Shielded from pandemics a century apart, Marija hits 110 at home with family

Shielded from pandemics a century apart, Marija hits 110 at home with family

June 12, 2023

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Marija Ruljancich has lived through two pandemics, two world wars and much, much else.

Now she has a collection of birthday congratulations from two monarchs: a handful received over the past 10 years from the late Queen Elizabeth II, and this week, one from King Charles III.

Marija Ruljancich, from Hawthorn, is Victoria’s oldest person, having turned 110.Credit: Simon Schluter

She celebrates her 110th birthday on Tuesday.

It makes her Victoria’s oldest resident and the third-oldest in Australia by a matter of months.

For the past five years, she has, according to her family, been the world’s oldest living Croatian.

Marija has never spent time in a nursing home.

Marija’s congratulatory notes from the two English monarchs over the past 10 years.Credit: Simon Schluter

She lives in Hawthorn with her son, Melbourne oral and maxillofacial surgeon Dr Kevin Ruljancich, who has sacrificed his own social life for the past three pandemic years to carefully shield his mother from becoming infected with COVID-19.

“It is in our culture to look after our parents,” he says, simply.

Indeed, one of his two sons, Nick, has moved his architecture office into the family home to ensure he is close to his grandmother during the day. Kevin’s other son, David, lived at home until moving to Sydney to study medicine.

Marija was born on June 13, 1913, in Vis, a Croatian island in the Adriatic Sea.

The Croatian island of Vis, where Marija was born.Credit: iStock

What might have been an idyllic childhood was interrupted by three calamitous events.

A disease destroyed her family’s vineyards and income.

World War I broke out, re-shaping the island’s destiny from being part of the Austrian empire to acceding to Italian rule, and then to being absorbed into what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

When she was five, the 1918 Great Influenza pandemic swept the island. She still recalls the tolling of church bells as islanders died and the fearful closing of windows against the unknown.

And yet, the poverty that came with the loss of the family’s wine business saved the child.

The family moved to an isolated settlement, distant from the island’s main population, and the flu did not reach them. By the time Marija was required to attend school, aged seven, the pandemic had passed.

She attributes her long life to having never indulged in alcohol or smoked tobacco, and to eating sparingly.

Imposed exercise from childhood might have helped, too. She walked seven kilometres each morning to school, and seven kilometres home each afternoon.

Marija celebrates her birthday with generations of her family.Credit: Simon Schluter

Life on Vis ended in 1944 for Marija and the fellow islander she married at age 19, Ivan Ruljancich.

Italian forces occupied Vis during World War II until the island was liberated by partisans and became a base for British and Yugoslav forces fighting the Germans. In 1944, under the cover of darkness, Marija and Ivan and their two young children, John and Dinah (both, like Ivan, now deceased) were spirited to safety by British forces on a boat.

They ended up in a refugee camp in Egypt, and were later given a choice of countries to migrate to. Ivan had spent some years as a young man in Western Australia, felling trees, and so chose Australia.

Their third child, Kevin, was born in Melbourne, where both parents worked hard to support the family. Among Ivan’s numerous labouring jobs was smashing rocks by sledgehammer in a quarry at Bulleen. He died, aged 88, in 1991.

Marija Ruljancich has outlived all her peers, but she had no shortage of family celebrating her 110th birthday with her on Monday.

She has eight grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren.

And yes, a message of congratulations from a new king to add to her long, long lifetime of memories.

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