10 years a child slave in the middle of Europe
In the year 1952, Metod was four years old: “My father sold me for next to nothing; some alcohol and cigarettes. They bought me on that farm for the purpose manual labour.”
It was the 2nd of July of the same year, in a Slovene village. His mother was praying on her knees in front of a crucifix. Suddenly the sky opened up. A moment later she was struck by lightning with Metod, then only a few months old, in her arms. She died, and her 10 children were left alone with their alcoholic father.
That was the beginning of a countryside drama, filled with traumatic experiences. A story, of how the sublime beauty of nature strengthened a boy’s will, which turned his agony into a living legacy of forgiveness and love. Metod, the baby that survived the lightning strike, is now an author of a deeply moving biography The Lacemaker's Son.
The life story of Ted (Metod) Setnikar is, as described by my cousin, – 'comparable to Dostoyevsky’s characters'*. And so, I have always wondered who my cousin's Australian uncle was, and what his story is. His past agonies, and above all his triumphant will to survive are now known to all. Presented in a biography. Ted is a migrant, gay and a practising Buddhist, and has forgiven all those who inflicted terrible suffering on him. As a child, he did not know how it feels to sleep on a bed. For ten years he slept on straw, hungry, cold and disregarded.
At the end of our interview, he told me: ''I am a happy old man''. His dreams came true: he loves his chosen one, he had a job he always wanted, and now he helps others in need.
So Ted, how is life Down Under?
Well, for one, I still speak Slovenian. Some people give it up after a few years and just say they're from Austria or Italy. I didn't. And I still love that ''rom pa pa, rom pa pa pa'' music. My young friends Aleš and Urška sometimes tease me, saying: ''Are you still listening to that awful alpine country music?'' Of course! I am Australian and a Slovene.
In your book, you are critical of the Yugoslavian regime, which you described as totalitarian. But the orphanage, that provided for children like you, proved very welcoming.
After the 2nd world war, it was forbidden in Yugoslavia to work in the fields on the 1st of May. But in the countryside, nobody followed politics. I don't know what Matevž, the farmer who I had to work for, was doing during or after the war, but the police sometimes threatened him. Though it is true he was provocative. When I came to Australia, I felt truly free. I could not believe that I was so easily trusted and nobody was policing the migrants. And I can say, that when I mention in Australia, that I lived in an orphanage in Yugoslavia, people say: ''Oh, how terrible!'' But it was actually quite nice. In the boarding school at Planina, we had a bathroom with hot water, three square meals a day and our own clean beds. Certain reasonable discipline was expected. Nothing much. I did not feel loved in the countryside, although they all claimed to be living according to Christian values. But in the orphanage, I at least felt honest interest in my well-being from the tutors. Even though they didn't hug us or anything, which was probably considered to be off limits, even in socialism.
But isn't freedom in Australia also relative? The aborigines are systematically oppressed.
There are many migrants here and the population is very diverse. Many aboriginal generations were lost and their biggest current problem is alcohol.
You have also mentioned that it was particularly difficult to acquire an Australian visa in the sixties. A very thorough body examination was required, a racial profiling actually.
I had to go to the Australian embassy in Vienna many times. I had to strip, and they touched my testicles. They wanted to know if I was circumcised. I don't know why that was necessary. They were also very interested in the eyes, as they would tell if you were really Caucasian. There are no such examinations any more. Fifty years ago it was all so different. I was interrogated about possible involvement with the communist party and if anybody in my family has anything to do with communism. They also wanted to know, if I was a member of any organisation. In my orphanage, I was a member of a mountaineering society and an international workers brigade.
Young workers brigades, you also attended, were quite unique international socialist gatherings. Especially how Scandinavian girls understood the term “working garments”.
Panties, working shoes and a shuffle. No bra. I saw many interesting things.
Considering that you were born in a socialist state, it was not socialism that disappointed you the most, but the Slovene countryside where the Catholic Church still reigns supreme.
As a child, I did not receive any kindness from the Church. Those people, who considered themselves to be religious, came to mass to gossip and slander. The women would beat me, a starved and exhausted child, with prayer books if I fell asleep during the Sunday mass. The priest would not even give me a piece of bread. Once his cooking lady gave it to me in secret. Also, I could not pick a flower from his garden for my mother’s grave even though he was well familiar with the situation regarding my alcoholic father and my utter poverty.
Perhaps the hardest thing to accept in your biography is that indentured servitude existed in Yugoslavia. And so openly too.
My father sold me cheap; some alcohol and cigarettes. And that's exactly why they bought me on that farm for manual labour. I was there till my fourteenth year. They actually expected me to stay there for the rest of my life. But I had different plans. For me, freedom is not only to be free of servitude, but also of the people that oppressed me. Even if they are my own family. My siblings weren't very compassionate about my situation. I left Yugoslavia because I didn't feel free there. I had the feeling you couldn't say anything without being punished. When I came to Australia, I felt liberated. But I was wrong. Homosexuality was illegal. In South Australia, it was legalised in 1975, and in some territories not till the 90's.
It's true you couldn't talk against Tito or the party in Yugoslavia, but homosexuality was always treated exemplary. You mentioned that in your session with the psychiatrist at the orphanage.
In Yugoslavia, you couldn't criticise the communists. But nobody interfered with a person’s sexuality. When I found out homosexuality was illegal in Australia I went to see a psychiatrist there. ''Do you have a problem with your sexuality?'' he asked me. ''No,'' I answered. ''Australians do.'' ''And what do you want me to do about it?'' he inquired. I answered: ''Change Australia!'' After some years, homosexuality was really legalised. But I still didn't feel free. Because of my childhood suffering, I was full of anger and hate. That's why I left Australia to visit Slovenia. I managed to visit my father and give him a hug. I also went to Črni Vrh (Black Peak) where the most horrible things happened to me, and hug the farm master’s wife who treated me like a slave. Only then did I feel a giant burden was lifted from my shoulders. Hate is detrimental to our well-being and health. Of that I'm sure.
Despite your painful childhood, which you have described so clearly, the farm master’s wife would not let you wear shoes, change dirty and wet clothes, sleep or warm up in the house. Or even play.
The master's child died under unexplained circumstances. As did three more children. Even though I was brought to the farm as an orphan to be exploited, I seemingly represented a threat to the farmer’s wife. Because there was always a hypothetical possibility, that the master would give the farm to me. That's why his wife hated boys and wanted the farm for herself. Though nobody knows why she was like that. And for my father, they said: ''He's a drunk. Drunk!'' These days we know it's a disease. My father acted as he did, because of it. In exchange for me, he got alcohol. I do not condemn him. For him, the drink was important. And not his child. The love that I missed in my childhood is now the guiding force in my life. So when I was writing the book, my thoughts were on the resilience of children. And love. Children can endure so much. It's incredible. And then there is love and acceptance. Not just tolerance but true acceptance. I wish to be accepted. And so, I accept. And love is the most precious thing in our lives. To be loved. To love others, yourself and all around you is true happiness that we can create ourselves.
How did you start practising Buddhism, which is mentioned at the beginning and the end of your book?
First, I found out about Sufism, which has attracted me because of its openness. But I wasn't quite sure. After some time, I saw a TV programme about Japanese Buddhism. There was talk about creating values. And that was exactly what I have believed in since my sixteenth year, but did not know such a religion existed. I called them if they accept homosexuals. They told me that we live our lives foremost for ourselves. They have no problems with my eating meat and killing cockroaches. Buddhism is the source of my content and a tool in my life. Even if you have great ingredients for a cake, you still need the tools to make it. My tool is Buddhism.
You are a migrant, gay and a Buddhist. Some people have problems with that.
I was lucky in my life to have met Africans while I was an apprentice in Yugoslavia. In the socialist youth working brigades, I met Muslims and people of many different nations and cultures. Before that, I thought everybody was either Catholic or atheist. I broadened my horizons early in life. That's why I enjoy the multicultural environment of Australia. I might also mention an experience I've had recently. A primary school teacher visits the same Buddhist centre as I do. She told me that my neighbour's daughter, who is her pupil, said at school that she wants to get married and have a family in the future. Some want to be fishermen and such. One of the boys mentioned that he doesn't want to have a girlfriend. And the same little girl said that that's no problem. That he can be like her neighbour Ted (biography author), who is so nice and loving to his partner. I went to thank the girl’s parents personally for raising such an open child. Here in Australia where I am already retired, I drive a bus for the elderly with the help of my life partner Andrew. Everybody that we drive around has bought my book, so they must know I'm gay. They had no negative comments, which was a pleasant surprise considering they are such an old generation. They just worry if we are absent for some time and ask if we're well. The book is a success, and I am being invited to many conferences, academic gatherings and alike. I wrote the book from the heart, so I'm getting positive responses. But mostly people say I'm helping them accept their alcoholic parents. For many parents, my biography is a reference for discussing the notion of suffering with their children. And let me just say, that all profits from this book go to the local centre for the homeless. I've been cooking there as a volunteer for many years now.
*Originally the comparison was made to Slovene writer Cankar. For international readers to understand the comparison, he was replaced with Dostoyevsky’s characters.