HELENA LEBER nee VAN de LAAK“I was born Helena Rebula, in Senožeče, Slovenia in 1941 (at that time the area was under Italian rule).

My Mother, Terezija, rojena Šturm, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Antonija Zadel, and Jernej Šturm.

After the First World War they returned to Slovenia with 3 children. One son, Toni, returned to America before the Second World War started. The family extended to 11 children. During the War the children were conscripted into the Italian Army, serving in Libia, where uncle Andrej lost his life.

Other uncles and aunts joined the Partisan Army.

Grandfather Jernej was therefore taken by the Germans to Matthausen concentration camp where he died in the crematorium.

His youngest son, my uncle Joseph, was shot at Vrhnika, near Ljubljana, aged 16 years.

My own Father Edvard, was also in a concentration camp in Germany, while all my aunties, and Grandmother, were in Italian camp in Gonars.

After the war we started living again, although sadly with so many family members missing.

My twin sisters were born in 1946. Due to so many houses having been burnt, bombed and demolished, there was no room at my parent’s house, I was taken to my Grandmother’s house and lived with her until I was old enough to go a boarding school in Postojna.

I had always wished to study medicine, just like my brother who became an environmental scientist.

But I was told, by my Father, that as he could not support my schooling, I was to take a paying job.

My Father’s words of reasoning were:

‘You don’t need to waste years studying’. My profession – hairdressing – saved my life in the German camp by using scissors and comb, to make the officers and prisoners presentable. Therefore they fed me and kept me clean. So, I was able to return home safely.  If you can make people look good, they will feel good without the use of doctors’ injections.

The required two year apprenticeship opened doors, and later my survival, until my aunt Marija and her husband, uncle Janez invited me to join them in Australia in 1958.

As a 17-year-old girl, I went by myself, with one English Pound in my purse, by bus to Trieste, and train to Genoa, than boarded the refugee ship Oceania in the port.

I shared the space in the hull, on the bottom of the ship, with 33 other females.

I was violently ill with seasickness. To pass this time, I did women’s hair, which brought me the attention of the officers. They asked me to transfer to the top part of the ship, where all the first class passengers were. They needed a hairdresser, as the original professional one was ill. I was not paid, but was given a meal ticket and some good tips.

Once in Australia, I felt privileged that my suitcase was carried by porter to the exiting door, so I gave him a good tip, which was my original English Pound (my only money!).

With the money from tips working on the ship, I bought a lottery ticket. Miraculously, I won! There was enough money to repay the whole amount of my fare to Australia.

I arrived on November 29th, which was the Ex-Yugoslavian Special Day, that celebrated the Birth of the Yugoslavian Federation.  A large group of people was gathered in the Port of Melbourne, to celebrated the freedom from the Communist Regime. However, I didn’t know that and I asked my aunt to take me to the gathering, which was celebrating the Birth of Communist Yugoslavia. Immediately half of the people disappeared as they presumed I was a Communist spy.

It took some time to calm the atmosphere and clear my teenage ignorance.

However, I needed to find job. My aunty took me to a wool factory, where she worked as a machinist. I stayed for the long week until I could not stomach the repetitive work and my English was minimal.

I told my aunty, that I would look for a job in my profession. Ha, ha, ha! Without English it was going to be difficult!

Every hairdressing shop on Sydney Road, Coburg and Brunswick, was visited, until an Italian owner took pity on me (I knew some Italian language). I started working 7 days per week for half the normal wage, because I had no Australian Certificate.

A client, a lady doctor, directed me to the Hairdressing Board, where I applied for exams and passed.

I had been invited by an Australian girl Margaret to attend the Australian Saturday night social dances at Coburg Town Hall.

There, I was introduced to other Slovenian refugees in Melbourne, began to attend the church (St Francis in the city, followed by St Bridget in Brunswick) and social gatherings, such as dances in Prahran and Kensington Town Halls.

I became a member of the Theatre Group and participated in several dramas and comedies.

At that time I was also very involved in forming a new life by getting married in 1960 to a Dutch migrant Pierre. We had 3 children: Adrian, and twins, Pierre Jnr. and Angelique.

As a family we participated in the events of Slovenians in Victoria, as well as those in the Dutch community.

The members of the Slovenian community formed many social, cultural, sporting and recreational groups, meeting at numerous picnics, dances, multicultural festivals – all these led to the formation of Slovenian clubs in Melbourne.

More details are presented in the other web pages, as introducing the first Slovenian language radio programs on 3EA, 3ZZ and SBS, first Slovenian tabor – festival, all clubs’ organization Council of  Slovenian Organisations of Victoria, and later followed the Slovenian National Council, the Welfare organization and Mother Romana Home.“

Helena Leber

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