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.