The story of a remarkable woman
My Aunt Billy, my guru of optimism, told me not long ago that she had been “a little down lately.” Dr. Miroslava Biljana Nikitovitch-Winer, or Billy for short, has always been my idol, a woman who lived like a true feminist long before that term became pejorative. She has had a career as a research scientist, as a medical school professor and as chair of the University of Kentucky’s Anatomy and Neurobiology departments. After retirement, she became an accomplished potter and sculptor. She is the mother of two successful children, the grandmother of two boys and two girls, and an aunt and great-aunt who is always available to talk, to tell a funny story, or to listen and offer encouragement. During my darkest times, it was Billy who comforted me, Billy who advised me, Billy who helped me get up and start over when all I wanted to do was disappear.
“Depression is my territory,” I said to her. “You are not allowed there.”
Billy rarely complains or feels sorry for herself. Even now, at 87, she is not down because of her own aches and pains. She is sad because Al, her beloved husband of sixty years, is slowly declining. And she, a woman of action, can do nothing about it.
I am sure the daily travails of a weakening body do bother her. She always says, “Aging is not for sissies.” But to a woman of such strength and accomplishment, who fled from Yugoslavia after World War II and overcame the barriers of war, sex, culture, and language to rise to the top of her field, what has always been of utmost importance is her husband, her family, her many friends, and the countless students whom she has taught and nurtured through the years. She needed no near-death experience to know that what matters most in life is love.
As the essence of the man she loves dissolves a little more each day, Billy can no longer keep the demons of depression at bay, the demons she has fended off, usually with success, in the face of obstacles that would have felled a lesser soul.
In 1937, a ten-year-old Biljana stared at the ceiling of her room in Skoplje, Macedonia, and wondered when her parents would let her get up. It had been almost three months of lying on a wooden board without so much as a pillow, three long months of no school, no play, no exercise. She read on her back, wrote on her back, ate and drank on her back. The wooden board pressed into her flesh and her slack muscles, reminding her that her body was no longer her own. She was a guinea pig in an experiment suggested by a quack and embraced by her father, a treatment without any scientific proof of success, a torture meant to prevent a suspected curvature of her spine.
When the three months were up, my Aunt Billy was so weak she could hardly stand up. Her spinal curvature was now pronounced, and the doctor ordered another three months of plank rest, which she endured, which condemned her to an even worse back. Unbelievably, her father then agreed with the doctor that still another three months would be necessary.
After nine months of obedient suffering, Billy finally rebelled.
But she would never be the same. She was no longer the lively, confident girl with the big green eyes who loved to laugh and tell stories. She was no longer the girl with the strong slim body who loved to put on a bathing suit and go swimming with her friends. She was now the girl with the crooked back, withdrawn and self-conscious, hiding her body from the world. Her father called her chubby and her mother called her Quasimodo. She was damaged, and she knew it.
Yet despite the blow to her physical confidence and the pain she would endure every day of her life, her spirit remained unscathed. Billy has never let her back define or limit her. She has never let any obstacle stop her from achieving her dream of studying medicine and becoming a research scientist in America. “Serbs,” she told me when we were working on her autobiography, “were born to be happy.” No, I thought, you were born to be happy because optimism runs through your veins as surely as it drains from mine.
Born in Kraljevo in 1927, Biljana came into a family of male chauvinists so entrenched in their supposed superiority that her grandfather would summon his wife to run down a steep hill on a hot afternoon and pour him a glass of water. The pitcher stood on a table just inches from where he was napping in the shade of his favorite tree. Another time, Billy heard a neighbor of her grandfather’s in the village of Vranici say he had no children. Then who was the little girl she played with? Her parents explained that only boys counted as children. Still later, she learned that pre-arranged marriages were customary in the rural villages of Serbia, and that the future husband had the right to test a girl’s bedroom skills before marriage. If rejected, the girl faced a bleak future indeed. No wonder Billy became a crusader for equality and women’s rights.
When asked about her childhood, Billy will say it was idyllic, for the most part. She chooses to remember a garden filled with the fragrance of freshly watered flowers and the sound of a street merchant calling out “kiselo, veselo” as he peddled kaymak, a kind of sour cream she loved. But what about Flokitsa, the little dog she and her brother adored? Didn’t her father give it away without telling them because he was horrified when a silly neighbor boy licked the hapless creature’s groin? Or their pet lamb that suddenly appeared on the Easter table? Or the time her mother packed food in red scarves tied to sticks, hobo style, then told them to leave, locked the garden gate and left them crying outside for what felt like forever? Billy doesn’t even remember what they had done that was so wrong. I guess if you are born to be happy, you don’t hold on to bad memories.
Billy especially loved Skoplje, where her family moved when she was five to be close to the district her father represented in the Yugoslav Parliament, even though he spent most of his time in Belgrade. With her mother and brother and friends, they had parties and picnics in the mountains. Orthodox by faith, they nevertheless celebrated holidays with both Muslims and Catholics. In the summer, the scent of cevapcici, small oblong meatballs, half lamb, half beef, cooked on open fires, wafted through the streets. They had a live-in French nanny, Mademoiselle Louise, who taught the children to speak French and have good table manners. Billy remembers how happy they were, especially her mother when her domineering husband was away.
Of course, there was the back incident, and the time her brother broke her nose when they were playing cowboys and Indians, and the time a cruel teacher told her that her official name was Miroslava, not Biljana, something her parents had neglected to reveal. But good times have always outweighed bad times for Billy, at least until now.
Back in Belgrade after her father became Minister of Agriculture, Billy, now a young girl of fourteen and tall for her age, awoke to an eerie quiet. It was March 28th, 1941. Suddenly, a terrible noise shook the house and German bombs plummeted from the sky. Everyone ran to a neighbor’s basement and waited in the dark for the bombing to stop. The night felt interminable to Billy, who coughed uncontrollably due to the dust, the fear and the lack of water. Suddenly, a hard blast of wind accompanied by a deafening bang shook the ground. Then silence. And more silence. When they dared climb out into the light, they saw a huge hole in the street right next to the house where they had been hiding. Smoke rose in the distance and buildings and homes as far as Billy could see looked like metal carcasses, yet the apartment building her family lived in was still standing.
Chaos reigned under German rule. Because there was no food, her mother would sneak out to the countryside to forage for potatoes and vegetables. No one was allowed out after 10pm, and the schools served as army barracks.
First Billy’s beloved German tutor disappeared. Then her best high school friend showed up with a big yellow star on her sleeve. Since Jews were forbidden to walk on the sidewalk, Billy walked with her in the gutter. After a few weeks she, too, disappeared.
In 1943 the Allies started bombing Belgrade, and the family fled to a nearby village for safety. Billy remembers watching the bombs tumble from the sky, shining in the sun like silver bullets, and wondering which part of Belgrade they would destroy next.
When the Germans retreated and the war finally ended, everyone expected the Americans to come to the rescue of Belgrade. Instead, in February of 1945, Europe was divided at the Yalta Conference, and the Russians arrived as the so-called liberators of Yugoslavia.
Barely 18, Billy was now a prisoner of the Russian occupation, and another reign of terror began as Communism took hold, with no effort by the Allies to help. Her father fled in the night, afraid for his life, and her brother Pavlé was immediately drafted into Tito’s Communist army. Because the universities admitted only the children of members of the Communist Party, Billy’s education came to a standstill.
At midnight on a cool October day, a young woman in a borrowed khaki uniform and her brother in his Communist army uniform jumped on a moving train with Mita, the man who had provided them with phony papers and promised to help them escape to Italy. In Zagreb, they boarded another train, a cattle car that stank of dung and urine, and, standing the whole way, arrived in Riyeka in Istria. Across the river was Italy.
Between hell and freedom stood a dozen checkpoints. Mita talked his way through all of them, and when they passed through the last American checkpoint into Trieste, where their father was waiting, they were overwhelmed with joy and gratitude.
Billy and Pavlé traveled to Milan with their father, who gave them 1,000 lire, then left them alone while he went on to Paris. He assured them that he had a friend in Nervi who would help them out. The friend did not. Instead, he sent them to a hotel without any dinner. Starved after a day without eating, they dined at the hotel, not realizing how expensive it would be, and managed to spend almost half of their money. Desperate, they then rented a cheap room with a shared bathroom in a flat above a movie theater, where Billy would fall asleep to the sound of Gary Cooper shouting through the floorboards. She didn’t mind because by then she had already fallen in love with anything American. In her heart, she knew that some day destiny would take her to the United States.
By the time their father sent them train tickets, Billy and Pavlé were surviving on oranges stolen from a nearby orchard. In Paris, they immediately enrolled at the Sorbonne University, which was overflowing with students from anywhere and everywhere, all eager for the educations World War II had postponed. At the end of the year, both passed their exams, and Billy moved on to medical school.
But not without trauma. At twenty, she endured a painful, botched operation to put a bone from her tibia along her vertebral column. Instead of straightening her spine, the procedure resulted in a greater curvature, and she lost five inches in height.
Even that could not deter my Aunt Billy. She found work as a receptionist in the American house at the Sorbonne and made friends with the fun-loving students, most of them studying “art” or “culture.” She loved the Americans because, she said, they, too, were born to be happy.
After she finished medical school, the father of one of her American friends sponsored her to come to the United States. She was the first in her family to leave. It was the middle of winter, and the ship, crowded with emigrants, rolled through storm after storm. She was alone, with no papers and no passport, and she was horribly seasick. When she saw the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline after two long weeks at sea, she cried.
Settling in New York, Billy found a job as a research assistant for the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. She fed and tested mice for various diseases, not a very glamorous job, but one that allowed her to pay her own way, with money left over for buying clothes and enjoying the city. Then she heard about a new program at Harvard University. She applied, oblivious of what Harvard represented in American education, and was accepted with a full scholarship from Radio Free Europe.
It was at Harvard that Billy met a fellow medical researcher, Dr. Alfred Winer, the man she was to marry. He was Jewish, and his Bostonian family disapproved of his choice of a wife. They married anyway, in the backyard of her brother’s house in New Jersey. By now, Pavlé and his family as well as their parents had found sponsors and settled in the United States. She and Al honeymooned in Ocean City before returning to Duke University, where Al had transferred. Billy followed him and graduated with a PhD in anatomy and neurobiology.
Post-graduation, Billy stayed at Duke to do research in a new field called neuro-endocrinology. She did research on rats, fashioning her own curved tool from the metal strips used to close boxes. With that tiny tool, she was able to lift a rat’s brain, cut the stalk that attaches the pituitary gland to the brain, and remove the pituitary all in one piece. She then grafted the gland under the rat’s kidney capsule, where it became re-vascularized. Her experiments led to her discovery of how the brain stimulates the pituitary gland to release the LH hormone that results in ovulation.
Billy and Al continued their research in Sweden and London. They had two children, Nikola and Alexandra. They were then recruited to join the founding faculty of the University of Kentucky Medical School in Lexington. For more than three decades, Billy taught anatomy and Al biochemistry while they both continued to do research in their fields.
After retiring, Billy took up pottery, which she had always wanted to do. She brought the same passion to art as she had to medical research, taking courses at the University and workshops with professional sculptors. She even installed her own kiln and pottery studio in Lexington, where she still loves creating pots, vases, sculptures and other objects.
Billy has survived breast cancer, two shoulder operations, a knee replacement, breathing problems and constant back pain. Yet she is always impeccably coiffed and dressed, elegant even under duress. When I ask her how she is, she jokes, “Fine, or would you prefer an organ recital?”
Through the good times and the bad, Billy’s gentle, loving husband has stood quietly behind her, giving her strength, letting her shine, and expecting nothing in return.
Perhaps Billy was born to be happy. But perhaps it is Al who has allowed that happiness to flow the way it has through their years together. Now the Al she knew and loved is fading away as she watches. Yet no matter how down she feels, I am sure that she never lets him see her cry. No, she smiles lovingly and continues to project the happiness that will comfort him, even though that happiness sometimes eludes her. That’s what people who were born to be happy do.
Posted in aging
, immigrant experience
and tagged Americans
, World War II