Joe and Joan met on the Murray love boat

"JOE, we've just finished building a new cruise ship, the Murray Princess. She's a beauty and I want you to be a fulltime musician on board her," skipper Captain Veenstra said over the phone.

The Murray Princess, the boat on which Joe and Joan Songaila met. INSET: Joe and Joan celebrating Joe’s 90th birthday and Joe and Joan on the Murray Princess.
The Murray Princess, the boat on which Joe and Joan Songaila met. INSET: Joe and Joan celebrating Joe’s 90th birthday and Joe and Joan on the Murray Princess. Contributed

"Let me know by Monday... and you must say yes," the skipper said. Lonely, lost and heart-broken, the Lithuanian national pondered the idea of a new job. The year was 1986, two years after Joe lost his Australian-born wife of 35 years to cancer.

Music was Joe's passion. From the age of six, the young boy would halt work on Lithuania's railways as he entertained the workers by playing a mouth organ. His audience clapped and called for more, throwing him any loose change they had.

However, those happy childhood days were short-lived when in 1941 German forces invaded Lithuania against surging communist Russian forces.

Their home soil became a war-torn battleground between both nations. Like many other young Europeans, Joe and his three sisters were forced to flee their home, leaving behind their parents and were taken to a German labour camp.

Put to work reassembling war-damaged train engines, Joe survived on one meal of soup during a 12-hour shift.

When the Germans found out he knew many of their favourite tunes, he was in demand to play the accordion at their social gatherings.

Joe escaped many brushes with death - extreme hunger, freezing conditions and at gunpoint - before he was rescued by American forces and taken to a Displaced Persons camp until 1947 where he was reunited with his family. His father and niece did not survive.

He was given the choice of migrating to one of seven countries and Australia seemed inviting - it was as far away from Europe as anyone could get.

In October 1947, the American ship carried the first mass transport of post-Second World War migrants from Germany to Australia. A month later the ship arrived at the docks of Port Fremantle in Western Australia.

Joe was one of 10,000 Lithuanian displaced persons to come to Australia in the years after the war.

Joe's ability to play German songs had saved his life during his days of forced labour in the war. In Australia, his knowledge of their language and music earned him extra income where he was regularly asked to play the accordion at Adelaide's German Club.

Finding a new passion

Joe joined the Murray Princess as the entertainment officer. He now had no time to feel sorry for himself. He played the accordion at lunch and into the evening. He operated the ship's shop and showed the film, which for months on end was Crocodile Dundee.

He would organise a Dutch game called shove-it, much like snooker. One evening in 1988, as Joe arranged the cues and balls for a game of shove-it in the lounge of the Murray Princess, a New Zealand woman caught his eye.

"Are you with anyone?" Joe asked Joan grasping her hand.

Joan's husband, a layout co-ordinator and photographer for the New Zealand Herald, had died a few years earlier.

"We're both in the same boat then," Joe, then 63, said.

Joan recalls being lost in a "daze", "a cocoon of love". The pair abandoned Joan's sister-in-law Julie and the game of shove-it and headed for the bar. "The rest of the week passed as if in a dream," Joan said.

Reunited at the airport, they rushed into each other's arms, "Joe whispered they must never be apart, ever again."

Joan, then 52, was a physiotherapist of 30 years and was helping her eldest son and his wife run the family photographic business after her late husband's death.

When Joe left New Zealand, Joan recalls finding it difficult to imagine life without one another. Her parents were both terminally ill with cancer, but she would return to Australia as soon as she could. By 1990 after continuing their relationship between countries, Joe and Joan married in Auckland and returned to Australia. From Adelaide they drove north in search of their new home. Joe and Joan reached Surfers Paradise on a balmy evening.

"The setting sun turned the whole world a soft pink, silhouetting the dark hills of the hinterland," Joan recalls. The salty smell of the sea and the sound of the surf filled their senses. It was a fairyland and it caught (us) in its magic spell," Joan said.

Joe, now 90, endures an ongoing battle with Parkinson's disease. By his side is Joan, 79, his full time carer.

"The most important thing in life is love, and that the more you give, the more you get back," Joan said.

Adapted from Journey to Paradise: The Life Story of Juozas (Joe) Songaila, A Lithuanian Displaced Person by Joan Songaila.

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