Hermine Rainow and her Legacy to Wollongong Migrants

Mrs Cosmopolitan” was how Hermine Rainow described herself when she was featured in an article that appeared in the Illawarra Mercury on 23 September 1971. Her father was Austrian, her mother Hungarian, she married a Bulgaria, the family spoke German and they lived in Australia.

Mrs Rainow’s own personal experiences in Europe and Australia provided her with insight about the migrant journey that translated into her record of the events and lives of post-World War 2 migrants in Wollongong during the 1960s and 1970s that she captured in her articles for the local papers. It is a lasting, first hand account of Wollongong migrant history that we are fortunate to be able to read some 50 years later. A wonderful legacy that Hermine Rainow has left to us and deserves to be recognised.

Hermine Rainow came from Austria to Australia with her husband Stephan and children, Eva and Peter in 1951. Hermine Rainow (nee) Meisel was born in Bucharest, Roumania (Romania) on 5 January 1919 and lived in Hungary with her Hungarian mother and Austrian father. Hermine met Stephan Rainow during World War 2 and they later married. During the war Hermine worked as a translator and news reader for a news agency office in Vienna and published a number of short stories.

After Hermine, Stephan and their two children arrived in Australia from Austria they spent some time at the Bonegilla Reception Centre before they were transferred to Walgrove migrant camp. Hermine and Stephan had two more children who were born in Australia, Julianne and Stephan. The family came to Wollongong in 1952. At first Hermine, her husband Stephan and children lived in a caravan and tent at Coledale for about three years. For the first two months when they lived at Coledale it had rained non-stop and they had no electricity or running water and at the time Hermine could not speak English. The family later moved to Wombarra and then to Austinmer.

In about 1963 Hermine became the Wollongong correspondent for a German newspaper that was published in Sydney and about four years later was a features writer for the South Coast Times chronicling the lives of migrants from births, engagements, marriages to the establishment of community organisations, clubs and associations. When Hermine Rainow joined the Mercury staff in 1971 she was already well-known to readers through her columns for the South Coast Times and from her work as secretary of the Good Neighbour Council. When Hermine started writing for the Illawarra Mercury the newspaper said Hermine’s columns were to “contribute to the assimilation of national groups in the Wollongong area and as a public noticeboard for members from every nationality in Wollongong which reflected their aims and activities”. According to Hermine’s daughter, Julie, Hermine in her own words once said, “I don’t want to assimilate, I want to contribute”. When writing her obituary, her children commented that Hermine not only wanted to show Wollongong what the migrants had brought to Australia, but also wanted the migrants themselves to be aware that they had contributed a great deal to their community and Australia. For Hermine it was about cultural exchange and her children recalled that in pursuit of this exchange Hermine had received some Government funding for her “Association for Culture Exchange”. Hermine advocated for migrants to be loyal to their homeland as well as Australia, to be proud of their culture and to bring the good things with them to Australia. This was at a time when the Australia Government favoured assimilation of migrants only to learn that asking migrants to abandon their culture was not beneficial and hindered their integration into Australian society. Hermine, a migrant herself and with close ties with the different migrant communities in the Wollongong area, was fully aware that cultural ties and traditions were just as important.

As early as May 1966 Hermine suggested in one of her columns that a migrant museum should be established. Hermine Rainow was a woman of great foresight and understood the importance of preserving the history of the migrants who had come to Wollongong, unfortunately many years later we still struggle to have that museum in Wollongong. Fortunately, Hermine Rainow’s body of work is, in itself, a museum as she provided firsthand accounts about people, places and events from the growing migrant communities that lived in the Wollongong area.

Hermine spoke four languages fluently and provided interpreting services for the citizens of Wollongong long before these services were provided by translator organisations and associations. The Australian Translator Association was formed in 1965 and in July 1967 the Wollongong Branch office address was “Mrs Hermine Rainow, 36 Daisy Street, Fairy Meadow”.

In 1969 Hermine spent time in Europe on holiday but used her time interviewing prospective migrants to Australia which were published in the Illawarra Mercury. She also interviewed migrants who had returned to Europe not willing to stay after they had migrated to Australia. Through those interviews Hermine was able to discover some of the reasons why they returned and learned that most people returned because they were homesick.

In 1971 Hermine worked as a member of the Illawarra Mercury staff as Migrant Liaison Officer and writer. Hermine had served on the Good Neighbour Council and her new role at the Mercury enabled her to extend her services to thousands of migrants on the South Coast as well as entertain them with her articles in the paper.

A feature in the Illawarra Mercury of 8 October 1974, written by Migrant Counsellor Hermine Rainow was a bit of a departure from the usual pieces that appeared in Hermine’s regular columns. In this article Hermine provided statistics and reasons that people found themselves migrating to other countries. Hermine explained that migrants were not “a homogeneous mass of people” and that the question “Migrants, who are they” should warrant “as many answers as there are migrants.” Hermine’s article offered an explanation that differences were not only attributed to the “vast diversity of ethnic origins” but were marked by family structure, social standing and educational standards and within those ethnic groups, geographical, historical and religious backgrounds were well-defined divisions. For the insular society that existed in Australia, including Wollongong, at the time when all foreign settlers were simply put into the one basket called “migrants” Hermine’s article offered Wollongong citizens the chance to broaden their perception and provided a better understanding about their “new neighbours”.

In 1978, Hermine Rainow was awarded the Order of the British Empire – Member (Civil) for her work with migrant communities. Later Hermine moved to Brunswick Heads in NSW and eventually was cared for in a nursing home in Murwillumbah. Hermine Rainow, MBE(C), passed away in Murwillumbah NSW on 17 February 2008.

Thank you to Julie Rainow, daughter of Hermine and Stephan Rainow, for her assistance with this article.