Enemies of the People? Life in Communist Yugoslavia
A Child Who Learned to Be a Survivor
An Unusual Childhood in Serbia in the 1940s
Most of us who grew up during a time of peace have led sheltered lives compared to that of my husband, Kosta, who was born in Serbia in 1939. He lived through the German invasion of Belgrade, which occurred when he was about two and a half years old. The Germans arrested his father to use as a hostage in case of an uprising, and only the hand of God (I believe) brought him safely home. After the Germans left, the Russians came, and Russian officers occupied Kosta's home. He basically had to stay out of the way and was confined to his room, except for meals eaten in the kitchen with his parents, for about two weeks until the soldiers left.
After the Russian officers left, Tito's Communist partisans took over everything, including assigning who would live where. They also determined who would get coal and who wouldn't, to heat their homes in the cold winter. Kosta had a younger brother and an invalid older sister, Rose, who was half blind as a result of having had meningitis.
After the Communist takeover, Kosta's parents, Paula and Dragoslav (called Charlie in Canada and the United States later on) had a lot of visits from friends and people from the university who had joined the Communist Party. The visitors tried to recruit Kosta's parents, who did not want to join. When asked why they were unwilling, they at first gave excuses such as, "We're not smart enough," or "We aren't political."
The friends tried to bribe them with the possibility of serving the Communist regime as ambassadors to other nations, which would allow them to leave the country, but Paula and Dragoslav refused because they did not want to serve the Communist government. When asked again why, they were honest enough to give their real reasons, that they did not like how the Communists operated, using Gestapo-like tactics. Three weeks later they were herded on foot, including the children, to the killing fields, which were close enough for them to walk to. Kosta did not understand at the time what he was seeing -- only that his neighbors who had visited their home and given him cookies when he visited them, were lying on the ground in rows by ditches. He thought maybe they were sleeping.
We will say more about that separately, but for now you need to know it happened. Again, through what I believe was divine intervention, they were released after proving what they were accused of, having worked for the Germans and having German flour in their house, wasn't true. They invited the soldiers to search their house, and they couldn't find any evidence. Most of their neighbors weren't as fortunate. Kosta and his mother never knew the real reason they were arrested or why so many of the neighbors were killed. It was only when his mother had only weeks left to live that the two of them discussed this incident and it was only then, when Kosta was in his sixties, that he understood what he had seen that day.
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No Enemy of the People
When Kosta was a baby, his family lived very close to the war department building in downtown Belgrade. In early 1945 Dravoslav moved the family to what he thought would be a safer place, a wealthier part of town, about twelve miles from the downtown area. Americans were dropping a lot of bombs on Belgrade, and this new home was farther from the targets. One of the families in this new neighborhood was the Vladimir Dedijer family, and Kosta played with their daughter. Vladimir Dedijer was a historian and a Communist who wrote much about the war and about Tito.
When Kosta's family was released from the killing fields, they were kicked out of their house and assigned to an apartment in downtown Belgrade until close to the end of 1947. The family of Vladimir Dedijer moved into their house. By this time, Kosta's little brother had died of pneumonia. When he was sick during the winter, Paula could not get coal to heat the house because they weren't Communists. Kosta's sister Rose died in 1948.
This is the background to the story I have asked Kosta to tell on the video titled "No Enemy of the People." To me, this story is one more evidence of the hand of God intervening in the life of Kosta's family.
As Kosta mentions in the video, his dad owned a construction company that provided jobs for many people, but also got him labeled as a capitalist, which was not good for him politically, and, in fact, was the basis for his arrest. The first picture is one of his projects. He is in the bottom right corner of that picture. His crew is pausing from their work for the picture. The other two pictures are labeled and need no further explanation.
Topciderski Park in Belgrade
This park was a very special place to Kosta. He liked to play there as a child. It has some very large, beautiful, and famous trees. In the park is the Milošev konak, which was once the residence of the Prince of Serbia, Miloš Obrenovic. In it is a museum of The First Serbian Uprising.
After the arrest Kosta talks about in "No Enemy of the People," Kosta's family made an unsuccessful attempt to escape from Yugoslavia, but they were caught, and all of them, including Kosta, were taken to prison. That is a story I will tell elsewhere.
After all of them were finally released, which took almost two years, they decided that after all that trauma they needed to do something special as a family. They decided to go to Topciderski Park, where Kosta could play, while Dragoslav and Paula quietly made plans for another escape attempt. Dragoslav sat next to Kosta on one of the benches and explained they would be leaving. As Kosta tells the story in the second video, below, he asked his dad, who was an architect and artist as well as contractor, to draw him a picture of the konak, so he would always remember what it looked like. That picture is reproduced for you here, photographed from the original, which Paula preserved and they later had framed after they successfully escaped. I have also presented some more recent pictures for comparison.
Planning Second Escape at Topcider Park
Topcider Park in Belgrade
Saying Goodbye to Topcider Park in 1950
The Story Behind the Drawing
Kosta tells the story behind the drawing on another hub: A World War II Yugoslav Childhood between 1939 and 1950. In this article, Kosta tells the very exciting story of how his family made their actual escape. The last video in that article is not to be missed.
More Recent Pictures of Milošev konak
After escaping from Communist Yugoslavia in about 1950, Kosta's family immigrated to Canada and became Canadian citizens. In 1959 they were able to enter the United States legally and Kosta became a student at UCLA, where I met him. We were married in 1964. Shortly after that, I was proud to sit with Kosta and his family in a courthouse in downtown Los Angeles as they all became United States citizens.