Understanding her father -- and his war-ravaged Sarajevo childhood -- meant following his trail of secrets
By Courtney Angela Brkic
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page W21
The article can be read at:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A1882-2005Jan11.html
FOUR DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS 2003, when my family was together for the holidays, a fire started on the first floor of my parents' Arlington home. It moved rapidly across several oil-painted walls, including the one on which our mother had recorded our heights throughout our childhood. This happened in the middle of the night, and we converged on the first floor from different parts of the house, squinting and trying to make sense of the rooms filling with thick, black smoke. My brother, Andrew, pushed his wife, my mother and me out the front door. My father, however, would not be budged. He moved like a sleepwalker, repeatedly filling a kitchen pot with water and throwing it at the flames.
My mother had the presence of mind to grab the cordless phone on her way out the front door and dial 911. "Get everyone out of the house now," the dispatcher told her with unfathomable calm. "The fire department is on its way." My father refused to leave, even as Andrew returned to pull him to the front door. I screamed at such a hysterical pitch that
the dispatcher asked my mother, "Why is that woman screaming like that?" Later my brother said it was as if our father was in a trance. He did not make eye contact, nor did he give any indication that he heard my screams or Andrew's altogether calmer entreaties. He seemed to exist somewhere beyond our reach, but the intent look on his face made one thing clear: He would not abandon the house willingly. Finally, my brother picked him up and dragged him outside.
I SPENT MUCH OF LAST YEAR TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF THAT NIGHT. How could my father, an otherwise sane man, have placed his
life in such jeopardy? Where was his instinct for survival? Where was the common sense that had helped him survive a world war, communism and the loss of those he loved?
My father was born Berislav Brkic in 1929. He escaped Yugoslavia in 1959, unwilling to join the Communist Party and unable to live the silent life that would ensure survival there. He spent two years in Germany as a political refugee before coming to
the United States, where he landed in New York with a planeload of other refugees at what was then Idlewild Airport. He had approximately $50 to his name. Immigrants to the United States have tended to remain in communities that speak their language and share their customs. My father, though, did not settle near the Croatian population in New York, nor the ones in
Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago or any other urban center where specialty stores stocked pickled cabbage or Kras chocolate. New York was too busy for him; he found the height and density of its city blocks suffocating, and the constant throngs of people unnerved him. Almost immediately, he moved to Washington, where his brother later joined him. The way he tells it, they liked the wide boulevards, the low buildings and the cherry blossoms.
His was the typical immigrant fantasy of America, and the first few months of his immigrant's life here were typically disillusioning. He arrived before the civil rights movement, when schools and drinking fountains were still segregated. While he was on a trip to Texas, a restaurant refused to serve him because they thought he was Mexican. And although his English was proficient, his early professional life in America was frustrating. A respected radio playwright in Zagreb and a sound engineer for Armed Forces Radio in Germany, he worked as a waiter, car salesman and Peoples Drug Store cashier in Washington.
Five years after arriving here, he had changed his first name to Barry, saved enough money to open a film production company in Georgetown and, not long after having made the transition from newcomer to successful U.S. citizen, met my mother, Brigitte, at a District swimming pool. I have often marveled at how my father retained the core of his immigrant's vision of America, even as its edges eroded. When my brother and I were growing up, my father's mantra was: "I left so my children could be free." We invariably met this statement with grins and eye-rolling. Lacking a basis for comparison, we could not fully grasp its meaning. As we got older and began to muse over our future professions, my father pointed to the fact that Americans could choose their own educational paths. A person could work hard and succeed here. It was a cause-and-effect relationship that never failed to astound him.
I have heard that Americans move an average of 12 times in their lives, but my parents, neither of them born in the United States (my mother was born in Germany but raised in England), have lived in that same house in Arlington for 30 years. It is not of the best construction and tends to shudder when trucks pass; the ceilings have cracked from those reverberations. Its floors and walls display scars that do not lend themselves to superficial repair; for years children have hung from its banisters and chipped its plaster with airborne projectiles. The family dog (dead two years, his ashes buried in the garden) grooved the wooden floors with his paws during dizzying revolutions around the house. The centerpiece of a hard-won and commonly held American dream, the house is where their children laughed, fought and shouted with thoroughly American accents. It is also a house in which hunger and fear were alien concepts, a feat for a man who had himself been acquainted with both.
MY FATHER WAS OBSESSED WITH PROVIDING HAPPY CHILDHOODS FOR MY BROTHER AND ME. The middle-class neighborhood where I grew up
was safe, and we had a host of forgiving dogwood trees to climb in our garden. In addition to providing us with the usual
consumer trappings of an American childhood, our artistically leaning parents would often make our gifts: wooden dollhouses,
a sandbox with benches at each end, a clubhouse complete with skylight, Easter eggs painted intricately with scenes from our
favorite children's books.
Our father told us that he sometimes dreamed about the happy periods in his own Sarajevo childhood, vastly different from our
own. He cannot remember the village in Herzegovina where he was born or the father who died while he was still a toddler, but
he remembers the city he moved to as a child. Our photograph albums show him as a slender, dark-eyed boy with a wide smile,
sledding with his younger brother in Sarajevo's Veliki Park. Even in the black-and-white pictures you can see the fogged
breath and flushed cheeks of the exuberant 9- and 7-year-olds. There are photographs of picnics, of hikes where they gathered
wild strawberries and of summer trips to Gradac on the Adriatic Coast. In one of the last, the photographer has followed my
then-27-year-old grandmother into the sea, where she floats like a grinning mermaid.
Certain events have a way of bisecting time, of splitting recollection between "the years before" and "the years after." The
Second World War splits my father's photographs in this way, though we recognized that bookmark only vaguely as we were
growing up. There are almost no photographs from the war years, and then, suddenly, my father appears at 16, proudly
displaying dark fuzz on his upper lip. In the postwar photographs, his mother smiles only slightly. The man who photographed
my grandmother splashing in the Adriatic, her longtime companion and a Sephardic Jew, has been killed in Jasenovac concentration camp.
Starting at age 8, I used to pore over the pictures, asking my father a battery of questions. "Who's that?" I would ask,
pointing at a pretty, smiling woman with a fur hand muff. "That's your Great-Aunt Katja," he would say. Or, looking at a
picture of their summer holidays, "Was that your donkey?" He would laugh. "No," he would say. "They were giving children
rides at the seaside."
I understood the metamorphic nature of the war from an early age, even if its nuances were beyond my grasp. The equation,
though my father never overtly explained it like this, was simple enough: prewar = happiness; war = misery. When telling
stories about his childhood, my father vastly preferred to paint the landscape of the former. On the rare occasions that he
spoke about the war, he did so in a controlled staccato. Only very rarely would he elaborate, revealing his family's methods
of survival. My favorite story details my grandmother's clairvoyance or, perhaps more exactly, superstition. One morning
before a round of air raids in 1941, before the Germans entered Sarajevo, a glass suddenly cracked on the sideboard while my grandmother fed her sons breakfast. When she examined the still-intact glass, she interpreted the jagged fault line as an omen. She bundled them out of the apartment, and a few minutes later a bomb fell in the yard, severely damaging their building.
"That is why one should always listen to a gut feeling," my father would counsel, after telling this story. "We could have been killed." But I always wanted more. There is no surer way to spark a child's interest in something than by avoiding it in conversation. As I grew up, learning about those years became my obsession, despite my father's reluctance to fill in the story. "Your father will tell you when he's ready," my mother said once, when I tried to extract the information from her instead. It was my mother who grounded him through the years of my childhood, reviving him from depressions, which struck randomly and which
frequently manifested themselves as rage. When she married him, it is fair to say, she married his history as well. But she respected his right to privacy about it.
There is only one story from the war years that I knew as a very small child, and it is one I overheard him tell other adults at a dinner. I had been playing underneath the table, and I don't think he knew I was in the room. On a foggy winter morning when he was no more than 12 or 13, he was walking down a tree-lined promenade in Sarajevo when a boot suddenly loomed out of the mist, at eye level. He looked upward to see that the boot belonged to a man who had been hanged from a tree. When he looked around in panic, for the first time paying attention to his surroundings, he realized that other men and women were hanging from the trees. Although I knew that the story had not been intended for my ears, I pestered him for the details in the days to come. Who were the people? I wanted to know. And what had they done? It is doubtful that I would have understood the idea of wartime reprisals against civilians, but I had an acute sense of my father's uneasiness when he brushed the questions away.
LIKE MANY OTHER ADULTS WHO SURVIVED LEAN WAR CHILDHOODS, my father cannot bear to throw anything away. On a visit home several years ago, I caught him going through the wastepaper basket in my room. He was extracting a pair of headphones I'd accidentally put through the wash. They were waterlogged and completely ruined.
"What on Earth do you think can be done with those?" I asked him in annoyance. "Besides, they were only a few dollars!" He shook his head, grumbling about a generation that knew only waste. Modern American life was soft, he would tell us, and if we were forced to make do with nothing, even for a little while, we would understand his logic.
The headphones joined the magazines, junk mail and old clothes intended for Goodwill but intercepted at the last moment.
Together with broken-off pieces of old typewriters, metal fans, cables and eyeglasses that, to my eyes, looked hopelessly
beyond repair, they filled boxes in the basement, attic and garage. My mother, a firm believer in organization, would insist
on a "spring cleaning" every few years but with little success. She had picked a husband with no love of minimalism or having
And, although our parents never subscribed to the "force-feeding" school of child rearing, wasting food was considered
shameful in our household. Our father would tell us at the dinner table, "Take only what you know you can eat." It was an
utterly reasonable request, and when I did not comply, ambitiously helping myself to something I couldn't eat, he would look
at my plate unhappily. He would look at my plate unhappily and then proceed to finish my food, whether he was hungry or not.
Once, he found a piece of bread I had spread thickly with peanut butter but then thrown away, half-eaten. He dug it out of
the garbage can and waved it at me.
"I know, I know," I told him with the jadedness only a 13-year-old can muster, and then parroted his favorite, enigmatic
admonition. "I should 'respect the bread.'"
He froze as if I had slapped him. "Try going hungry!" he shouted at me, brandishing the piece of bread as if he had every
intention of feeding it to me, and I ran from the room in tears. Several hours later, he told me in an oddly strangled voice,
"You'll never go hungry for as long as I'm alive."
My father is a powerfully built man, but his legs are as delicate as a bird's, and he has knock-knees. We used to tease him
when he bravely revealed them to the world in bathing trunks. Today, I know that his deformities were caused by rickets -- in
the war there had been no milk, or fruits or vegetables, either. Once, he had ended up in Dubrovnik without ration cards for
several weeks while his family helped to smuggle others from Sarajevo. His family had survived on bread the children begged
from the Italian soldiers and mussels the size of thumbnails that they scraped from the city's piers.
On a vacation to the Adriatic Coast several years ago, my father and I waded through the shallows, and I pointed out the
tiny, conical mussels, which clung to the rocks.
"Those are the ones," my father told me. "Can you imagine how much work goes into gathering even a handful?"
The author in her father's lap at Ocean City in 1973.
I remember trying to pry one away with my fingernail. A friend's mother had told me that they can be prepared in a tasty
sauce of wine, garlic and parsley. I mentioned this to my father, who shook his head with a grimace.
"Never again," he told me. "I couldn't eat them ever again."
MY FATHER WANTED, AT ALL COSTS, TO PREVENT US FROM BEING SAD, and he tried to intercept any situation that would grieve us,
no matter how mundane. When the Washington Redskins were not winning championships in the late 1970s, he switched allegiances
without batting an eye, steering my then-very young brother toward rooting for the Dallas Cowboys, who were building their
own football dynasty in those years. In his enthusiasm for backing a winning team, he didn't even consider the ramifications
of sending his son to a D.C.-area school in a Cowboys sweat shirt.
When I had a nightmare at a slumber party (which I'd been allowed to attend only after a lot of pleading), I roused my friend
in the middle of the night. She tried to persuade me to go back to sleep, but I only thought wistfully of home. I knew that
my father would pick me up, and I tiptoed into the kitchen, where I dialed our number.
My father's voice on the other end was groggy, but it also had a worried edge to it. He hated when my brother and I spent the
night at friends' houses, citing such hazards as faulty smoke alarms. "It's ridiculous," he would finally say in his last-
ditch attempt at protest, "to sleep on a stranger's floor in a sleeping bag when you have a perfectly comfortable bed at
When I whimpered into the phone that night that I wanted to come home, his only response was to tell me he'd be there in 15
minutes. He didn't even scold me in the car.
My brother did not pay much attention to the ribbing he received in school for his Cowboys paraphernalia, and I limited my
slumber party requests to one or two friends whose families my parents knew well. But there was one issue over which my
brother and I were locked in continuous battle against our father: our desire for a dog. It was the one thing we most wanted,
and it figured prominently in our "Dear Santa" letters year after year. By the time we wore him down, we were both teenagers.
"No dog," he would shout for years to put an end to our whining. "Not in this house!"
His reasoning was curiously specific: "Dogs die, and that would make you very sad."
"People die, too," I pointed out once.
"Yes," he said reasonably. "But dogs die seven times as fast."
Later, my mother told me the truth, "Your Dad had a dog once."
And so, at 10, I learned one more detail about the war: My father had found the bloody body of his dog, a German shepherd
named Lux, after an air raid.
The clues were scattered through my childhood like bread crumbs.
IN 1988, WHEN I WAS STILL IN HIGH SCHOOL, my father covered the anniversary of Kristallnacht at a Maryland synagogue for the
Voice of America. The ceremony included a performance by Flory Jagoda, a Washington-based Ladino singer from Sarajevo. Many
of her songs recalled the city my father had also known in his childhood, and, while he could not understand the Ladino words
(Ladino is a Sephardic Jewish form of Spanish), he followed along with the translations in the program and sat through a
recitation of the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. He understood even less of the Hebrew prayer than he did the
Ladino songs, but something shifted inside him as he listened to it.
When my father returned home that night, it was clear to all of us that something had changed. In the days that followed he
told us about the German occupation of Sarajevo and the Independent State of Croatia, about the abrupt end of prewar
happiness. The telling of this history is a process that has lasted years.
Josef Finci, my grandmother's companion, had evaded 1941 deportations of the city's Jewish population by hiding out in the
apartment where my father lived with his mother and brother. Months went by before someone informed on Josef, most likely the
man hired to forge documents for his escape. On a day when my father was playing soccer on the street with other neighborhood
boys, a Black Maria patrol car pulled up in front of his building on Brankova Street. "And that," my father told us, "was
This was, of course, only the barest of outlines. Each year my father has filled in the details a little more. When the Black
Maria pulled up, "that" was obviously "not that." My father turned around to see the hulking vehicle, and he knew that it
likely meant Josef's discovery. He also knew that the penalty for hiding a Jew meant death. In the months before the police
raid, he and my Uncle Frank had mapped out an entire escape route for Josef, complete with a rope with which to swing to the
neighbor's balcony a floor below. My father and Frank loved films with swashbucklers who always made daring escapes, and the
plan was the stuff of young boys' dreams -- a cross between Tarzan and an escaping Pimpernel. On the day of his arrest,
however, when the police began beating on the door, Josef froze. After months of near-incarceration in the apartment, it is
doubtful that he would have been strong enough to lower himself down the rope. Or, perhaps, he simply knew there was no hope
of escape. When the police entered the apartment, my uncle, then only 10, was trying frantically to push Josef toward the
Josef was sent to Jasenovac, and my grandmother, a Catholic woman accused of harboring a Jew, spent several long weeks in
Beledija prison, narrowly escaping execution and clinging to the story that she and Josef had concocted in case of discovery:
My grandmother had entered into a tenant-landlord agreement in which Josef had rented a room from her, not revealing that he
was Jewish. Evidently, Josef clung to the story just as fiercely as my grandmother did, though it could save only her and her
children at that point. He was killed in Jasenovac, machine-gunned against a barbed-wire fence in a camp uprising at the very
end of the war. My family learned this detail from his surviving sister, Nela Pinto, years later. My grandmother never knew
it. At the end of the war, as survivors trickled back into Sarajevo, Josef simply failed to materialize. According to my
father, that is how she eventually knew he was dead.
In 1963, after a lifetime of hardship, my grandmother attempted to hang herself. My father found her before she succeeded
completely, but the incident left her an invalid, and she died five years later as a result of that botched attempt.
WITH THE FIRE BLAZING IN OUR HOUSE, my father and Andrew did manage to douse most of the flames. "There's nothing we can do
now until the fire department gets here," my brother finally told him, but still Dad would not be moved. When my brother
picked him up and half-carried, half-dragged him from the house, he pulled our father's elbow slightly out of joint. I was
watching from the house's front steps, and I registered the sudden expression on my father's face: a combination of shock,
annoyance and pain. It was as if our sleepwalking father had finally regained consciousness.
By the time the Arlington County fire engines roared up, we were all shivering on the street in pajamas and bare feet. We
made lists in our heads: the things that were expendable vs. the things that we could not bear to lose.
"The photographs," my mother said. "Just the photographs."
The firefighters knocked through the walls to make sure the flames were not hiding and preparing to re-ignite. They wrapped
us in blankets and gave us their gloves to keep warm. They were gentle with us, and respectful toward my father, who even
managed to joke with them, offering soot-covered Christmas cookies, baked that afternoon and left cooling on racks on the
The house was, for the present, uninhabitable, and although my father insisted that we could manage, the firefighters were
equally adamant that we spend at least that night somewhere else. "The fumes are toxic," they pointed out. "Tomorrow, you can
come back and start cleaning up."
My father and I filled out reports with the fire marshal. I don't remember what I wrote, but I do know that my hand was
shaking as I signed it. I could not erase the sight of my father dumbly refusing to leave the house, or of my frantic
brother's 6-foot-4 frame nearly obliterated by smoke. I was less frightened than I was angry, and as we drove away from the
house, I exploded. "Who cares about the house if you'd died?" I shouted at my father's profile, which seemed to have aged
rapidly in the space of a few hours. "A house can be replaced. It's a thing."
He looked at me unrepentantly, as he has more or less continued to do in the year since then whenever the subject arises. "
Don't be melodramatic," he told me. "I've been through worse."
Courtney Angela Brkic, the author of The Stone Fields: An Epitaph for the Living, teaches at Kenyon College in Ohio.