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The Soul of a Shoemaker
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“I was a defector holed up in a camp with other refugees from the Hungarian Revolution. When the opportunity came for me to immigrate to Canada, I cherished those papers. The only condition was that I had to travel to Winnipeg to work on the railway.“
Over sixty years ago in 1957, Frank Katana escaped communist Yugoslavia on foot and found his way to Canada, where he started a shoe empire.
Frank was born in 1932 in Mali Bukovec, a small village in the county of Varazdin in Croatia. His parents were farmers, and after the devastating war, he apprenticed with shoemakers.
“I was the only one who could never really adapt to that life,” as he would say in his thick Croatian accent, in his vast Shoe factory in an industrial park in Scarborough, east of Toronto. “I was always looking for something easier than farming. I always wanted to achieve something on my own.”
After completing his apprenticeship, he went to Zagreb, where he made specialized shoes by hand. After two and half years there, he decided to leave the country. “Life was really tough in Yugoslavia. I wanted something better, whether in Austria or somewhere else.”
The somewhere else would be Canada, but not without the kind of horrifying close calls once so familiar to people who attempted to leave Eastern Europe, and so unknown to most Canadians; the police taking away his two friends: the one-way trip to the Austrian border; the police who refused to believe his story about meeting a girlfriend there; his leap from the ride and the overnight search for the defector; the camp in Austria overflowing with refugees from the Hungarian Revolution.
The story of
After six months in Austria, my father, Frank Katana, embarked on a boat from Germany. He arrived sick in Halifax and decided he would stay in Toronto rather than continue on to Winnipeg, where it was cold six months of the year.
Frank had wanted to go to Australia, but friends who had gotten out had written to him in Yugoslavia, “We’re being eaten by snakes and mosquitoes!”
Frank in the news
When Frank stepped off the train at Union Station,
he decided to sit and wait until he heard someone speak Croatian.
Eventually, he overheard two men conversing in his language, and he begged them to take him for one night. He put spring onto mattresses for 60 cents an hour at his first job. After a few weeks, he looked for a shoe factory to put his education to use. Eventually, he worked his way up to foreman. There were false starts when he ventured on his own. The banks weren’t too anxious to help out, so he bought old machines and repaired them.
The painful memories of escape and resurrection in the New World are still there, but so is the drive that made it possible.