My father was a refugee. My aunt Billy was a refugee. My grandparents were refugees. They escaped from the former Yugoslavia during the brutal post-World War II Soviet invasion and Communist takeover. Did they want to leave? No, they had to leave or die. When I look at the Syrian refugees invading Europe, I feel sorry for the countries that have taken on such a heavy social burden, but I am reminded of one fact: refugees leave because staying is just not an option. These courageous people will risk their lives, abandon all their possessions and travel by foot to any safe haven rather than let war and oppression destroy them at home.
My grandmother’s story, which she told me one summer day long ago in San Francisco, illustrates what a brave person will do to survive and find freedom.
In 1945, Mara, my Baba, was married to Chaslav Nikitovich, the Minister of Agriculture in pre-war Yugoslavia. He had escaped to Italy before the invading Soviet army and Tito’s Communist soldiers could capture or kill him and every other government official they could find. My father and his sister also managed to escape, but my grandmother chose to remain, convinced that the Communists would somehow lose and that the family would be reunited.
In April, my grandfather and his former colleagues wrote a letter to President Truman denouncing America’s recognition of Tito’s Communist government and revealing the atrocities that were being perpetrated in his name. The authors hoped to remain anonymous, but their names became public, and Mara got an emergency telegram from her husband warning that she was in danger, but not telling her why.
When she came home to Belgrade from a weekend in the country with friends, soldiers had seized and sealed her home. Not knowing about the letter, she went to the police to find out what was happening. The Organization for People’s Protection, really a secret police torture force, demanded information about her husband and children. She lied and said her sick husband was in Zagreb with their daughter, and her son was in the army (he was AWOL by then). They left her in the waiting room while men converged around her to stare and whisper. She asked for a glass of water, but they refused. The officer in charge reappeared with her son’s guitar and her husband’s writing set. Panic! My Baba realized in one second that she would lose everything that day.
“Your husband is a bandit and a traitor,” the officer said. “Even worse, you have given birth to two more bandits!”
Baba was incensed. “My husband is an upstanding patriot, and my children are fine, courageous young people.”
“Your husband has denounced us to the American people!”
He told her to get out and, to her surprise, escorted her to a parked car. She was sure they were sending her to jail.
“Go home!” ordered the officer.
“Yes,” he said, slamming the door.
She ran to her neighbors and best friends for advice and solace. My grandfather’s younger brother Miroslav arrived and said, “Come quick, Mara. They are taking everything. We must try to stop them.”
“I cannot stop an army,” said my Baba.
She did not want to see her cherished belongings broken and abused, then taken away, but she went anyway. By the time she got there, men were carrying out her few remaining things. She remembered that the whole house smelled like Chanel No 5. Tito’s soldiers had broken all her bottles and splashed the walls with perfume. They had torn the curtains, ripped out the light fixtures, and taken everything except the paintings and sculptures. An Albanian chauffeur and loyal friend came to help her and packed everything left in his car. Many years later, he helped send the art to my grandparents in New Jersey.
Now my grandmother was desperate. She had nothing – no money, no papers, no home, no belongings. She knew she was being watched. Every night, she slept in another friend’s home. One day in transit, she spotted an ex-teacher sitting on a terrace with her sister. This teacher lived in Ljubljana, now the capital of Slovenia, not far from the Italian border. She asked if they would take her home with them, and they agreed.
Once there, she needed to find a way to get across the border. She decided to join on an excursion for a saint’s celebration in a small town closer to Italy. Two young men would be her companions. The teacher’s husband wrote a phony letter of introduction in English for her to present to the English border police, if they got that far.
Something went wrong. The train stopped miles from their destination. She later learned that the doctor who was supposed to meet them had denounced them instead.
Mara and her two young men were on their own. It was dark, in high mountain country, and no one would give three ragged refugees a ride.
So they walked. For three days and three nights, they walked, jumping over rocks, hiding in ditches, eating nothing. Sometimes they would trust a peasant with directions. Other times, they followed false directions and walked in circles. They stumbled upon a camp of Tito’s troops preparing a military campaign in Trieste, but escaped undetected.
It was July, yet my Baba wore layers of clothes. She carried men’s underwear in case she was caught, so she could say she was bringing the underwear to her soldier son.
Somehow, on the fourth day, they reached a remote cottage and were told they were in Zone A, the Italian side of the border. By then, my grandmother had lost all of her toenails.
But the journey was not over. They took a small local train as far as Trieste. When they arrived, they learned that without lire they could not get rail tickets to continue. Undeterred, they hid in a brakeman’s compartment, but the train conductor found them, and they ended up in the local jail.
My grandmother took out her English letter and asked to talk to an English policeman.
“Where did you get this?” asked the icy officer.
“Sir,” my grandmother, always quick-witted, answered, “I’m afraid I can’t divulge such a secret.”
To her surprise, he said, “We should have more people with your sense of honor.” He was appreciating her refusal to lay blame in a very touchy diplomatic and military situation, never suspecting that the letter was not from a British or American embassy official at all.
The officer directed her to an Italian police chief, who was of Slovenian origin and guaranteed her a free and safe transit. He asked her what he could get her.
“Coffee, cigarettes, and my two young friends,” she said.
Reunited, the three refugees left in a military jeep with a soldier armed with a machine gun. They drove through raging Communist riots and climbed aboard a safe train to Paris.
Refugees don’t have an easy ride to freedom. No, they toil and struggle and often live in poverty. They must learn a new language and endure the prejudice of ignorant people. Their children go to school alone and bewildered. And if they are to succeed, they must work twice as hard and as long as anyone else.
In Paris, my grandparents learned to weave leather shoes, and my grandmother cooked on a single burner in a tiny hotel room. After six years, they finally got a sponsor in the United States and left, once again, in search of a safe home, with nothing but hope to guide them. My grandmother, who had been a professor of physics and chemistry, crocheted silk dresses in New York for Saks Fifth Avenue. Yet my grandparents never felt sorry for themselves. They, like most refugees, were grateful for a second chance.
When we see the Syrians streaming into Turkey and Greece, walking across Europe, holding their children and their few belongings as they struggle to maintain hope and dignity, we must remember that they left because if they stayed, they and their families would face war, starvation and certain death. We must not forget that most Americans, either now or years ago, were either immigrants seeking a better life or refugees escaping persecution at home.
All human beings have the right to seek a better life for themselves and their children. We would do the same in similar circumstances. When the arrival of refugees stirs our innate fear of what is foreign and our anger at the prospect of having less for ourselves, we can do our best to summon the love and compassion we have buried in our haste to judge. And try to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.