My father’s mother had six sons. The oldest, Mile, died as a teen-ager of tuberculosis exacerbated by malnutrition during the world wide depression of the nineteen-thirties.
Alex, a royalist, was tortured and killed by partisans after he laid down his weapons at the funeral of a communist kinsman, during the Second World War.
The third son, Micha, my grandmother’s favorite, a colonel in the Yugoslav army lost his nerve in the notorious Banyitsa prison after the Germans could no longer afford to keep prisoner of war camps open for our soldiers. He spent the rest of his life self-medicating with prodigious amounts of alcohol and work, hard enough to maintain two families apart from his legitimate one.
The fourth son, Zhika, was born with his eyes wide open and weighing twelve pounds. During the war Zhika was taken off the road to fight on the Royalist side and only deserted after he was forced to shoot a captured Partisan woman. She wanted him to do it. She knew what would happen to her if he didn’t. He was recaptured by the reds and put in Banjitsa where he was saved from execution by the communist general, Zhivanchevich, who recognized him as the brother of his son’s best friend.
That friend was my father, Boshko, the youngest. Between Zhika and Boshko was Sreten who was taken into forced labor in Germany at the age of thirteen and made his way to America after the war.
I loved my uncles very much. They were brilliant, hilarious, affectionate, and great cooks which probably contributed to their appeal. It was only later that I realized how spectacularly handsome they were. Looking back on photos that were taken of them as young men, I can say that they put the likes of Paul Newman and Errol Flynn to shame.
But this story is about Zhika. They called him the genius and although the war had interrupted his formal education he not only read every book my father brought home from school, but exhibited a singular facility for resolving difficult solutions, in an unusually ingenious manner.
When he returned from the war, his clothing in shreds and with no opportunity to buy others, he realized he was missing out on the great business opportunities going down on the gray and black markets. He brooded for two days before he hit on the solution and, seizing an army blanket, proceeded to cut and sew a suit on my grandmother’s Singer sewing machine. The trousers were a bit short, but he got his chance and many more. Years afterward he owned one of the most successful agricultural export companies in Belgrade.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
In Old Yugoslavia, the gypsies or Roma as they prefer to be called, followed traditional occupations such as horse trading, black smithing, fixing pots and sharpening knives and, of course, playing music. The women supplemented the family income by house-cleaning, fortune telling and begging. All in all, they got along and were free to pursue the life that they loved, that of the open road.
However, there was one tribe, the Chergashi, whom everybody feared. The reason for that was that they stole children for the express purpose of setting them to begging. The unfortunate children would be maimed or blinded to evoke public sympathy and often their tongues would be cut out so that they could never tell their true story.
But people were prudent and would keep their children indoors whenever the Chergashi would pass.
My grandmother, once a rich man’s daughter had sold her family farm and was living in the town of Arandjelovac [Archangel] where she ran a dress making concern and later an inn.
On the day in question, her husband was sleeping off a hangover, one of many, mostly continuous, acquired after the First World War. We didn’t know what post-traumatic stress disorder was then or how people coped by self-medicating but since a third of all of our men were killed in that terrible war, he must have had a profound longing to obliterate his pain.
Grandmother, like all of the townspeople, had heard by word of mouth that the Chergashi would be passing through that day. She locked her children inside the house and after giving them dire warnings went off to attend to business. When she returned the smaller children informed her that Zhika had slipped through an open window and run off. Just at that moment her cousin arrived for a visit on what must have been one of the first racing motorbikes in Yugoslavia and gave chase, catching up to the Chergashi many miles down the road. After the usual threats failed, bribes were exchanged, my uncle, hidden in the caravan, was returned home.
My grandmother, on the edge of reason, delighted to see that her son was still intact, proceeded to beat the tar out of him with a mixture of relief and exasperation. Afterward, looking for revenge, Zhika pulled down his short pants and sat in a cauldron of stew that she had left to cool, thus ruining the meal.
My mother never liked stories like that. She was the kind of person who brought stray animals and stray people home. She liked to give the gypsies as much business as she could. Radha the Gypsy was her cleaning woman and came by for fortune telling and Turkish coffee whenever she was in town.
One day as Radha was washing the windows, my mother slipped off her diamond ring while helping out and left it on the ledge. Interrupted by the telephone, she walked out of the room. I saw Radha snatch the ring up and tuck it into a leather pouch which hung under her many colored skirts. She gave me a sharp look, and I knew that she would probably turn me into a toad if I snitched, so I said nothing then nor when my father began raging that evening. My mother defended Radha as long as she could, and then she said, ‘She’s a poor gypsy woman, if she didn’t steal how else would she be able to feed her children?’