The following is from John Pilger’s book, A Secret Country, published in 1989, pp. 105-107. It tells the story of a married couple, Valentina and Michael Makeev, who immigrated to Australia from Germany at the end of the Second World War. They were sent to work on the Snowy Mountains Scheme, where they encountered terrible living conditions, back breaking work, and cow phobia, but dealt with it all in good spirits, accepted their situation and tried to make the best of it (like befriending a kangaroo they named Richard, who developed a liking of schnitzel and wine.) It is an inspiring story.
Here’s a photo of Valentina and Richard the kangaroo:
And here’s a photo of the Jindabyne Camp in the Snowy Mountains:
In 1949 Michael and Valentina Makeev were ‘DPs’ indentured to work on ‘the Snowy’. Michael’s parents were white Russian who had fled from Germany after the First World War. His wife, Valentina, also a Russian, lived in Yugoslavia but ended up in Germany where she met Michael in a displaced persons’ camp. “We could have applied for America,” said Michael, “but Australia was interesting because we knew nothing about it, except that it had a lot of sheep. For us, coming from war, that sounded so wonderfully uncomplicated!”
I met the Makeevs in the Snowy Mountains, which they never left. At No. 2 Alkoomi Place, Cooma, past beds of sweet-pea flowers and behind frilly curtains, they live surrounded by photographs of their forty-year odyssey as “New Australians”. In one photograph, Valentina, a striking young woman in a finely tailored jacket, skirt and high heels, her hair in the fashionable braided style of the 1940s, poses, beaming, iwth a kangaroo against a landscape of bleached, ragged bushland.
“In the camp in Germany,” said Valentina, “we sat across a table from this Australian official who didn’t say much, only that we’d have to be indentured. We didn’t know what this meant. And he said we’d have to be separated. Michael would have to go to the Snowy and me to a domestic job somewhere. This was terrible! I pleaded against it, but the man said, “Where will you live with him, Madam? There are no houses, just tents.” I thought, “Mister, I’m not being separated from my man. You wait and bloody see!”
Michael: “On the day we arrived in Sydney it was very hot. We were put in a train and sent west to Bathurst migrant camp, where there were sheets of ice on the ground. What sort of crazy country was this? At Bathurst we lived in a camp of round tin huts; we waited; we didn’t know what was happening to us. Then someone came and said the train to the Snowy left in an hour and I’d better be on it.”
Valentina: “We clung to each other. I didn’t mind a bloody tent!”
A tent it was. Pitched on frosty ground on the rim of a valley near the Snowy Scheme camp at Jindabyne, it did not always withstand the wind that scythed down from the mountains. There was no running water, and power was one hurricane lamp. Valentina was alone for weeks at a time while Michael worked in the tunnels and slept at the base camp. She could speak only a few words of English. There was no transport and the weather often enclosed her.
“I didn’t sit like a stupid woman,” she said. “I was a dressmaker, so I went out and found sewing and I did it under a hurricane lamp; I guessed a lot where the stitches went. I was lonely, yes, but it was my life, my decision… I had one BIG complaint, though…”
Michael: “My God, here it comes.”
Valentina: “COWS! I am afraid of cows. I think I have cow phobia. I have nightmares about cows. Once upon a time a cow chased me in Yugoslavia and I can’t forget it. So you just imagine what it was like: every time I left the tent to get food, this cow would come up and stare at me, and I’d be terrified. I even learned to say, “Get lost, mate”, or something Australian like that to the cow… but no good… So I bought a cow.”
“You were afraid of cows so you bought a cow?”
“Yes. When you have one of these big fears, you should confront it; and it was better for me to be frightened of my own cow, than by somebody else’s cow. Anyway, we needed the milk.”
The Makeevs progressed to a shack and put in a wood stove. The shack was next to a river where they bathed and washed their clothes, even in winter when it snowed. Still terrified of her own cow tethered outside, Valentina shared the shack with a kangaroo. “Someone shot his mum,” she said. “His name was Richard and he sat between me and Michael and had everything we ate. He loved boiled eggs. He loved wine. We tried to drink a lot of wine, and so did Richard. He also had a schnitzel once.”
“Did he like it?”
Michael shared a cabin on the site with two other men he seldom saw and who spoke languages he did not know. They would nod in the shadows at a change of shift, using the LINGUA FRANCA of “Howyagoinorite?” Each man worked a different eight-hour shift, so that work never ceased, except when a man was killed, usually crushed by a rockfall or machinery. Then all shifts would go into Cooma and drink through the day and night. “It was a ritual,” said Michael. “The only time we ever go to know one another was when there was a death. It was like war.”
Valentina: “We have never resented those bonded years. We wanted to forget Europe and be left alone. And Australia is where people leave you alone. No one ever called me a “reffo”.”