In Zagreb, Croatia, I leave my friend’s apartment and flag down a cab right in front of it. I have to catch a train, which will take me to Ljubljana, Slovenia. Only when I settle down in the back seat of the cab do I notice that on the dashboard there are several stickers with the letter U, the sign of Ustashe. During the Second World War, Ustashe was the ruling party in the Independent State of Croatia. They also had their own army and ran a number of concentration camps where many Serbs, gypsies and Jews were slaughtered. In the 1990s, during the breakup of Yugoslavia, their supporters reappeared and the old stories of their horrible crimes began circulating again. I look at the signs and try to disappear. It doesn’t work. Instead, I try to make myself as small as possible, but the driver’s eyes find me in his rear-view mirror. “Is everything ok?” he wants to know. “Are you comfortable back there?”
I mumble something. I cannot speak because the moment I say something he’ll know that I am from Serbia. But he is persistent, he is one of those cab drivers who like to talk with their passengers. He wants to know what brings me to Zagreb, so I finally tell him that I’ve come to Zagreb for a reading. His eyes look at me again from the mirror. “I was in Belgrade last spring,” he says, meaning that he has recognized my accent. He tells me that he has a good friend there, a Serb. They’ve been friends for many years, but during the last war they were in different armies and now they’re friends again. “We even had some fun together,” he whispers although there’s nobody in the cab except us, “with a couple of hookers, if you know what I mean.”
I nod, slightly relieved, because if it’s true that he visited Serbia, it means that he is not on any list of war criminals. But I am still uneasy. After all, I am not only from Serbia but I am also Jewish, which makes me a double target for an Ustashe. I look at his eyes in the mirror again.
“You are worried about Ustashe signs,” he asks, “aren’t you?”
“No, why would I be?” I say, but my voice suddenly squeaks like a mouse. It is obvious that I’m lying.
“There are no real Ustashe any more,” he tells me in a soft voice. “These are only symbols of something long gone.”
What is this, I wonder? Is he really trying to comfort me? The thought makes me brave, so I ask him how he knows that it is gone.
“My grandfather was in the Ustashe army in the Second World War,” he says, “and I heard some of his stories when I was a kid.”
I am silent for a while and then I ask: “Did he . . . has he . . .?”
He turns around and looks at me. “No, never,” he says. “He was a cook.”
I should have guessed his answer. It seems today that every person who fought in that war was a cook. I imagine huge armies of cooks, dressed in white, with hats in different colours. They throw spaghetti and tomato sauce at their enemies. I chuckle, feeling relieved, and see his puzzled look in the mirror.
“He really believed in the Ustashe ideology,” he says, “but nobody does today. We live in a different world.”
I lean closer to him and say: “His ideology was how to kill all Serbs and Jews, that was the only thing on Ustashes’ minds.”
“Bullshit,” he yells and I quickly sit back. Have I gone too far?
We drive in silence until we reach the train station. He steps out of his car, opens the trunk and hands me my suitcase. I pay the fare, adding a large tip. It is ridiculous to tip him so much but I feel guilty for making him lose his temper. He pockets the money and then proceeds to shake hands with me. I do it reluctantly but I still do it. When he lets go of my hand, I tell him that I’m Jewish and that Ustashe killed many relatives of mine in their camps. “They were distant relatives,” I add, “but they were still my relatives, and I cannot forget that.”
He closes the trunk of his car with a loud bang. “Knowing my grandfather,” he finally says, “I find it hard to believe.”
I tell him that we all love our grandfathers. “Unfortunately,” I say, “I did not have a chance to express my love to my grandfather, as he was killed by the Nazis.”
The taxi driver puts his hand in his pocket and pulls out his card. Whenever I am in Zagreb and need a ride, he tells me, I should call him. And then he adds, as if to reassure me, that he would never kill a Jew or a Serb simply because they are what they are.
I look at the big clock: I should go if I want to catch the train for Ljubljana.
“Just a moment,” he says. He bends down and pulls up his trouser leg. “I want you to see this.” There is an ugly scar on his calf, part of which seems to be missing. “And look here,” he says, bowing his head. There is another scar on the top of his head. “Serbs did that to me,” he tells me, “but I don’t hold it against them. I don’t hate them. I felt good in Serbia. And the hookers were good although they were from Ukraine.”
We shake hands again.
“You have nothing to worry about,” he says. “I love Jews.”
I know that kind of love, and that is exactly why I am worried. First you love them, and then something goes wrong and you immediately blame it on Jews. It is an old story, and the roles never change. I pick up my luggage and hurry along. A train whistle blows and although I don’t know whether it is my train, I start running, pulling my suitcase behind me.
“What’s the rush?” asks the conductor when I reach the train. “We still have ten minutes until departure.”
I reply in English and the conductor grins.
“For Ljubljana,” he struggles to say in English, “yes? This train good. In ten minutes we go. Zagreb bye-bye.”
He helps me climb the high steps and I find an empty compartment. In two hours the train will be in Ljubljana, in Europe, and Croatia, Serbia and the rest of the Balkans will be at a safe distance. But when have I begun to see things that way? I am from the Balkans and think of it as a beautiful place with great traditions and a tragic history. Is it because now I live so far from that area and feel protected? Why do I allow one letter—that famous U—to make me feel like a stranger in parts of my former homeland? I know that the cab driver is no real Ustashe, and yet my fear was genuine. Once bitten, twice shy? Maybe. Loudspeakers crackle and a voice says that customs and border officials are on their way. I look for my passport and get ready for Europe.