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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 8.1 (2006) 45-55
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First You Baby, Then Me Die
Fat spatters to life in the pan as Nana gathers the hard lumps of leftover cornbread and potato peelings in her apron. There is no milk, no meat. There are no eggs. Only water and handfuls of cornmeal. Her children are tired of cornbread. It is dusty and difficult to swallow—they want djuvec—plump rice mixed with sweet peppers and tender lamb. They want the small, tart apples from their uncle's orchard in the next village, the fresh yogurt their mother ferments in a clay pot sealed with rags. They will even eat the tough skin from a chicken's claw, boiled and salted, the coppery jelly scraped from a pig's hoof. But there is only cornmeal. The soldiers must be fed and will quickly murder the farmers who conceal small bushels of grain, baskets of fruit or figs under floorboards in their cellars. Nana is aware of such atrocities and so she has refused the small cuts of fatty bacon wrapped in burlap, the hard butts of wheat bread pressed into her palm by her neighbors.
When Colonel Draza Mihailovic's guerillas threaten to capsize German occupation in Serbia, Hitler retaliates with a gruesome vengeance. Hitler issues his plan "Operation Punishment" and quickly determines to annihilate the enemies of the occupation: for every German soldier wounded or killed in Serbia, a hundred Serbian civilians will be put to death. And so on a dull mid-October day in Kragujevac, a town located in the heart of Serbia, Nana will flinch slightly as the heavy boots pound the grounds of the barracks where she lives. She can hear the rhythmic thud of blackened heels long before the mud-green helmets actually emerge in neat rows outside her window. It is wartime and she will notice nothing unusual until she hears the persistent banging. When she opens the door, the soldiers shout at her. They smell of metal and smoke. Saliva sprays from their [End Page 45] mouths. They look behind her for her children. They want the boys—16 and older. They want identification. "My son is a baby," she begs, "my husband has gone to look for work." The soldiers quickly scan the two-room flat. They look at the young boy who will be my father huddled on the cot with his sister. They look at the pan of potato peelings and yellow flour. They look at Nana who watches as her neighbors' husbands are roughly rounded up outside her window. She is suddenly bold.
"Where are you taking them?" she asks.
"To be shot," one tells her.
Nana begins to pray, and the soldiers spit on her floor.
"Pig," they say, and leave.
My grandfather is in prison. He thinks he is lucky to be alive as he passes a hurried note through the bars to the wife of his cellmate. He begs the frantic woman to find his home and prays the note reaches his wife and children unharmed. When he was arrested the week before and herded together with several men he had been uncertain of the soldiers' intentions. Around him on the street men and teenage boys were pulled from shops and apartment buildings, rounded up into groups, and marched forward at gunpoint. But when he watched blood spatter the pavement as bullets sank into the knees of one resistant man in his own group, he slipped quietly sideways to a cluster of men a few feet away. He was caught quickly and pushed back.
"Stay where you are," the guard had spoken harshly, but in Serbian.
Dedo recognized the voice, the same voice he heard just months before, joking in the barracks, crooning German songs to his children at the supper table. It was the voice of Otto, an ethnic German living in Kragujevac, once serving in the Royal Yugoslav Army, once serving under my lieutenant grandfather, and on this particular afternoon, saving his life.
Dedo is crammed into a...