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The Days of Unleavened Bread, Chapter 13

My father came into the kitchen in a bad temper, without saying hello, and flung our new identity cards down on the table, muttering something to himself. They had altered our surname. Instead of Muller, the identity cards read Miler. My mother looked at the identity cards in silence, and then said in a resigned voice,
.... "Ah, don't complain, never mind; thank God it's nothing worse, some of our people have fared much worse. The wealthier Germans have lost their farms, many have been taken to concentration camps, some of them, it is said, even to Siberia, and it's rumoured that a lot of German families have actually been shot."
.... Father put the newspaper down on the table. On the front page I noticed a big article on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atom bombs. Our conversation turned to the horrors in Japan, and for the moment we forgot our troubles.
.... On Saturday evening Boris and Stana dropped by. As soon as he stepped over the threshold, Boris started telling us the news, as if continuing an earlier conversation. He grew voluble about how democratic the new order was, saying how a government had been formed on the basis of agreements with the Western allies and the Tito-Shubashich agreement. The government included representatives of the old Yugoslavia and of various pre-war bourgeois political parties. Shubashich, the former Ban of Croatia, was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs.
.... "Now we've muzzled the slanderers who said the Communists would trick everyone else and grab all the power."
.... "Only, how long will it last?" my father said, the words popping out of his mouth. Boris turned grave and asked in surprise,
.... "Don't you trust us, Mr Muller?"
.... "Who could fail to trust the people who are so concerned about Dr Shubashich's health, taking such good care of him, with the help of a Russian physician, too!" my father replied, adding laconically, "Well, we'll see, time will show."
.... Preparations for the elections were under way. The newspapers published more and more attacks on the representatives of the bourgeois parties. Opposition newspapers came out several times and were then banned. The parties were disunited; the Croatian Peasant Party had, to be sure, numerous supporters in Croatia and part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while the Democrats and the Serbian Agrarian Party had a lot of support in Serbia and Montenegro. Each of these parties might have won on its own territory, but there was no leader to unite the opposition, and who could unite parties with incompatible policies anyway? When Shubashich, who might have had some success in this respect, tried to unite the opposition parties, he fell ill, and at the request of his doctors, among whom there was one from Russia, he was kept out of politics "because it might worsen the state of his health". The Popular Front was a mask for the influence of the Party. Any programme different from that of the Popular Front was considered treasonable. And what about the common people?
.... "People are glad of peace, they're inclined to let things run their course, even though the water is a little muddy. It's easier to fish in muddy waters," said my father in a resigned tone.
.... Many people who were not trusted by the new authorities, about whom it was uncertain who they would vote for, were disfranchised.
.... Mother was making bread, and was just kneading the dough into a loaf, and I was putting wood in the stove, when a messenger came in and held out an envelope. Mother first clapped her hands over the dough to shake the flour off them, then she wiped them on her apron, taking her time, as if she wanted to put off the moment when she would hold out a trembling hand and take the blue envelope with the red municipal seal. It was a written notice advising us that a request had been made to have our family disfranchised. The denunciation had been made by the American. I can still recall my mother's desperate cry, "I know what he wants - he wants to get us out of the way and grab our house!"
.... We were terrified of being disfranchised, because we knew what this would mean for all of us: father would lose his job, we would be left penniless, and there were rumours about concentration camps for people the regime found undesirable. If, besides all this, you happened to be a German, then there was no hope. The regime wanted to stop all those who might vote against the new order.
.... After increasing pressure from the Communists, the opposition spoke out less and less often, its papers were no longer published, and opposition candidates dropped out of the running. Soon after this happened, many disfranchisement cases were dropped.
.... When he got back from work in the evening, father came in, radiant, and said, "We may be saved, the American's request to have us disfranchised has been denied!"
.... Slogans were scrawled on the house-fronts in garish colours: EVERYONE TO THE POLLS! VOTE FOR THE POPULAR FRONT! DOWN WITH TRAITORS! WE DON'T WANT THE KING!...
.... Early in the morning on Sunday, 11th November, the day of the election, a brass band marched through the streets playing patriotic tunes, so that people would get up early and go to the polls as soon as possible. This would show how keen the people were to elect a new government. To demonstrate to the world how democratic they were, the Communists set up a ballot box for the opposition themselves. They called this box "the box without a list" or the "blank box". The ballot boxes for the Popular Front were decorated with flowers, and the "boxes without a list" were covered with nettles.
.... Going to the polls in the afternoon was seen as a defiant gesture against the new government, and failure to turn up was seen as demonstrating a hostile attitude. In the mid-afternoon truckloads of activists, Party members, left for the nearby villages to "convince" those who did not want to go to the polls. It was rumoured that some farmers threatened to throw the activists down their wells if they didn't get out of their yards.
.... After the election Boris came by and yelled triumphantly from the doorstep:
.... "There, we've won, now it's evident what the people want, we've won even more votes than we expected."
.... My father replied with a smile, "I voted for the Popular Front, too, Boris. I didn't go near that box with the nettles on it, because nettles can sting."
.... There were rumours that ballots had been transferred from the "blank boxes" into the "Front boxes".
.... "Do you think, Mr Muller, that the pre-war regime of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia would have been better?"
.... "God forbid, Boris, what are you saying? What, that prison of the peoples?"
.... "There, you see, the Croats, and the other nations of Yugoslavia, have now each got their own state. That's why I joined the Partisans, Mr Muller, to fight for a free Croatia."
.... "I believe, Boris, that a time will come when the Croats will really be able to decide independently about their own fate. Only I won't live to see it. Communism and democracy don't go together. You should hear the stories told by people my age, who have been in Russia under Stalin's reign of terror. Millions of innocent people are languishing and dying in the most terrible camps, some of them merely because they didn't show sufficient enthusiasm for the Communism they have there, while those who dared utter a word or two of criticism soon disappeared in the purges. People who used to be friends informed on each other to ingratiate themselves with the regime, to stay free a day or two longer, until someone informed on them. That's what I'm afraid of, Boris; what if these politicians of ours introduce the same kind of terror because they're afraid of the people?"
.... Boris was lost in thought for a moment, and then he made a dismissive gesture with his hand and said with a forced smile, "It's not going to be like that here, Mr Muller, you'll see."
.... * * *
.... There was only one topic of conversation: "We're going to the seaside!" All that we had to take with us was food for the journey. Transport was free - a gift from the new government. Some people would have to ride in freight cars because there were not enough passenger carriages, they had been blown up by mines during the war. A trip to the seaside was everybody's dream in our small town. Only the wealthy had been able to go there before the war. Now, they said, things would be better for all of us. They would take from the rich and share out what they had taken among all of us equally. They said that in Socialism there would be neither rich nor poor, everyone would be equal. Everyone would work according to his abilities, and receive according to the work he put in. And when Communism was achieved? Things would be better still - everyone would work according to his abilities, and receive according to his needs. Old Tomo asked, "And who is to decide how much someone needs? The person who needs it, or the people in power? It's all very well while there's something to share out, but if those who have created the wealth disappear, who will create wealth then? Because if the poor knew how to create wealth, they wouldn't be poor." He had been summoned before the Committee a couple of times for a talk and had been told to watch what he was saying. They told him that he didn't understand these things and that he should hold his tongue. Since then old Tomo kept muttering to himself, because he could not be completely silent. He would let slip a word or two when he had drunk a glass of brandy, and he had even been sent to prison for a time. After that he dragged one foot a little, limping.
.... Franyo the American said that over there, in America, you were allowed to say you disagreed with the American President, while here if you so much as uttered a word against the local mayor they kicked you in the kidneys and broke at least two or three of your ribs, because you were an enemy of the people and a danger to the people's government.
.... "Don't exaggerate, you can say exactly the same things here as you can in America," his neighbour Bozho said with a cynical smile.
.... "Are you crazy? Come on, try it, let's see you in action," said a chorus of voices.
.... "You're welcome to say you don't agree with the American President, you can say even worse things about him if you like," Bozho replied, smiling.
.... * * *
.... The shops were half-empty. You could find left-overs of those wartime textiles made of wood pulp. Wool was a real rarity. A black marketeer might turn up and offer "real pre-war cloth", he would hold a thread over a match flame and, to convince the customer of the quality of the cloth, he would pretend to crush it with practised movements, then he would straighten it out, and, to the customer's amazement, there wouldn't be a crease anywhere. If the black marketeer knew his job, a deal would soon be struck.
.... The officers' shops were well-stocked. You could find all sorts of goods there, goods that came from wartime warehouses and German and Ustasha shops. There weren't enough goods to go round anyway, so let at least those who were most deserving have them, those who had brought us freedom. Goods were rationed according to a mysterious system. Little Tonka from Savska Street, the lieutenant's daughter, boasted of a pocketful of buttons. They probably didn't need most of those buttons and never would, but when something was being handed out, you had to make the most of every chance you got, because no one knew when there would be enough goods in the shops for people to buy whatever they wanted. The rest of us got by without buttons, and without many other things. We rummaged through the boxes in the attic and cut the buttons off clothes long since discarded. We sewed them on to the places that showed, just the top two or three buttons on a shirt or a blouse.
.... Packages arrived from America. People brought them home from the Post Office in wheelbarrows. Long letters were written to almost forgotten relatives in the distant States. People suddenly remembered aunts and uncles who had lived in luxury far away over the ocean, and who knew about the war only what they had read in the newspapers. Our people wrote long laments about their hard life, about having to feed all kinds of armies, about the abject post-war poverty.
.... We opened our package. Our neighbours came round to enjoy, if only vicariously, the wonders of patterned dresses, silver and golden slippers, and various small boxes with mysterious contents. My mother pulled out one piece of clothing after another like a magician pulling ribbons out of a top hat. There were long evening gowns trimmed with lace, with silken peonies, and sashes, and there were pointed shoes, so narrow, and with pointed toes so long, that they made you wonder what kind of feet people in America had. The stiletto heels were thin and high, a little scarred, but that could be covered up with a little soot mixed with lard, since there was no proper shoe polish.
.... I couldn't resist trying on a dress and running to the mirror. The dress was too large, hanging loose and trailing on the floor. They must eat well there if the women are so stout!
.... At the bottom of the parcel there were some little boxes containing a strange powder. The boxes were printed with a colourful design and a text we couldn't understand. They also contained some hard, dry lumps like tree bark. My mother read the letter and was upset because her sister wrote she was sending us a little milk, eggs, and dried meat, and none of these things were to be found in the package.
.... "Someone must have taken them out on the way, the milk might have been spilt, and they left me only these old rags, and shoes that don't fit anybody's feet."
.... Then someone thought of old Franyo the American. He had arrived from America for a holiday just before the war started. He had meant to go back, but it was no longer possible. The war had started and Hitler's submarines were roving the seas.
.... Franyo explained everything at once. You added some water to the white powder, and it turned into milk, while the yellow powder turned into eggs in an instant. The meat remained a mystery. We tried boiling the tough tree bark, but to no avail. After long boiling you could just about bend it.
.... "Perhaps they use it to make soles for shoes," my father said.
.... The dresses made us forget all about the pot on the stove. We forgot about it until the evening. The hard lump had got thicker, and when we cut it with a knife, the knife sliced into it as if it was a piece of roast meat. We sat up long into the night celebrating, eating the American meat, which made us all thirsty. Then our neighbour Franyo went out to get a demijohn of wine. He sat at the head of the table and went on with his nostalgic story about the far-away, affluent country, about Ellis Island, an islet in the port of New York, where you waited in suspense for the stamp that showed you had been received into the New World. Franyo remembered the long queues at the windows, where, to while away the time, you could read, scratched on the walls, the names of people who had passed that way before you.
.... "Even poor people can get rich there," Franyo continued his story. "My cousin Yulka went there as a little girl with her parents, and they took nothing with them but two bundles of clothes, old rags rather, since they had nothing better to wear. Her father got a job in a mine, and her mother cleaned other people's houses. My cousin got fed up with poverty and living in dark basement apartments. She wanted a home of her own - and she built it, out of eggs. She bought eggs in the villages and sold them in the town. One egg after another, and Yulka built a nice home of her own. That's America for you. Anyone who is ambitious and works hard will succeed over there. And here, in this God-forsaken Balkan backwater, you can work from morning till night, with nothing to show for it. Either you're fleeced by tax collectors or loan sharks, or your own relatives rob you whenever they get a chance."
.... Photos of our fat relations were passed round, and mother looked long and hard at the photo of Aunt Palona, her sister, who had gone to the promised land before the start of World War I.
.... "They must have a good life there, look how fat she is," my mother said with a sigh, "And look at that huge car; the miller's little Fiat would fit into the back seat."
.... * * *
.... Our neighbour Pepa rushed up our front steps, she seemed to be taking them two at a time. Where did she get that kind of strength all of a sudden? She shouted from the lobby,
.... "Where are you, neighbour?"
.... And when my mother opened the kitchen door, she went on, relieved,"Ah, there you are, thank God, there's something I have to tell you at once. It's the God's truth, I heard it from my friend Fanika, who heard it from the vicar's housekeeper while she was doing the laundry there: they've arrested Archbishop Stepinats. What's the matter with these people, have they gone mad, how can they arrest the Most Reverend Archbishop? If they've done that, what's to become of the rest of us?"
.... My mother opened her mouth to speak several times, but she couldn't get a word in edgeways. Pepa went on:
.... "Just imagine, Mrs Muller, they've only just taken it into their heads; for more than a year after the war ended everything was fine, and now, all of a sudden, they arrest him! What do these Communists want? They can't expect the Archbishop to join their party! People say they wanted the Most Reverend Archbishop to fall out with His Holiness the Pope and to cut the Croats off from the Holy See. Well, how do you like that! Now it's occurred to them that the Most Reverend Archbishop was on good terms with the Croatian government of the Independent State of Croatia and that's why he's guilty. How can they hold it against him when they know perfectly well what it was like for the Croats and Catholics before the war? The Most Reverend Archbishop believed the time had come for the Croats to have their own state. They say the Archbishop wanted them to treat members of other religions decently, but they wouldn't listen to him, and so he had arguments with the regime. And as for the fact that he's not so keen on the Communists coming to power, they shouldn't hold that against him, there are lots of other people who aren't keen on that, either, and how could the Archbishop be keen on the Communists when they don't believe in God? They say they can't believe in something they've never seen! Doubting Thomases! If they only knew what happened in Nart, they'd think differently. You know, when the Virgin decided where the church should be built. The parishioners in two villages had quarrelled about it, and they made it up only when the painting of Our Lady moved over to Nart-Yalshevats, all by itself overnight. Then people calmed down and moved the church there. All the villagers stood in a line, side by side, passing the bricks down the line one by one. They carried the church furnishings over in a procession, and the Virgin's statue, carved out of lime wood, was carried by the most beautiful girl in the village."

Next: Chapter 14