Behind the Curtain

In 1957, I made this sketch of the Chapel of St Barbara which stands on the edge of Maribor, Slovenia. This was during the Cold War era and Slovenia was behind the Iron Curtain in com­mu­nist Yugoslavia. Although it was legal for Aus­tra­lians to enter Yugoslavia it was dis­cour­aged. But I only wanted a short-cut to get from Austria to Italy and I thought it would be safe to cross.

I had to get a visa from the Yugoslavian embassy in Vienna. The paperwork was completed within a few minutes. I was very surprised to be ushered into the ambassador's plush office and to be handed my visa by the gentleman himself. He shook my hand and in perfect English wished me a pleasant stay in his country.
Not far over the frontier was Maribor, a city about the size of Launceston. It was a picturesque place but I could not take any photographs as I was out of film.

When I thought about it, I realised that it was good thing I didn't go taking photographs in a communist country and so I dismissed thoughts of trying to buy a fresh roll of film. Nevertheless, I would liked to have had a picture of the place. As I hiked around the outskirts of the town I came upon a beautiful little church on a hillock, surrounded by trees and grape-vines. I found a spare page in my diary and made a biro sketch of the building which I found later to be the Chapel of St Barbara, built in 1681.

After finishing my drawing I rejoined the country road to make my way back to the hotel. As I passed through a tiny hamlet of half a dozen houses I was given a rude shock when some stones were thrown at me. There seemed no apparent reason for the attack but I didn't wait around to question why the natives were unfriendly. Once back at my hotel I puzzled over the incident and was determined to seek the cause. After dinner, I went to the bar and over a glass or two of vino got talking to the locals. Despite no common language, somehow we communicated, and I got the answer to my puzzling incident.

During the war, this part of Yugoslavia was over-run by the Nazis and found many local sympathisers. As the war turned against Germany, the local partisans arose against the Nazi sympathisers and defeated them. Naturally, anyone who looked like a German was likely to be abused. And so I found out what had caused stones to be thrown at me. I looked like a German. My crew-cut hair after months in the open air was blond, a blond far beyond what gallons of peroxide could ever have produced.

And the natives were friendly. We laughed our heads off contrasting my blond hair and blue eyes with that of my new black-haired, brown-eyed friends as we toasted one another with glass after sparkling glass.