A Child’s Life

A chance letter from a cinema researcher in Bosnia sent journalist Uri Blau on a journey to learn more about the history of his family who fled war-torn Eastern Europe. He discovered how his family survived the Nazis, and found out previously unknown details about the childhood of his father, who built a new life for himself in Israel without looking back.

Dear Sirs,

For some time I have been writing a dissertation ... entitled ‘Cinema in Banja Luka before 1945.’ Few know that the first owners of the movie houses in Banja Luka were Jews, among them Moritz Gottlieb, who opened the first permanent cinema in the city on May 11, 1911.


In the course of researching his biographical information, I found that Moritz arrived in Banja Luka around 1903 and is last mentioned as being there in 1928, when he closed his silversmith shop and moved to Zagreb with his family. He and his wife Ernestina had three daughters: Matilda, Kamila and Lidija. Moritz Gottlieb died under strange circumstances ‏(he was almost certainly murdered‏) on May 21, 1941 in Zagreb. Ernestina, Kamila and Lidija perished in the Holocaust in 1942 ... I learned that the eldest daughter, Matilda, survived the Holocaust and in 1955 was living in Israel in Beit Zayit [a suburb of Jerusalem] and that her surname is Blau.

Mrs. Julia Kosh of the Zagreb Jewish community gave me information that Matilda Blau had a son, Pavel ‏(Pavao‏) , who was born after 1930. After World War II, he immigrated to Israel with his mother. He may still be alive ...

I am asking you to help me get in touch by telephone or email with the descendants of Mrs. Matilda Blau, perhaps with Pavel, who may still be living and would be about 80. I expect that there are descendants living in Beit Zayit or somewhere in Israel. Any photographs of Moritz Gottlieb and his family, and information about his living descendants, would be very important for the monograph I am working on.

With gratitude, in advance,

Goran Dujakovic

Our journey into the past, into the fractured land that was once Yugoslavia before it split into seven different republics, began with this letter, which my family received a year ago.

Goran Dujakovic, a doctoral student and lecturer in film studies at Banja Luka University in Bosnia-Herzegovina, had discovered that the first permanent movie house in the city was opened by a man named Moritz Gottlieb. Dujakovic, who was researching the history of cinema in his city, hoped to locate descendants of Gottlieb, who died at the height of World War II.

So he turned to Asher Wollach, a friend from Banja Luka who had immigrated to Israel 15 years earlier. Wollach called an acquaintance of his in Beit Zayit, who had lived there for many years, and was also of Yugoslav background. “It’s a small world,” Wollach said to me. “She remembered that there was a boy named Pavel who changed his name to Dan and then she immediately found him in the phone book.”

And, thus, less than a year ago, almost by happenstance, my father − that very same Pavel who became Dan − discovered an unknown episode of his family history.

It all began almost exactly 100 years ago, on May 11, 1911. Gottlieb, an affluent businessman from Banja Luka − today the capital city of the Republic of Srpska, in Bosnia − opened the Electro Bioscope, the city’s first movie house, with 200 seats. Silent movies were screened there, in the building on Gospodska Street, the city’s main thoroughfare.

Dujakovic says apparently this was a purely business enterprise unconnected to any artistic aspirations. Three months after the cinema opened, Gottlieb’s silversmith shop was damaged in a fire, and for financial reasons he was forced to sell the cinema and give up his new business venture. In 1928, he and his wife Ernestina and their three daughters, Matilda, Kamila and Lidija, moved to Zagreb, the Croatian capital.

The only memory my father has of his grandfather is based on a single picture from a visit they took to the Zagreb zoo, in April 1940. Pavel, in a white hat and cape, is holding his father’s hand on one side, and on the other, holding that of his grandfather. Two proud and impressive-looking men, in dark suits with bowlers on their heads. In 1941, a year after this picture was taken, Gottlieb died. Dujakovic discovered that he was buried 15 days after his death, and the theory is that he was either murdered or committed suicide in connection with the Croatian fascists’ ‏(the Ustashe‏) rise to power and their actions against Jews and their property.

About a month ago, for the first time in his life, my father visited Banja Luka, the city where his mother and her sisters were born and which they left in hopes of a better future, only to meet a cruel fate. The catalyst for the trip, on which I joined him, were the events organized by Dujakovic to mark the centennial of the cinema’s opening: While in the city, we were introduced at a well-attended event marking the local Gymnasia’s 115th anniversary, and at the annual Rotary dinner in the presence of all the local dignitaries; at City Hall there was a seminar on the history of cinema in the city, in which a lecture was given about the history of the Gottlieb family. And the crowning event was the unveiling of the memorial plaque at the spot where the cinema once stood, by the mayor and my father. All of these events were covered on television and in the local press. My father was unabashed in his excitement when he said he could hardly believe that he was in that place.

But what surprised me the most, even more than the discovery of the cinema built by my great-grandfather, was the fact that someone in this somewhat unknown city chose to investigate our family history, to dare to touch wounds that we ourselves had always avoided. And maybe this is precisely why he was able to investigate, to breach the dam and plunge into a history of exile and escape, refugee-hood and flight, death, wars and questions of identity. All of those are issues that the Serbs, the Croats, the Bosnians and we Israelis are still grappling with to this day.

‘A spoiled child’

“Read this − it’s incredible,” my father, not usually the sentimental type, wrote me in an email to which he attached a scan of the first letter from Dujakovic. For my father, the unexpected missive from Banja Luka triggered a return to the past and an effort to piece together information and, most of all, to be able to tell the family story, however painful.

“All of a sudden I have no problem talking,” he said to me in the middle of the trip − he, a man of few words.

Thus the first time I ever heard my father tell about that period in any detail was just a few months ago, after he received the letter from Dujakovic, in video testimony he gave for a documentation project by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. This was also the first time I ever heard him use the word “trauma” to describe what he and his family went through in those years.

My father was born as Pavel Blau in July 1938 in Zagreb, the only son of Matilda and Rudolf Blau, a middle-class couple. Rudolf worked with his brother Dori in the family shop downtown that sold construction materials; Matilda was a secretary at a Mercedes and BMW car dealership. Matilda’s two younger sisters, Kamila and Lidija, also lived in the city − one was a philosophy student and the other an optician − as did her parents, Moritz Gottlieb, the businessman, and Ernestina, a housewife.

Rudolf and Dori’s two brothers also lived in Zagreb: Samuel, whose occupation is unknown, and Anton, a well-known dentist. The family was registered as part of the city’s Jewish community, but aside from a yearly synagogue visit on Yom Kippur, they lived a totally secular lifestyle.

“According to the stories, I was a very spoiled child,” my father said in his testimony. “They didn’t tell me much, but I remember that I wore glasses from the time I was born because of being cross-eyed, and that’s pretty much the only thing that’s still imprinted in my memory.”

Pavel didn’t have much time to enjoy being spoiled, however: World War II broke out 14 months after his birth and its direct effects on his life were not long in coming. In April 1941, after the Germans and Italians invaded Yugoslavia and decided to establish a Croat puppet state, the Ustashe took over Croatia. From very early on, as part of their war against “foreign elements,” the Ustashe began persecuting Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. The racial laws enacted by the new government resembled the Nuremberg Laws and left the Jews no legal avenue of escape, such as conversion to Christianity. Other laws prohibited Jews from owning property; they were obligated to pay a tax that was supposed to ensure their security, and were forced to wear the telltale yellow patch. At the end of June 1941, the mass arrests of Jews began, and by the end of that year, two-thirds of Croatian Jews had been placed in camps. Most were eventually murdered in the Jasenovac concentration camp. In August 1942, about 5,000 Croatian Jews were sent to Auschwitz; another 2,000 followed in May 1943.

In early 1942, Matilda and Rudolf Blau decided to leave Zagreb. The decision was made at the very last moment, on the advice of Anton, the dentist, who had treated some government officials and warned his family that they had to flee. “I assume that my mother was the main force behind the decision to flee,” my father said. “Nothing had happened to the family yet, her sisters were still with her, her mother was still there. They all decided not to leave, but she decided they had to escape.”

His uncle Dori and his wife and daughter also left. “I’ve thought about it a lot, why it was the two families with a child that left, and apparently that was just it − it was the concern for the children that gave them the incentive to leave,” said my father.

Escape from Zagreb

My grandmother Matilda died in 1985. I was eight years old and my most detailed memory of her is of riding up the old wooden elevator that led to her apartment on Hillel Street in Jerusalem, and the smells and flavors of the greasy salami in a green plastic container that awaited me there, followed by a wonderful Hungarian cake for dessert.

My father says his mother never talked about the war years. She didn’t talk about them and he didn’t ask. And so, it was not until after her death that the family learned about her experiences during the war and the escape from Zagreb − when there was no one left to ask. The diary she kept, describing a year in the wanderings of the small Jewish family, from snowy mountains to Italian villages and stunning landscapes, was found only after death. It is written on the back of her cookbook. It’s hard to get over the contrast between the tranquil image of these places − now skiing and tourist meccas − and the thought of the little toddler carried on his parents’ shoulders as they trudged through heavy snow, terrified he would open his mouth and give them away.

“Today, January 10, 1942, at eight in the evening, we left Zagreb,” Matilda began her diary.

At first the family traveled to Varazdin, a city in Croatia, where they stayed for nearly a month. “When it became dangerous in Varazdin,” as my grandmother wrote, the family boarded a train back to Zagreb. But when they got back, they discovered their apartment had been expropriated by the Ustashe and they spent the next 10 days going from one relative to another. Then they set out again, this time for Slovenia, which was under Italian occupation.

“It was very cold and there was deep snow,” my grandmother Matilda wrote. “We stood and waited quietly. Our son was quiet too. After about half an hour, the guide returned and told us to follow him in silence. And so we came to the dock on the river. A boat was waiting for us there, and it took us to the opposite bank ... When we got to the other side of the river it was hard to get out of the boat because there was a hill and the snow was almost up to our necks, but somehow we made it. Then we kept on walking in the snow. After waking for about an hour we came to Rakovica, which belonged to Italy already by then. Pavel walked some of the time, we carried him some of the time, he was very tired and sleepy, but he did well. He was a good boy.”

On February 19, at six in the evening, the family boarded a train once again − this time heading for Ljubljana, Slovenia: “We were sitting there, afraid. We had some papers but still we were afraid because they weren’t regular papers and we thought they’d know that we were Jews ... You hear all kinds of things, that they follow people without documents.

Luckily, no one stopped us, because if they had we would have been taken to prison and from there to you know where ... Pavel fell asleep and he slept until we reached Ljubljana, and we didn’t speak at all the entire way because we didn’t want anyone to hear us speaking Croatian ... We were lucky; on that day there was no inspection on the train and we made it to Ljubljana okay.”

The family stayed in Ljubljana for about three months. Dori ‏(my grandfather Rudolf’s brother‏) and his wife Blazica and their daughter Ljerrka ‏(later Liora‏) had arrived in the city not long before them. For the first three weeks, when they were unable to rent a room, the family stayed in a hotel.

“It was very hard to find a private room,” Matilda wrote, “because besides the many Jewish refugees in Ljubljana, there were also about 30,000 refugees from other areas that had been occupied by the Germans. The Slovenia region was under Italian occupation and ‏(was‏) much more comfortable.” They eventually found a room and “finally we could feel a little free of the fear of the past year,” she wrote.

After three months, they obtained permission to go to Italy. “On May 21, 1942, at eight in the morning, we took the train to Venice, where we walked around a little. At two in the afternoon, we went to the hotel and it was nice. We knew that these would be our last nice days, perhaps forever. We walked around Venice and also sailed in a gondola and Pavel was very happy; it was nice. We saw the Lido and some other places, and the next afternoon we continued to Milan.”

From Milan, they made their way to the Como province, and when they registered at the police station they were told that they had to live in Argegno, which Matilda describes in her diary as a pleasant lakefront resort town. They arrived there on May 25 and went to register with the police inspector. “He welcomed us quite nicely and said that we would feel good here − that enemies were treated well here, too,” Matilda wrote.

The next day, they received food coupons and went in search of an apartment. They were able to rent a single room in a four-room apartment, but my grandmother wrote that “it would have been better if we lived in an animal pen, because the woman was very mean and really annoyed us ... We were told that there was a walking trail from which there was a beautiful view of Lugano ... but we were not allowed to go anywhere ... The inspector told us that we had no rights and that we mustn’t even befriend other people. Apparently he decided that himself. It seems he was anti-Semitic because afterward he became really terrible.”

Paying their living expenses in Argegno was another challenge for the family: Matilda wrote that they paid 300 liras in rent per month for the room − a significant chunk of their monthly allowance. “We received a subsidy of 8 liras per day for a man, 4 for a woman, 3 for a child and 50 for the apartment, so all together we got 500 liras a month. I think it may have come from American Jews, maybe from the Jewish Agency.” The uncle back in Zagreb saved the day by sending money to the family in Argegno at least twice.

“The days go by,” she wrote. “Every day is almost the same. In the morning we do a bit of tidying up and cooking, and in the afternoon we take a walk or go swimming. Pavel loves to swim in the lake. He even dives under the water and it’s an attraction, because the locals don’t go into the lake ... In the evening when it gets dark we have to stay inside. After dinner we sit in the kitchen and Mr. Hirschel ‏(one of the other tenants‏) translates the Italian newspaper. Ten o’clock is bedtime, on the landlady’s orders.”

At some point, my grandmother began showing signs of distress. “It’s been raining nonstop for three days ... Now we can’t go in the lake and we don’t have even one other thing that we enjoyed ... He ‏(Pavel‏) is bored now too. He has a little tricycle and he rides it when the weather is nice or when we go to see people we know, in secret. We meet at the outskirts of our town.”

But one of these secret get-togethers ended with a frightening interrogation: Matilda wrote that evidently someone had informed on them, and when they got to the outskirts of town, a police inspector suddenly popped out and arrested everyone. She was released relatively quickly, but her husband was kept in prison: “I went to the local priest. He was very nice and promised to go to the inspector. He went there twice but the inspector wouldn’t see him.” Rudolf was eventually released, too.

But bad news started to come from Zagreb. “People who were concentrated in camps were transferred in July 1942 to camps in Poland and now we don’t know what’s happened to our families ... to my mother, to Kamila and Lidija. We’ve also heard that the people who weren’t yet taken are being transferred, no one knows to where ... Of course this is affecting our nerves and it is hard to cope with it.”

Because of the bad treatment they received in Argegno and the high cost of living, the family sought to move to the town of Aprica, closer to the Swiss border, where there were many refugees, including Dori and his family, but their request was rejected.

“All we can do is send another request and if that doesn’t work I don’t know what will happen, because we’ll be left without means and it’s impossible to live on what we receive. Everything is expensive and we eat mostly vegetables and a little fruit,” Matilda wrote.

At this point, for reasons that are unclear, the diary comes to an abrupt end, right in the middle of a page. The last sentence in it, which comes after a detailed description of the food rationing and the costs of different items, is: “Today I cooked chicken and rice. Pavel was very happy. It was a holiday. And it’s the same when you make a cake from corn flour, you can get corn flour instead of bread.”

Refugees in Switzerland

Eventually, on some unspecified date, the Blau family left Argegno and arrived in Aprica.

My father says he doesn’t remember anything of their stay there, which lasted a few months. In September 1943, after the Italians surrendered to the Allies and the German Army invaded Italy, the Jews there realized that they had to leave the country. “They didn’t wait too long after the fall of Italy,” my father said in his testimony, “because they were afraid it was going to happen and all efforts to escape would go down the drain.”

The two Blau brothers, along with their wives and children, were part of a group of about 70 Jews that snuck over the border into Switzerland. My father was the youngest in the group; a 70-year-old man was the oldest. My father’s cousin, Liora Harel, who died two years ago, described this trip once as part of research into the family history.

“It was very exciting,” she recalled, “because almost the entire village, the Carabinieri and the priest, escorted us up to a certain point. Aprica was at an elevation of 1,000 meters and we had to descend to Tirano and go from there to the Bernina crossing, where Switzerland was on the other side ... We arrived at the Italian border and the Alpinists were waiting for us there with polenta, and when we crossed they gave each one of us some. It was very nice of them.”

“The Italian army showed us the way,” my father said in his testimony. “When we got very near the peak, we were met by two Italian fascists who wanted to send us back to Aprica.

Since we knew by then that Jews, from this area too, were being taken by the Germans, it was impossible to go back and people said they would rather die than return. After a while they agreed to let us go on condition that they never saw us again ... We were walking all the time, there was nowhere to sleep. Somehow we finally made it to the border, at Campocologno. The Swiss didn’t want to let us in because they said it was a big group, but they didn’t send us back and after awhile we received entry permits from the Swiss authorities.”

For almost two years, from November 1943 until August 1945, the Blau family lived in various refugee camps in Switzerland. Like his parents, little Pavel was issued an official refugee certificate and, thanks to typically exemplary Swiss record-keeping, it is possible to learn later where he stayed on each day during that period. Right after entering Switzerland, the parents were separated: Pavel remained with his mother while Rudolf was sent to a work camp that was run with military discipline.

“My father was sent with other men to a labor camp in Laufen, where they mostly were made to cut down trees and build reinforcements. My mother and I went to Langenbruck, a camp for Jewish refugees, primarily women and children,” my father related in his testimony. “Since my mother spoke German, she became the secretary to the director of the camp, Mr. Utzinger, and they became good friends. This friendship lasted for years. We visited them and they visited us in Israel.”

Since he was a little boy at the time, my father does not remember all that much from that period. “I was told that there was a saying written in the dining hall: ‘Don’t say that the bread is old.’ All in all we were treated well and I went to kindergarten, I think. I do remember that my mother was very practical. I have a picture with clothes that she knitted, because apparently there wasn’t much clothing. In the picture you can also see that she made a purse for herself, it was just covered cardboard with her initials, MB, on it ... It shows that we didn’t have much there, but you could still get along okay. From the stories I understand that there wasn’t much food but people certainly weren’t starving.”

A few months later, the family was reunited and remained in Langenbruck until the end of October 1944. After that they spent eight months in a refugee camp in Glion, and then spent the last months of the war in the town of Morcote, on the banks of Lake Lugano. The reason for all the moves isn’t clear, but they evidently were not made because of the family’s wishes.

“My childhood disappeared at some stage,” my father told Yad Vashem in his testimony six months ago. “It was okay to be in Switzerland but it wasn’t a childhood...I want to tell a brief story about the French language. Many years ago in the course of my work I met an expert in hypnosis and I told him, ‘Why don’t you hypnotize me to the time when I spoke French and let’s see if I’ll speak French.’ But then I stopped myself because I realized that that period was so traumatic, it was better not to go back to it.”

From Pavel to Dan

My dear ones. I received your postcards, but not the pictures since the delivery service was suspended. We are all in good health. I ask that you please send me a package.
− Postcard from Lidija Gottlieb, Loborgrad concentration camp, Barracks No. 55 ‏(May 30, 1942‏)

The refugees who entered Switzerland during the war had to sign a pledge to leave the country when the war ended. And so, shortly after the end of the war, the Blau family returned to the city they had left three years before. “Total devastation,” is how my father described the reality that greeted them upon their return: Matilda had lost her mother and two sisters in the Holocaust; Rudolf had lost his brother Samuel. The only remnant of her sisters and mother that Matilda had left was four postcards that were sent to her during a two-and-a-half-week period, in late May, 1942: two from Lidija, one from Kamila and one from Ernestina.

The postcards were sent to Ljubljana and to Argegno from the Loborgrad concentration camp in Croatia, indicating that at least for a certain amount of time the family was still in contact. Each card has a warning that only pencil may be used, and that the message must be in Croatian or German, and not exceed 20 words. The information on the postcards also shows that Matilda’s relatives, who all later died at Auschwitz, lived in the same barracks in the Loborgrad camp, which opened in September 1941 and closed a year later.

With no other choice, the Blau family began rebuilding its life in Zagreb after the war.

“We found an apartment to rent and I started going to first grade. The furniture we had was kept in some apartment in Zagreb,” my father recounted. “I assume that the documents that we have now also remained in the apartment because when fleeing it was better not to have any documents from the Jewish community. The thing that impressed me the most was that the large oil painting of my mother and my two sisters that was painted in 1919 in Banja Luka was still there.”

This picture is now hanging in my parents’ home and it was only thanks to Dujakovic’s research that we learned it was painted by Spiro Bocaric, a well-known artist in the region.

The family shop was returned to them, too, but not long afterward it was nationalized by the communist regime and the brothers worked there as hired hands.

Not until very recently, more than 60 years after the events took place, did my father start to tell me about how he and his parents were affected. One of the things that surprises me is that despite everything, he still chooses to describe the Pavel of those years as a “spoiled child.”

“I was an only child and in the diary I often have a starring role,” he says. “There’s a lot there about how I behaved and how they treated me and how they looked after me.

Apparently because of this, I didn’t feel any conscious trauma. The trauma may have arisen in me later, when I became more aware.” Asked how he could have been a spoiled child in this impossible situation, he replied: “I guess they gave me what they could, and there weren’t too many possibilities for maneuvering.”

Since I was born decades after my grandfather died in 1956, and was too young to talk about it with my grandmother while she was still alive, I couldn’t stop wondering about how any family can cope with this extreme situation. My father said his family was ordinary, but that the war “left its mark” and noted: “I think my mother − the fact that she never once spoke about the war or mentioned the diary − I think she decided consciously or unconsciously to recover a lot more quickly than my father, who was apparently affected much more, maybe because of the time in Switzerland when they were separated.”

Just over a month ago, on the train to Sarajevo, with vestiges of a more recent war visible through the window, my father told me that the decision to move to Israel was made primarily because of him. He recalled that post-war Yugoslavia was a communist country and that he didn’t feel different from other children. “They had us wear a white hat, with triangles, a red star and a red bandana, and we went to all kinds of demonstrations and shouted ‘Long live Tito!’” But when he came home one day, he told his parents that at school people were shouting ‘cifut’ at him − a very derogatory term for Jews. “I probably didn’t understand what it meant, but they took it very hard and decided to leave.”

The family sailed on the SS Radnik and arrived in Israel in June 1949. Here my father changed his name to a proud Hebrew one. He said that back in Zagreb, whenever he was punished in school, he was made to write his name dozens of times, and so in Hebrew he wanted to have the shortest one possible, so he chose Dan ‏(just two letters in Hebrew‏).
In the beginning, the family lived in the Sha’ar Ha’aliyah transit camp, then in Beit Lid, until finally settling in Beit Zayit outside Jerusalem.

“Basically, my real life started when we made aliyah,” says my father. “I would go further and say that it really began when we settled in Beit Zayit, because everything that came before that is somehow etched in the memory as a transition period − a very traumatic, long and terrible time, but still a transition period. I think that my real story begins anew with our arrival in Beit Zayit. All the rest I somehow repressed.”

All about the war

I will never know you, nothing about you, what has died inside you, what has lived invisibly
− From “The Lazarus Project” by Aleksandar Hemon

The first picture I took after landing in Belgrade was of a poster of Ratko Mladic, one of the main figures suspected of war crimes in Bosnia from 1992-1995. The picture of Mladic − who was still roaming free at the time but was arrested in Serbia just a few days after we left the country − with the offer of a 10-million-euro reward for his capture, was hanging on the wall behind the passport control booth at the airport. I didn’t see similar posters hanging anywhere else in Belgrade.

As positive a development as it may be, Mladic’s arrest will likely not heal the scars left behind by the war of the 1990s. The heart of the dispute was the desire of many citizens in the different former Yugoslav republics to split off into independent states, versus Serbia’s effort to preserve them as a single united country. One reason the Serbs opposed the division of Yugoslavia was that many of them were forced to live as minorities in the other republics. In the civil war that ensued, war crimes were committed by the parties on all sides.

“Let’s try to avoid talking about politics with the people we meet,” my father cautioned me before the trip. But nearly every conversation we had there, be it with a bakery owner in Belgrade, a noodle maker in Sarajevo, an Albanian taxi driver or a Serbian journalist, very quickly ended up being about the war. It wasn’t only the physical remnants of the war that are still evident − the destroyed Russian army command centers in the heart of Belgrade or pockmarked walls all around Sarajevo − but mostly the fact that most of the people we met were refugees: Just like my father 50 years before, they had been forced to leave, to run for their lives from the places where they were born and raised.

In this context, I think, it is also necessary to understand the respect we were accorded during our four days in Banja Luka. I believe that it did not derive from a feeling of guilt that out of the many hundreds of Jews who lived in the city prior to World War II, only a few dozen are left now, but rather from an unconscious attempt by the Serbs to link their actions during the war years of the 1990s to what the Croatian Ustashe did to them and to the Jews, including my father and his family, during World War II.

When we landed in Belgrade, ahead of the trip to Banja Luka, we met with Dusan Saponja, a good friend, journalist and documentary filmmaker. At dinner in his apartment in New Belgrade, a neighborhood of huge buildings that are each home to hundreds of families, over a plate of cevapcici ‏(the local kebabs‏), sausages, kajmak cheese, green onion ‏(a must at every meal‏), fresh bread and local wine, my father was happy to practice his Croatian ‏(or his Serbian, Montenegrin or Bosnian − all virtually the same language, but called a different name in each state‏).

It was an encounter of refugees from different generations. Saponja, 35, was born and raised in Croatia, but because of his Serbian roots he was forced to leave his birthplace when the war came; he has lived in Belgrade ever since. He travels widely throughout the former Yugoslavia now, but hasn’t yet been back to the house he left behind.

The next day, he mentioned to me that my father had introduced himself to him as Pavel and not as Dan. When I asked my father about this, he said dismissively that it was of no great importance. Saponja was unconvinced: He said that it reminded him of how in school in Croatia the teachers used to mispronounce his name, which is a typical Serbian name; at the time he even thought maybe it was better that way.

“They took his name. You understand what that means?” he said to me, of my father.

“When you’re forced to change your name it means that you are not accepted as who you are. Your name is your identity and older people have a tendency to return to their childhood. Maybe he wants to go back to being Pavel. Maybe it’s nonsense, but some part of that is certainly true. There’s no way that he feels completely whole.”