Okanagan man donates $50k to hospital in memory of wife

Tony and Gisela Jukic’s story is that of a harrowing escape from Slovenia during post-war Europe.

Tony and Gisela Jukic may have retired in Penticton, but their story began many years before, over 8,000 kilometres away.

The European couple are making headlines for a recent $50,000 donation by Tony to the Penticton Regional Hospital, in memory of his wife.

What some may not know about this couple is that their journey to Canada was not simple. It’s more than 70 years since they fled Slovenia during the upheaval of post-war Europe, yet the memories are still fresh in Tony’s mind.

A release from the South Okanagan Similkameen Medical Foundation delves into their fascinating life story.

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Gisela, from Solvenia, and Tony, from Croatia, were both born in the 1920s. They first met at Lake Bled, Slovenia where Tony and a friend worked in the forestry industry. Together, they planned an escape from Tito’s communist regime.

However, their escape did not go according to plan.

It was April 1949, and the three caught a train which ran near the Slovenian-Italian border. So close in fact that one could jump from the train onto the border, however Tony explained that guards would have shot them and brought them back over. Instead, they waited until the train stopped at a town a few kilometres away.

The trio then walked through the bush in the middle of the night, until they arrived at the border. Before them was an open field and a water channel for a nearby mill. The clear night was illuminated by the bright moon.

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

They crossed the channel, chest deep in water, then ran for over a kilometre. Soaking wet, residents of a nearby home took them in. Unbeknownst to them, their problems were far from over.

The Italian family who brought them in reported them to the police the next morning. The three were taken into custody. However, they were in Italy. Looking back at their escape from Yugoslavia, Tony, now 95, says fear wasn’t a factor.

In 1949 the couple married and immigrated to Canada by boat and arrived in Halifax on August 15, 1950. They worked in Kincardine, Ontario for one year under a government contract for immigrants, before moving to Hamilton. Tony worked at Stelco’s chain-link fence plant for the next 32 years. Together, they raised three children.

In the 1990’s they drove across the country before stopping in Penticton. Since then they have both utilized the hospital. Tony recently underwent heart surgery, and Gisela died of heart disease in late 2014.

They were married for 65 years before Gisela passed away. She is the reason Tony decided to make the $50,000 donation to the hospital.

“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,” he said.

READ MORE: Okanagan health care community mourns loss of long-time hospital director

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