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Alexandra Gilbert

Interview conducted by Elisabeth Edwards for research for the Orange Migration Heritage Project, with Alexandra Gilbert (Koruniak).


Alexandra originated from Lisichansk, Lugansk district, Ukraine, her parents were Russian. She started her journey from Bremerhaven, Germany on 7 March 1951, arriving in Melbourne on 23 April 1951.

On arriving in Australia Alexandra went to Bonegilla migrant camp near Albury for two months. Her husband Michael was sent to work at Emmco whitegoods factory in Orange. On arriving in Orange Alexandra and Michael built a house on a block of land in Sampson Street, Orange. Alexandra worked (not on assignment) in the pantry of the maternity ward at Orange Base Hospital


I was born in Lisichansk in the Lugansk district of the Ukraine but my parents were Russian. My father died when I was three years old and my mother lived with me and my sister Raisa, who was one year younger than me. My mother had six sisters and they helped her. First she worked as a waitress in a restaurant. There was a coal mine called Voikov and we lived there. We had a two-storey house. Then we were told people had to leave their home if they weren't working in the mine. So my mother went to work in the mine.

On June 22, 1941 at 4am, Kiev was bombed by the Germans. We went to our Babushka's house in '42. As soon as we came to the village, the Germans came. In February '42 my sister had pneumonia and she died aged 14. The Germans took me to Germany in October. I was not quite 16. All the time we were hiding from the Germans. We were hiding in the roof - me and my friend. When everybody was asleep my Aunty and Mum called us and we would eat and sleep. Then one day the police knocked on the door in the night-time. They found us and told us ''Tomorrow you come to the office'. They checked us for health and said I would be going to Germany. My friend's father managed to save his daughter from deportation and she later became a doctor.

They took people from all around the town and villages in a freight train. We were taken to Luzk. Everybody got out of the train and we went into a building and they told us to strip off. They brought us to a very big shower room and we had nice hot showers. They gave us something to eat and they put us back on the train to Wuppertal. There was a very big camp with an electric fence and they put us in a barrack. There were no mattresses - you just lay down on a wooden bed. Then they took us in a building and they were taking people to work. A girl told us girls were being taken as prostitutes so some of us hid in the toilets.

Later they took us to Velbert and put us in another barracks and locked us up. After a little while they took us to a factory - Schweppers - making locks. The job was not so bad but they didn't feed us enough. We worked from 6am to 6pm six days a week. On Sunday they took us for a shower where the men had showers. We were paid about three marks a week so we couldn't buy much - only tooth powder and cards to exchange with the other girls. The barracks used to be a theatre. There were doubled-decker wooden beds. Everybody got a blanket and we had a mattress filled with straw. In winter when it was so cold and there was only one little stove. My friend and I slept in a single bed to keep each other warm.

When we came for work they gave us a plate with spinach or kohlrabi and one little piece of bread for three days, a little bit sugar, maybe a little bit butter. When it was cold I said, 'Come on, I teach you dancing'. One girl had a harmonica. One day I was picked to work in a woman's house on Sundays. In the house the woman started to feed me rabbit and vegetables but they weren't eating any meat. When I asked why they said 'We cooked that meat specially for you'. They also gave me a ration card to buy bread and the baker gave me bread and potatoes. I went to that Frau every Sunday. I would share the bread with my friend Nina.

The German woman I worked for said: "My son is in the army, Shura, I'm crying for my son and you are crying for your mother and your country." On the other hand, some people pushed you off the pavement and kids called us names.

Then I ran away to another camp. I'd met some girls who came to our barracks. They were working where German soldiers were wounded. They said they had friends working in a coal mine but they were free. Nina and I ran away to the barracks at the coal mine. The other girls told us they were going to a dance. I met my future husband, Michael, who was a Ukrainian, at the dance. I was working sorting coal in that camp for about 11 months in 1944.

Then the war finished in '45. Our barracks was burnt so we slept in another barracks. First came the Americans and took us in a truck and my boyfriend Michael to another town to a very big camp. There were Polish people, Ukrainian people. Then English people took over this part. Then they took all the Polish people to the Polish camp. My boyfriend and Anna's friend Ivan, made a hole in the fence and escaped. My boyfriend's mother was Polish and he spoke perfect Polish. They came to the camp and they showed the papers and they let us go. Then we came to the Polish camp and they asked me if I was Polish. They asked a lot of questions about my family. We were in the Polish camp not very long. One day they announced people who wanted to go to Belgium would be taken there. They took us to Liege in Belgium in American trucks. Michael worked in the coal mine six years. In Belgium they started advertising for people to migrate.

We left Brussels for Gluckstadt, Germany, on January 4, 1951. Michael and I had not been married because of the confusion in the aftermath of the war, but we were married in Gluckstadt. His surname was Koruniak. We sailed on the ship Fairsea from Bremerhaven on March 7 with our son Victor. We arrived in Melbourne on April 23 and were taken by train to Bonegilla camp.

A lady I knew from Belgium, Vera, said how nice Orange was. They put me on the train for Bonegilla and they dropped me in Orange. I walked from the station along Kite Street up to Sampson Street. I was looking for a lot number. I'd arrived at 5 o'clock in the morning and it was May and so cold. Then I walked along Sampson Street to Dalton Street and went back again because I couldn't find the number. I showed a woman the address and I was shivering. She took me inside and gave me a cup of tea and biscuits. Then she walked with me to show me the lot where Shlonsky's mother lived. Then Vera Shlonsky came and said she'd take me to the Base Hospital maternity ward and they put me to work in the pantry. There were other migrant women working there. It was very nice working there - I was there two years.

When my husband came to Orange he was put to work in Emmco. When he was put off, he went to work at an electricity place.

Later my husband was a builder. We bought a block of land in Sampson Street and we built a little house. Then we divided the land in two. My husband died in '63. I worked later in Bloomfield Mental Hospital and then the Cafè Popular. Then I bought a little shop at 159 Peisley Street in September '59. It was a general store. I sold sandwiches, smallgoods, milk shakes, tea sets even. I sold it in '95.