“A 20th Century Personal Journey of Love and Suffering For Croatia”
Mojmir Damjanovic passed away at 96 years of age on 10 November 2016 in Sydney Australia – he was my friend.
For Mojmir life began soon after the end of World War I, when Croatia was torn away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and unwillingly forced into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia).
Born in Blato on the island of Korcula in Croatia on August 7, 1920 Mojmir was the seventh child born to Anton and Vica. He was raised in a poor, working and authentically loving Croatian family. He said many times in his later, very prosperous life: “Our house was a house of poor people, but filled with mutual love and respect.”
Political stand had always occupied a very large space in Mojmir’s life and it was political turmoils just at the brink of World War II that saw Mojmir flee his beloved Croatia, forging a life path that would be memorable, fruitful and above all exemplary of humanity and human compassion. For there was never a single person who came at his door asking for help or a single person Mojmir met in the streets needing help that Mojmir did not help. “No questions asked” – was Mojmir’s motto in helping someone in need.
Love for Croatia, the independent Croatia, was almost more important than the daily bread in his childhood home as his father, an honest and decent man, was an ardent follower of Stjepan Radic (1871-1928) – the man whose political policies promoted love for Croatia and the Croatian people. Anton, and then his son Mojmir, always promoted freedom of Croatia, which proved to be very dangerous for Mojmir during his young life in Croatia, ravaged at the time by the dictatorship of the Serbian Monarchy and then after World War II by the Yugoslav communists.
A misfortune of incalculable gravity struck young 12-year-old Mojmir when his father died suddenly from a sudden infectious disease. His role in helping his mother at the family small farming fields suddenly became a heavier burden – but the boy Mojmir persisted, almost competing with himself to help and please his struggling mother. Mojmir, though, soon realised that after his father’s death he could accept anything except living in Blato.
Barely fifteen years old he headed to the nearby bay of Prigradica, caught the boat to the town of Korcula where he would spend a couple of years as apprentice waiter at a local hotel. The little money he did earn as apprentice was almost all sent to his struggling mother in Blato in order to ease her burden harsh poverty brought about. There he found his first love Lucy but that wasn’t to be – youth had many pulls and one of Mojmir’s was to give up fighting for his first love, to give up waiting for her to become of age – and go and pursue his dream, which was to conquer the poverty he was born into.
Mojmir had by now proven that adversity had not been stronger than him – he would take adversity on and shape it into a better future.
And so at the ripe age of 17, although heartbroken, the strong desire to progress in life, the desire for a better life and better opportunities led him in 1938 to leave the island of Korcula and work at a hotel in Herceg Novi near Dubrovnik and then in 1939 to hotel “Mlini” in Dubrovnik where he earned a higher wage than he could even imagine while on the island of Korcula. He could now help his mother in Blato and save some money for his future.
Mojmir’s will to succeed and better himslef soon, in the same year of 1939, saw him head for Croatia’s capital Zagreb where he found a job as a waiter with a wage that continued to impress him and surpass the dreams of the boy born into poverty in a big village on a not too big an island in Croatia. This was the moment in Croatia’s tortured history when Croatia became an autonomous province – known as Banate of Croatia – within the oppressive and cruel Kingdom of Yugoslavia under the Serbian Monarchy. Mojmir hoped that the establishment of the Banate or autonomous province would be a path through which Croatia would achieve its long-desired independence and freedom. But, Croatia was mercilessly torn apart internally by the communist movement whose goal was far from a free and independent Croatia. Forces against the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and subordination in Croatia to the Serbian King were also tearing Croatia apart. All this political turmoil and distress threatening further reductions of freedom in Croatia caught Mojmir and many like him who had always stood for a free Croatia in a swell of unrest.
In the early months of 1941 Mojmir like many of his generation joined the “Ustashe Youth” movement in Croatia – the movement that had independent Croatia as its primary and the only goal for the country as a whole. But, shock was to hit him soon after when he discovered in May 1941 that the Ustashe movement for independent Croatia had agreed to the crowning in Rome of the Italian Prince Aimone, 4th Duke of Aosta, House of Savoy, as King Tomislav II of Croatia. Mojmir saw this crowning as betrayal of the Croatian people and it was more than he could stand and watch unfolding – almost immediately in June 1941 he sought to flee that homeland he loved and the closest destination from where he stood was Vienna, Austria.
Vienna greeted him in August 1941 with the dazzling, the bright, and the light but also the strange sensations – he used to say. He walked right into a job there in a factory making airplane parts and never missed a month sending money to his mother in Blato who depended entirely on his help. It was in 1942 that he found a job as a waiter in “Mein Stube” restaurant in Vienna – a place where Austrian and German elite met, ate and socialised and the place that, for ease of local pronunciation, gave him a Germanised name “Fritz”.
Immediately after World War II ended in May 1945 Mojmir decided to go and visit his mother in Blato, Croatia. He rode on the “Allied forces train” from Vienna through southern Austria and Slovenia into Croatia and saw with his own eyes the horrors of thousands of slaughtered, massacred innocent Croatian bodies, strewn across the fields and over the many shrubs at and around the Bleiburg field. Breath stopped in his throat – he could not even imagine horrors of these proportions, let alone see them. These horrors of communist crimes he never forgot and they followed him all his life, welling tears of pain into his eyes as easily as the rain falls, forever making his love for Croatia stronger and stronger.
The local operatives communist “people’s power” took him in for questioning as soon as he arrived in Blato; they considered him an enemy of the communist Yugoslav state – he had lived in Austria during the war and was in heart and mind a follower of the Croatian independence Radic movement, just as his father used to be. He was expedited to Dubrovnik for further questioning or better said – interrogation or inquisition by communists whose only aim was to purge Croatia of those who did not agree with communism. He soon discovered that local Blato communist men were planning to kill him during the night of his return to Blato from Dubrovnik. He’d heard such purges were frequent under the new communist regime, he’d seen the deaths at and he swiftly fled Blato. He planned to return to Vienna but was caught and arrested while on the train through Slovenia towards Austria by the communist operatives who did not tolerate Mojmir’s identification as Croat rather than Yugoslav.
He committed no crime but still found himself in the Yugoslav communist prison at Maribor in Slovenia where he was tortured, humiliated and kept hungry for several months. When released via intervention of local friend he needed three months to recover – he was so beaten and exhausted from torture by the communists.
In the early months of 1946, hiding and looking behind his shoulders in fear of being caught again by the communists, he managed to smuggle himself back to Vienna – where he joined Hilda and his son Peter and lived with them to the beginning of 1947 when Hilda left to live with her parents and took Peter with her.
In 1949 while still in Vienna he married Diana, whose father was a Jew and mother a Catholic, whose father and sister perished in Nazi Concentration camps – Auschwitz and Mauthausen. Fleeing Austria with Diana, making sure he left adequate money to provide for his son Peter’s education in Austria, after spending brief time at a refugee camp in Germany Mojmir and Diana sailed from Germany in January 1951 for Australia. Mojmir was determined to start a new life and beat poverty, yet again. Soon after arriving in Melbourne they were directed to the refugee camp Bonegilla, near Albury at the border between Victoria and New South Wales, from where Mojmir went to work as labourer at the well known Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. Within months, as Diana preferred living in a city, he said, they were transferred to the Sydney’s Villawood refugee camp from where they both worked in factories, creating a new life but never without yearning for his homeland Croatia and never without sending money to his mother in Blato so she too could live the new life he was creating.
By 1952 Mojmir and Diana had saved enough money to try in their new country Australia their luck at that which Mojmir knew best from his childhood – farming. He worked the farm and grew tomatoes on someone else’s land at the outskirts of Sydney while still working a full time factory job. Mojmir did this to 1955 as he expanded his farming into poultry farming – egg production. In 1958 he brought his beloved mother Vica from Blato in Croatia to live with them on the farm, where she stayed for 10 years to finally leave Australia so she could be buried with her Anton one day when she died.
Between 1954 and 1965 Mojmir’s marriage to Diana was blessed with three sons he loved and wanted around him all his life – Ronald , Daniel and Joseph – Mojmir’s life did hand him a sorrowful lot that he found almost impossible to overcome – the tragic loss of his young son Ronald in 1987.
And in poultry farming not everything went smoothly especially as in the 1970’s and 1980’s the government sought to control the production and quality of eggs to be distributed to the markets and created it’s now notoriously remembered “Egg Board”. All of us who remember the 1970’s and 80’s may also remember that Mojmir featured on TV, radio and printed news quite frequently – labeled alongside his few farmer friends as a “rebel”, fighting that establishment which sought to control poultry farmers and their produce. On 5th November 1988, on pages 81 to 86 of The Sydney Morning Herald, one could for instance, find the following tribute: “If the system is rorting you, then you are justified in law and in morals to rort it to survive…It is a hot afternoon in late October and the five rebels are gathered…to tell yet another reporter why they are prepared to lose their homes in an attempt to defy the corporation and the egg marketing system… Watching these men closely, one does not see a group of rorting farmers intent, in the rhetoric of the corporation, on making profit by ‘ratting on their mates’. One sees instead the proud Croatian face of Mr Damjanovic, 68, in heavy black-rimmed glasses…” And Mojmir was a proud Croatian man indeed who fought hard for justice on all fronts that came his way: on successfully fighting that which he saw as corruption and injustice imposed by various bodies in the shape of egg boards and commissions in New South Wales during the eighties even at the risk of losing everything.
Justice was a very important concept that ruled Mojmir’s life and he fought for it in both his private life and business and in supporting and helping multitudes that came knocking at his door. Mojmir was particularly bound by his love for Croatia and the Croatian people – opened his farm at Sydney’s Eastern Creek during the seventies to establishing a Croatian cultural and social club carrying the name of “Brothers Radic”. During the Croatian Homeland War of the 1990’s Mojmir helped countless people and donated significant funds to charities and humanitarian aid helping Croatia survive the terrible war of aggression against it. After the Homeland War he pursued his help towards justice for victims of communist crimes and was a lifelong honorary member of the Croatian Victimological Society seated in Zagreb. To his dying day Mojmir sought to protect the Croatian souls of political persecution, the innocent souls whose only sin in life was their true love for an independent Croatia.
Prof. dr. Zvonimir Separovic, the first foreign minister of independent Croatia, the first UN representative in New York of independent Croatia, the current president of the Croatian Victimological Society, wrote about Mojmir’s death on the society’s webpage and said, among other things: “Mojmir was a dear, big man. He came from Blato on the island of Korcula, from a poor family of Veli Ucijak precinct, who had a hard life, but also – a wealthy and a successful life. His life was hard as he had to leave his home in search for bread, across Dubrovnik, Zagreb, Vienna to far Australia. He was persecuted and a victim of communist totalitarian regime…”
May you rest in peace dear friend Mojmir.
Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)