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Category: Interviews »

Subject: Contemporary History »

The experience of wartime internment

Francesca Merenda.

Francesca Merenda tells of her childhood in northern Queensland and of the shock of being interned during the Second World War at the age of 18.



Date Added:

15 February 2006


Francesca Merenda interviewed by Andrew Jakubowicz for MMA


mov (Quicktime);

File size:

19.2 MB


4 min 32 s


Childhood in Northern Queensland

My name is Frances Mary Merenda. I was born on the 16th of September, 1924. And in those days we had a White Australia policy and I could not be registered in my grandparents' name, which would have been Francesca Maria Merenda…

He came to North Queensland to cut sugar cane. And there was no money in cutting cane in those days so Mother followed him out three years later and they were married in Cairns…

And Mum and Dad settled at the mouth of the Tully River, because there was.. as I keep telling people, we were so poor we couldn't afford to buy meat and things like that, so all we had to exist on was barramundi, mud crabs, prawns, calamari, octopus and things like that. And what Dad organised was for me to go to a little school in Lower Tully, but an Italian family called Baroni to look after me from Monday to Friday so that I could go to school. And they stayed at the mouth of the Tully River.

Wartime Internment

The first horrible thing was that – not right away - but my father was interned… But he was sent to Gaythorne in Queensland and then from there he was sent to Cowra here in New South Wales. And Mum and I were interned later, which would have been in.. I turned 18 in September and in October I was arrested by two policemen – walked down the main street of Tully, between the two policemen – I tell you, it was the most horrible, horrible feeling…

Mum and I were both taken to the lock-up, and we had to sleep one night in the lock-up. The lock-up was where they used to put the drunks on the weekend…

We were brought down to Gaythorne and then before Christmas we were sent to Tatura, in Victoria, which was the family camp and my father was allowed to join us there. So when we were together we felt a lot safer because Dad was a very strong man, and made us feel that nothing was going to happen to us…

Well, Dad was always camp leader – he was one of these men that sort of did things and I became the secretary, they called me. And what I used to do was that they had a little office…

Our small camp, we had a group of Jewish people with us, and there were four compounds and we were in Compound D, with the Jewish people. Our compound was closed off from the other three – the other three had the Italians who were interned early in the war in Compound A, and then B and C were German. They could wander through each other's compounds. We couldn't, because we had the Jewish people in there…

Because we were not interested in Fascism – it was just something outside our imagination even…

He was a violinist – absolutely fantastic. Sometimes he'd go out at night, and he'd get his violin and he'd play the violin at night, and you can't imagine what a profound effect that had on me – it was absolutely wonderful. We had a man who used to come over from Compound A, with permission of course, and his name was Fanelli, and he would teach Italian, because most of us could only speak a bit of dialect…

I was released on the 29th of February, 1944…

My parents could not go back north of the Tropic of Capricorn…

But I had a look at my papers 30 years after the war, and in the papers they said I was a potential spy… a danger to the Commonwealth of Australia. I think it is because I spoke two languages, and that I helped people – that sort of thing. Maybe somebody saw that as a negative thing.