Vitaly (Victor) Lupish and his family packed four wooden suitcases into a horse and cart and fled as the Russian Army advanced into Belarus during World War II.
They spent five years in Germany before arriving in the Hunter Region aboard the first migrant ship to Newcastle, the MV Fairsea, on 19 August 1949.
The vessel carried a total of 1,896 migrants, with Mr Lupish and his family then transported to the Greta Migrant Camp, near Maitland.
“We lived in camps in Germany, in huts, and, when we arrived [in Australia], we thought we’d be living in houses,” he told Newcastle Weekly.
“Not so – we were back in a camp.
“My mother burst into tears when she saw that.
“She said to my father: ‘What have we got ourselves into?’”
The Greta Migrant Camp homed an estimated 100,000 migrants from more than 17 countries between 1949 and 1960.
One area was known as ‘Chocolate City’ due to the brown coloured oiled timber buildings, while other parts were called ‘Silver City’ because of the corrugated iron huts that were built.
Upon arriving at the camp, Mr Lupish spoke no English and was on constant alert after hearing tales of Australia’s dangerous wildlife.
“When we were in Germany, we were told that the place was full of venomous snakes and spiders and that there were forests full of them,” he said.
“So, for the next six months at least, I very cautiously wandered into the bush at Greta and was on the lookout for a snake.
“Outside ‘Chocolate City’ was the well-known hill, Mount Molly Morgan, which we used to climb as kids – always keeping an eye out for snakes of course.”
Mr Lupish eventually left the camp in early 1951 and took up residence in an old miners’ cottage at Wallsend.
However, he still made regular trips back to Greta.
“I kept going to the camp on weekends because I had a connection there,” he said.
“At first it was every weekend, then it became every second weekend – I was involved in the Orthodox church there.”
Mr Lupish went on to gain an engineering certificate and worked for BHP.
He is also a life member of the Hunter Multicultural Communities (HMC), formerly known as the Ethnic Communities Council.
Mr Lupish will now attend a 70th anniversary celebration of the Greta Migrant Camp at Camp Road, Greta, this weekend.
The Silky Oak Festival, which takes place on Saturday 9 and Sunday 10 November, is being hosted by the Central Hunter Business Chamber and HMC.
It will double as a celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Greta Army Camp.
The site was compulsory acquired by the army on 7 November 1939 and became one of the largest training camps in the country.
After the war, much of the field training areas were returned to open grazing land.
However, it still played a part in training the British and Commonwealth Forces (BCOF) of Japan. These troops were among the occupation forces that served to maintain control of the Japanese under US General Douglas MacArthur.
In 1949, the camp was transferred to the Department of Immigration; the army took control back in 1962; and the site and buildings were sold in 1980.
The Silky Oak Festival will include food, culture, a kid’s zone, military vehicle displays, migrant demonstrations, and Scottish Pipe Bands.
The event is set to start with a full military parade by the Royal Australian Navy Band, Defence Force personnel, veterans, and other dignities.
The Governor General of Australia, David Hurley, will provide the opening address.
Gates open at 8.30am on both days and will close at 5.30pm on Saturday and 4.30pm on Sunday.
Visit gretamigrantcamp.com.au for more information or to buy tickets.