50,000th migrant Maira Kalnins donates toy koala to Greta Museum 71 years after arriving

Maira Kluina hands the toy koala to Cessnock Mayor Bob Pynsent for Greta Museum to display. Picture: Simone De Peak
Maira Kluina hands the toy koala to Cessnock Mayor Bob Pynsent for Greta Museum to display. Picture: Simone De Peak

A toy koala presented to the 50,000th migrant to arrive in Australia 71 years ago has made a remarkable return to Greta on the 75th anniversary of Victory in the Pacific Day.

On August 12, 1949, then Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell, flew to Fremantle in Western Australia, to welcome the 50,000th migrant under the displaced persons program following World War II.

That person was 7-year-old Maira Kalnins, of Latvia, who Mr Calwell presented with a koala and a talking doll at a ceremony on the migrant ship 'Fairsea'.

August 19 will mark 71 years since the Fairsea and its 1896 passengers docked at the Port of Newcastle. It was the first boatload of migrants to be transported directly from Europe to Newcastle. These migrants were then taken by steam trains to Greta Migrant Camp - their first home in Australia.

Ms Kalnins, now known as Ms Kluina, took the gifted toy with her to the migrant camp, where she and her family would live until 1952. She had kept a hold of the beloved koala since, but after several decades thought she should pass it on.

GIFT: The toy koala gifted to Maira 71 years ago. Picture: Simone De Peak

GIFT: The toy koala gifted to Maira 71 years ago. Picture: Simone De Peak

"The family decided it would be a nice thing to leave it in Greta," she said.

Ms Kluina made the trip to the Hunter on Saturday to donate the koala to Greta Museum, where it will remain on display for visitors and the community.

Cessnock mayor Bob Pynsent accepted the koala on the museum's behalf, saying it was an "amazing gesture" by the family.

"It's great to see the memories of Greta Migrant Camp maintained in Greta," he said.

The donation came about after former journalist Alek Schulha, who was born at the migrant camp and recently released a book about it, went to Canberra where he saw a similar toy koala at the National Museum of Australian Democracy that had been donated by the 100,000th British immigrant, Isobel Saxelby.

"I'd heard about the 50,000th, and it prompted me to find her," he said.

PRESENTATION: Former journalist Alek Schulha, who was born at Greta Migrant Camp, officiates the toy koala donation ceremony. Picture: Simone De Peak

PRESENTATION: Former journalist Alek Schulha, who was born at Greta Migrant Camp, officiates the toy koala donation ceremony. Picture: Simone De Peak

It took a bit of searching, but eventually Mr Schulha found Ms Kluina and the pair struck up a friendship with their shared connection to the camp, despite not knowing each other during their time there.

Mr Schulha said he was over the moon when Ms Kluina decided to donate the toy.

"I think it's absolutely magnificent," he said.

"This presentation will further guarantee this piece of history will never be forgotten."

Migrant camp book now complete

Alek Schulha, with his book 'Beneath the Shadows of Mount Molly Morgan, History & Stories of Greta Camp 1939-1960'. Picture: Simone De Peak

Alek Schulha, with his book 'Beneath the Shadows of Mount Molly Morgan, History & Stories of Greta Camp 1939-1960'. Picture: Simone De Peak

After eight years, thousands of interviews and several trips across the country and the world, former journalist and now author Alek Schulha has completed his book on Greta Migrant Camp.

The book, Beneath the Shadows of Mount Molly Morgan, tells the story of how the camp developed from an army training ground to a home for displaced migrants before its closure in 1960.

In the first three weeks since its release, Mr Schulha said 1500 copies had sold, including 500 in the first five days. The buyers include people who lived at the camp and their relatives, but also some who had no connection to the camp.

Since the book's release he has been holding small signings, including one at the handover of the toy koala to Greta Museum on Saturday, but has been unable to hold a proper launch due to COVID-19.

Mr Schulha said people who have read the book told him how it brought them to tears and one man even read it to his wife who has Alzheimer's but still managed to remember life at the camp.

This story Iconic piece of migrant camp returns after 71 years first appeared on Newcastle Herald.