Saturday, December 25, 2010
The book description should read:
From Sarajevo in 1921 to New York in 1956 and beyond, this is a memoir of my journey -- before, during, and after the Holocaust -- over continents, through wars and peace, hatreds and brotherhoods, successes and hardships, uprootings and setting up roots again.
It was a particularly winding and arduous road, from the 1940 student revolt which toppled the pro-Nazi government in pre-war Belgrade to the 1941 escape from native Quislings in Sarajevo; from a 3-year confinement as enemy civilian during WWII in Asolo, Italy, to chasing out -- in 1941-45 -- of the Yaeger Division in the last year of war in Dalmatia; from battling Soviet attempts to dominate Yugoslavia in 1948 , to becoming a journalist with the world as my beat.
While reporting from the UN on the Soviet invasion of Hungary, I sought asylum in New York in despair over my homeland ever becoming a democratic nation. At 35 I started a new life in America, as a laborer, draftsman, sales clerk, and eventually executive of two national non-profits.
The Last Exile is about a youth with literary ambitions in a sleepy town in the Balkans who survives on the periphery of the Holocaust and finally makes it in the center of the world.
Saturday, February 27, 2010
My name is Jasha Levi.
I come with an accent which I’ve never lost, couldn’t lose it if I tried. That happens to people from Bosnia, a stubborn place known for a strong tradition of rich language, history, and literature.
Speaking of Literature, my middle initial -- M. for Mihajlovic, a Slavic form of Son of Mihajlo -- is something I added myself when I was 13. It was a tribute to the great Russian writers. The patronymic didn’t turn me into a Tolstoy or a Pushkin, but the bug and the ambition of a scribe never left me.
I’ve lived to remember World War II, and I’m proud to have done my part.
* * * *
I was born in Sarajevo, barely a mile from where seven years before the first shot of World War I was fired. My father was a schoolmate of Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the throne in Vienna. The Empire blamed Princip for the war it started in 1914.
After hundreds of years of Ottoman ownership, Bosnia was then a province in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and its majority Serbs yearned to join their own independent Kingdom to the East.
The Black Hand, a secret organization of Serbian patriots, was behind the assassination, but my father was not part of it. His generation of Jews had enough troubles of its own in the anti-Semitic Empire to be messing about its lording over so many other nations.
In 1914 my father and his older brother were conscripted into the Imperial Army. I was told that the brother was driven to suicide by the harassment from his Hungarian superior officer who hated Jews, a common sport in Budapest at the time (and to this day, I’m sorry to notice). My father was said to have contracted tuberculosis on the Russian Front and returned home to Sarajevo in 1916.
* * * *
From my earliest youth, I was told that my father’s war was to be the last one ever. My generation believed that.
But I would learn, along with millions of others, that it was not to be.
Or, as an old Yugoslav folk proverb has it: If you don’t have an enemy, your mother will give birth to one. The fratricidal history of the Balkans is not the only witness to the truth of this saying.
With Hitler’s rise to power, war loomed in Europe once more. After the Yugoslav government in Belgrade signed a pact of friendship and cooperation with the Nazis, I joined the vast student movement that eventually overthrew that government.
So, when Hitler attacked our country in 1941 for breaking the pact it had previously had with him, I shared my bit of responsibility for bringing the Second World War on Yugoslavia, but as a patriot was only proud to have done so.
Unlike my father’s generation, we were not conscripted into that war. Fearful that the corrupt Yugoslav military was unprepared, I along the masses of other civic-minded young people besieged army headquarters, begging to join up. We were turned away.
It took the invaders just ten days to roll over the country, an area the size of Pennsylvania and New York combined, with 4000 square miles to spare.
Eager to join a resistance movement, we approached the anti-fascist underground, but it also turned as away. Its leaders claimed it was “too early” for armed resistance. In fact, as I finally (and very much later) figured out, they were simply dragging their feet as long as Stalin and Hitler were on good terms under the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of friendship and cooperation.
But with the discovery of Operation Barbarossa —Hitler’s blueprint for an all-out attack on the Soviet Union—the Berlin-Moscow non-aggression pact fell apart. At that, the call for partisan uprising spread over Europe like wildfire.
Before Stalin joined the Allies and allowed resistance in Europe, Sarajevo was firmly occupied by the S.S. and their local satraps, who were joyfully introducing Nuremberg laws and issuing yellow Stars of David to Jews, rounding us up for forced labor. Their next move was to be the death camps of Jasenovac, Stara Gradiška, and other human slaughterhouses in Croatia.
My family, descendants of Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, had lived in Sarajevo since the start of the 16th century. They were quietly, but consistently observant, their religion in the forefront of their identity.
We, their offspring between the two world wars, respected our elders’ religion but saw ourselves as Yugoslavs first. For most of our young lives, our place in society wasn’t questioned.
Now, we faced extermination for being Jews, and had to escape from our homes. As many of us as could, fled south, to the relative safety of Split, on the Dalmatian Coast.
* * * *
In this beautiful region which Hitler had “donated” to Mussolini, the fascists targeted not just Jews, but all patriots and resisters without discrimination. That was easier to take.
We young refugees joined the local patriotic resistance, which was creating chaos for the alien intruders. Mussolini’s Black Shirts’ answer was to round up and expel anyone not native to Dalmatia, making the occupied territory easier to police.
We were rounded up and transported to exile in Italy, labeled “civilian internees of war” under the Geneva Convention. My parents and I, with some 60 other civilian Yugoslav Jews—men, women, and children—would spend the next almost three years about 30 miles north of Venice in the province of Treviso, confined to the picturesque town of Asolo.
It was a place where Eleonora Duse and Gabrielle d'Annunzio built a discrete bridge over the street between their villas, where Robert Browning courted Elizabeth Barrett, and British royals carried on trysts with their young things in their own mansions.
But all one could tell from looking about Asolo was that it was a medieval hamlet of some 600 souls, one of a hundred cities which -- by law -- will forever keep the look it had when Caterina Comaro, the former Queen of Cyprus owned it in 1489.
We already knew that the Italians, as soldiers fighting outside their own country, fearful of the resistance to their presence, were fierce, thus fearsome. We soon learned, to our gratitude, that at home they were the gentlest, most peaceful, most humane people on earth.
This is how I later remembered this period in an Ode To Asolo:
As I look back at my life, this is the place: Asolo
We were confined to this village, but what a dream it was!
I was 19 and in love.
I was torn away from my country, sent by a foreign force out of a war I wanted to rejoin and eventually did.
I ran a school for interned children, and got BBC news from our British landlady, Mrs. Malipiero, wife of the renown Italian composer. Played soccer with Armenian monks. Read Dos Passos and Steinbeck in Italian. Delivered political speeches to myself in the mirror. Wrote political manifestos, burying them in bottles in the fields.
The interlude was pure youthful romance in midst of a most cruel war.
Nothing since matched its impact.
* * * *
On the 3rd day of September 1943, Mrs. Malipiero heard on the radio that the Allies landed in southern Italy. We began following their battles as they fought their way north, and our hearts sunk when they got stopped cold at Cassino.
The invasion caused Mussolini to fall from power, and the new government of General Badoglio was ready to surrender to the Allies.
Hitler, to avoid losing his fiefdom, sent in German reinforcements, which began streaming down from the Austrian border.
Until then, no German troops were anywhere in sight of Asolo and they were now advancing toward us. At news of that we fled again, leaving Asolo on a hair-raising trek south towards Rome, in hopes we would soon meet the Allies in the Eternal City.
A group of five of us first took refuge in Venice: ‘four girls from Casa Pimpa’ and I -- all documented Yugoslav Jews in need on false identities.
One of the girls, Zdenka, was the picture of the ideal Italian woman then: bella, bionda, grassa (beautiful, blonde and ample). We decided that she was our best bet to go back to Asolo and try to charm the Mayor into providing us with forged documents, giving us legitimacy as natives of Italy.
As Zdenka reported, the Mayor -- il Podesta -- was shocked by the brazen request. If he gave us false papers, he said, he would put in jeopardy all of Asolo. Yet, aware of our desperate situation, he found a solution: we all got false papers, signed by a former Mayor, now dead.
But Venice soon became too dangerous. I was looking for a guide to lead me across the border to the Yugoslav partisans, and barely escaped betrayal by a collaborator, so we moved on.
Relentless bombardment by Allied aircraft would soon cut off Rome from the north, ending Germany’s ability to send troops and supplies south by rail. But it would also make it more difficult for us to reach Rome.
On our small group’s escape road, we welcomed the powerful rumble of the massive American aircraft, sure their bombs couldn’t touch us: They were meant for the enemy!
In fact, we found ourselves in the midst of things when the railways were finally disrupted. Our train from Venice for Rome was stopped just north from the city, at a massive railroads exchange at Chiusi, and we had to blend into the Italian multitudes, now desperate to reach the Open City by other means.
By November 1943 we made it to Rome, but it would still take months of fierce fighting before the Allies finally made it too.
* * * *
The new allied beachhead at Anzio did not help dislodge the Germans for at least three more months. To this day, blame is passed back and forth at the War College over the flawless naval landing, followed by a supposedly misguided stall on the ground.
Which meant we had to hide in Rome until whenever the Allies arrive.
So there I was, 23 years old, a fugitive Jew, Italian-looking, military age, carrying--courtesy of Italian anti-fascists--the newest forged papers: of a fifth-year medical student. This precious document exempted me from service in Mussolini’s newly formed quisling Army, were I to be caught in one of the myriad street raids by the Black Shirts and the S.S. to round up young men.
A vast network of female underground workers roaming the city kept tabs on the movements of the fascist patrols: my fiancée Slava kept in touch with their underground information center to update me and steer me clear as I called her from the streets every half hour. A nerve-wracking time.
During those months, I ventured out into the streets for a reason: I was going from bar to bar all over Rome, doing my best to earn a living by selling an eggnog concoction I’d invented. It was mainly white wine, which was plentiful and inexpensive, mixed with scarce egg yolks, and pricier, even scarcer brandy. It had a brief shelf life, but it tasted so good it never lasted long enough to spoil.
As I walked, I would stop at telephone booths to learn from Slava in what piazzas and streets the raids were taking place so I would go elsewhere.
We celebrated the New Year 1944 in Rome, on the roof of an apartment in Via Corso Trieste, observing the battle for Cassino. The sky was lit up from the front some 15 miles to the south, along the heavily reinforced Gustav Line between Anzio and Cassino. It was a permanent, all-night curtain of exploding German anti-aircraft fire, Allied carpet bombing, and 70-pound steel shells traveling at 3000 feet per second from five U.S. destroyers.
By day, the Liberators and Flying Fortresses dominated Roman skies in nonstop attacks on spider nests of railroads at Tiburtina and other stations around the city. Not a single bomb was dropped on Rome itself.
By January 22nd, the sky was also exploding from guns at a new Allied beachhead at Anzio. The battle continued until March, when General Mark Clark broke through the German lines, and the defenders of Anzio joined forces with the rest of the Allied front for a triumphal march northward.
* * * *
It was only later that I learned about the Ardeatina Cave massacre on the outskirts of Rome, which also took place in March of 1944, after an underground fighter threw a bomb on marching Nazis, killing 33. For retaliation and execution, the Nazis followed their rule of picking up 10 locals for every German killed.
Of the 335 prisoners they brought in—five more than the rule required—most were random hostages from raids, some war prisoners, captured fugitive Italian officers, and common criminals. Seventy-five were Roman Jews, corralled from homes in the Trastevere Ghetto.
After the German officers squabbled over the incorrect number assembled, General Kappler gave the order to go ahead and kill them all, sending the volunteer executioners cases of French cognac to ease their nerves.
The prisoners were then marched in groups of five into the abandoned caves and shot in the back of the head. The killing took all day; postwar autopsies revealed that some prisoners were still alive when Kappler called it a day and gave the order to dynamite the entrances and seal the cave.
Stuck in Rome for the duration and desperate to find someone sympathetic to our plight, day after day my mother and Slava visited the Vatican, then swarming with escaped Allied POWs and dignitaries from all over Europe. They found a Croatian priest who provided my last false papers identifying me as Giaccomo Brunjonić, an exchange student from Croatia. The visa’s expiration date was July 24, 1944. Mark Clark’s troops marched into Rome ten days before my last false identify would have expired.
There, on the suddenly vibrant sidewalks of Rome, we came out in force to greet them. In spite of the ordeal we just lived through, we were still recklessly ignorant of fear, without a worry for the future -- young and ready to start living.
* * * *
The year before, the Allies had recognized Tito’s partisan army and government, and he began sending women and children from refugee camps in the Yugoslav mountains, as well as wounded and war-damaged soldiers, to a camp near Bari, Italy, for shelter and recovery. A military training center for the newly professional Yugoslav army was set up inland in Gravina, with British instructors in charge.
My fellow internee Slava and I became the first couple to be married in liberated Rome’s dusty, spider-web-draped Trastevere synagogue. It was officiated by Chief Rabi of Rome Israel Zolli. Born in 1881 as Israel Anton Zoller in Brody, Galicia, he later converted to Catholicism, taking the name Eugenio Zolli in honor of Pope Pius XII. I wasn’t familiar with his then or future eminence; what stuck in my mind was that, as he proffered the chalice to me, he warned me that there was a shortage of wine, and to take only a very small sip.
Four days later, I took my protesting bride on a fresh-air honeymoon, riding on wooden benches in the back of an Army Lend-Lease Mack truck from Rome to Gravina.
There, we were separated.
My bride was sent to women’s barracks, teaming with battle-hardened veterans of partisan warfare from the mountains.
I was assigned to translate British engineering manuals on setting up and defusing bombs. I was also assigned to learn all about and command the field assembly of the Bailey bridges.
The bridges were ingenious pivoting contraptions, and putting them together was like handling huge Erector sets. The idea was to assemble all the components on one side of a ravine, then push it over rollers, face up, until its own weight dropped it down to the other side. Wooden planks were then placed atop it so the tanks could ford the breach.
In training, our biggest concern was how fast we could assemble the bridge. The best stopwatch reading we achieved in Gravina was 15 minutes, 34 seconds. Later, in the bloody battle for Drnis, we would knock full 9 minutes off this record -- a real feat while our hands were tied-up with launching the bridge, as we faced the Germans, Cetniks and Ustashe collaboratively emptying their guns on us.
Our military training in Gravina lasted hardly a month, after which we were declared ready for the Dalmatian Campaign of 1944.
Our goal was to enter Trieste, long a bone of contention with Italy. We were being sent to expel one of the 40 German divisions bogged down in Yugoslavia by Tito’s Partisans: the newly formed Jäger Division, formerly Infanterie-Division, known for its many fierce offensives against the Partisans in Bosnia in 1943, and now redeployed to the Dalmatian coast to guard against possible Allied landings. (In the end game, after we chased them out of Dalmatia, the Jägers fought the last days of the war on the Eastern Front and surrendered to British forces in Austria in 1945).
After the war, thanks to my knowledge of languages and propelled by my writing ambitions, I embarked on a whirlwind career as a newsman and commentator, the youngest correspondent (24)from the Paris Peace Conference in 1946, reporter from all over Europe and Asia, and finally resident correspondent from Borba and Tanjug from the US and the UN from 1953-56. My last year stint included covering the monumental Republican and Democratic Conventions in Chicago and San Francisco.
In November 1956, I decided to stay in the US when Tito’s government refused to condemn the Soviet invasion of Hungary. My country, I reluctantly concluded, will never honor its promise of democracy.
Now, if I may, I’d like to read my memories of some of these events from my book, The Last Exile, which I’ll be glad to discuss and sign afterwards.
Pages ______ to ________
And now, I am open to your questions.
Jasha Levi, 'Exile,' Shares His Story
by Cara Latham
A journalist, soldier, architect, and foundation director are just some of the items on Jasha Levi’s resume.
The former Plainsboro resident, who turned 88 in October, can now add author to the list. Levi’s new book — “The Last Exile: The Tapestry of a Life” — highlights his life’s work. It’s a finely textured story, a journey through the University of Belgrade student protest in pre-war Yugoslavia, to World War II confinement in Italy under Mussolini, to fighting German troops in Dalmatia in the 1940s, battling Soviet attempts to dominate Yugoslavia, reporting from the world and the UN, and finally taking asylum in America in despair over his country ever becoming a democracy.
Levi remembers the relatives who surrounded him when he was young: some who jumped off the roof rather than be killed by Nazis; others murdered in Nazi trucks equipped with gas, designed to make Belgrade the first Jew-free city in Europe — a rehearsal of what was to come.
Levi will discuss and sign copies of his book on Saturday, February 13, at 3 p.m. at the West Windsor branch of the Mercer County Library. The event is just one on his list of speaking engagements in the coming months, including at 7:30 p.m. at the Cranbury Brook Book Club in Plainsboro on Monday, February 22, at 7:30 p.m. and at the Princeton Windrows on Sunday, March 31, at 3 p.m.
The book’s title is a reflection of Levi’s many experiences. “Both my ancestors and myself have gone through a lot of mostly involuntary exiles,” he said.
Levi was born in Sarajevo in 1921, where he lived until World War II. Writing runs in the family for Levi, whose father was a newspaperman, having started his own paper in Sarajevo.
Levi’s path began with his involvement in the University of Belgrade student protests in pre-war Yugoslavia. Because of the war and because of his Jewish background, Levi left home and went to Dalmatia. “From there, I was taken into confinement in Italy,” said Levi of his confinement by Mussolini’s fascists in Asolo, Italy. He spent three years there before going back to Yugoslavia in 1944, where he fought against the Nazis as a member of the First Armored Brigade in Dalmatia.
After the war, Levi became a newspaper correspondent, where he was the youngest reporter covering the 1946 Paris Peace Conference. He served as an editor for the Borba newspaper. He served as a correspondent in various countries throughout Europe and even covered the Korean Peace Talks in 1951 and the United Nations from 1953 through 1956.
“Eventually in 1956, when the Hungarian Revolution broke and my government wasn’t supporting it, I decided not to go back,” he said of his decision to flee to the United States “in despair” that Yugoslavia, his homeland, would never become a Democratic nation.
Since moving to New York in 1956, where he first settled in Queens, he has served as the associate director for the Association for the Blind and later as the executive director of In Touch Networks, a company that provides reading service for people who are blind, visually impaired, and physically disabled.
Levi’s wife, Slava, died in 1986. Three years later he met his current partner, Mary Hunsicker, a woman who was volunteering for him. They moved to Plainsboro so she could be closer to her granddaughters. The couple remained in Plainsboro for 20 years before recently moving to an adult community in Hightstown.
Levi focused on writing his memoirs from 2003 to 2009, even though he had been writing bits and pieces of it over 20 years. “I’ve been a newspaper man for the first half of my life,” he said. “It’s totally different writing a book than writing articles.”
The book is available from BookSurge Publishing www.booksurge.com) or on Amazon.com. To find out more about the book, visit Levi’s website at www.thelastexilebook.com.
Friday, January 22, 2010
Thursday, January 14, 2010 6:50 PM EST
By Matt Chiappardi, Staff Writer
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HIGHTSTOWN — Jasha Levi was covering the United Nations in New York for a Yugoslav news agency when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary to quell a spontaneous revolution in 1956.
As he wrote in his recently published memoir, Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia already had been expelled from Cominform — the Soviet-dominated alliance of Communist parties in Eastern Europe — eight years prior. But Tito did nothing to intervene in the 17-day battle that left more than 3,200 people dead.
During those 17 days, the now 88-year-old made the painful decision he wasn’t going to return to his native Yugoslavia.
”I knew then we would never become a democratic society,” the Ashton Lane resident said during an interview late last week. “It was a sudden decision. I had no money and no job.”
Word of his desertion quickly spread back to Yugoslavia, and Mr. Levi soon found out all of his belongings had been pilfered and distributed to other former co-workers.
The situation made him furious, he said, but the disillusion over his home country’s inaction ran much deeper than knee-jerk emotions.
”I lost my religion,” Mr. Levi said, not referring to his Jewish heritage, but to the belief Leninist Communism would be the ideology that delivers social justice.
”Looking back, this was so naive,” Mr. Levi said. “Between the two wars (World War I and II), young Jews didn’t have a choice. There was anti-Semitism no matter where you went. We had no hope in government. We would look to the Soviet Union as our redeemer.”
Already disappointed in Josef Stalin’s and Nikita Krushchev’s Soviet Union and estranged from his Yugoslav homeland, Mr. Levi only had his monthly pay and what few belongings he’d brought to the United States. He had to find a job and quickly.
Through connections he had made with the U.N.’s International Labor Association, he wound up working as an electrician’s apprentice on some Wall Street construction projects.
That’s only one of the stories that make up Mr. Levi’s fascinating life, which he chronicles in his memoirs, “The Last Exile: Tapestry of a Life.” He self-published the book through Amazon.com and Booksurge.com this past October after having it on the drawing board for more than 50 years.
He begins a local speaking tour about his book at the Princeton Senior Resource Center on Feb. 10.
He also was interned in Treviso, Italy, at the height of World War II and started a school for many of his fellow prisoners’ children. When Benito Mussolini fell in 1943, he and others simply walked out of the village where he was interned.
”When we heard the Allies invaded Italy, we decided to pack and go,” Mr. Levi said. “Nobody stopped us. In moments like that, you are taking you life into your own hands.”
One year later, he was back in Yugoslavia, and after some brief training from the British military, he was building bridges for Allied tanks to cross difficult terrain. Soon after, he was fighting Nazis himself as a member of the Allied forces.
Jump ahead to the 1960s, and Mr. Levi could tell you about how he started working for In Touch Network, a New York City agency that records and broadcasts newspapers for the blind and eventually became the organization’s executive director.
Along the way, he spent some time as a draftsman, then sold toys at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.
As a student in the 1940s in Yugoslavia, he was part of a movement that resisted German occupation after the Nazis attacked Belgrade in 1941. As a reporter, he covered the Paris Peace Conference of 1946 and later the Korean peace talks in 1951.
In fact, finding a way to draw together all these disparate, yet historic, tales was what kept his book in limbo since 1957.
”I was writing it and stopping, then revising it and changing it,” Mr. Levi said. “At one point, I approached it as a fictionalized novel. I tried to approach it as a reporter would. There were so many voices that I had to put together that eventually I gave up.”
Over the years, the friends Mr. Levi would make kept asking him to recount his experiences, and, through some prodding, he started working on the book again a few years ago. By October 2009, it was finally done.
”For some reason, all of my friends were fascinated by the stories I had to tell,” Mr. Levi said. “They said to me, ‘Why don’t you finish writing your book? You’ve been working on it for such a long time.’”
The book opens, not with Mr. Levi’s birth in Sarajevo in 1921, but illustrates how his family has been in that region since the 15th century.
He grew up there, and as a young man, Mr. Levi studied architecture 120 miles away at the University of Belgrade.
”I wanted to study Sanskrit,” he said. “In my heart, I wanted to be a writer or a poet. My father told me, ‘You’ll end up selling frankfurters in Geneva if you become a writer.’”
He was only two years into his studies when the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia.
”We became noncitizens when the Germans entered,” he said. “I had to flee, but I came to be arrested.”
At first, he said, he was forced to cut stones and do roadwork in Sarajevo, but Mr. Levi was lucky enough to be captured before the concentration camps opened.
He was transferred to Italy and held in civilian internment for two years.
”It was a beautiful hamlet of 600 souls where rich tourists would go, but we were not allowed to move outside the confines of the village,” Mr. Levi said.
When he finally returned to Yugoslavia, he landed a series of jobs as a newspaper reporter and editor before he was forced to take refuge in the United States in the mid-1950s.
He moved to New Jersey in 1987, first settling in Plainsboro before moving to the borough in December.
In all this time, through all his experiences, Mr. Levi never had the opportunity to return to Yugoslavia even after the Eastern Bloc fell and most nations in the region turned to democracy.
Yugoslavia ceased to exist in 1992, and the region spent much of the 1990s embroiled in bloody ethnic warfare.
”It’s just incredible,” Mr. Levi said. “It was the destruction of such a beautiful country. It’s still beautiful, but now it’s in pieces.”
Mr. Levi still hasn’t decided if he’ll travel back to Sarajevo, which is now in Bosnia. Belgrade, where he attended the university, is now in Serbia, a different country altogether. And the Balkan wars that followed Yugoslavia’s collapse have left relations among the six nations that resulted from Yugoslavia’s fracture relatively tense.
Mr. Levi speaks with pride about having been born in a culture that once encompassed several religions, languages and even alphabets. And he sounds a bit heartbroken when discussing the result of the breakup.
”In Yugoslavia, sometimes on two sides of mountains, there can be two different languages,” he said. “Serbian is written in Cyrillic, Croatian in Latin. Now they don’t even talk to each other. I suppose the saying we have in Yugoslavia is true. If you don’t have an enemy, your mother will give birth to one.”
Mr. Levi said he has no preconceptions about what he believes readers will take away from his book.
”People my age will certainly remember the times we went through,” he said. “Others can look at it for the politics in there. Some may look at it philosophically.”
Or it may even be something more basic.
”I have a feeling everyone who reads it will have find something of themselves in it.”
Friday, January 8, 2010
ON THE CHRISTMAS BOMBER
He knew he can do better than his father.
I did, too.
I was Jewish.
He was Moslem.
I know where he is coming from as if he were myself.
His family’s well-being was an affront to the poverty of multitudes. The unjust world must be destroyed and he will be part of the struggle.
Young and searching for meaning of life,
Critical of hypocrisy and corruption in society,
Determined to make a difference,
Living on two parallel and totally separate tracks. One is in the open, guided by his hormones and physical self-awareness, and the other secret, known only to him and a special group of brothers in clandestine quest to change the world.
Fighting the demon of non-manly fear inside him, he forces himself to face sacrifice: arrest, torture, even the unthinkable.
Poetic thought of death is the ultimate romance, too.
The bigger the obstacles, the bigger his determination.
Jesus was a rebel against society of philistines and so is he.
Mohammed preached a just and pure world and so does he.
The quest is sacred and it is not for sale.
The Jewish youth was forced to cry out and once thought that it can conquer the oppression by assassinating hostile politicians.
The Muslim world is being heard because it believes that their oppressors are abroad.
A shoe bomber or an underwear bomber, even the 9/11 bombers - they are all just a nano-flash of impotent rage.
But are we real enemies of each other or just humans following a similar ethos but on different paths?
I don’t know, but I posit that the West will not win by ignoring and even tolerating the conditions which breed the terrorists in the Muslim world. I know it isn’t because of the Jews who have been scapegoated for ever and for everything.
Terrorists can cause havoc individually or in small groups of suicides, but they are in reality small fry, weak and impotent. Instead of getting together en masse to change their own oppressive regimes, as Western youth has done in many a revolution, they resort to their cabals of individual kamikazes. They act big, but in effect only annoy the real or perceived backers of these regimes by acts of individual, self-destructing terror in the West.
My own small and by its very nature anecdotal experience makes me say that we are trying to solve the problem the wrong way - by throwing our money at it, thinking that gold can buy out inconvenient beliefs.
When, after a convulsing and painful decision to abandon the political religion of my youth, I decided not to return to Yugoslavia, it wasn’t because I was attracted by what I saw in the West, but because Tito crushed my ideals by reneging on his promise of democracy.
We had rallied around him in 1948 when he made clear to Stalin that the Yugoslavs will put up a fight if the Soviets try to invade. But now (in 1956) he was refusing to support the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet invasion of Budapest.
I stayed in New York, in need of money, job, dignity.
Along came a Yugoslav representing the CIA. It happens that the man was a slimy individual to whom I took an instant dislike. But to make things worse, he offered to pay me if I agreed to follow a cockamamie political scheme, which would put me to the left of Tito and so, presumably, start a contest for his demise not seemingly of Western origin.
I flatly rejected him and explained this refusal to cooperate to another CIA man, American, well educated, who tried to understand what I stood for, which at the time was even for me hard to find out. I knew only what I was against.
In our many meetings and discussions, his questions boiled down to how I think the US can best counter the Soviet Union? What was my assessment of the East-West conflict?
I remember telling him that the US can not win by buying people.
“Look at me,” I said, “I jumped ship out of my free will, because of ideas in my head, and I am being invited to become a stooge on a payroll”!
The decision not to return home was on impulse, sudden, a decision for which I had not prepared. It came out of my heart. I had no money, no job, just the dignity of doing what was right.
The offer to now buy me seemed only natural to the man the CIA hired to do its Yugoslav thinking. It was utterly offensive to me.
My best advice to the good CIA cop was to compare the Kremlin with the Vatican, both with massive following and unyielding dogmas. People find solace in certainty, I said, in assurances that their dogma is the Right Way. The belief makes the pain of living recede into the background. It is the psychology of mass behavior.
Attract people with the American ideals, I suggested. Don’t turn away people like Sukarno of Indonesia, who grew up on the milk of the Declaration of Independence, but became an inconvenience for the State Department. Or Lumumba, who looked at American struggle for independence as a model for his Congo and meant it.
Why does Washington go around deposing leaders who would be the Washingtons of their countries, liberators of their people?
Why not try living up to the American ideals by deeds, not empty words. Lead by example if still true to them, still remember how your country came about to be.
The Church has abandoned the teaching of Jesus, and gluttony is only the smallest of its sins. The political West promotes idols that reside not among the Founding Fathers but in Wall Street. What is one to expect?
But back to Jews and Moslems, East and West, real or imagined enemies.
So many years later, I have no answers.
The world finally gave the Jews a country to shut them up, but the interests of the new state is colliding with those of its neighbors.
What is the West end up doing about the false prophets of Islam? Try this: the corrupt regimes of the Moslem world must go before the storm dies down.
Until then, there will be young people doing stupid heroics.