Eva's Choice

Eva Panic-Nahir, a Yugoslav communist-turned-kibbutznik, chose to defend her husband's good name and be imprisoned under inhuman conditions instead of caring for her young daughter. Now, with a film about her life due to be screened locally, Panic explains why she has no regrets.

Vered Levy-Barzilai
Vered Levy-Barzilai

"Sign," the officer told Eva. "Your husband, Rade Panic, was a Russian spy, a Stalinist, a traitor, an enemy of the people. That is what the document states. Sign immediately!" Eva Panic (pronounced "Punitsh") couldn't decide which was most painful to hear: the description of her husband as a traitor, or the reference to him in the past tense. Only a few minutes earlier she was informed that Rade, whom she loved with all her soul, had hanged himself in prison. The news threw her into a state of shock. She had hardly begun to grasp his death, and now he was being called a traitor and an enemy of the people. She felt herself growing numb.

None of that mattered to the irascible Yugoslav police officers. "Either you sign now," one said, "or we will put you in prison." She mustered the will to shake her head: She would not sign. "You have a 6-year old daughter, right? Tiana. Once you sign you will be free. You will receive the fine pension of your traitor husband and you will be able to raise your daughter. If not, you will be thrown into jail and she will be thrown into the street."

Eva replied: "My Rade was not a traitor. That is a lie. I will not sign anything."

Half a century has gone by since that day on which Eva made her choice. Despite the ordeals she endured because of the decision - the physical torture she underwent in prison, the mental anguish due to the loss of her daughter's love, for Tiana did not forgive her mother for abandoning her - Eva Panic has no regrets. At the age of 85, speaking in a steady, confident tone of voice, Panic, who lives on Kibbutz Sha'ar Ha'amakim, says, "I would make the same decision today. I had to remain loyal to him. There was no other option. It would have been better to die than to say that Rade was a traitor."

`Well-padded' childhood

In September the cinematheques of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa will screen the documentary film "Eva," which tells the incredible story of Eva Panic-Nahir (see box). This little-big woman - who is 1.5 meters tall and weighs 42 kilograms - has lived in Israel for decades in anonymity. She was born in 1918 to the Kelemen family from Thakovec, Yugoslavia. Her father, Bela, was an affluent textile merchant; her mother, Emma, an accountant, managed the financial side of the family business.

They lived in a huge villa and Eva's childhood was padded with private teachers, governesses and servants. At the age of six she traveled to Venice with the family on vacation. Her parents were diligent about the education of Eva and her two sisters, Klari and Suzanna. Every evening Eva's mother read her a story in a different language; she speaks Serbian, Hungarian, German, English and Hebrew.

Eva did not miss any premiere of the Bolshoi in Budapest or Vienna. Her parents took her to the theater, to museums and on outings. She was a beautiful, educated and cultivated girl. Yet incipient signs of her singular character were apparent even then. She started to smoke at the age of 15. She was powerfully drawn to the activity of Zionist youth in her town. And whenever information about injustice done to the weak penetrated the wall of aristocratic protection around her, she became angry.

At the age of 17, at a ball marking the end of the school year, Eva met the man who would change her life. She was wearing an elegant light-blue dress and, as usual, smoked a cigarette. One of the officers from a cavalry unit at the ball could not take his eyes off her. He asked her to dance. Afterward they sat and talked the whole night. He told her about the poverty in the village where he was born, about his parents who could not feed or educate their children. To avoid a life of ignorance and illiteracy, he had enrolled in a military academy, where he would get an education.

He then explained to her that he had been very fortunate to be born poor, into a family like that, because only people like him were destined to change the world. He enthusiastically shared with her his communist vision, the dream of the socialist revolution that had to be fomented, in which they would take from the rich and give to the poor and everyone would live in a world radiant with beauty, purity, love and equality between people. Eva was entranced.

"I had never heard anything like that before," she recalls. "He knew so much. I wanted to hear more. It was like meeting the other half of my soul. Things that I knew inside, that I felt, but had never spoken: the same thoughts, the same feelings. It was almost dawn when I got home. Mother had been worried. I told her, `Mother, tonight I met my man.' With some consternation, she asked, `What did you find in him?' I replied, `Oh, mother, he is so proud of his poverty.'"

This was not quite the suitor her parents had in mind for her, but her mother did not hesitate to support her choice. For five years she helped Eva hide her secret love from her father. She did not tell him until she was 22: He almost had a fit when he heard that Rade was a Christian Serb. "Have you lost your mind?" he fulminated. "You're bringing me a Serb peasant? He will end up beating you!" Eva's father was a racist, she explains - "a snob, an Austro-Hungarian. He couldn't abide the thought of a poor Serb in his house with his daughter." Her sisters, too, were appalled and Klari's husband offered Rade 50,000 dinars if he would leave Eva, to which he replied: "She is my love and she will be my wife. She is not some heifer that one buys or sells."

They were married in a Belgrade church on the eve of the Second World War. "Maybe it was thanks to this that I survived the war and the Nazis," she says. "The people in the village knew that I was Eva Panic, Rade's wife, and that we were married in the church. No one imagined I was Jewish."

The war

The newlyweds lived in a small apartment in Belgrade. When the Nazis threatened to attack Yugoslavia, they moved to Rade's village. There, Eva had to adapt herself to the local customs. She lived like a downtrodden servant and said nothing. Nor did she mention that she and Rade's family subsisted thanks only to the money her father sent her every month, which she gave them.

"I played the game to the end," she says. "Rade looked into my eyes and I looked into his, and the rest didn't matter. I was ready to do any hard labor. Nothing was too hard for me, as long as I could go on loving him and be by his side. He told me that I brought sunshine and light into his life."

Shortly after the German occupation, in the summer of 1941, Josip Tito, the leader of the Communist Party in the underground, launched a struggle against the Nazis. Eva and Rade joined Tito's partisans. Because of Rade's military background, he was sent to join the Cetniks, the Serb partisans led by Draza Mihailovic, who remained loyal to the Yugoslav government in exile. Tito's group, apprehensive that the right-wing Mihailovic would collaborate with the Nazis against the communists, wanted firsthand information about his intentions from a reliable source.

Eva and Rade moved to a village near Varvarin. Their home was a haven and a hiding place for people who were wanted by the Germans. While Rade was busy spying on the Cetniks at their headquarters, Eva operated as an agent in the service of Tito's partisans, conveying money and arms, helping to falsify documents and providing accommodation for people on the run.

In 1943, Eva and Rade Panic, equipped with false papers, returned to Belgrade as a pair of Serb refugees. In the heart of the occupied city, at constant risk, they continued working with other members of the communist underground to save hundreds of people who were to be sent to concentration camps. However, Eva was unable to save her parents: They perished in Auschwitz in 1944. At the end of the war, Eva relates, she met with Tito's deputy, Moshe Pijade, who was Jewish, to report on their underground activity in Belgrade. "Pijade seemed to be in trance," she says. "During the war, people knew a little about what we were doing, but not everything. He didn't know that we saved 1,500 Serbs who were going to be sent to concentration camps."

As a sign of gratitude for Rade's contribution to the struggle against the Nazis, Pijade obtained a senior commission for him in the interior ministry's cavalry battalion.

Eva and Rade remained in Belgrade after the liberation. Their daughter, Tiana, was born and they were happy. Their communist vision took shape before their eyes. Like many in Yugoslavia, they admired Tito. They naturally became part of the new ruling class.

"We had the best of everything. There was a warehouse with things no one else had then," Eva says. "We used to collect everything and distribute it to poor families. We left ourselves the minimum. Rade said we had each other. That was enough."

Beneath the surface, power struggles raged. In 1948, an open rift occurred between Stalin and Tito. Stalin feared that Tito was trying to undermine the Soviet Union's exclusive standing as leader of the communist movement. Tito's attempt to create a federation of all communist states in the Balkan region, contrary to the policy of the Soviet Union, infuriated Stalin. The Soviet ruler's attempt to subordinate the Yugoslav economy to that of the Soviet Union outraged Tito.

Eva and Rade Panic heard rumors about friends who were allegedly supporters of Stalin. It was not long before an atmosphere of paranoia developed. However, Eva and Rade, both blindly loyal to Tito, felt no fear. "We felt whole, protected," Eva recalls. "Stalinists? What a joke. On the contrary: I remember saying to Rade, `I believe in pure, unadulterated communism. If Stalin is doing the things the world is now hearing about, he is a fascist. Only Tito is our leader.' We were so naive."

A black day

On October 31, 1951, things fell apart. Rade Panic was summoned for a talk with an army general. He did not return home. For three days and three nights she looked for him. On the morning of October 17, Eva sent Tiana to school and told her to go from there to the home of Eva's best friend. She was just about to leave the house when two men knocked at the door. They told her that Rade had been arrested and had tried to kill himself; they said they were taking her to the city's military hospital.

She accompanied them, but as soon as they stepped outside they shoved her into a car and took her to a different place. There, within minutes, she learned that Rade was dead, having hanged himself in prison after three days in detention, and that he had killed himself because he was accused of betraying the Tito regime. She was told to sign a confession stating that her husband was a traitor who had spied for Stalin's Russia against Tito. She refused adamantly and was immediately taken to the central prison of Belgrade.

After 10 days in solitary confinement, Eva tried to commit suicide but was saved by the warders. She was then incarcerated in the notorious women's prison Goli Otok ("the naked island") in the Adriatic Sea. Six-year-old Tiana waited in vain for her mother to return. In one week she lost both her father and her mother and had no idea what happened to them. The little girl was eventually sent her to her aunt, Eva's older sister Klari. Klari's husband and son had both perished in Auschwitz, and she was living with a Jew who had lost his wife and little girl in Auschwitz. They were both distraught with grief. This was the home to which Tiana was sent. There was little love between the two sisters, and Klari had a lengthy account to settle with Eva; she vented all the resentment and rage she had stored up on the little girl. Tiana was maltreated and locked in the basement if she disobeyed her aunt. Two years later, she was sent to an orphanage.

Klari was a "wretched woman," Eva observes, "and it didn't start when they killed her son. Even when we were young girls she was a witch. She didn't know the meaning of love."

Tiana also suffered in school. The rumor about the circumstances of her father's death spread, and she became known as "the daughter of the traitor Rade." Wherever she went there was someone who knew, who had heard. She lacked both the information and the means to cope with and rebuff the terrible accusation. Tiana lived in her own hell, and Eva in hers. The island prison was the destination of hundreds of women who were suspected by the Tito regime of expressing support for Stalin.

"We did forced labor," Eva says. "Every day I had to carry large rocks to the top of a hill, 12 hours a day. They gave us bromide to drink, and I don't know what else. None of the women there had a period anymore, so we would work nonstop. Afterward, at night, the prisoners who were about to be discharged would sit above and piss and shit on us. The principle was that you had to undergo a `change.' To say that you were ready to abuse other prisoners, to hurt them. Piss on them. Spit on them. If you did that, it was a sign that you were loyal to Tito. That was the way to return to a normal life and be released.

"Anyone who did not agree would go up the hill time and again, and would not be released. I didn't agree. So I went up and came down again. My whole body was covered with sores and my legs swelled up like balloons. I would think only about Tiana: She is waiting for me on the top of the hill and I have to get to her. And then, Tiana is waiting for me below, and I have to get to her. That was what gave me the strength to lug the rocks."

But Tiana really was waiting for you and needed you, in your sister's home?

Eva: "Yes, but what could I do?"

You could have accepted their terms, signed the document. You would have saved your daughter. Then you could have launched a campaign to clear Rade's name.

"No. Under no circumstances. I would have preferred to die."

You had a dead husband, whose honor and memory had been violated, but also a living daughter who lost her father and needed you more than ever.

"That is so. But if I had signed that Rade was a traitor, I would no longer have had a life. I would not have been able to look at myself in the mirror. That was all our love, all our truth, all our ideology. How could I have looked Tiana in the eyes? She would never have forgiven me."

Did you think that she would forgive you for leaving her alone at the age of six?

"Yes. I thought she would understand me. And I knew she would not die, that someone would look after her."

So your love and loyalty to Rade were above all else?

"Yes. I loved him more than I loved her. That is the truth. He was my whole life. That is what I said in the film. It was hard for Tiana to hear that. But I will not lie to make things sound nicer. He was the whole point of my life. It was my decision. I do not regret it. When they took him from me, they took everything. Tiana was always angry and didn't understand it. She did not forgive me. She said I ruined her life, that it was not a normal decision, that a mother could not behave like that. But today she talks differently. Today, after we did the film together, and she saw what my life was like, she understands. Today she accepts it. She has great esteem for what I did. Ask Tiana."

Tiana's choice

Tiana, now 58, is a successful artist and designer of gold jewelry in Dallas, Texas. Twice divorced, she has two children, Jason, 29, and Emily, 28. She says today that she understands her mother's decision but cannot justify it. "In the film my mother and I opened up and talked for the first time, we put everything on the table. Despite everything I went through, I never went for psychological treatment," she relates, during a conversation from Dallas. "I never talked about it to anyone. The interaction that developed during the filming created a great change. A weight was lifted from my heart. After I went with her to all those places and I saw what her life was like, I understood that she had some sort of obsessive love, a distorted perception of reality, an ideal that was above all else. Tito and communism were sacred, like a religion. Can you argue with people who are religious? They were willing to die for that. And my father really did die for it. I see through the eyes of the person she then was that this was her choice."

Asked what she thinks about the fact that her mother says she would do the same thing again today, after everything that happened, Tiana has trouble answering. "Yes, that is true," she says. "But in the film, for the first time she admitted that her choice destroyed my life."

When reminded that her mother did not ask for her forgiveness, nor did she have any regrets, Tiana is momentarily unable to go on, her voice choking, and then says, "Yes, well, that's her. In my eyes, her participation in the film is her way of asking my forgiveness. And I forgive her. After she got out of prison I was also trapped in a kind of illusion, a distortion, as though she was terribly weak and I had to save her all the time. Suddenly I realized what a strong woman she is, how brave she was in certain senses. Today I feel a great deal of compassion for that obsession of hers, which destroyed our lives. But I no longer feel anger. I realize that some things were far more important for her than I was. Now we have gone through a process of healing and forgiveness, and I am no longer hurt."

After the release

The authorities decided to close Goli Otok when Tiana was 10. After four years in prison, Eva was abruptly released and came to the orphanage to take Tiana home. Tiana had dreamed of getting her mother back but saw a sick, broken woman who suffered from nightmares and psychotic delusions. Eva gathered a few of the women from the prison around her. They met every day and relived their terrible shared past and their horrific experiences, over and over.

From morning to night Eva Panic never stopped crying. She mourned for Rade and wanted only to die. She was incapable of functioning as a mother. "I was mentally ill," she recalls, "in a state of depression. We had a friend who was a psychiatrist ... [who] said I should come to the hospital where he worked in and he would anaesthetize me for three weeks as an experiment, which might help. He did and I got up a new person. I wasn't yet happy, but I came out of the pathological depression."

When she turned 18, Tiana fled as far as she could from her home - to Israel. She came as a volunteer to a kibbutz of former Yugoslav Jews, Sha'ar Ha'amakim, southeast of Haifa, where she fell in love with a young kibbutz member and married him. The two of them left the kibbutz and moved to Jerusalem, but they separated shortly afterward. Eva followed her daughter to Israel, to be with her during the crisis. During the visit she met Moshe Nahir, a widower from Sha'ar Ha'amakim, who made her a very unromantic proposal.

Eva: "What he said was, `I have a boy of 13 who has no mother. You have Tiana, with her problems, and you are living abroad. Come to the kibbutz, raise my son and together we will help Tiana. Marry me.' I thought he must be crazy. But the kibbutz was like magic for me, a small island of socialism. I told him that for Tiana's sake I would accept his proposal, but added: `I want you to know that in my life I have loved one man. No more. His name is Rade. His picture will be on the wall of our house and I will tell you about him and about our love every night, and about everything that happened to me in Goli Otok. And I cry a lot.' `Fine,' he said, `there will also be a picture of my late wife in the bedroom. I miss her a lot, too. And I will tell you about her.' We reached an agreement. And so it was."

She lived with him for 35 years. He fell ill in the last years of his life and Eva looked after him with consummate devotion, never leaving his bedside until he died, six years ago. "Moshe was an extraordinary, special person," she says. "He was good-hearted and everyone loved him. He gave me life back." She sees herself as the second mother of his children and the grandmother of his grandchildren, and they reciprocate her love.

Peace activist

Eva was 48 when she joined the kibbutz. The members couldn't figure her out. Physically diminutive, she was nevertheless a woman of the world and highly opinionated, with something to say about every possible subject. Elegant, well groomed, her fingernails painted red, always with lipstick. She jogged around the swimming pool and then assaulted the water with passion for her daily swim (as she still does). She insisted on her right to attend every concert of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Haifa. And even before people got to know her, she was fighting for the rights of those she saw as weak or unable to cope with their surroundings.

Moshe Nahir was the kibbutz treasurer and coordinator. The women who managed the dining room decided immediately that Eva would clean the drainage pipe of the dining room. Nahir was outraged and told her she didn't have to do that, it was scandalous. Eva replied, "Why not? It's fun. Every day I will clean and scrub, and in the afternoon I will put on new nail polish. Let them bust a gut."

She did the work for six months. In time she won the hearts of the members and they grew fond of her. They discovered that she was far from being pampered and that along with being tough, she had a warm, expansive heart and was very sensitive. She seemed to be ageless, effusing the vitality of a child. Her macabre sense of humor, her natural charisma and stunning intelligence made her extremely popular. She is also a superb cook, and the kibbutz liked what she served; for years she was the kibbutz nutritionist and then managed the members' clubhouse.

"All the youngsters come there. People come to spill their heart to Eva. I like young people, I listened to their troubles and I gave them advice from my experience in life. I always wanted to listen to what each of them had to say. I like people. I have angina pectoris, so my heart is expanded. Look, I have a ventilator. The doctor told me, `Eva, your heart is now really big, you're 85 already, so be careful.' I told him, `Doctor, I know. My heart was always big, because I embrace the whole world."

She immediately became active in politics in Israel, joining the Communist Party. And she remains active. For years she joined the weekly vigils of Women in Black, who demonstrated against the occupation at Jalameh checkpoint on the 1967 Green Line, four kilometers north of Jenin.

"I am a proud Jewish woman who loves Israel," she says. "But there has to be a state for all its citizens here, not just for Jews. And I am ashamed to be part of an occupying nation. I always said that. [The writer] David Grossman is a good friend of mine, he knows my views, you can ask him. Mira Magen [another writer], too. There has to be equality between people and it doesn't matter where you came from. The only thing that matters is that you are a human being. Every human being has that right."

The naked truth

In 1989, the well-known Yugoslav writer Danilo Kis visited Israel. His escort during the visit was the journalist Raul Teitelbaum, a friend of Eva's, and he introduced them. Kis was smitten. He told Eva he wanted to write a book about her life and sat with her for hours, recording her. After his return to Yugoslavia he fell ill with cancer and asked Teitelbaum to continue recording Eva, on video. Along with her, the recollections of Zeni Loebl, a woman who was with Eva on the island prison, were also filmed.

Kis died before the film "A Naked Life," directed by Aleksandar Mandic, was screened in Belgrade, in 1990. A few local channels broadcast four hours of conversations with Eva Panic and Zeni Loebl. The film became a major topic of discussion. It was the first direct testimony about the conditions in Tito's horrific Goli Otok prison.

Eva took advantage of the opportunity to clear the name of her beloved husband. She revealed the name of the officer in the Yugoslav secret service who falsely incriminated about 100 members of the Communist Party, among them Rade Panic, as agents of the Soviet Union. It later emerged that the authorities had discovered the information while Tito was still alive, and the informant, Colonel Nikitovic, who is no longer alive, was sentenced to 18 years in prison, though he served only about 10. Eva Panic discovered this when she visited Belgrade some years later and demanded to see Rade's interior ministry file. The whole story was spelled out there.

The next writer to be smitten was David Grossman. A good friend of Eva's translated Grossman's "Yellow Wind," a nonfiction work about the occupation, into Serbian. Grossman visited her on the kibbutz and, like Kis, sat with her for hours and wrote down what she said as though in a hypnotic state.

"It's a story I never heard the likes of," Grossman says. "And she is a woman with a broad, sharp view of things and an extraordinary life experience. Her determination and her absolute criteria impressed me deeply. I sat with her for almost 24 hours without a break: She spoke and I wrote. She has led a very unusual life. Her choice is like the choices made by characters in Greek tragedies.

"She is a woman of multiple contradictions. With all her toughness and her absolute principles, she is soft and generous and brimming with emotion. She is open. She has relations with a great many people, of all ages. She has an absolute, uncompromising integrity of self that is devoid of any self-pity. She is 85, but there is a total freshness about the way she views her surroundings and herself. She is a larger than life figure. but not divorced from life. She is part of everything. She lives her life with intensity and feeling."

At the same time, Grossman notes that there are parts of her story that he finds hard to digest: "I find it difficult to accept the choice she made between the living Tiana and her loyalty to the dead Rade. I would have chosen differently. She knows that. But Eva is Eva. She follows her standards absolutely. And both she and Tiana paid the full price for that."

The change

Even though she loved only one man in her life, as she says, Moshe Nahir's death was a shattering event for her. She became depressed again, and spoke constantly about her desire to die. The nightmares of the past returned to haunt her. The bitter memories engulfed her again and she began to lose her grip on reality. Her great fear is that she will fall ill and become a burden to her family or to the society.

"My sister Klari was at a concert, well dressed, made up, like a lady. Afterward they went to eat. She felt a bit poorly and said, `I think I had too much to eat.' Then, boom, she keeled over and died. That's the way to die. That's how I want to go."

The suggestion of her "grandson," Avner Faingulerent, to make a film about her and Tiana was propitious. Otherwise, she might have surrendered to the memories. Intuitively, Eva felt that this was a one-time opportunity for her, and she grabbed at it with both hands. She also knows why: "I got my daughter back. I am happier than I have been for many years. Now, for my 85th birthday, Tiana is taking me for a trip to Europe to see my best friends. Now that we are together, it's not like it used to be. It's fun."

Tiana, too, is happy: "Something wonderful happened to us, and for that we have to say thank you to Avner and to Makabit [Abramson], who made the film. After the film the relationship became true, open and warm. Today she sees me, too, and not only herself. And I see her, separately. The mountain that stood between us has disappeared. The tension is gone. I am free with her. And I am not obliged to save her. There is a mother and there is a daughter. I want her to feel my love, and for the first time I am not paying a price for that."

Don't you have the feeling of having missed something, because the change came so late?

Tiana: "That's what happened and that's the way it is. Every minute now contrasts with bad years in the past. I only pray that she will stay the way she is, that she will be healthy and strong, and that we will be able to spend many more years together."

Eva: "We went through a lot of pain in our lives. Where do I get my strength? My strength is love. Rade loved me so much. And Moshe loved me so much. So I say, love is something on which a person can live for many years."n

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