Vladimir’s Story Continued –

Allied Bombers over Yugoslavia

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.

University of Zagreb

A Bit of History

Many years ago, I was between jobs and occupied my time with doing interviews with veterans for the Veterans History Project for the Library of Congress, as a volunteer at the local senior center. At that time there were still several WW II vets around with stories to tell, and some Korean conflict and Vietnam vets as well. Having lived through the Vietnam never-declared war, I had too many opinions to be a really good interviewer, but I could talk with the older vets more dispassionately. To my lasting regret, I turned in all of my video interviews when I resigned my position, without keeping copies.

However, I stumbled upon the transcript of an interview I conducted, over the course of several months, with the father of a friend, that might be of interest to any history buff. While he narrowly escaped being a victim of the Korean conflict, his story is nonetheless engaging. The following is the first chapter of my interview with Vladimir Popovitch, a most remarkable man.

The King’s Palace of Montenegro By Damjan Damjanovic – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5663691

I was born in the King’s Palace of Montenegro on November 4, 1927, in Podgorica, Yugoslavia.  (Podgorica was renamed Titograd from 1946 to 1991) Not that I was of noble birth; the king had been deposed in 1918 and kindly left the palace so it could be converted to a hospital.  My uncle on my mother’s side now reigned as head of the hospital.

I was my parent’s only child, perhaps due to my prodigious size at birth.  I weighed nearly twelve pounds.  The first two weeks of my life were reportedly uncomfortable.  I vocalized my discomfort all night every night until my grandmother came to give my mother a much needed rest.  She was a pragmatic peasant woman from a small village and, seeing that my mother was thoroughly exhausted, poured a pint of good red wine for her.  When Mother had relaxed, Grandmother brought me to her for my evening breast-feeding.  That night we both slept through the night in comfort.

My early childhood was one of relative privilege.  My father, a graduate of the renowned Montpelier Law School in France, was a State Supreme Court judge.  He and my Uncle Tomas had a friendly relationship with the President of Montenegro.  My mother’s family was also well educated and prosperous. Our home was one of only three or four houses in the city with running water. 

Our water was supplied by a cistern on the roof that collected rainwater.  There was a public well with a hand pump to serve the needs of neighbors who had no plumbing of their own.                  

Our electrical power was supplied by a generator donated by Austria as part of WWI reparations.  It ran, more or less reliably, from dusk to dawn and when it failed, the generator operator could be heard shouting “The same to you!”  When someone asked why he stood around shouting instead of repairing the generator he responded “Because I know they (the electrical customers) are out there cursing at me.”

Since there was no electricity during daylight hours, there was no refrigeration.  Wood was the only fuel used for heating and cooking.  On Mondays the farmers from the area around the city would bring their products to the city.  Vegetables, fruit, cheese and live fowl made for a colorful sight.  Meat was purchased for immediate consumption.  Fish was either consumed fresh or smoked for preservation.  We kept some chickens and, in the less affluent neighborhoods across the river, each household would keep a pig, but on our side of the river that was not a practice.  Later, during the war, my uncle built a small pen in our yard so my mother could keep a pig but that was in a different lifetime.

In our home my parents spoke only French.  My father, having gone to school in France, spoke the language fluently, and my mother had spent five or six years in a convent in Nice, France during WWI. 

My maternal grandmother had died of natural causes (perhaps childbirth) when my mother was only six years old.  Her father, seeing the war descending upon his country, sent her and her brother to live with his younger brother, wife and three cousins in Italy.  My mother’s uncle was a successful merchant and the additional dependents posed no financial hardship.  Later the family moved to France for reasons unknown to me.  Perhaps it had to do with the fact that the government of Montenegro was set up in exile in France.  However, when the Germans overran France in 1916 the King moved to Italy where his daughter was the Queen.

My childhood essentially ended in April of 1941.  German bombs exploded in our city heralding the arrival of WWII.  At 13 years of age I saw the horrors of war in the streets where I had played with my friends only days earlier.  I watched in shock as mangled, bleeding neighbors and friends were loaded into commandeered taxis.  The Yugoslavian army collapsed and the government went into exile in England.  Ten days later, posters appeared that announced that Yugoslavia was no more.  We were allowed to be governed by Italy as a protectorate.

My father resigned his position though some of his associates remained to cooperate with the new powers.  He was arrested a couple of times and held for as much as two weeks in an attempt to coerce him to fall into line but he remained resolute.  In 1942 the Organization of Collaborators tried to enlist my father and when he still refused, a party was sent to our house in the middle of the night to arrest him.  This time he was sent to a prison camp in Albania and then to Italy.

We received a postcard from him every three or four months via the Red Cross, and even a letter once, until the allied forces advanced on Italy.  He was then transferred to Germany where he was not allowed any communication with us.

To be fair, I would have to say that the Italian government was benign in comparison with the Germans.  They took no Royal Yugoslavian Army troops prisoner; they were simply disarmed and sent home.  Similarly, a civilian who loudly vocalized dissent in the public square was hauled off to jail, yelling anti-government sentiments all the way.  The Germans would have shot him on the spot.

My mother and I were left to survive on our own.  She kept food on the table by selling her jewelry.  Her brother and cousins helped when they could.  One of my uncles was a merchant who traveled to the villages in the North where they made cheese.  He would bring wooden barrels of cheese to our house.  Other relatives from the villages provided us with fresh vegetables.  While we never went hungry, the poor families on the other side of the river suffered to a greater degree.

Under Italian occupation we were required to study Italian in school.  I didn’t consider it a hardship since I had already mastered French and Yugoslavian and had learned some German in school.

Life fell into a pattern even as we lived under constant threat.  Allied bombers droned overhead daily on their way to Belgrade and the oil fields in Rumania (Romania is maybe a more common spelling).  We eventually learned to ignore the air raid signals just as we adapted to other war-induced hardships.  One sunny afternoon in May of 1944, I was outside when I saw a formation of bombers thunder across the sky so low the ground seemed to shake.  With horror I watched as bombs exploded around me damaging our home and the homes of our immediate neighbors.  The bright sun was obliterated as dust darkened the sky.  When the deafening noise abated I heard my mother calling me frantically from the rubble that had been our home.  The breeze wafted in and out clearing the air until I could see clearly enough to look for her.  Miraculously, she was uninjured except for a bump on her head.  I had been struck in the face by some flying debris and was bleeding profusely but was not seriously hurt.