Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Two Thousand Dreams of Freedom - The story of Staka Marković Kojčić / "Britić – The British Serb magazine" June 23, 2012

Britić – The British Serb magazine
June 23, 2012

We would like to thank Bojan Bošković, a relative of Staka Marković Kojčić, for bringing her story to Britić. These words are taken from her book, Memories of War and the Fallen, 1941-1950.

Staka (Marković) Kojčić was one of the very few surviving members of Ravnogorski Pokret who in the first year of resistance against German occupation, had the opportunity to personally meet General Draža Mihailović.

As a Serbian patriot she was equally persecuted by Germans and Partisans, judged by Gestapo and UDB. She was among the first people who were imprisoned in 1945 by the new Partisan authorities. She spent five years in their political prisons.

These memories are of the hardest period in recent Serbian history. Her words shed light on many honourable people who have, during the war and subsequent Communist regime, made the greatest sacrifices to preserve the dignity and highest values of the fatherland, saving their memory from oblivion.

The editors of Britić

Staka Marković Kojčić

Fall of Serbia and the Beginning of Occupation

The events of March 1941 heralded an eruption of anti-German sentiment among citizens. No one really thought about real national interests or the possible consequences. At that time, we didn’t realise who encouraged the national revolt against pact signed with the Axis but certainly many tried to make a political profit. They were the supporters of democratic Yugoslavia but also a minority of members of Communist Party. (After the “liberation” in 1945 they would completely switch role from the protests of 27th March.)

I spent that day in the Foreign Office building, which was located on the corner of King Milan and Dobrinjska Streets. Diplomats and staff were very worried and depressed about events on the streets of Belgrade. They had a hunch that the country would be on the striking path of Hitler’s revenge. In truth, I had mixed feelings since love of freedom, refusal to compromise and the anti-Hitler mood were widespread views within Serbian political circles.

On 6th April 1941, the Germans bombed Belgrade. The building in Njegoš Street in which we lived was hit. Luckily, no one was hurt but the sight of a huge roof joist jutting through the middle of our dining table was unforgettable. The misfortune caught up with our family in other ways. In those days, my brother Boško became fatally ill with tuberculosis.

With the fall and capitulation in April, the Foreign Office ceased to exist, except as the so-called Department for Liquidation, where I was sent to work. [Its role was to liquidate the Foreign Office function.] The department was laid-out over two rooms. That’s where the diplomatic emissaries, office clerks and the odd ex-diplomat would convene. Discussions were also held over the situation in the country, about the atrocities committed on Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

During these days, officers of Croatian origin were packing up and leaving Serbia. The illusion of a common nation of South Slavs with the loyalty of all of its ethnicities began to crumble. A prominent diplomat Milivoje Naumović told me of the incredible difficulties he had with Serbian colleagues (themselves abroad during the capitulation) trying to explain the treason of these Croats and the extent of the savage brutality which they meted out to the Serb population left without protection.

After the occupation of Serbia, my sister Milica managed to escape from Italy and came back to Belgrade. Since the Foreign Office ceased to exist, she found employment with Milan Nedić. She was also one source of constant information about the butchery of Serbs which was being committed out by Pavelić’s Ustaše. The professor of the Law Faculty, Dr. Pržić, offered me a transfer to Nedić’s office. But I decided to stay in the Department for Liquidation until the end of the work. (That turned out to be until the end of the year.) In the meantime, we moved from the rubble of our flat in Njegoš Street into another in Dobrinjska, and very soon the family secured permanent accommodation in Svetosavska Street on Slavija.

I remember that we used to keep our belongings buried in luggage and boxes belonging to a Jewish family, who the Nazis had taken to a prison camp. After the war, when my tribulations began in Communist Yugoslavia, a woman (a descendant of this family) tried to use the acquaintanceship of Moše Pijade to act in my interests.

On the subject of solidarity with Jews, during the worst days of Gestapo-inflicted suffering, Milica and I would sneak whatever food and fuel we could get hold of from my fiancée’s (Isailo’s) brothers’ to another Jewish family from Kalemegdan. We would leave a basket of groceries and wood at the door, then ring the bell and hurriedly leave to the upper floors as if looking for someone else.

After just one month the streets were filled with enemy uniforms. Word spread from the nation’s heartland that those King’s officers who had evaded German capture were beginning to gather around small cities and woods. The news was unspecific and uncertain, having travelled by word of mouth, but its significance in boosting morale in the occupied capital was priceless. In such circumstances, hope is the most precious thing. Families in Belgrade were never as close as they were during those curfews introduced by German command. That’s how it was for us too. We spent time playing cards with neighbours, and very often the subject of our interest was the very hint of organised resistance. The Germans themselves admitted they had not come to Serbia for an excursion. My Isailo was from a village in Ravna Gora, which meant we received detailed information directly from his relatives about the formation of the resistance movement. Milica and I also had access to official reports so we had a pretty clear and all-encompassing picture about the first days of occupation.

Special credit belongs to Neško Nedić, the officer of General Headquarters. This tall Serbian soldier, who was the first among many to rebel against the occupation, was sent to our home by Isailo’s brother Dušan in May 1941. Neško Nedić had a significant intelligence role. He brought us news from Ravna Gora and I supplied him with the information about the events and political turmoil that was available to me through the diplomats I often met at work. Neško would successfully disguise himself as a manual worker or a peasant in traditional Serbian outfit with blue anterija and thus evaded German control points. Communication between Ravna Gora and Milan Nedić first began to take place with him.

In June 1941, Belgrade already knew that at the helm of honourable Serbian officers who gathered at Ravna Gora stood Colonel Dragoljub Draža Mihailović. It was known that the movement was based on guerrilla principles and as such was the first organised resistance to German military force. I was proud that our people’s tradition, their spirit of freedom, endured in the very area I came from. And I am happy that circumstances allowed me to make my modest contribution to it.

During the autumn, work at the Liquidation Department of the Foreign Office was nearing its end. An offer came for me to teach as professor in an Economics Academy in Valjevo, which I accepted.

The move to Valjevo was scheduled for January 1942. In the meantime, the situation in Serbia was heating up.

A Meeting at Ravna Gora

Isailo’s brother Dušan often visited us in Belgrade and encouraged me to move to Valjevo. The Obradović family wanted me to visit them in Paležnica as well. The first chance presented itself at the end of the autumn, when I was able to get take some days off work. I embarked the train journey in the company of one of their cousins. We got off the train in the village of Kadina Luka. There was still 2km to Dušan’s house which we had to traverse on foot. We walked along the country road when behind the bend we spotted a group of villagers with their mayor Velibor Sajić at helm. Left and right of the line Germans followed armed with automatic guns. They were taking them to Belgrade. I could not guess the reason behind it.

When we got to Paležnica, Dušan told me Germans surrounded the whole area in hope they would catch Draža…! Here it was all different to Belgrade. You could sense the menace in the air.

After dinner, we went to bed early. Milica, Dušan’s wife, and himself in one and me in the other one. There was a burning lamp on the night table between us. I told them what was new in Belgrade, the gossip among the diplomats and how they saw this whole situation. Dušan told me of events from their area. We didn’t go to sleep for a long time. At the early hours of the morning there was a sound of soft knocking on the front door. In the dark, I hear someone asking about the people in the house. The host mentioned me, saying I had arrived today from Belgrade. “Then, it’s ok.” – I vaguely heard through the darkness. In the guest room corridor Dušan said, “Draža with another officer!”

I got up and quickly got dressed. All of a sudden a fantastic opportunity presented itself for me to personally meet Draža, the man everyone was talking about in Belgrade, especially Neško Nedić. I walked into the room and saw them seated. “I apologise if I’m disturbing, but I would like to meet the famous Draža I heard so much about and to congratulate you on your promotion.” (I was referring to the decision of our government in refuge to promote Draža Mihailović into a rank of General.) However, Draža did not show much enthusiasm for the promotion. “I seldom like to receive such congratulations, because the English spoil me with them."

I was left perplexed by this stance. He probably considered it better for his ongoing battle to be regarded as a commandant of a wild and independent national resistance movement, which he was, rather than be regarded as a British political installation in the heart of the Balkans. However, now was not the right moment for me to insist on an explanation.

Our host Dušan introduced the officer from Draža’s escort as Major Zarija Ostojić. He immediately said that not only was I his brother’s fiancée but also a clerk of the former Foreign Ministry. That way a greater trust was established. I found out that Draža Mihailović and Major Ostojić had come to the Obradović’s house to escape German units that surrounded Ravna Gora in an attempt to capture the General. Draža was wearing glasses and an officer’s shirt, covered with a raincoat. He seemed modest and unobtrusive. He asked me about the situation in Belgrade, about the fates of certain people and about the general mood of the citizens in relation to the German occupation.

Then he said that our aim is to save Serbian people and Serbian villages from destruction, as was happening in Bosnia, to organise people for defence, ready them for liberation of the country at any given moment and never allow it to be said that the English had liberated us.

He also mentioned the Partisans: “In the beginning we worked together. But then we started intercepting their messengers. They carried dispatches to their officers, which commanded them to engage in battle together against the Germans and then sneak out unnoticed leaving Četnik men unprotected in hope that as many die as possible.”

During the conversation he mentioned more than once that the best solution for Serbian people is the national state. When Major Ostojić heard where I worked, he asked me if I knew Meri Đurić. I told him that she often comes to my department. He asked me to say hello to her and to tell her that he arrived from Cairo and that he is now with Draža.

They stayed at Dušan’s place for two hours. After resting, they judged it necessary to switch location again, we exchanged our goodbyes and they were away.

That night the Germans arrested close associates of Draža, officers Aleksandar Mišić, the son of Duke Živojin Mišić, and a Slovenian Fergl. In order to give the general the opportunity to escape the posse, Aleksandar Mišić told them he was Draža. Both, him and Fergl, would soon be shot.

After the General with his entourage headed into the uncertainty of the night, I thought about everything he had said. The strength of his beliefs was strong and for me it was only important that in them I recognised the essential thought and guiding idea of the majority of my friends and me: that every individual has to engage himself in a fight for the holiest interests of his people, for his survival and his freedom and that that fight has to be fought with your heart and head at the same time.

That night-time meeting in Kadina Luka had an unusual epilogue, unconnected to politics but it depicts the utterly irrational and emotional tension of the times. When I arrived back in Belgrade (to end my employment obligations and get ready for my move to Valjevo) I met Meri Đurić in the offices of Ministry and gave her the message and greetings from Major Ostojić. Ten days later, Mr Milivoje Naumović came to tell us of an event that took place on the ship he was travelling on from Belgrade to Pančevo. Meri was on that ship too and in a moment of madness, she vigorously approached the German soldier on duty. In a flood of accusations, she grabbed him by the throat to choke him. Other soldiers quickly jumped in and separated them. Meri was escorted off the ship to calm down. The news that Zarija Ostojić had returned from Egypt alive and well obviously made a strong impact on Ms. Đurić. She was, it seems, head-over-heels in love with the striking and handsome major. That is war and destiny.

Staka and her husband Ilija Kojčić in Belgrade, 1953


If you would like to get in touch with me, Aleksandra,
please feel free to contact me at ravnagora@hotmail.com


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