Opinion |

What Happens When a Childhood Is Interrupted by Genocide?

One night, during the Nazi occupation of Belgrade, my grandfather didn’t return home from the forced labor imposed on Serbia's Jews. My grandmother was pregnant. My father, then three years old, remembers her wailing

Julie Brill
Julie Brill
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Haim Brill, my father, sitting on the table surrounded by admirers in pre-war Belgrade
Haim Brill, my father, sitting on the table surrounded by admirers in pre-war BelgradeCredit: Julie Brill
Julie Brill
Julie Brill

"Do we look Serbian?" my daughter asks over pastries at the Hotel Moskva’s outdoor café. It’s her first trip to Belgrade. Sophie looks like me. We have curly hair, light eyes, and similar features.

We’ve studied passersby. But Serbs don’t seem to have a "look" like the tall, blond folks we’ve just seen in Amsterdam.

An hour ago, the pharmacy clerk confidently asked something. "How are you?" or "Is it raining?" We don’t speak the language, so there’s no way to tell. All we understand is she hasn’t asked about pelichinki, the one word we know. My mother makes these Serbian crepes on lazy Sunday mornings.

Across from the Hotel Moskva is a pelichinki stand. We’ve already eaten there twice and texted pictures back to my mother and other daughter. What always seemed a private food, known only by our family, almost as if we invented it, now links us to this nation of seven million.

The Hotel Moskva was the place to see and be seen in 1938, when my father was born blocks from here. Before the war he lived in nearby Dorcol, the Jewish neighborhood.

During the Nazi occupation, the Gestapo chose our hotel for their headquarters. I haven’t decided if it’s a sign of disrespect to that past, or a mark of triumph that we’re staying here now.

My grandfather considered himself a Serb first and then a Jew. Some Serbs, like my father’s uncles, fought, and died, as partisans. Others were Nazi collaborators. Roll call lists in Serbian, not German, show my grandfather reported for forced labor.

In April 1941, my grandfather, like all Belgrade’s Jewish men, had to register under threat of death. Jews provided the slave labor used to repair the city after the ruthless German bombing.

My grandfather repaired sewer lines, part of a crew comprised of his neighbors. They reported each morning but were allowed to come home to sleep. One night around my father’s third birthday, they didn’t return. My grandmother was pregnant. My father remembers her wailing.

Jewish men rounded up by the Nazis in April, 1941 in Belgrade, Serbia. 90 percent of Serbia's Jewish population was murdered in the HolocaustCredit: Wikipedia

My grandfather was imprisoned in Topovske Šupe, a Nazi concentration camp in the capital city. My grandmother brought him food. One day she found the gates open and the camp empty. She wanted to believe the rumors they’d been moved elsewhere to work.

After the war, my father, a skinny, fatherless kid, must have walked by Hotel Moskva’s central location. Belgrade was his hometown, the only place he’d ever lived. Today when our guide’s car broke down, he confidently walked us back, no map required.

Now my father is resting upstairs in his hotel room. He’s been back only a handful of times since 1948 when his mother moved with him and his sister to Israel. She renounced their Yugoslavian citizenships and turned her back on Europe where she’d witnessed the horrors of genocide. She was finished with the continent that held so much loss.

A demolished old Yugo car outside the WWII Nazi concentration camp of Topovske Supe where 5,000 Jews, Serbs and Roma were killed in 1941, in Belgrade, SerbiaCredit: AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

This morning, outside our hotel, my father pointed down the street.

"My aunt lived there after the war," he said. "She lived on the top floor, above the elevator machine."

Recalling the mechanism, his hands made a circular motion. For a moment he was a ten-year-old future engineer again, fascinated with how things work.

"She was a widowed alcoholic. Her only child died fighting in the partisan resistance. I remember coming here to say goodbye."

All my life, my father talked about arriving in Israel. I’d never heard this poignant story of leaving.

When we’d arrived at the airport, our cousins welcomed us back with Serbian triple kissing, right cheek, left cheek, right, and a home cooked dinner. They call my father “Bubika,” a childhood nickname I’d never heard before.

Now there is, it seems, no stigma in having left. Belgrade’s airport is named to honor Serbia’s most famous émigré: Nikola Tesla.

My father says he’s lost the language, but he understands much our cousins say. Over a few days we watch his mother tongue return. Driving to the airport, the cabbie asks if he’s been here before.

He replies, "Ja sam odavde." I’m from here.

Julie Brill is writing a memoir about her Serbian family, in the context of the largely untold history of the Holocaust in Serbia, which she also passes on through her involvement with 3GNY, a program that provides schools with speakers on the Holocaust from the third generation of survivors. Twitter: @JulieBrill8

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