A New Life as “New Australians”
Ivan Mavrič and Danila Jakin escaped from Yugoslavia in October 1949. According to Ivan’s later recounting he was desperate to find a new life free of his homeland’s communist regime. Danila’s story was that she hated the thought of becoming a farmer’s wife. She did not like living in a small rural village where, according to her, “everyone always knew your business”. Ivan offered her an escape from both.
Escape into Italy
Luckily for Ivan and Danila their village, Kozana, was just a few kilometres from the border with Italy. The border had only been finally agreed between the two countries a couple of years earlier and was still quite porous. Danila had told her family that she was going to another town to visit a dentist, staying overnight with a friend. The first that her parents knew of her escape was after she and Ivan contacted them from across the border in Gorizia. Danila and Ivan were staying there with Danila’s aunt Luisa, who had sometime earlier herself married an Italian and had settled in the town.
Danila’s father, Rudolf, was apparently no fan of Ivan. According to Milan (Danila’s brother) Rudolf regarded Ivan as a bit of a womanizer. But when Danila announced their intention to marry and leave Europe in search of a better life Rudolf took the decision in his stride. After all it meant that Ivan would be “doing the right thing” by Danila. And having himself travelled to Argentina in the 1920s to find work and better prospects no doubt Rudolf could also relate to their decision to leave.
Ivan and Danila married on New Year’s Eve, 1949 in Gorizia. They had a double wedding with Ivan’s sister, Alma, and Redento (Edi) Mian. Ivan had also arranged for Alma’s escape from Yugoslavia. She arrived in late December, just a few days before the wedding.
Redento had met Alma while working in Yugoslavia due to the very few jobs available on the Italian side of the border at that time.
Planning a new life
Almost immediately Ivan started looking for opportunities to leave Europe altogether. By March 1950 Ivan and Danila had already applied, and been accepted, for migration to Australia. Ivan and Danila were treated as just another two of the hundreds of thousands of “Displaced Persons” (DPs) at the end of the Second World War who were unable or unwilling to return to their homelands dominated by communist regimes in Eastern Europe and Yugoslavia. These people came under the care of the International Refugee Organization (IRO). In July 1947 Australia had entered into an agreement with the IRO for the resettlement of European DPs.
The migration of Ivan and Danila has to be considered in the context of Australian policy at the time. After WW2 Australian migration was driven by a “populate or perish” philosophy. Initially Australia focused on providing assisted passage to British ex-servicemen and their families. Later this was extended to other Europeans when Australia found it could not attract enough Britons. Assisted arrivals in Australia increased rapidly thereafter, reaching 120,000 by 1949 when Australia’s total population was still less than eight million.
Late 1940s poster promoting Australia to British families under the assisted migration program.
The most likely reason that Ivan and Danila chose Australia as their new home was that a prospective emigrant to Australia did not need to secure personal sponsorship from a relative or friend already resident in the country, or from a welfare society to provide guaranteed financial support and employment. Instead the Australian government itself took on this responsibility. This would have been more attractive than the stricter sponsorship requirements of the DP schemes already operating in the United States, Canada and various South American countries. As well some DPs favoured Australia precisely because it was so remote from Europe and its troubles.
In mid-1950 Ivan and Danila were moved from Gorizia to a DP camp outside Bremerhaven in Germany in preparation for the journey to Australia. Ivan later ecounted that even at this late stage he was considering Canada as an alternative destination but settled on Australia when he found other Slovenes from his district in the same DP camp who were already committed to going there.
Journey to Australia
The couple departed from Bremerhaven aboard the ship Fairsea on 16 July 1950. The Fairsea had already had an eventful career.
Originally built as a passenger and cargo vessel in 1941 she was converted into an escort aircraft carrier and then briefly served as a troop carrier after the war. She was converted for migrant service in 1949. In this role the ship provided only very basic accommodation for 1,800 passengers. As one of European DPs who travelled on her later recalled: “There were no cabins, just huge big open spaces with triple decked bunks, so cramped you couldn’t sit up straight in them. Men were assigned to one section, women to the other. The toilet and shower facilities were one huge long one, and everywhere you went there was an awful reek of bleach. People threw up because of the smell, not just the swell!”
The Fairsea arrived in Melbourne on 18 August 1950. From there Ivan and Danila were taken direct from dockside in special trains to the Department of Immigration Reception and Training Centre at Bonegilla on the NSW/Victorian border. As another migrant on that very same trip remembered:
“We disembarked from the Fairsea and went straight to Bonegilla by train. The trip was a slow one. I looked into the backyards of Melbourne homes, and then watched the landscape change as the train travelled into rugged bushland, and the hours rolled by.
Finally, we arrived at the Bonegilla railway siding. It was late at night and very cold. People’s names were read aloud. I was issued with canvas sheets and blankets, and was sent to a room full of army beds. Like the other migrants, my bed did not have a mattress, so I placed my sheets on the wire frame and wrapped myself tightly in the blankets to keep warm. The corrugated huts were unlined, and the gaps in the
floorboards were big enough to let in the cold draught.”
Bonegilla was one of a string of converted army camps used to house newly arrived migrants. During their stay at Bonegilla DPs were given a course of instruction in utilitarian English and the Australian way of life, so they could become good “New Australians”, as they were called.
The camp may have been primitive, but to Ivan and Danila Australia seemed like paradise after the deprivations of Europe. Ivan wrote to his mother and sister, Alma, from Bonegilla in late Sepeptember, just a few weeks after their arrival. The letter has survived. In his letter Ivan told his relatives back home:
“After 33 days of travelling we safely arrived in this lucky and beautiful and rich country of peace and freedom….I honestly tell you that thank God we have already had so much meat, ham, butter, honey, jam, eggs, milk, chocolate….With a heavy heart we eat all this while thinking of the hunger up there [in Europe]. Here we have heaven on Earth, it’s a pity we are not all here together. All goods are cheap. Let me give you a few examples: for one-day wages I can buy 40kg meat, 10kg butter, 8kg white flour or 40kg wholemeal flour, one pair of shoes and so on.
Nobody will believe this but that’s how it is. When we start working, which I hope will happen shortly, I will send Mother a parcel [of food and essentials] as I know she needs it.”
The assisted passage for Ivan and Danila to Australia did come with some conditions. All working age DPs undertook to remain in the employment found for them by the Government for a period of two years and their continued residence in Australia was subject to this undertaking. At the end of this period DPs effectively became permanent residents with the normal rights of Australian citizens to live and work where they chose. So the new arrivals were interviewed individually to assess their employment potential, within the limited range of the government’s intent. Men had been recruited to work as labourers and unskilled workers, women as domestics, nurses and typists. Generally, any professional qualifications and technical skills the DPs possessed were ignored.
Danila later recounted that she was selected to work as a domestic servant on a farming property somewhere in country NSW. Her worst fear – a rural life – seemed again in prospect. According to Danila she was saved because when interviewed to assess her suitability for the position she “played dumb” and was passed over.
Ivan used to tell a different story, however. He claimed that it was his English language skills (although these were minimal) and his time in the Royal Air Force during the war that determined their future. Ivan said he claimed he was a qualified cook in the R.A.F. (although he was never more than a trainee) and that it was on this basis that he and Danila were assigned to the recently opened Villawood Migrant Hostel in Sydney rather than sent to the country. However it happened it is true that Ivan ended up working at the
Hostel as a cook and Danila in a nearby factory. They left Bonegilla on 12 October 1950 Sydney bound.
Danila’s first job at a factory near Villawood, 1951.
Ivan’s cooking skills, however limited, would not have been tested too much in Villawood. Contemporary accounts] record many complaints from the Hostel’s residents about conditions, some even taking to writing to the Immigration Minister seeking his intervention. Accommodation was even more basic than at Bonegilla (the Australian movie Silver City, released in 1984, gives a good sense of life in a hostel for post-War European migrants).
Food was plentiful but generally of poor quality and completely alien to New Australians. Mutton and lamb – not a regular part of many Southern European diets — featured prominently at almost every meal.
To European tastes other staples, like local bread and cheese, were tasteless and boring.
There was also a complete absence of European speciality foods—no espresso coffee, salami, pasta, olives or olive oil. Ham and devon was the best on offer.
A particular complaint was that hostel residents were not allowed to prepare any food themselves, instead being compelled to rely on the canteen-style meals from the centralized kitchens which, ironically, was where Ivan worked.
Migrants no more
In October 1951 their first child, Daniel, was born. Six months later Ivan and Danila had managed to save
enough to move out of the Hostel to a share house in Guildford.
Ivan was determined to make it on his own terms and looked around for a business opportunity. Soon he found what he was looking for— his own fish shop.
The transition to becoming real New Australians was completed in November 1956 when Ivan and Danila were “naturalised” as Australian citizens. By then they had already adopted the name Maurice in the place of the Slovene form, Mavrič (also sometimes spelt as Maurič). Ivan later explained he made the name change because he and Danila grew tired of it being continually mispronounced. In any case, Australia was now their adopted country and their new home.