Some months back a chance conversation with a Gap lady I have know for a number of years, mentioned just a snippet of her life story and of her Mum’s stay in our suburb and the planting of a ‘bottle tree’ on her Mum and stepdad’s farm, which in future years led to the naming of Bottletree Place, off Kaloma Road. Meeting up with her mother Maria, who turned 80 in 2005, I was spellbound during our conversation of four hours as I wrote of her interesting life and changing times, and of her mother Anastasia, and her belief in a Ukranian tradition. This is a story of one strong, independant Ukranian farm girl.
It was All Saint’s Day, the 21st September 1925, that Maria was born, the eldest child to parents Trofin and Anastasia Jurchenko, who lived in the village of Topelni of Cherkassy, country of Russian Ukraine. Eventually to have a family of 10 children, five boys and five girls, Maria’s parents lived on a small half acre farmlet in virtually a one room dwelling, with a small underground cellarlike room at the rear, into which (as was the custom back then, and still is to this day in many poor areas) where food was stored, including containers of all types of pickled foods.
The one room living and sleeping area comprised a stove for cooking and baking bread, while the bed was a layer of straw. All the land was given over to the growing of vegetables such as cabbage, beetroot, carrots, large radish and pumpkins which was fodder for the pigs. The farm also housed a small chicken coop with about one dozen chickens, which were allowed to free-range together with a milking cow and as many fruit trees as would fit.
Anastasia was a dab hand at the preservation of foods to sustain the family during the severe winters when produce would not grow. It was in this impoverished, yet happy and loving family, that a young Maria grew up. At an early age Maria attended playgroup and at eight years of age, attended the local school where she remained until 1940. Memories of her childhood she recalls include going with her family to a pool to splash around in summer, although she never mastered swimming and when the pool had frozen over in the winter, the wonderful thrill of ice-skating and climbing the snow covered slopes to sledge back down.
Trofin’s neighbours all lived on a half acre of land, which was originally a large farm which, following the Russian Revolution, was taken over and converted into two collectives, each being organised and run by seven men of the village, who were known as Brigadiers and were responsible for the success of the group. Trofin held the position as Brigadier for the allocation of labour and each morning he was up early and calling at the various homes of his group, telling them which field to go to and their requirements for that day. No money was exchanged for the work and most crops were sent east to feed the bigger towns in Russia, where the produce was sold. In this way the country rulers were to keep the peasant farmers completely under their strict regime, with no hope of ‘improving their lot’.
From the age of 12, children were expected to attend the collective after school and during all holidays, picking strawberries and gathering crops and grain and helping out in many ways. Their reward was to take what was given (never money), sometimes one kilogram of grain for a day’s work which was gratefully received into the household. Sometimes it was a three mile walk to the allocated work site and the Government authorities were very strict.
When Germany declared war in Europe, at the outbreak of World War II, and their subsequent drive to the west, saw a division of the Russian army arrive in the village at the end of June, 1941, which was during the summer, to help defend the homeland when the German army turned their wrath in that direction.
The village was expected to provide food to the army which caused great rationing of what was available and all this was to change dramatically when a fortnight later, the German army, with all their might, loomed not far away. Villagers retreated underground into their food cellars and as the Russian division fought to defend the village, they were completely overrun, with 700 Russian soldiers killed and many more shot as they tried to retreat. All the villagers were rounded up and were to witness what few Russian soldiers were left, seated as POWs sitting in a circle under guard.
Many town folk and soldiers were to be removed, never to be seen again. The Germans simply took whatever they needed from the villagers, taking chickens for their own use and Maria saw their young heifer shot and taken away for meat and still marvels at how her mother managed to feed her family at all. The onset of winter was to see the German army unprepared for the harsh cold and all the men of the village had their warm winter coats confiscated to enable the German troops to stave off the biting cold – Trofin had his one and only warm coat which he had owned for many years taken from him. Many local men and women had been sent by train to work in factories or camps in Germany and in the spring of 1942, it was announced to the village that all boys and girls 16 years of age and over, were to assemble and then taken to labour camps. It was time for Maria to leave her home.
Anastasia, realising she was about to lose her eldest child evoked an old tradition which she believed could see into what lay ahead. This involved a mother placing her shoes on the floor and secretly placing a small chip from the family hearth into one of the shoes. The departing child was then summoned to select a shoe. Should the shoe with the chip be chosen, it meant a departure for a better life and the return to the family hearth in the future. Maria picked the shoe containing the chip.
The great sadness of Maria’s departure the following day, and her trip in the cattle train to the labour camp so far away, was eased in her mother’s heart in her faith in the prediction she had for Maria’s future. On her arrival at the labour camp Maria was to go through the sorting process of where to be sent and her life as a hard working farm girl saw her having a cloth sign placed on her dress with the word OST (meaning Soviet Union) and she allocated to work on a German village farm at Mullschulben of Bergin.
This was a well laid out property with the male workers being kept in a building under guard when not in the field. Maria worked for the German family both in the home and on the farm, from morning to night. She was well treated, becoming almost a family member, having her meals with them, being given warm clothing and plenty of food, mostly potato.
Each Sunday afternoon she was accorded a three hour break and she took to roaming the area and through one of these respites, she was to meet a young lad, Jack Dowgal, a charming Ukranian gypsy who worked in the neighbouring farm’s labour group. He swept Maria off her feet and she fell pregnant, which could prove a disaster as many girls in a similar position were simply sent to prison and disappeared.
When Maria could keep her secret no longer and confided in her lady employer, she was treated like the family member she had become. They kept her out of view, especially during the latter stages and was taken to a hospital at Uelzen, a place 30 miles from the farm, where she and the family were not known.
Maria was to give birth to Vera on 21st April 1944 at a time when the United States’ aircraft were raining bombs on the nearby railway station. Maria still has a chuckle in telling how the bed would move as each bomb hit and exploded, and not knowing whether this assisted the birth or if the hospital would be hit. Years later, Vera was told that the day prior to her birth was Hitler’s birthday, the 20th April, and the Yanks had decided to give the city of Uelzen a super rain of bombs as a ‘birthday present’.
After a week, she and baby Vera were collected and taken back with the family where they guarded and treated Vera as their grandchild. Life continued on with Maria and Jack only seeing each other occasionally but dreaming of a time when they would be free and they could start their life together as a family.
In 1945 Allied soldiers had the German army in retreat and as the American army visited the Mullschulben of Bergin farm as liberators, they gave out small gifts. Vera, now a toddler, was given her first chocolate bar, which she was was quick to devour and covered her face and clothes in the treat – she also experienced a good dose of diarrhoea. Maria was given a carton of “Camel” cigarettes – 10 packets each containing 20 cigarettes – and she felt on top of the world.
A German soldier who had been hiding out came to the farm seeking food, he was travelling back to his wife and family in a village days away. He was given food and in order to prevent him causing any trouble and reporting the set up to local authorities, Maria was instructed to also give him a packet of her treasured Camels to speed him on his way.
On liberation and the end of hostilities, Jack came to stay with them and after a few weeks he and Maria decided they did not wish to return to the region of Russia and planned to travel to Holland and join other refugees there. Little did they know as they set off by train on the 26 June 1945 that years of travel and problems lay ahead before they settled.
After about 70 miles the train ground to a halt. A huge river and no bridge saw the travellers all disembarked and going down a slope to what had been a military barracks, now completely deserted and devoid of everything, just utterly empty. Carrying very little food with them, hunger became a worry and men and women scoured the area for anything that could be eaten. The group felt they had been forgotten.
In the second week a German farmer who had taken over a deserted farm and was desperate for workers took them all to work on the property, bringing in the crops, cutting the hay and with ample food, their spirits were lifted.
A month later and as the Americans controlled that sector of Germany they were in, they were anxious to seek out those who were true refugees, those who were to be returned to their own homeland and those who wanted a new life far away from conflict, in a new land. In a truck this time, Jack, Maria and Vera arrived at a displaced persons camp at Munster/Largen.
It was here their new Identity documents were prepared. Where Maria lived in Topelni before 1938 was classed as Russian/Ukraine and having no wish to return, her documents were marked Polish/ Ukraine. On hearing that only families were being sent on to Hanover for further processing, Jack and Maria became husband and wife in a civil ceremony conducted in the Camp office.
From the Camp in Munster/Largen they were transferred to Hanover, with 5000 in a camp. All amentities and food were supplied by America and they were well looked after. From 1947 the Camp was operated by the new German government in conjunction with the United Nations Refugee Organisation.
Allowed to move around freely, awaiting a trip to the magic ‘somewhere’, they were able to get small jobs and on a few occasions Maria took Vera on a train trip back to visit her guardian at the old prison/farm and was treated with much love and respect, returning back to Hanover with small treats, vegetables etc.
In 1948 Canada and England were taking only single individuals and married (childless) couples; Australia was accepting single individuals and married couple with one child, while France accepted single individuals and families, and even those suffering TB. Mexico, Argentina and Brazil were more generous and took the larger families.
So Jack and Maria decided that their particular magic ‘somewhere’ was to be Australia, where they hoped to make their future home. All were required to pass the medical, including the dreaded x-ray for TB.
Sharing the dormitory at the time was a family who were also hoping to get to Australia, however their small girl, a playmate to Vera and of the same age, failed her TB x-ray and was called back for a further test. This time the girl’s father took Vera in her place and with a negative result, they were accepted. In writing this story I can but feel ‘desperate times required desperate measures’.
On 5 August 1948, the men were sent on ahead to Australia. Jack departed from Vollen Bosfal and on arrival in Melbourne was sent to the Bonegilla Training Centre and was given a two year contract with the Forrestry Departent at Meandu Creek, via Yarraman, Queensland. Given a train ticket, this long journey must have caused great fear in Jack’s mind as he travelled so far in a strange land. He must have made himself at home and longed for his family to join him. On the 10 February 1949 Jack received a letter in Yarraman advising him that his application to bring Maria and Vera to Australia had been approved, subject to another medical examination.
Things moved quickly from then as Maria and Vera were transferred to Naples, Italy and on 17 March 1949, they departed on the American S.S. General Stewart, landing in Melbourne on 13 April 1949. After having spent a month at the Bonegilla Training Centre they also travelled to Queensland by train, to be met by Jack at the South Brisbane Station, and from there to a room he had rented for 25/- ($2.50) per week at No. 53 Petersen Street, South Brisbane.
Time to be spent working for authorities was not strictly adhered to, labour was short here in Brisbane and he had obtained work in a furniture factory at Woolloongabba while Maria took on housekeeping. As required then under the Alien’s Act 1947, the reporting in their Certificate of Registration shows them moving to 837 Stanley Street, 70 Annerley Road and 11 Hancock Street, South Brisbane, all in the space of three years.
As a Ukrainian gypsy, Jack had spent a lot of time in his youth with a dance group, performing folk dances and his newfound freedom saw him give full vent to his drinking and gambling habit and his family were to bear the brunt of his good times, with Maria working up to three jobs at a time to meet their living expenses, as he contributed very little. The crunch came near the end of 1953 when he moved away to work in Mount Isa and became a good time, single guy.
During 1954 Maria met up with a fellow Ukranian refugee who arrived as a 41 year old in Australia, in October of 1950. Iwan Sanin (John) had risen from poverty in Russia where had been a truck driver on long haulage jobs, becoming a very good mechanic, welder and good with his hands, as he was seldom near service stations on these trips. By 1954 he was working as a boiler-maker with the Brisbane City Council, a job he held until an on site injury caused his retirement.
At the time of meeting Maria, a workmate had told him of eight acres of land at Kaloma Road, The Gap which was on the market. The land was situated opposite the site where Hilder Road State School now stands, and ran west from Kaloma Road to Hilder Road.
A friend of John from the Council Parks Dept. was to provide him with a number of trees to plant on the property, including coffee shrubs, Norfolk Pines and also the Bottle tree which today stands as a tribute to them in the now named, Bottle Tree Place.
A number of long standing Gap residents recall this hard working couple and as John continued his job with Council, Maria got her house veggie patch underway and was soon busy producing her conserves and had a small poultry set-up of 3000 hens, producing eggs for supply firstly to the Co-op and later the Queensland Egg Marketing Board. John was a very hard working man who firmly believed in accumulating property and acquired over time three houses on the southside, including the one where Maria now lives after they sold their property here in The Gap in 1967 for the princely sum of $21,000. Since that sale until his death, John often lamented that he should have waited to sell, when much higher prices were being achieved for homes and property in our suburb.
Once again Maria adjusted to a life away from a farm and soon had many friends calling, many of whom were fellow countrymen and women who now called Brisbane home. John was still working with the Council. John was to have a bad fall at work which placed him on compensation for a period of two years, after which he was paid out.
In 1972, with the easing of many restrictions within the Soviet Union by the (then) leader, Maria decided to write to any family member at her old address and one day, not too long after, was to get a reply from her Dad with lots of family news plus the fact she had long been given up for dead. Only her mother had remained resolute and strong that the tradition of the chip in the shoe, would return their daughter to their hearth.
In 1973, Maria, after obtaining permission from the Dept. of Immigration and receiving an Australian Passport, travelled back to the country of her birth. John did not accompany Maria as it was deemed to be unsafe for him to return as he had been captured by the Germans and subsequently been a prisoner of war.
In fact John never accompanied Maria on any of her visits home. It is a sad story that certain men in the Russian Army were required to shoot any of their men, should they try to flee from a skirmish, one was expected to fight to the death. If captured, it was considered a cowardly act and any POW returning home found their family and themselves shifted nborth to inhospitable areas where the rigours of work and climate greatly reduced their life expectancy to around 10 years. Had John returned, he could have expected to have been “arrested”.
After arriving back in Topelni, the warm and emotional reunion can only be imagined by our readers, as Anastasia rejoiced at her daughter’s homecoming. In 1942 when Maria departed, her younger brother had not yet been born. On her return 31 years later, Maria was to meet her brother for the very first time.
Even in 1973, the use of cameras was strictly forbidden with the only photographs allowed were those taken by officially sanctioned photographers. Photographs I have had the honour of viewing clearly shows the joy on the faces of Maria and her family.
Maria visited her family on subsequent visits in 1973,75,77 and 1981. The visit in 1975 coincided with her parents 50th wedding anniversary.
Maria, living alone and not in the best of health, has her family in Topelni always in her mind. Since her first visit home she continues to send food and clothing parcels – after purchasing groceries suitable to be sent, together with useful clothing, they are combined into large parcels which she wraps in calico and lovingly stitches closed, before applying the destination address and awaiting the freight forwarding company. An expensive exercise and a continual exercise, as one shipment leaves she is preparing another and find it difficult to understand the food shortages experienced in the land of her birth.
Maria’s first husband, Vera’s father, was to pass away in the Townsville Base Hospital. He had mentioned to a nursing Sister the fact that his daughter was a nurse and she was traced through the Nursing Register. Jack had passed on by the time she arrived in Townsville from Brisbane. With assistance from staff, she arranged and attended his funeral service which was conducted by a Salvation Army Chaplain.
Jack and Maria’s daughter Vera, after completing her secondary education, went on to become a registered nurse and on becoming Mrs. Bill Horsham, in 1967 they moved to The Gap and were well respected in our local area. Bill and Vera had a son Michael and daughter Debby who both attended our local schools. Although moving to Margate in 2002 in semi-retirement, Vera remains a member of The Gap Garden Club and she and Bill still attend local functions. Vera delights in the visits from her two grandchildren and regularly attends to the needs of her mother Maria.
Source: Reflections 3, Memories of The Gap, © Copyright 2006 by Richard Speechley