The picturesque suburb of Killarney Heights at Middlehead was a popular picnic destination named after Killarney in Ireland. However, 41 years ago it became indelibly associated with the suffering of refugees fleeing war torn Europe.
In 1979, a bearded man emerged from the bushland near Killarney Heights and called out to fishermen in German “Meine Frau ist Tot!” – my wife is dead. Leading them back to a cave he showed the fishermen his deceased wife lying on foam matting.
Confusion erupted about where exactly this couple originated from, speculation ranging from Ukrainian, Russian, Lithuanian to German. Eventually they were revealed to be Stefan and Genowefa Pietroszys, Lithuanian refugees who had lived in the caves for at least 25 years. Here they had survived on bush rats, berries and hand-outs in the cave, 200 metres from the suburban homes of Killarney Heights.
The couple were just two individuals of the 2 million migrants that arrived in Australia after the Second World War between 1945 and 1965; part of Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell’s campaign to bring blonde-haired blue-eyed Baltic migrants or ‘Beautiful Balts’ as they became known to Australia.
It was reported that the Pietroszys chose to eke out their existence on the fringes of Middle Harbour because they still lived in fear of the Russian KGB secret police. Perhaps more generally their distrust of authorities was compounded by their traumatic experience of the Second World War. Having witnessed violence at the hands of the Soviets in Lithuania, survived a Nazi labour camp and then an Allied American camp, they arrived in Australia and were then deemed unfit for work and flagged for deportation. Instead, they went on the run through regional Australia for six years.
At Killarney Heights, they did find a compassionate friend in Salvation Army officer Captain Ivan Unicomb, who gained their trust and visited them frequently. After Genovefa’s death, Stefan wanted to return to the cave but was persuaded to move into a Catholic aged care home at Marayong, where he died in October 1982, aged 84.
Today Stefan and Genovefa lie reunited side-by-side in Frenchs Forest Bushland Cemetery. Their story is a stark reminder of just of the trauma individuals carried with them from what remains the deadliest military conflict in history.
Minna Muhlen-Schulte is a professional historian and Senior Heritage Consultant at GML Heritage. She was the recipient of the Berry Family Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria and has worked on a range of history projects for community organisations, local and state government including the Third Quarantine Cemetery, Woodford Academy and Middle and Georges Head . In 2014, Minna developed a program on the life and work of Clarice Beckett for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight Program and in 2017 produced Crossing Enemy Lines for ABC Radio National’s Earshot Program. You can hear her most recent production, Carving Up the Country, on ABC Radio National’s The History Listen here. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Minna!
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