The decade between my 50th and 60th birthdays was “interesting” to say the least. It is simply described by some who know me as one big disaster, but as they say, “every cloud …”. In 2010 I met the most incredible person I’ve known, and he not only inspired me to be a better person, but he bridged my current existence with that of a previous life, when we knew each other in very different circumstances.

By 2010 I was officially divorced for the second time and living alone. Contributing significantly to my situation were some serious health issues. Glaucoma (inherited from both my parents’ families) had gone undetected for far too long because I was too stubborn to have the necessary tests. By 1999, the disease had already cost me much of my peripheral vision, particularly in my left eye. By 2007, when the maximum medication allowed failed to control the pressure in that eye I was advised to have surgery to allow natural drainage that would lower the pressure. It seemed to solve the problem until some months later when the eye completely collapsed (zero pressure). I spent the next three months in and out of Sydney Eye Hospital where six more operations ensued, but each time the eye would collapse again within weeks. The very best specialists in the country were stumped. They sought the latest overseas research on the problem, but to no avail. In 2008 I had been through more than I could handle, so I opted to have the eye surgically removed. Several autopsies were carried out on the removed organ, but there were no answers. The medical profession was completely bamboozled and unable to even speculate on what had led to my loss.

In June of 2009 I was diagnosed with sever cardiomyopathy and given less than five years to live. My business collapsed, I lost everything I owned, and by April 2010 was living in a “bed-sitter” in Kiama, a block of eight units. When my daughter (Kate) and I were first inspecting the accommodation, a gentleman approached us and introduced himself as Robert. He spoke with an eastern-European accent and was incredibly friendly. He explained that he had been a resident of the complex for twelve years and a wonderful man named Terry, who had recently died, had occupied that the unit I was being offered. When we left Kate commented on how impressed she was, not only with the accommodation, but also with Robert. “There is something special about him”, she uttered. How true that would turn out to be.

Rob, as I soon came to know him, was not only a wonderful neighbour, but we shared the same sense of humour and view of the world. He was almost exactly the same age as my departed father, having been born in April 1927. But Rob was so much younger. After being there for about a month he knocked on my door with a bottle of red wine one afternoon and we spent the next three hours getting to know one another. He told me of his life after he arrived in Australia in 1954 and how he had tried his hand at everything from mining to eventually becoming one of Sydney’s top chefs. Rob was in charge of catering at the Silver Spade and Chevron Hotel in Kings Cross when those establishments first started bringing out some of the world’s top artists to perform for weeks at a time. He told me of the special friendship he had established with Nat King Cole. He spoke endlessly about the talent of Tom Jones. And he proudly showed me his Shirley Bassey scar where she had hit him over the head with her large handbag after discovering he had got her new husband blind drunk. He told me of his troubled marriage where, after giving birth to two sons, his wife fell off the wagon and would disappear for days at a time on alcohol and drug binges. Rob was struggling with his own problems and decided, unselfishly, to ask the Department Of Community Services to take the children away and find them good homes. Adrian and Dean were adopted out separately and Rob didn’t see them again for thirty years.

By July of 2010, Rob and I had become very close. He had long had back problems, and when his back started to give him unbelievable pain, he sought specialist advice. The doctor had no answer and so admitted Rob to hospital for tests. I told Rob that if he weren’t home in a few days I would visit him. That was the first of many visits to Rob in hospital, for he would never make it home (except for brief visits). The following week he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given little time to live. He declined chemotherapy treatment and was transferred to the Palliative Care Unit at Port Kembla Hospital. In the time he was there he changed rooms several times. New patients with special needs would be admitted and existing patients would be asked if they would mind downgrading their accommodation. Rob was always the first to comply. That’s the sort of person he was – giving, unselfish and with a strength I have not encountered before. While most us are defined by our fears, Rob was defined by his integrity. He knew no fear and lived accordingly.

The last time I saw him was when one of his sons, Adrian who had been raised in Sydney by his adopted parents, brought him back to his unit to finalise the distribution of his meager belongings. Adrian and Dean, who had been raised in Perth, had managed to find their father in 1997 and had enjoyed a loving relationship with him since. Rob insisted that anything his sons didn’t want should go to me. Before he left I kissed him on the back of the neck and told him that I loved him. He said that he loved me too. The next time I saw him was two days later in hospital where he had slipped into a coma. The following day, September 22nd, 2010, he passed away.

Adrian and Dean organised for the funeral to be held in Kiama the following week. It was that day that I met many of Rob’s long-time friends – and what special people they turned out to be. But, more significantly, it was that day that I learned of Rob’s incredible life prior to moving to Australia and the remarkable association it had with my own existence.

For as long as I can remember I have dreamed every night. And when I awake I can remember most of them. Seldom do I have the same dream twice, except for the one recurrent dream that came to me almost nightly for many years from when I was young until my mid thirties. And each time it was as clear as day and seemed so real.

I couldn’t quite work out if I was Czechoslovakian or Yugoslavian, but I was incarcerated in a German prison camp during World War II. I assumed that I must have been Jewish. A number of us escaped. I ended up with two other ex-prisoners dodging German patrols as we followed a railway line we thought would lead us across the border into Austria. We hadn’t expected to find that railway line, we just didn’t know it was there, so close to the camp. We walked for days and then somehow we found shelter in a white timber house, with a garden and a picket fence. The people who owned the house belonged to the “Underground” and they kept us hidden upstairs until we thought it was safe to leave. When we did leave, we had another border or check point to negotiate. We reached that border, but from there I remembered nothing. The dream ended.

I told my parents, my ex-wife and my children of this recurring dream often. I said that perhaps it meant that reincarnation was indeed possible. Either that or I had been particularly affected by a WWII movie I had seen as a child. But I never came to any definitive conclusion.

At Rob’s funeral his sons distributed his “life story”, something he had begun writing freehand over the final months of his life. It was astonishing, to me, and the majority of the congregation at his funeral.

Rob’s mother owned a café in Yugoslavia and they lived at the back of the premises on a large block of land. His father was in the Yugoslavian army, as were Rob’s two elder twin brothers. When Rob was just fourteen years old, Hitler violently invaded the country. Following the Nazi invasion and dismemberment of Yugoslavia in April 1941, the "Independent State of Croatia" was established as a pro-Nazi government. It was dedicated to a clerical-fascist ideology influenced both by Nazism and extreme Roman Catholic fanaticism. On coming to power, the Ustashe Party dictatorship in Croatia quickly commenced on a systematic policy of racial extermination of all Serbs, Jews and Romas living within its borders. The Germans began bombing all major towns and cities, so residents built underground shelters. One day when Rob and two friends were playing in the backyard, the air raid sirens sounded and his mother rushed to their shelter ushering the boys to follow. Rob and his mates reckoned the planes were far enough away and continued their game. While he and one of his friends were some distance from the other, they heard a very loud explosion. When the smoke cleared, their friend had completely vanished and they were saturated with his blood. Interestingly, the thing that Rob remembered most clearly was that his father blamed him for what happened and, for the first and only time in Rob’s life, yelled at him.

Life was extremely difficult for the majority of Yugoslavs in the following years, but Rob’s family tried as much as they could to live their lives in peace. When Rob was just seventeen years old, the Ustasha, the Croat equivalent of the SS, knocked on the front door of their home and forced their way inside. They asked Rob’s father, who remained a member of the Yugoslav Military, why he wasn’t fully supportive of the new regime. He obliged by explaining his position. The officers responded by marching the entire family into their backyard. Rob’s father and his two elder twin brothers were tied to trees and shot dead. One of the ‘soldiers” turned his gun toward Rob but was stopped by a compatriot who observed that Rob was quite sickly at the time and said “Leave him, he won’t live long anyway”. The family home was boarded up and Rob’s mother was taken away. He never saw her again.

The Yugoslav Underground Movement took Rob in and he soon became an active member. But it wasn’t long before Rob and compatriots were arrested and sent to the notorious Jasenovac concentration camp, described by Historians as "the dark secret of the Holocaust" and "the suppressed chapter of Holocaust history." Jasenovac was actually a complex of five major and three smaller "special" camps spread out over 240 square kilometres (150 square miles) in south-central Croatia. From August 1941 to April 1945, hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Romas, as well as anti-fascists of many nationalities, were murdered at the death camp. Estimates of the total numbers of men, women and children killed there range from 300,000 to 700,000.

On the morning of April 22, 1945, nine days before Hitler committed suicide as Allied forces moved toward Berlin, 1,073 men were locked in the tailor's building in the main Jasenovac concentration camp in the Nazi puppet state of Independent Croatia. The building in the women's camp had housed 760 women until the evening before when the women were marched, singing bravely, to their deaths. Specifically designed knives were the weapon of choice for most of the prison guards and the majority of the women had their throats cut.
The night was filled with sounds of explosions as Ustashas blew up buildings in the camp in an attempt to hide their crimes of mass murder. The men had little doubt they would be also killed soon, so they planned an escape in the early morning. After the first sign from leader Ante Bakotić and the signal of whistles, one from seventeen-year-old Milutin Mirić, four teams would break down the doors simultaneously, fight the Ustasha guards bare-handed, and run through Ustasha machine gun fire in a cold rain. The breakout from Jasenovac has been called a “failed” attempt because of the 1000-odd men and boys who perished that day. But because of the eighty men who lived to tell the story and give statements to the war crimes commission and testify at trials of the handful of Ustashas who were prosecuted, the breakout might better be described as a heroic success. The eighty men who escaped on that day successfully foiled the Ustashas' plan to destroy the camp and prisoners and blame the deaths on Allied bombs.
The men split up into smaller groups. Rob remembers them arguing about the best direction in which to head to reach freedom. He ended up in a group of about six. It wasn’t long before they came upon a railway line they had not expected to find, within a few kilometres of the camp. They followed the line for several days, dodging military patrols constantly. By the time they managed to successfully negotiate the first border crossing into Austria, Rob had just two companions left.  They somehow found refuge in the house of fellow underground workers. It was a white timber house with a picket fence and garden. They slept in the attic.

After a few days they were given a change of clothes, some money and the all clear to proceed to the final border they would need to cross to find freedom – into Switzerland. But it didn’t go to plan. Rob and his companions found a German patrol waiting for them at their crossing point. Rob’s two companions were killed and Rob was shot in the shoulder. But he kept going and somehow made it. The last thing he remembers is standing beside the compatriot with whom he had become closest and hearing the rifle shot that killed his friend instantly. He turned to see him bleeding profusely from the head, or more specifically the eye …. The left eye.

There is much more we cannot know than we have learned. The universe is one big mystery. Is there a grand design? Is there such a thing as reincarnation? What about fate? I’m not totally convinced either way, but knowing Rob has broadened my mind, stimulated my imagination, and encouraged me to embrace my dreams.

Rob was not just an incredible story, he was an incredible human being. For the relatively short time we knew each other Rob had a huge influence on my life. His wisdom, strength and integrity inspired me to become the person I am today - a better person.

Geoff Mooney