Maria Martin is slightly bemused about the tattoos her grandchildren have chosen. It's not a generational dispute over getting ink: Martin has a tattoo of her own. Rather the 100-year-old can't fully fathom why they choose to copy the one she bears.
Perhaps because, unlike her grandchildren, Maria Martin had no choice in being tattooed.
Now blurred almost beyond deciphering, the numbers 82617 are inked on the thin skin of her left forearm, just below her elbow, slightly over one-inch long. The position of the tattoo is a familiar one. Many victims who survived the Holocaust, those who had been at the Auschwitz concentration camp, bore one in the same place.
A DIFFERENT TIME AND PLACE: FROM ITALY TO AUSTRALIA, VIA HELL
In early 1944, 23-year-old Roman Catholic Maria Bezic is sent from her northern Italian home town of Prosecco near Trieste - or in Slovenian, Trst - on the Adriatic Sea, to the Nazi camp in the annexed Polish territories.
Her crime is to have been accused of supporting her brothers hiding in the nearby Dolomite Mountains, who are fighting with the Resistance as partisans against the German Wehrmacht.
Arrested and transported in the space of 24 hours, Bezic cannot fully comprehend what is taking place; what indescribably awful change is coming.
Today in her home in Ballarat, Maria Martin readily admits she took food to the fighters, who had established a sophisticated network of supply and command lines among the pines and the thickly-planted understory of oak, ash and maple forests. Their works include a hospital dug into the limestone caves of the mountainside.
Her youngest brother has been arrested already (he spent the duration of the war in Birkenau). The local SS ("Those men in black suits and hats," says Martin) are keen to find the whereabouts of the partisan brothers, and use the subterfuge of asking her brother-in-law, a local policeman, to bring her in 'for a chat'.
He had married Bezic's sister; the SS simply ask if he knows where his sister-in-law is.
"Of course I do," he says, innocently.
"We need to have a talk to her; can you go get her for us?"
One of seven children, Bezic's mother dies when she is nine. Today it's clear Maria Martin adored her father and still adores his memory: how he appears to her in the dreams to which she attributes real import. Her father dies in the year before she was sent to the concentration camps. To this day she is grateful he didn't live to see the suffering she endured.
Her memory of that time of the conflict, of the occupation, is still clear; Martin recalls facts and events with determination. She's remarkably articulate and precisely spoken. Her eyes are still vividly blue as she speaks at her daughter's dining table in Brown Hill.
ITALY IN WORLD WAR TWO: A COMPLEX HISTORY
While Italy enters the war as an ally of Nazi Germany, by September 1943 and following the invasion of Sicily by the Allies, the ruling fascist council dismiss their leader Benito Mussolini. Power is given back to King Victor Emmanuel III, who negotiates a secret armistice. Mussolini is arrested and imprisoned.
The Wehrmacht reinforce their presence in the country, and a vicious, bloody civil war of attrition begins. The Nazi forces commit hundreds of war crimes, murdering thousands; the Resistance lose 17,500 dead following the armistice. Mussolini is rescued by German forces and re-establishes his fascist state, the Repubblica Sociale Italiana or RSI, in the country's north.
Italy's guerilla partisans are not a united force. Composed of communists, socialists, Christian democrats, Catholics, monarchists, former Italian army members and autonomous groups, there are incidents of internecine fighting and internal bloodshed, but overall their opposition to the occupying forces is effective, supported by Allied troops.
Around Maria Bezic's home in Prosecco, the Slovenian resistance, or National Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments of Slovenia, is also present.
PROSECCO: THE JULIAN MARCH, ISTRIA AND THE SLOVENE LITTORAL
Now known widely as the name of a variety of Italian sparkling wine, before World War II Prosecco is a village outside of the newly-annexed and cosmopolitan city of Trieste.
As a child and as part of her community, Maria Bezic speaks Slovenian. National identity as we understand it today was not as strictly defined 100 years ago; people are likely to identify with a region or town as they are a country.
Prosecco, today a suburb of Trieste, borders what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the Kingdom of Austria-Hungary in an area known as the Julian March by Italians, Istria by Croatians and the Slovene Littoral by Slovenes.
Taken by the Kingdom of Italy as reparations after the Great War, the region has a significant Slavic majority as well as an active Jewish population. The Italian population is a significant minority; despite this, after the fascists rose to power forced 'Italianisation' takes place.
Slavic political parties, newspaper and organisations are banned. The Slovenian language is forbidden, and place names are altered to Italian. In 1920 the fascist Black Shirts begin to attack the local Slavic population, encouraged and praised by Mussolini.
Shops are burned, and concentration camps for the Slavic population are organised by the government. Surnames are forcibly changed, under threat of violence.
Following the war, the reverse takes place, with Yugoslav partisans conducting reprisals against Italians. Again thousands are killed or displaced, many murdered by being shot or tossed into deep cavernous ditches known as foibe.
Trieste is administered by an Anglo-American military government for almost a decade after the war, as simmering tensions over the region continue between Yugoslavia and Italy, and neo-fascist nationalists attack anyone seen to be 'un-Italian' - as had happened in the 1920s and 1930s. Many choose, or are forced, to emigrate.
What follows is largely in Maria Martin's own words, a history of her life between the coming of war and her emigration to Australia in 1954, transcribed and corrected only for clarity of expression. Her maiden name was Maria Bezic.
CHILDHOOD AND THE RISE OF FASCISM
I remember when my mother died. I was eight. I was a working class girl. I was at school, then I'd be playing around in our big home. Until I was a teenager, then I was working in a factory near, in the city. It was very far (away). Life was like that.Maria Martin
Maria Bezic is born just prior to the rise of Mussolini and his Partito Nazionale Fascista, the National Fascist Party. In power from 1922, it is a popular movement despite its overt dedication to violence against those who oppose it, and its abolition of any form of democracy in 1928.
In childhood she is perhaps blissfully unaware of what is happening around her. As a young woman this ignorance evaporates. The approaching war and the fascists' determination to install, by any means, a sense of national pride sees Slovenians and other 'non-Italians' attacked. Her carefree days disappear.
"It changed very drastically," Martin says.
"We can't speak Slovenian; we must speak Italian. Well - people don't know Italian! They lived near Austria; they know German, they know Slovenian - but they don't know Italian. It was very hard, after that it was punish(ment) - if they catch you in the street speaking Slovenian, they (the Black Shirts) could smack you. Nobody did nothing. For us, schoolchildren, we thought it was normal, we know nothing about the political.
"Back home my father was too busy too let us... we weren't talking about politics. It was very dangerous. And it was going like that until the coming of the Germans.
"Until the war came. When the war came it was altogether different. Altogether. There was fascism, there were liberals. It was different thinking, different behaving.
"My father never really speaks of politics. He was out of that. But my brother, my older brother - what I find after, because it was very secret - he was very involved in politics, because in 1943, when fascism rolled down, he went into the partisans in the mountains, (until) the end of the war."
Bezic has three brothers: Gigi (Luigi), Franjo (Francesco) and Pepi (Giuseppe). Gigi was a communist, she says. Tall men, well over six feet. They resent the blackshirts and their ways.
"The Italian fascisti were cruel, exactly like the Germans, very cruel. But you get used to it. It's all a part of your life; you must go on.
"My father never, never wanted to talk about politics in the home. They never touched him, outside the home. And when he died in 1943, when he died we were left alone. And that was very dangerous.
"Two brothers were in the mountains, one was at home because he was sick. One brother, from the shooting, was hurt. So they sent him to Russia, to be cured, because they didn't have any... thing to treat him. So they sent him to Russia. He was in Russia until after the war finished. He liked it there because it was a different life altogether from what we were used to. He was an electrician; he studied it in Russia. They said he drove (flew) a big aeroplane to Yugoslavia.
"There wasn't just the German soldiers coming along. There was the SS, and in the SS were the cruel ones. they wore black suits and hats. We knew who they were; they were very cruel."
Maria Bezic discovers for herself, tragically, how cruel the SS can be.
THE SS AND CAPTURE: BETRAYAL, BEATINGS AND IMPRISONMENT
After 1944 I knew nothing of what happened, because I was in Germany. I was transported. I was not really arrested. I was working, and my brother-in-law came to pick me up.Maria Martin
Her brother-in-law, the policeman, says to Bezic one afternoon, 'You must go into the city, because they want to see you, to ask you some questions.'
"There was nothing strange to it; there was nothing dangerous for me to go there. I took myself there, and after, the SS officer was there and he asked me: How many letters (do) I get from my brother?
"I never get a 'letter' letter, but I get notes, you see? My brother (sends me a note saying) 'Don't worry, we are all right,' and things like that. He sends me, maybe once a week.
"And this German officer wants to know how many letters I get: "From who? Who delivers?"
"I don't even know who delivers them, because I find the note, little notes, under the door; or somebody gives them to me, my friends - it's all secretive, because my brother doesn't want anyone to know where he is.
"The officer was really mad with me. He said, 'You know because your younger brother' - because they arrested my younger brother - he said, 'You get letters from your partisan brother.'
"I said, 'I never get any letters.' I was stubborn. I think this is my nature, to be stubborn. I said, 'I don't get any letters.'
"They beat me: smacked me, punched me. He put me in jail for one night; in the morning I was transported to Germany. Just like that, on a train."
Given just enough time to pack a bag, the 23-year-old puts in her treasured belongings, her jewellery and best clothes; she wears her best suit. Martin thinks, perhaps this will be like a holiday. The truth of what is happening in Eastern Europe, that mass murder is taking place at an ever-increasing rate as the Allied forces close in on the failing Nazi regime, is unknown to any but those trapped in the camps.
"I went into the camp at Auschwitz. When I was coming in, it looked like a labour camp, you see."
TRANSPORTATION TO POLAND IN 1944: A YEAR IN THE DEATH CAMPS
Afterwards I worked out what it was, because they burnt people. I was working in the garden - well it was not really a garden, but there was a place; but most of the people there, they were working in factories.Maria Martin
Taken to the railway station in Trieste with other prisoners, Maria Bezic discovers her careful packing and wearing her best clothes is in vain. Even less so: it is devastatingly ironic in the blackest way.
There are no first, second or even third-class carriages waiting at the platform. There is no platform. There is no food or water. There are goods waggons, and the guards jam prisoners into them tightly as possible, like livestock.
"If you sat down, you couldn't stand up anymore," Maria Martin says. Their horrific journey begins; people die in a week of exhaustion, thirst and suffocation.
"Not in my wagon, but in the other wagons they died, because when they came to be in Auschwitz, they throw, they really throw, dead people out.
"And when we saw that we really start to get scared, we worry about it. Because we thought we were coming to Hell. It was awful.
"Before that, we knew nothing, no. Nobody had an idea about the camp or what was going to happen. When we came to Auschwitz, we saw people with rifles... people (in prison uniform) with white stripes, they were working in factories. They went out from Auschwitz and came back in the night. That was mostly Jewish people."
The mix of nationalities, and how they are treated, is a shocking revelation. As a child, Bezic knows little of how discrimination works. Though it must have existed, the isolation of communities hides it from her understanding.
"We really didn't care if people were Jewish, were Greek, were Italian. It was just normal life. It was international; we are all the same. For all we know, no-one is any different. Jewish people stick together; we stick together, the Slovenians; we never had much time to meet people."
Maria Martin has no memory of any kindness in Auschwitz, of any person showing any glimpse of humanity to the prisoners. It is a world of unrelenting brutality. The guards within the camp are mostly forced labourers from annexed states.
"In Auschwitz they were mostly Ukrainian. There was a German commander but Ukrainians were doing the job. They were just really cruel. Ukrainian and Polish. They were prisoners but they had a bonus to be guards. They were really cruel."
The conditions induce illnesses which kill many inmates. Maria Bezic contracts typhus and dysentery; she is still moved to the Ravensbruck camp to work in munitions. She gets sicker; the Germans determine Bezic will go to Bergen-Belsen, a camp for with designated areas for women and for 'recovery' from sickness.
En route, her transport train is attacked by Allied aircraft and destroyed. The survivors of the attack are forced to walk to Belsen; those who fail are set upon and savaged by guard dogs. To this day, Maria Martin is upset by the sound of a dog chasing a chicken in their yard.
"If someone was too tired or too weak to walk, day, night, from Auschwitz to Belsen, it was too much. You can (have to) carry on. I remember I would stop. The girl who was with me, she said, 'Don't stop, don't stop', because we hear the shooting. If someone stopped; if they couldn't go, they would shoot them.
"When we rode through - there were so many hundreds of us - went through the camp, there was one pile of dead people, like three-quarters (Martin means layers, stacked like firewood) - full of dead people. The first row down was rotten. In that moment I really start to despair - 'I am never going home; I am never getting out of here.'
"I got typhus and dysentery. It was very bad in Auschwitz, it was very, very bad. Everybody knows. But when we came into Bergen-Belsen, it was depressing. I felt like I would never come home anymore, because in front of the barrack was dead people, just lying on the floor."
Because of the German accuracy in documentation, it is possible to account for where Maria Martin had been moved to. She is desperately unwell, and is assigned to a barracks full of sick and dying prisoners. But she is cold when she begins her walk to the barracks in the night, and turns back to the one where she had been previously, slightly warmer with more inmates.
The next day, all the inmates of the barracks she is meant to have gone into are gassed. Shortly after, the German desire for organised genocide is abandoned in the Allied advance, and Maria Martin is left, alone.
A DREAM OF HER FATHER
I had a dream about my father, I dreamed about him very often, and always when I dreamed, some change would come.Maria Martin
Maria Martin believes dreams have consequences and applications in daily life. She tells of one dream which she had just prior to liberation.
"One morning I woke up in Belsen, and I knew we were going to be liberated, because my father came (in the dream) and he took me up a hill and he said, 'Look around us, it's nice and clear.'
"I'm tired daddy. I can't walk any more."
"No keep going, keep going; you'll be happy."
"I was positive I dreamed about my father, and change was going to come, and two days later the Red Cross came. The dream came true. I told it to (her daughter) Cynthia when she was grown up, I told her it was a funny story because it was really true."
LIBERATION AND SEEING 'THE AUSTRALIAN JOURNALIST'
I was very desperate, because I had seen so many dead people. I was waiting until one day to grab a few potatoes because we were so hungry.Maria Martin
Bergen-Belsen was liberated on April 15, 1945 by British and Canadian soldiers, who were confronted not only by the horrors of the dead and those about to die, but by the threat of a typhus outbreak.
Australian journalist Ronald Monson went into the camp with a medical team.
"The liberation was Red Cross. There was one gentleman who came around, a journalist, was Australian. I always remember, and when he came in - I never met him, but those who met him said he was young at the time, he came in with the Red Cross, he said he was taking photos."
Monson, 40, is so distraught at what he sees, he punches and flattens the first German he meets.
"The British were very efficient, they came in and started cleaning, The Germans who were the guards there, they had to shift out all the dead people you see, and bury them. They started cooking and the people were so hungry, they were eating, and they died because their stomach could not take so much.
"They took me to hospital. The barracks, they made a hospital. I was in hospital for... I don't know how long; I can't remember how long. I was very thin.
"From there they take the people - because we needed treatment, we needed medicine and all this - they take us to private houses and treat us very good. And I came home almost after the finish of the war. And back home, my sister, all the neighbourhood, thought I was dead because I didn't come straight home.
"I was 36 kilos when I was liberated. All bones. Altogether, I was one year away from home.
"I was lucky," Maria Martin says without any sense of irony whatsoever.
After liberation and her recuperation, Bezic is taken to a storage area where the Germans have stockpiled belongings taken from the inmates. She sees jewellery, expensive artwork, fine goods, and is told to take what she wants.
Instead she chooses a simple oil painting, a landscape in a cheap frame.
"For someone to carry this all this way, it meant something to them, it was important to them," she says now.
AUSTRALIA: LIFE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD
My husband said, 'I didn't come to Australia to finish in the desert'. After a while we got letters from friends in Melbourne saying to leave everything in Bonegilla and come to Melbourne.Maria Martin
Maria Bezic, now Martin following her marriage to a French-Italian fellow villager, arrived in Australia in 1954 aboard the Castel Verde (the Green Castle), docking in Fremantle and Port Melbourne.
Around 10 per cent of the population of Trieste left, or were 'encouraged' to leave, as Yugoslav-Italian enmity in the troubled region led to violence. Some 20,000 people emigrated; about 18,000 came to Australia.
"We left in May, and it takes more than one month to come to Australia," she says. The European migrants had little idea what awaited them.
"Australia was altogether different, coming from Europe. It was rather old-fashioned. The cars were square! And it was a very nice country, the flowers were beautiful.
"Then we went to Bonegilla."
The Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre in north-east Victoria had opened in 1947. A former army camp, it was known and loathed for the spartan conditions of its nationally-segregated accommodation and services, although by 1954 these had begun to improve as Dutch and English migrants started to arrive.
"We didn't know anyone there," Martin says.
"My husband said, 'I didn't come to Australia to finish in the desert'. After a while we got letters from friends in Melbourne saying to leave everything in Bonegilla and come to Melbourne.
"We came to Melbourne and we were living in Duke Street, Richmond. I've never been there anymore; after that we went to Preston-way... Regent."
Martin's husband had been a police officer in Prosecco; in Australia he worked at the Government Aircraft Factories in Fishermans Bend. Maria also worked at Fishermans Bend for General Motors.
Women prisoners in the concentration camps are medicated to cease their menstrual cycles, a practice thought to have rendered many infertile. The couple want a daughter because they mind her sister's little girl in Prosecco before they left, but think Maria may be unable to bear children because of her experiences.
So they plan to make their fortune in Australia and then return to Trieste, to family. Instead, to their immense pleasure, Maria falls pregnant and a daughter, Cynthia, is born in 1955.
Maria's husband does shift work at the factory, meeting his wife on the way home from her work. He has Cynthia with him after picking her up from the woman who minds her. Maria has bottles of milk prepared to take with her. They swap over duties; Maria knows where to get off the tram in Richmond because she recognises the Skipping Girl Vinegar sign.
The family live in Regent, buy their first car, then decide they want the stability so many immigrants to Australia seek in self-sufficiency in vegetables and fruit - a link to their past.
"We lived in Regent for a few years, then we bought later in Ringwood. We built a house in Ringwood and we lived there for 20 years."
Their 1/2-acre home block is gone now, demolished for the construction of the Mullum Mullum freeway.
"They pay very good, really," says Maria Martin of the compulsory acquisition, perhaps aware of others in her past her lost much more.
"After that, we buy in Frankston. We stayed many years in Frankston, and after my husband passed away I stayed many years more, because it was nice there."
The Martins find themselves surrounded with a broad variety of migrant friends: Greek, Croatian, Scottish women, all finding their new home difficult to adapt to.
And some of the old differences remain. Migrant southern Italians regard their new northern fellow emigres as too 'liberal', too cosmopolitan.
"All of our friends spoke Slovenian. There were a lot of Italians but we didn't have many friends. We were always nice to each other, but we didn't have the language."
On Tuesday November 26, 100-year-old Maria Martin met the Governor of Victoria the Honourable Linda Dessau AC to recognise her birthday.
"I am not very pleased about it," she says, "but they will be pleased to meet me."