Here is a marvelous piece by Tony Wright on Dad’s story…
Great news for folks in Australia!
Great Escapes of WWII with Monty Halls – The Freedom Trails will start broadcasting with The Crow’s Flight on Sunday 18 March, 7:30 pm on SBS.
I look forward to hearing your reactions to the story (and my hill climbing ability…)
The day began with a short drive down the banks of the river Drava, under the railway, then up the hill to a rather battered set of warehouses set behind a car park, the site of Stalag XVIIID, where my father was a prisoner of war from 1941 to 1944. The day’s shoot is to be made up of Monty officially meeting me on camera, and exploring the old camp, then traveling out to Ožbalt to follow in my father’s footsteps up the hill to freedom.
What had occurred to me the previous day was reinforced today. Due to setup times and all the reshoots, there is no real opportunity for fresh expression. For consistency, I found that I must decide which version of myself to present to the camera and stick with it. It was odd being conscious of this at the place where my father played his great impersonation of himself as the friendly colonial.
Once Monty and I had shaken hands on camera, and I had done my broadest Aussie g’day, we moved on the deeply disturbing task of entering the former Russian POW compound. The warehouses that held the Commonwealth POWs are in use, full of modern commercial activity. Not so where the Russians were held. Monty led me out of the warm spring sun into an icebox of despair that filled two levels. What had been built at the end of the nineteenth century as a simple almost elegant Hapsburg customs bond store on a railway siding; became for nine months after July 1941 a compacted hell for more than five thousand Russian POWs who were deliberately starved to death in the building by the German army. The spirit of the place is dark, hungry and angry; an awful place, we filmed very quietly and left as soon as we could.
Ožbalt was a much happier place to be, in the country, high above the Drava river, in the sun, surrounded by nature and birdsong. Monty and I scrambled up the railway embankment and a hundred yards beyond up, the steep slope; replicating the first dash away from the work site. Then it was a more considered walk up the hill towards Lovrenc na Pohorju. The distance to Lovrenc was ten kilometres, and we were going to walk five for the cameras. Ožbalt and Lovrenc both sit at about 450 metres above sea level. The summit of the hill between the two settlement is 950 metres, so it was a steady, steep, winding walk. I was grateful for any stops to film scenery, particularly after my right foot sank deep into a deep drift of leaves between two rocks scraping my shin ( a moment of reality television I am sure will make the final cut).
We reached the top of the hill after about two and a half hours, stepping out of the woods into a great meadow, with a view down to Lovrenc. Drone shoots were setup and shot, then Monty and I officially said goodbye for the cameras. Then we all walked down towards Lovrenc (harder on my knees than climbing), being picked up by the van halfway down, just past dusk. We then travelled in darkness through the hills to a hostel, unpacked into our dormitories and sat down to a fabulous traditional Pohorje meal of mushroom soup followed by a variety of meats and grains followed by strudels. I slept well
I got to meet Monty Halls and the crew the previous evening, in the “main square” Maribor. The city has a couple of plazas that I thought could qualify, so of course, I went to the incorrect one first. Having been introduced to a bunch of young men and women who all seemed terrifyingly competent, I watched two soon to be familiar ceremonies: timetable herding and gear packing. Both services must be completed with the proper invocations, or they have no value and must be performed again until done correctly.
The Hotel City Maribor is a perfect place to begin a film shoot, simple understated, great breakfast, a mittel Europ bourgeoise launch pad to the hills across the river. It also represented a bookend, we began in hotel class accommodation and ended with it in Metlika. The pattern set in Maribor continued throughout the shoot. A late night meal and conversation in the bar, little enough sleep, an early breakfast, in the crew van by 7 am for a 7:15 departure, after appropriate offerings to the herding and packing deities.
Maribor railway station is an early sixties white modernist edition, replacing the one bombed in WWII. The antique locomotive out front may well have been the one that took my father out to his point of escape in August 1944. The plan was that Monty and I talk on camera while on the train journey out to the getaway site at Ožbalt. That journey would not be long enough for multiple camera setups and all the other rituals of filming. So we were going on a round trip on a different line through the countryside, before catching the train to Ožbalt.
Ožbalt now has a hydroelectric turbine station, built in the 1960s as its focus. In my father’s time, this was a forestry stop, on a railway running alongside a fast alpine river in a narrow, steep valley. The work performed by the prisoners was to maintain this track, vital to the supply of the German’s southern Russian Front.
Monty and I were filmed arriving. Then there were long periods of scenic shots of how steep and lonely Ožbalt’s location is. The tedium was broken by the lighting of a roman candle in honour of the sound recordist Stuart Wareing’s birthday. It looked a little forlorn, but I had pointed out earlier in the day that the hotel would probably not appreciate it being lit in their dining room (I can be such a spoilsport).
Once all the scenic shots were complete, we packed ourselves into the van and headed to Lovrenc na Pohorju around the other side of the hill from Ožbalt. This was the place where my father met the Partisans, where he danced and drank with them, where he persuaded them to rescue his mates.
We drove through town looking for the AliBaba bar, an improbably named hub for local excitement. There Monty and I were going to toast my father and the partisans with slivovic. We did eventually, but we had to negotiate with another Slovene Ranger first.
We then drove up the hill to catch the golden hour for final pieces to camera before returning to Maribor and the last sleep in a hotel bed for a few days…
This is the sign outside the old Stalag XVIIID in Maribor, Slovenia. My father was a prisoner of war here before he escaped in 1944.
Through these doors over 5,000 Russian prisoners of war entered between July 1941 and April 1942. None of them left this building alive. Sometimes as a punishment for misbehaviour, my father had to bury them.
This is the Russian POW building, it’s at the end of a railway siding, easy to deliver souls to the hell realms.
A window into despair.
The memorial to my father’s escape at the place that it happened, Ozbalt.
The Slovenes always honour and remember the escape at Ozbalt.
This is the view the partisans and my father had when they liberated 80 POWs at Ozbalt.
Hiding in the bushes, waiting for the German train to deliver the POWs to Ozbalt.
The memorial to the Partisans of the region
Maribor Castle with the war memorial in front. The names listed are of civilian hostages shot by German firing squads. Ten civilians executed for every German harmed.
Another view of the escape point memorial at Ozbalt
The Slovenes mark the 350kms of the escape with the sign of a crow in flight, to memorialise my father, known to his fellow POWs as “the Crow” as he was the only South Australian.
I have been telling everyone who asked me if I was excited about this journey that I would wait until Vienna before I let that happen. My unconscious had other plans.
I found myself at Tullamarine International terminal at seven am on a Sunday morning looking for my flight details with some concern. The info man laughed, “you are here twelve hours early, your flight is tonight…”
At least I knew I was packed and ready to go. I went home and waited for my opportunity to relaunch myself at the world.
The queue was long (I forgot to check in online), but Easter Sunday night is a relatively quick churn through screening and Border folk. What I wasn’t prepared for was the bold move by Melbourne Airport to remove any retail experience beyond duty-free. Flat representations of a bright new future are no replacement for real shops. Phased development appears to be a foreign concept, which you think an international airport would be better at integrating…
Retail deprived I joined the holding pen, waited my turn, then shuffled down the cattle race as one of the herd.
On one side of me a pleasant young blonde woman with a heavy cold, the other side a polite young brunette man. Immediately he began to interrogate me: my profession, my family, where was I traveling, how often had I flown. At this point, while we were taxiing to take off, I realised that this was all in the name of diverting his nerves. A small boy across the aisle was shrieking his head off because his seatbelt restrained him, his mother making futile efforts to pacify him.
This boy continued to scream in a sustained fashion throughout the flight whenever any situation did not meet his exacting requirements, his mother always cajoling or reasoning with him. I managed to sleep in one-hour intervals between thirty-minute shrieking sessions. It was twelve hours into the flight before the young brunette acknowledged any interest by holding the boy and playing games with him on the video console. The child attempted to use me as an extended armchair which I resisted firmly, much to his perplexed dissatisfaction.
We landed at dawn in Doha, and I allowed the blonde cold carrier and the high functioning family to precede me into the terminal.
Doha terminal is a palace of vanity filled with flocks of transitional souls. It is an afterlife of transport, a limbo of dysrhythmia, filled with big statements that slide past comprehension as travelers try to catch a glimpse of their next flight’s details held on a listing screen ten seconds per refresh. I was glad to be on board my flight to Vienna within an hour.
The six hours across Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria were blissfully uneventful, filled with an inane movie and sleep.
Vienna was a blissfully easy entry to the EU, and a quick ride to the Hauptbahnhof left me with three hours to contemplate Starbuck decaf, Viennese cakes, and dysrhythmia wheat beer.
On the platform waiting for the Zagreb train that would drop me at Maribor, a well-dressed man approached me with broken English who wanted to talk about his life as a Syrian refugee in Austria. It was an interesting conversation, he asked me for money, I gave him what I thought was reasonable and he immediately ended the conversation and looked for others to ask.
My train wound through high valleys filled with blossoming trees, half ruined Schloss, Hapsburg engineering and snow dusted crags. A great, cheap, transport of delight, enjoy it if you have the opportunity, remembering to ignore the mediocre food and concentrate on the good beer and spectacular rolling mise en scene.
I tottered off the train at Maribor, blearily found my way to the taxi rank, brought up my AirBnB address on my iPhone, kept myself awake for the five-minute journey. My host’s proxy greeted me and gave me the keys. I let myself in and fell onto the bed.