From Istria to Australia: an immigration story

Australian National Maritime Museum

The journey of artist Gina Sinozich, from Croatia to Australia

Gina's journey
Like many refugees, artist Gina Sinozich abandoned her homeland for a country she knew almost nothing about. In 1957 she and her family arrived in Australia from Istria, Croatia, in the former Yugoslavia. It was only decades later, when she was 70 years old, that Gina completed her first painting. In 2003 the Australian National Maritime Museum commissioned a series of paintings illustrating Gina’s journey to Australia on SS Neptunia. They tell an intensely personal and powerful story of courage, loss and hope – one that evokes the experience of millions of European refugees and migrants after World War II.
Beautiful Istria
Gina portrays her beloved Istria, including the villages of Senovik, where she was born in 1930, and Sinozici, where her husband Eugen’s family lived. It was Gina who made the decision to leave. After World War II, Croatia was absorbed into the Communist republic of Yugoslavia. Life for the Sinozich family was difficult and food was scarce, with daily queues for bread and milk. Gina’s mother was gaoled for two months after one of her sons fled the country. Gina wanted a more secure future for her own children, Michael and Jenny.

Gina depicts herself and her family at the bow of Neptunia. They are balanced over the edge of a waterfall, at the point of no return.

Imagined farewell
In April 1956 Gina and her children slipped across the Italian border under the cover of visiting her mother in Trieste. Her husband Eugen followed several months later. Gina could not risk telling anyone, even close family, that they were leaving. In an attempt to reconcile her guilt Gina illustrates, on a rain-swept wharf in Rijeka, an imagined farewell to her loved ones – her best friend, brother, mother and mother-in-law. She says, ‘I know in my heart it was raining’, and the tears and pouring rain in this painting represent the symbolic ‘cleaning out’ of her insides. 

The Sinozich family could only carry a few personal belongings when they escaped Croatia, to avoid arousing the suspicion of the authorities.

This wool jacket and wooden toy donkey belonged to Gina’s son Michael. Gina was a talented seamstress and made the jacket in Croatia.

The wooden toy is from Gina's home village of Senovik, where donkeys were used as water carriers. Gina treasured these small mementos as a tangible connection to her homeland.

On arrival in Italy in 1956, Gina applied for political asylum and was sent to a migrant hostel in Udine sheltering 3,000 other refugees. Her husband Eugen arrived a few months later, having escaped on foot and walking at night to avoid discovery.

Departure from Genoa
After 16 months in Udine the Sinozich family were given the choice of emigrating to Australia or Canada. Gina and Eugen chose Australia, a new country that they believed would offer greater opportunities for their children. On 19 July 1957 the Sinozich family embarked from the Italian port of Genoa on the Lloyd Trestino liner SS Neptunia.

Gina treasured her passenger ticket for the Neptunia and reproduces it here, right down to the smudged ink marks. ‘At last we were going somewhere’, she says. ‘Just to go away from the hostel and start something positive.’

Here Gina depicts life aboard Neptunia. Gina remembers, ‘The boat was beautiful inside. We had a second-class dining room and a bottom-class sleeping quarters. There was always vino at every meal.'

Gina depicts one of the highlights of liner travel in this painting, full of vivid colour and activity. Here she shows elegant waiters in white jackets and bow ties serving pasta and wine to the passengers. The Sinozich family are identified in the centre of the painting.

Gina and Eugen attended weekly English classes on board Neptunia in preparation for their new life in Australia. They are identified by the initials G and E.

Gina visualises the vessel Neptunia as steaming vertically down under from Croatia to Australia. Uluru, two Aboriginal people and a kangaroo encapsulate all that she knew about Australia – a place she referred to as ‘the end of the world’.

Neptunia sailed the Suez route and Gina was entranced by Arab traders and adobe villages as the ship passed through the Suez Canal.

In this painting Gina represents the perils of sea travel, where seasick passengers in orange lifejackets roll around on the deck of Neptunia as the vessel pitches about in wild seas.

Arrival in Australia
The Neptunia arrived in Melbourne, Australia, on 16 August 1957. Gina shows passengers waving and embracing as Neptunia docks in Melbourne. ‘It was a beautiful day’, she recalls. ‘I was so happy. Finally we put our foot down on the soil that we wanted.’ 

This painting is a powerful reminder of how much the Sinozich family were forced to leave behind to reach Australia. Upon arrival they spent several weeks at the Bonegilla hostel before eventually settling in Sydney.

Return to Croatia
Gina returned to Croatia for the first time in 2004. In this large-scale embroidery she describes her emotional visit to the site where her husband Eugen had faced a Nazi firing squad, and her joy at uncovering the World War II army records of Eugen and her brother Riko in Croatia. During this trip Gina was able to reunite with Riko and mend the rift caused by her secret departure almost 50 years earlier. She had finally come home and come to terms with her past.
Australian National Maritime Museum
Credits: Story

Curator: Kim Tao
Producer: Michelle Mortimer

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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