We often think of the fallen veterans when we pay homage to the patriots who fought courageously for their country and were willing to sacrifice their lives for a noble cause. Today, on this Armistice holiday, "Veterans Day", I wanted to pay tribute to a special man who is still with us and going strong, many years after surviving the battlefields of war. He was a Chetnik freedom-fighter, a Serbian patriot, who fought on the Allied side in World War II against the Nazis and the Fascists in Yugoslavia, and who lived to tell about it.
His name is Nick D. Petrovich, and in his 2003 autobiography, "FREEDOM OR DEATH", he recounts a life well lived. Below you will find that portion of his autobiography that relives his experiences as a freedom-fighter during wartime. The story is rich and engaging, told in the voice of a man who was there, was in the thick of it all, and who has chosen to graciously share his story.
FREEDOM OR DEATH
By Nick D. Petrovich
Nick Petrovich in Visegrad, Bosnia 1944.
He is wearing the boots of a fallen German officer
and the shirt of an Italian soldier. His Serbian guerrilla
unit had just successfully evicted a
Nazi SS Bosnian Moslem unit from Visegrad.
Nick Petrovich 1944
When a man runs the gauntlet he is normally not the journal-keeping kind, so, fifty years later, when his family and close friends insist that he sits down and writes his memories for their enjoyment, he wonders if there are parts that need to be omitted. So, I decided to put the heavy stuff on the backburner, and go straight to the period that comprises all the elements of an unpredictable scenario unfolding. Events I had little control of, and, therefore, never knew what to expect the following day. Admittedly, the first part, which can not be acted by my family at the dinner table, is difficult to dispose of, like nuclear waste, although not that dangerous. I also must admit that after coming to America, as part of a psychological release I removed some of the heavy stuff from my mind, not to destroy the evidence, but to make room for a new, more pragmatic, but hopefully, not too sterile stage of my new life.
Aleksa Petrovich was enjoying his quiet life in the mountains of Montenegro when he heard at a village meeting that the Serbian ruler Knez Milos had issued an invitation to the ethnic Serbs from various regions to settle in Serbia, which at that time was decimated by cholera and other plagues. The offer promised that a settler would receive a large tract of land, and Aleksa, who, as most Montenegrins are known for, hated work decided to take full advantage of the offer. He packed his family, crossed Bosnia and arrived into the mountain range of Zlatibor. He found the area around Sirogojno very similar to his native Montenegro and decided to settle down on the highlands of Drenova. As a homesteader he staked claim and obtained from Serbian authorities several hundred hectares of excellent land, which included large wooded areas extending all the way to the river Katusnica. This generous gift was bestowed upon him because he claimed that just before crossing the river Drina he had killed a couple of Turks. The proof of this was that he arrived into Serbia with his hands and clothes stained with blood.
In Drenova he slowly acquired a taste for Sliwovitz, a Serbian brandy made from plums, and as a consequence started losing interest in cultivating and developing his land. As the urge for Sliwovitz increased he started selling his best pieces of land so he could buy this favorite moonshine made by the local peasants. The story goes that at the end he became so addicted to booze that he would trade a parcel of land for a 200 liter barrel of this great stuff. Years later when he was down and out it was discovered that this rascal really never killed any Turks but that before entering Serbian territory he stole and killed a chicken and smeared his hands and his clothes with its blood. However, apparently this simulation was enough to convince Serbian authorities that he should be given the enormous piece of land, of which his heirs got practically nothing. He was my father Drago Petrovich’s ancestor whom he never met but because of his hedonistic lifestyle, during several generations the entire family had to live under the stigma of his mischief and addiction.
After having been humiliated, scolded and spanked by his teacher at age eleven, Drago threw an ink bottle at him, and fled the Sirogojno school to join a mule and horse caravan transporting pine resin and dried meat to Uzice, the nearest important town in western Serbia. He spent his first night sleeping in the stable of the inn where the mule drivers and the merchants normally stayed waiting for daybreak to sell their goods at the local market place. Uzice had been liberated from the Turks in 1862 when the Serbs set on fire the entire town to get rid of the Ottoman oppressors.
Not one mosque was left standing and not one Turk survived. The only reminder of the Ottoman occupation is the old Turkish fortress on Djetinja, the river that slices Uzice in two parts, the main town and Medjaj where I was born and where Drago’s flourmill building still stands, bearing a plaque in his honor. After Drago’s passing away I donated it to the local hunting club of which Drago at one time was the president and an avid supporter. The first floor of the building has been converted into a restaurant, and the upper floor into recreation rooms and offices.
Even though he was only eleven, Drago was able to get a job the next day at the inn working first as a stable attendant, then as janitor and dishwasher, and finally graduating to serving tables. This “brilliant career” was terminated a few years later when he felt a tremendous desire to volunteer into the Serbian army to fight the invading Austro-Hungarian forces. This military action was designed by the Baron Hoetzendorf to ferociously punish little Serbia for the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, which was committed by Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian student. Germany and Italy had expressed full approval of the Austrian program and announced their readiness to go to extremes to prevent any support of Serbia from any quarter.
Two years later in 1916, after marching over two hundred kilometers, and fighting a formidable Austro-Hungarian enemy at Misar and Prizren, Drago’s decimated Drina Division initiated a catastrophic retreat toward the friendly Greece. This implied crossing Albania through incessant blizzards, with little food available and being under constant attacks by the savage Albanian tribes, while trying to protect their sick and wounded soldiers, and take care of helpless civilians who were retreating with them.
Sick, hungry and exhausted, the Serbian army led by King Peter I, finally reached the Albanian port of Valona, where they embarked on a sea journey to the island of Corfu. There, the Serbian army was regrouped and rehabilitated, but many died from typhus and wounds inflicted by the enemy while these courageous soldiers defended their homeland. Serbian military cemeteries in Salonika and Corfu stand today as tragic reminders of this heroic Serbian odyssey. Drago found his brother Stanimir in a French military hospital in Corfu, where he was treated for seven bayonet wounds he had suffered in a battle against the Bulgarians in Strumica a few months earlier.
During 1917 the Serbian army was rehabilitated, trained, reorganized and armed for the allied counter offensive known as the Southern Front, which culminated in a victorious return to Serbia in 1918, and in a disastrous defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its allies. On July 28, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that the Serbian flag be raised over the White House and all public buildings in the nation’s capital. His message read: “On Sunday, 28th of this present month, will occur the fourth anniversary of the day when the gallant people of Serbia, rather than submit to the studied and ignoble executions of a prearranged foe, were called upon by the war declaration of Austria-Hungary to defend their territory and their homes against an enemy bent on their destruction. Nobly did they respond.”
After marching through Serbia with the victorious army, Drago returned to Uzice as a liberator and a hero, but his legs had been permanently damaged by the battle wounds and the frostbite he suffered during the retreat through Albania, which in Serbian history is still referred to as the Albanian Golgotha. Early in my life I realized that in World War I, the Serbs were the only Balkan people to side with the allies and simultaneously fought for their independence against two empires, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, while the Croats, Muslims and Albanians fought on the side of the empires. The Serbs won, but instead of creating a “Greater Serbia”, as many a victor might have, they spearheaded the creation of a joint kingdom which later was renamed Yugoslavia.
In spite of his war injuries and setbacks, Drago quickly established himself as a capable baker and a grain merchant, and later expanded his activities into the flourmill business by acquiring a small, crumbling mill located on the Djetinja river. This mill was built by a Turk named Tole during the seventeenth century, and later sold by his heirs to a well to do Serb for 600 golden ducats. In 1936 the old mill was about to collapse, and Drago replaced it with a three storied modern building which became a landmark under the name “Drago’s Mill”.
A few years later Drago married Jovanka Andrich, a native of Uzice, whose father Andjelko and her brother Djordje had died together in 1916 in a historic battle while defending Belgrade from the advancing Austro-Hungarians. Their names are inscribed on the memorial plaque at the entrance of the Orthodox Church of Uzice. Her mother Radojka had died from a heart attack when she learned about this tragedy, and Jovanka became an orphan along with her two sisters Dobrila and Stanika and brother Ljubomir. This tragic situation provoked a passionate hatred against the Germans for the rest of Jovanka’s life.
The first two children of the Drago-Jovanka marriage died at birth, but finally on a frigid December day of the coldest winter that Uzice still remembers, baby Nikola arrived. 1927 was also the year of the worldwide economic collapse, which ruined Drago’s business and forced him to file for bankruptcy. In his innocence he had served as guarantor of many promissory notes issued by his business friends and associates, and when the payments could not be met all of his assets, including the furniture, were foreclosed and sold at a public auction.
When he reopened his business it had to be done under the name of his brother Stanimir, and this lasted until he paid off all of the debts he had incurred as a guarantor. Although this was a devastating blow to his pride, he took it in the chin like a man and worked hard to reestablish his reputation in the business circles of Uzice.
GROWING UP IN UZICE
To add to Drago’s misery, I, baby Nikola, slept all day long and cried all night, which drove him and Jovanka crazy and kept them awake till dawn. But then, all of a sudden, there was a miraculous silence during several nights, and Jovanka was bewildered until one night she caught Drago giving me Sliwovitz brandy on the tip of a handkerchief, which was also dipped in honey.
Drago’s business slowly recovered from the depression crash, and started to flourish again during the 1930’s, and Jovanka played an important public relations role with the community in general as well as with local authorities. She had good business acumen, was a good judge of people, and thus became a great asset in Drago’s enterprising effort.
On the other hand, Drago’s peasant wit and genius were unsurpassed, and his innate intelligence made him a powerful and extraordinary person.
While working at the inn as a young boy he slept on the attic where his boss kept his library, and he would spend candlelit nights reading books which ranged from Socrates and Tolstoy to many text books on a variety of subjects including mathematics and medicine. Even though he was a self taught man local lawyers and professors greatly enjoyed having a drink with him and listening to his discourses on international politics, economics, and his home spun philosophy.
He had little tolerance for the bureaucrats and government in general, and when the people of the Uzice region nominated him to run for the senator of the Democratic Party he cleverly proposed his neighbor Dr. Zotovich for the job. However, he played a vital role in the election campaign by delivering fiery campaign speeches in favor of his protégé, who won by a wide margin. Because he lacked sound formal education sometimes his interpretation of historical events or scientific facts were somehow distorted, and his writings were often deficient in grammar and punctuation. But this did not bother him at all, and at the end of his letters he would type a row of periods, commas, and colons and would ask the reader to distribute them properly throughout the text. He was also a walking encyclopedia of jokes and anecdotes with which he frequently monopolized conversations, but everybody seemed to enjoy them.
Drago had a great Jewish business friend in Belgrade, Moritz Samuel, who was a grain broker and a good businessman in general. He was instrumental in steering Drago into various lucrative ventures such as exporting mushrooms to Austria, an alliance with Pavle Bruslija a prominent miller from Cacak, and sponsoring a distributorship in Pozega, operated by Arsenije Cvijovic. However, in 1937 disaster struck when Dimitrije, Drago’s ex teacher from Sirogojno, became the mayor of Uzice and their feud was renewed and continued for many years. He would not let Drago’s trucks and carriages loaded with flour go down the main street.
In retaliation Drago did not permit the mayor’s car to go over the bridge in front of the mill which he had built. A couple of years later Drago spent a lot of money on the mayoral election campaign sponsoring his friend Andrija Mirkovich. Fortunately, Dimitrije lost and left Uzice and Drago celebrated the victory by throwing a party and by displaying a huge Serbian flag on the mill.
Drago’s great weakness was that he trusted people and gave credit to everyone so that accounts receivable represented a substantial part of his net worth. When the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia Drago made a public announcement in Uzice that all those who owed him money should not worry because their debt was written off. At that time practically every resident of Uzice owed him money, but he took it philosophically by quoting an old Serbian saying:”When the horse is gone you may throw away the bridle as well”. This implied that when you have lost your country, why try to collect beggarly dinars from the destitute people who can not pay anyway.
Meanwhile, I was growing up slowly in Uzice as an overprotected, sickly child, overburdened with private lessons of music and foreign languages, which Jovanka considered to be very important tools for someone who was predestined to play an important role not only locally but on a global scale. At the age of five she enrolled me in a kindergarten managed by a Russian lady who tried to teach us to sing and dance “Sur le pont d’Avignon”.
I was already participating in the gymnast Soko organization and taking my first violin lessons, so this was a little too much to digest and I had to do something dramatic in order to get out of this mess. In other words, I had to make myself unwelcome and provoke the expulsion, so I started working on a plan to achieve this.
I hated being with a bunch of sissies and I had an urge to show my displeasure of having to pronounce strange words and hold hands with little girls. One day after a big rainfall there was a huge puddle In front of the school. I called all the girls out “to see a strange fish,” and when they got close enough I threw a rock in the puddle and splashed mud on their fancy dresses.
This was the end of my French exposure and mama Jovanka made a valiant effort to enroll me in the preprimary school although I was not even six years old. The school director, who was a family friend, gave me an easy arithmetic test and after answering all his questions, I asked him if he would like me to teach him how to calculate the value of a railroad box car full of grain when the unit price was 1.25 dinars per kilogram. My offer caused him and Jovanka to have a laughing fit. In spite of being underage I was accepted, and started attending the King Peter II School.
From there on I never had the luxury of public shyness, but I really got over the stage fright when I was selected to recite a poem dedicated to Saint Sava in front of my entire grade school.
Jovanka encouraged me to participate in competitive sports including soccer, skiing and swimming, as well as to join the school orchestra, and expected me to excel in whatever endeavor I undertook. However, she was petrified when she learned that I had made a twenty meter swan dive from the railroad bridge. I repeated this feat for a local photographer, who had an enlargement of this photo exhibited in his studio for a long time. But I was a rebel at heart and enjoyed much more playing marbles and fishing in the river with the poor kids, and as a gang leader organizing and arming them with the slingshots for the street fights against other town gangs. In other words, I resented being labeled as a bourgeois, spoiled weakling and had a tremendous need to prove myself as a tough and fearless leader. Physical strength was an important factor, and during the summer I would swim 500 meters every morning in the dam that provided water for Drago’s mill, and do weigh lifting during the winter. The results were spectacular, and I had no equal in the street fights in which I engaged quite frequently in order to gain the respect and recognition of my gang. Because of being a good swimmer I even saved a child from drowning. His family was very poor but his mother gave me a small brass bell that an ancestor of theirs had brought from America. The bell is still one of my cherished possessions.
At home, Drago openly talked about the ethnic and religious problems of Yugoslavia, which in his opinion were provoked by the external forces of Mussolini’s Italy and the Vatican. Perhaps I was too young to grasp the gravity of the situation at that time, so I had my first rude awakening to the events of a global importance on October 9, 1934. I was only seven years old, when my school teacher explained to the class that our beloved King Alexander I had been murdered during his state visit to Marseille, France, by a Croatian terrorist. This was the work of the Croatian fascist Ustashi organization, sponsored by the Vatican, and financed and trained by Mussolini and Hitler. I was fascinated by Drago’s succinct explanations of this event to the peasants who were not only his steady customers in the mill, but his avid admirers.
King Alexander I Karageorgevich of Yugoslavia
About this time I joined the Soko gymnast organization which not only strived to develop strong and muscular bodies but also instilled strong anti nazi-fascist feelings in the Serbian youth. Drago’s vivid stories about the atrocities of the WWI were another important factor that slowly inspired a strong anti German feeling in me.
Both Drago and Jovanka were religious people and we celebrated the Christmas holyday with all the ancient ceremonies. They also celebrated Slava in grand style. This is the most important Serbian religious holiday marking the acceptance of Christianity when each family was given a saint for posterity. After a man’s death the same Slava is kept and perpetuated by his sons. Strangely, our family was not assigned a patron saint, but rather Palm Sunday as our Slava. People are not invited to a Slava, but everybody comes for a visit, and gets served drinks and food. It is unforgivable for a Serb to forget or ignore somebody’s Slava.
As a young boy I watched the initiation of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 with great interest and if I had been a few years older I probably would have joined the International Brigades to experience war. Even though I was too young to embark on this adventure, I was greatly heartened by Drago’s predictions that it would not take too long before Hitler would start another world war. His prediction was based on the prophecy of an illiterate Serbian peasant, Tarabic from Kremna, a village near Uzice, whom Drago admired and quoted frequently, and whose folksy philosophy he also shared with any patient listener.
Just around this time Drago enrolled me at a target-shooting club sponsored by the Yugoslav army, where I was the youngest member. During the ensuing couple of years I became a first class sharp shooter and learned about every make of small military arms manufactured in Europe. Drago had a remarkable collection of hand guns of many makes such as Walther, Browning, Lugar, Beretta, and a 6mm Mauser, all of which I enjoyed firing, disassembling and cleaning.
I enjoyed more and more both summer and winter sports, including bicycling, swimming, diving, soccer, hiking, skiing and bob sledding. I even brought the first two pairs of boxing gloves and the first saxophone to Uzice. During my violin study years with Professor Pavlishin, a Russian emigrant who fled his native Moscow during the Bolshevik revolution, I suddenly got interested in jazz and became an avid listener of radio Paris’ live broadcasts from the “Hot Club of France” featuring a string quintet with Django Reinhardt playing the lead guitar and Stephan Grappelli the violin. Later, during the war, at night my friends and I would clandestinely tune in to the US Armed Forces’ short wave broadcasts and the following day we would improvise “In the Mood”, “Satin Doll”, “In my Solitude”, and other great hits.
I dropped the violin and started playing the alto sax with my high school combo. However, our accordionist, Milutin, had to work in the afternoons in his dad’s photo studio and could not practice with us. I worked out a deal with his dad, Ilija Lazich, whereby I would do two hours of work in the darkroom and Milutin would get the permission to play with the band. Even though I stopped taking violin lessons, Jovanka who knew about Pavlishin’s precarious economic situation, kept sending his family a sac of flour every month, for which he and his seven children were extremely grateful. This is just one example of her innate generosity. She also had an open house and a free meal for all my school friends who always loved her.
Hitler’s drumbeat of war could be heard louder and louder every day until it culminated in 1938 with the annexation of Austria and the invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland. There was a strong hatred for the Nazis felt in Uzice, and anti German slogans appeared daily on the walls of my high school. I joined a left wing youth organization, which required daily cell meetings and discussions of dialectical materialism. This took a lot of time and energy and my schoolwork started to suffer. The workload was heavy and I got in a serious problem with my time utilization, and since something had to give, it was my grades. My bad grades did not upset Drago because he wanted me to join his business and become a miller as soon as possible, but Jovanka went through the roof because she had grandiose ideas that I should become at least a diplomat, a cabinet member, or even the country’s president. Therefore, she was a strong believer in education and insisted that I stay on target.
However, I was fascinated by the military, and the air force seemed to be most attractive because it offered both danger and glory. Since I was a boy, I have revered Kraljevich Marko and Milosh Obilich, Serbian medieval heroes, and at age ten, I drew what I thought was a fine picture of them astride their famous horses. In the summer of 1940 I enrolled in the government operated gliding school on the nearby mount Zlatibor, and passed my beginner course with flying colors earning one wing. I was only fourteen and I had to alter my age on my birth certificate in order to be admitted. At the same time, my self imposed physical development program was showing great positive results not only in the muscular development and physical strength, but also benefiting me psychologically and resulting in an extraordinary self esteem and self confidence.
THE WAR IS NEAR
During the winter of 1941 I enjoyed an excellent ski season by winning a couple of ski races on the Zabucje and Pora hills around Uzice. But as the spring approached it became obvious that Yugoslavia was going to be drawn into the war and overrun by the Nazis. The country that was built on the foundation of Serbian victory and glory by fighting on the allied side became Yugoslavia, and incorporated Slovenia and Croatia which until that time were provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Unfortunately, these two ethnic groups had little in common with the Serbs, and from the outset resented the Serbian predominance in the country’s leadership. The separatist forces were working as a closely knit coalition, specially the Croatian Ustashi sponsored by the fascist Italy, and the Macedonian VMRO terrorist organization sponsored by Bulgaria.
The Croatian pro Nazi Ustashi were organizing a formidable fifth column which would later undermine any resistance to the Nazi invading forces, and lead to the creation of an independent quisling state called NDH. Mussolini and the Vatican provided both moral and material support and sponsored by fascist Italy training camps at Janko Pusta in Hungary. The murder of King Alexander I in 1934 had left an enormous vacuum and a very weak leadership in the country, and now facing an impending German invasion the transitional government was paralyzed. In a desperate effort to ward off the invasion the government lead by the Regent Paul, a late king’s cousin, tried to parley a pact with Nazi Germany. The British could not swallow this arrangement, and quickly engineered a coup d’etat which was implemented by several Serbian high ranking air force officers. They were lead by General Simovich and on March 27, 1941, the government was over-thrown and the people took to the streets of Belgrade chanting the anti Nazi slogan “Bolje Rat Nego Pakt” (Better war than the pact). This caused a violent reaction in the countries of the Axis.
The communists were taken by surprise, but quickly received the directives to infiltrate the masses and try to take credit for the coup, even though their sponsor Stalin was on friendly terms with Hitler and the Von Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact was in force at that time. The country was in chaos. The Croats were deserting and sabotaging the army. On April 6, 1941 at 6am operation “Punishment” was launched and Belgrade was bombed and devastated by waves of German Luftwaffe Dorniers and Junkers, burying about 25,000 bodies in the ruins, and some of the best German divisions were sent to invade and occupy Yugoslavia. Furthermore, Germany was helped by the Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian armies each of them taking a part of the country as booty. There were only isolated pockets of resistance offered by purely Serbian units commanded by young officers, while the rest of the army was in a state of disarray and confusion which lead to a total collapse.
The story goes that when the army on the frontline asked for ammunition, the Croatian fifth column performed an excellent job of switching the boxes and sending cans of marmalade instead. The Germanic minority of the Banat region organized their fifth column, and during the German occupation formed the infamous SS Division, “Prince Eugen”. It was they who committed atrocities in the Serbian villages, and totally exterminated the Jews of the Banat. At the same time in various cities the communists inspired the factory workers to fire at the retreating army contingents, because Germany and the USSR were on friendly terms at that time.
The Yugoslavian government members retreated through Uzice on April 12, narrowly escaping being encircled by an advancing Panzer division. A few days later young King Peter II and his entourage embarked on an epic journey from the Adriatic port of Rijeka first to Egypt and then to London. On April 14, at about 3pm a German Stork reconnaissance plane appeared over Uzice and was shot down by anti aircraft artillery batteries camouflaged at the cemetery on Dovarje, while the whole town cheered wildly.
Rumors were rampant that the Germans had already taken the nearby towns of Cacak and Valjevo, and that armored columns were advancing toward Uzice. Town people were evacuating and heading for the hills as the attack was imminent. Drago summoned his mill workers and told them to leave for their villages. He was holding his Mauser carbine, which he brought home from WWI, and had an ammunition belt strung over his shoulder. The workers refused to leave and went to the local armory to pick up rifles which the army was distributing to all able men who wanted to participate in the defense of the town. This was a dreary day and the main street was jammed with the retreating military vehicles.
Knowing that the war was coming, Jovanka had prepared a large supply of staples normally hard to find during the war, including sugar, coffee, dry meat and other articles which she had well hidden in the secret compartments in our house, the mill and the warehouse. One day while walking through the town she saw a motorized field hospital transporting the wounded and sick, parked on main street waiting for food and medicine which had never arrived. She was so moved and saddened by this sight that she ordered Drago’s mill workers to load all the supplies on a horse drawn wagon and to follow her to the center of the town. There she recruited several ladies to help her distribute the supplies to the sick and wounded soldiers. Both town folks and soldiers were moved to tears.
Some of the soldiers asked Jovanka for her name and address so that they could express their gratitude once the war was over. A hospital cook gave Jovanka a large meat cleaver, kissed her hand and told her:” Lady, you are a real patriot and I think that you will cut a German’s head off with this tool.” She accepted the gift with pride, and lifting it high above her head, said: “No, I’ll split one Nazi bastard in half.” The wounded soldiers cheered and laughed while she was walking away with tears in her eyes. A few days later this entire convoy was captured by Germans on the road to Sarajevo, and the soldiers were taken to various POW camps in Germany. Jovanka received many letters during the four years of war from members of this group, and she occasionally sent them food packages through the International Red Cross.
In expectation of a German attack we did not sleep that night. The seven workers from the mill had dinner with us at home, a block away from the mill, and later helped to put mattresses, pillows, and sacks of grain in the windows. At 3 am I returned with them to sleep in the mill. Most of these guys were Drago’s nephews from Sirogojno who would spend up to three years working for him and attend trade school at night. At the end of this training period Drago would match their savings, which they would use to start small business of their own.
The workers liked me, and I often ate meals at their table at the mill and listened to their stories, admired their peasant wisdom and learned from their experiences. Bosko was only a year older than me, and besides working as an apprentice at the mill, he helped our maids with the heavy chores in the kitchen and around the house. He was my first cousin and we were very close. On his days off I would take him to the movies, and in the wintertime he would help my friends and I to drag my bobsled up the mountain road and take a run or two with us.
At about 5 am we were all still sitting around Drago’s desk in his office when we heard artillery grenades exploding on the outskirts of the town. The machine gun fire followed, and within an hour one could not tell where the fire was coming from. Drago ordered me and Bosko to join Jovanka in the basement of our home which provided a better shelter. Dawn was breaking and we could see the Yugoslav soldiers retreating toward the hills, and some of them were throwing their rifles, belts and hand grenades in the river. I asked one of them what was going on, and he told me that he had seen German tanks in front of the City Hall in the center of the town. Not too long ago I had seen in the movie theaters the invasion of Poland and Czechoslovakia and the Nazis marching down the Champs Élysées, and I thought that this was a chance to see them in person, and I would not pass up this opportunity for all the money in the world.
In our innocence Bosko and I decided to take a close look at the tanks, which were only a couple of blocks away from the mill. He followed me through the alleys until we suddenly found ourselves on the main square, looking at several small German tanks parked in front of Hotel Zlatibor. Before we could make a move, we were spotted by a German soldier struggling to get his huge Zundap motorcycle with a sidecar on the sidewalk. He could not figure out what we were up to, so he yelled: “Halt!” and pulled a large black pistol out of the holster, and aimed at us. We were not about to take any chances so we turned around and started running.
As we ran a few steps away I heard several shots and saw Bosko stumbling and screaming: “I have been hit!” Fortunately the bullet hit him just an inch above the heart and came out without damaging any vital organs or blood vessels. We took a sharp turn into a side street and ran straight to the mill. As we arrived at the door I heard shots from the third floor window, and saw Drago, Ostoja and Sredoje firing their rifles at a small troop carrier and a tank which were maneuvering in front of the bridge about hundred meters away. The mill door was locked and I was kicking it like mad hoping that somebody would open before the Germans had enough time to return the fire. Finally one of the workers let us in.
I asked for the first aid kit which was kept handy in the mill, and I cleaned Bosko’s wound with alcohol and pushed in some gauze both at the point of entry and where the bullet had come out, and I laid him down on the couch in Drago’s office. After that I went to the third floor window hoping to fire a few shots at the Nazis, but at that moment I saw a blaze coming out of the gun turret of a tank parked on the bridge about two blocks away, and a few seconds later a projectile crashed into the roof, but fortunately it went through without exploding. We could hear the tiles sliding down the roof and falling on the sidewalk, and then five more grenades hit the mill’s wall and exploded without penetrating.
The tank started to move toward us across the bridge, but before we could decide what to do, the tank was hit by a grenade fired by the same anti aircraft battery that had shot down the German reconnaissance plane a few days earlier. The second hit spun the tank and it started to burn, and one of the Germans managed to crawl out but was met by a hale of bullets fired by Drago and his two nephews. We all screamed and jumped from joy, but Drago ordered us to evacuate the mill and move into the basement of our home a block away, which was built like a real fortress. Bosko was still bleeding and we had to carry him most of the way. We found Jovanka in the basement of our house, passing around a bottle of Sliwovitz brandy to several neighbors who had taken refuge there. They were scared to death and kept praying and mumbling.
By about 7am the last pockets of resistance were silenced, and Uzice was officially occupied by the Germans. The next day, German soldiers were still rounding up everybody wearing military uniform and taking them to a provisional concentration camp which I went to check out. Through the barbwire I saw my math professor, Milan Popovich, a reservist officer. He looked depressed, but he recognized me and asked if I could bring him some food. I asked him if he would like to escape but his answer was that he would rather accept his destiny and go to the prison camp in Germany. I really got mad and told him: “If you really were a man you would ask me to bring you some civilian clothes so you could escape, but you are acting as a coward”. He was rather shocked at my comment and did not know what to say, but he still decided to stay, and be taken to a PW camp in Germany. I saw him forty years later during my first visit to Uzice, and he told me how he regretted not having listened to a kid who offered to help him escape.
The next day I wanted to go to the center of the town and get a close look at the Panzer tanks and the young SS troopers, but Drago did not let me do it. The following day I did it without asking, and rode down the main street in my glittering two wheeled carriage drawn by my horse Atsko. The street was crowded with the vehicles parked on both sides of the main street and while dodging the traffic my carriage wheel ripped off a license plate from a huge black limousine which to me looked like Hitler’s Mercedes. A young SS soldier in black uniform sitting on top of a tank yelled at me “Velfluchtel Mensch”, jumped down, picked up the license plate and hit me straight in the face. Blood poured down my face from a big gash on my forehead. I was overtaken by a furious devastating wind of wrath. I turned around my carriage and headed back home, humiliated and infuriated trying to figure out what would be the most ferocious revenge. This feeling stayed with me during the next four years of German occupation, and later, whenever as a young guerrilla fighter I participated in an ambush of German vehicles on a road, I would imagine that the little Panzer punk who hit me was in the lead truck.
The following day a couple of German army trucks pulled up in front of the mill, and an officer asked to see Drago. Through an interpreter he served him an order that all the inventories of grain and flour located in the mill and in the adjacent warehouses were being confiscated. The mill workers were ordered to start loading the material immediately, and did so for several days. The same week there was another surprise when an official requisition was served upon Jovanka for the lodging of an officer in our home. Two days later a German major showed up in a black limousine and moved his suitcases into the main bedroom, and Drago and Jovanka had to sleep in a smaller room. This was a clear sign that we were no longer in charge of our destiny, nor were we the owners of our legitimate property. Everything belonged to the Third Reich, including our lives.
RESISTANCE AND “THE REPUBLIC OF UZICE”
Drago’s business activities were reduced to milling the grain for the area peasants for a three percent fee of the flour milled, which was sold to town folks. This income could barely cover the overhead. Even so, Drago gave away most of it to the families whose breadwinners were taken to German POW camps.
A couple of months later I overheard a peasant telling Drago that he had seen a group of armed guerrillas on Tornik, near Zlatibor mountain. This was the first appearance of Colonel Mihailovich, who did not surrender to the Germans but fled into the mountains from where he established radio contacts with the Yugoslavian government in London. He became the leader of the first armed resistance in Europe. In June of 1941 his guerrillas, who were called the Chetniks staged their first ambush attack on a German convoy not too far from Uzice, which resulted in one dead and several wounded German soldiers. This guerrilla act provoked the first “hundred for one” execution aimed to punish and intimidate the Serbs.
The execution was held on a Sunday morning in Krcagovo, a suburb of Uzice, and the public was encouraged to come to watch. I went with several school friends to witness this gory scene and watched the Germans line up groups of ten men and shoot them. My mouth was dry, my chest constricted as I saw the victims falling into the graves they had to dig themselves the night before the execution. I felt rage, helplessness and deep hatred for the Nazis at the same time, and as we were walking away from this savage scene my friends Dejan Malenkovich and Stevo Tica and I swore to join the resistance movement as soon as we could, to fight the oppressor and kill as many Nazis as we could. We were shaking with rage, but we knew that we would get even some day.
As the guerrilla attacks intensified, the Germans needed a constant pool of hostages that could be taken out of the jail and shot whenever a German soldier was killed. In order to further intimidate the population of Uzice the Nazis would hang the previously executed men in the marketplace, and let their bodies sway there for several days as a warning to the local inhabitants. One day, as I was returning from school I saw Drago being hand cuffed in front of our home and escorted by a Gestapo patrol. Fortunately, no German was killed in the vicinity of Uzice during his Russian roulette-like two weeks stay in jail, and he came out alive.
The situation in Serbia was tense and confused. A flood of Serbian refugees from Croatia and Bosnia were escaping to Serbia to save their lives from the genocide conducted in Croatia by the Croatian Ustashi, and by the Muslim SS volunteers in Bosnia. In the midst of this chaos Serbian community leaders of economic, political and academic life turned to General Milan Nedich to assume responsibility in the occupied country and save what could be saved. He was understandably hesitant, because any dealings with the German conqueror were repulsive, but in question was the biological salvation of the Serbian people, and he accepted. He agreed to form his own administration under German occupation, called a government of “National Salvation” and a field police force to fight the resistance and thus prevent the mass executions of Serbs when German soldiers were killed in action. Nedich was a WWI hero and the Nazis hoped to exploit his popularity among the Serbian people. He was fully aware of the difficult and unthankful task he was going to face during the ensuing four years of German occupation in trying to protect the rights of the conquered people guaranteed by international law. He also realized that the communist threat was to become one of the major issues, and although his field police was armed by the Germans, many of them deserted and joined Mihailovich’s guerrillas to fight the communists.
After the communist takeover, Nedich was caught by Tito’s secret police OZNA, and thrown out of the window of a high rise building in Belgrade in order to avoid a trial. This was done because the ordinary people knew that he saved many Serbian lives during the occupation, and probably would have openly manifested their feelings against the communist regime if Nedich would have been executed by a firing squad.
To further complicate the situation, Dimitrije Ljotich, a lawyer and the leader of a right wing party, ZBOR, which was shaped after the national-socialist and fascist parties, organized an elite corps which would later become the crack units used by Nedich to fight the guerrillas. At the same time the Muslims in Bosnia were organizing their own army trained and armed by the Nazis called the SS Waffen Handzar Division, the Kosovo Albanians sponsored by Mussolini formed their own SS Division Skender Beg, while the Nazi state of Croatia contributed to the Reich three SS Divisions. All of these armies had identical purpose, which was to exterminate the Serbian population in their respective regions. There was no doubt in my mind that if the Allies prevailed, no one would have been able to prevent the religious and political score-settling. However, I felt at the moment the worst possible situation for a Serb was to be of arms bearing age and at home, because somebody was going to get him.
This already tragic and complex scenario prevailing in 1941 got even worse when Hitler in his madness declared war on the Soviet Union. The communists in Serbia ran for cover, and overnight changed their role of Gestapo informers and collaborators to allies of Mihailovich’s resistance against the German occupying forces. Mihailovich was promoted to the rank of general by the Yugoslavian government in exile and recognized as the supreme commander of the first anti-Nazi resistance in Europe. On the other hand, the communists were organized by Tito, a Moscow trained agent whose main objective was to establish a communist regime in post-war Yugoslavia.
Josip Broz Tito
At first, there was an illusion that the alliance of these strange bed fellows was going to work, however, the political objectives of Tito and his henchmen by far outweighed the need for a joint action against the enemy. Predictably, in June of 1941 an open conflict started between Mihailovich’s Chetniks and Tito’s Partisans, fighting each other whenever not confronted by the Germans who by now had reduced their garrisons in Serbia because of the need to send troops to the Russian front. This situation permitted the liberation of Western Serbia, and in order to avoid terrible fratricidal battles over the spoils, the liberated territory was tacitly divided, whereby Tito’s forces held Uzice while Mihailovich established his headquarters in Pozega.
German troops had failed to take Moscow in 1941 and were pinned down in the snow and cold in the Russian steppes. Hitler blamed the Serbs for this fracas, because the coup d’etat in March in Belgrade had obliged him to send some of the best divisions to crush Yugoslavia, thus delaying his attack against the Soviet Union for several valuable months. Hitler was infuriated and throughout occupied Serbia, posters bearing the pictures of Mihailovich and Tito were exhibited offering a reward of DM 100,000 in gold for each of them, dead or alive.
The Germans had rounded up most of the Jews in Belgrade to clear the streets of the rubble left by the German bombings, and Drago learned that his friend Moritz Samuel was among them. He took a train to Belgrade, and after a couple of days of searching found Moritz working in a labor gang, took a bundle of peasant clothing and asked Moritz to go to the basement of the building and to put the clothes on, and then lead him to a contact that would take him to Greece. From there Moritz went to Palestine and settled in Haifa. After the war he and Drago exchanged correspondence for a long time.
THE PREMATURE LIBERATION
As the last German unit retreated from Uzice, Tito’s partisans entered the town without firing a single shot, and raised a red flag on the municipal building. The same night a political meeting was held on the main square, and some of the most prominent citizens were arrested and paraded in front of the crowd in accordance with the Bolshevik tradition.
Drago had the honor to be among the arrested but fortunately the commissar Penezic -“Krcun” saw him as he was escorted into the city jail, and ordered the guards to release him immediately. Apparently the reason for this magnanimous act was that “Krcun” had heard numerous stories from his father, who had shared many moments with Drago during the WWI on the retreat through Albania, and on the island of Corfu, Biserta, and Salonika. This probably saved Drago’s life because some of those who were arrested with him were executed without trial a few days later.
Inspired by the unexpected and premature liberation of Uzice at the time when Hitler was ruling the whole Europe, I decided that I should join the resistance. I crawled under Drago’s mill and recovered one of the rifles that Bosko and I had hidden there only a few months earlier, when the Yugoslavian army was retreating in disarray and throwing away their military gear. I slung the rifle over my right shoulder and walked to the town hall to report for duty. The recruiting office was a table on the sidewalk, and the person in charge was a railroad employee who knew me and my family. He asked me my age and I told him that I would turn fifteen soon. He took my rifle away and told me to go home and not to worry about missing the action, because it was going to be a long war and that he would let me know when my time would come. I was mad and disheartened. I was sure that I would have had a chance to find the young SS Nazi who hit me in the face with the license plate a few months earlier, but I had no choice but to wait for my turn. Perhaps if I had worn my long pants I would have been accepted, but they did not take volunteers wearing short pants.
Bosko got a healthy laugh when he saw me coming back without the rifle, but I reminded him that we still had a few hidden in different places, and that the man in charge told me that it was going to be a long war. While we were still talking, a squadron of German Stuka dive bombers appeared on the horizon, made a complete circle and got in the position to bomb an ammunition dump and the small arms factory located at the outskirts of the town. During the following twenty minutes the screaming of the Stukas’ sirens and the explosion of the bombs dominated the scene.
This was a terrifying experience, worse than all the bombings I had seen in the movies. People were running for the hills in panic while Drago stood on the bridge in front of the mill with a writing pad in his hand recording every dive of the Stukas and every explosion caused by them. Bosko and I were ready to dash for the hills or the nearby railroad tunnels, but Drago’s example made us stay with him on the bridge and crack jokes at those who were running scared to death. The same squadron of Stukas continued to visit Uzice on a daily basis during the following month or so, but fortunately their raids were limited to the small arm factory and the ammunition storages on the outskirts of the town.
The communist authorities moved most of the undamaged machinery from the factory into a tunnel that the Central Bank of Yugoslavia had built a year earlier in a hillside to be used as a storage of the gold reserves in case of a war. However, the gold was now in Cairo with the government in exile, and the facilities were available for other use. Within a week, the factory in the tunnel was humming and producing war materials, while one section of the tunnel was utilized as an air-raid shelter, where many town people would spend the entire day reading and knitting so that they could avoid the unpleasantness of the Stukas’ visits.
One Saturday afternoon while I was getting ready to go to a soccer practice, a powerful explosion shook the town and shattered the window glass around me. A huge black cloud belched out of the tunnel, and I could see human bodies
flying out of the tunnel like grenades from a cannon.
The improvised ammunitions and arms factory utilized the gun powder from the artillery grenades, which was ground by electric coffee grinders, and apparently a spark from one of the grinding machines had caused tons of ammunition to explode. The secondary explosions could be heard for several days.
There was a battalion of German prisoners that the guerrillas had captured a few days earlier, and they were ordered to go into the tunnel, get the victims out and clean up the entire mess, a task that lasted several weeks. I lost several school friends in this disaster in which over six hundred people died.
Tito’s communist propaganda machine immediately blamed Mihailovich’s Chetniks for this disaster accusing them of sabotage, but everybody in Uzice knew that the accident was caused by the communists themselves and their incompetence.
As the sadness and shock from this tragedy subsided, the Partisans staged a parade exhibiting the battalion of German prisoners along with two newly captured tanks. My skiing pal and gliding school buddy Srbo, was driving the first tank. He was also Tito’s currier riding a captured German motorcycle, which he stole in Valjevo and drove away after throwing a couple of hand grenades into a Nazi officers’ club. Unfortunately, after the war he fell in disgrace with Tito’s communist regime for openly asking for free elections, and spent two years in prison on a deserted Adriatic island.
It was obvious to everybody that the so called “Republic of Uzice” could not last forever, and that it was only a matter of time until German punitive expeditions would return and overrun the town. In fear of the impending invasion the Chetniks and the Partisans made a pact to jointly defend Uzice, and made a desperate effort to mobilize every able male.
Two separate registration desks were set up in front of the city hall, the communist one marked with a red star and, and the nationalist Chetniks one draped in the royal flag of Yugoslavia. Many peasants from the nearby villages brought their own arms which they had saved during the capitulation of the Yugoslav army a few months earlier, but to Partisans’ chagrin most of them signed up with the Chetniks.
The alliance to fight the Germans together lasted only a couple of weeks, and an open conflict started in November 1941. Meanwhile, German tanks were rumbling their way to Uzice, and no guerrilla units were the match for the approaching formidable force.
On November 23 the Partisans started to evacuate Uzice, and Tito was the first one to escape accompanied by his high ranking associates.
In a state of panic Bosko and I joined the last retreating column of Partisans on the road to Zlatibor, and a few kilometers from Uzice we were pinned down by the machinegun fire from German Junkers and Dornier light bombers for almost an hour, until an armored column arrived to finish the job. We were lucky to walk away alive, but we witnessed an unbelievable massacre in which hundreds of Partisans were caught by surprise on the road and became sitting ducks.
Bosko and I knew the area well and were able to escape unscathed to the nearest village, Ljubanje, where a customer and friend of Drago’s gave us food and shelter for several days. Tito and his Central Committee had fled Uzice earlier and enjoyed the safety in the mountains of Sandzak. A poorly armed unit composed of factory workers was sent to Kadinjaca at the entrance of Uzice to stop the Germans, but was practically annihilated, while its commander, Dusan Jerkovic, fled on horse when the first shot was fired.
The surroundings of our host’s house were an ungodly sight. There were dead bodies of the Partisans and their arms lying around, and this represented a real danger in case the Germans would invade the area. We helped bury the dead and carried their arms to the caves near the river Djetinja, hoping to use them against the Germans in the near future. We returned to Uzice a few days later by walking on the railroad tracks knowing that the trains were not running due to sabotage, and we were sure that we would not encounter any Germans before getting close to the town. Once we got on the outskirts of Uzice we were able to get home unnoticed, by walking through back alleys and jumping fences. Fortunately a few days earlier a peasant woman from the village where we were hiding had gone to Uzice, and stopping at Drago’s mill told him that we were alive and well.
German troops were roaming all over Uzice, dominated by the Prinz Eugen Waffen SS Division, which had returned from the Russian front for this special, punitive mission. The free “Uzice Republic” was gone, the spirit of the folks was crushed, and nobody knew what the Germans would do to the population which had enjoyed liberation for three months at the time when most of Europe was enslaved by the Nazis. Most of the supporters of the Partisan movement were identified through photographs and documents containing their names, and some were even denounced by the anti-communists and arrested by the Germans. The leaders were shot without trial while the small fry were sent to forced-labor camps and factories in Germany.
1942 was a dreadful year. The winter was cold and long, food supplies very scarce and freedom of movement limited. My school was occupied by the German army, and the classes were held in private buildings. This was the year when I should have finished my first four years of high school culminating in a comprehensive exam in math, geography, history, Serbian and French languages. Political and ideological polarization was omnipresent and some of my close friends were attracted to the leftist ideology, while my own was evolving in the opposite direction. I realized that communism was not a solution but a threat to the Serbian nation because Tito’s objective was to create a new Yugoslavia after the war, ignoring the atrocities committed by the Croats and Bosnian Muslims against the Serbian people.
On the opposite side of the tangent was an ultra nationalist right wing organization called Zbor, the only one ideologically prepared to take on the communists. They had attracted the “crème de la crème” of Serbia, however, they were labeled as a quisling organization, and my hatred for the Nazis did not permit me to get involved with this group.
General Mihailovich and his movement stood for democracy and free elections after the war, but he was receiving the guidance from the Yugoslavian government in exile in London, hoping to return to power once the war was over. I already distrusted the British imperial power and preferred to see the creation of a Serbian state without the Croats and the Muslims who had massacred thousands of Serbs in their respective regions. However, the U.S. was now involved in the war, and I saw this as a ray of hope that could exert its power at the end of the war to help create a new democratic state of Serbia.
The communist Partisans were expelled from the Serbian territory by the Germans, and Mihailovich now concentrated his attacks on the quisling Zbor volunteer units resulting in the worst fratricide in the recent history of Serbia. At the same time I flunked my geography exam, and broke my leg while playing soccer, so I spent the rest of the year coming out of the shock caused by these two calamities. But in August I was given a second chance to take another exam in geography which I passed with flying colors, while my leg was nursed back to normal strength and flexibility, and I got back on skis in December 1942.
In January of 1943 I was invited to a meeting of a Communist Youth cell, SKOJ, where I listened to a political discussion full of clichés and demagoguery, glorifying the class struggle. I was told bluntly by the group leader that if I joined the party right now, I would become a member of an elite group which would be entitled to many privileges in the new postwar social order. This ideology did not appeal to me, and knowing that Tito was a Croat and an ex sergeant in the Austro-Hungarian army who fought against Drago in the WWI, did not help. Also, my disillusionment in Yugoslavia as a multinational state was an important factor, and I suspected that Tito and his cohorts, Pinto, Levi, Pijade, Ribar and Kardelj represented Soviet interests bent on destroying Serbian traditional values far more effectively than the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarians had done.
These Serbian Jews were the masterminds, while the Serbian scum that participated in the Spanish civil war, Aleksandar Rankovich, Vukmanovich - “Tempo”, Milovan Djilas, Koca Popovich, Slobodan Penezich and others played the role of executioners. After establishing themselves in Belgrade they arrested, tortured and executed thousands of innocent Serbs whose only guilt was that they were anti-communists.
By this time the communist moles had infiltrated the British secret service, and their agents assigned as advisors to Mihailovich were manipulating the information in favor of Tito. Major James Klugman known to be a communist became a desk officer of formidable significance in the Yugoslav section of SOE Cairo. The signals sent by Klugman, who was an intimate friend of the traitors Blunt, Philby and Burgess at Cambridge, for the first time confirmed that Klugman was principally responsible for the massive wartime sabotage of the Mihailovich supply operation. He also kept from London the impressive activities of the Mihailovich’s forces in the fight against the Germans and Croatian Ustashi.
Other communist agents slanted intelligence in favor of Tito for ideological reasons. When in 1943 Churchill was beating the countryside for new allies against the Nazis, he had two choices: General Mihailovich of the Serbian resistance, or the communist partisan Tito. Communist propagandists working for the British intelligence claimed that Mihailovich was collaborating with the Nazis and that Tito would restore the monarchy and extend equality to all ethnic and religious groups in the Balkans. Churchill believed them, dissolved his ties with Mihailovich and threw all his support behind Tito.
During this second visit to Moscow Churchill gave Stalin Yugoslavia as his sphere of influence. Later at Teheran and Yalta, Roosevelt confirmed this decision. In Yalta he and Roosevelt closed their eyes to the reality of communist brutality and Soviet imperialism, and the world future was decided at that time.
When Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean, head of the British mission to Mihailovich, told Churchill that Tito’s strategy was to install a communist regime in Yugoslavia, Churchill responded: "Are you planning to live there after the war?” “No," said Maclean. "Neither am I,” answered Churchill. What a perfidy!
This was the turning point, and Yugoslavia became a trade-off with Stalin, and there was no doubt that Mihailovich was betrayed and sold down the river by the allies. Then, Churchill watched in horror as the communists not only betrayed every one of their promises but refused to fight the Nazis as well. I saw the writing on the wall that Yugoslavia would become a communist prison after the war was over, and I knew that in order to survive in a vicious totalitarian dictatorship of the proletariat would require an enormous personal sacrifice on my part.
Fortunately, during the sixty seven days of the “Republic of Uzice” I had enough exposure to the unchallengeable communist dogma and knew that my freedom oriented thinking would not fit into their scheme. I could not even entertain a thought of becoming a member of the ruling oligarchy which would later monopolize power and privileges, and would dominate the entire life of the country.
I joined Mihailovich’s movement at the moment when he was down and out, dumped by the allies, and was caught in the crossfire between the Germans and Tito’s Partisans, and the geopolitical interests of the big powers.
At first my activities were limited to the underground work in Uzice, which consisted of information gathering and stealing the arms and ammunitions from the Germans. I would organize groups of small children about ten years old, and would train them to play marbles around the parked military vehicles while dragging an empty flour sac behind them. When the guards were not watching they would steal the hand guns, cameras, binoculars and any other valuable item and put them in the sac, which they would playfully drag away. These were mainly the three Zrnjevich brothers, Mijo, Marko and Milutinac, who were my next door neighbors.
Saturday was the market day in Uzice, and many peasants would come to town to sell their products and buy the goods they needed. Some of the peasants were closely collaborating with the resistance, and I would give them the arms and other material to be delivered to a designated place. They knew that if they were caught they would get a death sentence, but they were proud to contribute to the fight against the enemy.
I became so bold that one day while visiting the home of my sweetheart Ana, I stole a 9mm sub-machine gun belonging to a SS officer who lived in her house. I was interrogated by the Gestapo for several hours and beaten with a belt, but I did not confess, and they released me the same day.
Now I was on the Gestapo record and any similar theft would be attributed to me. When a month later several of my buddies were arrested by the Gestapo, I left Uzice in a hurry, and after a two day walk through the mountains a group of us arrived in the village of Ravni, where our B-3 Youth Command was located.
The day before I left Uzice I was caught in a bombing raid by the US Air Force, and as usual ran for the railroad tunnel which was a mile away from my home. Half way to the tunnel there was an medieval water drinking fountain dug into the side of the hill and I saw a German soldier in it. I was tempted to join him and take refuge in what seemed to be a safe place, but something told me to keep running for the tunnel. Amazingly, after the raid I walked home on the same road and saw that a bomb had hit the fountain, and I could only see the shreds of a German uniform in it. I guess this is what one can call either luck or destiny. After reporting for duty we found out that our principal objective was to rescue the American airmen who had to bail out from their damaged plane hit by German flak while bombing the military targets in the Balkans, mainly the Shell Oil installations in Romania. Huge formations of B-24 bombers and P-38 fighters flew daily over Yugoslavia from their bases in Italy, Foggia and Cerignola, to bomb the assigned targets and our task was to signal to the returning damaged aircraft where the crew should bail out. Then, we would race to pick them up before the Germans could arrive on the scene and take them as prisoners.
A typical rescue operation consisted of sending a well armed group of guerrillas to block the road leading to the location where the parachutes came down, by placing large rocks or tree trunks on a strategic section of the road. Once the Germans would stop to remove the obstacles, the guerrillas would open fire from 50 caliber machine guns which had been previously dismantled from the damaged aircrafts that crashed into the mountainside after the crew had bailed out. Most of the time the Germans would turn around and retreat, but sometimes the expedition would include tanks and armored vehicles, and the only thing that we could do was to keep them under fire until the signal was received that the American crew had been evacuated.
We were a group of about 90 consisting of 35 experienced and mean fighters, 25 rescue members, and the crews manning two 50 caliber machine guns, as well as a group operating an Italian mortar.
Two days after completing a rescue mission on Zlatibor mountain, we were on the move again but nobody had an idea where we were going. We marched during the night and rested in the forest during daylight. Finally we reached Ravna Gora, the famous place where Mihailovich’s headquarters were located. The next day was June 28, a sacred day in Serbian history marking the battle of Kosovo. My unit took part in the swearing in ceremonies along with a couple of other guerrilla groups, officiated by several Orthodox priests.
Ravna Gora, Serbia, May 2003.
Photo by Aleksandra Rebic
Mihailovich delivered a fiery speech in which he explained the gravity of Serbia’s situation, but asked us to follow the spirit of our predecessors who always fought bravely against the Turks and Austro-Hungarians, and defended the Serbian soil. He expressed hope that the allies would realize what they were doing and would stop supporting the communists. In spite of the grim predicament we were inspired by the historic mission that was assigned to us.
My hopes were shattered when a couple of months latter I was sent on a secret mission to Uzice to pick up a package which was to be delivered to Drago by an informer. I slept in Drago’s mill two nights waiting for the delivery and this gave me a chance to engage in a long conversation with him regarding not only what I was doing, but more importantly, where were the current events taking us. He rightly worried that Serbia’s situation was beyond recovery, and that Mihailovich should not have any illusions that Churchill and Roosevelt would make a last minute reversal of their concessions to Stalin. Drago simply did not trust the big powers and was very candid about it, by saying that they had no sense of loyalty and would sell their own mother if it suited their interests, and that in Yalta they had closed their eyes to the reality of communist brutality and Soviet imperialism. In his view, the traditional two friends and allies of Serbia could not be counted on;- Russia was a cruel communist dictatorship promoting Tito, while France was in a state of decomposition.
This conversation was devastating, but it gave me the idea that I did not want to live in the postwar Yugoslavia, and that I should start looking for a way to escape. I did not sleep that night, and during the rest of my days in Yugoslavia I concocted some of the wildest scenarios in my mind of how to accomplish this vital objective, which become an obsession and a life or death personal commitment.
The package I came to pick up was delivered the next morning, but I could not leave the town before it got dark, and I could not go around town because of the danger of being picked up by the Gestapo. Bosko brought some of my favorite food and we were going to have lunch together, when the incredible happened. Uzice was bombed as a secondary target by a formation of American B-24 bombers returning to Italy from a mission. A German SS Division had been stationed in Uzice for several days and that made it an attractive target. For some bizarre and inexplicable reasons the Americans never bombed the Nazi Croatia and the Bosnian Muslims, but Belgrade and several other Serbian cities were devastated.
As the bombs started falling Bosko and I decided to hide below the arches of the mill and we waded into knee deep water. Several bombs fell not too far from the mill and at that moment a young German SS officer, who apparently saw an air raid shelter sign on the mill, walked in. He was scared and shivering and was an easy prey. I greeted him, shook his hand, and pulled him toward me. Bosko understood the signal, grabbed him by the neck from behind, knocked him down in the water, grabbed a rock and hit him in the back of his head. Then the two of us got on top of him and held him under the water until he drowned. What a gory experience, but a sweet revenge.
This was an opportune moment because there would be many soldiers killed by the bombs, and all we had to do now was to push him down the stream flowing from the mill into the river. I took his 9mm Walther and as Bosko and I were pushing him down the stream, a neighbor’s child ran in looking for shelter. I told him that the German was hit by shrapnel and we were trying to revive him. He nodded politely, and we thought that was the end of the story. I left that night for the mountains and that was the last time I was on a secret mission.
Twenty six years later I made my first visit to Uzice, and while having dinner and fun in a restaurant with my surviving guerrilla buddies, a good looking young man walked to our table and wanted to say hello. He told me that he was Nikola Elezovich, the youngest of the three brothers who were my ex neighbors, and that he was living in Germany and working as a gymnastics coach at a high school. As he was ready to leave he told me:-”I never believed the story about the German killed by a shrapnel under Drago’s mill”, and he gave me a big hug. I realized that this was the kid who caught me and Bosko in the act of pushing the German down the river. He later came to Mexico and spent several days with me in Cancun but did not dare to talk about this event in front of my family.
Several days after returning to my guerrilla unit and while scanning the sky for limping aircraft we spotted a B-24 losing altitude quite fast and smoke coming out of the number four engine. We sent our mirror signal and shortly after we saw the parachutes open one after the other and the plane crushing into a corn field. It took us almost an hour to reach the crew members and take them to a safe mountain hideout where we were keeping close to fifty of them. I traded my Italian windbreaker for a bombers’ jacket with one of the airmen, but it attracted lice like a magnet and on one of my crossings of the river Drina to the Bosnian side it got so soaked that I almost drowned. The next day I traded it with an old guerrilla for a German 9mm MP submachine gun.
My first real combat experience came a few days later when my group was sent to derail a military train between Uzice and Pozega , disarm the Germans, and take their food and ammunitions. The commanding officer gave us a speech the night before the attack and said: “The Germans are tough and mean, and they are ready to die for their country, so let’ us help them do it.” To our surprise, the train was transporting a battalion of Bulgarian soldiers, while an armored car mounted on the train was manned by the Germans. After derailing the locomotive and several cars we threw hand grenades, opened machinegun fire, and yelled hands up or die, in German, and in several minutes we had a bunch of prisoners we did not know what to do with. We told them to take their clothes off, unload the sacks of flour and sugar, and then we ordered them to start walking on the railroad track in their underwear back to Uzice. This was the best alternative at the moment because we could not kill the prisoners, and had no place to take them.
We called the villagers to take the food supplies, but when they saw the Bulgarians who a year earlier had burned down several homes in their village, they started kicking them and beating them with sticks and throwing rocks at them, leaving a number of bleeding heads. We turned back those peasants who carried pitchforks and axes because their rage would have resulted in a massacre. Anyway, it was a sweet revenge that we could not stop, and the Bulgarians were grateful for getting off the hook with such a mild punishment. The peasants took home the spoils which included uniforms, blankets, and food supplies which we could not carry with us. This was enough to calm the spirits and to avoid further punitive actions by the Germans, which could have been devastating for the peasants.
We caught up with our unit near Arilje getting ready to move toward the Drina, where the communist Partisans were trying to cross from Bosnia into the Serbian territory. My friend Dejan and I asked to be transferred to the Storm Brigade commanded by Major Milos Markovich so that we could quickly get into action. Prior to moving toward Bosnia in order to intercept the communists, we were assigned to a mission to ambush a German convoy of trucks on the road between Uzice and Kraljeve Vode, where they were delivering food and ammunitions twice a week. We badly needed both for our impending expedition.
The attack was planned on a curve near Cajetina, however, in our eagerness we fired too soon, and gave the Germans a chance to run for cover and fire back at us. Thus, we lost all the advantage of a surprise attack, and had to face a better armed enemy at a short range. I was firing at the enemy from behind a rock pile, when our machine gunner, a few meters away, was hit by a bullet in the forehead and killed. His helper was yelling at me to take over, while the commander was ordering that we retreat and later meet at a designated place. I picked up the machinegun and placed it on the rock pile when I spotted a German sniper not too far away aiming at me. Instinctively I raised the gun in front of my face as he fired, and this fortunate movement saved my life. His bullet hit the machinegun first and then ricocheted and hit my left hand almost severing the thumb, which I put back in place and tied quickly with my pants belt serving as a tourniquet. To make things worse a piece of the cooling pipe of the machinegun hit me in the forehead and there was blood dripping down my face.
My helper Dragan and I were still on our knees working on my wounds when through the holes of the rock wall we saw the German who shot me walking toward us with his rifle in his right hand, probably believing that I was dead. I quickly inspected the machinegun and realized that there was only a slight superficial damage. I asked my helper to feed the ammunition and to help me lift it on the wall from which we were firing. He did it, but the German saw us and started running back. He was in the open field and there was no place for him to hide, and I aimed and fired about fifty bullets at him. As he was staggering, his rifle dropped, his helmet flew up in the air and he finally fell down. My helper jumped over the wall, took the soldier’s rifle, his watch and a Pelican fountain pen, which I still keep as my favorite war trophy.
I felt weak and dizzy, but we managed to retreat to the designated meeting place. While I was being helped by a male nurse I remembered my experience when Bosko was wounded, and the time when I watched the mass execution in Uzice, and all of a sudden I was relieved and felt no pain.
This was my first revenge, and it felt good. I was treated and ordered to return to my original unit instead of going to the Drina front. Several days later my wound got infected, accompanied by a foul smell and excruciating pain. There was no medicine, and only the divine providence kept the gangrene away. We arrived in a village called Subjel and my unit commander Ratko Radibratovich asked the local Chetnick committee if they could find a doctor to help me. Instead, a toothless old woman dressed in black appeared, apparently brought from a neighboring village. She looked at my wound, and immediately took me to the nearest house and asked me to lay down while she started preparing the remedy. Somebody brought a pot of almost boiling water and she asked me to slowly put my wounded hand in it, where I held it for almost an hour. Then she applied on the wound the ointment she made consisting of a variety of herbs mixed with honey, wrapped it into a clean piece of cloth and told me not to take it off for four days.
The fourth day we captured Cajetina, a small town near Zlatibor and I walked in the local infirmary where they took off my bandage; a visiting doctor examined my wound and found it quite satisfactory and fastened my damaged thumb bone with wooden splints which I wore for several weeks. The doctor told me that the old lady had saved my life with her primitive, natural remedies.
I returned to my original unit dedicated to the rescue of American airmen for the next several weeks until my wound was completely healed. By this time Mihailovich’s forces had in their custody about five hundred allied airmen, mainly Americans, who had to be evacuated to a safe place. The OSS headquarters in Bari, Italy, started to plan the details for a rescue operation called “Halyard”, headed by several American-born Serbs: George Musulin, Nick Lalich, George Vujinovich, and the radio operator Arthur Jibilian.
The airmen were gathered in Pranjani, a village in Western Serbia, where a landing strip was prepared with hundreds of Serbian peasants working day and night, clearing the ground with picks and shovels. On August 9 the first C-47 landed at night and picked up 25 men. The following landings were done in plain daylight; however, the transport planes had to be accompanied by the fearsome P-38 fighters to prevent German attacks. Meanwhile, Mihailovich’s command had strategically deployed my unit along with several fighting brigades to deter any possible German surprise ground attack. During the ensuing several months the biggest rescue operation behind the enemy lines was concluded without mishaps or casualties. However, over the years the U.S. Government has downplayed this operation, and the State Department refused to acknowledge it in order not to offend Tito and his communists, who for a long time were pampered by Washington.
Finally, after constant pressure by the National Committee of Airmen Rescued by General Mihailovich, Inc., led by a dear friend of mine, Major Richard L. Felman, and Major General Donald J. Smith, and supported by many decent and patriotic U.S. Senators and Congressmen, on recommendation of General Eisenhower on March 29, 1948 President Truman finally awarded posthumously Mihailovich The Legion of Merit Chief Commander which reads:
“General Dragoljub Mihailovich distinguished himself in an outstanding manner as Commander-in Chief of the Yugoslavian Army Forces and later as Minister of War by organizing and leading important resistance forces against the enemy which occupied Yugoslavia from December 1941 to December 1944. Through the undaunted efforts of his troops, many United States airmen were rescued and returned safely to friendly control. General Mihailovich and his forces, although lacking adequate supplies and fighting under extreme hardship, contributed materially to the Allied cause, and were instrumental in obtaining a final Allied victory”.
March 29, 1948 HARRY S TRUMAN
The Legion of Merit Medal
Nick Petrovich, center, with Halyard Mission OSS veterans
George Vujnovich, left and Nick Lalich, right,
many years after the end of WWII.
Strangely, this award was kept secret until it was uncovered and made public years later by The Honorable Edward J. Derwinski while serving as Secretary of Veteran Affairs.
Although the rescued airmen vindicated themselves by obtaining the official recognition and finally fulfilling their pledge to Mihailovich for saving their lives, their efforts to erect a memorial to Mihailovich in Washington failed because of the combined objections of the communist government of Yugoslavia, and the U.S. Department of State. A bizarre alliance indeed!
Lawrence S. Eagleburger, then U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, in a letter dated October 4, 1978 urged the Congress not to support the construction of a monument to General Mihailovich because of the sensitive geographic and political situation of Yugoslavia.
On September 8, 1979 President Ronald Reagan sent a letter to the Committee to Commemorate General Mihailovich in which he said:
"The fate of General Mihailovich is not simply of historic significance - it teaches something today, as well. No Western nation, including the Unites States, can hope to win its own battle for freedom and survival by sacrificing brave comrades to the politics of international expediency.”
After the Red Army marched into Belgrade in October of 1944 and put Tito in control of Yugoslavia, the U.S. offered Mihailovich an escape, but he refused flatly, saying “under no circumstances will I leave my country and my people”. He was captured by the communists on March 24, 1946, and on July 15 sentenced to death. Two days later a firing squad carried out his sentence in a swamp near Belgrade.
After the Pranjani rescue mission my unit was assigned to The Zlatibor Storm Brigade commanded by Lt. Kolarevich, and we were given orders to move toward Bosnia. We spent the rest of the fall on the move fighting against the communist brigades from Bosnia which were trying to cross the river Drina into Serbia for the first time since they were kicked out in 1941. Serbia was now at the mercy of the Soviet armies advancing through Romania, and Tito’s hordes returning from Bosnia to revenge their defeat and expulsion from Serbia a few years earlier. Although we were continually clashing with the communists, we made several incursions into Bosnia to punish the Muslim Nazi collaborators responsible for the massacres of innocent Serbs and of scorching and pillaging their villages. Under the Vishegrad bridge we surrounded a SS Muslim militia unit of which only several got away alive.
Young Nick Petrovich // Zlatibor Storm Brigade WWII
Several days later we faced Tito’s Second Proletarian brigade composed of mean, calloused fighters from Krajina and Lika. Paradoxically, they were all Serbs who had joined Tito’s Partisans in order to avoid being slaughtered by the Nazi Croats, but were later brain washed by the commissars and became fanatical communists.
Our advantage was that we were young, fearless and knew well the area. However, we were fighting communist hordes armed by the Allies, who not only had betrayed us, but were asking us to surrender to Tito and join his army. This was a rude awakening for us not to trust the big powers and a horrendous lesson in diplomatic expediency. Although there were isolated desertions, most of us remained loyal to our cause hopping that truth and decency would eventually prevail. We could not imagine that the worst was still to come.
One night while listening to the regular BBC broadcasts from London in Serbian language, we heard a message from King Peter II asking us to join Tito because he had promised to hold free elections once the war was over. We could not believe our ears, but apparently young king Peter acted under tremendous pressure from Churchill who wanted to have a unified front against the Germans, and thus forced the Yugoslavian government in exile to recognize Tito as the supreme commander of the resistance against the Nazis.
The people in Serbia oblivious to the seriousness of the situation, cultivated the idea that the Allies would never permit a communist takeover in Yugoslavia, and believed that they would march into Yugoslavia as they did in Greece and Italy. Unfortunately, the Serbs, who initiated the resistance against Hitler and suffered unparalleled casualties, hardships and destruction, were sold to Stalin along with other East European nations. At this time nobody could estimate the dimensions of the forthcoming disaster, but from my earlier exposure to the “Uzice Republic”, I had an idea of what the bloodthirsty communists were capable of doing in order to grab the power and keep it.
All we could do now was to make the communist pay the highest possible price for their accession to power, like Tzar Lazar did to the Ottomans in the battle of Kosovo in 1389, and Serbia to the Austro-Hungarians at Mishar in 1915. We still liked to believe that the Allies betrayed us because of their naiveté and the lack of experience in dealing with Stalin. The rumors were running rampant that Mihailovich’s high command had decided to move the Chetnick units first to Bosnia, and then join their brigades operating in Montenegro and Dalmatia. The following step was to establish a beachhead at the Italian border, still hoping that the advancing Allies would continue their drive through Yugoslavia. However, Roosevelt vehemently opposed an invasion of the Balkans.
In October of 1944 Mihailovich’s army was assembling in western Serbia and an estimated 150,000 guerrillas initiated a deadly march through the Bosnian mountains, and by March of 1945 only 60,000 survived and made it to Italy. Those who did not make it were killed in daily battles with Tito’s communists, Germans and Nazi Croatians, while hunger, typhus and other diseases also took a tremendous toll. My unit made it over the Drina river into the Bosnian town of Vishegrad and in spite of our youngish looks we were recognized for our successful defense of the front on the Drina, and were given excellent food and lodging.
German divisions were retreating from Greece and Romania and they were an easy prey, and we attacked them on the roads to get their arms, ammunition and some canned food. In November 1944 near Rogatica in Bosnia, I fell ill with dysentery and could not continue the strenuous march through the mountains. With several of my sick and wounded comrades I was left in a village school building, and a few days later we were discovered by the advancing communist brigades and taken to a nearby concentration camp. Due to lack of food and medical attention dozens of prisoners died every day. Miraculously, my health improved and I was interviewed by a political commissar who asked me regarding my background and why I was imprisoned. I knew a lot about the communist organization and their leadership, which still in great part consisted of the gang from my hometown Uzice, and I spun a story that I was a member of a Bosnian Proletarian Brigade and that I was captured by the Chetniks near Bajina Basta on the Drina river.
After dropping a few names of communist leaders from Uzice, he believed me and assigned me to a brigade which was on its way to Serbia. I was given an old rifle, ten bullets and a several weeks old corn bread that could be broken only by a sledge hammer, but even then in order to eat it I had to soak it in water for an hour. We were on the move toward Serbia the same night and a few days later we were passing through Sirogojno, Drago’s birthplace, where I had spent summers during my childhood, and I knew the area quite well. That night I was assigned on a patrol to check the area and was able to disappear in the darkness and head for my uncle Stanimir’s home where I remained in hiding for a couple of weeks.
Although I got well and regained my physical strength, my situation was desperate. I could not go back to Bosnia in order to catch up with Mihailovich’s forces retreating toward Italy, nor could I find another way to get out of the country. By this time the entire Serbian territory was occupied by Tito’s communists and I could not possibly return to Uzice, also I was obsessed with the idea that I should get out of Yugoslavia at any cost. Luckily, I had been given the Partisan uniform when I was assigned to one of their brigades after having been captured in Bosnia, and this was a valuable asset I decided to exploit.
My uncle Stanimir was able to get me a traveling permit from the local communist committee, under a phony name, to travel to Belgrade in order to be treated for battle wounds. I traveled on foot, by train and on military vehicles for ten days and finally arrived in Belgrade where I established myself comfortably in my aunt Dobrila’s home. When I got on a freight train in Pozega, my only traveling companion was a local communist functionary dressed in a new militia uniform. I noticed that he had been drinking prior to getting on the train and I started a conversation in order to get whatever information I could. He talked a lot trying to impress me, and he told me not only what I needed to know in order to make my trip easier, but he also told me that he was carrying a substantial amount of cash which he had to deliver to the communist party headquarters in Cacak. When he fell asleep I opened his bag and took a big bundle of dinars which I later spent on food and fun in Belgrade.
I learned in Belgrade that the U.S. Air Force was delivering hospital supplies to Novi Sad, and I decided to explore the possibility of getting on one of the C-47 transport planes and get out of Yugoslavia. I knew that this was a far fetched idea, but since my father Drago had a good business friend, Milan Guralj, in that town I decided to give it a try. The war was still going full blast in the north of Yugoslavia and I went to the military command in Belgrade, obtained a permit to travel to Novi Sad to supposedly rejoin my unit, and was allowed to use any military transport.
I was wandering around Belgrade everyday trying to find a safe transport to Novi Sad where nobody from Uzice would recognize me and report me to the authorities. When I returned home one night I found out that my uncle Mihailo, Dobrila’s husband, had been arrested by the communists. I got on a small Russian gun boat on Danube going to Novi Sad wearing an officer’s coat which I stole from a restaurant the night before. There were only eleven Russian soldiers on the ship and two slovenly nurses wearing typical quilted, greasy Soviet uniforms, who also served us a horrible, tasteless, meal composed of borsht and cabbage with dumplings.
One sailor brought out an accordion and played the same tango all night, while the rest of us rain soaked and tired alternated dancing with the two nurses. At dawn we landed in Novi Sad by the main bridge which had been demolished by the retreating German army. It was a cold, foggy morning and I saw a huge patch of ice moving down the Danube and there were people on it. I asked a passing communist officer what was going on and he told me that those were the Germans who were being sent home. When I told him that Romania was down the river and not Germany, he jokingly apologized for having made a geographical mistake. God only knows how far the Germans got because there was no way they could try to swim in the freezing water of the Danube.
The same day I found Drago’s business friend Mr. Guralj who until recently had been the owner of a sugar mill but the communists had confiscated it. I stayed with his family several days and tried to make a contact at the military airport and negotiate a lift to Italy in one of the transport planes which were delivering medical supplies and taking back severely wounded soldiers. To my dismay and disappointment I found out that the pilots were Croatian Partisans operating from the island of Vis in the Adriatic. So my last chance of getting out of Yugoslavia had vanished.
Although I was still protected by the bogus permit to travel, it was unbelievable that I should find myself in such a desperate situation at the end of the war, instead of celebrating the collapse of Nazi Germany, and enjoying the freedom like the rest of Europe did.
I returned to Belgrade and stayed with my aunt Dobrila a couple of weeks, but by now she knew my whole story and was scared to death that I would be recognized on the streets by the secret police in which many of my schoolmates from Uzice were serving. I moved around at night exploring the possibility of escaping to Greece, but doing it alone was nearly impossible.
One night while I was walking back home after watching a Soviet propaganda movie, I was stopped by two men wearing black leader coats and asked to show my identity card. I showed them my phony military permit which they took away and escorted me to the police jail. Apparently my presence in my aunt’s home was noticed by the vigilante committee established for every block of Belgrade by the communist authorities, and I am sure that they reported me to the police. I was interrogated for hours that night, and I realized that they were more interested in what my present mission was than what I had done during the past six months.
Two days latter I was transferred to Uzice to the secret police – OZNA headquarters jail where I encountered several of my close friends who worked with me in Mihailovich’s resistance. We spent all day on hard labor tasks for several weeks until one day a commissar read us the text of the amnesty granted by Tito to all of those under the age of eighteen, “who fought in the ranks of the traitors against the people’s liberation movement”.
We were released the following day, and told that we could enroll in high school to finish our last year and obtain a diploma, if we agreed to join the Communist Party after undergoing a two months indoctrination program. We accepted the offer but of course, we had no intention of joining the party. We were just playing for time, hoping that another more favorable solution might appear on the horizon. This was February 1945, and the war was still going full blast.
RUNNING THE GANTLET FROM UZICE TO TENOCHTITLAN
Uzice was in turmoil, and the communists still did not have the full grip on power. Initially, this situation gave us an opportunity to be an important if not a dominating force in our school. Fortunately, most of the administrative and teaching staff were not communists and they sympathized with us, but our behavior was not unnoticed by the local authorities. After several stern warnings to stop openly criticizing the new regime, one day the secret police stormed our school building and arrested most of us as undesirable elements. We were placed in a military camp for several days and one night I received a visit from my old school buddy Zika Stankovich who had turned communist when he saw that the Allies had betrayed us. He was a member of the secret police OZNA and was accompanied by two body guards. He offered to take me out of the camp and put me in the communist militia in a small town near Uzice for six months and send me to Russia for military and political training. He said that returning several years later as an army officer everything would be forgotten. I thanked him for his generous offer and told him that somehow I would get out of Yugoslavia. He had a healthy laugh and said goodbye, and several years later after I escaped to Greece he married my girlfriend Ana.
Two days later, several hundred of inmates, including myself and my close friends Aco and Dejan were taken to the railroad station and locked up in a box car like cattle. Our first stop was the Pozega camp where we spent several days, and then were shipped to a brain washing camp in Smederevska Palanka. We were subjected to rigorous political indoctrination every night, and forced to make denigrating confessions of things we did not do. Apparently, this was the commissar’s method aimed at breaking down our fighting spirit, while the forced labor was designed to wear down our physical resistance. The word got around that we were the hardest group to crackdown, and the commissar’s effort intensified principally against Aco, Milorad and me.
His intimidation tactics and his pressure were a total failure. Here was a small town ex-butcher apprentice facing a group of calloused anticommunist activists from Uzice who ran circles around him. The tougher he got, the more rebellious we became and even engaged in ridiculing him by drawing him into discussions on subjects that were far beyond his intellectual capacity. As a reprisal he would awaken us at midnight and start to ask questions related to the last political session. One night he asked Milorad, who was already labeled as a rebel, to discuss the scientific explanation regarding the creation of the universe. After a moment of silence Milorad asked him if he believed in God, and when as expected the answer was negative, Milorad made a three fingered Serbian Orthodox salute and asked God to forgive the unbeliever. Then he started to deliver the religious version of the creation which infuriated the commissar, who asked if anybody would volunteer to talk about the “big bang” version. I got up and said that I would be glad to do it if the audience would listen to it, but the answer was a unanimous and loud “NO”!
The next morning we were assigned the jobs of cleaning the camp latrines, digging ditches and then covering them with the same soil, and scrubbing the kitchen floors. Our conflict with the commissar was escalating rapidly and it culminated in a practical joke that made a fool out of him. We selected Zdravko to play the lead role, placed him on the floor with his arms crossed and a candle lit above his head and send Milorad to inform the commissar that there was a dead person in our barrack. He came running and Dejan lead him to the scene, and Milorad asked him to cross himself and put some money on Zdravko’s chest. Then everybody broke into wild laughter and applause and the commissar swore that he would see that we would pay dearly for this act of insubordination.
Amazingly, nothing drastic happened the next day and the commissar did not appear in our barrack for several days, but we knew that this was not the time to celebrate and that something serious was in the offing. Also, we were afraid that our plan to disarm the guards and let all the inmates escape could have been discovered thus earning us a long term jail sentence. The situation was very tense and we were nervous and expecting the worst. The silence was broken one morning when a group of town policemen appeared in front of our building and ordered us to get out and bring along all of our few belongings. We were frisked and ordered to board the army trucks which took us to the local railroad station, where we were again locked up in the box cars like cattle. We were not told where we were going but suspected that we were heading for the frontlines to pursue and fight the retreating German armies. Just as the train was pulling out of the station the commissar appeared and instead of saying goodbye, he told us cynically that he was glad that he would never see us again. This was one of Tito’s ways of getting rid of the opposition, and thousands of Serbian anticommunist young men were sent to the front at Srem without uniform or training to freeze to death, or to be ordered to charge and get killed by the entrenched enemy.
Our narrow gauge train was an old relic affectionately called “Chira”, and was moving slowly and stopping in every little town on the way to Belgrade. The only food rations we received during the journey were a stale corn bread that had to be soaked in water for an hour before we could eat it. But we even joked about it by telling the transport commander that they should save it and use it as ammunition for the cannons. We arrived hungry and exhausted at the Belgrade railroad station after a two day journey that normally should have taken no more than three hours, and were told that we would spend the night in the box car. The train was surrounded by soldiers and we were only allowed to go to the toilet under an escort, and were told that the next morning we would continue our fateful trip to the frontlines.
We did not even have a chance to relax when we heard small arms fire followed by cannon grenade explosions. For a while we were scared thinking that the Nazis were coming back, but the transport commander gave us the news that Germany had capitulated and that the army was celebrating that the war in Europe was over. We were elated and thankful that we did not have to go to Srem to fight the Germans, but we also hoped that we would not be sent back to Smederevska Palanka camp to face our commissar.
We were awakened by the guards the next morning who told us that General Pero Popivoda, one of Tito’s henchmen, would be arriving soon to give us a welcome speech. “Welcome to what?” we asked, but the soldier said that he could not get into details. Popivoda was the commander of the XXII Storm Division which had been decimated at the Srem front and was transferred to Bitolj, Macedonia, to rehabilitate, and so we were destined to replace those who had died in action.
The journey from Belgrade to Bitolj lasted almost a week because the Germans had destroyed most of the bridges, and many times we had to get off the train, wade across the rivers and catch another train waiting for us on the other side. The guards were few and could not keep the situation under control, which made it possible for quite a few of us to disappear in the darkness and escape. However, Aco, Milorad and I decided to wait for a better opportunity when we would get closer to the Greek border.
Arriving in Bitolj one rainy night we were immediately taken to the barracks, given the DDT treatment and some lentil soup full of worms. The joke was that there would be no extra charge for the meet, and we were delighted that we finally got rid of the lice which had pestered us for a long time. Early the next morning we were assigned to our respective units, and fortunately Milorad, Aca and I wound up in the eighth brigade, third battalion, although not lucky enough to be in the same company. However, we were quartered in the same building and were almost in constant contact. I was assigned an administrative job which put me in charge of requisitioning and controlling the food and other supplies for my company.
I was sharing the office with the company commander and the political commissar who was not only a battle calloused partisan, but also a very cute chick. One day she told me that soon she would be discharged in order to continue her studies, and that if we got married I would be discharged too. I told her that I wanted to finish my military service and then go back to school, where we would probably meet again. She got the message and I never heard from her again.
The new commissar was a real pest. His nickname was Korchagin, which belonged to an infamous character from the Bolshevik revolution. He knew that I was an anti-communist and he took the impossible challenge to try to reeducate me, and while doing it, make my life miserable. He spent a lot of time convincing me that the best thing for my future was to join the Communist party, which in his mind was the main ingredient of success. It probably would have been if I had sold my soul to Satan, betrayed my friends and became a hypocrite. I could probably had played their game and driven them crazy, however, my ardent desire was to escape to Greece at any cost, and accepting any other proposition would have probably derailed my plans. On the other hand, I could not flatly turn him down because that would have probably created an impasse that would result in a transfer to another location, thus making my escape almost impossible.
Fortunately, Aco and I got a chance to play soccer for the divisional team under the jurisdiction of another commissar who was interested more in the game that in politics and I got along with him very well. Soccer players were a special, privileged group of people entitled to special food rations, and allowed to go to town without asking for a written permit. This was a great arrangement and I took full advantage of it while it lasted. My coach was Stoiljkovich who once played for BSK, a top club of Belgrade, and I soon discovered that he was not a communist.
This helped develop a good relationship with him and when I told him that I was thinking about escaping to Greece, he told me to count on his help. A couple of weeks later I found out that my battalion was scheduled to leave soon for the Greek border, and I asked the coach to help me get a release from the soccer team and be sent back to my unit. He told me to fake an ankle injury, and he sent me to the infirmary to obtain a certificate stating that I needed several months of rest and therapy. This did the trick and I went back to the barracks, simulating a slight limp in order to justify my release from the team.
There was a lot of excitement among the soldiers, as many of them were contemplating to desert as soon as there would be an opportunity to do so. Although our destination was only twenty kilometers from Bitolj it took us almost a week to get there. We were transported by train to Crkvica, a village close to the border, and then walked back about six kilometers to a village called Brod, situated near Skocivir on the banks of the river Crna Reka. We slept in village homes, stables and in the local school building. The meals were served at the village square, and there were military exercises every morning and theory classes every afternoon. Luckily, I landed a job as a typist at the battalion headquarters situated on the second floor of an old building where we also ate our meals and slept at night.
Unfortunately, my dossier from Uzice secret police had already reached the battalion commissar, explaining my anti communist activities during the war. Therefore, he constantly kept an eye on my movements and contacts expecting a faux pas on my part which would serve as a justification for arrest.
Fortunately I was advised by a friend about this situation and this enabled me to play an extraordinary game of keeping the commissar in the dark regarding my clandestine activities. Paradoxically, the commissar was convinced that by keeping me on the battalion staff was the best way of controlling my movements and preventing me from escaping, but in reality this was the best thing that could happen to me. As I will explain later, it gave me the opportunity to escape in a much easier fashion that I could ever imagine.
During these dangerous and stressful days I kept constant contact with Milorad and Aca as we tried to define our strategy of how to escape without giving anybody an idea about our plans. Although we would have very much liked to take as many soldiers with us as possible this would have increased the risk of our plans being exposed and our lives put in tremendous danger. Although there were occasional desertions from our unit, the official version was that the escapees were shot and killed at the border crossing. This was done in order to discourage any additional attempts to desert.
In order to break the monotony of the military camp life we often engaged in making practical jokes, and one night with the help of Branko, the battalion commander, we staged a mock trial for a Gypsy soldier, Miko, who stole a couple of breads from the kitchen, and sentenced him to death. It was late at night and we took him to the river bank and tied him to a tree. Milorad was going to do the fake execution and I took the bullet out of the shell and stuffed it with wax so that no harm would be done. Miko was trembling and asking for forgiveness but the commander told him that this was the penalty for stealing people’s army property. Milorad raised his rifle, aimed and fired. Miko fell to the ground and I was in a cold sweat thinking that somehow, somebody had switched the rifle for one with a real bullet. I ran toward Miko to feel his pulse and realized that he had just fainted from fear, and I released him. The commander jokingly pronounced that due to the fact that he was not killed by the first shot the sentence was being annulled. We could never figure out who was more scared; Miko, the commander, Milorad, or the rest of us who participated in this terrible ordeal.
It was not too long before I discovered that I was under constant vigilance of the battalion commissar, “Korcagin”, and that my assignment to the office job was done with the purpose of keeping me under control and watching every move I made. My meetings with Milorad and Aca during which we tried to make our escape plan were closely watched, and one day Milorad told me that he had been recruited by the military intelligence to spy on me. He was grilled for several hours by two members of the divisional secret police, and was asked to report in details about my conversations with him and about any other of my contacts.
This was a clear indication that I would be arrested as soon as Milorad would produce some evidence regarding my anti-regime activities. Our only possibility to escape was to swim across the river late at night and head for the border. However, Milorad did not know how to swim and Aca and I spent every free moment in the river with him trying to teach him how to stay afloat so that he would not drown. This was the month of September, the river was ice cold, and we had a hell of a time explaining to bystanders why we were swimming at this time of the year.
Finally we scrapped the swimming alternative when I discovered that as a member of the battalion staff I would occasionally have to serve as a duty officer, inspecting all the sentinel points, and make sure that all the guards were awake and alert. This was an unbelievable opportunity to leave the encampment as an officer going on a special mission accompanied by Milorad and Aca.
It was already the month of October and the general elections were going to be held in November, which we knew would be rigged and would give Tito’s government full, unlimited dictatorial power. Also, Milorad was under the increasing pressure to produce some evidence about my anti-communist work among the soldiers who were old friends from the concentration camp and still rabid nationalists.
In view of all these threats we had to act fast, and we planned to escape on October 12. My job was to obtain the password so that the guard at the bridge would let us through with the excuse that we were going to re-establish the telephone contact with the outpost near the border.
Milorad and Aca were charged with the task of stealing three Soviet made Strojnica sub machineguns and hiding them in a haystack until dawn when we would be ready to leave. I obtained the precious password, and Aca came to see me at 6pm and advised me that he had the arms stolen and hidden as planned. But an hour later disaster struck when the driver of a buggy that brought the food daily from Bitolj advised me that my father Drago was in Bitolj, and that he would arrive the next morning on a military carriage.
This was a devastating blow to our plans because if we would have escaped that night and Drago would have appeared at our camp the following morning he probably would have faced a firing squad for allegedly having been implicated in our desertion. We immediately returned the arms back to the unit and quietly waited for Drago to show up the following morning. He arrived about noontime carrying a large suitcase full of food, sweets, and other goodies that our mothers had prepared for us. Aco, Milorad, Dejan and myself took Drago to the village cemetery where we talked at length about the situation in Uzice, which was now being ruled by a vicious, murderous gang of communist revolutionaries whose vision and values were shaped by the Bolshevik revolution and what they had learned in the Spanish civil war - murder, plunder and destruction. While we were eating the cheese pita, kajmak and the sweets prepared by out mothers, Drago nostalgically looked toward the mountain peak of Kajmakchalan where he fought with the Serbian Drina division against the overwhelming Austro Hungarian and Bulgarian armies in 1918.
He gave us a blow-by-blow explanation of the details of each battle that he fought shoulder to shoulder with Aco’s father. At an opportune moment we confessed to him about or plan to desert the army and escape to Greece, and after a long silence he told us: “You’ll be homeless, hungry and stateless in a strange land without a friend and no one to turn to, but that is the price of freedom, and if you are willing to pay it, do it”! We were stunned by his words of wisdom, but not discouraged, and told him that there was no turning point and that we were definitely going to do it. He gave us his blessings and told us how amazed he was that the history repeated itself, that Aca and I should follow the steps of our fathers into exile in Greece almost thirty years later. He also bluntly told us that we did not have a faithful ally as they had in France, but the rotten, plutocratic powers, Britain and America which betrayed us and would probably do it again and again to other nations that trusted them. We were appalled at Drago’s blunt comments, but later in life we realized how right he was in his assessment of how far the imperial powers are willing to go in order to achieve their grab of other countries’ wealth and resources.
Drago returned to Bitolj the same evening and we went back to the drawing board to plan in great detail our impending escape. Our big problem lay in how to explain to the guards on the bridge why we were leaving the campgrounds at dawn. There were two machinegun nests at each end of the bridge manned by our old buddies from the Chetnick resistance days, who had also spent time in the concentration camps with us. We knew that they would have wanted to leave with us, but abandoning their guard duty would be quickly noticed and we would have been persecuted until caught alive or shot dead. This is why I spun a story that we would be going to the next village to wake up the connecting telephone operator because the battalion commander wanted to speak to the high command in Bitolj. We set October 20 as the target date for the escape and started rehearsing every detail and preparing our response to the unforeseen events. Each of us would carry a submachine gun with one sixty bullet drum and an extra thirty six bullet clip, and if confronted by anybody on the way to the border we were prepared to shoot to kill.
The night before our escape I told the battalion commander that I would be available for the inspection of the guards starting at midnight. He was delighted that I would do it, but in order to disguise my real objective I asked him if I would be compensated with some time off. He said that he would definitely look into the matter, and that he saw no major obstacle to that. The following day Aco and Milorad went on a military maneuver across the river simulating a counterattack against the invading Greek army, while I spent the day at the battalion office doing the daily paperwork.
After dinner I met briefly with Aco to assure that the machineguns that he was to steal from his unit would be in good operating conditions, and stowed in the haystack as originally planned. I went back to the battalion headquarters to get some sleep before assuming my duties at midnight. It was drizzling that night and I asked the commander if I could borrow his trench coat, and he responded favorably. He also told me that the password was written on a piece of paper which was located in the breast pocket on the right side. I could barely hide my excitement while counting every minute left to midnight, and I could not sleep a wink. Got up an hour too early, and walked to the village square where I found the officer who was on duty until midnight and told him that I was ready to takeover and that he could go to sleep. He asked me if I got the new password because the old one was expiring at midnight. I thanked him, and although everything seemed to be going perfectly well and according to the plan, I still could not believe it.
I made my first inspection round stopping at several sentinel points, and then went to the crucial bridge which we had to cross before dawn. As I approached the machinegun nest I heard an order to stop, and then there was an exchange of the passwords and the answer from the other side. The memorable password was “Tesak” and the answer was “Trstenik”. All the guards knew me and we chatted for a while, but one of them asked why I was assigned this duty when I was an office clerk. This was a great opening to prepare the stage so that we could later go over the bridge as part of my duty for that night. I told him that the officer who should be on duty was sick and that there was a problem with the telephone connection with the divisional headquarters in Bitolj, and that if it was not fixed, in a couple of hours I would have to take a patrol to the next village where the switching operator was located, and find out what was going on. I also emphasized that I hoped that I would not have to go on this mission because the area was infested with the Kosovo Albanian fascists who did not surrender and were still at large killing people and marauding villages at night. Slobodan, one of the guards who knew me well from the guerrilla days, gave me a nudge and told me that if I were planning to escape he wanted to join me. I told him that perhaps we would do that some time in the near future because he was on the guard duty and could not leave his post without being reported by the others. He was not too convinced by my answer, but I told him that I would keep him posted regarding my plans.
I went back to the village and talked to Aco and Milorad, just making sure that they were awake, and then I made another inspection round with the last stop at the bridge. While I was talking to the guards it started to rain heavily, and I told them that I would have to postpone my already announced mission until the rain would stop, but that I would be back accompanied by a couple of soldiers. It was 5 am and it was still raining when I returned to the bridge accompanied by Milorad and Aco, all of us armed with sub machineguns. The guards were informed during my previous stops that I had a pending mission to fulfill, so our departure came as no surprise, although Slobodan could not hide his suspicion. As soon as we crossed the bridge we cut the telephone wires in several places so that if our absence was noticed, the command could not notify the border guards to set a trap for us. The border was only six kilometers away, and I decided that we should not stay on the road but walk through the fields in order to avoid any possible encounter with military patrols. Due to the heavy rain the plowed fields were wet and the mud stuck to our boots.
Aca was getting quite tired and Milorad offered to carry his sub-machinegun as well, a heroic act considering the circumstances. As we approached the border area the fog started to disappear and the rain stopped, which was a blessing because now we could see where we were going. We soon spotted a white border guard house about 200 meters to the right of us, and later saw an armed guard in front of it pacing back and forth. Every time he turned his back toward us we crawled as far as we could, then we would stop and wait for the next opening. As we were crawling forward all of a sudden we heard a tremendous noise in front of us, which froze the blood in our veins. Fortunately, it was only a flock of birds sleeping in the grass that got scared and lifted off in front of us.
Although the border was not clearly delineated I was sure that we were moving in the right direction, because we were now facing the other side of the guard house, and there was another guard pacing back and forth. He was only about 100 meters away, and I lifted my gun, pressed the single shot button, and took an aim at him, but both Milorad and Aca grabbed me and did not let me fire. The day was breaking and we were slowly advancing into Greece and were already at the outskirts of a small village, when we spotted a person working on a haystack. I asked Aca and Milorad to protect my back while I stalked the man and stuck the gun in his back. He automatically raised his hands and turned around and I saw the face of an older man who started talking to me in Russian. He explained to us that we were in a Greek village called Kirkis, which was settled many years ago by Russian emigrants, and that we were not the first ones deserting the Yugoslav army. He told us that there was a Greek army unit in the village and that he would be glad to take us there.
We followed him a couple of hundred meters to a house with its door open and he told me to go in. I was surprised to see several Greek soldiers dressed in British combat uniforms, having their breakfast. The old Russian followed me and asked them to take me to the commanding officer who came out of the other room still with the shaving foam on his face. He was a young captain who spoke Italian quite well, and he told us that during the war he was with General Zervas’ nationalist guerrillas who had a great admiration for General Mihailovich. He told us not to worry and that he would arrange for us to be transported to Florina as soon as possible. He did not even ask us to put down our arms saying that the Serbs were his brothers, and he gave us a good breakfast. An army truck picked us up the same afternoon and took us to Florina’s military headquarters where we were interrogated individually by a team of Greek and British intelligence officers, wanting to know all about the Markos’ Greek communist guerrillas who were armed and trained in Yugoslavia.
The interrogators were bewildered by our age, our looks, our arms and our uniforms, but it was specially my army coat with the captain’s insignia really puzzled them. In other words, we looked like highly suspicious characters. In the evening we were sent to a refugee camp to spend the night, where we took a good hot shower followed by a DDT treatment aimed to kill the lice which were part of us for many months. The next day we landed in Gladstone, an infamous prison in Salonika, where we found an unbelievable cast of characters ranging from Bulgarian and Albanian war criminals, ex diplomats, foreign prostitutes, and army deserters like ourselves. We were given a thin blanket each, which did not help at all during the cold and rainy winter. We befriended Danilo, a fellow of our age from Novi Sad and shared with him the humiliation and the misery we were going through. Instead of going back to Yugoslavia as liberators, or at least as terrorists, we wound up in this horrible place, apparently because my uniform and the arms we carried made us look suspicious.
One day several Yugoslav soldiers arrived, and after a brief conversation with them we found out that they represented the entire crew of the guard house number 98 located at the point where we crossed the border. Milorad asked them who was on duty the morning when we crossed the border and they pointed at a burly guy called Acim, who was petrified when Milorad told him that I almost shot him dead. In spite of this we became good friends and often laughed about this incident.
In Gladstone the food was scarce and terrible, we had no freedom of movement, and the worst of all, we had no idea as to why we were there, or when we would be set free. Somehow, I found out that Greece had not recognized Tito’s regime, and that the royal Yugoslavian embassy was still operating in Athens. In a moment of despair I wrote a letter to the acting ambassador Kontich explaining our predicament. A few days later we were visited by a representative of UNRRA, a refugee organization of the United Nations, who interviewed us and took our personal data. Amazingly, she was Olga Nikolich, a Serbian girl from Detroit, Mich., who gave us a lot of comfort and promised to take our case to her boss, hoping that he would be able to get us out of this horrible human zoo. Meanwhile Milorad’s Slava, a Serb’s most important holiday, was approaching and he was getting more and more depressed because he did not even have one drachma to buy and light a candle to his patron saint which is the day when his family was converted to Christianity. I sold my German officer’s boots and bought one liter of ouzo, some dried figs and a box of halva. Since we could not leave prison this entire transaction was handled by a prison guard for which he collected a hefty commission, but it was worth it. We celebrated Milorad’s first Slava in exile modestly, but he has never forgotten it.
On the floor above us lived a dozen foreign women who were brought to Greece from Germany by the returning Greek prisoners of war, but the Greek authorities and the church took a dim view of these mixed marriages. The reason was that there were many Greek widows and unmarried girls looking for a husband, so the foreign brides were locked up in Gladstone and were waiting to be repatriated. One day while we were doing exercises on the terrace we struck a conversation with Rosa from the upper level, who was a Yugoslav of German origin. She asked us if we were hungry, and told us that she and her girlfriends were receiving daily deliveries of delicious food from their Greek boyfriends, and she offered to give us the food which they did not need. We were elated and took advantage of the offer. Rosa would lower to us daily a bucket of food on a rope, which we would gobble up like if it was going out of style. Since she was considerably older than us we called her affectionately “Mamma Rosa”.
The day we were released from the horrible Gladstone jail we promised Rosa that we would get her out no matter what it would take. We were transferred to Pavlo Melá refugee camp which was operated by UNRRA, where we received new clothes and were given special food rations to compensate for the weigh loss and skin problems caused by several months of near starvation. Thanks to our good general health and physical strength our recovery was accomplished within a couple of months. But we could always eat more than the meager portions offered by the camp kitchen, and in our quest for more food one day we stumbled into a barrel of what looked like margarine. We stole a couple of kilograms of this stuff and used it as a spread on the bread only to find out that it was an ointment that UNRRA gave to the refugees in order to control the psoriasis.
In Salonika we met Jelena, who during the war was in Mihailovich’s movement in Dalmatia, and she really felt like if we were her own sons. At this time she was working with British intelligence, and she was able to help us to get Rosa out of jail and bring her to our camp. Now we wound up having two adoptive mothers, Rosa and Jelena and they certainly took good care of us. In turn we found good husbands for both of them; a good looking truck driver from Belgrade for Rosa and an ex Yugoslav army officer for Jelena. The wedding ceremonies took place in the Serbian Orthodox church in Salonika, but nobody could figure out why and how the three of us had two mothers, and we did not even bother to explain.
After the ceremonies we returned to the camp to be told by the welfare officer that a truckload of used clothing had just arrived from the US, and that each of us was entitled to a suit. I asked her if we could enter into the warehouse in order to select the correct size and colors, and she let us do it. Once inside, we put on several suits starting with the smallest size and working it up to the largest one. The next day we were at Salonika’s black market selling the suits and buying British military uniforms which we needed in order to ride free on all public transportation, and to get free meals at the military kitchens. There was some extra money and Milorad and I bought some “halva”, “baklava”, and other Greek delicacies, while Aco got hooked on three cards game and lost everything. But he took it philosophically by saying: “Easy comes, easy goes.”
This was the spring of 1946 and the world attention was being focused on Greece again as the Markos’ communist guerrillas started their uprising against the government. Since we were a natural target for the communists, we were transferred to another camp in Athens called Hadzikiriakion, and then to a camp in the port of Piraeus. There I met Sava, a soccer player from Zemun and an accomplished guitar player and singer. He taught me a few chords on the guitar and we played and sang as a duo around in the taverns of Faliron, mainly for food and drinks.
However, the communist guerrillas were making important headways in the north and trying to destabilize the country and take over the government. We knew that if the communists took over we would be either slaughtered or repatriated to Yugoslavia to be tried as traitors and most probably executed. I was studying the Greek language intensively and could communicate quite well. This helped me establish contact with the Hites, a right wing organization which represented the Zervas’ faction both in the armed forces and in the government. They were very helpful and sympathetic to our cause and provided good contacts with the ministry of interior whenever we needed them.
In our despair Milorad and I decided to volunteer for the French Foreign Legion and went to the French embassy to inquire. The military attaché was an older gentleman who had been in Greece during WWI, and he told us that he had a great love and respect for the Serbs, and for this reason he did not want us to go to Africa. He gave us some money and told us to be patient and wait for a better solution. As we walked out of the embassy Milorad said jokingly that nobody wanted us, not even as mercenaries in Africa.
When the fighting intensified and Greece was on the verge of collapse we formed a Serbian clandestine “special forces” unit, which was organized and trained in the island of Syros. In Syros we found our old friend Mitsos, the young officer who received us when we crossed into Greece almost a year earlier. He had quit the army and was taking care of his father’s business. Next to us there was a camp of Albanians from Kosovo who during the war served in the Nazi SS Skenderbeg division, and we had a few bloody skirmishes with them. Three months later we were sent to fight in the critical areas where the communists were making important inroads and our previous guerrilla experience was an invaluable asset.
When the Greeks needed a proof for the UN that the guerrillas were armed and trained in Yugoslavia, we would clandestinely penetrate into the Yugoslavian territory and obtain the relevant information regarding the logistics and movement of men and materiel. Fortunately, the communist movement KKE was defeated and their fighters were imprisoned at the Makroniso Island.
The only communist resistance of any significance was still in the mountains of the island of Crete, and we were chosen for the job to liquidate them. One night we boarded a British navy ship which took us to Souda, a port near Haniá. There, we joined a Greek brigade which had excellent intelligence reports regarding the hideouts of the communist guerrillas, and in two weeks time those who were not killed were only happy to surrender.
There was considerable pressure on Tito by the UN to stop training and arming the Greek communist guerillas, but in turn the Yugoslavian government accused the Greeks of having us as mercenaries. In order to avoid an international scandal the Greeks quickly disarmed us and transferred us to a civilian refugee camp in Lavrion not too far from Athens, where we initiated a new phase of life.
One lucky day while going for a walk Milorad tripped on the sidewalk and separated the sole of his shoe. We stopped at a cobbler shop to get the shoe repaired, and while waiting we found out that there was a scarcity of needles used to puncture the sole before sewing it. Milorad asked the cobbler if he could lend us a sample in order to investigate if we could duplicate it. Reluctantly he let us have one and this started the ball rolling. Not too far from the camp, in the Lavrion bay we found the remains of the German anti submarine steel nets which represented excellent raw material for the shoe needles. We only had to cut the rings, put them in our kitchen fire, hold them for an hour, and then straighten them into 20cm rods, and cut them into 7cm pieces.
The following step involved the filing in order to get each piece down to the correct size, and then hammer it to the desired curvature. The final phase involved the tempering, polishing and packaging. Each needle was engraved with the name “King”, and packed in boxes bearing the same name, thus being a perfect imitation of the prewar product made by a French company.
This phase of work was done secretly in the “penthouse” in which Milorad, Aco and I lived. In a couple of months we had over fifty refugees working on an assembly line consisting of seven different stages of work. They were paid by the piecework system, Milorad was doing the final phase of curving and tempering and I was doing the selling in Athens to all kinds of shops, and one of our customers was even exporting our products to Turkey and Egypt. Our little enterprise was booming and the profits were high because the raw material was free, and the work was being done on the camp’s premises without paying any rent.
We also organized a Serbian soccer club which was sponsored by our enterprise, and we were invited every weekend to play exhibition games against various first division clubs. The famous temple of Poseidon at Sounion was only a few kilometers away and we took advantage of many beautiful beaches located in the area. I even chiseled my name next to Lord Byron’s on one of the columns of the temple. Today I would probably be arrested and charged with a crime against humanity, but in those days it was a popular thing to do.
By this time the civil war had been won by the Greek government forces, and Greece had recognized Tito’s regime of Yugoslavia which wanted to send their representatives to our camp in order to persuade us to go back home. After several rejections from our leadership, the Greeks under the pressure from the British finally caved in and informed us that a Yugoslav mission would visit the camp in order to talk to us.
This was a tragic mistake which resulted in a near massacre. Out of five representatives four were beaten into a pulp, while the fifth one died from head injuries. In our fury we overturned the military police jeeps and disarmed the soldiers whose job was to prevent any possible incident. Again, I went to our friends from the right wing Hites organization to ask them for help in getting out of jail a couple of our guys who were charged with committing murder. They helped one of them escape, and the other one was transferred to a mental hospital from which we whisked him out one night.
However, this incident created quite a bit of tension in the newly established diplomatic relations between Yugoslavia and Greece, and our camp commandant Maj. Aca Milosevich was called on the carpet by Mr. Stefanopoulos, minister of the interior. I acted as an interpreter during this meeting, and the minister told us that his government was making arrangements with the UN for us to be transferred either to Egypt or to Italy and thus become eligible for resettlement to the US, Canada, or Australia. Two months later we were informed that we were accepted by the International Refugee Organization in Italy, and that we would travel by ship on October 20, exactly three years after we had crossed the Greek border.
Within several days we liquidated our shoe needle business, and finally boarded a dozen of Greek army trucks which took us to Pireaus, where we boarded an old British navy troop transport ship to Bari, Italy. Prior to getting on the ship somebody passed the rumor around that we would be searched, and all foreign currencies would be confiscated. In order to get around that imminent danger I sewed ten gold coins into the waist of my pants, while Milorad took a great part of our dollar savings and put them in his briefs, glued to his body by adhesive tape, thinking that this was the most secure place.
To our amazement, the next day we saw several of our compatriots, who were real bums and always broke, having expensive drinks at the bar. Vlada “Prase” and Milan “Albanac” even invited us to a drink, but when they told us that they had found a bunch of dollar bills on the deck, Milorad and I almost had an apoplexy. Half of our hard earned money was gone and all we could do was to stay with the bums who found it and celebrate. Fortunately, I had my dollar bills and gold coins stashed in a safe place and this would give us a good start in Italy.
When we landed in Bari I was approached by the OSS, predecessor of the CIA, and offered a job to go to Trieste, which was divided between the Allies and Tito. When the agent told me that this was a job of recruiting the agents and that I could not kill Tito’s communists who were infiltrating the “Zone A”, I told them that I was not interested. He told me that the rules might change and that he would keep in touch with me, but he never came back.
We arrived by train to the Bagnoli camp, near Naples, which was housing close to 10,000 refugees from Eastern Europe, being processed for immigration to various countries. The “Greek group” as the people in the camp called us, had a reputation of being mean guys who would confront anybody and if necessary beat the living shit out of them. We had been in the camp only a couple of days when Milan “Albanac” told me that a group of Croatian Nazis, Ustashi, were terrorizing the rest of the camp population, and that no one could comfortably have a drink at the famous camp cantina-bar without being intimidated or beaten up. I quickly investigated how many of these characters were in the camp, who was who, and who was their protector. I found out that most of these war criminals were under the protection of the Vatican and that they were in the process of getting Vatican passports to go to Argentina, where their wartime leader Ante Pavelich was comfortably protected by the Peron regime.
A couple of my mean lieutenants and I organized a well planned attack on the cantina at midnight when these jerks were drunk and singing Nazi songs. There were about twenty of them having the last grappa when fifty of us walked in armed with hammers, files and wooden sticks and without any warning or discussion our gang started cracking their sculls, breaking the arms, throwing these criminals out and letting them roll about twenty steps before they hit the ground. The next day we were in charge of the Bagnoli camp and the American camp director Simpson let us establish our Serbian camp police, control the warehouses, and run the kitchen operations. Thousands of refugees of other nationalities living in Bagnoli, treated us like liberators from the Nazi terror the Croats had maintained for a couple of years.
During the following couple of months these criminals were in hiding in the camp and were slowly shipped to Argentina. They had constant contact with Colleggio Croato in the Vatican, which provided them with the financial help and support during their last days in Bagnoli. A young Slovenian priest who graduated from the Colleggio was not only in charge of the catholic chapel but also served as the fanatical spiritual leader of the Ustashi. I made a surprise visit to his room the following morning accompanied by a couple of my body guards and asked him to give me the names of the Ustashi or be castrated on the spot. He was trembling from fear and delivered to me a bunch of papers which contained valuable information, which I immediately delivered to the head of the US Immigration office located in the camp. He went through the list and spotted several names of people that were sponsored by a Croatian organization in San Pedro, California. Those guys never made it to the U.S.
After playing several soccer games for the Bagnoli team, my coach Andra Wiess who at one time coached Sparta from Zemun, told me that I should get out of Bagnoli as soon as possible before the Ustashi would cut my throat. He recommended me to John Derado to play soccer for the San Antonio IRO camp where he was the sports director, and had assembled a formidable team composed of Czechs, Romanians, Hungarians, and Serbs. From the beginning I hit it off with John and his wife Vera and our friendship has continued for many years.
In order to control my meanness and my rough play John assigned me the job of team captain. Additionally I got a job as the Immigration Officer of the camp, which involved receiving hundreds of East European refugees from Germany, and arranging for their transportation to the US, Canada, Australia, Brazil, and other Latin American countries. I helped Milorad get a job as the head of the kitchen supplies including the burning wood and coal, and asked John to get Aca to play for our team, which he did. We had a great time, and I became the camp director’s right hand.
He was an ex US Army Captain, Pete Taylor, who married an Italian girl from Trieste, and he became an avid soccer fan and the sponsor of our team. We had a good soccer field in the camp, and when we invited Italian clubs to play, he would appear with a bouquet of flowers, and deliver it to the opposing team’s captain. During the war he was in Africa where he met the officers of the Yugoslavian army in exile. He loved the Serbs and the camp police was composed 90% of the ex Serbian guerillas, whose motto was that an Italian thief or a Russian spy could get in, but would never get out alive.
Occasionally Pete would invite me to have a glass of vermouth with him at the camp’s cantina and would tell me over and over his experiences in Africa while fighting the Germans and Italians at El Alamein and Tobruk in 1942, and landing in Sicily and at Salerno. These were my first and most effective lessons in English language because they included the military slang expressions, cuss words, and the colloquialisms from Flint, Mich. He was an important influencing factor in my decision to emigrate to the United States, and a few years later when I lived and worked in the Detroit area, I frequently visited him and played golf with him in the Flint area.
Paradoxically, I was already a corporate executive at that time while Pete was working as a supervisor of the paint department in a Fisher Body plant of General Motors in Flint, Mich. However, he was a very noble person and he demonstrably enjoyed my success, and felt proud of the fact that he discovered my talent when I was working for him. Unfortunately, he died a few years later when I was already living in Mexico.
During one of our training sessions a handsome young Czech asked if he could kick the ball around with us. He was good, and I asked him what he was doing in the camp, and he told me that he was working with the sanitation crew cleaning the latrine deposit tanks. I had a position as the Immigration Officer and told him to see me the next day at my office. Mirko Chromy filled out a job application and an hour later I hired him as my personal assistant.
He was a great player and he, Aca and I played an impenetrable defense line whereby the ball might go through, but the player would never make it. He was adopted by the Serbian group and felt like being a part of it. Mirko, as we called him, in spite of his quiet appearance was a real rascal. When a new transport of refugees would arrive we would write down the tag numbers of the best looking girls, and when the nominal roll would be delivered to our office the next day, he would get the names of the chicks that he had selected and would call them over the loudspeaker and ask them to report to the Immigration Office.
Then, each and every one of them would be informed by Mirko that there was a problem in their documentation which could delay their departure to the new country, but that his boss was a very nice guy who could fix it. However, he would tell them that this matter could not be discussed in the camp but over a drink in a bar in Salerno He would then obtain the permit to use the camp ambulance with a pretext that several of the newcomers needed medical treatment in Salerno. The treatment would start at Bar Victoria where Mirko, Milorad and I would introduce them to a drink called negroni, and then we would take them to a place where we could dance. On the way back we had to stop at Salerno hospital and get our ambulance permit signifying that the patients were properly treated. Milorad would give the nurse a generous portion of candies which he obtained free from the kitchen storage. The girls would be elated and we would continue to see them during their ten day stay in the camp.
However, all good things have to end, and a new rule was established by the camp doctor Paladino that only the patient that he had examined could be taken to Salerno hospital, and that the doctor who treated the patient had to give a written report. This sounded the death knell to the deal that worked so well for us. However, I would not give up, and I asked the camp director while having a glass of vermouth with him, if in a case of emergency when the ambulance is gone I could use his station wagon. He gave me his approval, under the condition that his driver Fiorenzano be at the wheel.
Fiorenzano had a paramour near Villa Alba on the way to Salerno and was happy to be a part of this complot. We would drop him off on the way to Salerno and pick him up on the way back. This was a great arrangement but one night when we had a few dollies lined up, the station wagon broke down, I went to see Dr. Paladino, who owed me a favor, and told him that Milorad felt that his appendix was inflamed an he wanted to check it out at the hospital. Paladino was a short guy from Dalmatia, married to a good looking Italian girl who enjoyed being around us, and he despised it. He gave me the permit and Milorad, Mirko and I took off with our guests for Salerno hospital thinking that it was going to be another routine stop.
The doctor on duty knew us well and asked the patient to follow him to the emergency room. I asked the doctor if I could accompany Milorad, and when we entered the room he asked Milorad to pull his pants down and lay on the table. Then he put both hands on the area where the appendix is located and pressed real hard. Milorad screamed and the doctor pronounced that the appendix was about to burst and it should be removed.
We could not believe it but the patient was immediately wheeled into the operating room and we had no alternative but to head for our favorite hangout, Bar Victoria, without him.
Two days later I went to the hospital as scheduled to pick Milorad up and bring him back to the camp. I had prepared a surprise show with the nurses to bring him to the infirmary first, so that they could conduct and inspection in order to determine that his precious tool was still intact. But the surprise was mine because after waiting in the lobby for an hour Milorad, had walked to the bus station and taken the trolley to the camp in San Antonio. Fiorenzano and I rushed back to the camp but Milorad was already being caressed by Valentina, the best looking nurse whose oversized breasts were touching his chest when she leaned over. We all had a big laugh and a couple of big Serbian camp policemen helped me carry Milorad on a stretcher to the room we were sharing.
During the following week he was constantly visited and pampered not only by the nurses and his kitchen help, but also by the girls who barely knew him. I was almost tempted to have an operation myself so that I too could enjoy this extraordinary show of affection.
Milorad recovered in a hurry and went about his business as usual. We had a pretty good income from the black market at the Piazza Garibaldi in Naples where we sold American army supplies provided by Mr. Gottlieb who was the camp’s head warehouseman. These transactions involved a lot of negotiating, haggling, and being on guard not to be cheated by the Italian crooks who would try to pay you with a stack of Lira bills, only to find out that the only two real bills were the one on the top and the one on the bottom. The crooks would count the money in front of us, and then one of them would push the recipient while the other would switch the bundle.
We would retaliate by selling them a dozen of blankets, which we would cut in half and after unpacking them they would find out that they really received six. Since they were the master Mafiosi they would be infuriated, and would prepare a new trick for our next visit. When going on these “missions” we would put on the US army uniforms, and drive an army Jeep so that the Italians would be sure that they could have an upper hand in dealing with us.
One day a member of their clan overheard us talking in Serbian and yelled at the rest of the gang: “Ma questi non sono Americani, sono Slavi”, - “these are not Americans but Serbs!” From there on the business was done “ethically” and above the board. We spent this extra income on our frequent visits to Sorrento and Capri.
Pontecagnano was a quaint little town located five kilometers away from San Antonio, where we would go to have a dinner whenever we won a soccer game. The place was famous for its restaurant “Cuattro Forchette”, where Mussolini would drive from Rome in the good old days.
The owner now was a woman whose daughter had fallen in love with a Montenegrin who left for Australia and wrote her letters in Serbian. To say the least, Milorad was quite chummy with the owner and he told her that he had a friend who could read and translate the letters for a small fee that included a dinner and a bottle of Chianti.
I got the job and Milorad and I became regular moochers getting free meals regardless of whether there was a letter to be translated or written or not. The letters from Australia were boring and unaffectionate, so I had to add quite a bit of flavor and excitement in order to justify my fee.
We would sit at a discretely situated table with “La mamma” and her daughter Rosanna, who was only eighteen, and the drama would start to unfold when she would introduce the letter for me to open, read and translate. The fiancée, Uros, was an almost illiterate peasant and was probably afraid to express his feelings of love but I more than made up for this deficiency.
While I was reading the text in Italian, which was almost all made up by me, both mother and daughter would drool, and, according to Milorad get their pants wet. But I felt that it would be quite unethical if I tried to extend my involvement beyond the job I was contracted to do. We would gobble up our dinner, finish off a carafe of wine, and I would tell Rosanna to write her response which I would translate into Serbian.
This involved a couple of more visits and dinners before my new masterpiece would be ready for mailing. I often wondered whether I was not exaggerating in my erotic writing style and what would happen if these two simple people would get together again and compare their letters, which neither of them could write.
But to me, stoking this fire of love was not only providing good meals but was also entertaining and intriguing.
When our soccer team traveled to play out of town games, we would normally go either by train or by bus, and although Milorad did not play soccer he was the self appointed team’s photographer who always traveled with us. His jokes and photos added a lot to maintain the winning spirit.
After a game in Como we were invited to a dinner by the hosts, and when the sommelier asked who was going to taste the famous Pinot Griggio I pointed at Milorad.
After another soccer game we stopped in Naples for dinner at a multifaceted place operated by Maria, which in today’s Wall Street jargon would be called downstream integration, because it started as a small hotel, then added a restaurant, and finally a “bordello”. Again, we knew Maria when we lived in Bagnoli and when we traded the corn beef and other US Army delicacies with her for a jug of wine and a bowl of good pasta.
We were so overjoyed by Maria’s hospitality that we missed the last train to Salerno and the consequent bus connection to San Antonio. We got on a bus which took us to a village which was having a celebration, where we joined the crowd, drank more wine and ate a whole mortadella. After walking for a couple of hours we arrived home at 5 am, and our coach’s wife Vera was infuriated and would not let him into the house.
Milorad and I shared a room with two beds and Milorad offered John his bed under the pretext that he had to make sure that the kitchens had enough burning wood for the next day. We still do not know who did it but poor John, tired and stressed out wound up sleeping on a mattress which had a piece of wood under it. Few hours later John woke up with a severe pain in his back, and when he found out that someone had played a practical joke on him placing a piece of wood under the mattress he became so infuriated that he hit the room’s door with his head and knocked a panel out!
To make things worse, Milorad got tired of inspecting the kitchen operations and was spotted entering the room of a cute Slovenian catholic girl. This created a quite inter- religious incident. The next morning she was grilled for a couple of hours by her parents and the camp catholic chaplain who wanted to establish if the virginity was still there! Incidentally, this was the same Slovenian priest who under duress gave me the list of the Croatian Ustashi in the Bagnoli camp several months earlier. This time I asked him to stop the fuss or I would reveal to the Colleggio Croato at the Vatican that he had sold me the information rather than having delivered it to me under the threat of castration. The investigation stopped immediately and the case was put to rest.
About this time I met Zarko Bilbija who was working at a nearby refugee camp in Pagani. He was an extraordinary Serb from Bosnia who as a young boy joined the Mihailovich’s resistance in Krajina where he fought against the Croatian Nazis Ustashi. In one of the battles he lost his right eye and arm when he tried to return a hand grenade which exploded before leaving his hand. He was a brilliant individual who for a long time played an important role in my scholastic effort. Neither he nor I had time to finish our high school education, but he inspired me to enroll at the CUS – Centro Universitario di Salerno, and became an auditing non-credit student.
Besides taking useless courses I joined the university band and not only played with them for dances but met a lot of interesting people, mostly girls, whom I generously introduced to my refugee crowd. One of the girls I met was Valeria whose good looking widowed mother owned large orchards near Salerno. After having a delicious dinner at her home with Milorad, we obtained as a gift a truckload of persimmon fruit, which we hauled to the camp and distributed to the refugees.
Needless to say that the mother was affectionately compensated by us for her generosity of making available this delicacy to the hungry gang at San Antonio camp, while the refugees who came to load the trucks had their share of fun with the domestic help. The refugees at the San Antonio camp gobbled up the delicious half rotten persimmons with great joy and admiration for Milorad’s sacrifice and hard work required to get it.
Eboli is a town situated about one hundred kilometers south of San Antonio, where several thousands of Mihailovich’s Chetniks who escaped from Yugoslavia at the end of the war had their paramilitary base, disguised as a refugee camp. A fellow from Uzice was marrying a local Italian girl and he invited me to be his best man and a guest of honor at his wedding. At the dinner I was seated at the main table with the bride’s parents, the Carabinieri commandant, the chief of the local police, the local bishop, and General Damjanovich who was the commandant of the Serbian brigade located in Eboli. This was an eight course dinner accompanied by great Chianti wine and everything was running smoothly until the Serbian guests started to sing their wartime guerrilla songs, and to fire their guns in order to mark the occasion. I had to explain to the representatives of law and order seated at my table that this is the national custom and that no harm would be done, nevertheless, everybody was scared to death.
The general ordered the Serbs to leave but the festivities continued in the camp till dawn, and without any rest I was driven back to San Antonio in the general’s limousine by my old buddy Ratko, whom I had not seen since our days in Bosnia. He told me not to dream about returning to Yugoslavia soon because the allies had betrayed us and sold us down the river, and that Tito’s communist regime was there to stay for a long time.
Several days later I was having a glass of vermouth with my boss Pete Taylor, and he asked me what plans I had for the future, since I could not count on playing soccer and having a good paying job in the camp indefinitely. I still had an idea that I should stay in Italy as long as the circumstances permitted and not rush into the serious, responsible life which would be the end of fun and would require that I get a boring steady job at a lowly labor level. In my mind this possibility was almost as bad as being in Tito’s concentration camp. The reason for this feeling was probably my disillusionment with the West based on my personal wartime experience, and I was still not emotionally prepared to become part of a system which had betrayed me. I needed sufficient time to build my defenses to survive and succeed in an environment in which I probably could never be assimilated. I also needed time to prepare myself emotionally to play the game and assume an attitude which would disguise my deep psychological scars caused by the irresponsible and perfidious British and American foreign policy at the end of WWII. I also took a serious look at Brazil, Argentina and Australia as possible alternatives, but I had to discard them because of the innumerable disadvantages these countries represented at that time. So, my strategy was to play for time and enjoy my status quo to a maximum.
In discussing this matter with Aca and Milorad at length both of them agreed that we should look for a new country to start a new life, however, they also accepted the fact that we should not rush into the first opportunity. Some of our friends who were not lucky to have the UN jobs in the camps, to play soccer, and be free to travel and engage in small business deals, in their despair immigrated to Peru, Ecuador and other third world countries only to find out that they went from bad to worse. At this time Aco and Milorad accepted well paying jobs as qualified carpenters to work on a UN expansion program at the Aversa refugee camp, so we were separated for the first time in five years. However, we knew that this was a temporary arrangement.
The economic situation in Yugoslavia was stagnant and basic staples were rationed and hard to find, so every couple of months I would send a package to my parents containing coffee, sugar, soap and toothpaste. They would in turn trade some of these items for food, because due to my desertion from the army they were not eligible for the government controlled food rationing coupons. Every time my 20kg.CARE package would arrive in Uzice the close relatives would be invited to receive a small sampling of the goodies I sent, which would invariably turn into a celebration. It was really amazing that even being a stateless refugee in a strange world I was better off than the ordinary people in Yugoslavia who were supposed to be enjoying the fruits of the communist paradise...
The story continues with Nick's many travels and experiences following the war, as he makes his way to America and a whole new world.
He finishes his story with the following conclusion:
My life experience has obliged me to see the world from different angles, and in this brief autobiography I have tried to apply reason over emotion, and although my family may not agree with me, I have tried to express and defend my values, an almost impossible task in today’s world. While defending my principles I had to pick and choose my targets, settling for small victories, guerrilla style.
This is perhaps because as a young man I had acquired the temperament of a guerrilla that during WWII became an important ingredient of my survival. Even though I was very young at that time, I must attribute certain specific lessons of guerrilla strategy to the decisions I made later in my adult life, surrounding my own career, and major professional strategic decisions.
Nick D. Petrovich
"Freedom or Death"
Nick Petrovich, circa 2008, holding "The Forgotten 500".
Congratulations, Nick Petrovich, on a life well-lived as a freedom-fighter, a patriot, a war veteran, a survivor, a successful businessman, a good man, husband and father, and a friend I am proud and honored to know.
Thank you for your service.
Happy Veterans Day.
November 11, 2009
To get in touch with me, Aleksandra, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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