Post-war escape from Yugoslavia recalled by PRH donor

Ante (Tony) Jukic of Penticton has donated $50,000 to the PRH Cardiology Department in memory of his wife Gisela, who passed away in 2014.

Ante (Tony) Jukic vividly recalls the night when he and his wife-to-be Gisela crossed the border into Italy from Slovenia during the upheaval of post-war Europe.

Now more than 70 years later, Tony has made a $50,000 donation in Gisela’s memory to Penticton Regional Hospital’s cardiology department.

Tony was born in Croatia in 1924 and Gisela was born in Slovenia in 1922.  They met at Lake Bled in Slovenia where Tony and a friend worked at a forestry work camp.  Together, the three of them decided to escape Tito’s communist regime in Yugoslavia in April 1949.

Their plan was fraught with difficulties. At first they rode a train which ran near the Slovenian-Italian border. “You can jump from the train into the border with Italy but the (Yugoslavian) guards there would shoot you down and bring you back,” he said.

Instead, they waited until the train stopped at a town a few kilometres away. The trio then walked through the bush and arrived at the border in the middle of the night. There was an open field and a water channel for a nearby mill.  Fortunately the moon was shining brightly.

“There were two guards – one going this way and one going that way.  Every half-hour they would meet, have a cigarette and then go away. When they left, we went across.”

But to cross the border, they also had to jump into chest-deep water in the canal.

“When we got across, we ran for about a kilometre or two. Then we went up to a house all wet, and they took us in.”

The Italian family dried their clothes overnight and the next morning (Easter Sunday) they left and reported to the nearest police station. They were all taken into custody while authorities made a background check on the three refugees.

Tony and Gisela married in Italy in December 1949, with Tony’s friend as best man.  The couple immigrated to Canada by boat and arrived at Halifax Harbour on August 15, 1950.  They were married for 65 years before Gisela passed away five years ago.

Under a government contract for immigrants, Tony and Gisela worked on a dairy farm near Kincardine, Ontario next to Lake Huron for their first year in Canada. Then they moved to Hamilton where Tony gained employment at Stelco’s chain-link fence plant.  He worked there for 32 years while Gisela raised their three children – two girls and one boy.

They drove across Canada to retire in Penticton in the early 1990s.  Gisela died of heart disease in late 2014 and Tony also recently underwent heart surgery, which is why he donated to the South Okanagan Similkameen Medical Foundation in support of the PRH cardiology department.

“I wanted to give to the Penticton Hospital because they helped me, my wife, my family and many friends through the years. This is an opportunity for me to give back.”

Looking back at their escape from Yugoslavia, Tony, now 95, says fear wasn’t a factor.

“When you’re young, you’ve got more courage.  Now I would be scared.”