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Anna’s great escape


Anna Kalc was just 17 when she fled her homeland on foot. She did so solo, with only God for company. Her faith got her through the harrowing ordeal and the life that followed.

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Anna Kalc’s 86-year-old hands have weathered a lot in their time. They are rarely idle. There’s simply too much to do; costumes to make for members of her Slovenian community, traditional pancakes to cook for an inquisitive journalist, a Mother’s Day family feast to prepare, four grandchildren to watch over, and birthdays to plan (her husband Branko Kalc turns 90 in May, followed soon after by her own 87th birthday on May 25).

“Don’t put off for tomorrow, what you can do today,” she says with a smile.

As Anna chats, she sews. Her confident fingers make deft work of each intricate stitch. Each one represents her Slovenian culture, love, and faith.

Anna, who was born and baptised as Anna Albina, will never take life for granted. She knows how precious freedom is. She fought hard for hers when war and communism raged in her homeland, long before Slovenia’s independence from Yugoslavia.

Anna’s parents were farmers in the small town of Zajelšje. Both died when she was a baby; her father at the age of 30 after being struck down by meningitis, and her mother a year-and-a-half later due to postnatal complications after having six children (three of whom died during childhood).

“So many children died in our village,” Anna says.

Times were tough when her grandmother took her in, but Anna has precious memories of the tiny but strong matriarch making hundreds of litres of plum brandy and tending four cows, chickens, and pigs.

“We worked very hard to survive,” she says, adding their faith kept them going.

“Very much so. We had to go to church every Sunday; in the heat of summer, and the winter snow.

“There was a chapel in our village but no priest. We had one priest for a parish of seven villages so it was a one-and-a-half-hour walk up the hill to church and to school.”

Anna and her daughter Michelle taking part in the Marian Procession. Picture: Ben Macmahon.

After the German invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, Slovenia was partitioned. Italy took the southwest, Germany annexed the north, and Hungary recovered the Prekmurje region.

“When the war came, we lost everything,” Anna says. “Nazis burned our village, so we had to sleep on the grass with no cover. I was seven and I remember everything.”

The month of May, particularly May 18, reminds Anna of those times.

In May 1944 Partisan soldiers were moving through southern Slovenia and German Nazis, who were already entrenched in that part of the country, moved from village to village looking for these soldiers.

At dawn on one of these patrol days, soldiers arrived at Dolnji Zemon, the village Anna’s husband Branko’s mother was born in, not far from her hometown.

A soldier found a farmer who was preparing to take his cows out to pasture and the farmer, who could speak German, was asked if there were any Partisans hiding in the village. The soldier was persistent in his questioning, but the farmer convinced him there were no Partisans hidden there and the soldiers eventually left without incident.

Not everyone was so fortunate.

“Seven villages were destroyed in the Brkini Hills, including mine,” Anna recalls.

Upon hearing of the horrors that had occurred, the Dolnji Zemon residents promised to hold an annual Mass dedicated to the sparing of the village. They call the Mass, held on May 18, Za Obljubljeni Dan – The Promised Day. Every year, as part of the Mass, a statue of the Virgin Mary is carried through the village and onto the main road.

By the time Anna was 17, her grandmother had passed away and Anna was working backbreaking hours in a brick factory. In 1955, she decided to leave.

“I love my country, but I was forced to leave because there was no future there then.”

It was a dangerous move.

“People used to pay big money to get people to take them over the border to Italy, but I walked to the border which was patrolled with dogs and machine guns – all by myself. It was terrifying but I believed so strongly in God that I said, ‘if He loves me, He will take me over the border safely’.”

The ordeal was harrowing (Anna was intercepted in Italy but managed to escape) and eventually she boarded a plane for Darwin in 1957.

“Was I excited to get here? I kissed the ground!”

Gratitude permeates Anna’s every word.

“When I arrived here, I spoke no English, had no money and had nobody but believe me, my first week here I made sure I earned a dollar and paid for healthcare,” she says.

Anna met her husband in Sydney, after he also arrived as an immigrant a year-and-a-half later. Despite living in villages only 18 kilometres apart, their lives didn’t cross paths until Australia.

Her career as a nurse’s aide at nursing homes included 23 years of night shifts, all while caring for their daughters Carmen and Michelle, both of whom live in Adelaide.

Their homes are full of laughter and the tight-knit family is active in the Henley Beach parish, the Slovenian Catholic Centre and the Slovenian Club, as well as previously being active within the Slovenian community in Sydney.

Carmen and Michelle are extremely proud of their parents.

Michelle fights back tears.

“Growing up, Mum and Dad talked about their journeys but the older you get, the more you appreciate what they went through,” she says.

Carmen nods.

“Adelaide’s Slovenian Club is remarkable. The club has served Sunday dinners to the public since it opened,” Carmen says.

“There’s a resurgence happening in the community now, and the younger generation is coming along. The community has helped each other from the very beginning when they arrived and couldn’t speak English. They formed communities and found somewhere to go to church.”

Anna smiles.

“I am proud of my girls,” she says.

“They were born here but they’ve connected with the local community and the Slovenian community.”

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