Germany. In 1935 the Nuremberg laws deprived Jews of their citizenship, forcing Jewish employees to leave the Gimnicher family’s cloth business. Ilsa left school in early 1936, when she was not yet 16, to help with the business.
Ilsa met her future husband Otto Strauss through a Jewish youth group in Germany. Otto, a Bonn University law graduate, was one of the group leaders. Otto’s parents were Dr Josef Strauss and Roesle Kahn. He had an older sister Karola and older brother Franz, who had also studied law. Unable to practice law when Hitler came into power, the two brothers found work in the silk trade, with Otto attending the textile school in Krefeld, close to the Holland border. From 1937, Otto tried to find a country that would accept his family for migration. Otto managed to obtain an entry permit into Australia as a weaver, leaving Germany in early September 1938 with many of his family’s possessions.
On 10 November 1938, during a coordinated attack on Jews throughout Germany known as Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), Ilsa’s father and uncle were thrown into prison on trumped-up charges. Otto’s brother Franz was also imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp. With the help of new friends in Australia, Otto was able to bring his mother Roesle, sister Karola and brother Franz to Australia in 1939. Franz arrived in February, while his mother and sister sailed from London three days before the outbreak of World War II.
Franz borrowed money to start a farmlet in Garden Street, Kilsyth, at the foot of Victoria’s Dandenong Mountains. Franz ran the farm, while Otto worked as a weaver in a Melbourne factory. Karola lived and worked in Melbourne, and Roesle looked after the home. Their rooms could barely accommodate a bed, chair and small chest of drawers. A small wood-fired oven served as a makeshift stove for the simplest of meals, while a hurricane lamp provided the sole source of light.
In March 1939, Ilsa was granted permission to enter the UK as a domestic helper. She left behind her parents, 12 year old brother Max Rudi, grandparents, aunts and uncles, all of whom became victims of the Holocaust. Ilsa stayed with friends in London while working as a domestic, before leaving the city to become a domestic at a private boarding school. She worked hard for 10 shillings a week. Half-starved at the school, Ilsa had to be treated for malnutrition. A friend arranged for her to take a new job with the Smith family in London, who treated her like a member of the family.
When World War II was declared, Ilsa was required to register as an enemy alien and was no longer permitted to work in Blackpool. She advertised for work and was offered a job with the Sykes family in Barton. Ilsa continued to correspond with Otto in Australia. In July 1941 a policeman arrived with a small parcel for her, containing a diamond engagement ring from Otto.
During the war Ilsa was drafted to make aircraft parts before being promoted to inspector. She worked from 5am until 8pm. Ilsa finally migrated to Australia in 1947, two years after the end of the war. Ilsa and Otto married in November and moved to Melbourne.
This camisole is significant in telling the story of the Strauss family. It relates to the experiences of Jewish people in Germany prior to the outbreak of World War II, and the tortuous journey many Jewish emigrants were forced to endure in order to flee to safety. Associated with the Strauss family who were involved in the cloth industry in Germany’s ‘Velvet and Silk City’ Krefeld, the neckpiece also has aesthetic and technical significance. You can browse the museum’s collection of Strauss family lace on-line.