Josefine loves Bruce

Doug Gold, the author of a best-seller about a wartime love story, on the couple who inspired his book – his wife’s parents.

My book The Note Through the Wire is the love story of Josefine Lobnik, a Slovene resistance fighter, and Bruce Murray, a Kiwi prisoner of war. They met by chance when she passed a note through the wire of a POW camp seeking information on her brother Leopold who had been captured by the Nazis. Years later, they became my parents-in-law.

I’ve known about this story for almost 40 years and intended to write the book 20 years ago. Bruce and Josefine had always been reluctant to talk about their wartime feats but in 1998, several years after Bruce’s death, I finally persuaded Josefine to tell their remarkable story. Our family had just shifted to France and Josefine had agreed to share her account of the events that had brought her and Bruce together. Tragically, she was killed in a car accident in Slovenia just three days before she was due to visit us in Aix-en-Provence, and her memoir was never recorded.

My wife Anemarie had told me a little about how her parents met. I didn’t raise the subject when I was introduced to them over a traditional Slovenian dinner accompanied by more beer, wine and slivovitz than was healthy for any of us. I felt somewhat intimidated being in the company of genuine war heroes but quickly learned that they were ordinary people who, when faced with adversity, had done extraordinary things during one of the most turbulent times in modern history. As Josefine always said, with typical modesty, ‘we just did what we had to’.

Josefine Lobnik, 1942.

After a few drinks, Bruce would talk more openly about what he had been through than Josefine ever would. His two best mates were killed on the same day at Sidi Rezegh and he would often become teary-eyed when he talked about the war.

My own father died when I was quite young so Bruce became more of a father figure to me than a father-in-law. We spent many happy times together and I often went with him to the Johnsonville RSA. When he was with other ex-servicemen who had shared similar experiences, he was more inclined to reminisce about his front-line action in Greece and his time in the POW camps.

Bruce and Josefine lived unremarkable lives after the war. Bruce was production manager for Prestige Hosiery, and later worked at Parliament. Josefine was a talented seamstress. It was difficult for her when she first came to New Zealand. She spoke no English and the only common language she and Bruce shared was German. Anemarie remembers them speaking German often during her childhood - particularly when they didn’t want their children to know what they were talking about. Josefine did learn English but always spoke it with a strong accent. Once, she went into the James Smith department store and said she needed a ‘large shit’. She meant a large sheet.

There was also a lot of prejudice shown towards her. New Zealanders at that time were very suspicious of Eastern Europeans and she was often taunted and labelled ‘a wog’, ‘a foreign bitch’, or, worst of all, ‘go back to where you came from.’ This hurt her deeply. She had risked her life to help Allied soldiers escape and to liberate her country from the Nazis while most of the abusers had lived relatively comfortable lives at home. None would have known that she was a war heroine decorated for bravery.

Anemarie and I had worked in the radio industry for many years before setting up the More FM network, and Bruce and Josefine became very close to many of our radio colleagues. They welcomed broadcasters into their home at all hours. I remember Anemarie often calling into her parents’ house late at night with a group of our workmates, and Bruce and Josefine getting up and getting dressed just to make sure we were properly entertained.

They were devoted to each other. I’m sure that the obstacles they had to overcome to realise their dream of a life together meant that they never forgot how precious their love for each other was.

Josefine was a wonderful cook and loved to prepare Slovenian meals. Maribor, her hometown, was very close to the Austrian border so much of the food had a strong Austrian influence – schnitzels, gulasches, strudels. She also cooked traditional Slovenian delicacies like potica (a nut roll), štruklji (baked rolls with various fillings), klobasa (sausage) - and her favourite, kremna rezina (a custard cream cake). Sunday lunches at 96 Broderick Road were all-day affairs.

They were warm, caring, genuine, and generous. I loved them both. I told them on many occasions that their story deserved to be told but they always brushed it off as though there was nothing special about how they met and what they had done to survive in Nazi-occupied Slovenia.

My interest in writing a book about their exploits was rekindled a couple of years ago after a family dinner. We were talking about what Bruce and Josefine had endured and I suddenly realised that their great-grandchildren knew very little about their wartime feats – even their grandchildren didn’t know the full story – and I knew that if I didn’t record it now it would be lost to future generations.

The more research I did, the more I realised that this story had much broader appeal than simply a family memoir. The turning point came when Anemarie and her sister, Tanja, found a box of letters, unopened since World War II, that described, in heart-breaking detail, many of the obstacles their parents had faced. The letters also painted a very grim picture of wartime life in Slovenia.

Josefine’s family, the Lobniks, were all members of the partisans. Her older sister Anica held a senior role as liaison officer and was captured and tortured by the Nazis. Her younger brother Roman suffered the same fate, and was seriously wounded twice in partisan battles against the Germans. As for Leopold, the brother she was searching for when she passed the note through the wire, he had been despatched to the concentration camps. He was sent to Flossenbürg and then Dachau. Incredibly, he survived – but the experience took its toll, and he was pretty much a broken man. He got a job with the Yugoslav army as a driver but disappeared a few years after the war. None of the family knew what had happened to him and there were rumours that he had been shot while crossing the River Drava to escape from the then-Communist Yugoslavia into Austria. No one knows for sure.

One of the things that surprised and shocked me during my research was the harshness of the Nazi regime in Slovenia. I knew that Slovenia was in the heart of Nazi-occupied Europe but had no idea of the extent of the barbarity. The Nazi intrusion into every aspect of life was both toxic and immediate. Every trace of Slovene heritage was removed: shop signs were taken down and German ones put up; street names were changed to their Deutsche equivalents; place names – even personal names – had to be Germanised; and Slovene literature was confiscated or burned. Anything reflecting the Slovene culture or character was destroyed. Murderous reprisals became routine. Ordinary citizens were randomly selected to face the firing squad. Josefine herself witnessed innocent residents being gunned down in cold blood in Maribor’s main square.

What moved me most, though, was the bravery and resilience of the Slovene partisans who faced death and danger daily in their struggle to liberate their country from the clutches of the Nazi occupiers. I have unreserved admiration for what they accomplished under the most arduous conditions.

My only regret is that neither Bruce nor Josefine lived to see their remarkable story of courage, conviction and love finally recorded. I hope they would have approved.

The Note through the Wire by Doug Gold (Allen & Unwin, $36.99).

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