ThWE Challenge: Crossroads
The bathroom in our allocated flat was the length of a short bathtub and the width of the same bathtub plus a small washbasin. It had no windows. The flat came with Sasha’s job. The bathroom in my old home, my parents’ home, where we started our married life, was spacious and it had a window. Here, in this shoebox, fresh air came in through a small ventilation grid on the ceiling. We were on the fifth floor of a ten-story building, so I suppose we were lucky as our fresh air was fresher than the rest of the tenants below us enjoyed. I never felt quite at ease in that bathroom. It was always such a relief to step out into daylight and fresh air.
That evening, I was sitting in the bath, enveloped in the warmth of water and steamy air, when Sasha opened the door and quickly shut it behind him so cold air wouldn’t get in. It was autumn and already quite cold. He looked at me, stood there for a moment, took a deep breath and said: “Would you like to come with me to Canada?” “Yes”, I replied. Just like that. Without a moment of hesitation.
How come my decision was made in a split second?
The fact is that I had been watching him for the last year getting more and more sombre and greyer in the face. My happy joker had become a disillusioned man. The conditions where he worked were getting worse for graduate engineers, who were considered in the communist social order as unproductive, consequently often treated with scorn by the chosen class, the leaders of the blue-collar workers, that is, the Communist Party officials.
Sasha’s salary and my part-time job were not enough to provide for our small family: our little boy was two. My father was a well-known and respected doctor and his private practice was doing very well, so my parents always very generously helped to make our both ends meet. Although we were grateful, we felt we couldn’t go on like that forever. Sasha could have earned more… if he had been prepared to take bribes. But he couldn’t.
He just couldn’t, and I’m glad that he couldn’t. I myself never entertained the idea. It was abhorrent to me. Yet, I must not judge those people who took bribes, which was an accepted practice at the time. They did it in order to survive. Some, however, were just greedy. Sasha and I wanted to earn our living in an honest way. So what were we to do?
Enter Comrade T.
He was a war hero. A dead one into the bargain. Miraculously dead and alive at the same time. In the new social order anything was possible for the privileged, even that, to be dead and alive at the same time. Thus, Comrade T managed to get his son enrolled in a special technical school for children of fallen freedom fighters. A living dead war hero. Conveniently dead on paper. It’s amazing how powerful a piece of paper can be. On paper he was also a freedom fighter from the very beginning of the war in 1941, which was supposed to prove that he was a genuine partisan. The truth is that he joined the partisans a few months before the end of 1944, when it was obvious they were on the winning side. So much for his character.
A taxi driver by profession, in the new social order he was deemed suitable for a managerial post in a huge car repair and service workshop with a section for the production of “Zastava”, meaning “Flag”, a Yugo –name for the Italian Fiat. The establishment employed 500 workers and mechanics, three graduate engineers, a technical director and a general manager, Comrade T himself, whose formal schooling did not go beyond four years in primary. He did not even do a crash course like many other poorly educated partisans had to do. His Communist Party credentials were sufficient. No wonder the country slowly but steadily went to the dogs.
There were hundreds of comrades like Comrade T all over the country. Some of them built monuments to themselves, like factories that never went into operation.
Comrade T, not wanting to fall behind in prestige or status, decided that his own monument would be a holiday resort by the sea for his workers. To find a suitable place he spent two months travelling along the coast looking for it, and on finding it, regular free holidays with his family followed at the site on the pretext of inspecting the construction progress A luxury boat for his workers was first and foremost available to his family.
Sasha was highly respected and also loved by the workers; respected for his knowledge and honesty, loved for his kindness and readiness to share a joke. On his daily inspection round he observed their skills on high precision machines and was always happy to praise them with great admiration. They in turn greatly appreciated his understanding of their delicate work.
Comrade T, by contrast, sensed in Sasha not only a class enemy but also an enemy of conscience: too knowledgeable and too honest for his small scheming mind.
Sasha was decidedly getting more and more on his nerves, for the engineer dared to question some of his decisions. One day Comrade T got so annoyed that he banged his fist on the table and pronounced the stunningly insightful utterance which made Sasha think long and hard: “F… you engineers, the day will come when we won’t need you anymore!”
Within a year we left our homeland never to return.
When in 1991 Yugoslavia started to disintegrate and the Balkan tribes were at war again as they were in 1941, old wounds were reopened on a large national scale and so were ours. On hearing our story, a Yugoslav friend said: “Well, you can bless Comrade T and build him a monument for pushing you out of our accursed country.”
Well then: “God bless you, Comrade T! This story is our monument to you.”
© irina dimitric 2012