This post is dedicated to the memory of Ivan Vranetić, and all the other real-life Zvonkos and Mirsadas.
St. Mark’s Church, image by Alexander Klink.
Sculpture representing the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia, image by Pudelek (Marcin Szala).
Bird’s-eye view of Central Zagreb, image by Ex13, Multi-license with Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5 and older versions (2.0 and 1.0).
Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, is the nation’s only city with over a million people. It’s nestled among the southern slopes of Medvednica Mountain and the Sava River. The city was first settled by Romans in the first century CE, as Andautonia, and was first called Zagreb by 1094. Old Zagreb has existed since the Middle Ages, while New Zagreb began to take shape during the 18th century.
Though the city was besieged by Mongols and Tatars during the 13th century, the invaders were soon fought off. Because of the city’s incredible defensive walls, Zagreb also managed to escape Ottoman conquest in the 16th century, a fate which befell many other places in Southeastern Europe and Hungary.
One of Zagreb’s oldest surviving landmarks is St. Mark’s Cathedral, in St. Mark’s Square. The cathedral was built as early as the 13th century. On the church’s northwest wall is Zagreb’s oldest coat of arms, engraved in 1499. An earthquake in 1901 leveled much of the historic city.
Croatian National Theatre, image by w:User:Lokksi.
I have never written about Zagreb to date, but my characters Zvonimir Borković (Zvonko) and Mirsada Vuletić might’ve been there. Zvonko is 36 as of mid-March 1944, the first time he appears. He was captured in 1942 and sent to Oswiecim as a political prisoner for his anti-Ustashi partisan activities. Zvonko is the Blockältester (Block elder) to Samuel and Jozef Roblensky, Lazarus von Hinderburg, and Isaac Schulmann.
Zvonko hides on a pile of corpses when the Nazis evacuate the camp in January 1945, and in late February goes to a refugee centre in Kraków with four Hungarian sisters, the youngest of whom Samuel saved from certain death upon her arrival. Zvonko doesn’t want to live among former Ustashis and their collaborators, both active and silent. He’ll only go home to find his wife and three sons, and then leave again.
Zvonko and his family will appear in my planned book Bittersweet Hope, the story of Samuel’s spinster aunt Etke and her adopted teen daughter Tecia after the War. Zvonko, Mirsada, and their boys Tomislav, Dragomir, and Ljubomir end up in the same DP camp, and ultimately go to Pittsburgh. Zvonko and Mirsada have a daughter while in the camp, Bogdana.
Zvonko shows up again much later, as a very old man, in Saga VI of Cinnimin, in 1998, visiting Samuel in Cape May and in Boston for the bar mitzvah of one of Jozef’s grandsons. He totally tells off Daphne for her disrespectful, self-centred behaviour, though she typically doesn’t want to hear it. In Boston, he tells off Daphne’s almost-as-bad older sister Karyn and her best friend Kristen.
Mosque and Islamic centre, image by Suradnik13.
Since I was 16, I’ve had reason to suspect I have some Serbian blood mixed in with my Slovak blood. And for many years, I was extremely anti-Croatian. They were beasts to the Serbian people during WWII, so much so that even the Nazis thought the Ustashis were sadistic barbarians. And many Croatians on the far Right today deny what really happened, or try to seriously downplay the atrocities and numbers of the butchered. Even some people in the Croatian diaspora have engaged in historical revisionism and celebrated Ante Pavelić, the head butcher.
Main entrance of Zagreb Cathedral, image by Suradnik13.
But it’s not fair to be against an entire group of people based on what some of them did decades ago. Even if many Croatians of that generation were active or silent Ustashi collaborators, there were brave people who took a stand, like my fictional Zvonko and Mirsada, and like this guy:
Ivan (Ivica [Ee-VEETS-ah]) Vranetić, 1926-3 February 2010.
Ivan Vranetić, a Catholic by birth, was born in Vrbas, Bosnia, and grew up in the spa town of Topusko. He was raised with a love of humanity and instinct to do the right thing. At age 17, in 1943, he began helping Jewish refugees released by partisans from a camp on Rab Island, in spite of how his town was very pro-Ustashi. When he tried to help a Jewish doctor, a soldier beat him so badly he lost the hearing in his left ear. But that didn’t stop him, and he continued saving lives and serving in the partisans.
One of the people Ivica helped was a young widow named Arna Montilio, whose husband was murdered in Jasenovac. He also saved Arna’s mother and her infant daughter. After the War, he kept in contact with many of the people he’d saved, including Arna. They were in love, but their mothers disapproved. Arna remarried and moved to Israel with her mother and daughter, having two more children.
In 1963, her second marriage ended in divorce. By this time, her mother had passed away. Arna wrote to Ivica, who came to Israel to see her. Their old love survived, and they were finally married. In 1970, Yad Vashem honoured Ivica as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. In 1986, he was elected chairman of the organisation, a position he held for over 20 years. He’s buried in Tel Aviv.
You can never tell, based solely on someone’s name, religion, race, ethnicity, or nationality, what s/he’s like. There are good and bad people in every group, even when there are times when the majority or the most vocal members aren’t behaving very nicely. I took these pictures in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem as evidence that some people you might least suspect did the right thing.
Click image for the Hadži-Mitkovs’ story.
Click image for the Bartulovićs’ story.
Click image for the Hardagas’ story.
Ultimately, we’re all citizens of Planet Earth. Superficial things like borders, languages, races, nationalities, and religions don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. When it all boils down, we’re just people.
My atlas was a present from my late uncle in 1986. Sometimes it’s frustrating to not have modern maps, with modern borders and names, but the same basic information is the same. That atlas represents the world as it was when my uncle was alive, a world frozen in time. Names and borders may change, but it’s still the same Earth, with the same people.