Military history

Chapter 7

Passports, Please

It was hard to kiss Mirjana good-bye, but he knew it was for the best and he had every intention of seeing her again. He just hoped the war wouldn’t keep them apart for too long. But when he returned to the coastal village, his dear Mirjana was waiting for him there. Vujnovich was shocked to see her and feared she had somehow missed her opportunity with the sailboat. Then Mirjana explained that she and Mirko had taken the boat as planned, sailing out to the open sea to meet the British cruiser. Once they got within sight of the ship that could take them to safety, Italian fighter planes appeared and attacked the ship. It was badly damaged and turned away, unable to take on Mirjana and the other refugees. The British citizens who had made it onboard on earlier trips by the sailboat, were arrested by the Italians and interned in Italy. The sailboat had no choice but to deposit Mirjana and her brother back in Herzeg Novi. Vujnovich was at once elated to see her again, relieved that she hadn’t made it to the cruiser any sooner, and disappointed that she was still trapped with him.

They had no immediate alternative, so they just waited in the little village again. As the day wore on, Vujnovich decided to talk with Mirjana about something that had been going through his mind on the long walk back from Risan. He took Mirjana on a walk in the monastery garden.

“We’ve been together about three or four years, and I love you, Mirjana,” he said. “We could get married right away. We don’t know what’s going to happen.” He paused for her reaction.

She was taken off guard by the comment, though she had been wondering about the same thing. “Yes, I suppose we could.”

“But . . . with the Italians in control of the sea here, there’s not going to be any more evacuation from here. We don’t know if we can find another way out.”

“Yes, I understand,” she said. “It would be easier for you by yourself.”

George knew what she was getting to, but he wasn’t eager to discuss that possibility. He wanted to be pragmatic, but he couldn’t bear the thought of just walking away from Mirjana. Instead he tried to back into the topic of splitting up.

“Well . . . if we get married, don’t expect me to be faithful for five or ten or fifteen years. I wouldn’t last that long,” he said, unable to look her in the eye as he spoke. “I may find someone else. You may find someone else. Who knows? It’s human nature.”

In truth, it wasn’t the fidelity that worried him. He just couldn’t stand the idea of being without Mirjana again. It was easier to talk practically about what the future might bring rather than tell her how deeply it would hurt him to lose her again, less painful to feign a lack of confidence in his fidelity than to admit that he would be heartbroken.

Vujnovich was troubled by what he was suggesting. Mirjana understood, and she spared him the pain of having to say it himself.

“Yes, well, you can get out, George. Maybe that’s for the best,” she said, her voice stronger than she felt inside. “I’ll find a way and then we can be together again.”

Vujnovich was disturbed to even be discussing this. He didn’t want to leave Mirjana behind. But the situation was dire. This wasn’t a time for blind romance.

Mirjana felt the same way. She didn’t want to be separated from George, but she didn’t want him to stay in danger when he was free to leave. She didn’t say anything for a long moment and George spoke again.

“Without a passport, you’ll never get out through any regular route. I’d have to leave without you and come back sometime, whenever I could.” The unspoken follow-up was “And hope you’re still alive.” They both knew what could happen if Mirjana stayed behind. She was scared but couldn’t bear to ask him to stay with her. He couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her.

They held each other for a long time, neither one wanting to say what had to be said, but both knowing. Finally George spoke up and said it out loud.

“I’m going to have to leave, Mirjana,” he said. “I’ll come back for you sometime in the future. You know I will.”

“Yes, I know you will,” she said. She couldn’t help crying even though she was trying hard to be strong.

“As soon as I can, Mirjana. I promise. After the war, we’ll be together again.”

Vujnovich knew that Herzeg Novi no longer offered any possibility of escape, so he agreed with other Americans in the village, including several reporters, that it was time to move on. After a difficult and tearful farewell with Mirjana, he piled into a car and joined about fifty Americans in a caravan headed to Dubrovnik, then on to Sarajevo. They had to get out of the country while their American passports still meant something in Yugoslavia. No one knew how long that might be.

It was late evening when the Americans reached Sarajevo, located in a valley in eastern Yugoslavia, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps and situated around the Miljacka River, and the group split up to find places to stay. Vujnovich went to a small hotel and asked the desk clerk if a room was available, and much to his surprise, the answer was yes. Noting Vujnovich’s American accent, the clerk asked for his passport. Vujnovich reached into his coat pocket and fumbled for the all-important document. It wasn’t there. He couldn’t believe it.

“I . . . uh . . . it’s not here,” he stammered, bewildered as to how he could have lost it.

An armed guard sitting near the clerk’s desk suddenly became interested. The man was one of the Ustashe, the rebels who had taken control of Croatia and Bosnia under the German occupation. They were known for being cruel and unpredictable, sort of like auxiliary versions of the Nazis themselves. The guard stood up and looked sternly at Vujnovich, who was still fumbling in his pockets, frantically looking for the document.

“Show me your passport!” the guard yelled. Vujnovich explained again that he had one but couldn’t find it at the moment. He was growing more and more distressed as each pocket came up empty.

“Maybe he is a spy,” the Ustashe said to the clerk. “Spies can be shot. It’s better than arresting them.”

Vujnovich didn’t know what to do, so he kept looking through the pockets he already knew were empty. At the mention of shooting him, several other Americans spoke up and tried to vouch for Vujnovich, waving their own American passports and insisting that he was just another American trying to get home. Among those trying to defend Vujnovich were a U.S. consul official and Ray Brock, a reporter for the New York Times. They were arguing vociferously with the Ustashe guard, and he withered under the American onslaught. After a moment he relented and agreed to let Vujnovich stay in the hotel that night.

“You can find your passport,” he said to Vujnovich. “But if you do not have it tomorrow, you will be arrested.”

Vujnovich was only partly relieved. He still had no idea where his passport was and he knew the Ustashe would not be deterred the next morning. He spent a frantic night searching through his belongings and trying to think back to where he had seen the passport last. He slept hardly at all as he pondered what would happen in the morning. He thought about trying to run off during the night, but he was sure the Ustashe guard or his cohorts would spot him. That would guarantee a bad outcome.

And then at six thirty a.m. there was a knock on the door. Vujnovich jumped at the sound and his heart went to his throat. It must be the Ustashe coming for my passport, he thought. He was annoyed by last night’s confrontation and wants to arrest me right away. Vujnovich slowly went to the door and opened it, surprised to see the chauffeur of the car he had ridden in standing there. Apparently the man had no idea what trouble Vujnovich was in and was simply running an errand.

“You dropped this in the car,” he said, and handed the critical passport to Vujnovich. He turned around and left, with no idea that he had just saved the American’s life. Vujnovich realized that he must have missed his inside breast pocket when he tried to put his passport away in the car. The document had lain in the car all night long. Vujnovich wasted no time in showing the passport to the Ustashe and soon the Americans continued on their trip, driving on to Belgrade. They had no firm plans for how to get out of Yugoslavia, but they all thought their chances better in the big city, where they had contacts and more resources than in the countryside. They found a city completely unlike the one they had left. The city was beaten and bowed, the occupying Germans tightening the noose every day. There was a six-p.m.-to-six-a.m. curfew, after which anyone on the street would be shot without warning. Any resistance was met with exaggerated retribution: The death of one German soldier would result in one hundred Serbs being hanged in public. One day Vujnovich was walking down the street when he saw a crowd running toward him. They yelled at him to turn and run away, which he did without question. When he got the chance, he asked one of those fleeing what was wrong.

“There was a small fire at a gas station,” the man answered. “The Germans assumed it was sabotage and started killing people. They took the first ten people they saw off the street and shot them.”

Despite the danger in Belgrade, the gamble paid off. Not long after arriving, Vujnovich ran into his American friend Vasa Purlia, who told him that not only was it still possible for the Americans to get out, but they could take their wives as well. He was planning to marry his girl-friend, Koka, a local girl like Mirjana, and get her out with him. “Have you married Mirjana?” he asked eagerly. “Where is she? The American consulate can give you all the necessary documents for her to enter the United States,” Purlia explained, “but only if you are married.”

“But what about her passport? Will they give her an American passport?”

“No, they can’t do that. But they can give all the papers to show that she is your wife and entitled to leave with you.”

“Will the Germans and Italians accept that?”

“I don’t know, George. But it is the only hope for Mirjana and Koka to leave.”

To make matters worse, George found out that the Gestapo were looking for any Yugoslavian citizens with connections to Americans or British organizations, on the theory that they might be spies or at least disloyal. Mirjana was on the list, not only because of her relationship with George but because she had received a scholarship from the British Council and studied English.

That meant Mirjana was in extreme danger if she stayed, probably more than any risk involved with trying to get her out of the country. Vujnovich knew he had to try to get Mirjana out with him. If only he had known this before leaving her in Herzeg Novi. They could still be together and so much closer to leaving. Now he had to spend more time reuniting, and every passing day made their task more difficult. Vujnovich raced to the nearest telegraph office and sent a message to Mirjana in the coastal village. The telegraph operator warned him that the message probably would not go through because the war had disrupted all means of communication, but he tried it anyway. Vujnovich paid a small sum and the operator sat down at his desk, tapping out a simple message to Herzeg Novi.

As luck would have it, Mirjana was staying in the home of the village’s telegraph operator, who was surprised to hear the system clicking out a message. He rushed to receive it and soon he came out of the room with a message in his hand, calling for Mirjana Lazic. He handed her a small slip of paper that instantly raised her spirits.

We can get married and get documents for you. Come back to Belgrade.

While she was thrilled to hear from George, she was not entirely sure she wanted to go back to Belgrade. She had convinced herself that the war would be concentrated in the big cities, and she had seen the devastation already wrought on Belgrade. Maybe if she stayed in the countryside she would be okay, she thought. And did she really want to leave Yugoslavia, even if she could?

Her brother, Mirko, an engineer who spoke English, convinced her to think clearly. The two of them set off by train for Belgrade, itself a dangerous journey as the Ustashe monitored all activity in the region now, looking for any opportunity to harass someone without the right papers. George thought Mirjana was on her way to Belgrade, but he didn’t know when she might arrive. Realizing that the Germans might go to her Belgrade home looking for her—or a neighbor might report her arrival—he didn’t want Mirjana to get off the train and go there. But if the train arrived after the six p.m. curfew, she would have to stay on the train all night and then get off at six a.m. So every day, George sprinted out of the house at six a.m. and down to the train station, hoping to catch Mirjana before she could walk into danger. She might get off the train at the same moment George was able to step outside, so every morning he was in a mad race to catch up with her. This went on for five days until he returned to his hotel and found Mirjana waiting there with Mirko.

After a tearful embrace, George asked how she had known to go to the hotel instead of going home. Mirjana told him that she and Mirko had, in fact, tried to return home that morning. When they approached the house, the family’s maid rushed out and yelled at them to go away. Her frantic tone explained why. Mirjana knew that George had friends staying at the hotel, so she hoped to find him there also.

As soon as they were reunited, George took Mirjana to the American consulate and spoke with the consul, an earnest administrator who was working feverishly to get Americans and their loved ones out before it was too late. He had already given the proper documents to Vasa and Koka, who had been married earlier that day. He told George and Mirjana that they must hurry. But there was one important issue, he said. The Germans have forbidden any foreigners to marry.

“You have to go to this church at six o’clock in the morning,” he said, handing George a paper with the location of the church. “Don’t tell anyone except two witnesses. You have to bring two witnesses and the priest will marry you.”

They were married the next morning in a quiet, simple ceremony attended only by one of Mirjana’s cousins and an American friend of George’s. They had a small meal at the cousin’s home that morning, and that was the end of their wedding celebration. After taking their marriage certificate to the American consulate, they received the documents that they hoped would get Mirjana out of her rapidly worsening homeland. The main paper was surprisingly simple, just a letter really, from the American consul.

This affidavit confirms that Mirjana Vujnovich, nee Lazic, is a Yugoslav citizen married to an American. This affidavit is issued to her to enable travel to the home of her husband in the United States of America. Please extend to her all courtesy and offer any assistance you can.

It was signed by the consul, with a seal and a big red ribbon. They thought it quite a handsome document. When the consul handed it to Mirjana, he explained that it would help her once they got out of occupied territory. If they could get to a country not controlled by the Axis, maybe Palestine, this document would enable her to get to the United States with George. But there was no telling if it would carry any weight with the Germans or other local authorities, he said. All three of them knew that the consul was being optimistic about that last part. It was very unlikely that the Germans would respect the consul’s document, and Mirjana’s Yugoslavian passport carried the same weight. Outside of Yugoslavia it could help her, but not in her own country.

The city of Belgrade was in ruins, with Germans and Ustashe watching everyone, so George wanted to move as quickly as possible. From his contacts with the American embassy, he heard about a boat that was going to evacuate Americans to Budapest, Hungary, via the Danube River. George made sure he and Mirjana were on the boat, and Mirjana’s documents were good enough for her to blend in with the group of Americans as they evacuated. The newlyweds ended up staying with about a dozen Americans at a small hotel in Budapest, still firmly in German-occupied territory, the group talking nonstop about possible ways to get out. By this time, even an American passport could not guarantee an easy exit. If you could find a means out of German territory, the American documents would ease the way. But you still had to find a way out from a region that was rapidly falling into a state of confusion. The Germans prevented most travel through areas they controlled, and even in the rare situations in which someone like George would be permitted through, someone like Mirjana would not. There was no simple way out. Like the thousands of others trying to flee Yugoslavia, George and Mirjana had to be creative.

Some of the group wanted to try going to Switzerland through occupied territory and then on to southern France, the extreme southern part of the country not yet occupied by German soldiers. From there they might get a boat to Spain and to Portugal. But after some investigation, they realized the Germans would not allow them to travel to Switzerland through their occupied territory. The Americans didn’t know where to go or how to get home. George and Mirjana were worried that they had waited too long to get out. Maybe George should have just gone on his own, Mirjana thought.

Their break came when George was exchanging his Yugoslavian money for Hungarian, thinking out loud about possible routes to the United States. The old man changing his money offered a suggestion that had not occurred to the Americans yet.

“Why don’t you fly out of the country?” he said. “You can fly south to Bulgaria. Bulgaria is not at war, so you can get away from there easily.”

If he was right, this could be exactly what George and Mirjana were waiting for. He made a few phone calls and found out that there was a regular Lufthansa flight that went from Budapest to—of all places—Belgrade, and then on to Sofia, Bulgaria. If they could get on that flight, they might escape occupied territory. He took Mirjana to the airport and tried to buy two seats on the flight, only to be told that there was only one seat available each day from Budapest. They were desperate by this point, so they discussed going separately, Mirjana one day and George the next. But the problem was that Mirjana really could not travel without George because they would check her papers in Belgrade and arrest her for trying to leave the country without permission. Even with George at her side there was doubt about whether her papers from the American consul would be enough to get her through; without George, they were almost certain she would be arrested. They were dejected again. They could not escape this way together, but it might be their only chance to get out. They seriously considered flying separately, with George going first and vouching for Mirjana along the way, telling the authorities that his wife was following him the next day. They still didn’t like the idea, but they might have no other choice.

The next day, Saturday, July 12, George and Mirjana were in bed in the small Budapest hotel when the phone rang. It was Lufthansa, calling the number George had left just in case something changed. The airline said they had two seats open from Budapest that day instead of one. Would they like to book them?

George said yes, yes, please book those seats for us. He and Mirjana were thrilled that they might finally make it out of occupied territory. George hurried to find a way to change some money from Hungarian pengö, which would be useless after they left, to American dollars. He had to wake up the minister of finance in Budapest to make it happen, but he was able to convert about one thousand dollars. Mirjana, meanwhile, was trying to figure out what to take from the suitcases they had been lugging around since first leaving Belgrade. Lufthansa would allow only twenty-two pounds apiece. When George returned they took two small suitcases with them to the Lufthansa office in Budapest, leaving all their other belongings behind. The airline drove them to the airport, where they boarded a Lockheed Lodestar, a graceful twin-engine airliner with twelve seats in four rows of three across.

George and Mirjana were eager to get on the plane and make the final legs of their roundabout journey out of Yugoslavia, but they were anxious also. Mirjana’s documents might not be enough to get them through, and they knew it depended mostly on who was checking. If they had only a cursory look by local authorities in Belgrade, there might not be any problem. But if German authorities wanted to take a closer look, Mirjana could be spotted as a wanted person by the Gestapo. They would arrest her and then . . . George couldn’t stand to think too much about what might happen to her.

They were the last people to board the airplane, and the only two seats available were not together. One was open in the very front and one in the back. George and Mirjana didn’t mind, as long they could get on their way, so they parted and George took the seat in the rear, knowing that might be the bumpier ride. Mirjana sat up front next to a somewhat plump but well-dressed woman. They both tried to relax as the plane taxied down the runway and rose into the air.

The plane hadn’t been aloft long before George sensed something was amiss. From his seat in the rear he could see Mirjana moving about in her seat, restless it seemed, and the woman next to her appeared to be helping her. The woman had a wet cloth she was holding to Mirjana’s head while she patted the younger woman on the back.

Mirjana’s airsick, George thought. He had known this might be a problem because she had not flown much. George stood up and walked down the aisle to check on his wife. As he reached her seat, he bent down to see her and was surprised to see how pale and distraught she was. The woman in the next seat smiled at George and gave a sympathetic nod to Mirjana, taking the cloth away from the sick woman’s forehead so the couple could speak. George immediately tried to comfort her.

“Mirjana, what’s happening?”

She looked up at him, far more sick than he expected to see her, and said, “I feel terrible, George.”

“Why are you so sick?” he asked. “It’s just the plane. You won’t be sick for long.”

Mirjana didn’t reply right away, and then she motioned for George to lean down closer. He did and Mirjana leaned in to whisper into his ear, hoping the sound of the airplane engines would prevent anyone else from overhearing.

“Do you know who this is next to me?” Mirjana whispered. George looked over at the woman, who was quietly reading a book. He shook his head slightly to indicate he had no idea. “It’s Mrs. Goebbels!” Mirjana whispered intently, almost breaking into tears as she said it. “The wife of Joseph Goebbels! George, I’m going to be arrested when we get to Belgrade!”

There wasn’t much George could say to Mirjana without causing a scene, so he just whispered to her that everything would be fine and to try to relax. He kissed her on the forehead and walked back to his seat, stunned at the incredible bad luck of his wife sitting on a plane next to Magda Goebbels, the first lady of the Third Reich, wife of the fiery and charismatic propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, a top leader in the Nazi movement. Adolf Hitler was a witness at their wedding, and in the 1930s Magda bore six children for Goebbels. With Hitler remaining unmarried, she was promoted as “the first lady of the Third Reich,” the Goebbels clan presented to the public as the model family for Germany. She looked like such a kind woman, Vujnovich thought, but he knew better. In Hitler’s bunker at the war’s end in 1945, this kind-looking woman would kill her six children one after another by crushing a cyanide capsule in their mouths.

As he took his seat in the back of the plane, George could see that Mirjana was growing more and more upset. Magda Goebbels was playing the concerned mother, putting the cool cloth to Mirjana’s forehead and hugging her around the shoulders. George could only imagine how the woman’s touch made his wife more ill. But more important, he kept thinking about what would happen when they reached Belgrade. Surely Joseph Goebbels’s wife would be greeted by German guards, who probably would want to take a look at the passengers on this flight about to leave occupied territory. Exactly what we were trying to avoid, he thought.

There was nothing they could do to change what would happen at the airport in Belgrade. For the rest of the forty-minute flight, George could only sit and watch while his wife was comforted, to no avail, by the most revered woman in the Third Reich. As the plane touched down in Belgrade for refueling, it appeared Mirjana was near collapse, the stress of the moment about to overwhelm her. But he could do nothing without arousing suspicion, so he waited for the door in the rear of the plane to open and then he was one of the first to exit. His heart sank as he saw a German officer there waiting to check passports. He handed his over and the officer let him pass. George stood nearby, waiting for Mirjana, hoping this wasn’t going to be the last time they saw each other.

All of the other passengers came out the rear door, the officer checking each passport, and then finally George could see Mirjana coming down the aisle, Magda Goebbels’s arm underneath hers, helping steady the sick woman. As they came to the door, the officer called out, “Passports, please,” as he had with everyone else. George looked at Mirjana and they both thought this was the moment they had been dreading. Then Magda Goebbels shouted crossly at the officer.

“What do you mean, ‘passports’?” she said sternly, in the tone of a woman used to berating Nazi officers and getting away with it. “This is the wife of that man standing there next to you. She’s sick. Help me with this woman or you will hear from me!”

The officer did as he was told and helped Mirjana out of the plane, forgetting all about the passports. Mirjana walked to George and they embraced, no one around them knowing why they were so relieved. Magda Goebbels wished them well and went toward the airport terminal, nonplussed. George and Mirjana couldn’t believe that Magda Goebbels had just saved them.

After a half-hour wait for refueling, they reboarded the plane and took off for Sofia, Bulgaria. Mirjana sat next to Magda Goebbels again, more composed but breaking into tears as the plane flew directly over the house where she had lived in Belgrade. She knew she was looking at her home country for the last time. Magda Goebbels assumed she was airsick again and patted her hand gently.

When the couple landed in Sofia, Bulgaria, they found a country that was not yet in the full throes of Nazi occupation but nonetheless full of Nazis shouting, “Heil Hitler!” at every opportunity. They stayed for two days until George could change more money at a bank on Monday and then they took a train to Svilengrad, a village of no more than a dozen little houses. There was no hotel, and the only water in town was a single hand pump, where George and Mirjana took turns washing their faces. George had found that this little village was the only way to get from Bulgaria to Turkey, which was still neutral, because the Germans had destroyed all the bridges between the two countries. The only remaining way out was a little strip of land near Svilengrad. The only trouble was that the Germans didn’t want anyone leaving Bulgaria for Turkey, so that strip of land was mined.

The locals had found a path through the minefield, and for a fee they would show George and Mirjana where it was. The villagers took their passports and luggage when they arrived, to make sure they wouldn’t head off in search of the path on their own. When a local villager drove George and Mirjana to the border the next morning, he pointed out the ribbons marking the safe path and made it clear that they must stay between them. They could see evidence of where mines had exploded on either side. George and Mirjana were scared, but they knew this was what they came for, their way to freedom. George handed the driver the equivalent of twenty-five dollars, a tremendous sum of money for a poor villager in 1941, and received their passports and luggage in return.

Hand in hand, they gingerly walked the hundred yards from Bulgaria to Turkey, taking about fifteen minutes and hoping the villagers knew what they were talking about. As they got to the end of the path, Turkish officials were there to greet them. One officer took George and Mirjana’s passports, looked at them and the other documents Mirjana carried, and handed them back.

“Welcome to Turkey,” the man said.

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