The first batch of “Balts” destined for the Otway forests arrived in Colac on 8 April 1949, after having travelled by train from their processing centre at Bathurst in New South Wales.
Others had been assigned to nation-building projects like the Snowy Mountains Scheme.
Many of these post-war immigrants and refugees came from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, which included the Baltic Sea States of northern Europe.
Across war-ravaged Europe, there were several million others just like them who had either been forced into labour for the Nazis or who were anti-communist and fled as the Russian Army advanced and the Iron Curtain fell.
During the dying days of World War Two on 2 August 1945, in a momentous parliamentary speech, the new Labor Immigration Minister Arthur Caldwell advocated the far-reaching policy of “Populate-or-Perish”.
“If Australians have learned one lesson from the Pacific War it is surely that we cannot continue to hold our island continent for ourselves and our descendants unless we greatly increase our numbers. We are about 7 million people and we hold 3 million square miles of this Earth surface … much development and settlement have yet to be undertaken. Our need to undertake it is urgent and imperative if we are to survive.”
Arguably, the story of modern Australia began right there with the switch to assisting “Displaced Persons”, as they were officially known.
Part of their agreement was to work for two-years in a government-sponsored resettlement program which opened the door to over 170,000.
The first group of fifteen men sent to the Otways stayed overnight at the YMCA in Melbourne before catching the train to Colac, where they were greeted by the local Country Women’s Association (CWA) and given lunch.
They were transported in an open tray truck along the rough and winding road to Beech Forest and allocated wet-weather gear before the final journey to their new home deep in the bush.
The Forests Commission had built a camp next to the Aire Valley Redwoods earlier in March 1948 which consisted of a cookhouse and mess, shower block, toilets, woodshed and eighteen small two-man Stanley Huts.
It was reportedly a bleak existence, particularly in winter, but they made the camp comfortable and enjoyed the freedom.
Many of these men had previously lived in either concentration camps, Prisoner-of-War camps or other detention centres.
But they still had to contend with a language barrier, a different culture and lifestyle, isolation from friends and family and occasionally less-than-friendly treatment from their Australian workmates.
The Balts had come to replant the degraded and abandoned farmland in the Otway Ranges which had been progressively purchased by the Forests Commission and replanted from the early 1930s in a similar but smaller scheme to the Strzelecki Ranges
Their camp was next to a trial plot of Coast Redwoods in the Aire Valley planted earlier in 1936. The initial growth of the seedlings was disappointingly slow, but they are now about 60 metres tall.
This eerie and enchanting grove of redwoods has become a popular tourist destination.
Measurements in 2004 by Roger Smith show the trees have the potential to reach as tall as their Californian counterparts if left undisturbed from bushfire, pests and disease, or trampling by tourists.
Construction of an all-weather road network by the Forests Commission during the 1950s made daily commuting a possibility that led to the closure of the Aire Valley camp.
Many of the Balts later married and made their homes, and raised their families, in nearby towns and cities like Beech Forest and Colac.
Several of the Forests Commission’s other pre-existing camps, some of which had been used for unemployment schemes during the 1930s Depression, and later as Internment and POW camps, were repurposed once again for the Balts.
The Balts also worked in forest assessment crews and as camp cooks and many stayed-on with the Forests Commission to enrich our lives.
Top Image: The enchanting stand of coast redwoods was planted in the Aire Valley in 1936 and has become a popular tourist destination. Photo: “The Redwoods of the Otway Ranges” by Roger Smith.
Short film about new Australian citizens at Bonegilla in 1948.
Redwoods of the Otways. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redwoods_of_the_Otway_Ranges