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IN that brief lull of early October there were several visitors in Racha from the Frushka Gora. At the worst period of the Vlassoff operations, some of the staff of the Odred in the Frushka Gora came down for three or four days' shelter. Sasha came down, and Trigo, and Pavle; and one or two others I've forgotten.
We used to sit around the breakfast table and talk about the war. They only increased my longing to see the Frushka Gora.
"Well, now," Sasha would say. "What are you waiting for? Bosut's no good. Wait until you see the Frushka Gora. Eh, Kolja, when's he coming up to us?" Sasha was twenty-three but looked and behaved like a man twice his age. His was a homely face, large and rubicund, with one blue eye that looked resolutely to the left and another that looked resolutely to the right. He was middling tall, but strong and round-shouldered with manual work. His family had a farm somewhere in eastern Srem.
As Commissar of the First Odred it was Sasha's business to know what people were thinking; but he went about his duty with a self-confidence that forestalled opposition, and made him welcome wherever he went. In the general scheme of things he was not very important, for the First Odred was a tiny affair when compared with the formations in Bosnia; but he showed the strength of the movement in the way he brought to his own area both pride and intensity of purpose. The enemy would have shot him as a really dangerous communist; and Sasha was so impressed with the importance of not frightening the English and Americans that he would admit to me only in the coyest fashion that he might be a party member after all. And yet this bloody Bolshevik, this destroyer of western civilization, this amoral materialist, awkward in his gait, unlettered almost, graceless, might well have claimed (but he would not) to have the confidence of half the peasants in Srem. His conversation was made up of stuttered homilies, his criticism straight to the point; he had unending patience. He didn't shout at people; he argued with them and talked to them. He saw through their excuses and showed them the careerist motives of what they did, and set them on the right path again.
Few of the army commissars were as good as Sasha, man for man, simply because Sasha's qualities are rare in any group of men: they ranted and lost their tempers where arguments should have sufficed, or fell back on threats to make good their own small-mindedness, or allowed their so-called progressiveness to degenerate into chauvinistic cant, or simply used force. But Sasha, who had never before the war been more than thirty miles from his village, who was cross-eyed and pigeon-toed, who had all the obvious disadvantages, who came from rich peasant stock, kulak stock, imbued with every sort of narrow prejudice, Sasha made none of these mistakes.
Pavle became another friend of mine. He was one of the few pure-bred Jews that I knew in the movement, perhaps the only one I knew. He was about thirty at that time, and had been with the partisans—or in hiding—ever since the beginning; his parents had been carried off by the Germans and exterminated in some camp or other. He had all the old-fashioned Jewish respect for his parents; and he hated the Germans for this as few men can have hated them. As a Jew, he was better schooled than the others, and could speak good German and Hungarian as well as his native Serbian. By profession he was a lawyer—or he would have been a lawyer but for the war: I never found out which. Accordingly they had made him a member of the war crimes commission—a committee of three which functioned in Srem, the other two members being a peasant and a lawyer respectively.
And Pavle brought to this a fire and purpose that were terrible. Only every now and then he would grow tired of dealing with men who were sub-human in their brutality, of listening to their garrulous and unashamed catalogue of crimes which only madmen run amok commit (but they committed in cold blood), of sending them out to be shot: and then he would sit in silence for days, and let other people talk.
One morning we had news that the Vlassoff Russians were moving in our direction. Kolya gave the order to move.
We packed our rucksacks and the wireless gear into a farm cart. Steve Serdar went to get the driver; and came back a few moments later, bursting with news. There were, it seemed, columns of enemy and even some tanks.
Stanley Brandeth, our wireless operator, a man of rock-like character, said: "There you go again, Steve. It'll be two men and a boy..." Their friendship flourished on this sort of thing. The arrival of the cart-horses cut short their argument.
We moved along the dyke to Jamena, a riverside village which had been prosperous in its day, counting more than five hundred families. Now it was half in ruins, scarred with burnt timber; the previous summer about three hundred of its menfolk had been carried off by Ustashe to the camp at Jasenovats, where most of them had died. All this was in reprisal for its partisan sympathies, and because it was a Serbian village.
The Vlassoff Russians came after us; and we crossed the Sava into Bosnia. The enemy could have done this, too; but their orders were for Srem, and in Srem they stayed. Time after time we were saved by these administrative boundaries. It was well-known that the best course, when being chased, was to get yourself over the boundary of one command into the next: it would take at least a week for the neighbouring command to get leave to chase you.
At that time the Voivodina Staff was commanded by Kolya. He was small, tight-muscled, impatient, about thirty years old, one of the first partisans in Srem. Before the war he had worked as a clerk in a Belgrade office, and had been a lieutenant on the army reserve, an up-and-coming young man who used to spend his holidays from Belgrade in his home village of Kamenitsa on the Danube. Kamenitsa is half-Croat; and when the "Independent State of Croatia" was formed after the German invasion and was found to include the territory of Srem (predominantly Serbian), a hunt went up for young men like Kolya who, it was thought, would be safer behind bars. Kamenitsa became an Ustashe stronghold. Kolya's family fled elsewhere. He and his brothers took to the woods.
He was always at full stretch, and for that reason an uncomfortable, exacting companion. As soon as one thing was done he looked only for the means of starting the next. But he was competent, incorruptible, and brave. When he lost his temper, he was really magnificent.
A few miles south of the Sava we stopped again. The Vlassoff people were evidently not going to follow us: there was no point in going further.
Here we were in touch with the 16th Division, whose main task, at that time, was to hold the approaches to the Mayevitsa Planina on the north. Base began to send a few plane-loads of stores. We took in our long-ordered anti-tank rifles.
Lekitch used to come down into the plain for talks with Kolya. He asked at once for a hundred times as much material as had arrived. He was abundantly right: he needed the stuff. But it was another thing to explain to him that he was certainly not going to get it, though less difficult indeed with Lekitch than with the others. He was another of those swashbuckling Montenegrins, hard and humorous, a famous partisan.
"You people," he would say in his Balkan French, for my Serbian was still halting, "you're a great country and look at us, we're nothing! " and laugh to himself with the inner conviction that they were everything, and their war the most important war in history, and their "line" the only honest one, proved right a thousand times in the events of the last ten years. Lekitch had been made a doctor of philosophy of Belgrade University shortly before General Franco crossed with his Moors into Spain; from 1936 to 1938 he had served with the international brigades, and then, like Kosta and the others, endured two years of French internment. He took part in the early months of the rising in Serbia, and later commanded the formation they all regarded for its fighting qualities as their elite unit, the First Proletarian Brigade. He was bold, dashing, supremely self-confident. His intellectual background lifted him out of the narrow provincialism which characterized so many of their commanders (though seldom those who had fought in Spain). His nickname was Shpanats, the Spanish One, fitting his long clean-cut face, high cheek-bones, hard blue eyes, and the twirling moustache he affected. The others seems pedestrian beside him, petty-minded and dull.
At this other extreme was Slobodan, commander of the Voivodina Staff, who came in from the Frushka Gora a few days afterwards. He was dull, petty-minded, and pedestrian in all but malice of mind. Perhaps it was his age; he was over fifty, had had his wife murdered by Ustashe, and was wracked with minor ills of mind and body. But apart from this he had conserved more than a little of the hatred and suspicion of the old Balkans, the Balkans that perhaps were dead and gone, or dead and gone at least for the time being. He suspected everyone, but chiefly me, of trying to obstruct, hinder and do him down. He was typical of those partisan leaders who saw their patriotic duty in pathological suspicion and of hostility towards the British, who took what we gave and were never grateful, nor even tried to seem grateful, and who were responsible, in their vociferous minority, for much mutual bitterness between our own people and the partisans. His appointment seemed always to me to be a clear mistake; and after suffering his insults and bad temper for the better part of a year, I finally had the satisfaction in October, 1944 (a year after we had first met in Bukovitsa) of seeing him deposed with apologies to myself.
Slobodan came; and depression settled over the staff. We trailed up and down the plain of Semberija, back and forth across the Sava, following the tactical situation, which was far from good at that particular moment, and was shortly to be a great deal worse. The weather grew wetter still as the winter drew on; and the rain mingled with the mud and made a morass through which we struggled in nights of seemingly interminable darkness. A few more aircraft came to drop supplies to us, but the quantity was tiny, and Slobodan inconsolable.
Once we "had a drop," as the jargon went, in the common land outside Racha; and Slobodan, fearing reprisals against the village, ordered an immediate march into the depths of the woods of Bosut, and there we stayed, sodden with rain, for four nights and days under shelters rigged from parachutes and rare tarpaulins that we took from Racha. Slobodan would sit on an upturned tree-root outside his shelter, a bent old man with grey hair and a livery eye, and nurse his toothache. It was difficult to be as angry with him as he deserved. Water dripped incessantly from the tall trees. Away to the left, across the Sava, Lekitch was still pounding away at Brtchko, and the rumble of his guns sounded all day through the heavy air. The nights were cold and damp, the stars in a mist, large as lanterns or else not seen. The people talked about their victims of the terror, about the belongings they had lost, about their fears and miseries. There was no counting the number of these.
At the beginning of December we were once more on the run, for the enemy brought in fresh troops and overran the plain of Semberiya, attacking from Zvomik and Brtchko and Doboj, and retaking Bijeljina, Tuzla, and the valley of the Sprecha.
It happened that the day before this campaign opened I had crossed the Sava again and was heading at last for the Frushka Gora. A day or so later I reached the headquarters of First Odred in the Frushka Gora, and found them in a stable on a bare, rainswept hillside.
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