Martha Magajna of Sydney on her life and work in the Slovenian community in Sydney

     What was your life like before moving to Australia?

I was born in a small village Bevke near Ljubljana in a family of workers/peasants. In other words, my father commuted  by bike to a factory in Vrhnika every day and my mum looked after two kids and worked on three small parcels of land around the house. When my father came back from work, he helped her in the fields. They lived like most other people in those times. My father died when I was eleven. After elementary school I went to 'gimnazija' (high school) in Ljubljana and lived with my relatives there. Somewhere between finished 'gimnazija' and Clinical Pathology School my mother with her new husband fled Yugoslavia. They went across the border, first to Italy and then France. By the time they were given permit to move to Australia, I already had a job at Ljubljanska Poliklinika. A few years later I continued my studies and became a social worker. I got my first social worker job at the Ljubljana Siska Council where I stayed for three years.

Why did you leave Slovenia?

My older brother returned from the army service and sold our family home so that he could move with his family closer to his work in Vrhnika. I no longer had a home, my mother kept pressing me to join her in Australia, and as there was an employment crisis in Slovenia I finally made my decision to move. While my papers were being sorted out, I spent a year working for a kind family in Austria where I learned German and looked after their two children, cooked and ran the household. In those times, you could come to Australia on assisted passage, you only had to wait a bit longer. My mum borrowed money from her friends and paid for my ticket on AirIndia via Cairo, one-day stop-over in Bombay and Perth where I had to go through the immigration procedure. I could then proceed to Melbourne and to my final destination Sydney.

When did you arrive in Australia?

We landed in Sydney early in the morning on 9 December 1967. My mother and my stepfather awaited me at the airport. It was ten years since I last saw my mother and we both cried. Then we got lost in the airport car park as my mum who was the only driver in the family never travelled to the airport or parked in such a big car park before. It was hard to find our way to the other side of Sydney, to Leppington, where they had a little farm. The heat was intense and totally unexpected since I left Slovenia in the middle of winter and was dressed accordingly.

On the farm where they grew tomatoes and capsicums we lived in a small building we called 'garage': a temporary dwelling while everything was getting ready to build the real house. The little house was divided into two areas: a small bedroom and a bigger kitchen and living area where we put a sofa bed. This is where I slept. We had running water and power, the toilet was in a small shack outside. My stepfather had to take the bucket out once a week and bury the contents in the ground in some distant corner of the farm. We had no bathroom: for washing we used a hose which was also used for watering vegetables. We pulled the hose inside the toilet and had a wash under the hose.

In the first few months I helped on the farm. Every other day I had to pick semi ripened tomatoes, pack them in wooden boxes and then my mum and me took them to the main market in Sydney where greengrocers came to buy vegetables.  If we wanted to get a good spot on the market, we had to leave home no later than by three o'clock in the morning. The income was not good and as I could already speak English fluently we soon decided to buy a little corner shop with a petrol station in Glenfield. A small number of Slovenians already lived there. I met them when they came to the shop. The shop was open seven days a week, from 7 am to 7 pm. I had very little time for socializing or anything else.

When did you become involved with the community? Why?

Once in that time I remember visiting a Slovenian function in Paddington with my mum's friends from Sydney. Soon afterwards two of the early Slovenian settlers visited us in our shop. They were raising funds for Slovenski dom. A few months later my mother and my stepfather separated, we sold the shop and I found a job in a bottle shop in Guildford, owned by a Serbian family. I stayed there for eleven years. Life became a little easier; with this job my mum and I had a regular income and more free time. In nearby Merrylands a new Slovenian church was being built, on the hill in Horsley Park Slovenians congregated in Slovensko društvo Sydney. My mum and I frequently visited both places and became members of Društvo. Father Valerijan often visited the shop in Guilford and purchased there drinks for church functions. Eventually I got to know lots of people from the Slovenian community. When a new club, Triglav, was founded we initially attended functions in both clubs. We offered help in both, but apparently Slovensko društvo Sydney had enough people available and they never invited us to join in whereas people from Triglav contacted us and asked us to come and help. I was soon a board member and had my hands full, and this is how it has been for the next forty years.

What is your motivation to stay involved with the community for so many years?

One thing led to another and so on. In addition to my work on the board and Sunday service in the kitchen and in the bar in the Triglav Club, we started our first folk dancing group and appeared  at many events where I also recited poems. Later, when the Triglav Choir was founded, some of us women sang in the choir. Our club published a newspaper 'Triglav' and I wrote articles that were published there and later in the “NOVO DOBA” newspaper. We also had a theatre group led by Korl  Dolenc at the Club and later another one in Merrylands led by Ivan Koželj. With a few other members of the theatre group we first organized a few exhibitions for Slovensko društvo Sydney and the Slovenian Religious Mission Merrylands and later,  after  founding  Slovenian archives HASA NSW  ten years  ago, we started gathering historical materials  for the preservation of the history of the Slovenian community in NSW.

In the last ten years, my time  was split between working as a  public relation officer at the Triglav Club, including  managing a very successful Bocce  Section, and my  work at  the HASA NSW  Archives.

As a result of writing articles for Misli and Stičišče, I was invited a few years ago to attend a seminar for journalists in Ljubljana. 

My husband Lojze Magajna is also involved with the bocce club and works as a registered trainer of the Australian junior bocce  team. His team competed at the World Bocce Championship in Slovenia, Italy and Bosnia.He also sings in the Merrylands Choir.

What do you see as your main achievement in your extensive community work?

In addition to my long-term support to the Slovenian community in the Triglav Club, I worked as a deputy president of the Slovenian National Council for NSW and participated in the founding of the Australian Slovenian Conference in the Club. I took part in all activities to support Slovenia in the period of the independence process.

Another very important achievement is my work in HASA NSW. This is an organization that we started ten years ago: we collect and archive materials related to the history of our organizations and individuals from NSW and elsewhere. We recently started to digitize our archives so that the collected materials can be available to other archives in Australia, Slovenia and anywhere else in the world. I have been the HASA NSW president for the last few years.

I am also very proud of my work in the Religious Centre Merrylands where I help whenever my help is needed and of the fact that most people in our community know that they can turn to me when they need help. I am pleased that I have many friends among those who are known in the community for their dedicated work to uphold the Slovenian spirit and traditions in Australia.

What is your view of the Slovenian community in Australia?

I believe the Slovenian community in Australia follows the pattern of other Slovenian migrant communities around the world. A lot depends on the abilities and dedication of individuals who are willing to sacrifice their time to uphold the Slovenian spirit in foreign lands. I believe that Slovenians are very adaptable people and quick to assimilate in the Australian world. As the spiritual leaders are departing, our Slovenian spirit is slowly disappearing as well.

What would you change if you could?

I would like more unity and cooperation in Australia and in our homeland. Reconciliation should not be just a word: it should be real and not conditional upon admission of total defeat and humble apologies for its real and perceived sins by the opposing side. It is not right that people think that with the independence the black, the red or the white won. The Slovenian nation should be the winner: we should draw the line under our past and work together for our common good and for our homeland, not for our private pockets. Unfortunately, it is our human nature to think that each of us knows what is best for everyone and any voicing of different views is perceived as hostile. No wonder so many people became disappointed with the dream of heaven under Triglav when it transpired that in order for this heaven to materialize a lot of hard work and common sense was required.

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