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U3A Writing: Zarafa

Richard Nolan tells of a degree ceremony at a Melbourne University which brought back vivid wartime memories for the mother and grandmother of one of the students.

At a Melbourne University one night in 1970, the Vice Chancellor came to the podium in the packed auditorium to present the new graduates with their certificates. In the audience sat Maria, the mother of one such student, alongside Helena, the Grandmother of the student.

The Vice Chancellor was handed the appropriate certificates and the student's name was then called. This was important for every parent there, but suddenly the Vice Chancellor announced the time for the science degrees said "There is but one with a special distinction - call Zarafa Colbert."

When that happened a girl sitting near Helena said very audibly "Who is she? She's beautiful!"

With that Helena's mind drifted away to an October day in 1943, when snowcapped peaks of the Dinaric Alps, which surrounded her home in far away Montenegro, were then in the grip of war. She well remembered the cold, cold winds, which announced the early arrival of winter that awful year. The little hamlet of Jelic had earlier that month been raided by both the German and Russian armies as they crisscrossed the mountains to outflank one another.

Twelve men from the village including her husband, Hugo, and her beloved only son, Kevanic, had been shot in cold blood by the invading armies. She remembered being left to look after her little farm of six hectares in the valley, and the required twice daily milking of her four cows, one of which had been wounded by a stray bullet and had ceased to milk. She was mindful too of the fear she endured while she tended to Maria who was pregnant and had to be hidden away in the hay barn to protect her from the marauding soldiers, who were pillaging the area and taking a!l the young women to themselves. Maria was the childhood sweetheart of her now deceased son.

She could visualize the many trips to the cowshed while she attended to the milking and at the same time tended to Maria's needs. Most of all she remembered the morning that, while gathering firewood, she heard the baby cry, and the first sight of the smiling Maria with the new baby girl wrapped in a jumper, the run to the house for the bucket of hot water, hiding the towels under her shawl, the hidden cream and delicacies for Maria and her baby.

She remembered, too, the terror of having to leave Maria alone while she made her way to Liliana to confide in her about the new baby, and the many whispered conversations they had as they made the secret arrangements to get Maria and the baby taken away to safety, in the care of the Eastern Orthodox priest, who himself was trying to escape the marauding army. At that time Liliana was one of three farmers who had taken it on themselves to protect the priest, whose church and residence had been pillaged and destroyed by the soldiers.

Within a couple of weeks of their conversations with the priest arrangements were made to move Maria and her baby in the still of a very frosty night to the care of the priest who was ready to move. It was not long before she heard the good news that Maria and the baby were now in Croatia, in a safe place, having travelled while hidden in an empty goods carriage of a troop train.

That was the last news of Maria for just thirteen years, until a day in 1956 when a strange priest called to see Helena. While he had no letter, he was able to reassure her that both Maria and her baby were now happily living in Australia. That was about the time of the Hungarian Uprising. The Communist Government was very oppressive and all foreign letters were likely to incriminate the bearer.

Later, much later, Maria was able to invite and sponsor Helena to come to Australia. There, she told her of the long trek through the Alps to Italy, the worrying wait in the refugee camp, and eventually the long trip to Australia where she adopted the Australian name Colbert, and how she successfully raised her daughter, who was now, this very day, graduating at a Melbourne University.

Her name, Zarafa!

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