MEMORY FLASHBACK TO STUDENT UPRISING 50 YEARS AGO
An American in Serbia: From a Writer’s Notebook
FLOOD OF MEMORIES
As I was walking yesterday to Kalenić Market, I stopped in front of my old university building to take a picture (see VISIT TO ANCESTORS’ GRAVE SPAWNS SERIES OF EXCITING EVENTS, July 25, 2018). This morning, as I looked at that photo again, a flood of memories gushed out like a spring thaw.
Fifty years ago, in June 1968, a big red banner was hanging from the balcony (or windows? – I can’t be sure). It read, “DOLE SA CRVENOM BURŽOAZIJOM” (“DOWN WITH RED BOURGEOUISIE”).
The first and the only student uprising against Tito’s communist government was taking place. It started with a petty grievance at a cultural event in New Belgrade the evening of June 2, 1968. By the next day, it had engulfed tens of thousands of student across the city, enraged by the communist police brutality.
When a passerby, a German tourist, asked me to translate what the banner said, he became visibly scared when he heard what I said. He literally ran down the street toward the Metropol hotel, Belgrade’s finest at the time (for more, check out my June 1999 story COMMUNIST MEDIA THEN AND NOW, filed from a big antiwar demonstration in Washington, DC).
At the engineering faculty, as well as at other university buildings which students had occupied, we were under siege. Where I stood to take yesterday’s picture, cordons of heavily armed police and military surrounded the building. Street cars passing by were ringing their bells, signaling general support for the students cause.
The university itself was a hive of activity. At the entrance, student guards were checking everyone’s “Index” (student ID) to make sure no government spies get in.
Inside the building, speeches were being made and proclamations drafted. It was all thoroughly democratic. Leaders were elected for a day. The next day, another group took over. We wanted to prove to ourselves as well as the world that we did not need dictators like Tito to govern us. We could do it ourselves.
NOT ENTIRELY HONEST: “KARL MARX RED UNIVERSITY”
Despite the fact that the citizens of Belgrade treated us rebel students as heroes, cheering and bringing food and drinks for us to the door of the university building, I must confess that we were not entirely honest with our protests and demands.
For example, we covered up our resentments against Tito’s dictatorial government by openly attacking only the “red bourgeois,” his “aparachiks,” not the dictator himself. And our badges read, “Karl Marx Crveni Univerzitet” (Karl Marx Red University).
They were hurriedly printed in red ink on the Kolarac Philosophy faculty presses, where the Student Paper (Studentski List) was also being published. I wore mine openly wherever I went, even when I was not on duty at the university. The citizens of Belgrade regarded these crudely designed paper badges as badges of honor.
I had kept mine for decades, but eventually lost it in one of my many moves in the last two decades. And the digital version in a computer crash in 2010. So the above photo will have to do.
THE PROFESSOR WHO JOINED US
Not all students participated in the uprising. Many had gone home fearing for their lives. I remember only one professor among us – the late Dr Sava Janjic who taught railroad engineering.
When I returned to Belgrade in 1989 for the first time after a 20-year exile, Dr Janjic was the only person at the university I sought to meet with. When we met in his chambers, which did not seem to have changed at all in 20 years, I bowed before. him
“I came to pay my respects for what you did in 1968,” I said as tears welled up in my eyes. “And for enabling me to achieve much of what I have done so far in my life.”
We embraced. I think he also teared up a bit.
Two years ago, I published an essay about that momentous summer, 1968: THE SUMMER OF LOVE AND WAR. Momentous, because the events of that summer shaped my own future as well as that of the world, especially in Europe.
You can peruse that essay again below. And now, I also add to this…
PHOTO ESSAY ABOUT STUDENT UPRISING IN 1968
Originally published on Aug 21, 2016
THE SUMMER OF LOVE AND WAR
MOMENTOUS EVENTS IN MY PERSONAL HISTORY WERE SET IN MOTION ON THIS DAY
When the Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush the “Prague Spring” supporters, I was in Baden, Switzerland, working as a summer student for the engineering design company AG Columbus. Baden is a small picturesque town 15 miles northwest of Zurich (map).
It was a perfect place for me to work and recuperate after the Belgrade anti-communist student uprising in which I participated, and which had preceded my arrival in Switzerland in early July.
Like millions of others around the world, I was shocked at the brutality and raw power the Soviets displayed in the streets of Prague after the Aug 21 invasion. But not too surprised.
Because only two months earlier, I was a firsthand witness to something similar. In my hometown – Belgrade.
In early June 1968, on my birthday actually – June 3 – a spontaneous anti-communist student uprising broke out in Belgrade. I was one of the student leaders at the engineering faculty. That’s where we, the Belgrade students, also faced communist guns, tanks and cordons of police and the military. But of a different kind.
In our case, they were a domestic breed – the communist dictator Josip Broz Tito’s police goons and army, rather than Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet ruler at the time.
TITO BLINKED, THEN LIED
Ironically, after a 7-day siege of the university buildings, we – the students – “won.” Technically. Tito blinked.
The communist dictator went on television on June 9 to say he welcomed the students’ criticism of the state and endorsed our program of reforms. In a nervous, partly improvised speech, Tito admitted that “there have been some irregularities,” and that “no one is irreplaceable, not even me.”
It was a ploy to get the students to give the protests and leave the university buildings. It worked. His promises defused the situation.
The majority of students were jubilant. Many danced a “kolo” (national circular group dance) in celebration. But after watching Tito’s speech, I sat in a chair in front my elder brother’s TV set and cried.
Because I knew intuitively that the old fox had outwitted the hens once again. Give them a little rope now and hang them with it later. Once the tens of thousands of students disperse and go home, Tito’s secret police would pick off the leaders one at a time.
TWO CLOSE CALLS
That evening, I started to make mental preparations to leave the country. Forever. I was not about to wait for that fateful knock on the door in he middle of the night. Nor did I want to join the communist party, which I had loathed all my life, just to save myself and gain privileges we all fought against.
I also thought about two close calls and many other moments when I and my fellow-students risked our lives, evidently in vain in the end.
WE THOUGHT TOO LATE OF THE MEDIA
Our “revolution” was a spontaneous uprising without any plans or structure. That was the beauty of it. That was also its downfall.
While we, the student demonstrators, were still figuring out what our rebellion was about, the old revolutionaries, the communists who now held the reigns of power, had already sent their police and secret service details to occupy the major media buildings around the city.
That’s called containment. And thinking ahead.
By the time we tried to get our message out to the media, all channels had been already closed to us. The Belgrade media remained silent while tens of thousands of students demonstrated throughout the Yugoslav capital. As if it was a walk in a park on a nice sunny day.
Conveniently for them, the global news media carried stories about the murder of Robert Kennedy. So the Belgrade media also focused on that instead of what was happening in the streets and university buildings. Thus no one in the country, except for Belgrade residents, knew what was going on in the capital.
PASSING OUT PAMPHLETS WAS DANGEROUS WORK
So our only remaining communications channel was to reach out directly to the citizens of Belgrade, and tried to explain what this uprising was about. To do that, we used the Student Paper (Studentski List) as a vehicle.
I have already mentioned that our colleagues at the Kolarac Philosophy faculty were editing and printing that paper, as well as the pamphlets the rebel students were handing out to passersby on major streets.
That was dangerous work. Because the plainclothes government agents were everywhere, They were watching us like the hawks. Yet we had no idea who the hawks were versus the innocent looking doves.
I don’t know who this poor fellow was being dragged down the street by Tito’s police goons, but chances are he may have been one of those students handing out pamphlets.
Typically, such students would have been taken to a police station, beaten to within an inch of their lives, and then released after a few days. Yet, there was never a shortage of volunteers for such dangerous work.
IT TOOK WIT AND GILE: SMUGGLING PAMPHLETS WAS JUST AS DANGEROUS
Considering that the police and the military were laying a siege around each university building, we also faced a problem of distribution. How do we get the newly printed pamphlets from the Kolarac building to other faculties?
Ours, for example. the engineering college near Vukov Spomenik (Vuk Monument), was 4 km (2.5 miles) away. So at times, we had to resort to wit and gile to get through the throngs of police. many of whom Tito had brought from the interior, fearing that the Belgrade police would not turn against their own people.
First close call at Kolarac
One evening, a fellow-engineering student and I went to Kolarac to pick up a fresh batch of pamphlets. The place was pack. Just like this picture shows. Except that it was evening.
Inside the Kolarac courtyard, endless speeches were being given on a makeshift stage. I don’t remember anything or any speaker. But do remember one thing has been etched in my consciousness forever – the beautiful, intoxicating scent of Linden trees in bloom.
Eventually, my friend and I got our batch of pamphlets and headed back to our university building. It was a warm summer night so we just tucked them insider our shirts and under our belt.
“What if the cops frisk us?” my friend fretted.
“Then we’ll deal with it when and if it happens,” I replied.
Once we got to the police cordon, I walked straight to the man who looked like a commanding officer. Putting on an out-of-town accent, as if I were a country bumpkin, I asked where I can find the bus number such-and-such.
The bus station was right across the street from the university, so the officer walked with us part of the way to show us the bus stop.
“Whew!” we both exhaled once we got into the bus. “That was close.”
Second close call at a factory
My second close call happened one day in the middle of the afternoon.
We realized too late that we should have taken the media buildings right away, but we were acutely aware that the success or failure of our uprising depended on whether or not we manage to get the factory workers to join us.
Of course, the government was also on alert about that. Factory workers are the bread and butter of any communist regime. So they also guarded major plants and office buildings around the city.
However, one afternoon, a messenger arrived to our faculty doorstep from a factory in the Zvezdara area of Belgrade (not far from our university). He said the plant manager had sent him to bring back some students who would explain to the workers what this protest was about. The messenger had a car and was ready to take us there right away.
It was a gift from heavens as far as we were concerned. So another student friend and I got into the car and the driver took us to the factory.
We were met by some people at the entrance and taken to the director’s office. He had a microphone set up on his desk. He explained that we will be talking live and that our message will be broadcast on a PA system throughout the factory. And then he left.
I was never a practiced public speaker, but I started talking. Just as I was getting untracked, perhaps two minutes into the speech, there was a commotion in the hallway in front of the director’s office. I could see panicked looks on people’s faces through the glass door and walls.
Suddenly, the door opened and the director said, “you’ve gotta go. The police have arrived at the front door.”
So our driver and we scrambled out of the building through the back door to his car. And then he, driving like a maniac, took us through some back streets and alleys back to our university building.
“”Whew!” we both exhaled once again we got into the car. “That was close.”
Over the years that followed, I have often thought about what happened to that poor factory director who risked his life and job for us.
“Wherever you are, Mister,” I would say, “I am deeply grateful to you. And awed by your courage.”
Twenty Years Later…
UNDER THE LINDENS
I believe someone later wrote a poem or a story UNDER THE LINDENS. Or maybe that was a line from the play THE PROFESSIONAL – My six brushes with theater world, which I translated, adapted and co-produced in San Francisco, London and New York in the early 1990s?
In any event, when I returned to Belgrade in 1989 for the first time in 20 years, I took time off a business conference I was attending at the Sava Center to go to the Philosophy Faculty courtyard.
It was deserted. Lectures were over. Students were probably cramming for example. Or partying. 🙂
I just stood there inhaling the sweet aroma of the Linden blossoms. I saw and heard the speakers from 20 years before. And tears started rolling down my cheeks.
AFTERMATH: NOTHING CHANGED
The state-controlled media (see above sign “don’t believe the press”), which had been silent about the student uprising despite Yugoslavia’s capital university buildings looking like medieval fortresses under siege for 7 days, performed a turn-about-face. They started to praise us, the rebellious students. – the unmentionables until that night. The riot police disappeared.
Slowly, things returned to status quo. As if nothing happened. And nothing really changed. The Belgrade police chief ,who order his goons to shoot at the students and beat us with billy clubs, kept his job. As if over 130 of our fellow-students hadn’t become casualties of a struggle for freedom and democracy. Nothing changed.
TIME TO PACK MY BAGS AND LEAVE SWITZERLAND
So that evening, I believe it was June 10, 1968, in my mind, I started to make preparations to leave the country. Forever. I was not about to wait for that fateful knock on the door in he middle of the night. Nor did I want to join the communist party, which I had loathed all my life, just to save myself and gain privileges we all fought against.
But there was a problem. I had not yet graduated. But I was very close. I only had to pass a 2-3 more exams and write my thesis to get my university diploma. So I decided to lie low and at least temporarily leave the country.
Luckily, I was able to get my old summer job back in Switzerland where I had also worked as a summer student in 1967. By the time I left for Switzerland in early July, I had already passed those exams. So the only thing left was the thesis. Which I could do without having to show up at the university and thus call attention of the authorities to myself.
PERSONAL DILEMMAS, TWO HEARTBREAKS DURING THE SUMMER OF LOVE AND WAR
So back to Aug 21, 1968… Baden, Switzerland, and the news of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Many people across Europe were convinced that once the Soviets consolidate their power in Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia would be next. Because the leaders of both of those communist countries had supported Dubcek and his “Prague Spring.”
In fact, secret documents released by the British Public Record Office on Jan 8, 2000 show that, by early September 1968, Prime Minister Harold Wilson had made detailed contingency plans for military intervention in eastern Europe. If a ‘direct threat’ were made to Yugoslavia, the British government planned to arm Yugoslav guerrillas and send crack British Army units of the kind they used during the Second World War to aid the Yugoslav rebels.
But I did not know that at the time. In fact, I did not know that until just a few hours ago when I started doing this research. What I did know is that the there was a clear and present danger of the Soviet invasions of Yugoslavia.
My fears were confirmed when I received a letter from my parents in Yugoslavia advising me not to come home in early September as I had planned. They said there were reports of Russian tanks and troops massing along the Hungarian border with Yugoslavia. And Belgrade is just over a 100 miles from Hungary.
DOUBLE SWISS HEARTBREAK AND ONE AMERICAN
My quandary was aggravated by the fact that, in the meantime, I had fallen in love with a Swiss woman. She felt the same way about me and wanted to marry me. She even gave me a golden ring to prove it (which I still have).
Alas, I could not marry her even though I was deeply in love with her. And not just because of the Soviet invasion. Before we met back in July, she was already engaged to another man whom she did not love but whose child she was expecting. She was only maybe a month of two pregnant when we met. But being Catholic, abortion was out of the question for her. And so was being the father to another man’s child for me.
But I could not do that. I could not sit in the comfort of the peaceful and tranquil Switzerland and watch the Soviet tanks and troops roll into my country and do to my hometown what they did to Prague.
So I quit my job and bought a train ticket back to Belgrade via Munich. My intention was to volunteer for the army which, ironically, I was fighting against as a student only two months earlier.
My Swiss girlfriend was in tears. My co-workers, who were from all over Europe, not just Switzerland, came around rallied behind me. They all lined up to wish me luck on my last day at the office.
I remember one big Italian fellow hugging me and saying, “you just hang on and hold off the Soviets for a few days, and we will all come to help you.”
I chuckled inwardly. The Italians are better known as lovers than warriors. But I smiled outwardly and tanked him for his support.
While my heart was still aching over the tearful girlfriend I had left behind in Baden, a gorgeous tall blue-eyed blonde walked into my train compartment in Zurich and struck up a conversation with me. She was an American teacher who was transferring from a military base in Italy to another one in Germany.
She was the best antidote for getting over my heartache. We spent the entire five-hour train ride from Zurich to Munich in animated conversations. By the time we got to the Munich train station, it was close to midnight. She asked me to stay with her in Germany.
Without explaining the reasons why, I just said “no” with my eyes, smiled and and kissed her. And then I turned around to catch my Belgrade train.
Ah… 1968, the summer of love and war.
NO SOVIET INVASION AFTER ALL
As it turned out, the Soviets never invaded Yugoslavia. Maybe they found out about the British plans? After all, they had excellent spies, especially in Britain and America. And if the British got into the fight, would America be far behind?
And I never got to volunteer because even the army reserves were sent back home shortly after I had arrived back home. And I had not even done my basic army training. So I spent the next few months in virtual shadows until I finished my thesis.
On Dec 12, 1968, I was the first of my generation to graduate. A year later, I was back in Switzerland, this time to get a visa to emigrate to North America. Which I did (illegally) on a midnight train (literally) in March 1970.
I never came back. Not until the old-style communists were out of power. And when I returned for the first time after 20 years, they rolled out the red carpet for me. Now “they” (the Reds) saw me as a “successful American businessman. ‘
So it goes… ironies woven with the lessons from history.
And now you know the rest of the story of Aug 21, 1968, the apex of my Summer of Love and War.