Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

Archive for the tag “courage”

The Ripple of Random Kindness: A Story About my Father, Pavlé Nikitovich

 

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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.

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Beautiful Dancer

Scan 3Passion is a gift, one that lends grace and meaning to life. It doesn’t matter what someone has a true passion for — art, dance, music, writing, science, sports, charity, politics, or even another person – it is the passion itself that transforms a journey into a quest.

Too impatient to wait for her due date, my sister, Vesna, arrived suddenly and full of passion in the back seat of a patrol car, summoned in panic by our mother. “Please don’t do this to me, lady,” the officer begged. “Please wait!”

Everything Vesna did as a child was intense, focused and all consuming. She didn’t have bad dreams, she had nightmares. She didn’t play with dolls, she chopped off their hair and redid their wardrobes with our cut-up curtains. She didn’t walk, she ran and twirled and jumped, a graceful sprite, who, if she fell, got up again with bleeding knees and kept right on going.

When she discovered ballet, her passion blossomed into an obsession. After school, she would head straight to ballet class. On days without a scheduled class, she would practice in our shared bedroom in her satiny pink toe-shoes, lifting a leg to her ear or balancing on one foot with the other foot pointing behind her, straight up to the sky. While I was going out with boys and getting into trouble on weekends, Vesna was taking the bus to New York City for more and more advanced classes. At night, she would do her homework and wash her tights no matter how tired she was.

I liked to watch my sister sleep: the perfect pale skin, the full lips, the lids of her big brown eyes trembling in dream. Her light brown hair, pulled in a tight bun during the day, flowed in waves around her long neck and thin shoulders. She was so very beautiful.

Our father made her attend Barnard College, even though by then she was apprenticing with American Ballet Theatre. She made it through a year before she stood up to him and declared, “I only want to dance.” College was holding her back from her true passion.

At night, Vesna worked as a waitress. An armed robber once broke into the restaurant and locked all the employees in the freezer. “Weren’t you scared?” I asked her. “No,” she said with utmost sincerity, “I was too worried that I wouldn’t have time to wash my tights!”Scan 2

Her passion for dance led to a position with the Hamburg Opera Ballet under John Neumeier, whom she revered. She moved to Germany and toured with the company, but her body, always frail and prone to injury, began to betray her. For a year, she wore a back brace when she wasn’t on stage. She continued to dance no matter how severe the pain until, one sad day, she realized she no longer could. She was not yet thirty.

Married and settled for good in Hamburg, Vesna turned to Pilates, which she had discovered to be an antidote to the injuries common to dancers. She flew back to New York and trained with the formidable Romana Kryzanowska, successor to Joseph Pilates himself. Vesna’s Pilates studio, Studio fur Korper Training, was the first one in Hamburg. In the mornings, she would get on her bicycle, rain or shine, with her brown Labrador alongside, and ride to work with a smile on her face. She loved helping others get well, sometimes at her own detriment, lifting and crouching and bending and adjusting bodies for hours on end.

Vesna also became an avid sailor. She and her husband sailed the Baltic Sea in their boat, cruising around the islands of Denmark every summer. But just knowing how to sail wasn’t good enough for her. She had to prove herself and earn her captain’s license, too. After her son grew too big to be safely restrained while sailing, they sold their boat and bought a vacation home in Southwestern France.

Although she loved Pilates and sailing, nothing could replace her passion for dance. Nothing, that is, until she discovered dressage, the art of dancing on a horse. Vesna trained every day until she was skilled enough to compete. She bought one horse, then another, and drove to the country early in the mornings, sometimes in freezing rain or snow, to ride them and care for them.

I saw Vesna compete only once. In her black top hat and fitted jacket, her back straight and her lovely face lifted, she looked so graceful and composed, so calm and connected, that tears filled my eyes. My beautiful sister was dancing again.

The back problems that had plagued her earlier grew more and more painful until doctors told her the only solution was to insert a metal rod along her lower spine to hold the vertebrae in place. Then her right leg began to hurt. When I saw her in 1997, she shuffled forward in tiny steps, smiling through the pain. A hip replacement followed. Then another.

Still, Vesna kept riding, fearless and determined. When her husband retired, they took the horses and moved to their house in France, where she had installed a stable and a state-of-the-art riding ring. She hired no one to help her, hauling hay, cleaning the stables and exercising her horses every day. One day last month, during a dressage maneuver, her horse balked and she fell hard, harder than she had ever fallen before.

Vesna said she cried out for help but no one heard her. After what felt like forever to her, she crawled back to her horse, managed to get on, and rode back to the stable. I asked her why. “Because,” she said, “If you don’t get back on right away, you’ll be too afraid to ever ride again.”

Four weeks went by. Doctors said not to worry, that her leg couldn’t be broken if she could still walk on it. They obviously did not know her… She flew to Germany for a reunion of the Hamburg Opera Ballet. In ever-mounting pain, she finally went for an x-ray. Her right leg was broken clear through the thighbone, just two inches above where her implant ended. She would have to have another hip replacement.

On crutches, Vesna attended the anniversary performance of the Hamburg Opera Ballet just days before her operation. John Neumeier came over to chat with her at the after-party. “You always told me I needed to dance more with my legs than my heart,” she reminded him. “Now I have nothing left but my heart.”

And that heart, full of passion and determination, will carry her through her recovery and back to her beloved horses. No matter what anyone tells her. No matter what the risk. No matter how long it takes.IMG_1929

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