HIGHTSTOWN: Yugoslav exile spins historical tapestry with memoir
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.”