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Travel Writings

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Outing to palace;. Villy 2d from left; Henry in front.

The aftermath of a journey like the one we took to Eastern Europe comes in waves over the years, as history's events unfold and as we get older.

 

In the immediate aftermath as a university student, whenever I heard nonsense about the glories of communism, I produced the Polish shower receipt from my wallet as proof of its absurdity and told the story of Villy as proof of its oppression. 

 

Villy had warned us about sending him letters, so we were reluctant to write him.  About three years later, I received an unsigned postcard from Romania that simply said in French "From your friend."  That's it.  We never learned anything else about what happened to Villy.

 

My writing sample for law school was a turgid little piece that argued that the latent rivalries of Eastern Europe between the Serbs and the Croats, the Bulgarians and the Turks, and the various factions within Bosnia and Macedonia had been papered over and could emerge again.  I got into law school anyway.  Richard headed off to law school at the University of Chicago, where he roomed with Don, who was a graduate student in philosophy.

 

I am happy to say that my wife, Susan -- born on 22 Lipca, no less -- acquired a taste for cold cherry soup.  We often shared pljeskavice and muskalisce at Zlata's, a Serbian restaurant in Chicago with its own Serbian juke box, full of Turkish-sounding melodies.

 

The souvenirs have disappeared over the years.  The two-melon string bag I needed in places like Sarajevo finally fell apart.  I lost the black lamb's wool Bosnian hat on the "L" in Chicago.  The main survivor is a Romanian movie-fan postcard of the French actor, Jean Gabin, with a particularly slappy-faced expression on his face.  It passes back and forth between Richard and me.  Somewhere I have tucked away my treasured brochures touting the mud baths of Romania.  These feature photos of rotund Communist-era figures conversing naked while caked in black mud.  It also has pictures of the spa's medical clinic, with patients attached to various electrical contraptions that look like rejects from the set of The Bride of Frankenstein.  Beyond that, there isn't much.  There are a few photos, but not enough.  What we have are the memories.

 

It has fascinated me to watch Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II.  He was Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow when we visited there, and his vacations were spent skiing in the Polish Tatras.  What a bold stroke it was to elect this son of Poland as Pope.  He survived the assassin's bullet of a Turk, possibly with the complicity of the Bulgarian communists.  He wrote his own chapters in the history of the region by supporting Lech Welesa and the Solidarity Movement in Poland, and he returned triumphantly to his homeland time and again.  The chapters in George Weigle's biography, Witness to Hope, that deal with his years in Krakow shed light on life under both the Nazis and the Communists.

 

We shared the world's joy at the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism.  There was a particular satisfaction at the fate of Mr. and Mrs. Ceaucescu.  So many stories emerged; none of which surprised us.  One of my favorites is the report of a frantic call from President Giscard d'Estaing to Queen Elizabeth.  It seems that the Ceaucescus had been guests of the French President and that they had stolen everything that wasn't nailed down.  The next stop on their tour was Windsor Castle.  The President warned the Queen to hide the silver and anything else she cared about.  If anyone had asked us, we could have said that it was an illusion to think of Ceaucescu's Romania as some sort of bridge between East and West.

 

The wars following the break-up of Yugoslavia brought horrors to the region -- the bombardment of Dubrovnik, an end to the bridge at Mostar and terrible loss of life in Sarajevo.  We found it impossible to reminisce about our trip during that period because of our sadness.  Now the whole world knew about the obscure conflicts that we had studied.  Now the world knew about the places we had visited, but they were in flames.

 

Two observations are in order.  First, after an unpardonable delay, Europe and the United States finally found a way to put a halt to the violence in Bosnia without permitting the wildfire to spread to other parts of the Balkans.  Their initial hesitation was probably due to the unhappy history of involvement by the West in Balkan affairs, involvement that had led to World War I.  Second, I cannot believe that war was inevitable between the national groups of Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims or between Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo Albanians.  Yes, there were historic rivalries to point to, but there were other rivalries in the region, such as those in the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia.  These other fissures did not break out in war, though sometimes the involvment of the international community was a key factor in dampening the flames.  Unlike Yugoslavia, in the case of Czechoslovakia, a federal state managed to dismember itself without  war.  No, the common element to the conflicts that turned into full-scale war was Slobodan Milosovic and his use of Serbian irredentism for his own purposes.  Of course, he played on the historic dreams of a Greater Serbia, but I continue to believe that nothing was inevitable without this head of state fanning the flames for his own political purposes.

 

In recent years, friends have brought back photos from their visits to Prague and Budapest.  Prague now looks like a jewel.  The Jewish cemetery has been cleaned up and now looks the way it should look.  The Budapest synagogue has been lovingly restored with the generous financial support of the actor Tony Curtis, whose family came from there.  Nobody speaks of places like the Junior Hotel Praha; the western hotel chains now have smart new properties in these cities.  I tell everyone to visit Prague and Budapest, and I really should take my own advice.

 

The unfinished business from the trip keeps growing.  I suppose it would be possible now to try to find out what happened to our friend Villy.  I am curious to know about Paunitza and the members of her band, but it is Villy that I am worried about.  Is he still alive?  What kind of life has he led?  Do I really want confirmation that contact with our trio changed the course of his life for the worse?  And what about Henry, for that matter, the guy who may have betrayed him?  I also am curious about Bustend.  After Ceaucescu finished with Bucharest, he turned his bulldozers to quaint little villages in Transylvania, seeking to obliterate more vestiges of another era.  Does Bustend still stand?

 

I am not proud that, at least theoretically, I had a chance to visit Auschwitz but shied away. I resolved thirty years ago that I would return to Poland and visit Auschwitz, but I have not done it yet.  Time is awasting.

 

On the personal side, Richard and I each are happily married with great children.  We both are lawyers, with Richard in New York and me in Chicago.  The cancer caught up with Don, and he died in 1978, shortly before my wedding.  He was awarded his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and fulfilled his dream of teaching philosophy in the teeth of a terrible job market.  Don took a teaching job in his hometown at the University of Calgary.  He died in the arms of his loving parents.

 

            I dedicate this account to the memory of Don and his parents.  Now that I am a parent myself, I know that their courage was as great as his. 

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Don in Hvar

Last updated September 2, 2002.