A Croatian Boy's Journey In Search Of A Better Life
Jerko (pronounced Yerko) was born on March 30, 1899 in Supetar, Brac, an island across from Split, Croatia. When Jerko spoke of the beauty of Croatia he wistfully expressed almost simultaneously “you cannot eat beauty”. He left school at the age of 11 years of age with only 4 years of education. Everyone in the family was needed in the struggle to feed and clothe themselves. His father, Vicko was never at home; he worked on ships that took him away for long periods of time. Vicko wanted to move to South America, however, his wife Lukre refused to leave her homeland. As a young boy, Jerko was influenced by the sight and tales of men returning from America, some were dressed in classical English suits with a gold chain and pocket watch. He eventually left home because “he was so hungry he was fighting for crumbs left on the table”. On the day he left the island of Brac in search of his dream his youngest sister Perina gave him a little money. It was a gesture of kindness Jerko remembered for the rest of his life.
Jerko’s first adventurous encounter started in 1920 shortly after World War I. He spoke of unwittingly being recruited by the French Foreign Legion. On the same day of his recruitment he became aware of the criminal type men around him and his godforsaken destination. He took the opportunity to escape on a dark and rainy night by crawling under the wire fence. Jerko soon joined up with some other Croatian men. As a group they decide their best option was to enlist in the British Army. After a brief training period they were shipped to Istanbul, Turkey, to serve as occupational soldiers. The tense and political chaotic environment necessitated constant vigilance at all times to prevent them from being stabbed. A fellow companion had been stabbed to death during the night, a frequently occurring circumstance. According to Jerko, Istanbul was much more impoverished than Croatia, the filthy streets beset with a multitude of beggars. Destitute peddlers sat on the pavement, eagerly yelling and pleading to the passing crowds to buy their pancakes(as closely remembered, chapatees) and other wares.
Service in the British Army entitled foreign nationals like Jerko the privilege of immigrating to a British Colony of their choice. On completion of their British Army service Jerko and his fellow countrymen (Dinko Yustin, Lovro Zencich, and Frank Bozikovich) immigrated to Canada. They crossed the ocean on the Ausonia, a ship belonging to the Cunard Line. They arrived in Quebec on September 23, 1923. After being processed they were given employment in Quebec's vast interior. They were employed as lumberjacks, cutting down trees for a hydro right of way. Jerko was amazed at the vast stretches of water and trees that seemed to go on forever as they traveled through the wilderness. Coming from a country that had California type weather, they were unprepared for the severe bitter cold of a northern climate and the harsh living conditions in the camps. They quickly purchased clothing, putting them in debt with the company store. Jerko was very proud that he was able to rescue his companions from a life threatening incident caused by the bitter winter environment in the lumber camp; enough to make Dinko Yustin cry, the strong man of the group. During the second year in the bush, Jerko and his companions contracted out their services in order to make sufficient money to pay off their debt to the company store. Gradually they learned enough French to communicate with the French workmen. At the end of their contract they were well enough informed to leave for Montreal. After a short stay in Montreal, Jerko left for Toronto. He found a place to live in Cabbage Town where there was a small Yugoslavian community.
Prior to marriage, Jerko and a friend made a living by operating a rooming house on Oak Street, Toronto, where they sold booze and ran poker games. Jerko’s acquaintance with Irene Jessie McBrady who lived a few doors away quickly turned to love. They were married on July 6, 1927 when Jessie turned sixteen. Once married Jerko did not want to subject his young pregnant wife to a drinking and gambling environment. Being an unskilled foreigner during the depression he was forced to take a job as a dishwasher for $6.00 a week. While on his break, Jerko would assist the cook in preparing the food. He eventually learned enough to become a short order cook for Muirhead’s cafeteria in downtown Toronto.
During the same period of time Jerko, Jessie and baby Lucy lived in a flat owned by a friendly Jewish couple. Jerko’s landlord encouraged him to go in business for himself. The landlord believed that being self-employed allowed foreigners with limited education and no special skills a chance to make a decent living. The landlord supplemented his own income by repairing and then selling used potato bags. Jerko quit his job at Muirhead’s cafeteria after an ongoing conflict with another employee. He had decided to try his hand as a fruit peddler. Jerko bought a truck with the $300.00 that he borrowed from Jessie’s Uncle Willie. Jerko’s diligent work ethic enabled him to become a successful self-employed fruit peddler. Even though he had a limited formal education, he devised his own method of calculating costs, profit margins and selling prices. Jerko also had the ability to learn different languages such as English, Italian, French, Russian and Polish. He was able to provide for his increasing family, Lucia Alice 1928, Viola Frances 1931, Jerry Vincenzo, 1932, and Helen Irene 1941.
During the 1920s foreign names did not sit well with an “English Protestant” dominated society. Prior to going into business Jerko Dragicevic changed his name to Jerry Derich, mainly for business reasons. The job as a fruit peddler was demanding in the summer. Jerry would rise at 3:00 a.m. to pick up his fruit and vegetables from the Farmers’ Market located close to the St. Lawrence Market. He would then return home to arrange his produce and have breakfast. Out on the street by 8:00a.m. Jerry would peddle in different neighborhoods until the produce was sold; sometimes till 7:00p.m. To maintain his strength and vitality he usually went to bed at 8:00 p.m.
Jerry and Jessie had a stroke of luck in 1938. An elderly man was anxious to get rid of his old rented house at 216 Berkley Street, in Toronto, that was in need of major repairs. He took a liking to Jerry and Jessie and wanted them to have the house so he agreed to drop the price down from $3,000 to $600 to match the amount of money Jerry had managed to save. The house was a small three bedroom, a fully attached row house with a large barn in the backyard. The barn was particularly useful for his fruit and vegetable business. His Croatian friends who were frequently unemployed during the depression years volunteered to dig out a cellar and installed a foundation under the sagging kitchen and bathroom floor. In appreciation, Jerry put on an outstanding party in the backyard. A whole lamb was barbecued and served along with the other food. Ice cream was served for desert, a big treat in those depression years. Croatians songs were sung with heartfelt remembrance and joy under the night lights.
Our days were truly spent as a traditional family with supper around the table every evening. Sundays were special because it was a free day when Jerry would enjoy his lovely garden and play Croatian tunes on the accordion. It was also the day when he would dress up in his classical English suit (a three button single breasted jacket and vest) along with his gold chain and watch. Jerry personified the vision of success that he had envisioned as a young boy. He was living his dream. Many Sundays were spent with Jerry driving his family and friends such as the Kokich and Yustin families to various places. Sitting on wooden crates in the back of his 3/4 ton V8 Ford panel truck we went to nearby beaches such as Sunnyside Beach, Kew Beach, Humber River, Rouge River etc. or to Croatian picnics where we would dance, sing and eat roasted lamb.
Wintertime included an enjoyable social life attending Croatian Fraternal Union dances and concerts. Christmas evening was spent in the Yustin’s home crowded with friends. During the celebration Jerry’s deep singing voice could be heard above all others as they sang the songs of their homeland. On New Year’s evening everyone reciprocated and came over to the Derich’s household to continue the celebration. Jerry loved to go to the local movie houses on Parliament St. (Eclipse or Blue Bell theatres) most Monday and Tuesday nights in the winter months when his business was slow. He particularly enjoyed popular cowboy movies.
In 1952, at the age of 53 Jerry decided it was time to get off the street and retire from fruit peddling. Together with his wife Jessie, they became the proud owners of a Red & White grocery store at 500 Pape Ave. Their daughter Lucy sacrificed her career as a secretary to help her parents in their struggle to become competent at running the grocery store. A few years later Jerry’s three eldest children were married. Jerry sold the grocery store and bought a house at 8 Minton Place and worked in the Fruit and Vegetable Department at Knob Hill Farms store. Jerry found the work at Knob Hill Farms store too tiring. Jessie convinced her husband it made more sense to buy the grocery store at 468 Mortimer Avenue and rent 8 Minton Place.
They opened for business on September,1958. At their store Jessie was able to help her husband and give him a chance to take rest breaks during the day. In 1963 at the age of 64, Jerry was happy and contented. He felt financially secure and proud of his new home and grocery store. His children were doing well. Jerry had four grandchildren and one on its way. His duty as a father would be completed with the marriage of his youngest daughter Helen, which was to happen on December of 1963.
On July 14, 1963, Jerry’s life ended suddenly while he was in good health and looking toward receiving the old age security cheque. All his life Jerry had struggled to survive and prosper. He had survived through dangerous situations, harsh living conditions and subsistent wages. For Jerry it was almost inconceivable that he would receive anything without a struggle. He was looking forward to a secure and happy retirement. But fate intervened ! The entire family was driving to a picnic at Wilket Creek Park. Jerry and Jessie were following behind everyone in their light blue Chevy panel truck. Just as they were crossing over the Don Valley overpass on Don Mills Road, a black Cadillac lost control and smashed into their truck. Jerry and Jessie were rushed to the hospital by ambulance. Jerry died shortly afterwards, but Jessie survived her massive injuries. Five months after the accident Jerry’s engaged and youngest daughter Helen was married. Helen’s mother insisted the wedding take place. Jessie wanted nothing to interfere with her daughter’s happiness. Jessie attended the celebration with her leg in a cast sitting in a wheel chair.
Prior to World War II, Jerry who had no relatives in Canada encouraged his younger brother Juraj to work on a ship that would bring him to Canada. From there Juraj would jump ship and make his way to Toronto. Once in Toronto Juraj would be safe and protected until he was able to look after himself Juraj did reach England but changed his mind and returned to Yugoslavia. Juraj got caught up in the war and was killed. Jerry’s father Vicko was killed when he was pushed off a truck by a German solder and left to die. His mother Lukre we are told died of a broken heart shortly after the war.
Jerry never managed to visit his family in Brac, Croatia, nor did any of his relatives make their way to Canada. The only remembrance of Jerry’s family was the black framed photograph of his family and some pictures of his nieces and nephews sent by relatives. From the beginning Jerry corresponded with his family and always sent a little money and clothes until many years after the war. It was Perina’s kindness that Jerry always remembered by sending her a special gift until the end of his life. Jessie continued sending Perina a gift for a long time thereafter in Jerry’s memory.
Written by: Helen Irene Derich Klar and Jerry Vincenzo Derich.