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Monday, May 9, 2016

The House in Belgrade

Note: I mentioned a few weeks ago that this space is now a holding place for various musings about my family history, about which I know very little. My writings--occasional pieces in many senses--are  in no particular order. I have been grateful for the kind comments I have received. They were totally unexpected. I'm still frugal, but I won't be writing on that topic anymore. Thanks again to my past readers.

Emma was a superstar student and was encouraged to apply for various fellowships, the most prestigious being the Rhodes. She worked and reworked her essay, gathered numerous letters of recommendation, and made it to the final competition in Houston. She did not get the Rhodes, which surely would have propelled her along the academic track she was being groomed for. She now says she is grateful that she didn't get it.

She also applied for a Fulbright to teach English in Serbia. That took a good deal of strategizing. Many of the countries required fluency or near fluency in the language. Her friend A, another superstar student, did not get a Fulbright to France, perhaps because she was not fluent in the language. 

Serbia did not require applicants to have the language. And she had a good story for Serbia, a reason to go: my mother and her family passed through the country as they escaped from the Nazi regime in Austria.This was a route taken by many Austrian Jews. One of my grandmother's sisters --Julia--had married a Serb, a very successful man named Nikolai Petrovic. 

My mother, who remembers very little, does remember a beautiful house with a swimming pool. Emma wrote a beautiful essay recounting what she knew of the family history, a story of a Serb saving a family of seven from genocide. Added to that: Emma had become very interested in icons and learned that Serbian churches were full of some of the beautiful images she had been studying.

Amazingly, the house was still in the possession of the family. It had been divided in two. The bottom floor was occupied by Emmi, Julia's daughter, and her family. Her one child, Marina, had just sold the bottom floor to a wealthy family.

The upper floor was occupied by Julia's son George, a chemist, and his wife Ilde. Julia lived with them till she died. My great-grandmother Minna lived there too. George died some time ago, so the upper floor was--and is--occupied by his widow Ilde, who had a distinguished career as a journalist. 

Emma contacted Ilde before she went to Serbia and boldly asked Ilde if she could stay with her for a few days. Ilde declared that she didn't like people, but that Emma could stay. What a gift for them both. Emma became quite close to Ilde. 

When Tom and I went to Serbia two summers ago, we got to meet Ilde and to see the house. Ilde was very frail. The house,which I will write more about later, was filled with pieces of her past--photos of her parents, both doctors, who were killed by the Nazis. Ilde herself was in two concentration camps and somehow survived. Even though there was something of a Miss Havisham sense of decrepitide, the house remains elegant. And the pool is still there.

Ilde is dying now, so I don't suppose I will get to see her again. Meeting her--and seeing the house--were among the most moving experiences of my life. I only wish I had been able to meet George, my mother's first cousin.

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