On December 15, 2015, my Grandfather, Anté Surjan, passed away at the ripe old age of 87. My father asked me to deliver the eulogy at my Dida’s funeral. These are the words I chose to honour his life and memory.
“Man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit.” These words were penned by the famed 20th Century English philosopher Sir Bernard Williams. It’s an interesting comment when you consider three sons, six grandsons, one granddaughter, and two great-grandsons would not be here today if a twelve-year-old courier boy for the rebel Partisan movement, did not possess the required guile and resilience to evade and out-wit homeland traitors and Nazi death squads on his regular re-supply runs to the forests of Korcula. Twelve years old.
Anté Surjan was not delivered into a life of luxury, privilege, and advantage. Born to a single mother in the coastal town of Vela Luka in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Bosné, as he would become known, first met his father at the age of three. Ivca, Dida’s mother, travelled with him to Sarajevo to meet his father, a Bosnian man by the name of Stipé. At the sight of his father, Anté, with youthful exuberance, ran as fast as he could, threw up his arms and yelled out “Tata.” As the story goes, Stipé picked up his son and in their first and only loving embrace, had tears streaming down his face as he held his son. This is where the fairy-tale ends. Stipé wanted sole custody of his son but Ivca had different designs. It was a two-for-one, one time only deal. When Stipé did not agree, Ivca took Dida from him and promptly returned to Vela Luka. In what should have been his sanctuary, Dida became a child of resentment to his mother. Shortly thereafter, his father, Stipé, a locomotive driver, died from complications arising from a burst appendix.
When you’re one of four boys, you may get a moment to yourself but you’re never truly alone. There’s always an annoying younger brother seeking to be included. Dida was never afforded that opportunity. To him, family was his Baba Marija, whom he dearly loved and would name his first born son after. The large majority of his blood relatives cast him as the black sheep, denied him a proper education, and saw him as nothing more than an extra mouth to feed. It may seem cliché, but his education came from the school of hard knocks and from a young age, Dida learned to be resilient and self-sufficient. If someone asked me to choose a word to describe my Dida, my first choice probably shouldn’t be repeated in public but my second choice would be “survivor.” My father often joked if there was a nuclear holocaust, cockroaches, doomsday preppers and Bosné would survive. Old habits appear to die hard.
One of the regrettable things about the passing of someone dear to you are the things you learn about them after their death. For instance, I learned as Nazi bombs began raining down on their village, Dida, along with the large majority of villagers, were evacuated to Egypt by the British Royal Navy. In a strange turn of fate, it was here where Dida flourished. Under the guidance of the British, Dida began a loose apprenticeship of sorts working on diesel engines. This would become a lifelong passion and ultimately, his Australian vocation. Some of my earliest memories of Dida are of him tinkering with moving parts. His Macgyver-like repurposing of almost everything, now makes sense to me.
Military structure and discipline agreed with Dida. After Word War II, he worked his way through military ranks riding in military motorcades and ultimately, found himself working for the “Udba”, Yugoslavia’s KGB equivalent. It was here Dida was able to enjoy a few liberties and indulge in a few “perks of the job.” His “official” role was that of chauffeur to one of Tito’s Generals. Now Generals didn’t get about town in Lada equivalents, no, they travel in style. Buicks, Jeeps, and Pontiacs. As an eligible bachelor with some free time on his hands, he took the rite of passage young males are all faced with. In cars reserved for the General, Dida “lapped” Belgrade picking up all the hot chicks. I’m not sure I’m at liberty to discuss this further, especially with Baba in the crowd, but I’m assured the General always enquired as to how well the beautiful Government cars “performed” during his down time. Dida lapped Belgrade in a Buick. I lapped Fremantle in a Hyundai Excel. Dida 1, Erik 0.
Despite travelling extensively through Europe, Dida returned to Vela Luka with the intention of asking Jakov Prizmic for permission to marry his daughter Lucija. Baba and Dida had known each other since childhood and indeed, their paths crossed many times in Vela Luka and Belgrade, so when I say their whirlwind courtship lasted all of 14 days, technically speaking, that’s not entirely true. Mind you, it is interesting that Baba’s husband of 63 years turned out to be “the annoying little boy who everyone tried to avoid because he’d throw pebbles at you from across the road.” The heart wants what it wants.
Dida was a man of stubborn belief. Once he’d made up his mind, there was no changing it. To the very end, he was a staunch communist and refused to acknowledge he was anything other than a “Yugoslav.” Dida will be laid to rest wrapped in the flag of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The country ceased to exist in 1992, but he wasn’t interested in hearing it. A tough, uncompromising man, Baba and my Dad told me, as a collective, they had only seen Dida cry twice in his life. The first time was when his Baba Marija was killed in a Nazi bombing raid, which remained one of his great regrets. Dida said “If Baba had lived, I would have made sure she never went hungry again.” The second time was when Tito died in 1980. The fact that Dida cried at the death of Tito intrigues me, as he spent four years on Goli Otok as a political prisoner refusing to accept Tito’s “Yugoslavia only” policy rejecting a Stalinist coalition. Dida believed in the Slavic people and saw Russia as the big brother. He was so stubborn he went to jail for this belief. Given his role in Udba and through his string of military connections, he was given a pardon on the proviso he towed the party line.
Dida didn’t speak much about what he did in Germany but what we do know is he, Baba and my Dad picked up and left overnight. Whatever happened there was a major lottery win for this family. In 1963, Anté, Lucija, and their 6-year-old son Marijo relocated to Fremantle. It wasn’t an easy existence but within 4 years they bought a home and within 10 years they owned it. Dad likes to constantly remind his boys of his sporting prowess and how it was important for him to be at all of our triumphs as his father rarely was. It was later in life he realized Dida wasn’t ignoring his accomplishments, he was working overtime or a double shift. Regrettably so, Dida would become a disability pensioner as a serious workplace injury saw him have his knee fused rendering him incapable of further work as a mechanic. Perhaps saddest of all is the fact the injury occurred when Dida was months away from seriously planning the purchase of his own petrol station and mechanic workshop.
The life lessons learned in Vela Luka taught Dida for him to accomplish anything, a man needed a strong work ethic. He was never interested in eating out as he had everything he wanted in Baba’s home cooking and he firmly believed every Australian immigrant should contribute to the building of a monument as a thank you to this country for allowing them the opportunity to build their lives here. Such was Dida’s socialist heart that it wasn’t uncommon for him to help people he believed were worse off than him, down on their luck, or if you were a sailor from a Slavic bloodline nation, he’d go down to Fremantle port and invite them to his house for a home-cooked meal and some of the good stuff.
When I reflect on what I remember of my Dida, I can’t help but smile thinking of him sitting in “his” chair in the living room, MacGyvered t-shirt, MacGyvered “hat”, MacGyvered “slippers”, a do it yourself MacGyvered cyclone-proofed ceiling, and a SBS-only tuned television. The only thing he didn’t MacGyver was the blanket over his outstretched legs. I see the best of Dida in my Dad, my uncles, my brothers and my cousins. I see a man who started at the bottom but gave his family a chance at reaching the top.
Dida, you were a different cat but you were our cat. Thank you for surviving the Nazi’s, surviving fascism, and giving our family a shot at enjoying something you never did as a child. Hvala Dida.