The first time he took his son to his homeland, Jovan pointed to a mountain range and said those words. “My mother’s bones are buried in that mountain.”
She died in a concentration camp during World War II, in a camp called Jasenovac, known as the “Yugoslav Auschwitz.” As far as Jovan knew, she died of sickness and was buried in a mass grave. Her family never learned exactly where.
Jovan was born in Serbia in 1919 to a poor family and worked the family farm when he was young. He fought in the war, and, like his mother, spent time in a concentration camp. He couldn’t return home after the war because of the violence against returning Serbian soldiers from the new Yugoslav government. He eventually moved to the United States, married, and had a family, sometimes having to work three jobs to support them. He had a hard life, and was hard himself, with a strong temper and the weight of the world on his shoulders.
I never knew that man. I saw his wrinkles, his weathered hands, his almost-completely-white hair, his strong arms, but I wasn’t part of the time in his life that created those things. The grandfather who I knew smiled and laughed and loved his grandchildren more than anything in the world. He bought a bike for his first grandson on his first birthday, even though he wouldn’t be able to ride it for years, because “a boy should have a bike from his grandfather.”
When my father married my mother, Jovan didn’t speak to him for years because my mother had a German last name and had been married once before. He didn’t believe that his son should marry someone who had been married, and her last name was a reminder of the war he didn’t want to talk about.
My grandfather felt betrayed, in a way. “I gave you my father’s name!” he yelled during an argument about the marriage. He didn’t understand the love his son felt for her. Jovan didn’t marry for love. Although he loved his wife, they married because were strangers in a strange land, connected by the same language, culture, religion.
“I wasn’t offended,” my mother explained to me when I learned about my grandfather’s original feelings. “I knew that the problem wasn’t me, it was with him. I knew that if he actually got to know me he would like me. I was right,” she added with a laugh. For the rest of his life, Jovan regretted the years he lost with his son.
Despite everything that he had experienced, there was joy in Jovan’s life, and underneath his hard exterior, his heart was big. When he rented out apartments, he would get up early in the piercing Chicago winters and scrape the ice of the cars of his tenants. He always cooked for church events and was the only man in the group of women who cooked in the church. One of his favorite stories to tell his son was about when he was younger and went out in his new coat. “All the girls, they was lookin’ at me,” he said with a hint of swagger.
The man I knew achieved the American dream, but he missed his birth country with a passion. During the war in Yugoslavia in the 90s, he protested in the streets, waving the Serbian flag high above his head. He did this not because he supported the atrocities of Milosevic, but because his heart broke for the civilian victims that the United States bombed. They were his people, his brothers, the children of those who had survived.
Jovan didn’t talk much about his past. He kept his inner demons there. He spoke enough about what he had experienced and survived to ensure that the story of our family, the story of what happened in those years wouldn’t die, but he never liked to give details.
Although I didn’t know the man who had suffered so much, these events marked him. He taught his son to play chess, and then my father taught me, but the reason my grandfather played so well was because in the camps they played each other to win more food.
Even though he only had a sixth-grade education, life taught him much. He spoke five languages, and despite his limited education, he painstakingly wrote a letter to the new German government, asking for restitution he knew would never come.
I learned these stories from my father. Jovan wanted every moment with his grandchildren to be happy and wonderful. He wanted to give us the world because the world had given him nothing. Despite everything, there was something in him that life just couldn’t break. He found a way to enjoy life when he could. There’s something magical about seeing joy, hope, love, in the face of a man whose life had created a situation in which he had to tell his son “my mother’s bones are buried in that mountain.”