EHS reunites long lost classmates after 69 years

By Jared Prestwidge

THE Echuca Historical Society recently helped reunite a former Echuca resident with his classmates after 69 years.

EHS researcher Heather Rendle was contacted by a woman in New York, Christina Hajdu, who was writing her family history.

Her father, Joe, lived in Bamawm Extension just after World War II, and she wanted to know more about life in the area around that time.

Heather, who had family in the Bamawm district, recognised the connections and followed the trail.

Joseph Hajdu was only 10 years old when he and his family migrated from Germany in 1949.

He made the long trek on foot and by horse and cart from Hungary to Germany, where they lived for a few years in difficult conditions before coming to Australia.

His father found a job pruning fruit trees on an orchard at Bamawm Extension, just outside of Echuca.

Joe couldn't speak English and was put in the class with the younger kids.

And he always wore leather pants, or lederhosen.

Suffice to say, Joe stood out at his new school.

Lederhosen are a distinctive kind of pants that Australians would now associate with Oktoberfest, thigh slapping and beer drinking. 

For a refugee kid living in the irrigation country around Echuca, the lederhosen were clothes that lasted and didn't wear out.

Joe said the Bamawm Extension community embraced the newcomers in 1949.

"They were very kind to us," Joe said.

"The teacher, a man by the name of Mr Vogel, made sure I understood everything in class."

When the work ran out in Bamawm Extension, the family moved to Dandenong where Joe went to high school and ended up becoming a professor of geography and an author.

And despite nearly seven decades going by, Joe never forgot the kindness he was shown when he walked into that classroom, lederhosen and all.

In 2019, now retired, Joe and his wife and daughter came to meet Heather at the museum.

"She knew everything, all about the families who owned the farm – where we worked, and the farm next door, the local church where we met the community, and the school," Joe said.

But Heather didn't stop there, she took this trip down memory lane one step further.

She located his classmates, Graeme Newton and Geoff Kormann, who went on to become dairy farmers in the area around Echuca.

They remembered him as the tall blonde boy with the leather pants.

Graeme had even kept the school records with all the names of the students. 

"You can see how much it meant to him - I went out of my way to find these school mates who were tickled pink," Heather said.

"They liked him, he was just Joe.

"It's forged nice contacts and made people very happy."

Joe said he couldn't thank Heather and the Echuca Historical Society enough for reconnecting him with a pivotal part of his childhood.

"We weren't just a statistic of migrants, we were part of the local community," he said.

"I now have a connection back to my first experiences of Australia."