The Days... Content

The Days of Unleavened Bread, Chapter 1

"Attention, please! Attention, please! The Balkan Express from Belgrade to Munich will be arriving fifty minutes late."
.... All the seats were taken, and some of the passengers were squatting on their luggage, an old overcoat or newspaper spread out on the ground. Most of them were dozing. The air in the waiting room was warm and stuffy. The light-bulb hanging from the ceiling was wreathed in cigarette smoke. Every time the door opened and closed, the cloud of smoke would sway and drift off, only to be replaced by another, denser and darker. The train was due to arrive around midnight.
.... We spotted a free seat in the corner. We both managed to squeeze in, feeling much better now. As we got warm, we began to feel drowsy. My eyelids grew heavy and I felt a mild, pleasant tingling in my eyes drawing me irresistibly into sleep and forgetfulness.
.... I dreamt of a long green hedge through which I could make out a large park. We stopped in front of a high iron gate on which there was some Gothic lettering made of brass. The door swung open of its own accord and Robert and I entered a well-tended park. We walked down a winding avenue paved with red brick, bordered on each side by a line of young chestnut trees. In the middle of the park there was a house built of wooden beams and red bricks, just like the house Alfred had drawn for me that night in forty-three, before they went off somewhere to the East. The master of the house was standing in the doorway as if he were expecting us. Only, why was he looking so glum? Was it Alfred? I thought it was. I hesitated and halted. Was I mistaken? I decided not to go any further; I wanted to let him make the first move. I did not mean to go on until I had found out whether he still wanted me.
.... I was roused by a voice saying, "Come on, mum." I opened my eyes. The avenue had vanished, and instead of neatly patterned bricks I saw a floor covered with filth and littered with cigarette butts and rubbish, an empty crumpled "Drava" cigarette packet, spent matches, dried fruit peelings, a greasy old newspaper in the corner by the wall. Right in front of me I saw a pair of large shoes, one of which moved.
.... "Let's hurry, mum," the voice went on. I looked up and saw Robert standing there holding the suitcase.
.... "Attention, please. The Balkan Express from Belgrade to Munich is arriving on platform two."
.... The railway station was crowded. We climbed up the stairs leading to platform 2. The place was like an anthill. We were swept along by the crowd and arrived on platform 2 just as the train was pulling in. Robert hurried ahead, hoping to find a free seat. Looking in from the outside, it was obvious that all the carriages were crammed full. The corridors were packed with people. Our luggage was light, and I was able to hand it in through the window: several carrier bags and two small travelling bags. Robert had carried the suitcase into the carriage with him.
.... It had been rather cold outside, but inside the carriage it was hot and stifling. I managed to push my way through to where my son was standing. The images I had seen in my dream were still fresh in my mind.
.... "Robert, I dreamt of daddy. We had arrived at his estate, and he was standing on the doorstep."
.... "Haven't you lost hope yet, mum?"
.... "The dream was so beautiful. I wanted to tell you about it. It's nice to be able to relive some things, even if only in a dream."
.... There was a crowd of people beside the train, shaking hands, waving. We had come alone, we were travelling alone. We had not said a word to anyone about our departure. When we arrived there, and when we had settled down, we would write letters explaining everything.
.... I had taken leave of my husband that afternoon. As always when I visited the cemetery, I had done as he had wished: "When I die, don't bring wreaths and grand bouquets to my grave. Each time you come, bring me a single rose." And so I had brought him a rose each time I came. I had done so that day, too. I had told him I was leaving and that I didn't know when I would return. I had relived all the years of our life together in my mind. Now we were parting for the third time. Maybe forever. Partings are always hard. Sometimes parting from the dead is harder than parting from the living.
.... The train started so noiselessly that I hardly noticed. A mist had risen early in the evening, and now the city lay shrouded in fog. Only the lights twinkled in the darkness, as if the sky had come closer and the light of a myriad stars was visible through a translucent white veil. Then only the nearer lights could be seen rushing by beside the track. Zagreb was slipping away from me, vanishing into the darkness.
.... Smokers, impatient to light their cigarettes, crowded by the window in the corridor. An empty seat here and there caught my eye, but the reply came even before I could ask: "Taken!" The carriage was full of young people, people in the prime of their youth. Sitting next to the compartment window there was a young couple who seemed to be dozing, leaning against each other, but you could see they were not sleeping; they were daydreaming. Opposite them, with his back to the engine, sat a man of my age in an old canvas jacket with a badge on his left lapel. It was hot in the compartment, but instead of taking off his jacket, he had just unbuttoned it. My eyes went back to his badge. Yes, that was what it was, I recognized it - a badge awarded to outstanding workers, the pride of any member of a voluntary youth brigade. The wording read: "The Brotherhood and Unity Motorway 1950". He had been a volunteer in a construction campaign. He had built roads believing he was building a better life; he had done his best, as the badge proved. Let the people in the West see that he was no lazy good-for-nothing who was afraid of hard work. He had laboured and built, had volunteered to do so, asking no wages, and all that he had to show for it was a badge. He was out of a job; and even those who had a job found it hard to make ends meet. Now he was going to try his luck in the West, in the capitalist system, which we had been taught in school was a system of exploitation.
.... The floor was littered with peel and scraps of food; there were cigarette butts everywhere. An exotic flower blossomed in the trash can: empty cigarette packets and various pieces of rubbish threatening to spill over at any moment. From time to time a whiff of smoke from cheap cigarettes, mixed with the odour of onions and brandy, wafted in. There were moments when I felt faint, but no doubt I would pull through.
.... Why was the man with the badge staring at me like that? I could hardly stand, I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. I leaned against the wall of the compartment. My eyelids were as heavy as lead; I could hardly keep my eyes open, and my consciousness hovered between sleep and waking.
.... If only I could sit down for a moment to get my strength back! I felt dizzy, as if I were spinning on a merry-go-round. When I closed my eyes I felt worse; I felt as if the carriage floor was rising up, as if the train was about to topple over. I opened my eyes again and took a few deep breaths. The man with the badge was staring at me as if he wanted to tell me something. I turned away; I didn't like being stared at. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him approaching. Then I heard him say, "Sit down, comrade, I'm going to stretch my legs a little. I've been travelling for ages and my legs are stiff from sitting down."
.... My feet refused to budge. I felt the grip of strong hands, I was able to move, and then I felt a sense of relief. I was sitting down, and I could make out the faces around me, their eyes gazing at me, with increasing clearness. A wave of relief swept over me. Then I heard the voice of the man with the badge, "Come on, comrade, take a sip! It's the real stuff, home-made, a real corpse-reviver."
.... "Thank you, sir, but I don't drink."
.... "Well, then you should try it at least and see what you've been missing. A sip of plum brandy will make you as frisky as a fawn."
.... "Thank you, but alcohol really doesn't agree with me. I've never drunk a drop."
.... "Come on, don't be afraid, it's not poisonous. Just watch me!"
.... He put the bottle to his lips and took a long swig. Then he wiped the neck of the bottle with the palm of his hand and held it out to me again, pushing it into my face so that it almost touched my chin. I started and drew back, my hand flying up in a defensive gesture.
.... "You're a queer lot, you Croats! A man wants to help you, and it gets your backs up."
.... We had supper on the train, since we had been too tired and too unsettled to eat at home. We had a round flat cake of unleavened bread and some smoked cheese. I had not managed to bake proper bread; I had run out of yeast, and there had not been time; I had been in a hurry to pack and then I had been so tired that it had been an effort to bake even the small round loaf of unleavened bread, a flat cake, as we called it. There had been some flour left over, and it would have been a pity to leave it behind.
.... I opened the suitcase and took out a shoebox with the family photographs. Some had yellowed with time, but I loved them all the same. There was my street. Through the treetops of the line of young horse-chestnut trees you could see a tiled roof and the light-coloured facade of our house. Mother was standing in front of the door holding a baby in her arms.
.... Here I had grown up, watching our chestnut trees budding and blossoming, their flowers white, the leaves turning golden in autumn, and the branches sparkling with white hoar-frost at Christmas. I would often go to the railway station. I would peek through the door, which was slightly ajar, and I was always glad to see my father bent over his desk. As soon as he saw me, he would get up, take me by the hand and take me to see my favourite hen. He would put a coin in the slot, and I would wait in joyful suspense for the hen to lay a chocolate egg.
.... Trains always bring something new, they stir the imagination and inspire daydreams; travelling, distant places, different people, novel events. During the war, already a young woman, I would watch the trains full of soldiers. Also the trains full of civilians. Yes, it was the trains with civilians that came back to me. They were the people who were going to work in Germany, some as volunteers, others because they were forced to. Comparisons came to mind. We, too, were going to work in Germany. There was no war, and no-one was forcing us to go. We were travelling in a passenger train, and in those days many people had travelled in cattle-wagons. They would crowd against the tiny barred windows.
.... I was beset by questions and doubts. Why was I going, was I doing the right thing? My son Robert had graduated from University, but he was unemployed. After my husband's death we had been left almost penniless. There was no way out, and no hope for either of us. In most countries you had to have an education to get a job, but the most important thing here was your political past. Anyone who was not a Party member seemed to be suspect, and only about ten percent of the population were Party members. Could ninety percent of the citizens be suspect? What could the future hold in store for a country that did not trust the majority of its citizens?
.... I looked out into the night while the train hurtled on. The frontier! The train stopped. Officials inspected our passports: one of them opened mine, looked at me, turned over two or three pages, stamped it, and gave it back to me. The cleaners were in a hurry to sweep the floor, they were getting the fruit and cucumber peel out from under the seats and emptying the overflowing ashtrays. Across the border, in Austria, they would be angry if the carriages arrived dirty.
.... What lay in store for us on the other side? I would be starting all over again at the age of forty-five. There would be uncertainty, insecurity, everything would be new and unfamiliar. Life there was not always good, not always easy, foreigners often had to take jobs local people were not prepared to do. I hoped my son Robert would find a job in his profession. I was unlikely to find one in mine. A lawyer! Who needed me over there? Until we found our bearings, I would take whatever work was offered. I could cook, do washing and ironing.
.... Shadows flew past the carriage windows, hastening in the opposite direction, as if to say, "Come with us." Back there, now far away in the night, was everything we had owned. What was the point of all this? Did it have to be this way? I tried to comfort myself with the thought that many others had gone that way, too, several hundred thousand. They were there as "temporary workers", as they said, but what was going to become of them?
.... Memories were all I had left. Memories and my son Robert. I looked at the photographs and everything was as fresh in my mind as if it had happened only yesterday: our house and my mother in front of it, holding me in her arms. Our street was quiet, running from the main road to the railway station. All the way from the crossroads to the railway station there stood, at equal intervals, horse-chestnut trees with leafy crowns bursting into blossom each spring, adorning the street with clusters of beautiful white flowers. Only two trees were missing, in front of our neighbours' house. Immediately after they had been planted our neighbours, who did not want the trees to overshadow their garden, had poured some kind of herbicide over them, and the two saplings had died. The other chestnuts had grown into beautiful trees, their crowns almost touching. I had thought this was the most beautiful place in the world. Only the two gaps in front of our neighbours' house spoiled the effect, and this always marred my joy.
.... I could tell each tree with my eyes shut by the shape of its trunk, the feel of its bark and the roots protruding from the ground where the tree trunk thickened. I would stand on the bulging roots, facing the tree, with my eyes covered, counting to ten when we were playing hide-and-seek.
.... I loved playing hide-and-seek in the twilight; I remembered my first physical contact with a boy, when Boris was "it". We would run till we dropped, panting, our legs giving way and a shooting pain under our ribs. On one occasion I stopped by a tree. I could run no further. Boris caught up with me and grabbed me by the hand.
.... "You're it!"
.... He did not let go of my hand and gazed into my eyes.
.... "Why are you so red in the face?"
.... "Let go of me, why are you holding my hand?"
.... Boris said nothing. He just stood there holding my hand. I said nothing either. I stood there with my head bowed, making no attempt to pull my hand away. A pleasant warmth crept over my body.
.... Then I heard my mother's voice:
.... "Come on, Lisa, that's enough. It will be dark soon. What's the matter with you children today, do you want the Old Witch to get you?"
.... I felt like telling my mother that I was no longer afraid of the Old Witch, that her time has passed; after feeling Boris squeeze my hand, I thought he would defend me from anyone, even the fearsome Old Witch.
.... Night was falling. I stood by the window gazing at our quiet, peaceful street with its row of chestnut trees like a row of giants guarding our houses. In the morning I could hardly wait to jump out of bed, look out of the window and see the shadow cast by the chestnut tree on the ground. It was going to be a sunny day! If, instead of a shadow, I saw a circle of dry ground, I knew it had rained during the night. We played beneath those leafy treetops, come rain, come shine, and often even when it was snowing.
.... ***
.... I can still see my father coming into my mother's room, where she would sleep late on Sundays, carrying a phonograph with a record on it. "You keep playing the same old records over and over again," my mother would grumble. She would harp on about father's ancient peccadilloes, never forgetting to mention Ilonka, the landlady of the pub across the street from the railway station. When father bought a radio I had hoped, naive as I was, that mother would stop grumbling.
.... Mother's monotonous voice could still be heard, nagging, if I woke up at night. "I'll never get married," I would say to myself.
.... Mother was rummaging through a heap of dirty linen in the basket, and I was tracing the pattern for a pair of culottes - the latest spring fashion from the women's magazine "Eve" - when father came in. I looked up as he said, in his usual curt manner, "There's going to be a war! They say on the radio that the streets of Belgrade are full of people shouting, 'Better war than the pact!'"
.... How those old photographs had grown yellow with time, and it all seemed like only yesterday! A photograph showed the half-demolished pub across the road from the railway station. The walls were bare, the window-panes shattered, and the top of the building, where the roof should have been, was bristling with bare beams and spars. It had been a shrewd move by the photographer: we all bought pictures of the building hit by the first wartime bombs in Yugoslavia.
.... It was Sunday, 6th April 1941, early in the morning. We were still asleep. We heard a clap of thunder, as if a bolt of lightning had struck nearby, but the sky was clear and cloudless. We could hear the drone of airplane engines. At the end of the street, close by the railway station, there rose a pillar of smoke.
.... "Not down to the cellar!" my mother cried, "the house might fall in!"
.... We ran into the courtyard and lay down on the ground beside the well. We lay there, motionless, for a long time. A silence fell all around us. The street was empty. Only a youth whom we used to call "Leave me myself alone" was walking down the middle of the street. That was the only thing he would say when people asked him about anything, even what his name was. Smoke came from the direction of the railway station. And then men carrying the wounded passed by. While we were watching all this in amazement, I noticed something like a smile on my mother's face. She had guessed, correctly, that one of the bombs had demolished the house across the street from the railway station. The landlady, Ilonka, had been killed. The beautiful young widow had been a thorn in my mother's flesh and a regular theme of her nightly monologues, especially after she had found out that the widow frequently came to weigh herself on the scales in the railway station warehouse. The last straw had been when my father, slightly tipsy, had told my mother how the lovely landlady from the pub often stood naked, looking at herself in her dressing-table mirror, without drawing the curtains. Mother forbade father to weigh Ilonka. She got herself a pair of binoculars and spent hours in the attic, watching the warehouse and the pub from her vantage-point there.
.... Two or three days after the bombing we heard the rumble of powerful engines. A line of German tanks was moving down the main street. People were standing on the pavement waving and throwing flowers on to the road in front of the caterpillar tracks of the great olive-green tanks with the crosses on them. The Croats and the ethnic Germans believed these were liberators who would rescue them from Serbian tyranny.
.... Trucks came down our street, too. They stopped under the line of chestnut trees. They had come so suddenly; except for those bombs, we had heard no shooting. They came as if they were on a picnic. Soldiers came into the courtyards. They knocked on our door, too. "Guten Tag," a soldier said and asked if he could draw water from our well. Of course he could, we replied all together. Was this war? Wasn't there going to be any shooting? The guns rumbled down the street and the soldiers marched silently alongside them.
.... I would often stand behind the curtain, peering furtively at the German soldiers in their trucks. How neat and tidy they were! I had imagined soldiers would be sullen, tired, dusty, even dirty. These were neatly dressed, equipped with clothes-brushes and shoe-brushes. I would watch them wash at the well in the morning, naked to the waist. They even had toothbrushes. They were mostly young, blonde and white-skinned, some with the letters SS tattooed on their forearms. They would sling their wide belts with metal buckles on which were inscribed the words "GOTT MIT UNS" over our fence.
.... The town crier made the rounds of the village with his drum, stopping after every few houses and reading the Proclamation about the founding of a new state, which was to be called the Independent State of Croatia.
.... Our greatest problem was still our neighbour Bara, who would yell at our hens whenever they flew over the fence and on to her field. As soon as we saw her coming, waving a stick and shouting, we would rush to remove a plank from the fence, so that our hens could scuttle back into our yard. Still shouting, waving her stick and yelling threats, she would come right up to the fence, but we would already be inside, at the kitchen window, peering between the curtains at our furious neighbour beating the hens that had not made it to the gap in the fence. We would hear the screeching of the terrified birds and the thud of the stick. She killed our scrawny-necked hen, our best layer. I would often go to the hen-house early in the morning and take an egg, still warm, from the nest. I can still see Bara grabbing my hen by the neck and throwing it over the fence, into our yard.
.... Bara was enormously fat and when she walked she would roll from side to side, as if she were pulling her feet out of deep, sticky mud. As children, we were afraid of her because she always carried a big stick and stormed about, bellowing.
.... On the eve of Corpus Christi, when father came home from work in the dusk, he said in his abrupt way as he came in through the door, "Bara's dead."
.... When they laid her in her coffin and set about closing it, they could not nail the lid down. The deceased had been so fat, and, the weather being very hot just then, she seemed to have grown even fatter in the heat. The priest was already there, her family and neighbours had gathered round to see her off to her last resting place, and she, as if to spite everyone for the last time, refused to go into the coffin. Her nearest relations were desperate. Several soldiers happened to be there, and they offered to help. They asked everyone to leave the room. We could hear the screeching of planks followed by the sound of hammering. The soldiers were saying something, but no-one could make out what, so no-one ever found out how they had managed to squeeze our neighbour Bara into her coffin.

Next: Chapter 2