TURNING 100 years old is significant in its own right, but for Anna Brbic this Monday’s big celebration seems almost miraculous given her extraordinary story.
The East Fremantle resident was born into a farming family in the Polish village of Krapkowice on May 6, 1919.
Her mother died when she was just four years old, and father when she was just 10, so she spent much of her childhood living with an aunt, earning her keep as a babysitter.
But on September 1, 1939 life as she knew it came to an end as 1.5 million German troops marched across Poland in an invasion so rapid the country’s allies Great Britain and France had no time to react.
With Krapkowice less than 200km from the border, Ms Brbic says the first villagers knew about the invasion were the German cars and tanks rolling down the street; soon they were surrounded by soldiers.
“They said I had to drink the water for them, just in case it had been poisoned,” she said.
Villagers over 12 years old were rounded up and sent to Germany to work in forced labour camps; the Nazi’s plan was to empty Poland and then repopulate it with ethnically “pure” Germans.
Ms Brbic was then put onto a cattle car so crammed the occupants had to take turns sitting down, and sent to a camp in Austria.
“I was a couple of months in the camp before the farmers came to look at your fingers,” she says.
Satisfied he’d found a good worker, one farmer took on Ms Brbic, but he and his wife were barbaric and worked her into the ground.
“I got very sick there, but I could not tell anyone and the woman coming to the cow where I am milking and grabbed me by the hair, saying ‘you are not trying’,” she recalls.
Fortunately a more humane neighbour discovered her plight and called police, who took her to hospital.
It took three months to recover, then to her relief the police put her up in a local hotel before reallocating her to a new farm where she saw out the rest of the war.
But any joy that came with the end of hostilities was tempered by the appalling conditions of the refugee camps; thousands of lost souls from broken countries across Europe were lumped together and starvation and illness was rife. Some took to eating the leaves from trees just to try and quell the hunger pangs.
Ms Brbic rarely talks about her time in the camps, and as the memory of the horrific conditions overwhelm her tears stream from her eyes.
There was one salvation, though, as Ms Brbic met a handsome young Croat behind the wire and after a short courtship the pair were married.
With no one left for her in Poland and her new husband Stefan concerned the Croatian communists would kill him if he returned home, the pair jumped at the opportunity to board a converted sheep ship and sail for Australia in 1949. At first they settled in New South Wales, but Mr Brbic’s godfather had moved to Perth and urged them to come across.
They lived at a cousin’s house for the first two years, and when he gave them £500 and they secured a £600 loan from the bank, the pair were able to buy a house in Sewell Street, where Ms Brbic has lived ever since.
At first they had to sleep on the floor and breakfast and dinner consisted of just a piece of bread and a glass of milk; lunch wasn’t much more glamorous and consisted of one sandwich.
“People are always asking to buy the house; if I sold it now I would be a millionaire,” she laughs at how her fortunes have changed for the better.
But the past was always there to haunt the couple and in 1999 Mr Brbic died of lung disease, a legacy of his time working in the Nazi’s mines.
Ms Brbic says she is so happy to have landed in Australia and ended up in such a caring community. Her neighbours take turns helping her out each day and taking her dog for a walk.
On Monday about 40 friends are expected to gather at the Glyde In community centre to celebrate her incredible milestone.
by STEVE GRANT