The country I inherited
Not that long ago a friend of mine from Zagreb, a newspaper editor and prolific writer, asked me how come I never returned to Croatia, or would I perhaps. This is a legitimate question. I am not an economic migrant. My family was wealthy. My first jobs in what was then still Yugoslavia were writing for newspapers and producing radio talk shows. I did not come to the US from squalor, desperate to make money and send "home" like the majority of migrants do. And while I had a strong enough case of persecution to win political asylum, with my passport having been seized, my typewriter confiscated, and me being detained and interrogated by Yugoslav authorities too many times to remember the exact number, one could opinionate that now, 30 years since the demise of that regime, it should be at least safe for me to return, if not lucrative.
On the other hand, my life in the US, cannot be described as an unequivocal success by everybody: the series of jobs I held as a lifeguard, snowboard instructor, swimming pool cleaner, warehouse worker, dishwasher, and bus washer and fueler does not inspire envy in most people. There are no millions of dollars on bank accounts in my name. No academic career to speak off. No fancy titles or flashy references connect to me. In terms of social status, I am basically a zero, a nobody. This social insignificance of course has its good side: I doubt NSA will descend on me one day and take my phone or laptop away. And the traditional middle class obsessive dread of manual labor, menial jobs and lack of prestige aside, again, I am not exactly living in squalor, indigent enough to leave: I have a house, full of electronic gadgets, a car, functioning internet, I snowboard in the winter, I feel my health is well cared for by Medicaid, my son finished one of the best high schools in the country, and he enrolled college for free.
It is hard for me to think I would be any better off if I stayed in or returned to Croatia. I was never slated to be among the proverbial 200 families that the late president Tudjman intended to inherit all that is there. On the contrary, the country I grew up in, is still an enigma to me, riddled with unaswered questions, even now, 30 years later. Perhaps I could have been killed by someone even more enraged and cheated out of his lot than me, stabbed senselessly in the streets, once the atmosphere of fear had risen, and violence became routine and normalized. Of those unanswered questions some concern the larger issues of state, and some are just resulting from me being from a peculiar disfunctional family, that never made me feel at home.
First, let's talk about those larger issues of state. When my passport and my typewriter were taken away in Zagreb in the Fall of 1985, it was not Belgrade police that took it away, it was Zagreb police that did it. The person, who interogated me at that time, detective Mate Lausic, later became one of the many Tudjman's generals. I still remember the moment during that first interrogation, when he asked me about my attitude about the checkerboard, the Croatian coat of arms, and I sheepishly but truthfully answered that I did not care about nationalism. I thought that at the time I was giving the "right" answer. Boy, was I wrong. But I was just 21 and I did not have the insider information that the future general Lausic had.
However, as the political situation slowly mutated, my lot did not change. Albeit they returned my typewriter, in 1988, the Zagreb police still did not want to issue me a passport. And in 1989 I administratively moved my residence to Ljubljana, Slovenia, with the help of friends from Mladina magazine, one of whom gave me his apartment as my legal address. Within six months I got a Yugoslav passport in Ljubljana, over the published objections of the Federal Police. That passport was stolen from me, together with the entire bakpack, during one visit to the Radio 101 in Zagreb, suggesting that even in 1989 I was still followed, and that even then there must have been someone, and not just in general Yugoslavia area, but rather in particular Zagreb area, who really did not want me to have the freedom to leave the country as I pleased.
Within days Slovenes issued me a new passport, this time handed to me by the chief of police in Ljubljana, with a stern warning to be a little more careful now with it, because they can't be doing this over and over. Somewhere at that time I scored a student exchange between Zagreb University college of phylosophy and the Lock Haven University, PA, and soon I had a F1 US student visa stamped in my newly minted Yugoslav passport issued on a legal address that I have never visited in my life. I took a Yugoslav Airlines plane to London, and then one of the first, promotional, super-cheap flights on Virgin Atlantic to New York. To this day nobody in Zagreb police explained to me what happened to my original passport: nobody came clean about why was it taken away. Nobody apologized to the harm being done to me, 4 months after my passport was taken away, when I was abruptly canceled and literally thrown down the stairs by Veljko Jancic, the editor-in-chief of the radio station that was my career, my love, and my life at the time. All of them are still very much alive, but nobody is talking. This, of course, is very disturbing to me.
During his Croatian presidency, Stipe Mesic, announced that all people persecuted by the security apparatus of the former regime should be able to see their files through the Croatian Archives. I promptly wrote a letter asking to see my file. However, I got a polite answer that there was no file on me in the archives. When I pressed for explanation, they said that maybe the file was still active and that I should contact the police or the intelligence agency directly. Police did not find anything either. I even pulled some connections. For a while a journalist friend of mine was a police spokesperson - so I asked her to dig around. She could not dig out anything, suggesting that the file is probably either taken to Belgrade back in 1991, or to some private collection (to be used for blackmail, perhaps). Neither of the two options helped to calm me down.
At one point the brother of my friend became the director of the SOA intelligence agency, and, of course, I pushed him to look for it, too. Nothing. The entire Croatian security apparatus seems to be completely ignorant of my case. They don't even have the copies of the paperwork they gave me back in 1985 (which I filed with my US asylum claim and is part of the record). Croatian NGO dealing with confronting the past, Documenta, interviewed me in 2012 and asked the Sabor (parliament) to subpoena the records about me from all security services. Following the lengthy process, nothing was found. There is one Ivo Skoric with a Croatian passport, who lives in the US. The other Ivo Skoric who used to have Yugoslav passport that was taken away once by the Zagreb police never existed, according to the available Croatian legal records.
Then the memoirs of Joza Manolic, a communist revolutionary and the pre-eminent paramount chief of security services in Yugoslav Croatia since the end of the WW2, and then a prime minister under Tudjman, came out a couple of years ago. There the ancient intelligence chief put my name on the list of 41 people deemed most dangerous for the security of public order and the interests of the country defense back in 1988 in the Yugoslav republic of Croatia. I am by far the youngest person on that list. And probably one of the rare people there who is not a rabid nationalist, or a right winger. No explanation was given. Manolic, however, is still alive, at 101 just slightly older than Kissinger, and according to the aforementioned Croatian newspaper editor, in possession of about 800 pounds of secret files, and given that he is the only one so far who obviously remembers me, I will speculate that my file is in those 800 pounds of paper.
It is unsettling that apparently nobody in Croatia can wrestle those papers out of him and make them public - many decades after they were classified by security services of a country that does not exists for years already. This continuity of intelligence gathering between modern day Croatia and the ancien regime of Yugoslavia, which were ostensibly at war with each other back in the 1990s, is particularly unnerving. Because, who guarantees to me I am not still at risk of persecution should I return? And would I have to live under the gaze of my former persecutors like returnees to Srebrenica without ever knowing who really is behind the face that peeks at me behind heavy curtains? My persecutors likely live in Zagreb, not in Belgrade.
Actually, during that turbulent period of late 1980-s, I have better memories of the security services and police officers in Belgrade, Skopje, and Ljubljana, than of those in Zagreb. At that time I just observed that. With the benefit of hindsight I think I understand why. However, that does not absolve them from the responsibility to come clean, apologize, and make amends. It is not exactly my fault their country fell apart under their watch, while they were wasting time collecting data on me, and while their jobs and livelihoods depended on them not being willing to see the truth.
For example that story that I am apparently best remembered for - when, back in 1985, I stole a bowl from Mimara's Chinese art museum exhibition, only to make a radio show about that, and ask the museum director on air does he still believe what he said just days earlier that his museum was best guarded in the country: when I and my co-conspirators were finally interviewed by the police, they were unexpectedly friendly. As if they themselves didn't much trust the museum security, or didn't have much love for Mimara and his stolen art exhibition (Mimara was Tito's point man on the US commission for recovery of art stolen by Nazis, to be returned to surviving owners; as surviving owners were rare, people with access to that art, amassed seizable collections).
The media treatment of that event was strikingly different between various Yugoslav republics. In Croatia, after that infamous Radio 101 show breaking the news, nobody wrote a line or said a word of it for the next ten years. Mimara probably died without ever learning about it (he was treatening he would pull the art he bequeathed to Croatia back to a storage in Austria if the security was inadequate). Only in the new century the media opened up about the story, and now it even ended up being fictionalized in a TV series. Contrary to that media black-out, in neighbouring Serbia, the story got the centerfold treatment in the holiday issue (May First) of the biggest Belgrade magazine (NIN) in 1985: they simply couldn't hide the gloating that the neighbor's cow finally died.
The other story, from 1989, is less well known but it is even more indicative of different priorities security services of the various Yugoslav republics already had later in the 1980s, and reads like a thriller reaching nearly Protasevich proportions. At that time I was a student of philosophy at Zagreb University and I co-authored a paper on history of student and youth protests and movements in socialist Yugoslavia. We presented the matter both through numbers, data, and graphs, and also through oral histories, supported by video interviews of leading participants of past events. Our presentation was intended to be a keynote presentation at the meetings of students of humanities of Yugoslavia that year at Ohrid. There was only one slight, minor problem with it.
One of the people interviewed for the project was Ivan Zvonimir Cicak, one of the student leaders in 1971 Croatian Spring, who subsequently spent 4 years in prison for that involvement. Today an ageing minor figure, actually on the left of the vast Croatian nationalist right wing, best known for his pants dropping in public in presence of Ms President, then, barely a year before the checkerboard flag would fly everywhere, he was still a proscribed person. The workers at the Slobodna Dalmacija presses refused to print the issue of Omladinska Iskra containing the interview, so it had to be printed at Vjesnik presses in Zagreb (I guess the party committee at Vjesnik got the wind the times were changing earlier than the Slobodna Dalmacja party committee). He was not to be published or written about, just as the Mimara museum heist was not to be. And those whose wages depended on that truth, obeyed it fiercely. They decided at all costs to stop me delivering that tape to Ohrid once they learned of its existence and intended purpose. When I say they, I primarily mean police and intelligence service answering to Zagreb and Republic of Croatia political authorities, because elsewhere, the police was actually happy to help me bring it to Ohrid safely.
I was supposed to fly to Skopje from Zagreb and then take the bus to Ohrid. But in the last moment I received a tip, that I would be arrested at the Zagreb airport, and tape seized. They already created a story to justify my arrest for writing bad checks. This requires a little further explanation. Basically I was taking advantage of ridiculously high bank interest rates on checking accounts (trying to keep in step with the runaway inflation) and the slow bureaucracy. By cashing checks from Zagrebacka Banka in lets say Sarajevska Banka in Ljubljana with the inefficient clearing system of those days, my money would at the same time be in my hands and earning interest in bank for about 3 weeks - how long it would take for checks to take the trip. This always worked and I was definitely not the only one doing it. But that morning the checks inexplicably cleared weeks earlier than expected, kind of like suddenly someone installed a 5G network. As I did not deposit the cash yet, the account dropped into negative, and the checks that came in after that were called bad. I may still think it was a setup, but they would have a fully justifiable reasons to hold me.
So, instead of coming to airport in Zagreb, I decided to drive mad fast to Belgrade and catch the plane to Skopje from there. Their plot failed. I managed to arrive to airport in Belgrade just on time. But when I showed up at the terminal and gave the service agent my boarding pass, he disappeared with it, and I was told to wait. Airplane was leaving in 15 minutes. Soon, two guys in plain clothes arrived with the service agent and invited me to go with them. I reiterated that as much I would love to I really did not want to miss my plane. I speculated the worst - that Croatian police, for those times already unusual, alerted them - but pretended ignorance. They said the plane would wait. So I went with them. By then of course I figured it out they were cops, but Republic of Serbia cops.
When we came to their office, they poured me a glass of Ballantines whiskey and offered me a Marlboro (I, like everybody else at the time, smoked then). Not because they didn't know about what happened in Zagreb: they did it because they knew perfectly well what happened in Zagreb. And they were amused with how I played the Zagreb police. Again they were perfectly happy to watch their neighbor's cow die, and it was worth to them to make close to a hundred people wait seated on the plane for departure, so they can have a chat with a person who made that happen. The tape never came up as the topic of the conversation. As if the Serbian security service at the time was perfectly OK with airing an "Ustasha" at the meeting in Ohrid.
Finally, when I arrived to Skopje, I was greeted by their cops, and again at Ohrid in the hotel room. It looks like they were tasked just with making sure I arrive and get there. The presentation, however meek may it look today, was, of course, a scandal. While literally no student group made an issue of that, Tanjug press agency, and Nova Makedonija newspapers wrote about it as a nationalist incident. The student socialist youth leaders on University of Zagreb all had to apologize for not being woke enough to the principles of brotherhood and unity, mind you, just a year before everything would fall apart like a house of cards. In Belgrade, however, the news were greeted with curious approval, I was interviewed by B92 and given the opportunity to rebuke Tanjug. It was good news to Milosevic-run Serbia in 1989 that Croatian nationalism was waking up, I guess. Even if that was not at all on that tape. But it was in Tanjug's interpretation of events. And that was enough to matter. Once the Ustashe rise their heads it would be easier to justify events to come.
I hope it is clear to everybody why I cannot assume my case there was ever closed, and why I don't trust any government figure from there, and why then I cannot return in peace. So, I cannot return in peace until that is solved for me. But could I return even if I cannot do so in peace? In 1988 there was a meeting of UJDI (Society for Yugoslav Democratic Initiative - the last futile attempt of the left leaning Yugoslav liberal intilligentsia to save the country) where abovementioned former political prisoner Ivan Zvonimir Cicak asked: "would this new democracy you are proposing be also a democracy for people like me?" This is my question now - a reverse Kennedy - what did the new Croatian state ever did for me? Is that also a state for me? I can itemize a long list of good things that the US and the state of Vermont did and still do for me, for example, but less so about the Republic of Croatia. To return it will mean I have somewhere to come to. But I don't. I literally have to beg my friends for a place to stay - which they luckily always provide for me, and I did not yet have to sleep in hotel like a tourist while visiting Croatia. But I have no pied-a-terre in Croatia to return to. And that is largely not because of the state, but because of my family, or rather because of a woman that hi-jacked my family, exiled my mother, kidnapped my father, and distributed his wealth among her litter of useless eaters. All condoned as legal under the Croatian law. I feel treated stepmotherly both by my family and by my country of origin (in the US immigration parlance).
Which brings us to the other side of my story, perhaps even darker, that considers just my family. My father, just like Manolic, also had the necessary plasticity of deep moral convictions, to jump from making plastic replicas of statues of Tito, and being a communist party member working abroad in foreign trade, to a fervid Croatian independence supporter, with a company registered in Zug, helping Tudjman obtain weapons under the UN arms embargo. From that position he had the temerity to write to me how the US was the country built by gangsters and prostitutes.
He was a terrible father, distant, patronizing, unable to be intimate, unable to share, unable to accept that he can sometimes, however rare, be wrong. Quick to promise things he never hoped to deliver. Quick to punish. Petty. Vain. Easily offended. What control he had over himself socially in public, was gone in private, where he expected to be treated like a pharaoh, and his absolute power obeyed, short-tempered and violent. Unmoored from the ability to differentiate the truth from the lie, mired in Orwellian doublespeak, and exonerated by whatever philospher he could quote to justify his most recent and most imminent want.
He definitely thought he was above the law and ethic concerns of other mortals. Most famously, in December 1979, my appendix perforated and I needed an urgent surgery to survive. But at that point he was temporarily out of favor with the party, being labeled a technomanagerial elite, so he was out of work, and I did not have health insurance. Ooops. Right before I was sedated, my stepmother approached me to tell me to remember when I wake up that my name is Miroslav, the name of her son of my age. Because they registered me as patient under his name, since he was insured through her. To this day Croatian medical records show he had that surgery. But he does not have the scar. I have. The deception nearly failed when my grandmother arrived, prematurely, and unaware of the name switch, and made drama at the reception asking for her grandson Ivo, while they were trying to explain to her they have no Ivo on the floor. Later, my father "explained" to nurses and doctors that I have two names, Ivo, and Miroslav. To make explanation more convincing, doctors received blue envelopes with gold ingots, and nurses were pampered with large flower arrangements and the best Suisse chocolates.
It was clear that marriage between my fatther and my mother could not last. She wanted to be treated as equal. He thought no one was equal to him, as he was bigger than God, and we all needed to worship him. He did not need a wife with a college degree who worked as a doctor. And the only thing why that marriage lasted full, whooping 7 years, was that they never lived together: she in Germany, he in Italy - the little time during holidays they spent together and with me (I was otherwise cared for by my grandma full time), they mostly bickered, quarelled and yelled at each other. So he found what he wanted: a secretary, a servant, a woman that would always tell him how he was the greatest, the smartest, the holliest of all. He thought he was getting a trophy wife. She was the type, still popular with the political class and gentlemen of means even in contemporary Croatia, judged by recent mistresses of Bandic, Plenkovic, and Skoro, the buxom bleached blonde squeezed in tight red costume under heavy makeup tetering on high heels grinning stupidly behind their backs.
What he didn't know was that he didn't find her: she - a career gold digger, twice divorced, both times with children, to secure alimony - found him, her next step in her ruthless social climb, and she worked dilligently to secure her prey and close the deal. So she can add to her looks a pound of gold jewelry on each arm, rings and bracelets: she had trouble rising her arms last time I saw her in 2003. She anticipated my jealous mother paid off neighbors to report on who was visiting him. Poor, neglected, too busy professional woman, my mother would be completely fine and understanding, if he slept with escorts: she was just afraid of one single woman, the one who would replace her. So my future stepmother changed wigs to fool the neighborhood watch. She also brought tasteful flower bouquets to his mother, my grandmother, which is how I learned to associate her with flowers, and started calling he Aunty Flowers, to the amusement and encouragement of my father.
When my father made clear to her in a letter left for her on the top of the TV set, that she had been replaced, my mother divorced, and after she was forced to lose everything, the child, the apartment, in a system heavily stacked against her, a member of German minority, and a child of the enemy collaborator, against my father, a well-connected party member, she returned moping to Germany, haven't called for 5 years, leaving me in my new predicament: my father and his new wife bought an apartment together (for his money, of course) and intended to rise the family there - them two, her mother, a Serb woman from Lika, whose husband died as a partisan in WW2, who spent her life cleaning other peoples houses, giving her a habit to always put a little crisp clean lace handkerchief and a porcelain figurine at the bottom of the sink, once she was done thoroughly cleaning kitchen after every meal, as a housekeeper; me, her son from her first marriage, same age as me, and the child they had together, already 2 years old, whom initially after birth my father and stepmother registered at the county under the last name of her former husband, probably bribing the official, so that my mother would have harder time proving my father's adultery in the court. The daughter from that stepmother's second marriage went to her father, escaping the wrath of living under my father's roof, and ending up being a succesful business owner, even winning the title of Croatian businesswoman of the year once. Only in hindsight one may conclude how huge mistake my stepmother made by dumping her second husband, a lowly car mechanic then, who, once the society transitioned to market economy, expanded to become the largest truck electronics servicer in the country: she was just too hungry for the prestige my father conveyed at the time.
Once however the deal was consumated, Aunty Flowers changed. She stopped buying flowers to my grandmother. She did her best to minimize my visits to my grandma, and invited her over as rarely as possible, while filling my father's head with innuendo about his mother. It is true that my grandmother was a very protective mother and she certainly helped sour his previous marriage: something my stepmother was keen to ward off. So, first she took my mother away, and then she took my grandmother away, and she was about to take my father away from me, too: all legal and socially acceptable in Croatia=Yugoslavia. She also stopped showering me with lavish attention I was used to from the before-the-marriage times. Now I was just one of the 3 kids and was suddenly supposed to change and accept that fate with a shrug. I never did. Which made her just hate me more and talk behind my back to my father about how horrible satan spawn I was, birthed by my satanic mother, in contrast with the placid and unquestionably obedient, angelic children of hers.
Soon, and through my teenage years, I was treated like a Cinderella of the family. While clothed, sheltered, and fed, all the extras were considered unnecessary luxury, she appealed to my father's preternatural thrift. Having a bycicle, a car, going skiing, was all considered unnecessary waste. But she would work hard on him for months to secure those for her children. Her son was even sent to England to a study program. I was the last child in my class that brought money for a graudation trip, after a long debate why was that necessary. While he had worse grades than me, he was somehow considered a better student. If there was something to be passed on from the household, like a gramophone, it went to her son; because I had a wealthy mother of my own who could buy it for me. She opened the doors of apartment to her son when he was late for curfew in the evening (my dad would lock the doors and leave the key in the lock so we can't unlock them) after my father would fall asleep. I couldn't expect that. I spent many nights sleeping in the parks, walking around town with punk rock gangs, spraying grafitti, drinking, being pursued by unsavory people. I would go to have breakfast at my grandmother or at friends. Once, stepmother found my journal, where I wrote down how I feel, that I wrote as I did not have anyone to talk to, and showed it to my dad: I never got it back, and he certainly learned then, if he did not know already, what an ungrateful bastard he had as a son. She riffled through my school bag to see whether I had anything in, written to share with my friends, that would show her and the family in a bad light. Meanwhile, her son was riffling through my father's cabinet, stealing cash, that she squarely pinned on me.
Eventually, when her son and I finished high school, we moved out from that hell of a home, so she and my father can stay alone with our younger half-brother, pretending to be a young family. Here her through smarts and cunning started to shine through her bland obsequiousness. Her son moved in with his grandmother, her mother that at that point already lived alone in the apartment my father got from the company he worked for back in the 1960s after he married the first time and had a child - me. So, the apartment that was by all contemporary legal standards supposed to go to my mother and to me, then went to my father's new mother-in-law and her grandson (who btw still lives in that apartment). I, however, did not move in with my beloved grandmother, who lived at the prime downtown Zagreb location in, while delapidated, still a grand apartment, where my father and his siblings grew up. Same standards did not apply to me. Her son could be trusted to help an old woman. I could not. I would just be a burden, was what my stepmother made my father think. They rather offered to pay rent for a place while I am at college.
At the time I was fine with that, I made friends and had a good time. I didn't think long term like my stepmother that this was just one step in her master plan to disinherit me and make sure I didn't put roots in that apartment. The next 6 years she spent demonizing me and my father spent infantilizing my pursuits. Her son was current on his studies and were on track to graduate college on time. He studied Latin and ancient Greek, subjects he would never be acquainted with should she not have met my father. I was an academic failure during my college years. The truth is I was always pushed towards academic success. And I was bored and tired of that. Living alone I had the freedom to do so much more. I discovered there are many things I enjoyed doing more than studying, that I did not have the opportunity to do earlier, because they were deemed stupid and wasteful. I started working out and spending time outdoors, and my health, appearance, and physical abilities improved remarkably, and that made me immensely happy, as during my shortened 6 months stint in the mandatory Yugoslav Army boot camp I learned how woefully inadequate I was for survival outside of the confines of a rarified environment, sheltered by wealth and status: I hated being like that.
Also, ending up involved with Radio 101, that was in my neighborhood at the time, and with other youth media in Yugoslavia, and then with the early socio-political activism that started in Lubljana and Zagreb was to me far more fulfilling, then going to college. Besides, I was getting paid. And I was paid decently for the time and place. Within a year I was able to buy a used car. My father, of course, was able to buy me a car, as many fathers of similar means did for their children, my friends - but he was of firm opinion that I simply did not need a car. And when I bought one, for my own money, he did not find a single word of praise for that. While what I did at that radio is still remembered 30+ years after, he at that time treated it as a child's play, a total waste of time, that was supposed to be used to "prepare for life" - life like his, I guessed - but I did not like the life he had, being obese and under the slipper of that woman who could hardly make a difference between Spinoza and spinach.
Then her son graduated college and I left for the US. I came to the US on college exchange, actually, but I never continued studies in the US, simply because nobody paid for that. I was totally flabbergasted with how much effort would I have to put in here just to secure money so I am allowed to study: this was really too much for someone that was hard to make go to college anyway. There is a separate story how Soros could have made that possible, but failed to do so with an idiotic explanation that I was not eligible for his support because I came to this country 6 months too early. This in hindsight is only sad because my mom believed and hoped Soros, this wonderful smart old Jew in her fantasies, in reality a ruthless hedge fund speculator, will help me achieve my potentials (and mothers always think their sons' potentials are vast), will serve to me as a father figure, that I never had. Of course, he never heard od me. And my case was handled by an insensitive and not well informed administrator, a member of the former Yugoslav regime's oppressor caste, that sent her to study in the US on Fullbright scholarship, while taking my passport away: lacking merit but abusing the facts of her birth she angled her way into his open society, closing it for me.
(Pity my mother, the eternal immigrant, the eternal "gipsy." She died in 2021 at peace in a hospice in Germany at 92, after deteriorating rapidly once she retired from her job. Alzheimer took her over during the last 4-5 years so badly that she did not remember that she had children at times. Her job was always her life. She was that generation of educated women that was breaking the glass ceiling. Being a member of the German minority in Serbia, whose father fought on the wrong side in WW2, she was not allowed to go to college in Belgrade after the war, so she moved to Zagreb, where they let her study medicine, but her peers mocked her for her Serbian accent. This is where she met her first husband, and then my father, as her savior, the prince on the white horse. In the early sixties, she already supervised a small clinic for alcoholics on an island off the Croatian coast. Ambitious as she was she wanted to run a bigger hospital in a larger Croatian coastal city. But that post went to Jovan Raskovic, a psychiatrist later becoming better known for leading the Serbian insurgency in Croatia in the 1990s and presiding over the spreading of hate and committing war crimes. Disappointed for being overlooked, she moved to Germany in 1963, where I ended up being born. Being fluent in German, she quickly found work there and remained until her death, although she always said she was treated like an immigrant, and she did not really have a homeland: German in Serbia, Serbian in Croatia, Auslaender in Germany. For the last 3 decades before the retirement, she was a chief medical officer at clinics for addiction first in Daun, then in Hasselbach. She was admittedly a horrible wife and a reluctant mother. She was a hoarder and a spendthrift, a trait I observe with many immigrant mothers who reached the western abundance from some society with empty store shelves. Her pantry was always ready for a ten years war. She was utterly obsessed with hair, which she never allowed to age, even as the rest of her body did. And she could talk on the phone for hours. At least she could until she got stopped in her tracks by dementia. Most importantly, she was, unlike my stepmother, really dumb and devoid of cunning about marital affairs and exploiting her uterus to advance her prosperity.)
My stepmother's son then started a respectable job of a high school teacher. I became a lifeguard in NYC. I have to confess I did not know lifeguarding existed as a profession, back in my coocooned upbringing in the Yugoslav social and academic elite. But me being a lifeguard, or running my own radio show with a friend, or becoming a snowboard instructor, that was all dismissed and ridiculed as the typical lack of devotion to more serious pursuits and long term planning for life. Because the "life" has only a few serious and respectable ways to go about: doctor, lawyer, engineer, professor. For me, however, who never learned how to ride a bicycle as a child, and who was always dismissed as clumsy klutz in high school, learning how to snowboard was a huge deal, comparable to attaining a masters degree, maybe even phd, and I am still immensely proud of collossaly wasting my time, that should have been better used to figure out how to position myself so money siphons into my pockets, to do it.
Shortly after, her son's career came to an abrupt end. One of his students accused him of sexual assault. He was always big and morbidly obese, and never wore a T-shirt, so people don't see his man-boobs. Apparently, she was failing Latin, and during a private oral exam he offered to change her grade to B if she took her T-shirt off and let him fondle her boobs. An incel move. This was 1995. He was promptly fired. He, then sued the school. But the legal process, that being Croatia, the country with the slowest courts in universe, is still ongoing. Actually, so far, he only profited from the legal process, having sued Croatian courts for not convicting or acquitting him for more than a decade and, in 2007, having won a settlement of 3,500 euros at the European Court of Human Rights on claims of Croatian courts being slow to process his case, after already winning 10,500 kuna from Croatian Constitutional court on account of his rights being violated by the slowness of the process. His victim, meanwhile, was awarded nothing. Sexual assault seems to be a lucrative business in Croatia.
But his life tumbled down nevertheless. Once fired, he started tutoring at homes. There his old habit of riffling through desks and stealing popped up, and he got caught stealing at one home, and arrested. Just months after his short (a couple of weeks) jail stint, his kidneys failed. Since then, he doesn't work, and lives of my father's wealth, in the apartment that my father got for my birth, and as a burden to Croatian state, that pays for his 3 times a week dialisys, for 20+ years. While his sexual assault case, that so far he only made a profit on, is still not concluded. Our common half brother, 7 years younger than us, still lives in the aparment that we all lived together at during the 1970s, with his mother, with no job, but with a college degree, that he obtained after our father paid him a private college. His best known activity was becoming a Nazi sympathizer during the 1990s and hating Serbs and others, despite having a Serb grandmother. Typical Croatian family. Almost makes me patriotically sick.
During the beginning of my stay in the US, as my stepmother was content that I left and thus hoping I would not compete with her children for inheritance of my father's wealth, my relations with my father slightly improved: we talked, even exchanged small gifts. He showed interest in what I was doing, albeit with a hint of sarcasm, visited me in the US, and always let me stay in my grandmother's apartment, when I visited Croatia. Where he and his sisters grew up, where I lived with her until the age of 10, where I was not let to move in when I was 17, and where she was ultimately cruelly left to die alone on Christmas Eve in 1992, while they were celebrating (at that time due to her advanced emphysema, that she was first diagnosed with in 1968, she was not able to climb to the 5th floor of my father's and stepmother's apartment, in a building without elevator, which could be precisely the reason why my far-seeing stepmother chose the place in 1974) . This all ended in 2003 when I visited with my wife and when we told him she was pregnant. One would think that would bring an exitement to him: he was getting his first and only grandson. But Aunty Flowers recognized an immense threat in that. And after we left that time, he stopped answering letters and never called again. When I came back to Zagreb in December 2005, to organize learn to ride snowboard camps for children victims of war on Sljeme, he did not let me stay at my grandmothers apartment, he changed the locks, and barged out, when I came, angrily chasing me down the stairs, yelling that his only regret was that he did not kill me earlier, when he still could.
Those were the last words I heard my father had spoken to me. He did not tell me, neither did he tell his two sisters, who had the same rights to that apartment, as he did, that in just a matter of days he'd sell that apartment to a PR agency (they still have an office there) - we learned about that only after his death in 2013: the proceeds of that sale were not shared with neither me, nor his sisters. Instead, he opened a new bank account just to receive that money and then immediately emptied and closed it, with the money, the stepmother testifed later, being spent, and Croatia, of course, having no way to exaamine Suisse banks, had no recourse to prove otherwise. This grand larceny is completely legal under the Croatian law, and I am expected to live with it. After all, that apartment, just as the rest of the country's economy was privatized and liquidated in the same way, enriching those that happened to have cash right at the time when the most lost everything to inflation and the war, who had the opportunity to accumulate property at dumping prices that they later resold for 20 or 100 times more on the market. He privatized it, also, without consulting his sisters, in mid-1990-s for 20,000 German Marks, invested a little less in renovation and central heating, to sell it in 2006 for 250,000 euros. Curiously, with all he left to those ingrates, when he died, they dumped him in his parents' grave, without even putting his name on the gravestone.
My dad never saw his only grandson, neither showed the interest to meet him, which hurts me immensely, since this was the best thing that ever happened to him, with his grandson being, well, so much like him in a good way: academically inclined, and prosperity loving, a scholar that loves a quiet good life. We were there in 2005 and in 2006, and again in 2013, when my aunt, his sister was calling him from the US, trying to mend relations between us, to no avail. Which again runs completely against his supposed devotion to the family values. Gone were the years of preaching how his father was born in Livno, the mythical place in Bosnia, where he never took us, ashamed of our lowly origins, and he in Zagreb, and I in Germany, signaling family progress from illiterate sheepherders and bandits in the mountains between Venice and Ottomans to worldly men of letters and means, which kind of got crowned with my son being born on Manhattan. Instead there was just that spiteful silence and rejection. There was no generational transfer, either materially, in terms of money, real estate, and other assets, or just spiritually, in terms of wisdom and experience. I wouldn't even know he died if a high school friend had not seen the obituary in newspapers and emailed me. Obituary did not mention me, my spouse, or our son. As if we never existed. He died in ignorance, too proud to be bothered with the truth, while a whole generation of other stubborn, selfish, vain, unflexible people like him continue to form the backbone of Croatian society.