Balkans tragedy parallels her parents grim war tale

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As I watched the war scenes from Yugoslavia this spring, I felt a disturbing sense of familiarity.

The disbelief and horror on the faces of old men and women from Belgrade as their city was bombed made my stomach churn. The flames, the bombed civilians, are all too familiar to the generation who lived through the Nazi bombing of Belgrade in 1941.

The expressions in these peoples faces, their shock and lack of understanding about why this is happening again in their lifetime haunts me and reminds me of my parents' fate as Jewish refugees during that other tragic, not so distant, period in Yugoslavian history.

Wedding bells in Belgrade. The year was 1940. My father and mother united their lives while winds of war blew throughout Europe. They chose an informal wedding style. Only family members were invited to the celebration. After the wedding, they settled in the top floor of a downtown building owned jointly by my father and grandfather. A study, dressed in Persian rugs and wood-paneled walls, was furnished as an office for my father, a judge.

Less than a year later, on April 6, 1941, this illusion of normality disintegrated completely. My parents woke up to the sound of German planes dropping bombs on their city. In haste, they packed a suitcase, got my grandparents, and found a taxi driver who, for a large sum of money, drove them amid the chaos from the burning city.

A harrowing journey from Belgrade to Split, on the Dalmatian coast, followed. They chose Dalmatia with the hope that there they would catch a boat that would take them somewhere, anywhere away from the Nazis. As they drove on the deserted roads, bombs exploded around their vehicle. Somehow, miraculously, no bomb hit their taxi. With this journey, my parents left behind the peaceful, orderly world that they and their families before them had known for centuries.

In Split, they found there was no way out; there were no more ships leaving to go anywhere. They were trapped. Instead of escaping, my parents became prisoners of the Italian Fascists who interned them in Korcula, an island off the coast of Dalmatia.

Two years later, Germany invaded Italian territory and my parents had to find a way to leave Korcula before the Nazis arrived. They escaped during the night, in a small boat, through a German submarine-infested Adriatic Sea, to German-occupied Italy.

My mother developed a strange fever. It came every afternoon — for no known medical reason. One unwanted pregnancy after another had to be ended using risky procedures. They could not afford a baby when forced to hide in the attic of an Italian peasant's house or in haystacks, when German soldiers turned every hiding place upside down, poking the hay with their bayonets.

In World War II, my parents lost everything. Relatives, friends, professions, properties, identity, the right to a normal life, the right to be human. The war years brought them countless horrors: prison, escape, hunger, terror, the uncertainty of not knowing which day would be their last day.

The year of 1944 found my parents hiding in Rome, living through the generosity of an Italian concierge who disobeyed the strict orders to turn in all Juden (Jew) identity papers to the occupying Germans, and who shared the scarce food from her rationing card with them.

Finally, the day when the Allies liberated Rome arrived — the happiest day in my parents' life. And then, among the victorious Allied forces, a most glorious vision: a battalion carrying a flag with the Star of David marching with the British contingent. A Jewish battalion. The Star of David — for many years a mark of shame — was carried proudly through the Roman streets.

All the tears they had not shed during those years came pouring out. They threw themselves on the Jewish soldiers with an embrace unlike any other. Recalling that moment would fill my parents' eyes with tears for the rest of their lives.

Two years later, they were living in Milan. My father had a job. Their apartment had become a haven for those few, ghostly survivors who, underfed, disoriented and prematurely aged by the past years, came to rest for a few days.

This period brought them the realization of the enormity of their losses. There was no going back; their large families who had lived and thrived in the same region for almost five centuries had been extinguished. What was there to live for anymore?

In the building in Milan where my parents lived, the elevator was operated by a cheerful, talkative Italian. My father engaged in daily conversations with him on his way to and from work. He seemed a very happy man, in spite of his poverty and lack of education. He told my father about the great joy and pride he derived from being the father of a large number of children.

My father wondered how this man could be so happy when he had so many children to feed and such meager resources. "Children are the greatest treasure," he often told my father. My father was inspired.

One day he told my mother, "If this poor man feels so rich and happy because of his many children, why don't we have even one? We must have a child; we must reaffirm life and start over again from under the ashes of our lives." And that is how I came into this world.

As I viewed the bombing, the destroyed towns and the despair in the eyes of the refugees this spring, I could not help but reflect on the parallels with my parents' experience. Lives disrupted, members of families lost, uncertain futures. I ask myself, how can we keep doing such harm to each other?

And yet, after the Holocaust, my parents found new chances to reaffirm life. Hopefully, the war's end can provide similar opportunities for new life to these suffering people and this tormented land.