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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You

Aleksandar Hemon





The story goes that my mother’s grandfather Živko was going back home on his horse-drawn sleigh after a winter night of drinking and gambling, when he ran into a couple of terrifying giants blocking the path. He owned a lot of land, a provisions store, even had servants; he was rich and therefore imperious and arrogant. He determined that the giants would destroy him if he stopped, so he stood up on his sleigh, whipped forth the horses, and rushed at the creatures, who stepped aside to let him through.

His daughter, Ruža, married my grandfather Stjepan Živkovic, who would never run into a giant and whose family was not rich at all. The marriage was not arranged, which was uncommon in northeast Bosnia1 at the time (1921 or so), when marital bliss was inseparable from the goods and properties transacted between the bride’s and groom’s families. Mama believes that love was involved: Ruža’s father disowned her for going against his wishes. Ruža and Stjepan would have seven kids; my mother, Andja, born in 1937, was the youngest.

When she was four, Mama’s older brother Živan was playing a game with his friends that involved smacking a piece of wood with a stick (klis). The piece of wood hit him in the belly; he was full after lunch; his stomach ruptured and he died. The story doesn’t quite add up—the piece of wood couldn’t have been that heavy—but that was what my mother was told.2 When sorrows come, they come not as single spies, but in battalions: right around the time of Živan’s death, World War Two entered Yugoslavia by way of the invading Germans. Mama’s oldest brother, Bogdan, was nineteen when he joined the partisan resistance movement. Mama remembers that whenever she woke up in the middle of the night during the war years, she’d find Ruža awake, worrying about her eldest son, swaying to and fro on her bed like a Hasid.

The war was complicated in Bosnia, as all its wars have always been, as all wars always are. In addition to the Germans, Tito’s partisans had to fight against the royalist Serb forces—the cetniks—who openly collaborated with the occupying forces, busying themselves mainly with massacring Muslims. My mother’s family is ethnically Serb, and the area where they lived—the village called Brodac near the town of Bijeljina—was solid cetnik territory. Much of Ruža’s family supported the cetniks too, by a kind of default that comes with being rich and arrogant. Stjepan, on the other hand, would not have any of that, and not only because his eldest son was a partisan—he was also just a decent man. The cetniks would occasionally come by to look for Bogdan, and when they couldn’t find him they’d harass Stjepan. He once hid, in a pile of manure, a box of ammo air-dropped by the Allies in order to deliver it to the partisans. But someone informed the cetniks, who beat my grandfather into a pulp, demanding to know where the ammo was. He told them nothing; they took him to a detention camp and would’ve likely slit his throat if Ruža’s family hadn’t intervened; he would subsequently be under house arrest for six months. Another time, toward the end of the war, Stjepan gave his only horse to a wounded young partisan on the run. The young partisan promised he would return the horse; he never did, but Stjepan would never regret helping a man in trouble. He must have imagined that someone else, somewhere else, could in the same way decide to help his son.

My uncle Bogdan did manage to survive the war, and was in the unit that fought at the Sremski Front, in the difficult battle that ensured the defeat of the German and collaborator forces and the liberation of Belgrade. As a machine gunner he was always a prime target; he received a bullet in his chest, while two of his assistants were shot dead next to him. A lung had to be removed, and he would never be entirely healthy again. Nor would Ruža ever sleep again, at least not until her death.

Mama was a child when the war ended, but she would never talk about being scared or traumatized by it. Neither did she tell any childhood stories: there were few adventures, she had few animal or human friends, she did not even get into trouble with her siblings. Narratively speaking, Mama did not have a childhood. First she was in the war, the littlest of the kids, and then, with the end of the calamity, a moot but exciting future opened up for her and she had to leave her childhood behind.

In 1948, when she was merely eleven, she moved to attend middle school in Bijeljina, five miles and very far away from her village. She lived in a rented room,3 taking a train back home every weekend. She stayed in Bijeljina through her high school years, graduating with good grades in 1957 from—and this is only for the name—Državna realna gimnazija Filip Višnjic.4 Then, as ever, she was a devout and conscientious student.

In 1957, she went to college in Belgrade, the capital and the biggest city in Yugoslavia, some eighty miles and a century away from Brodac. She at first resided with three other young women in a dorm room in Studentski grad (Student City). She subsisted on a modest stipend, with little money and few possessions. But she had fun, and still likes to reminisce about the beauty of communal youth, about the ethos of sharing everything—meals, clothes, experience—about the sense that, despite manifest poverty, there was nothing lacking.

There were dances (igranka) at the university cafeteria, featuring one Mirko Šouc and his rock ’n’ roll band; she would sometimes go to two dances in a single night. U.S. movies played in the theaters, if with several years’ delay. Esther Williams reigned;5 Three Coins in the Fountain was a blockbuster, and the song from the movie was enthusiastically sung by the youth, in their, shall we say, limited English. Kaubojski filmovi (cowboy films) in general, and John Wayne in particular, were beloved. To this day, Mama—ever prone to passing out before a TV—stays awake for Rio Grande or Rio Bravo or Red River.6 Soviet movies could be seen too: The Cranes Are Flying,7 a post-Stalinist Soviet film about love and war (and rape), would make an entire theater sob in unison. They also watched Yugoslav movies, as the country’s cinema was going through one of its golden periods.

The plot of Ljubav i moda (Love and Fashion),8 for instance, revolved around the young people organizing a fashion show to fund their gliding club. The movie opens with a tracking shot of a hip young woman riding a Vespa on the streets of Belgrade, not exactly crowded with cars, while a sugary pop song (šlager) warns us that a young man might be coming along. Unsurprisingly, she runs into one at a streetlight; in no time he tells her that she should be in the kitchen and not on the Vespa, calling her a “motorized schizo-girl”; she calls him a brute, and love is as imminent as fashion. In the photos from that time, my mother often looks like the girl on the Vespa: the balloon skirt, bobby socks, and a beehive hairdo. Indeed, she remembers watching the shoot for Ljubav i moda. When I first saw the movie, I looked for her face in the crowd. The movie features not only young, well-dressed women and men laughing, flying gliders, and addressing one another as “comrade,” but also Yugoslav pop stars arbitrarily breaking out into badly lip-synced songs, one of them containing the immortal line: “Because fashion is the whipping cream and love is the ice cream” (“Jer moda to je šlag, a ljubav sladoled”). Among those songs was “Devojko mala,” which would a generation later be unironically covered by a hip band (VIS Idoli) I loved and listened to.

Around that time, in the eighties, I had great interest in the music and films from my parents’ student days, and their youth appeared to me cool to the point of nostalgia. In contrast, I don’t think that Mama ever longed to have lived her parents’ lives—by the time of Love and Fashion, the gap between the generations was far too wide. My discovery of her cool past allowed for a cultural continuity between us; we could now have a common referential field. I wanted to have lived through such a youth, was envious of the experience of unbridled optimism, joy, love, and fashion. Mama would often marvel at the fact that I listened to the music of her generation, to what she called “our music,” but even when I was young, I was never as young as she had once been.

* * *

My father wouldn’t be who he is without the great Otto von Bismarck. For it was Herr Otto who, after the Russo-Turkish War, orchestrated the 1878 Berlin Congress and the subsequent redistribution of lands among the European empires. It was in Berlin that the defeated Ottoman Empire agreed to cede to the Austro-Hungarian imperial forces the remote province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had been in its possession for about four hundred years. The occupation was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, of course, but Herr Otto expected it to last, as did pretty much everyone else involved, including the Habsburgs. Which is why the Crown hurried, as soon as the Austro-Hungarian troops entered Bosnia and Herzegovina, to import from other provinces the subjects who would colonize the new land. After the Young Turks’ 1908 coup against the sultan and the subsequent dissolution of the monarchy, the Austro-Hungarians were gifted a perfect excuse to annex Bosnia to their imperial domain and accelerate the colonization. This is where my father’s tribe enters the story.

Hauling their meager possessions, including a hive or two of bees and a steel plow, the Hemons migrated from Galicia (now western Ukraine) in 1912, my grandfather Ivan as old as the twentieth century. Just about the same time, my grandmother Mihaljina arrived from Bukovina, the province to the south of Galicia. They all settled near the town of Prnjavor, in northwestern Bosnia, where they were known as the Galicians at the time, since the notion of Ukrainian identity hadn’t yet trickled down from the elite intellectual circles who worried about such things. Besides Galicians/Ukrainians, the area around Prnjavor became a home to many colonists: Poles, Bohemians (Czechs), Germans, Italians joined the local mix of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. A family legend claims that my ancestors came over not only for a swath of arable land, but also for a forest that would be a reliable source of firewood, which gave them a better chance of surviving winters than in Galicia. When the empire was dismembered after World War One, some colonists returned to their newly independent homelands, but most, including the Hemons, stayed in what would become (and eventually perish as) Yugoslavia. Less than a century later, in a census taken a year before the most recent war, there were about five thousand Ukrainian-speaking people in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In one way or another, I was related to a large number of them.

Ivan married Mihaljina in 1925, and they promptly engaged in procreation; my oldest aunt, Marija, was born in 1926. (Now she lives in Edmonton, Canada.) By 1947, my grandmother went through eleven pregnancies, which resulted in one miscarriage and ten children. They all lived on a hill called Vucijak, in a small straw-roofed, dirt-floored, hearth-equipped house, which they shared in the winter with cattle and other domestic animals.

My father, Petar, was the sixth child, born in 1936, just in time for World War Two, which was nasty and complicated around Prnjavor, where the ethnic mix, complicated even by Bosnian standards, offered myriad opportunities for massacres of civilians and frequent skirmishes among various loosely defined units, including the exotic and murderous cerkezi, the captured Red Army soldiers who had switched sides to fight with the Germans. Neither did it help that the border of the Croat fascist puppet state (NDH)9 was at the nearby Vijaka River, so that refugees flowed across when the Croat Ustashe units committed their massacres. Armed groups would come by my grandparents’ house to requisition food or whatever they could carry away. At least once, Ivan and Mihaljina’s family were lined up to be shot, but then were let go at the last moment as someone who knew them pointed out they were meek and benign, unlikely to cause any harm. Even if they hadn’t been pardoned, they wouldn’t have been all killed, however. My father’s older sisters, grown up enough to attract attention, knew to hide; the younger kids knew to slip away. In our part of the world, one reason for large broods of children, in addition to the absence of contraception, was that the more children a family had, the more would survive war, disease, and poverty. In 1943, the Hemons became refugees: they were forced out of their house carrying what goods they could (my father remembers carrying a coffee grinder), not knowing if they’d ever return. They sought refuge with family in the area. When they returned a couple of months later, they found that much of their meager stuff had been pilfered by their neighbors and passing warriors.

When I was a kid, my father told me his war stories, as he still does. Those were the narratives of mischievous children playing with war debris and killing devices. One of my favorites was about how they once threw ammo into a fire and fooled the cerkezi into thinking they were being shot at, thereby diverting them from coming to pillage the Hemon homestead. Some of his stories were no doubt embellished, sometimes the war horror was toned down, but there was one whose tragic dimension could never be undone or reduced. When my father was eight and his brother Teodor ten, they found a box of five trip-wire mines, which they shared with three other village boys. The five of them decided to drop the mines into the concrete water reservoir behind the school, because they wanted the explosion to echo. But they couldn’t tell the difference between a hand grenade and a mine. They knew that after a grenade was activated you counted to three, but they didn’t realize that a mine would explode momentarily. So Teodor pulled the wire and the mine exploded in his hand, blowing it away. In wartime, war is everywhere, devours all space, touching everyone in it, including children. My father remembers the torn veins and tendons hanging from his brother’s arm, his face like a crushed strawberry. Uncle Teodor survived, but he lost his eyes. It is quite possible that he pulled the wire first because he was older than my father. The life of the family changed that day, and no one would ever consider or discuss the impossible alternative outcome—that life could become, again, what it had been. But, due to my compulsive writerly deformation, I have considered a different life trajectory: Had the mine not exploded in his hand, maybe Uncle Teodor would’ve been the first one to leave home for school, perhaps he would’ve gone on to college. Maybe my father would’ve stayed at home, never going far from it; maybe he never would’ve met my mother. This is how history works: arbitrarily and irreversibly.

Thus it was Tata who at the age of eleven left his home and childhood to go to school in Banja Luka, a city some forty miles away from Vucijak. It rained the day he arrived to stay with his mother’s cousin; he looked for hours out the window in his room and cried; he went on crying for three days straight. The first time he stepped out to play with the boys from the neighborhood, they beat him up.

Three years later, he transferred to a school in Derventa, only twenty miles away from Vucijak. On weekends, he would bike home to see his family. One winter day, his pedal broke and he pushed the bike through the snow for hours, risking his life not to lose his precious vehicle. In 1952, he went back to Banja Luka for high school, this time staying in a dorm. Those were the hungry years, because a drought devastated crops all over Bosnia. At the dorm, for breakfast the boys would have a piece of bread—one-eighth of a one-kilo loaf10—a cube of jelly, and tea. A boy from Drvar once stole a whole loaf and an entire packet of jelly, for which he was promptly expelled from school.

While school was free, Tata’s poor parents had to pay for the cost of his living, so he lived even more modestly than was common. Back at home in the summers, he’d have to work at a collective farm (zadruga) to make some money. He kept writing applications for stipends, submitting twenty-five before, in his junior year, he received a positive answer from Elektroprenos, the state energy distribution company. Because they paid him retroactively from the beginning of the school year, he suddenly seemed flush with money, so he spent a big part of it on having a suit made. It was his first one ever, and it shrank with the first rain. He studied like crazy but still found time to play handball at the local club, and to practice kissing with girls. There were hundreds of students in his high school, twenty-two boys in his class; whenever a boy had a stipend approved, he’d buy a pan of baklava to share with his classmates. Tata remained friends with a lot of those boys; he went to the high school reunion in 2016, and only six were present; the rest were displaced, dead, or killed.

He had the highest grade average at graduation, so he was easily admitted to the Electrotechnics College (Elektrotehnicki fakultet) at the University of Belgrade. He was back at home when he opened the letter informing him of another, larger college stipend from Elektroprenos. The whole family celebrated; his mother made steranka—dough boiled in milk—his favorite dish. But before going to college, he had to go into the army, volunteering for the reserve officers’ school so as to serve only a year (as a grunt, he would’ve served two), reaching the rank of captain. I still remember the brownish uniform he would put on years later before going away for a military exercise, a belt with a strap across the chest and three stars on the epaulets.

Because he saved money from his summer jobs at Elektroprenos while also receiving a monthly stipend, he could afford having fun in Belgrade. He had three roommates in Studentski grad and they went to soccer games, concerts, movies, but Tata nonetheless studied like crazy. He particularly enjoyed movies—in high school he had collected ticket stubs and kept a journal listing all the titles he’d seen.11 Like everyone else, he got caught up in the Esther Williams fever; he stood in line to see High Noon12 and John Wayne flicks. One of his favorite movies was Emilio Fernández’s 1950 tear-jerker Un día de vida (One Day in Life),13 featuring the traditional Mexican song “Las Mananitas,” phenomenally popular in Yugoslavia under the name “Mama Juanita.” Tata might still sing it at parties, deploying a poignant vibrato straight from Mexico and the fifties. The movie, now largely forgotten, single-handedly started a Yugoslav Mexican-music scene, whose stars were sombrero-wearing Montenegrins singing in poignant Serbo-Croatian about leaving behind their villages, Juanitas, and mothers for a big city.

* * *

My parents met in 1959. My father had a roommate (cimer), Nidžo, whose sister Šiša was my mother’s roommate. One day Nidžo came by to see his sister, and my father tagged along. The first time Tata saw Mama, she was on the bed studying—her legs Z-shaped, I imagine, her hair fashionably puffed up, with that intelligent reading face of hers. What they talked about, I do not know, but my father was a charmer, and my mother was a joyful young woman, and they went to a dance together. The band must’ve played Paul Anka, Adriano Celentano, Ðorde Marjanovic, the hits from the Sanremo Festival. They soon were dating; they took strolls together, started kissing. My father, typically blunt, told my mother that she didn’t know how to kiss, whereas he’d practiced in high school with one Ružica. My mother got upset, and he had to schmooze his way back into her good graces.

Copyright © 2019 by Aleksandar Hemon