Saturday, February 27, 2010

Adresses to Meet-the-author audiences

Basic draft for addressing book signing audiences--with appropriate text modifications and different selection of chapters for reading--at the Cranbury Brook Book Club, Princeton Senior Center, Princeton Public Library, the Peretz Community, Princeton Windrows, and Seabrook. This one was read at the Princeton Senior Resource Center March 3rd, 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.

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