Dispatches

Balkan Farewell

David Albahari

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 199s, 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 grand

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David Albahari

David Albahari is the author of twenty published books in Serbian; six have been translated into English, including Snow Man (Douglas & McIntyre, 2005) and Leeches (Harcourt, 2011). Read more of his work at davidalbahari.com.


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