It is well known that the Macedonians are among the most patriotic people on the planet. The 1903 Ilinden Uprising is celebrated as the ultimate example of how the underdog can defeat an empire. Names like Goce Delčev, Pitu Guli and Dame Gruev are written about, sung about and even appear on the dining room walls of the most loyal nationalists in Australia. Suffice to say their history is their identity.
But what about closer to home? The history of our people in the luckiest country in the world? Ask a Macedonian-Australian about the heroes that paved the way for the many thousands of migrants that followed - that subsequently created lives filled with wealth and opportunity - and you’ll get a shrug. “Pa ne znam” they would say.
While I knew that members of my family were among the first waves to migrate here, the details surrounding their journeys were relatively unknown. But through the ever-fading memories of my grandmother, the release of records in the Australian national archives and a book containing a collection of interviews of Macedonian migrants in Newcastle, the story comes back to life almost a century later!
According to my grandmother, in the 1910s and early 1920s her paternal grandfather Dimitrija Stefanov and her eldest uncle Sotir travelled from the small village of Capari to work in Romania and France. Capari, as with many of the surrounding villages, was in nothing short of poverty and devastation. Living conditions, particularly through the harsh winters, were so bad that droves of men from the villages of Mount Pelister became “pečalbari” (expat workers) with the hopes of earning a few pounds to provide some comfort to their families. Some, like Dedo Dimitrija, would go on to selfishly forge a new life for themselves and never return. Most, however, would continue the struggle, doing everything possible to lift living standards for their loved ones.
So how does this link to Australia? Well, it was in Marseilles, France during 1924 that the opportunity arose for a group of Macedonian men to migrate to Sydney. This is detailed in the book Četvrta Generacija written by two Newcastle men deserving of great recognition, Blagoja Božinovski and Vlado Krstevski. Their epic publication contains an interview of a man called Lazo Porkov from Capari, who was part of the group in Marseilles, along with my great-great uncle Sotir Stefanov. Both shared a first cousin called Mitre Porkov who was also with them. This is my basic translation of the compelling interview outlining the sequence of events.
“Work in France was gruelling, we were unable to understand the French language and everywhere we went we were seen as strangers. People would look at us with great distrust, caution and unfriendliness. If we weren’t working, we stayed at home. We cooked our own food and we spent our free time playing games and telling jokes from the old country. Laughter helped pull our painful thoughts away from our homeland and our loved ones, even if just for a moment.
After a year in France, we dared to start venturing into the city. Those trips would fundamentally change our lives! By accident we encountered an agent that tried to convince us to move to a faraway land called Australia, where work was guaranteed to earn a decent pay of 2 or 3 pounds a day. A land where houses were free and many other wonderful things that we could only dream about.
And so, for the following days we continued to dream about this great land of sweetness and joy, the land free of labour and toil. Soon after, we started searching for the agent that was recruiting the workers for Australia. The agent sorted our documentation over two weeks, and we were required to pay a fee of almost the full amount of money we had saved over the course of the year. We were left with but a few coins in our pockets. But we were happy because on the ship we would be well kept and even better, well fed.
"Čaj za poruček, čaj za ruček, čaj za večera. Sekoj vtor den dobivavme edno parče dvopek samo duša da krepime"
How they cheated us! How they lied! The ship to take us on the journey belonged to a poorly managed French company. Isolated in the harbour it broke down and we were forced to wait a further 2 days to leave. Once we set sail, the wonderful food we had dreamt about didn’t exist. In a big metal barrel they brewed tea. Tea for breakfast, tea for lunch, tea for dinner. Every second day we received a small rusk just to keep our bodies and souls alive. When we finally arrived in Sydney after 10 weeks of voyage, we were all skin and bones.
Reading this, I felt compelled to dig a little deeper into the details around this journey and by stroke of luck I found the original ship manifest released by the National Archives. The manifest listed all the Yugoslav passengers aboard the ship that docked in Sydney on 19 August 1924. Confirming Lazo Porkov's account, the French ship was called "Ville de Verdun", upon which the 40 Yugoslav men embarked at the port of Marseilles. The list contains "Lazar Porcowitch", "Mitar Porcowitch", "Sotir Stefanovitch" and many other misspelt surnames distinctly from Capari and Gjavato.
According to the agent’s instructions we were to expect someone at the port to welcome us and provide us with a room and work. Nothing of that transpired. We waited for two days but no one came looking for us. For another two weeks we camped out in the parks of the city not knowing where to go or what to do.
Then something incredible happened. Two people approached us out of curiosity and introduced themselves. They were Armenians and we were somehow able to understand each other. (NB the Armenians migrated in large numbers to Marseilles. One of the group may have worked previously with Armenians and was able to communicate with them, or the Armenians were able to converse in Russian, therefore somewhat intelligible to the Slavic Macedonians) They accepted to help us. We moved into one of their homes, essentially a shed, and stayed there a further week and looked for work during that time. We had heard that jobs out in the bush were well paid, either felling trees or producing oil from eucalyptus leaves. We were prepared to do anything, so long as we were paid.
We eventually found work at a quarry approximately 160km from Sydney (the notes of the interview highlight that the quarry was in Mudgee NSW). We housed ourselves under the open sky. The stars were our ceiling since we hadn’t had the time to organise ourselves and find our feet. The place was frightening and us Macedonians tried to stay close to one another. The workers were separated into groups and each had a young boy that brought us water to drink, clean the site, handed us tools etc. Mentally, we had underestimated the level of exertion required and believed we were severely underpaid for the work. I was youngest in my group and while we worked my older colleagues would often throw ridicule at me.”
At this point of the interview I’m reminded of a poem called Denovi written by Macedonian poet Kosta Racin. It portrays the grim life of a labourer and how the days begin with joy yet slowly end with sorrow. The work is soul destroying, but with each new day comes a renewed sense of hope.
“Denovi li se – denovi
Agratski maki golemi!
Stani si utre porano
Dojdi si večer podocna
Nautro radost ponesi
Navečer taga donesi”
However, things seem to start looking up for the crew.
Together we bought a hut for only 7 liri so that we would at least have a roof over our heads. Work at the quarry ceased after 9 months and we were forced to return to Sydney. The hut we had purchased was left behind since there was no one interested in buying it from us. However, this time our stay in Sydney was much easier since we had made more friends. Sydney nightlife, with its many betting clubs and bars, was both tempting and fun.
As time went by, the men became more confident in living the Australian way of life and had the courage to individually seek out their own endeavours. Lazo would go on to Newcastle opening up a mixed business and working in the steelworks. Mitre eventually settled in the inner west of Sydney and opened a fruit and veg grocer in Leichhardt near Lilyfield Rd.
Sotir Stefanov with neice Ivanka Acev-Brdar at his milk bar in Dulwich Hill 1956
Sotir would travel back and forth from Sydney to Capari at least another two times in the period before WWII. He would work at a quarry in Attunga near Tamworth in regional NSW, followed by the Newcastle and Port Kembla steelworks, and finally open a milk bar on Marrickville Rd in Dulwich Hill. The story of the poor Stefanov family in Capari is deserving of its own post, but Sotir was the man that would lead the way to Australia for his brothers (Mijal and my great grandfather Gjorgi) in the 1930s, and the rest of our large family in the decades post WWII.
In short, if there were ever a story of shattered hopes and dreams, hunger, disappointments, toil and struggle - but a story of great resilience with the power to push forward in the face of adversity - then this would be it. The agent in Marseilles may have been a hustler and a crook, but he conned these men into the best decision of their lives - and their descendants in sunny Australia would be the first to attest!