Dragoncaller (dragoncaller) wrote,
Dragoncaller
dragoncaller

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Ghosts of the past

I was stationed at the American Consulate in Zagreb, Yugoslavia back in the late '80's. There was a guy who worked there named Milan. That was the name we were told although I was fairly sure that wasn't his real name, but it was a name we Marines could pronounce and he seemed to like it.

He did odd jobs and messenger stuff. He was the one who went down the street to the coffee house to get the visa ladies their espresso. He was older and the jobs he did seemed a little demeaning.

His english wasn't very good and my Croatian was even worse. But I waved and smiled when he went by. Every day as he past my post he would turn and give a strange salute.

He couldn't raise his arms.

An odd defect for sure.

One day, almost out of the blue, the head maintenance worker, Georgi, who was older then dirt, told me something amazing about Milan.

He told me what had happened to his arms.

During the war the Luftwaffe used the building we were in for their head quarters. Milan had been captured as a Partisan and taken to the basement for questioning.

They tortured him.

They cut the hamstrings in his arms, crippling him. They beat him relentlessly, morning, noon and night.

When word came that the Americans were coming, the Luftwaffe left, abandoning Milan and serval other prisoners locked in cells.

Left to die.

Some did. Milan was at death's door. Hope fading along with his life, he had thought it was a dream when the Americans arrived and busted him loose. They gave him food and he ate so quickly that he threw up.

Years later Milan learned that the American Consulate would be housed in that same building, the one I was currently standing in, and he rushed down to get a job. Any job. He was the first in line.

They didn't hire him right away. It was Georgi that put in a good word for him. Milan had worked there ever since.

Weeks after hearing this story the Marines had planed a trip to Jasenovac, a little place in Croatia where 30,000 jews had been killed over a two year period. Most of them were shot. A few were clubbed to death and the rest starved or fell to disease. Milan seemed interested, and was trying to tell me about what was there in his non-existant english. In my broken Croation I invited him with us.

Jasenovac is rather non-descript. Just some dark buildings. Some, crumbling, the roofs caved in. We went on a grey, sad day, filing in with the other tourists. Passing the gates and making our way over the cracked, un-even pavement, Milan kept bumping into me. It took me a moment to realize he was clinging to me.

It wasn't the unsteady footing.

I held his arm as we walked through. He had initially grabbed my hand so hard I grunted from surprise. I moved his hand and held on to him. There was a tour guide who gave us the talk in english, showing us the barracks and other buildings. The buildings themselves don't mean much, but oh, God, the ghosts where there. We Marines, young bucks, imperious, were uncharacteristically silent and demure.

Milan was in full bore crying. Because he couldn't raise his arms, he had to bow his head to reach his handkerchief so he could dry his tears. It wasn't his first trip to the camp, but the impact was startling non-the-less.

30,000 Jews.

30,000. They had buses and trains running with horrific efficiency. We were lead from the railway area to some barracks and then through some empty buildings where the Jews worked making uniforms. From there out the back to where the trenches were. That was about a quarter mile or more along an uneven and ankle turning road. During the war, the road had been lined with streams of barbed wire and men with rifles. We made the walk in silence. The tour guide told us about the 30,000 who made the walk. Whole communities, friends, neighbors. Whole synagogues. 30,000. They were lined up along long trenches and then shot. When they fell, dirt was thrown in on top of them and the next bunch brought in. At the edge of the trench you could look down and see those who had not been killed still writhing in the fresh soil. Moaning, screaming, crying. To your left, your neighbor, to your right your third grade teacher.

Many stood at the edge, holding hands, clinging to something.

Clinging to each other.

30,000.

The men were sent to one trench, the women the another. It is said that one trench had a view of another. Women, clinging to their children could look over and watch their husbands die.

The Nazi's thought that was a bad idea and positioned the new trenches differently. I would say the distances was less than fifty yards.

You could hear, but you couldn't see.

Innovation.

Fields of these trenches. The dead un-named, un-known. Most of the records of the camp were destroyed, doing the Jews one last bit of inservice. Not only taking their lives but their names, eradicating them from history. At this point in the war, all the blacks, gays and mentally handicapped had already been killed. There were a hand full of Gypsies, but numbers are vague and are thought to be in the hundreds.

Milan and I stayed together all the way back to the van. By then, it had gotten foggy and a mist like a torn shroud embraced the entire camp. I had thought the ghosts were trying to tear it all down.

My Staff Sergeant chided me for holding hands with Milan. He had to say something to break the silence. He looked at me for a bit of a laugh.

I didn't really have one.

I told him, "Milan wanted to make sure I didn't fall."
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