Many years ago, Pavlé Nikitovich, my father, saved four Frenchman he had never met before from a Russian death squad. It was a random act of kindness, perhaps a foolhardy act of heroism, but an act that rippled down through time and saved generations of unborn children.
As World War II drew to a close, the Soviets invaded Yugoslavia, which had already endured three years of brutal German occupation. After a two-day battle, the Soviets took Belgrade and soon drafted all able-bodied Yugoslav men into the Communist army. Just nineteen, my father walked the docks of Belgrade’s port on the Danube with the other recruits and watched as the Soviets forced the Germans, now prisoners-of-war, to unload Russian ships arriving from the Black Sea.
Sometimes the Soviet soldiers would pass around a bottle of vodka and play a macabre little game. They would force the German prisoners to walk up the plank to one of the ships while they took turns shooting. The officers cheered when one of them managed to hit a German in the head on his first try. As the body hit the water, the soldiers would laugh and toast the winner with another shot of vodka.
When a new batch of prisoners arrived, the Russian Communists would select the prisoners who had been there the longest and send them off to the firing squad in order to make room for their replacements.
My father had already witnessed what happened to German prisoners-of-war. On the day the Soviets marched into Belgrade, he watched from the window of his family’s apartment as more than 300 vanquished Germans walked up to a table where a Soviet soldier armed with a Kalashnikov stood above them and shot them one-by-one through the head. When the pile of dead bodies grew too big, the Russians would move the table. The Communist soldiers, wearing red armbands, then ordered a dozen young local men, including my father, to pick up the dead bodies and throw them into trenches in front of the church. In groups of four, they lifted the cadavers by the arms and legs and dumped them into the trenches, ignoring the brains spilling from shattered skulls and the blood gushing onto their hands and shoes.
But what my father remembered most clearly were the pictures and letters sliding from the left-side pockets of the dead soldiers’ uniforms when the bodies bounced and shifted, mementos placed on their hearts to remind them of love and give them courage as they bravely walked to their deaths. My father understood then that the German soldiers were just young men like him, obeying the orders of one dictator only to be murdered by the orders of another. There were no longer good guys and bad guys in those confusing post-war days, merely one horror following another.
It was before a scheduled execution day in October of 1944 that a young man in a German uniform approached my father and asked him if he spoke French. Why he asked Pavlé and not one of the other Yugoslav guards is a mystery. Perhaps he had tried others only to receive a blank stare in response. In any case, this was his lucky day. My father spoke fluent French.
Pavlé listened as the man, Pierre Ambiehl, explained that he and his three buddies were French, not German, and had been drafted into the German army after the Nazis occupied and annexed the French province of Alsace. Taken prisoners by the Soviets, they ended up on the docks of Belgrade awaiting death by firing squad. Since none of them spoke Russian, they had no way of telling the Soviets they were French, and thus allies, not enemies. They were scheduled to die the very next day, and Pierre pleaded for Pavlé to help them.
Vowing to try, my father went to a Russian soldier he had befriended and told him about the Frenchmen’s plight. The Russian said that since the four had fought with the Germans against his countrymen, they deserved to die. But Pavlé somehow managed to persuade him to ask his Soviet superiors to delay their execution by a few days.
Then he did what only the young, the fearless and arguably the foolish would do. He snuck out of the military zone with the French identity cards of all four men and walked to the French embassy, where General Charles de Gaulle had established a delegation.
The next morning, two French officials came to the port with all the necessary documents to free the Frenchmen. Right before they left, one of the embassy envoys had the foresight to take a photo of the four liberated friends flanking their hero, my father, a handsome young man with a dark mustache and a hesitant smile.
Pierre Ambiehl kept that photo for sixty-five years, knowing only the name of the young man in the middle, Pavlé Nikitovich. Now 84, Pierre asked his son André if he would help him fulfill his dream: to find the hero who had saved his life so he could thank him.
As serendipity would have it, André had worked at the Peugeot factory in Alsace for many years alongside his Serbian friend, Stanko Yotsitch, who subsequently moved back to Serbia. He asked Yotsitch to help him in his search. Yotstich told the story to journalist Mirko Prelevitch, who then wrote about it in Belgrade’s “Novosti” newspaper, asking readers to contact him if they knew what had happened to Pavlé Nikitovich, the man in the photograph.
Meanwhile, a few months after the Frenchmen were freed, my father and his sister managed to obtain fake documents and escape, first to Italy, then to France, and eventually to the United States. After a few false leads, and a little help from Google, Prelevitch finally found a Paul Nikitovich living in Englewood, Colorado. When my father received Prelevitch’s call and heard the story, he was stunned. While Pierre Ambiehl had lived with the memory his whole life, my father had forgotten the incident until that moment. His brave and generous gesture had truly been a random act of kindness, the kind that changes lives forever, even though at the time it had not registered as heroism to a young man who was merely following his human instinct to help those in need.
The story doesn’t end there. André Ambiehl invited my father to come visit the family in Alsace. He flew to France, and on October 27, 2010, attended a special ceremony for World War II veterans in Ensisiem, Alsace. Pavlé Nikitovich and Pierre Ambiehl were the guests of honor, two men whose destinies had crossed decades before and sent ripples into a future that would not have been possible otherwise.
My father recently celebrated his 89th birthday. André and his wife have visited him in Colorado several times, and he speaks to them and Pierre often. By choosing to help a stranger, Pavlé Nikitovich left a legacy of life, love, respect and gratitude. And he did it neither for personal gain nor to show off nor to curry favor with his captors. He did it because he is just that kind of man.
When I think of those I love who are no longer here, I often remember what they cooked for me, or what they liked to eat, or a special restaurant meal we shared. Not what political party they belonged to. Not what religion they followed. Not what they did for a living. No, I immediately glimpse a moment when simple sustenance was a quiet celebration of being alive, and being alive was a sensual sharing that needed no words.
My paternal grandmother, Mara Nikitovich, was born in Montenegro. She had worked as a science teacher, but after she married my politician grandfather and had two children, she devoted herself to the domestic arts. When the Communists took over Yugoslavia at the end of World War II, they all managed to escape, first to Paris, then to the United States. My grandparents eventually settled in New Jersey, where a life of struggle awaited. But one thing never changed: food in all its delicious guises held the family together.
Baba had hands that could do anything, hands as strong and nimble as mine are weak and clumsy. Knitting. Crocheting. Embroidery. Gardening. She could do it all, but she never scolded me for failing at them and not really caring.
Of course, Baba was also an excellent cook. Even when she came home after a grueling day crocheting silk ribbon dresses in a New York City sweat shop, she somehow found the energy to prepare djuvec, a chicken and rice casserole, or passoulj, a white bean and pork stew, or sarma, cabbage stuffed with meat and rice. I watched as she put cabbage leaves in a barrel of brine in the basement so she would have them all winter, made jam out of plums, rose petals or sour cherries, and cultivated her own yogurt, sour cream and caymac, a cross between butter, yogurt and cheese that required layers of cheesecloth and infinite patience.
My Baba made rich Eastern European meals every night, and after each one, my grandfather would kiss her hand and tell her it was the best meal he had ever had.
I inherited her ability to cook in all ways but one: the art of baking. (Okay, I don’t make jam or yogurt either, and you will not find a barrel of brined cabbage in my basement…) She made her own filo dough, stretching it across the kitchen table before cutting it into thin sheets. I was mesmerized. Brioche, bread, meringues, jam-filled butter cookies. It seemed there was always something baking in her kitchen. When I think of her, the scent of butter and vanilla fills me with warmth.
But it is my Baba’s cakes I remember best. Watching her create them while I sat with my book at the kitchen table was like observing an artist at work. These were not simple two-layer American-style cakes. No, they were masterpieces, with six or eight or more layers, each layer smothered in butter cream, crowned by caramel or chocolate or coffee glazes. In addition to nine or ten egg yolks, the batter might call for finely ground almonds or walnuts, with no food processor to help grind or mix or whip. When Baba said beat the eggs and sugar until light, she meant for half an hour by hand until the mixture was almost white. She would sometimes split the cooked cake layers evenly by deftly pulling a thin string through them in one quick sweep, a maneuver that to me seemed worthy of a surgeon.
I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, especially not for cake, but Baba’s cakes were the exception. One in particular was so complicated, and so delicious, and so very beautiful that some day, maybe, I might try to make it, even though I lack the patient, rule-obeying temperament such a feat requires. This Empress of Cakes is called “Rosa Torta” because of its rose-pink glaze. Just remembering biting into a piece makes my mouth water.
My sister and my cousin, my mother and my Aunt, all mastered it (or so they claim). Even my dad has made it (or so he claims). Somewhere out there is a brave reader who will succeed and, I hope, send me a picture, a story, and, if at all possible, a small piece. Here is the recipe for Rosa Torta, courtesy of my cousin Vesna in Holland and edited a bit for language. I am sure there are other versions out there, but if the cake is not pink, it cannot be the Empress.
5 egg yolks
20g vanilla sugar or 2tsp vanilla
Around 700g of flour
A pinch of baking soda (the recipe says “on the tip of a knife”)
250g butter at room temperature
With a mixer, whisk together the eggs and sugar. Add the butter and whisk until incorporated. Add 500g of flour, baking soda and milk and whisk until the batter just comes together. Put aside the mixer and work in 100g of flour with your hands. The dough will be sticky and should just come together. Do not knead it as you would bread dough or punch it down. This dough needs gentle handling.
Now place the dough on a work surface and sprinkle it with the remaining 100g of flour or less. Use the palms of your hands to stick the flour to the surface of the dough and fold it in. The dough should stay soft and a bit sticky but should form one compact mass. Do not add too much flour or the layers will be hard. Weigh the dough – it should be about 160g – and divide it into 7 pieces by forming it into a log shape and cutting it into discs.
Cut out 8 rectangles of baking paper, 24x30cm. . The dough will be sticky and should be that way. First just place one disc on the paper and press it with your hands into a small rectangle. Then roll out each disc so it covers the entire surface of the paper. If the rolling pin does not stick to the dough, you have used too much flour. Sprinkle just enough flour on the dough so you can roll it to fit the paper. Cut off extra pieces and stick them to places where the dough was not enough. Keep rolling, cutting, and sticking on pieces. When you are done with one layer place it paper-side down on a baking pan.
With a fork make around 50 pricks on the surface of the layer so that bubbles will not form during baking. Have two baking pans ready so you can rotate them, and never put a layer on a hot pan. Put one pan in the lower middle half of a preheated oven at 160°C (320°F and no fan!) for 6 minutes. Bake one layer at a time, and stack the cooled layers with the paper one on top of the other, covered with a kitchen towel, while you make the filling.
Creamy Walnut Filling
400g finely ground walnuts
20 tablespoons hot milk
250g butter at room temperature
5 egg whites
200g powdered sugar
20g vanilla sugar
Pour hot milk over ground walnuts so you get a nice, thick, creamy paste. You might need a little more milk depending on how dry the walnuts are. Whisk the butter and add it to the walnuts. Whisk some more. Beat the egg whites into stiff peaks, and then slowly add in the sugars. Fold the egg whites gently by hand into the walnut cream.
Assembly and Softening of the Layers
Divide the walnut filling into 7 equal parts. Take a serving tray and place the first layer on it, removing the paper. Warm a cup of milk and sprinkle the layer with drops of milk. Not too much, or it will be soggy. Cover the layer with filling, then place the next layer over it. Repeat the process. Cover the last layer, smooth side up, with paper and put a tray over it. Now comes the trick. Place something heavy over the entire torte and place the torte like this in the fridge for 12 hours or more so it evens out.
Pink Sugar Icing
250g powdered sugar
2 egg whites at room temperature
8 teaspoons sunflower oil
Juice of one lemon
A couple of drops of red food coloring
Take the torta out of the fridge 3 hours before placing the glaze on it. Whisk the egg whites into stiff peaks. Set 2-3 tablespoons aside for later. Add half the sugar, the lemon juice, the sunflower oil and the food coloring and mix well. If the mixture is too dry, add in the reserved egg whites. Using a long and wide knife that you have run under hot tap water spread the pink glaze over the top layer of the cake. You will probably have some icing left over, but that’s better than not having enough. Place the torta in the refrigerator for 2 or 3 hours or until the next day before serving. Cut off the uneven sides before carefully cutting the cake on a 45-degree angle into small rectangles.
With a smile masking your fatigue, serve perfectly cut pieces of Rosa Torta to your coterie of friends and admirers and hope that they realize what an amazing person you are.
When they finally leave, praising you effusively, of course, take a long hot bath, have a glass of wine, then fall, satiated and exhausted, into a soft bed and dream of an all-inclusive tropical resort where sun and service rule the day. Or, if you have not been fazed at all (I hate you!), try your hand at Dobos Torta or Walnut and Coffee Torta or Raspberry Torta. After the Empress, those will seem like a piece of cake.
He had been a difficult man, my grandfather, or so my mother and grandmother had always told me when they recalled the many days the two of them had spent alone while he disappeared from dawn until dinner to hunt or fish in his beloved Gironde countryside. I called him Papi, and when at nine I was sent back to France for a year, I did not find him difficult to love. The difficulty, I thought then, was proving myself worthy of his love, and it was only much later that I understood what Mami had gone through, living with a man who would never change a single habit to accommodate woman, child or society.
My grandparents were to meet me when La Covadonga, a rusty Spanish freighter my parents had been misled into believing was a safe luxury liner, docked in Bilbao, Spain, after twelve days at sea. Since I had traveled alone save for a promiscuous French chaperone, who never slept in the cabin or ate with me or watched me at all, Papi had agreed to fetch me by car, but he had lost his nerve at the Spanish border, and Mami had come the rest of the way by train. He was, she told me fretfully, an impossible, stubborn man. Could I imagine, she asked, that the one time he had gone to Paris with her and my mother, he left the very next day because he claimed hotels made him sick?
What I could imagine, after just a few days in France, was why he would not want to leave a perfect place. Never had I had a garden from which to pick strawberries, or cornfields in which to play hide-and-seek, or doves and rabbits to feed.
With great patience but stern discipline, Papi set out to teach me everything I didn’t know, and that, he said, was a lot. Every afternoon that summer, he would close the dining-room shutters, and, in cool semi-darkness, I would study reading, writing and recitation with him. He had been a teacher all his life, as had Mami, and he spoke in a loud, clear voice, enunciating every syllable and defining each difficult word. My American accent irritated him even more than my American ignorance, especially since my first language had been French. He made me repeat sentences, often tongue-twisters, endlessly, and memorize and recite all of his favorite fables by La Fontaine. I imitated his rolling Southern intonations so assiduously that to this day, I speak French with the inelegant and provincial “accent du Midi.”
Since Papi scorned those who slept late, I learned to wake up by seven. He was up at six, working in his garden before it was too hot, and I would run down the sloped garden path to see him after I had gulped down my café au lait. When I kissed him, his cheeks were rough and fresh with the scent of lemony cologne and dew.
In those days, Papi kept two gardens, one in La Réole, the small town we lived in, and one in Barie, Mami’s childhood home in the country, where we often spent weekends. There, he had plum, pear, apple and apricot trees. He kept bees, too, handling the hives with his bare hands, and he made me swallow a teaspoon of honey, which I hated as a child, every morning, for long life and health.
In one of Barie’s many attic rooms, Papi kept pigeons trained as tree decoys for hunting palombes, the wild pigeons that flew up from the Pyrenees every fall. He and his friends built elaborate fern tunnels and hunting cabins in the woods and spent every autumn day waiting for the birds to alight in the specially cleared trees, a wait that would prolong itself as both the woods and the hapless birds dwindled over the years.
When it wasn’t hunting season, it was fishing season, a time of lazy late afternoons by the Garonne river, where, if I was allowed to tag along, I had to be perfectly quiet amongst the flies and tickling weeds and smells of cow dung and rotting fruit, my small bamboo pole in hand, praying with fervent concentration to catch a fish and prove my worth.
For Papi was my hero, unlike anyone I had ever met in America. A short man, he appeared tall because he was compact, trim and strong. He preferred old comfortable clothes, a beret, worn boots and baggy brown pants, and he insisted on using the same soap to wash, shave and shampoo.
One night, as I lay under a lofty white eiderdown beneath a distant ceiling, I heard him telling Mami that I looked more like my father than did my sister and brothers. Since he had never forgiven my Yugoslav father for taking away his only child and for being foreign and dark-eyed and for eating delicately and sleeping late, I took his comment as a sign of disfavor. To win his approval, I tried to be the perfect student, and I was, except when it came to the violin, the instrument he played so well. Having failed within a month to sense any progress in my playing, he declared, wrongly, that I was tone-deaf, just like my mother and grandmother, and he took back the tiny violin he had given me.
Whenever we ate, Papi observed everything I did and commented, often unkindly. His eyes were very round, nut-brown and deep-set, and his mouth, tightly modeled, was quick to move. “You must take a bite of bread after every morsel of meat and salad,” he would say. “You must not trim the fat off your meat. It reminds me of your father picking the fat out of his salami.” He complained that Mami ate like a bird and was far too skinny, not like she was when he married her.
I learned to eat the way he ate, the French way, and I would flush with pride if he said I had eaten well: chewing the little bones of the birds he roasted in the fireplace, or crunching the heads and skeletons of fried “ablettes,” the tiny fish he caught in quantity in the springtime.
Once, I displeased Papi by refusing to finish my meal. I had choked on my lunch after learning it was my pet rabbit, Annie, my Easter present, butchered and baked without my knowledge or consent. As a Frenchman, he believed that such pets were meant to be eaten when full-grown, and that I should have learned that by now. Though he seemed contrite afterwards, and tried to comfort me by playing a violin jig in front of my locked door, he did not hesitate a few weeks later to dispatch my two pet ducks.
In school, Papi expected me to be first, and after a dismal and difficult start as fourteenth, I studied my way to third, second and finally first. He was proud of me, he said, very proud.
Then summer came, and my mother arrived with my brothers and sister, and Papi no longer bothered to scold me or even correct me. My French lessons had ended.
The year after we got married, I took my now ex-husband to France to meet my grandparents. I had been there several times since that childhood year and had noticed Papi’s gruffness turning to rancor, his dislike of socializing turning to misanthropy. He drove less and less. He abandoned the garden and orchards of Barie. He cursed the modern world, the church, the government, crime and industry, and in his escalating stinginess, begrudged every franc Mami spent on what he called “frivolities.” He had become an old man, more difficult than ever, a man afraid of death and shattered by the indecencies of a weakening mind and body.
Never sensitive to anyone’s feelings, Papi now demanded sensitivity to his. One day, Mami took us to Bordeaux by train, and we arrived a little later than planned. We found Papi at the window, cradling his round head in his hands, crying. “He’s always afraid I won’t come back,” Mami said.
When he forgot something, Papi would sit at the kitchen table and rub his temples with his calloused thumbs, until he was so frustrated that he would shout, “What did I go out to do, anyway?”
The day we left La Réole was a warm September morning, soft with the silvery light of Gironde. From the train station, we could see the wide Garonne river, twisting, brown and treacherous, through the rich valley of small farms, the land rising gently into hills of green and purple vineyards and patches of just-fading trees. Large cranes bordered one side of the river, and Papi told us they were dredging all the gravel, making the river a deathtrap of whirlpools. He pointed to other factories along the banks and said they had killed all the fish; it was no use fishing any more. He repeated how much he hated the modern world — he couldn’t understand why it destroyed everything. As for hunting, it had become a farce, the way they fattened up the partridges and released them for slaughter by weekend amateurs.
Everything had changed, he said, everything but him.
Natalie. Writer. Photographer. Etc.
p 1 o 2 e 3 m = Four By 4 By Four