Part One

The Repatriation Voyages of the Radnik and the Partizanka Auckland to Yugoslavia 1948 and 1949

by Slavenka Misa (nee Sumich)

These four articles explore the reasons 150 Dalmatians travelled to Yugoslavia from New Zealand in 1948 and 1949 to rebuild the country for Tito. They left New Zealand full of patriotic ideals but almost all returned disillusioned with the political system in Yugolsavia and a longing to return to a country which had become ‘home’.   

On Yugoslavs in Auckland, see also our 2020-21 Summer Scholar Helena Wiseman’s pieces.

The author wishes to thank Dr Criena Fitzgerald for encouraging her to research and write this important story.

BACKGROUND

Dalmatians have been coming to NZ for a better life since the 1860s gold rush. From the 1890s there was a steadily increasing migration with many young men and boys being sent to ‘Amerika’, as all emigration destinations were often called, to avoid poverty at home as well as military service for the Austro-Hungarian ruling regime.

Most of the immigrants to New Zealand from the region of the former Yugoslavia came from the narrow coastal region and offshore islands of Dalmatia on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea. Before WW1, when their homeland was ruled by Austria, they identified themselves as Croatian because just as Yorkshire is a part of England, so, Dalmatia is a part of Croatia. When the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes became officially known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929 most of the immigrant Dalmatians in New Zealand proudly called themselves Yugoslavs and were referred to as such in the newspapers of the time. I will use the term Yugoslav throughout these essays in this context.

The young men arrived in NZ with little or no English and only the strength of their bodies, minds, and determination as their assets. From about 1890 they found work on the gum fields north of Auckland where they toiled in groups.[1] They gained a reputation for being hard working, conscientious and creditworthy. 

In WW1 Croatians were regarded as enemy aliens because their land was under Austro-Hungarian rule. They had to report to police stations weekly and if there were any suspicions raised about their attitudes or behaviour they were interned on Soames Island or Featherstone Camp with German nationals. Sixty-eight Croatian men suffered this fate during the war.[2] Thirty internees were deported in 1919 along with 83 Croatian men longing to return to Yugoslavia.[3]

Poverty and political oppression increased in Yugoslavia during the 1920s and so did emigration to New Zealand. Unfortunately, life in New Zealand also became increasingly difficult during the 1920s and through the Great Depression. Kauri gum prices fluctuated and the gum diggers found the work increasingly unprofitable.[4] A large proportion of the population of New Zealand struggled to house, feed and clothe themselves. Many single Yugoslav men joined others at the government public works camps when they could not find any other employment.[5] There was no way of making enough money for a passage home. Letters were the only connection with their loved ones in the Yugoslavia.

Most immigrants from Yugoslavia settled in the northern half of the North Island of New Zealand. Wellington, the Waikato, Thames, Whangarei, Dargaville but by 1940 more Yugoslavs had settled in Auckland than in the far North. 

Yugoslav Clubs in Auckland 

During the 1930s there was a growing community of Yugoslavs in central Auckland particularly in and around Hobson Street and Victoria Street.[6] Central Auckland became a social hub for Dalmatians. Orchardists from West Auckland, stonemasons, and others from Mt Wellington, as well as visitors from out-of-town called on friends and relatives. They came to town on business and for Friday evening shopping. They attended the weekly functions at the two clubs which were established in 1930.

The Clubs formed an important social and cultural need. Sunday night dances, annual picnics, balls, and fundraising events were organised. There were Croatian language newspapers, Croatian language reading material was available and folk music and dances were taught. Married members had a family friendly environment in which to meet, share news from home and socialise. Single men had a place to play cards without serious gambling and it was also a place to meet possible brides. 

Yugoslav Club Inc. & Yugoslav Club Marshall Tito[7]

There were two clubs in Auckland catering for Yugoslavs.  The Yugoslav Club Inc. was formed by  older migrants settlers who were supporters of the monarchy[8] in 1930 at 79a Hobson Street.[9] 

The later arrivals, a younger group of mainly single men had left Yugoslavia in the 1920s[10] formed the Yugoslav Workers Educational Society in December 1930. They were a politically motivated cohort, socialists at heart (some were Communist party members). 

By 1932 the members had joined the newly formed Yugoslav Benevolent Society formed in 1932 for the benefit of the welfare needs of all Yugoslavs in Auckland.  In December 1936 the Society changed its name to the the Croatian Cultural and Benevolent Society[11] and in 1939 they moved their clubrooms to 106 Hobson Street, almost opposite the Yugoslav Club Inc.  In 1946 the Club became known as Yugoslav Club Marshall Tito.

The members communist sympathies and their associated Marxist rhetoric aroused opposition from leaders of the Yugoslav Club Inc. and the Yugoslav Consul as well as suspicion from the Police.

The members of both Clubs loved their homeland and were loyal to their adopted country, but they disagreed strongly with each-other’s political principles. In the late stages of WW2, and briefly in the immediate post war period, they co-operated as members of the Yugoslav Association (see photograph below)  in their fundraising efforts for the war[12] however, their war work was largely carried out independently.  

The Yugoslav Association (Savez)[13] 1947. Delegates from New Zealand Yugoslav clubs met in Auckland to cooperate in post- war fundraising for Yugoslavia. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DALMATIAN ARCHIVE AND MUSEUM

 

FUNDRAISING DURING WWII 

The community was proud of its participation in raising funds for the war effort. Money was raised for New Zealand patriotic funds, for the Allies, for Tito’s Partizans and Yugoslav refugees and orphans. Men and women were actively involved.[14]

With the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941 the postal service ceased and Yugoslavs in new Zealand  were totally cut off from their families and friends. Anxious and desperate to help their kith and kin the Dalmatian community continued to gather and send aid money and material to Allied forces. Both Clubs voiced their loyalty to the defence of New Zealand.[15] Hundreds of naturalised Yugoslavs and their descendants served in the New Zealand forces during the war.[16] 

Yugoslav Club Ladies committee and supporters at a patriotic fundraising event (The World’s Tea Party) at the Auckland town hall 6 June 1940. There were also participants of Swedish, Finnish, Scots, and Welsh descent. L to R, Ivka Mrsich (partly obscured), unknown, Mrs Violet Sinkovich, Sophie Sokolich, Mrs Versalko, unknown, Mare Devcich, Annie Marinovich, Daisy Pivac (nee Marinovich), Ivka Borich, Nora Marinovich. New Zealand Herald 7-6-1940. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DALMATIAN ARCHIVE AND MUSEUM.

 

Yugoslav Club Inc. Ladies Committee. Back row, L to R, Mrs Vella, Milly Sumich, Ivka Versalko, Elena Gugich, Kathleen Trbuhovich, Winnie Ravlich, Violet Trbuhovich. Front row, L to R, Ivka Mrsich, Mara Devcich,  Marge Trbuhovich, unknown.     PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DALMATIAN ARCHIVE AND MUSEUM.

 

Ladies’ Committee of the Croatian Cultural Benevolent Society later known as Yugoslav Club Marshall Tito, early 1940s. Back L to R, Mary Lavus, Ane Covic Seated L to R, Anne Bilish, Eutirija Jelicich, (Chair), Michelina Kokich. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DALMATIAN ARCHIVE AND MUSEUM

 

In September of 1944, when the extent of the devastation in Yugoslavia was known the Acting Yugoslav Consul in New Zealand, Mr J.M. Totich, appealed for assistance for Yugoslavia saying that 

most (of it) had been burned or destroyed and that thousands of people had been killed, tortured or wounded. Two million children were starving…and most of the people had been rendered destitute.[17] 

Yugoslavs in New Zealand responded generously and as  soon as the war ended money was sent directly to fund projects and to families in Dalmatia.[18]  The organisation and celebration of fundraising events was reported regularly in the Napredak.[19]

The oil press at Zastražišće on the island of Hvar. Donations from expatriates in New Zealand and Australia helped to pay for the construction of the building and the press itself. PHOTO, NAPREDAK, 4 October 1947, page 10

 

The Napredak 

The Napredak,[20] a newspaper (printed in Sydney) was an important source of international and domestic news in the Croatian language.  It was distributed  throughout Australia and New Zealand from the mid-1930s and through much of the War[21] and immigrants could learn of events in Yugoslavia and in their local community. 

Through this publication the new Yugoslav government advertised itself as a utopian regime of brotherly co-operation and justice. The editor was also the Australian Yugoslav consul. Through the Napredak, the Yugoslav government encouraged the return of Yugoslavs overseas, who they hoped would bring funds, materials, and manpower to their war-ravaged nation. Two ships, the Radnik and the Partizanka were purchased by the Yugoslav government expressly to repatriate emigrants. From 1947 to 1951 they made many voyages collecting the diaspora from South America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. 

Many expatriates wanted to believe that the new system of government would be all that was promised. They dearly wanted to help their homeland recover and develop into a thriving socialist democracy.  After years of enforced separation caused by war the desire to return to their families and homeland was so strong that 59 Yugoslavs departed on the Rangitiki in August 1947, six months before the Radnik sailed from Auckland with 100 returnees. However, by the time the Partizanka arrived in Auckland in January 1949. There would only be 23 names on the passenger list.

The Rangitiki at Auckland July 1947, before it sailed with the 59 returnees bound for Yugoslavia. Photograph courtesy of BARBARA JELICICH

 

[1]Kauri gum is the fossilised resin of the Kauri tree. Great forests of Kauri once grew in the North of the North Island of NZ. They were flattened by major physical disasters (tsunami, earthquake etc) and the trees eventually became buried in the ground. The Maori had traditional uses for this resin, but the Gum industry grew because the resin was used for fine varnishes, lacquers, and linoleum manufacture. Ivan Urlich, Gum diggers and Gumfields of Mangawhai, 2017, pages 5-6

[2]Andrew Trlin, Now Respected Once Despised; Yugoslavs in New Zealand, 1979, page 122

[3]They all spent four months in Holdworthy Internment Camp outside Sydney where they were exposed to infection from Spanish flu. One New Zealander, Joseph Kukalj died from the disease. Information from Dr Criena Fitzgerald.

[4] Ivan Urlich, Gumdiggers and Gumfields of Mangawai, 2017, see graph on page 43

[5]Up to 10% of men employed on Public Works railway construction in Auckland were of Dalmatian descent. Article: Dalmatians and Unemployment Auckland Star, 1 November 1927

[6]The numbers reached a peak of nearly 700 in the 1940s. Andrew Trlin, Now Respected Once Despised; Yugoslavs in New Zealand, 1979, page 145

[7]In 1930 the club that became known as the ‘Yugoslav Club Marshall Tito’ was formed as the ‘Yugoslav Workers Educational Society’. In 1932 the members joined and then controlled the ‘Yugoslav Benevolent Society’ which underwent a name change in 1936 to ‘Croatian Cultural and Benevolent Society’ before becoming the Yugoslav Club Marshall Tito in 1946. This name lasted until 1950 when they reverted to ‘Yugoslav Benevolent Society’.

[8]On 3rd October 1929 King Alexander announced the name change to the ‘Kingdom of Yugoslavia’.

[9]Andrew Trlin, Now Respected Once Despised, 1979, pages 145-147

[10]Andrew Trlin, Now Respected Once Despised, 1979, page174

[11]Stephen Jelicich, From Distant Villages, page 175.

[12]The Slavonic Council was formed in late 1941. It was made up of the Czecho-Slovak Association, the Yugoslav Club and the Croatian Cultural and Benevolent Society to support the Allied cause and the respective free Governments in London. Article,’ Slavonic Ball’, New Zealand Herald, 1 December 1941.
The Slavonic Council dissolved in 1943 because of political disagreements.
Article, ‘Slavs in Dominion’, New Zealand Herald, 29 April 1943.
The All Slav Union (which acted through the war years) was formed without the Yugoslav Club Inc. as the new anti-fascist organisation. It had branches in several towns of the North Island. They all fund raised for the war effort and to send relief to Yugoslav refugees e.g. Article, ‘Far North Yugoslavs Raise ₤320 For Tito’, Northern Advocate, 3 May 1944.
The New Zealand Yugoslav Association was active in 1947 and until October 1947 the Yugoslav Club Inc. was a member. Once again political differences caused a split. The Yugoslav Club members “did not wish to adhere to the politics of their homeland” preferring to assimilate into New Zealand society. Article, ‘Auckland Yugoslavs Split into Factions’, Northern Advocate, 15 October 1947.

[13]Savez means a federation, association or league and is the Croatian word that was used in the Yugoslav community. The New Zealand Yugoslav clubs cooperated at the end of the war in fundraising activities for Yugoslavia with the encouragement and support of the Napredak newspaper.

[14]The newspapers reported many instances of fundraising activities and donations. The following are merely examples:
Article, Help for Yugoslavs, NZ Herald 13 September 1944.
Article, Yugoslav Club Patriotic Fund Gifts, NZ Herald, 29 September 1941
Article, Cheque for £115 Yugoslav Ball Result, New Zealand Herald, 22 July 1941

[15]Article, Croatian Meeting, Auckland Star, 9 February 1942
Article, Auckland Yugoslavs, New Zealand Herald, 7 April 1941

[16]Article, (untitled) Auckland Star, 29 January 1945, page 6

[17]Article, Urgent Appeal Made – Starving Yugoslavs, Auckland Star, 4 September 1944

[18]An oil press on the Island of Hvar was paid for by donations from farmers at Waiharara in Northland. Napredak, 4 October 1947. Children’s winter clothing was collected, knitted, and sent. Napredak,19 April 1947.
The Taranaki branch of the Yugoslav Association are reported as raising £1766 for a new hospital on the Dalmatian coast, Napredak, 17 May 1947.

[19]The Hawkes Bay branch of the Yugoslav Association is praised for achieving big results despite a small membership. Article, ‘Primjerni Rad Ogranka Hawkes Bay (Exemplary Work by the Hawkes Bay Branch) NZ’, Napredak, 22 May 1948

[20]The name ‘Napredak’ can be translated as ‘Progress’ or ‘Leader’.

[21]The Napredak it was prohibited from publication June 1940 to September 1942.