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SS Seven Seas: Remembering

by Archives January 6, 2009

Ana Vok was sick as a dog. She had been on the SS Seven Seas for six days now and the back and forth movement was getting to her. Her skin was pale and clammy, her head was spinning and every time she’d try to get out of bed, she’d lose her footing and fall right back down. A bucket next to her bed left the rancid smell of vomit lingering in the room. Ana’s roommate Elizabeth kept her distance unless it was to bring water or food she knew would be left untouched. The two young women had become friends over the past few months. They had lived a few dozen miles away from each other their entire lives, but it was only when they both chose to flee Yugoslavia and the war that they learned of each other’s existence.
In her current state of nausea, Ana thoroughly regretted ever having read the notice on the church bulletin board of a planned escape from Slovenia into Austria. She thoroughly regretted cramming into the back of that converted army van on that unusually hot, sweaty May night with about 20 other vaguely familiar young men and women. She thoroughly regretted leaving her family for a better life in this so-called land of opportunity that was still seven or eight days away. Seven or eight more days of lying in bed, eating whatever she could when she wasn’t throwing up. Seven or eight more days until the SS Seven Seas made port in Halifax, Canada. Seven or eight more days.
Yugoslavia 1957. Like Ana’s seasick stomach, the war had left a bitter taste in the mouths of many. During WWII, Croatia and Hungary became Nazi puppet states, establishing concentration camps and dividing the surrounding territories, including Slovenia and Ana’s hometown of Hotiza, between Germany, Italy and Hungary. Croatian national and anti-fascist Josip Broz Tito and his guerrilla army aligned with the Soviet Union to fight the Axis of Power.
A few weeks before the war would officially be declared over, a German soldier, whose name Ana’s six-year-old mind didn’t care to retain, sought refuge in her father’s barn. The man was trying to escape the Russians and flee into German-friendly Croatia. The Mura River was the only obstacle blocking his way to safety. Ana’s father, Milan, made the kind yet unwise decision to canoe the man across it. During the war, Russian soldiers had been occupying Ana’s house and had forced the family to live in a storage hut in the nearby woods.
Ana never thought of them as mean men. She still remembers the smell of the barley they used to cook finding its way to her nostrils and her small stomach rumbling in consequence. In her childish curiosity, she used to peer over the windowsill into a house that no longer looked familiar to her with men’s clothing and rifles strewn a bit everywhere. She saw the weary soldiers, rubbing their full bellies, drinking vodka and speaking merrily in a language she didn’t understand about things she probably wouldn’t understand if she could. She remembers thinking to herself, “what nice men.”
Ana looks at one of the soldiers, sitting on the steps that separate the kitchen from the bedroom. It’s a chilly evening, but Ana is warmed by the sight of the men laughing and their giant cauldron almost half full of barley. Ana taps her little finger on the window, making a circle with her breath and draws a happy face. The men look at her for a moment and continue talking amongst themselves. Soon, one of them comes outside with the rest of barley and presumably tells her to take it back to her family’s storage hut. He smiles at her and she smiles back. It takes Ana over 20 minutes to drag the big cauldron back to her family. “What nice men,” she thinks.
Ana’s father chose to canoe the German soldier across the river one afternoon when the Russians had gone for the day. He knew the dangers of getting caught. Ana, oblivious, sees her father and the strange man off. The sun sparkles off the water. Ana dips her little toes in and the fish that were playfully swimming dart away.
Ana’s father returned from Croatia without the German soldier. That night, just as the family began to fall asleep, the Russian soldiers barged into the storage hut, pulled her father out of bed and brought him outside. The commotion had caused other families, who had also been banished from their homes into a barn, storage hut or outhouse, to come and see what was going on.
The earth was frozen under Ana’s feet. The other villagers told her afterwards she was screaming as the tear-blurred Russian soldiers pinned her father against the wall and pointed a rifle at his head. “Spy!” they called him. Just as they were about to pull the trigger, Ana’s neighbour, Danijel, yelled, “Stop!” in Russian. “This man is a good man, I know him. He had no intention of doing any harm. He’s not a spy, just a simple farmer.” The Russians seemed to believe him. They chose to spare Ana’s father. Ana never again thought of the Russians as good men.
After the war, in an attempt to unite a torn country, Tito created the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and allied with soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Tito was seen as a saviour who would stitch up the wounds of Yugoslavia and make it strong again. But he was far from being the hero he claimed to be. In the two months following the end of WWII, more people were slain in Slovenia than during the four years of the war. This vengeful killing spree saw the end of lingering German and Italian soldiers, and of any person who stood in the way of Tito and his new political movement. The mass unmarked graves still being uncovered today in the forests and fields of Slovenia are proof of the blood that was spilt.
Historian Joze Dezman, who heads a committee for registering hidden graves, says, “These killings took place in Slovenia because this is where the war was ending: this is where the Iron Curtain was anticipated, this is where refugees found themselves at the end of the war.”
Eventually, Tito, who had revered Stalin, started to become spiteful of his regime. When the Soviet Union demanded Yugoslavia link its economy with other communist nations, Tito refused and established his own form of Communism, Titoism. All Stalin supporters who remained in Yugoslavia were sent to Goli Otok, or Bare Island, where they were forced to work in a stone quarry in extreme temperatures.
Titoism claimed to be more lenient that traditional communism with regards to private businesses. However, Ana and her family, already poor, were getting poorer. The hats Ana used to make by weaving corn husks together were no longer selling at the marketplace and the extra 50 cents a day she used to earn for her family was greatly missed. Even the wealthier farmers and merchants struggled to survive. Ana’s farm was eight kilometres from the Hungarian border and, in 1956, Hungary revolted against its Stalinist government. With revolution and poverty at her doorstep, Ana, like so many other young people in her village, had to find help for her family elsewhere.
Elizabeth enters Ana’s cabin again to do what she affectionately calls her “sick girl rounds.” Ana awakes from a restless sleep to see a now familiar face. Ana knew many young people from her village had immigrated to North America because times had got so tough. But she never had thought she would find the courage in her 19-year-old self to leave everything that was so familiar to her behind and go to a place where she wouldn’t understand a single word being spoken.
When she first noticed the small sign on her church wall planning another border crossing, she thought this was perhaps her last shot. She went home that night and talked it over with her family. She didn’t have much time, but, then again, she didn’t need it. She packed everything she owned into a small bag and, with 50 cents in her pocket she met up with other youth behind the church. They were all crammed into the back of the army van and were instructed to keep their mouths shut. If the van stopped and honked they were all to run out, find cover wherever they could and fend for themselves.
Ana thanks God it never came to that. Everything went smoothly. The most unpleasant aspect of the whole experience was being stuffed into the van with sweaty strangers. Once the van made it into Austria, Ana, Elizabeth and the 20 or so other people were dropped off at a hostel for refugees and were told to stay there until their paperwork had been sorted out and they were able to embark on a ship to wherever it was they were planning to go. That took eight months. All the speaking that couldn’t be done in the army van was definitely accomplished and, being unable to get a legal job, Ana had nothing to do but get acquainted with Elizabeth and the other travelers. They all had pretty much the same story as her. They were all either farmers, merchants or craftsmen from neighbouring towns and villages who had seen their friends and family leave on the same journey they were all getting very anxious to truly begin.
Ana had plans to stay with her uncle Steve and aunt Emily in Windsor, Ontario. She had no idea what she would end up doing, but just knowing she would have someone to help her adapt to her new environment was good enough. Elizabeth had a brother who had moved to Toronto years earlier and was going to reunite with him. Ana had an image in her head of what it might be like in Canada. She hadn’t spoken to any of her relatives who had emigrated, but she imagined it being just like Slovenia. She imagined uncle Steve and aunt Emily had a farm just like the one in Hotiza. She imagined Canadian geese chasing her around instead of Yugoslavian geese. These hopes helped make the trip to Canada almost bearable.
It took two weeks on the SS Seven Seas. Ana had not eaten a full meal or walked more than a few steps since she left port in Vienna, Austria. She had not seen the sun rise or set or the stars sparkle over the ocean. But on that cold January day, when Elizabeth had come to tell her she could finally see the coast, Ana took every last bit of energy she had and got out of bed to see her new home.
Outside, the frost stung her nostrils and she remembered drawing that happy face on her window for the nice Russian men. Her feet, covered with shoes not meant for the cold Canadian winters, felt the chill stagnating on the hard wooden deck. She remembered seeing her father, his life at the mercy of the nice Russian men holding a gun to his head. The coast of Halifax looked so far away but, as the ship came closer, Ana was disappointed she didn’t recognize Hotiza in any of it. Feeling herself once again losing her footing, Ana grabbed the cold steel railing of the SS Seven Seas. She dropped her head to look down at the ocean that had caused her so much suffering over the past weeks, suddenly frightened to look ahead at the approaching coastline. She looked up and realized this was her life’s journey, this was the story that, years from now, she’d be telling her granddaughter.

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