The second wave of bombers attacked and we huddled under an outside staircase that remained standing as bombs exploded all around us. I grabbed one of the chickens that was sheltered under the stairs with us and held it to my face, using its feathers as a dust filter. When the dust finally cleared, we could see that there was nothing left of our home. We joined the exodus from the city to seek shelter with relatives who lived about a mile and a half away. We slept on the floor with about thirty other people who had lost their homes. Out of a population of 16,000 people, an estimated 600 lost their lives in the assault by the allied bombers. They called it collateral damage but if you have ever suffered the effects of it you know it means utter devastation to the people who survive.
My mother salvaged what clothing, linens, bedding and household items had not been destroyed and loaded them onto a hired truck. We moved in with my aunt and uncle and two younger cousins who had a small house about 50 miles south of our town. We slept on mattresses on the kitchen floor that we picked up during the day. We stayed with them until November when we moved to a beach town to the south where I joined the army.
In July of 1941 the Communist Partisan forces staged a rebellion and beat the shit out of the Italians. They were no soldiers. The German troops had been pulled out to fight in the Soviet Union. The Italian Army was comprised of two types. The regular conscripted soldiers wore green uniforms and the elite storm troopers wore black.
Fifty of these Black Shirts were captured by the Partisan forces led by a former artist named Lekovic. Having barely enough food for themselves, the Partisans took the captured leader, by ferry, to Albania where they convinced the Italians to load their boat with food to feed the prisoners. The prisoners were held in a school until they were brought before a tribunal and convicted of war crimes. Whereupon, they were marched to the top of a cliff and summarily executed. Their bodies were dropped into caves below. Later their decomposing bodies had to be roped out for burial. It was terrible!
The Italians regrouped and returned, captured Lekovic, and brought him before their tribunal. He was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to life in prison. He was freed by allied forces two years later to return to power in Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavian Communist Partisan forces had taken control of the area as the Italians and Germans lost ground to the allied forces. My uncle Tomas held an influential position with the new government. He was a district leader in the Frontal Organization which was made up of people who were not Communist Party members but followed the party line. He was able to secure a position for me as a courier, which kept me in the rear while most men my age (almost 14) were on the front fighting the Germans.
In March of 1945 I was sent to Belgrade with a column of trucks that came from the Adriatic port city of Dubrovnik. They were delivering aid and ammunition to the front west of Belgrade. Mixed in with the military personnel were refugees returning to now liberated areas to the north including some Jews who had fled the Germans. My mother, who accompanied me, and I endured five very cold days of travel before arriving at our new home in Belgrade.
We were given a tiny furnished apartment that had been confiscated from the Germans. Belgrade was a bustling city with all the amenities including a movie theater. We settled into a comfortable routine.
It had been more than a year since we had heard anything from my father. My cousin worked at the railway station providing refreshments to the troop transports that were returning refugees and POWs to Yugoslavia. One day as she stood on the platform serving juice, she was stunned to recognize my emaciated father among the throng. He had no idea that we were living in Belgrade (or still living at all for that matter) and had she not spotted him, he might have passed right through Belgrade in his search for us.
He had been imprisoned in a POW camp in Munster, Germany, just south of the Netherlands, with American and Canadian soldiers. While he had not been treated too badly for the most part of the war, as the Germans began to lose the war, their resources dwindled to the point that they couldn’t feed their prisoners. By the time the allied forces stormed the prison, my father was so starved he was unable to stand. Machine gun fire pierced the wall above his cot as he lay there too weak to move. The Canadian soldiers, with whom he had made friends, carried him downstairs where he was hooked up to an IV and given clear broth. After being fed liquids for a week, he was finally able to start eating solid food again.
In the summer of 1945 a Yugoslavian Partisan delegation visited the camp recruiting Yugoslavian prisoners to return to help the army. When the infrastructure was restored my father returned. Our joy knew no bounds. At last it looked like we could resume our life as a family. My father, who was a socialist, was not a member of the Communist Party so he was barred from holding public office. He was given a position as legal advisor to the Minister of Materiel. In 1946, I enrolled at the University of Belgrade on an army stipend majoring in mechanical engineering. One of my minor fields of study was English. We were given a somewhat larger apartment where life regained a sense of normalcy. (author’s note: Though Vladimir spoke at least seven different languages, his English was so accented that transcribing the video was labor intensive. As his Parkinson’s disease progressed, he grew increasingly difficult to understand.)
In 1947 we moved to Zagreb so that I could transfer to the University of Zagreb and switch my major to shipbuilding.