She was a Slovenian resistance fighter.

He was a Kiwi soldier, living in a prisoner of war camp.

In the heart of Nazi-occupied Europe, they met when she pushed a note through a barbed wire fence, looking for her brother Leopold.

The Note Through the Wire is a true World War II love story about Josefine Lobnik and Bruce Murray, written by their son-in-law Doug Gold.

Advertisement

Murray, who served with the 25 Battalion, was in the Stalag XVIIID camp in Slovenia from August 1941until March 24, 1945, when Josefine smuggled him and a friend each a suit. The pair then escaped through removable bars on their camp windows, and hid in the barn on Josefine's farm.

The couple eventually married in the seaside English town of of Cleethorpes before moving to Wellington, where they raised three children.

The extract below details how the pair met before a chance encounter the following year.

Bruce, Stalag XVIIID, 15 February 1942

Bruce Murray in 1941 before he left New Zealand to go to war. Photo / Supplied
Bruce Murray in 1941 before he left New Zealand to go to war. Photo / Supplied

He was nursing a sledgehammer hangover. It took Bruce Murray several minutes to reorientate himself. The hut gradually came into focus — the rough timber of the walls, the muddy floorboards, the grimy window in the door.

It was Sunday. That was a good thing. That was a bloody good thing, considering the state he was in. He imagined what it would be like if the German guards came hammering at the door, as they did on most other days, ordering him to fall in for a compulsory work detail at some Slovene factory or, worse, at one of the railway sites near the Maribor POW camp.

He shuddered. Disconnected pieces of the previous evening came back to him. Shouts of laughter. The fug of smoke, of course. The eye-watering burn of the homebrewed hooch — some infernal potion the boys had concocted in secret from filched potatoes and hoarded sugar, or so he understood.

Lofty. That's right. It was Lofty Collier's 21st birthday, and this had seemed like enough of an occasion to break out the booze. Bruce had had hangovers before, more than he cared to remember, but this one was a real doozy. It felt as though a pneumatic drill was boring through his temple and there was a coating of cement on his tongue that fixed it to the roof of his mouth. Now his guts were churning.

He groaned.

Advertisement
Josefine pictured in 1942 in Slovenia. Photo / Supplied
Josefine pictured in 1942 in Slovenia. Photo / Supplied

The mood had swung wildly over the course of the evening. First there was hilarity — jokes and laughter and good fellowship. Then it had developed a hard edge, when the latest outrage committed by some guard or another riled the men. Inevitably, it had grown maudlin, as stories and reminiscences of home were shared. Towards midnight, they had rallied, and the singing had begun. Some time and several tin cups of grog later, the joy had leached from it all again as many hoarse throats joined a chorus of Auld Lang Syne — it sounded more like "Old Lands Shine" in their rendition. There were tears. Bruce might have shed a few himself.

After that, he didn't remember much.

The hut reeked. His shirt reeked. He reeked. He had to get out.

Bruce heaved himself into a sitting position and swung his legs over the edge of the bunk, his coarse grey blanket slithering to the floor. The hut spun, and Bruce belched ominously. Steeling himself, he lurched to his feet, averted his eyes from the hazy scrap of mirror, pulled on his boots, shrugged into his greatcoat and staggered to the door. A gust of freezing air greeted him as he opened it, and he screwed up his eyes against the glare from the snow. Perhaps, he thought, sitting out in the bitter wind would purify him, purge him of the toxic aftermath of the night before. He sat heavily on the upturned Red Cross crate where he sometimes sat in warmer weather, drew his coat about him and wondered whether a ciggy would make him feel better or worse.

That's where Frank Butler found him.

"Get up, ya ugly sod," Frank said.

"Piss off, Frank," Bruce replied.

"Come on, Brucie. Get off yer arse. Let's take a turn, blow out the cobwebs."

Bruce, in the front row on the far right, pictured with his farm working party. Photo / Supplied
Bruce, in the front row on the far right, pictured with his farm working party. Photo / Supplied

Frank grabbed Bruce's arm and heaved him to his feet. It was their routine on Sundays to take a stroll around the perimeter of Stalag XVIIID: partly for the exercise, partly because it gave them another opportunity to taunt the goons with jibes as barbed as the wire surrounding them, mostly to relieve the unrelenting boredom.

"Cor, you look a right bloody mess," Frank said, eyeing him sideways. Insults were the stock-in-trade of their conversation, but Frank meant it. By this hour of the morning, Bruce was usually freshly scrubbed, his hair combed and slicked down, and he would have done what he could with his clothes. Not today.

It was all Bruce could do to grunt in reply.

They walked in companionable silence, an inch of fresh snow squeaking beneath the soles of their boots. The gloom overhead thinned a little and the light brightened. It was agony on Bruce's bleary eyes. He closed them tightly and gritted his teeth.

"Hello," Frank breathed softly beside him. "What have we here?"

Bruce opened his eyes.

They were 30 yards from a point on the southern perimeter fence that was out of the direct eye-line of the guards in the watchtowers. There was a figure standing motionless on the other side of the wire — a brave or desperate thing to do since, needless to say, the guards didn't exactly encourage interaction between the locals and the camp inmates. It was an old woman, to judge from her attire — she wore a shapeless woollen dress and a black-fringed knitted shawl.

Her presence there was something out of the ordinary, something that stood out from the monotony of camp life.

"Come on," Bruce said. "Let's see what she wants."

The couple on their wedding day in 1947 with friends Cyril and Dorothy. Photo / Supplied
The couple on their wedding day in 1947 with friends Cyril and Dorothy. Photo / Supplied

Frank looked all around them carefully. There weren't any guards in sight, but that meant little. A goon might appear at any moment.

"Best not," he said. "They'll shoot you if they see you."

"Nah," said Bruce. "She'll be right."

The hangover had relented a little. He had regained his will to live.

Frank stayed where he was. Bruce walked briskly to the wire. Unlike most prisoner-of-war camps, which had two wire perimeter fences, one inside the other with ten yards of dead ground between them, Stalag XVIIID had been a Slovene Army barracks and was surrounded by only a single high wire fence. Despite the dangers, the locals occasionally traded items — eggs, bread, woollen mittens — for rare luxuries such as the tinned meat or chocolate bars that came in Red Cross parcels.

The woman watched him approach. Bent and shapeless as she was, she reminded Bruce of old Sis Moore who used to terrorise the kids of his neighbourhood when he was growing up. It was rumoured she would beat — and even eat — kids who strayed on to her property.

"Hello," he said, as he neared the wire, and smiled. She stepped forward, and held out her hand towards him. His smile faltered as he met her eyes — green and unmistakeably youthful beneath the fringe of the shawl.

"Bitte," she said. "Bitte hilf mir."

She said more — a few sentences in a low, urgent voice, the voice of a young woman — but Bruce didn't speak German. He understood the appeal for help, but he didn't understand the rest. He shook his head.

From left to right, Anica (Josefine's sister), Josef (Josefine's father), Tanja (Josefine's daughter). Photo / Supplied
From left to right, Anica (Josefine's sister), Josef (Josefine's father), Tanja (Josefine's daughter). Photo / Supplied

"I'm sorry — " he said, but stopped. Her gaze had shifted past his shoulder, and her eyes — beautiful eyes, he registered — widened slightly.

"Bitte," she repeated, and thrust her hand at the wire again. Bruce reached out and felt her fingers press a scrap of paper into his. Then she was gone. Another observer might have imagined they were witnessing a miracle, as the old crone straightened, hitched up the skirts of her dress and set off like a gazelle down the gentle slope towards the trees 100 yards away.

"Halt!"

Bruce turned and saw one of the guards stalk past Frank, working the bolt of his rifle. The guard waved at Bruce to get out of the way, but he stood his ground. The guard stepped to his left to try to clear his line of fire. Bruce stepped to his right to block it.

"Halt!" the guard yelled again, his voice cracking with fury.

"Run!" yelled Bruce, still facing the guard. "Faster!"

The dogs began barking, a wild, savage sound. The guard made to step past Bruce, but Bruce lowered his shoulder and shoved him. Instead of firing at the fleeing girl, the guard rounded on Bruce. His face was white with rage, and he spluttered something in German. Bruce grinned at him. The guard levelled his rifle, but when Bruce didn't flinch he lowered it, changed his grip and jabbed at him with the butt. Bruce twisted and took the blow in the small of the back.

"Bastard!" he said.

He was feeling fully alive now, his hangover quite gone. He and the guard faced each other, their breath steaming in the air between them. After a few moments, the guard swore, spat on the ground and marched off, hell-bent, Bruce had no doubt, on making trouble for him.

He rejoined Frank.

"Did she make it?" he asked.

"Dunno. She was going like the clappers. She came a real cropper just before she got to the trees. Must have hurt herself. She crawled the rest of the way in. She's a goner if they let those dogs go."

The couple at a Battalion reunion Photo / Supplied
The couple at a Battalion reunion Photo / Supplied

The dogs were still barking. But as Frank and Bruce resumed their stroll in a show of nonchalance, the growling began to subside. Someone shouted at the animals in German. A minute or two later, the camp was quiet again. "Well, was it worth getting your arse kicked?" Frank said. "What did she give you?"

Bruce surreptitiously opened his palm to show Frank the paper.

"You was robbed," Frank said.

Bruce didn't say so, but he was still thrilled with the encounter. If nothing else, it was something out of the ordinary. And his hangover was cured.

Bruce & Josefine, Radkersburg, March 1943

"Good God!"

Josefine paused. She didn't understand the words, but she caught the inflection. She was pouring coffee for the new farm labourer, a British prisoner of war who had been assigned in place of one of the pair her cousin had recently sacked. Now he was staring at her, a look of mingled shock and delight on his face.

"It's you!" he said, then switched to German. "It's you! It's really you!"

She considered him. So far as she could tell, she had never seen this man before in her life.

"I'm afraid I don't know what you mean," she said coolly, and resumed pouring. The fragrant steam wreathed her face.

He opened his mouth as though to speak, then closed it again. He glanced around at the others: his POW workmate, the elderly guard, who was sipping his coffee with a look of rapture on his face — it was the real thing, not the ersatz variety — and Gustl, the sour-faced farmer, who was watching the exchange closely.

"Danke," he said, when she had filled his cup.

The couple in Wellington on the bus to their surprise 35th wedding anniversary party, organised by their daughter. Photo / Supplied
The couple in Wellington on the bus to their surprise 35th wedding anniversary party, organised by their daughter. Photo / Supplied

Josefine busied herself stacking the bowls from lunch, and when she was sure everyone else was preoccupied, she covertly studied the man who had spoken to her. Perhaps there was something familiar about him, but she couldn't possibly have met him before. She was sure she remembered the faces of all of the foreigners whom she had helped along the escape lines. And the only interaction she'd ever had with prisoners of war beyond that was with the scruffy man to whom she'd passed the note back in Slovenia, miles away from here. This man, in his polished boots and trousers with their sharp creases, and with his immaculately combed hair, was not him.

He had plainly mistaken her for someone else.

Bruce had often thought about the young woman wearing an old woman's clothes who had passed him the note through the wire. It was her eyes, he supposed: clear, sea-green, utterly captivating. And now, here she was. For his part, he had no doubt that it was her, as unlikely as it might have seemed.

He took his mug and stood at the door of the barn to smoke a cigarette, resisting the temptation to simply sit and stare at her. He remembered her surname — Lobnik — but he was trying to remember the name from the note. Paolo, Poldo ... Polde, that was it! Polde. Leopold.

Just before he had finished, he heard Gustl give the order for the return to work. Bruce ground out his fag, took his empty cup to her and placed it on the tray.

"Have you any news of Leopold?" he asked in a low voice.

She started, and stared at him. Her gaze was ferocious, intense.

"How...?"

"Back to work," growled Gustl.

The girl dropped her eyes, picked up the tray and walked away.

The couple's son-in-law and author of the book, Doug Gold. Photo/ Supplied
The couple's son-in-law and author of the book, Doug Gold. Photo/ Supplied

The Note Through the Wire

By Doug Gold

RRP: $36.99

Published by Allen and Unwin

Out April 16

The Note Through the Wire, by Doug Gold Book.
The Note Through the Wire, by Doug Gold Book.