The fate of one family rarely matters except to those directly involved. Yet family histories—often tragedies can sometimes tell us a great deal about a nation’s social fabric. One such story involves my aunt, Vida Knezevich Kontich—my mother’s older sister—and her family. Their fate was never far from mind during my diplomatic assignment with the American Embassy in Yugoslavia and many years of teaching and writing about communist systems.
I met the Kontiches when I first visited Yugoslavia in the summer of 1939, while I was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. Aunt Vida, garbed in black, was widowed; her husband had been killed during World War I. They lived in poverty after the war in their native Montenegro. When Vida learned that Yugoslavia’s monarch. King Alexander I Karadjordjevich, would be visiting the capital, Cetinje, she traveled to see him. Alexander walked among those present, and shook hands with Vida and asked her how she was. When she told him that her husband had been killed in the war and that she needed help with her four small children, he promised her a pension, which she soon received. I never did learn when or why she moved to Belgrade, but it was a move that provided some education and progress for her children.
The 1939 visit was largely social, although I detected a critical attitude toward the government of Prince Regent Paul, Alexander’s first cousin. Paul became first regent after Alexander was assassinated during a state visit to France in 1934. The assassination was plotted by Croatian extremists, followers of Ustashi leader Ante Pavelic, then living in self-imposed exile in Mussolini’s Italy. The Kontiches seemed to have some reverential feeling toward the departed monarch, but none toward Paul and his wife, Olga, whom they accused of wanting to become king and queen.
My cousins and I went to local cafes several times, where we smoked and drank beer and Serbian coffees. My relatives were not rich, but they seemed of moderate means. They appeared to enjoy our visit, but what they did not tell me—what I was to learn only after World War II—was that they were members of the outlawed Yugoslav Communist Party. I never knew whether Aunt Vida was actually a member, but her sons and daughter were.
Cousin Danica and I exchanged a few letters before Hitler and Mussolini destroyed the first Yugoslavia in April 1941. There were no contacts with my relatives during the war years. Then in 1947, shortly before I was to leave for Belgrade as cultural attache in the American Embassy, I received a letter from Danica. It was full of praise for Tito’s communist regime. Among other things, she said that the only place outside Yugoslavia that she might like to visit was the Soviet Union, “the first workers’ state.”
My wife, Adele, and our three small children arrived in Belgrade in November. Judging by the shortages and the rationing of food, we were sure that the Kontiches could use some help. They did not have a phone, but we had an address. One evening my wife and I took some sacks of food items and had an embassy car drop us at the Kontich address, with a request that the driver call for us in an hour.
Their apartment was near the Belgrade railway station, a poor section of the city. After walking up four flights of stairs with our packages—there was no elevator—we found Aunt Vida, along with her youngest son and wife and small child, as well as Danica. Danica’s husband, Andrija, a riverboat captain, was away. It was winter, and the apartment was cold because of heating fuel shortages. In all, the atmosphere was a far cry from the society that Danica had praised in her letter.
After some brief greetings. Aunt Vida said, “Alex, I am glad to see you, but I am not happy that you have come to work in the American Embassy.” At that time, relations between our countries could not have been worse. In the previous year, the Yugoslavs had shot down two American military planes that had strayed over Yugoslav territory on their way from Austria to Italy—by mistake or design, I do not know. In any case, tension between our countries had led to a confrontation with my own relatives.
With scarcely time for anyone to say anything in that tense atmosphere, Vida poured out her sad tale of how Mihailovic’s Chetniks had murdered her other two sons. Shortly, the embassy car came and we parted in an extremely strained atmosphere, though they thanked us for the food items we had brought.
After the break between Belgrade and Moscow in 1948, I felt I could once again visit my aunt. Somehow we had found out that Danica’s two young children (whose legs were bowed, an obvious case of rickets due to a vitamin D deficiency), needed cod-liver oil, which we ordered from the United States and subsequently delivered to her. Years later she was to tell us that we had saved her children’s lives.
Those were tense times. The Yugoslav authorities had asked the United States to close down its USIS (United States Information Service) activities following the controversy over the downed American planes. Subsequently, when they agreed that we could reopen the USIS library and exhibit room, they insisted that we refrain from activities that would be critical of Yugoslavia or its socialist system.
My instructions from Ambassador Cavendish Cannon were that we should be careful not to give the Yugoslavs a pretext for closing down our operations again. This meant that we could not display copies of Time or Newsweek, which had anti-Yugoslav or anti-Soviet pieces in nearly every issue. Other current magazines also had to be looked at carefully, and sometimes I found “offending” items in unlikely places. One day, I picked up a copy of Chemical Engineering, and there in an international supplement was a piece sharply critical of the Soviets. One of our library staffers suggested we simply rip out those pages. I decided that I was not going to censor an American publication; either the issue was to be displayed intact or not at all. The ambassador agreed.
But back to Vida. In an effort to learn more about her and her family, I turned to Jovo Jovanovich, a Serb from Montenegro whom I met soon after my arrival. Jovanovich was secretary of the Press Club, by then defunct. A burly, partially bald man (although not yet 40), he told me that he was employed by Putnik, the official government travel agency. I later learned that one of Jovo’s assignments was to keep tabs on me and my activities.
Not long after, I visited him in his Putnik office to complain about Yugoslav citizens being picked up and held for questioning after they had visited the USIS library (particularly those who had attended recorded music concerts there). He pleaded ignorance, but I used the occasion to ask him if he knew a Montenegrin Serb family by the name of Kontich. He did.
I told Jovo of my Aunt Vida’s mourning over the death of her two sons, killed by the Chetniks. To my great surprise, he said that they were not killed by Chetniks but by their own Partisan comrades, who accused them of misappropriation of funds.
I was eager to confront Aunt Vida with this new information, and sometime after the Tito-Stalin break I visited her and told her what I had found out. Understandably, her grief was as real as ever, but she quickly pointed to a framed letter from Tito that was hanging on the wall, in which he offered sympathy and regrets and said that the boys had been innocent and wrongly executed.
After I learned that one of Jovo’s jobs was to spy on me, we invited him to a family picnic and to our house. He seemed uneasy, but accepted. When the Stalin-Tito break came, he provided some interesting insights. In his one and only visit to my office, he shocked me by asserting that he thought that Stalin was right. I accused him of trying to provoke me, that I knew that he was a loyal Titoist, that he had always told us that “Tito and the Party are the same thing.” He said that his statement was true, adding, “and therein lies the tragedy.” Before long he was arrested, along with other Cominformists, and sent to the infamous prison on “Naked Island” in the Adriatic.
In May 1950, we returned to the United States; I had accepted a teaching position at Vanderbilt University. My immediate boss in the embassy, R. Borden Reams, had tried unsuccessfully to get me to make a career in the foreign service, but my wife and I wanted to see our three children grow up in an American community, just as we had done.
In the summer of 1952, I returned to Belgrade to complete research on my first book, during which time I saw my aunt and family. My book, Tito’s Promised Land: Yugoslavia (1954), was sharply critical of the communist regime. After that there was no returning to Yugoslavia. The result was a huge hiatus in my contacts, not only with my family but also with others. 1 did not want anyone to suffer as a result of their ties to me.
By the mid-60’s, some of my friends got word to me that a visit to Yugoslavia would now be virtually risk-free. In the summer of 1966, my wife and I picked up a Volkswagen in Germany and drove to Belgrade. I was working on a book on the development of parliamentary government in Serbia in the pre-communist period, so the regime did not need to be concerned about my activities. But they did keep tabs, by (among other things) installing listening devices in the room radio and the telephone. My visits to relatives were mainly perfunctory; there was not much of interest in the things that they had to say.
By the time we returned to Yugoslavia in the summer of 1971, however, things were different. Aunt Vida had died, and Danica and her family had moved into a better apartment in the center of town. Her two children, a boy and girl, were teenagers. Adele and I decided that we should take the girl, Slobodanka, to a department store and buy her a new outfit. She was delighted, and we were pleased. In terms of American dollars, it was not an expensive spree. Danica was elated, but lamented that we had been overly generous.
Over the next few years, I returned a number of times to carry on my research. Danica now talked at length about her great disappointments with the communist system. She had become a member of the illegal Communist Party at age 18, influenced no doubt by the actions of her older brothers. During the civil war between the Chetniks and the communist- led Partisans that raged in 1943-45, she smuggled food and other items to the Partisans. That risky action, which would have meant death if caught, was motivated by family as well as politics, her two brothers being in the Partisan ranks. She told me how she had joined the Anti-Fascist Women; as a city dweller she rolled up her sleeves and plunged into the grimy task of harvesting potatoes. “I wanted everyone to work,” she said, “so that all of us could live better.” But early on, she observed that the wives of the more influential party members did not want to dirty their hands. A “new class” of rulers was forming, as Milovan Djilas, a onetime Tito collaborator, described in a book with that title. It was published abroad in 1957, and led to a ten-year prison term for the author.
Since Danica’s family was from Montenegro, I asked her and her husband if they had read their countryman’s book. In hushed and subdued tones, they told me that they had; but on finishing it, they had burned it in their heating stove. It must have been a Serb edition that had been smuggled into the country, because neither one of them knew English.
Increasingly, Danica seemed eager to talk about the communist system. While cautioning me about whom I should be seen with or whom I should try to see, Danica’s criticisms became bolder. On one occasion, she said: “See, Alex, communism is no good.” Her criticisms centered on various failures of the regime, but the privileges enjoyed by the ruling class are what peeved her the most. She did not use theory to explain what had happened. It was simply greed.
Djilas noted in The New Class how party members who, during the revolution, had been willing to give their all for the cause, even life itself, had—once in power—become “characterless wretches” in pursuit of material things. I once asked him how he explained such behavior. He gave me an un-Marxian answer: “human nature.”
Of all my conversations with Danica, the most memorable occurred amid a moment of sorrow and resignation. “Alex,” she declared, “disillusionment is a terrible disease . . . ” The sentence trailed off, her ultimate parting with the “God That Failed.”