Last night I watched the movie Defiance. I was very moved by this true story, likely because it reminded me of the stories my dad used to tell me when I was a child, and the stories he repeated on his deathbed 2 weeks before he died. I could not miss the similarities between the stories: a group of people who hid from the Nazis during WWII; who traversed forest wilderness, miraculously surviving the outdoor elements; were tough enough to withstand starvation, extreme cold, fatigue and illness; and were forced to cope with members of their group who had died along their journey while trying to stay alive themselves.
Some people are really tough.
This is my dad's story:
His name was Dusan Dane Savich, and he was born in Podum, Yugoslavia on September 14, 1926. He was the second child born into his family and was named after his grandfather Dane Savich. Being the oldest boy, it was common in those days to name the first child of each sex after the grandparents. His oldest sister Mara was named after their grandmother.
It was the early spring of 1944 when there was still snow on the ground. The atrocities of war hung thickly in the air, and another heavy current was about to descend on the small town of Podum, Yugoslavia. This time it was to be upon the homes of dad's aunts and uncles. They were living a few kilometers away from the home where dad grew up and this was a surprise attack that no one had seen coming.
Nazi-affiliated Croatian soldiers tortured my dad's aunts and uncles. These monsters, with machetes in hand, cut off bits and pieces of body parts, by body parts, while his relatives were still alive, and until there were only pieces of them left. His sister Mara and her grandmother were visiting Mara's young cousins on this day of almost unspeakable bloodshed. Mara was able to escape, but only after having been brutally raped by the monsters, and only after having been forced to watch the massacre of her aunts and uncles. Her grandmother Mika had hid with the other younger grandchildren in a shed until the monsters had left. The living members of dad's family that remained were left to grieve and to bury the slaughtered pieces of their loved ones in a mass grave at the cemetery.
After the massacre, with the strong encouragement of his mother, dad left home with other boys around his age in order to avoid a similar fate that his relatives endured. He was 17 at that time. This group of boys met up with older boys that had previously left home for the purpose of fighting in the war. For over one year, they lived in the mountains and bushes trying to stay alive and not be killed. There were no tents, the cold ground was their mattress, and the lucky ones were those that had blankets. Some died. The ones that survived endured the winter of 1945 out in the open, braved the elements, and became bonded by their new definition of what being tough was all about. They were prepared to survive anything that life would throw their way. This band of young men walked on foot from what is now known as Croatia, up through Slovenia, and across the Soca river into Italy. They crossed the Italian border in May of 1945. The war was now over.
By sheer luck, this band of young men, who were aligned with freedom fighters called Chetniks, were met by the 8th British Army. This particular British Army was not a communist leaning army, and thus sent these young men to an Italian refuge camp. The commander of this 8th Army was none other than Harold MacMillan, who would eventually become prime minister of the UK in the late 1950s. Dad never met him personally, but he definitely reaped the life-saving benefits of MacMillan's division because of their anti-communistic beliefs.
There were other freedom fighters however, that were met by a different British Army, and those young Chetniks were sent back to the communist country from where they fled. Those freedom fighters were the unlucky ones and were shot on the spot by Communist Partisans upon their return home. As fate would have it, dad's group were met by the British Army that would send them to the refuge camp instead of back to sure death from whence they came.
Give me freedom or give me death. That was the motto of these young freedom fighters. Dad had held a gun in his hand during this period of time. However, he had never shot a gun in his life. He had never harmed a single soul. His heart was too gentle, even in the midst of a world war, and even in the midst of the massacre of his own family the year before. This gentle man, even up until the days he was dying, resonated with the motto that was held dear by a group of young men who forged a bond of tungsten on the trek across the mountains of Slovenia during the winter of '45. Freedom or Death.
In fact, that slogan "Freedom or Death" was written on the Chetnik flag that was draped over dad's coffin by the few remaining men that were still alive from those days during the trek through Slovenia.
The concept of freedom was important to dad, as were the concepts of kindness and gentleness.
And when I heard those WWII stories again in the last weeks of his life, it was no surprise to me how he could be both gentle and strong during 2 other intense battles that he waged in his life: the unwavering support of my mom during her terminal illness, and his sense of dignity during his own illness and suffering.
Some people are really tough.