Sijke Bink-Faber, from Dutch village in Friesland to Australian farm
My name is Sylvia Bink, I was born 25 May, 1915, as Sijke Faber in Schingen a small village, about an hour’s ride on the push bike from Leeuwarden, the capital city of the Dutch province of Friesland. I grew up in Schingen, and went to school there for five years. I didn’t start until I was seven as the law was that children had to be six years of age on the 1st of April so I had to wait for a whole year. When I was twelve years old I had to help my father on the land, so I only went to primary school for five years.
My parents were Klaas Faber and Frederica Faber-Giesing. They were both born in Friesland: my mother on 30 May 1877 in the small village of Menaldum and my father on 20 May 1877 in nearby Schingen. He passed away on 6 March, 1952, the first night I spent in Australia.
In my parent’s time, there was no telephone and the post was delivered from another village. My father and mother met when someone who delivered potatoes told my mother’s family that there was a job for their daughter in Schingen. My mother was from a large family and needed a job. So she was sent to work for my father, who was a farmer. They got married in Menaldum. My parents were both hard working. They also had four children to look after, three girls and one boy.
We, my sisters and I didn’t have a chance to be someone. I had to work on the land, my oldest sister, Griet, too. My second sister, Free [Fray] was quite clever and she had a chance to learn something in town at a teacher’s college. She only went for one year and she had to travel by tram. The tram stop was in another village. My sister could go by herself in the morning as there was light, but in winter it was already dark in the afternoon when she got off the tram. There are a lot of waterways in Friesland and it was often raining or snowing and that made it dangerous to walk alone in the dark. My father would have to go meet her after he finished milking the cows.
Griet will be 94 in September and she always had fun, she is in a rest house now in Friesland, but Free has Alzheimer’s disease, which she has had for ten years and it is terrible for her. Free lives in Moe, Victoria. Her daughter, Tina, visited me recently and she said Mum looks terrible, just skin and bone and she doesn’t recognize people anymore, not even her own children. It is terribly sad. My brother was Simon, he died twenty years ago, he smoked too much.
My father had a small farm where he grew potatoes. There was someone who bought the potatoes from him and shipped them to England. Heit (father) always said ‘why do the English people want such large potatoes’, but now I know – they make chips from them. Chips weren’t in fashion then in Holland, but it is different now. My father also had cows, and he grew sugar-beet and grass to make into hay as fodder for them for the winter. He also grew vegetables for the family. We didn’t have things like chocolate, we were told just get a carrot out of the garden. My mother was not so strong and she didn’t work in the garden, she did the housework and looked after the children.
It was not an easy time, as it was the depression years, but we always had enough to eat. We ate typical Dutch food: cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, sauerkraut in winter and lots of potatoes. We didn’t eat much meat. My mother would have to buy meat from a butcher in another village. Our village only had a baker and a couple of little shops.
I only remember one grandparent, my mother’s father. I was named after him, his name was Sije. He was lovely, he had a big beard. I still have a photo of him. He was a farmer too. When he was 83 years old, he still pushed a wheelbarrow of potatoes. I remember going to his funeral, we had to walk for an hour through the paddocks to his village. I was about 10 or 11 years of age then.
Our family went to the Netherlands Reformed Church, same as the Presbyterian Church here in Australia. I remember my grandfather had strong religious beliefs. For birthdays, if we were lucky, we got a five cent chocolate bar. If it was my father’s birthday I would walk through the paddocks to congratulate him before I went to school. But we didn’t know how old our parents were.
Our house had built-in cupboards (Bedstede = bed closet) to sleep in. Father and mother slept in one, me and my sisters in one, and our little brother in a cot. When we were older, we slept two by two. We had a double house and my mother rented out the other half to her brother who was very poor and had six or seven children. After he went to live in another farm we slept in the other half. The ‘Bedstede’ cupboard was a wooden shelf with a straw mattress. That was good and healthy. My parents had a kapok mattress, but the kids slept on the straw. We all grew up healthy. We didn’t have a bathroom, but we had a toilet where the hay shed was attached to the house. It was inside.
For breakfast we had a glass of milk, and an egg as my mother had hens, and two pieces of bread: big black rye bread, one with cheese and the other with the egg and butter, the same every day. When I worked in other people’s households, I had a good breakfast, as much bread as I wanted and a cup of tea with a rusk. But I had to look after the whole family. I worked for the minister for a year and then in Leeuwarden three years for one family and two and a half years for another. I stopped working when I got married.
Going to Work
After I left school I had to work on the farm with my father for about two years. I wanted to work in town but you had to get a live-in job with a family.
My first job was in Schingen, I worked only in the mornings. I worked for the unmarried minister and his sister, who was an invalid. They were fantastic people. They had a big garden and if they had grown too many vegetables they would give me some to take home. He preached in the church my father and mother attended, we kids had to go too when we were old enough.
I was nearly 16, about 1930, when I went into town (Leeuwarden) to work. I came home every fortnight. I had to ride my bike home on Sunday and back into town on Monday mornings. It was very difficult, because I had to be back at 8 o’clock in the morning. In the winter time I had to leave in the dark at 7am, with snow and ice around. It was slippery and I often fell over with the bike.
I was working in a household with three little children. On Mondays I would have to do the wash (laundry) for seven persons by hand. It was hard and sometimes after a late night out on Sunday to see if I could find a boyfriend, I only got to bed at 2 o’clock. My mother would call me those mornings with tea and breakfast ready. I would have another breakfast later after riding into town.
I met my husband at a dance. The dances were held on Sunday nights at another village, Dronrijp, a fifteen minute bike ride from where I lived. He would take me home in the night to my village and then he would have to ride his bike back to where he boarded, to be in time for 4 o’clock milking. .
My husband’s name is Robert, he was born in Germany, on 4 June 1910, at a time when there was not much work in Holland.His three brothers were also born there. We don’t talk about him being born in Germany. Robert was one of five children. He was twelve years old when he lost his mother. She died from tuberculosis.
His Friesian name was Romke, after his grandfather, but he had to be registered as Robert in Germany.When we got married, we had a lot of trouble to get his papers from Germany. There were three other boys in his family and Bob was offered a job with a farmer and his sister on a dairy farm. It was hard work, but he stayed there a long time because it was a period when there was not much work around.
We went together for two years before we got married on 13 October 1937. We lived in the village of Weidum, an hour’s ride on the push bike from Schingen. The farmers in that area only had cows. It was dairy country.
In Weidum we set up a greengrocer’s shop. It was not very successful, Bob had to go from house to house to sell. We were two years married when our oldest was born, and the next year the war broke out. On the day the war broke out I had a German soldier come to the house to buy some vegetables.
Bob had to cycle to Leeuwarden to buy the supplies and it was dangerous on the road. It was very hard. He had to go on the push bike, pulling a little cart behind it. It was very heavy. When the shop business got too difficult we sold everything and Bob went into the building trade in about 1940. He worked there for ten years. Sometimes in Leeuwarden, and sometimes halfway, where the work was. He always traveled on the pushbike in all weather. He would have to repair damage done by bombers to bridges, so in one way the war kept him in a job.
During the war life was very difficult, we ran out of food, especially that last winter when everything froze in the cellar. The potatoes froze, then what could we do. In the mornings about 8 o’clock I would collect any food I could find and take it in an iron pot to the bakery as we had no fuel. The baker would put the pot in his oven when he took out the bread. Then at midday I would pick it up. Most of the time the food was only half cooked. I would mash it.
I have three children. The oldest, Keith (Klaas), was born two years before the war, Martin, the second one was born in the last year of the war and Jane one year after the war. When the war ended we didn’t have anything anymore, not even clothes, so that’s when we decided to go to Australia. We traveled by boat to Australia, on the Johan van Oldebarneveld. We left Friesland 23 January 1952, and arrived in Sydney 6 March. After the war Bob continued in the building industry in Leeuwarden until we went to Australia.
Bob had a brother who was already in Australia. When we arrived in Sydney, Bob’s brother came and picked us up, and we traveled by train to Singleton where he was living. We stayed in Singleton with Bob’s brother for a week before we went to Numba, a dairy district near Nowra, to work on a farm. Keith was twelve when we left; he had his thirteenth birthday on the boat. In Numba he had to help after school. I had a drink ready and his work clothes when he came off the bus and he had to help with the milking. When we arrived in Australia, Jane had never been to school and Martin had been for half-a-year only.
At the farm in Numba, the farmer’s wife brought me some magazines. She said when I was finished with them I could put them in the stove, she didn’t realize I couldn’t read English. When we had been there for about six months, the oldest daughter got married and I was invited to see the bride. I thought I was to go to the wedding and so I put on my best dress and I thought I have to bring a present so I crocheted a doily as I had a ball of cotton. The wife had said come now as the bride is having her hair done. I wanted to wash my hair and have a shower, but there was no water. At the farmer’s house there was red carpet everywhere. There was a whole wall of doilies, I was so shocked. I saw the bride and then they all got into the cars and left me there, and I thought I was going into Nowra to the wedding, I nearly cried. All that work for nothing. In May we had cracker night and the kids were told to tell Mum to bring a plate, so I brought five empty plates……
We then moved onto a farm near Milton, but we were there for six months only, because we thought we weren’t treated well. The family had a handicapped child and when she was home we were invited to her birthday party. The kids said we have to bring a present. I didn’t have any money so I got out one of my best handkerchiefs and embroidered her name on it. The first thing the mother said was that I had spelled the name wrong. I could cry, I did my best. If you don’t have any money and no car to go to town, how can you buy something? I was very homesick, I would wait for the mailman to see if there was a letter from my mother. I did some knitting for a lady, a jumper for her and sleeveless vest for the boys, so I was a bit busy. I was paid two shillings for every yarn ball I finished. I missed my friends and family the most during that time.
Another time the blackberries were ripe and there was a paddock full behind the house so I put on my gum boots, because they said to be careful of the snakes. While I was picking the blackberries, the lady came out on a horse, with a gun and she shot something, I got such a shock, I thought she was shooting at me. I made blackberry lemonade. Bob had to do the milking and farm work.
We then moved onto a share farm, the house was a hundred years old. The cows were all dry so the owner had to pay us because there was no income from milk. I cleaned the windows of the house and they were so dirty I had to scrape off the dirt. The kids had to wear boots to walk to the road to catch the bus. We had to light a fire to cook and had a chip heater to heat the water. At that time we had an old utility for which we paid 65 pounds and, once when we were driving home a wheel came off.
We had some friends in the area who were also from Friesland, and who would come and pick us up for shopping. In the beginning I lost my daughter. She followed someone else who was wearing the same colour dress. When I discovered she was not there I ran out screaming, but I found her back. We used to meet regularly with Simon and Annie, the Frisians. They had three children also. They remained on the farm near Milton when we moved. Later they moved to a farm in the Kangaroo Valley. In the late 1960s the family was involved in a tragedy on the south coast near Kiama. Simon, his son and a grandson were drowned in a boating accident.
We had other friends we had met on the boat from the Netherlands they lived in Wollongong and had six children. We have kept in touch all these years.
Life improved when we moved to Canberra. We lived on a farm for six years. We were then able to get a government house and Bob worked as a steel-fixer on building sites. I was lonely at home, there was no one at home where we lived and the money was short so I got a job cleaning houses, they were big houses at Red Hill. Some of the people I worked with were nicer than others.
The children were getting older too. My oldest son, Keith, left home and joined the Navy for twelve years. He later married and moved to Canada. This was about the time we lost our son Martin, the middle one, who was killed in Vietnam. Keith and Judy, and my daughter Jane put off their overseas travel as they said Mum cannot lose three kids in one go. They waited for a year. Keith and Judy were away for about five years they now live in Melbourne. My daughter Jane, Dutch name Jantsje, lives in Forster, two hundred km north of Newcastle. She is married and has two boys, and my son Keith in Melbourne also has two sons. Both of my children married Australians so they have really settled into life in Australia.
Jane went to high school in Canberra. In her twenties she traveled overseas for two years. She did an overland trip from Nepal to Europe in 1971, did some tours in Europe, went to Holland to visit the relatives and found a job there for the wintertime. The job was in a business college at Castle Nijenrode. Later she worked for an English travel company for the summer. She came back to Australia, worked for a couple of years, then decided to study, gained her Bachelor of Applied Science, worked at CSIRO and during that time met her husband.
Robert and I are very comfortable now but when we first came to Australia, we only brought one box of household goods with us, no furniture. In our first house we had no cupboards in the kitchen. There was just a sink. Our box arrived after ten days and we had to use that as furniture as there was nothing in the house. We brought out crockery, kitchen items, and blankets from Holland. We didn’t have a proper copper for the wash, there was only a kerosene tin to boil up the clothes and so I burned my good cotton sheets.
At the first farm we were given a pumpkin and I didn’t know how to cook it. So I boiled it and said to the family you have to eat it, there is nothing else to eat. We got our meat from the butcher who delivered on the milk truck, together with the bread. We had to pay once a month but we had to wait seven weeks before we got our first pay in Australia so we had very little.
Here now in Canberra we have good shops, but we don’t buy Dutch food items on a regular basis. We eat Australian foods. We did join the Dutch Club for a few years, Bob was asked to distribute their magazine after work in Ainslie, not Narrabundah where we lived. When Martin died they didn’t even send a sympathy card. So we didn’t rejoin. They asked Bob at one stage when they were planning their new clubhouse at Mawson to look at the plans for the steelwork, but they gave the job to someone else.
When Bob retired we joined the German Club and went to old time dancing for sixteen years. That was when we lived in Goyder Street and it was only a five minute walk to the club. The dance club was nothing to do with the Germans, they just hired out the hall. We had a big dance at the new Parliament House after we had been with the club for ten years. When we moved to Wanniassa, we went dancing for five years at the senior citizen’s club at Erindale. Bob supplied the music.
When we first came to Australia, in Milton, we attended the Presbyterian Church. The children went to Sunday school. We don’t go to church now, I said to the children to make your own choices, it’s up to you.
We are now older, I am 86 years and Bob is 91 years old. We go to the senior citizen’s club in Erindale. Bob plays carpet bowls twice a week. I play cards with the ladies but because of my poor eyesight I am very slow and only Marcia, the wife of the president of the club, will play with me. The others want to play a lot faster but I cannot see the cards so quickly.
The club has been wonderful, we used to make trips, twice a year, of about four or five days. The club doesn’t do the long trips anymore because of the cost, but we still make day trips. We recently made a trip to Yass, we visited an old homestead and then had a beautiful lunch at an old pub. We stayed at a motel in Yass and the second day we did a tour of Yass. We know the town because we have passed through it many times, but we saw things in the town we never had seen before.
Our son Keith met some Dutch people once and they became our friends. They later lived in Brisbane but had a house in Fingal, northern NSW. When we retired we would drive up there and stay in their house, and they would come for the weekend. Bob used to fish. We did this for six years. The wife’s sister and her family lived in Yass.
I used to be in a Dutch ladies group, a coffee morning group, we used to have lunch together, just a bowl of soup and a bread roll. I suggested we make Christmas gifts for the Dutch children of the club but the ladies didn’t want to do it, they said we need to use our bits and pieces to make gifts for our own grandchildren. We had a lady visit the group who wanted to write a book about the Dutch women in Australia, but some of the husbands objected.
We have kept in touch with family in Holland. I used to write but now I telephone. My sister Free died recently (in 2001). I visited Holland in the 1960s. I remember a visit to an old friend, but it was disappointing as she didn’t ask anything about my life or family in Australia. She only talked about her own family.
Years ago we had a visit from a couple I worked for when I was a girl. The husband was a dentist and they came to Canberra for a visit. They were staying with the Dutch Ambassador. They said: ‘now we are in Australia, we will visit Sijke’. They came in the Ambassador’s car and after the visit Bob drove them home. The wife was a daughter of Kingma, a very well known Friesland family. They were impressed with our life style.
Life is different now as my eye sight has deteriorated. I cannot do much cooking. We had Meals-on-Wheels for a while but we stopped, as we didn’t like the food. The Meals on Wheels people also changed their system. Instead of delivering hot food, they deliver a few meals at a time, cold, and we had to heat it up in the microwave. We found the microwave too difficult to manage. If Bob was to do it, I would have to tell him every day and we would have quarrels. So I said give it away. We go the club twice a week and have lunch at the bistro.
We have each made a trip back to Holland. I was planning to go with my sister Free, but she still had a young daughter at home so she couldn’t come. Instead, I had a friend who was also planning a trip to visit her parents in Brabant, so we booked together. After that we saved for another five years so Bob could go to Holland. He waited for one more year as his youngest brother said to wait for their sister’s 25th anniversary.
Bob played in the local band for twenty years before we came to Australia. In Friesland once a year all the bands came together. I went to this gathering when I visited Holland and I was disappointed. Years ago we had forty bands, but now there were only twenty bands. I blame television and also bands were affiliated with their local churches and could not come on a Sunday. I remember when I took part in such a gathering in Sneek, my band had the most points. We had one band member who could not play on a Sunday. He would put the instrument to his mouth but not blow. I played the tuba. I also played this in a brass band in Milton.
A few years ago the band I used to play with had their one hundred years jubilee and I received an invitation. My son Keith said: ‘don’t go, you won’t know anyone anymore’, so I let it go. A few months later, Keith and Judy traveled to Europe as their youngest son was in Italy on a student exchange. Judy stayed in Italy, while Keith traveled to Frankfurt to visit an old friend and then on to Friesland for two days. He said it rained for those days, he visited my sister Griet in Weidum, and brought back a CD with music from the jubilee. The music had changed, we used to play marches, overtures and waltzes but now it was religious music.
When we lived on the farm near Canberra, Martin and Jane went to Telopea Park High School. Keith said he didn’t want to be a farmer. It was hard for Bob as he needed help on the farm, so I used to help in the dairy. Martin liked the farm but he didn’t like school, he had a headache every day. When he left school, he got a job in a factory in Fyshwick that made venetian blinds. Later he got a job as a ‘herd recorder’, going to dairy farms and measuring the fat content of the milk from individual cows. He learnt to do this at a college near Nowra. He would stay with the farmers.
About that time Martin joined the army reserve and then the regular army. It was when the Vietnam War was on and I didn’t want him to join the army, but he had his own ideas. He said “Mum you worry too much”. He was later posted to fight in Vietnam. He was killed by a land mine one week before he was due to come home. We used to get an invitation every year to the Anzac parade, but one year we couldn’t make it, and after that we never received another invitation. Not even for the opening of the new Vietnam Memorial.
Keith now works in the computer business. He learnt a lot in the Navy. He went to a special course in the USA for two years for electronic engineering and came home as Petty Officer. He had to leave the Navy because he was colour-blind. His first job was with the Age newspaper in Melbourne. He met his wife Judy and after they married they went to live in Canada for a few years. He worked for the Toronto police. They came back and he now runs a computer software company. I think they are doing very well.
I used to read to Jane in Dutch every night when she was little. We had a big collection of Dutch books and records. We have had a bit of a clean-out because we have our name down for an aged-care hostel and we won’t be able to take everything with us. I gave many things to a friend and to my niece.
I am very close to my niece Tina. During the war, my sister Free was living in Gouda and she had three children and Tina was under 12 months when Free was expecting another child. I was three months pregnant with Martin, but Free was sick and had to go to the hospital. I went to Gouda by train to collect Tina, but I came home with three children. The boys went to stay with other relatives and I kept Tina. Tina had her first birthday at our house. We used to call her Tineke. We phone each other every two weeks.
Every Sunday I would write to my mother, I did this for twenty five years, and later to Martin when he was in the army; to Keith and Judy when they were in Canada; and then to Jane when she was away overseas. It was difficult to express myself in English but I got used to it.
The worst thing about being a migrant in Australia has been the language. For Bob it was not easy at first, but he worked with only English speaking people, so after a while he didn’t have any trouble. For me (Sylvia) it was not so easy as the children learnt English at school and didn’t speak Fries (Frisian). I couldn’t understand them sometimes. Jane did pick up the new language quickly and did well at school.
The best thing was the weather.
Note: Sylvia Bink died in Canberra in 2004, husband Robert in 2005.
Collated by Marianne Pietersen, 2014.
Funded under the Your Community Heritage Grants by The Department of the Environment, Canberra.
Interview Series 2014 organised by Dr Nonja Peters, History of Migration Experiences (HOME), Curtin University, Perth Western Australia.