When I was born in Sydney in 1960, my grandfather, like many Australians his age, called Yugoslavs Balts. Even though Yugoslavia was nowhere near the Baltic, Balt appears to have been a generic term for Europeans who emigrated here after World War 2 from countries Australians weren’t familiar with.
I spent most of my earlier years dodging questions of nationality.
'Excuse me, are you from Ukraine?'
'Do you come from Austria?'
‘It says on my adoption papers: Nationality of mother, Yugoslavian.’
‘That country that doesn’t exist anymore in which they slaughtered each other with unspeakable ferocity?’
‘Yep, that’s the one.’
‘Not surprised we couldn’t guess then.’
When I met my birth mother Silvana in 1989, I not unnaturally asked her which part of Yugoslavia she came from.
‘Croatia,’ she said.
Fine. It was when I asked her which part of Croatia, that I discovered I was not the unparalleled researcher I thought I was.
‘My mother’s name was Mikatović’, she told me, ‘And she came from a village near Novigrad.’
Ah, yes, but which one?
The internet didn’t exist for us in the early 1990’s, so I had no way of knowing that Croatia boasted no less than four Novigrads: Novigrad na Dobri, Novigrad Podravski, Novigrad near Zadar, and Novigrad in Istria. How could I know which out of the mix was Silvana’s when the name seemed so popular and the border changes in Europe so frequent?
Had I not caught the research bug at an early age, I might have been more content. I’m the sort of person who stares for years at a photo of a relative snatched from me by death as if, by concentrating my intensity on the faded image, I can bring them back to life and invite them to dinner. History to me is not so much real, as immediate. Logically I know that dead relatives can’t drop in for a meal, but it doesn’t stop me hoping, for I always think that they must be alive somewhere and readily accessible by invitation.
Frustrated by this need for resurrection, perhaps I lived in another world, but I was definitely tongue-tied in the presence of Silvana. I listened more than I interrogated, and I seemed to recall the name Trieste popping up now and again as she was speaking. In those days, I hadn’t really heard of the city, but one of my friends who had been a boy in London during the Blitz and who played the trombone, fancied that Trieste might have once been a free port. We were a bit vague about it, and so the years went by.
An entire decade later, ‘near Novigrad, near Trieste, the free port’ was as far as I had got. This wasn’t for want of trying. I grew up with my adopted family in which everybody talked about oral history all the time. My parents, my grandparents, uncles, aunts, rogue relatives. Everyone. And that’s what I expected from Silvana, not the brick wall I was bashing my nose against. Asked about her past, she would simply reply, ‘it’s too sad.’ My siblings who had grown up with her barely knew any more than I did, aside from the regular arrival of a postcard from Florence, Bolzano or Udine where Silvana’s family had lived after the war. As my brother said, ‘We had a mother with an accent without a reason.’
Sad or not, Silvana was a ‘today-is-the-first-day-of-the-rest-of-my-life’ sort of person. She rarely looked back. She liked ancient, not modern, history, particularly not her own modern history. Without regret, she abandoned the poverty and destruction of post war Europe for Australia, and declared herself an Australian from the minute she stepped off the ship in 1950.
‘I was very happy here,’ she confessed. ‘I sailed into Sydney Harbour and decided I liked it straight away.’
The single thing that took the shine off Australia was spending almost the entire 1950’s pregnant, including me, because I was born in January 1960. When the adoption reunion with my remaining siblings finally took place in 2002, Silvana was 82 and age had not wearied her. The family history was still packed away in moth balls.
She died in 2020, two months short of 100, and in those final ten years, a softening at last began to stir pleasant memories of her earliest days. Not when you demanded information from her, but just as the fancy occurred, on a stroll, over coffee, when some small treasure in an antique window recalled a childhood happiness.
Little did she know that close behind her, armed with a pencil and note pad, lurked my sister. Lynne had to be sneaky – I think she might have been caught red-handed at one stage by her irate mother – but the result was 70 small pages of notes and drawings with which we were able to compile Silvana’s memoirs. It is a priceless document of identity and belonging that is much valued within the family.
Now we had our information and, from it, we found out that Silvana’s village was situated near Poreć in Istria. Unlike Novigrad, there's only one Poreć. FamilySearch.com considerately photographed all the church books in the villages around it and I was able to find the birth certificate of Silvana's mother Dolores in Tar, Torre, or Turris, depending on which language you prefer, Croatian, Venetian or Latin.
Silvana, then, was born in 1920 in Tar in Istria, which today is a region of Croatia. Istria, or Istra, comes from the Greek word for the Danube River, Ister, and has belonged to a number of different nations over the centuries. Even today it appears perplexed, sticking out into the Adriatic as if it is not sure which one it wants to join.
Silvana’s own mindset seemed regional to me, not national.
‘We were Austrian,’ she said, ‘then Austria lost the war. Then we were Italian, and Italy lost the war.’
She spoke of ‘our village’, ‘our family’ and ‘of going to Trieste.’ She grew up with stories from her grandfather about ‘our family name’ that ‘was the same as that of an island off the south Dalmatian coast’, about her grandmother who ran away from home to escape a drunken father when ‘home’ was ‘a hundred miles north of Tar, near the border with Austria’, probably in Slovenia.
Should you find yourself in a similar position to us, where a previously dormant relative blossoms toward the end of their life and, like Silvana, becomes a garden of precious stories, don’t even stop to sharpen the pencil. Write them down. Immediately.