Winter in the Riverland district of South Australia is a season of extremes: dry, often gloriously sunny days and nights so bitingly cold it makes it difficult to sleep. I found out first-hand when I visited Barmera in June for the 70th anniversary of the opening of the Loveday internment camps and my hotel ran out of portable heaters—so I can only imagine what it must have been like for the internees who endured sub-zero temperatures while sleeping in tents in the early days of the camp before huts were built.
June 11, 2011 marked the 70th anniversary of the opening of the Loveday internment camps. The camps’ first inhabitants were 458 Italian internees who had been transported from Hay, NSW to Loveday Camp 1 near Barmera, South Australia. At their peak, the Loveday camps held more than 5000 Italian, German and Japanese civilian internees and POWs.
The Barmera branch of the National Trusts of Australia organised a weekend of activities to mark the anniversary. I attended (fresh off a plane from New York!), arriving in Barmera on the 11th to find it filled with visitors, as the weekend also coincided with Barmera’s annual country music festival.
The 70th anniversary activities included:
Bus tour of the Loveday camp site remains
Max Scholz delivered milk to the Loveday camps when he was a boy and wrote a book about his experiences: As I Remember: The Loveday Internment Camps (self-published, 2004). As part of the 70th anniversary weekend, he led a bus tour of the former sites of the Loveday camps.
A couple of months earlier I visited Barmera on a reconnaissance mission and Kris and I attempted to find the sites ourselves, but we ended up driving around in circles. There is very little in the way of signage, and most of the sites are now on private land. Furthermore, because many of the buildings were dismantled or made of wood, they have deteriorated over time and there is unfortunately very little to see—only the concrete foundations of a few buildings remain. But Max pointed out areas of interest, such as the location of the now defunct train station that was used to transport internees from Adelaide, the remains of a concrete building that stood in the general headquarters, and the remains of a piggery run by internees.
The opening of an internment camp may seem like an odd cause for celebration, but the 70th anniversary attracted quite a lot of interest both in the local community and further afield, so it was a good opportunity for people to find out more about the history of the Loveday internment camps.
About 100 people attended the anniversary dinner at Cobdogla Club, and guests included local historians, museum professionals and members of the Italian community who turned out in force to learn more about their ancestors’ lives. Speakers included Tony Piccolo, state Labor MP for Light, South Australia, whose Italian ancestors were interned at Loveday; Mia Spizzica, PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, who presented her findings on the daily life of Italian internees at Loveday; and I gave a short presentation about my research into the lives of Japanese internees at Loveday. Rare colour footage of Loveday camps was also shown.
At the dinner I was delighted to meet a group of New Caledonian women, who all had Japanese relatives (fathers, grandfathers and uncles) who were interned at Loveday. One of them, Marie-José Michel, is the honorary consul of Japan in New Caledonia. She has made several trips to Australia to trace her Japanese grandfather’s journey after his arrest in New Caledonia. He was sent to Australia by ship to be interned, and his family in New Caledonia never saw him again. His story is typical of the thousands of Japanese men who were working in New Caledonia at the outbreak of war with Japan. Many had been living in New Caledonia for decades at the time of their arrest. (Japanese photographer and researcher Mutsumi Tsuda published a book about the impact of internment for many New Caledonian families: Feu nos peres : les émigrants japonais en Nouvelle-Calédonie, 2008—the National Library of Australia has a copy.)
Internment display at the Cobdogla Irrigation and Steam Museum
The weekend culminated in a visit to the Cobdogla Irrigation and Steam Museum’s Loveday internment camp exhibition, with special drill squad rifle salute demonstrations throughout the day.
Although I wasn’t able visit the museum on this occasion, on a previous trip I had found the exhibition packed with information relevant to my research—particularly the models of the camps and sleeping huts, and the tools and handicrafts fashioned by the internees.