MISSION TO SMEDEREVO

Of all the people I knew during the two years I worked in
the Wentorf Refugee Resettlement Center near Hamburg,
Germany, the one who stands out most in my memory was Mateo
Matejic. Although more than half a century has gone by since we
were together, I still think of him as a close friend.

Mateo was among the many who fled Yugoslavia when
Communist forces under Marshall Tito drove the Nazi occupiers
back into Germany. His home was in the city of Smederevo,
about 50 miles from Belgrade, where he was preparing for the
Serbian Orthodox priesthood. I employed him to teach English in
the YMCAlYWCA I directed, and although he spoke with many
flaws and a heavy accent, his English was good enough to teach
basic phrases to displaced persons from eastern Europe who
spoke none.

I don't know when Mateo met his wife Lubica (pronounced
Loo-bit-sa), who was also from Smederevo, but I remember
sitting with the two of them many evenings in my room, hearing
stories about their life in Serbia before and during the war.
At that time, 1950-51, it was illegal in Yugoslavia to
communicate in any way with people outside of the country.
However, some news was brought out by persons escaping over
the mountains bordering Austria and Italy.

One day Lubica received a message from her younger sister
saying that life in Yugoslavia had become so unbearable that she
was going to kill herself. This worried Mateo and especially
Lubica, who herself had not fully recovered from the mental
stress suffered during the war. Mateo told me, in confidence,
that they had learned about an escape route over the mountains
dividing Yugoslavia and Austria which Lubica's sister could use to
join them in Hamburg. The problem was
getting a message safely to the sister because if the Yugoslav
authorities found out that she was planning to leave the country
she would surely be arrested, and perhaps killed.

At that point I had been working with displaced persons in
Germany for almost two years and was clearly in need of a
vacation. Having heard so much about Yugoslavia, I wanted to
see it first hand so offered to take a message to Lubica's sister if
indeed I could get permission to go there. It seemed worth a try.
To my great surprise, the Yugoslav consulate in Hamburg
promptly issued me a tourist visa. I supposed this was because
Americans had a special status in Europe at that time, having
only five years earlier, with Russia, defeated the German armies
and ended the reign of Hitler's Nazi regime.

With visa in hand, I bought a train ticket to travel from
Hamburg to Belgrade. In 1951 railroads in Germany still bore the
consequences of World War II. Passenger trains going through
the Russian Zone operated only at night, with window blinds
pulled down tightly, the doors sealed shut, and armed Russian
soldiers patrolling the cars for the entire journey. Nevertheless,
the railroads did function and it was possible, with patience, to
travel to most major cities.

Two days and nights after leaving Hamburg our train
arrived at a town on the Austria-Yugoslav border where the
engines were changed, visas checked, passengers interrogated,
and special travel passes issued. I had no problem. A kilometer
or so after crossing the border, the train stopped at a village
where I began to have serious doubts about the wisdom of the
journey I was taking.The train had hardly stopped when people looking like
peasants out of a Checkov novel began pouring into the
passenger coaches. Some carried sacks of potatoes and turnips.
Others had crates of chickens and geese. Still others had baskets
of apples and grapes. Many prodded kids or carried babies
strapped to their backs. The same scene occurred at each
village. With people, animals, and farm produce jamming the
aisles I was afraid to leave my seat, knowing that it would be
taken the minute I got up.

This melee continued until we arrived at the train station in
Belgrade, around dawn the next morning. Overjoyed to be able
to leave the train, I stepped into a scene I shall never forget.
There asleep on the concrete platforms were dozens of people,
covered only by pieces of old army blankets, rags, newspaper, or
their tattered clothes. Some without shoes had burlap sacks tied
around their feet. It was then that I realized the truth of the
news coming out of Yugoslavia about how desperately poor the
country had become.

From the railway station I walked a few blocks to the hotel
to which I had been assigned when I got my visa in Hamburg.
The questions I was asked upon registering and the make-believe
key they gave me made it readily apparent that, as a foreigner, I
would not be unobserved.

After a quick wash-up, I eagerly went out into the street to
get my first look at the capitol city of Yugoslavia. My first
thought was to buy a map which would tell me the location of
notable sites and help me navigate my way around the city. As I
walked along a wide, obviously once elegant boulevard, I
remember being amazed at how little there was available to buy
in the stores. There were a couple of clothing stores with plain,
old-fashioned women's cotton dresses, and a few hand-knit
sweaters. Another store displayed a few crude pots, pans and
wooden spoons. Even the fruit and vegetables in the grocery
shops were uninviting.

In several city blocks I saw no place that looked like it
might sell maps and was beginning to give up on the idea when I
noticed a large book store, which I entered. Lined neatly on
large tables were rows of books, all with covers made of ordinary
brown wrapping paper. The titles were not even printed, but
written by hand.

Since I did not know the Cyrillic alphabet, my browsing was
pointless until I came upon a table of books in German. As I
looked them over, a young female clerk approached and, in
German, asked if she could help me. I said, in German, that I
was a tourist and wanted to buy a map of Belgrade. She replied
that they didn't sell maps. I asked where I might get one, and
she said something I couldn't quite understand. I repeated that I
needed a map. She shrugged her shoulders and walked away.
At that point a woman who had been standing on the other
side of the table observing my unfruitful exchange with the clerk
spoke up, in German, and said: "Felicht I kan zie helfen ......".,
"Perhaps I can help you, the clerk doesn't speak German very
well". Appreciating her diplomacy, I said that I wanted to buy a
map of Belgrade. Half smiling, she said: "We don't have maps
and more". Finally I got the point - in Yugoslavia maps were
"verboten" . I thanked the young woman and said I understood.
Then she said: "But I think you are not German" to which I
replied: "No, I'm an American". Taking me completely by
surprise, she said: "Then why aren't we speaking English?"

That is how I met Nada Rakich, a dignified, intelligent, and
very kind person who became my guide and eventually my
confidant during my entire week in Yugoslavia. Nada was
specializing in English literature at the University of Belgrade and
was happy to have the opportunity to learn "American English".
Initially, not knowing where she stood politically, I told
Nada only that I was a tourist and said nothing about the message
I was taking to Smederevo. However after she revealed that her
father, a former professor, had been banished to a remote village
because of his opposition to Marshall Tito, and it became
apparent that she also was no fan of the dictator, I told her the
real purpose of my being in Yugoslavia.

The day following our meeting, and every morning but one
thereafter, Nada met me at a pre-arranged street corner and
spent the entire day showing me the sights of Belgrade.
We went to the University of Belgrade, a mental hospital,
historical sights, monuments, bridges, parks, and places I'm sure
I have forgotten. I wondered whether it was wise for her to be
seen spending so much time with a foreigner, but she brushed
the thought aside.

The only day we did not meet was the Thursday I traveled
to Smederevo. Not knowing what that day might bring, I insisted
that I go alone. Nada bought me a ticket and escorted me to the
train, making sure that I got a compartment without animals.
All went well on the two hour trip to Smedevo. It went
well, that is, until I and the other passengers stepped off the
train. It had been raining and the dirt streets had turned into a
sea of mud. Although Smederevo was a city of some 50,000
people, there was no station, no platform, no paved streets. It
was impossible to avoid the mud. Once again I had major doubts
about the wisdom of what I was doing there.

My biggest problem was that I spoke no Serbian and had no
idea where to find somebody who spoke German or English. I
had Mateo's mother's name and address written in Cyrillic on a
piece of paper, but there were few street signs and I wouldn't
have been able to read them if there were.

The only thing I could think to do was to walk around and
see what I might find. Across the square from where there once
was a train station (I later learned it had been bombed) I noticed
a building with a flag, which I thought might be a government
office. As I approached I saw that it was a post office.
I went inside, walked up to the only open window, and
asked the man looking through it if he spoke German or English.
Staring at me as if I had come from outer space, he just shook his
head. Then a young man, who in any normal city would have
been taken as a beggar, motioned to me to sit down on a nearby
bench and to wait there. He then ran outside and disappeared. I
did just what I thought he wanted me to do. I sat there and
waited.

In about ten minutes the young fellow came back, followed
by the best dressed man I had seen since I arrived in Yugoslavia.
With no hesitation he walked up to me, extended his hand, and
in the king's English said: "How do you do, my name is Stefan
Jovanovitch, w:hat can I do for you?" Later, he told he was
probably the only person in Smederevo who spoke English. My
relief at meeting this dignified looking gentleman in that mud
hole of a town was immense.

I told Stefan that I had come to Smederevo to visit the
mother of a friend in Germany, and handed him the paper with
her name. He read it then looked at me and said, "Of course I
know Olga Matejic -- your friend must be her son Mateo. I've
known him since he was an alter boy. I'll take you to her place."
As we wound our way through narrow, muddy streets,
Stefan told me he had grown up in Smederevo, studied
economics in London, and returned to Belgrade where he
introduced western style banking. He was president of a
commercial bank until Tito's communists came to power,
nationalized the banks, and ordered him to leave Belgrade.
Naturally, Stefan wanted to know what I was doing working
in Germany. When I told him I was working in refugee camps
with the World's YMCAlYWCA, I could see a rash of emotion
coming over him. He said that as a student he was active in the
YMCA in London and on returning to Belgrade had organized the
first YMCA in Yugoslavia.

I have never experienced anything like the feelings I had at
that moment. Here I was, alone in a strange country, not
knowing the language or even able to read the street signs,
looking for a woman who knew nothing about me, attempting to
surreptitiously deliver a message which, if discovered by the
authorities would almost certainly have gotten me arrested. And
what happens? I meet a man who speaks excellent English, who
I believe to be trustworthy, who knows the woman I am looking
for and where she lives, who knows her son who sent me, and
most improbab!e of all has long ties to the very organization by
which I am employed. It was much too good to believe.
With this last piece of information about Stefan
Jovanovitch's background, I felt it was safe to reveal the real
purpose of my journey to Smederevo. He said he understood,
and cautioned me to give Mateo's mother the envelope with the
clandestine message when I was sure nobody else was watching.
When we arrived at the home of Olga Matejic, Stefan
knocked at the door, which was opened by a gray-haired,
motherly-looking woman. After a few words were exchanged,
we were invited in. More words were spoken in Serbian,
obviously Stefan explaining who I was, which led to the woman
throwing her arms around me, and saying tearfully, with Stefan
translating, "Oh, you know my Mateja. Oh, you know my Mateja.
How is he? Tell me all about him." We were then led to the
small living room, where the stories began. At an appropriate
point I asked Stefan to explain the purpose of the envelope,
which I handed to Mateja's mother.

Within minutes I noticed women and men coming and going
in the house, bringing platters and baskets of food -- grapes,
apples, meats, cheeses, many things I didn't recognize, flowers
and bottles of wine. Olga apologized for the delay in getting the
meal ready, which I thought quite unnecessary since we were
totally unexpected.

It wasn't long until it became evident what the delay was
all about -- they were waiting for the town fiddler to arrive.
Once he had tuned up, the celebration began -- eating and
drinking and singing and dancing, with people continuing to come
and go. Many asked about Mateo and Lubica. The festivities
went on the entire afternoon until I had to leave to catch the
train back to Belgrade. The family asked me to stay, but I didn't
want to raise any suspicions at the hotel over my not returning,
so declined the invitation.

The only thing missing from that memorable occasion was
the young woman who was the cause of it all. Lubica's sister
had gone to a nearby village, so we did not meet. Some months
later, however, after I returned to the United States, I received a
letter from Mateo saying that she had made it out of Yugoslavia
successfully and was living with Lubica and him in Germany.

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During the summers of 1952 and 1953, the chaplain at Penn
State University, Luther Harshbarger, who had arranged for me to
work in Germany, led groups of students on tours of Yugoslavia.
On my recommendation, he engaged Nada Rakich as tour guide.
Luther thought so highly of Nada that he arranged for her to do
graduate work at Penn State, on a scholarship, and sent her a
ticket to fly from Belgrade to New York, with a stop in
Switzerland. When the plane arrived in Zurich, Nada was not on
board. Luther tried to contact her through the U.S. Consulate in
Belgrade, but without success. On his next trip to Yugoslavia he
tried to find Nada, but was unable to do so. Neither Luther nor I
ever heard from her.

Sometime in the late 1950's, Mateo and Lubica emigrated
to Columbus, Ohio, where Mateo began his career as a Serbian
Orthodox priest.