By Lino Franich
Filip Vlahov (b.1875), my great-grandfather, and his younger brother, Petar (b.1881) were born into a poor family on the Croatian coast in a small island village called Šepurina. For hundreds of years, the coastal region, known as Dalmatia, had been fought over by the Ottomans, Venetians, French and Hungarians. At the time of their birth, Dalmatia was under Austrian rule.
The brothers were born in a damp and dank stone house and as fate would have it, they married two sisters: Filip marrying Matica Antić and Petar marrying her sister, Križanka. Filip and Matica lost two children to the damp and impoverishment and had three more children before deciding to build a new house in partnership with Petar.
By 1911, the families had moved into their new house and Filip’s youngest son, Branko, was the first to be born there. Earnings were meagre and became worse when an insect plague killed off most of the vines that were a primary source of income for many villagers.1 With four children to support, Filip decided to try his luck in far-off Western Australia where a handful of fellow villagers were working on the goldfields. Although recently married, Petar decided to join his brother leaving his young bride with her sister in the new house.
They arrived in Fremantle in February 1914 and were registered as Austrians subjects. 2 Arriving with little luggage, little money and no English, the brothers made their way to Kalgoorlie where they met fellow Croatians and were employed on the wood lines in Lakewood and Kurrawang felling timber to feed the gold industry’s roasters.
In 1914, Britain and consequently, Australia, declared war on Austria- Hungary and the brothers having little idea what was going on in Europe became “enemy aliens”. Citing the War Precautions Act of 1914, and their general dislike of working with foreigners, the mining unions persuaded the Commonwealth Government to arrest Austrians as a way of ridding themselves of non-British labour.3 Of the almost 7000 internees during World War One, approximately 20% were Croatians, who had no choice but to register themselves as Austrians or Austrian Slavs even though the vast majority of Croatians at the time supported the Allies and the end of Austrian sovereignty over Croatia.4
Together with hundreds of others, the brothers were arrested in their camp and sent to Rottnest Island via Fremantle. There, they were housed in crowded round tents near the Bathurst Lighthouse together with hundreds of Germans.5 They slept on the bare ground all through the winter. Fresh water was scarce, and sanitation consisted of open pits near the tents. 6 By the year’s end there were 30 internees just from the brothers’ village; the youngest, Ivan Antulov, was only 12 years old.7
In November 1915 the Commonwealth Government closed the Rottnest camp and transported its 1100 internees to the Holsworthy Camp in Liverpool, NSW, known then, as the German Concentration Camp.8 The Camp’s harsh conditions were exacerbated by a lack of proper sanitation, while extortion and corruption were rife.9 The internees were put to work building prison huts, guard towers, a railway to Liverpool and bridges in the local area.10
At the war’s end, the brothers believed they would return to the Goldfields, but the government’s post-war policy was to deport most internees back to Europe. 11 Between November 1918 and deportation, the pneumonic influenza pandemic struck the camp.12 By that time, the camp’s medical staff had returned to civilian life leaving only a few guards to watch hundreds of sick internees. Over one hundred died during the summer and autumn of 1919.13
On the 18th of September 1919, Filip and Petar, were transferred to Sydney Harbour for deportation on the SS Frankfurt bound for Marseille, France. 14
On board ship, Filip and possibly Petar and others, contracted the Spanish flu. The ship stopped at a South African port, perhaps a scheduled stop, perhaps not, but the brothers found themselves in a South African quarantine camp while the SS Frankfurt continued on its way to Europe. While convalescing, the brothers busied themselves with craftwork each making a hand carved box with hinged lid, made from various southern African woods, and inlaid with decorative floral and geometric pieces made from wood of contrasting colour. Both boxes survived and have been passed down to family members.
Eventually the brothers were picked up by another vessel and made their way back to Croatia. Filip’s health had been damaged and he never fully recovered. Petar, younger and healthier, set to work on the family’s small holding while his wife gave birth to daughter and a then a son.
When the Australian government repealed the 1920 Enemy Aliens Act in 192515, both Filip and Petar were keen to return to Western Australia. They did so in 1926 bringing Filip’s 16-year-old son, Andrija Paško (Andrew) with them and worked cutting timber in the southwest and clearing new land for farming.
Filip’s health deteriorated and he returned to Croatia in the early 30s. Petar stayed on and sponsored his own son, Ivan, to travel to WA in the mid 1930s. Unfortunately, Ivan died of tuberculosis in 1942. Back in Croatia, Petar’s daughter married and had a child. While her husband was fighting against the NAZI occupation, she joined the flow of refugees and finished in a British-run displaced persons camp in El-Shatt, Egypt where her four-year-old son died of cholera. She returned to Croatia a childless widow and never remarried.
Filip died in 1954, after surviving the Italian occupation of his village, then the NAZI occupation. He escaped from the NAZIs to the Island of Vis and was taken to one of the refugee camps set up by the Allies on the Italian peninsula after Italy’s capitulation.16 From there he was taken to the El-Shatt where he was reunited with his eldest daughter and with Petar’s daughter, his niece.17
His son, Andrew, stayed in Australia and had six children. In the mid 50s he sponsored his nieces and nephews enabling them to establish themselves in WA and raise families.
While there are no living descendants of Petar, his brother, Filip has close to one hundred descendants, most of them living in WA and have made contributions in areas such as sport, education, health, agriculture, and the trades.
- The aphid-like grape phylloxera devastated crops all over Europe from about 1860 to 1900.
- Filip and Petar arrived in Fremantle on the 3rd February 1914 onboard the S.S.Otranto sailing from Naples, WAGS, CD: Arrivals 1898-19251 The aphid-like grape phylloxera devastated crops all over Europe from about 1860 to 1900.
- 1916 ‘ALIENS IN THE MINES.’, The West Australian (Perth, WA: 1879 – 1954), 19 August, p. 7, www.nla.gov.au/nla.news- article26988824
- NSW Migration Heritage Centre, Enemy at Home, www.migrationheritage.nsw.gov.au/exhibition/enemyathome/austrian-slav- miners-western-australia/
- The site of the present-day Caroline Thompson chalets
- Fischer, Gerhard, Enemy Aliens, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, pp.188-194 7 NAA, Series No: C440, Item No: 851857, Register of World War 1 Internees in NSW 8 Fischer, Enemy Aliens, pp. 188-194
- NAA, Series No: C440, Item No: 851857, Register of World War 1 Internees in NSW
- Fischer, Enemy Aliens, pp. 188-194
- Fischer, Enemy Aliens, pp. 208-209
- Fischer, Enemy Aliens, pp. 200-201
- NAA, Series No: D1918, Item No: 328629, Deported Aliens
- Also known as the Spanish Flu, which caused the deaths of at least 10 000 Australians between 1918-1919, at a time when Australia’s entire population was approximately 5 million. (Department of Health and Ageing, Pandemic Influenza, www.flupandemic.gov.au/internet/panflu/publishing.nsf/Content/history-1)
- Fischer, Gerhard, Enemy Aliens, p. 228
- NAA, Series No: D1918, Item No: 328629, Deported Aliens
- The 1920 Enemy Aliens Act prohibited Germans, Austrians, former Austrian subjects, Bulgarians, Hungarians and Turks from entering Australia for five years from 2 December 1920. It was repealed (with the exception of Turks) in 1925.
- The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was established in November 1943 by a 44-nation agreement but largely funded by the United States. Australia was one of the initial signatories.
- Filip’s younger son, Branko, was a hospital orderly who was captured by the NAZIs and sent to Dachau Concentration Camp. He escaped from the camp and walked through enemy territory back to Croatia contracting typhoid fever along the way. He died in a Zagreb hospital in 1944 without being reunited with his wife and children who by that time had escaped the occupation and were in the Santa Maria di Leuca UNRRA camp in southern Italy.