Ruth Ticktin has coordinated programs, advised students, and taught English in the Washington DC area since 1977. From Madison and Chicago, graduate of U. Wis, Ruth encourages sharing stories. Coauthor: What's Ahead? (ProLingua Assoc. 2013.) Coeditor: Psalms (Poetica Publishing 2020.) Contributor: BendingGenres Anthology 18-19; Art in Time of Covid-19 (SanFedele Press.) Author: Was, Am, Going (to be published 2021 New Bay Books) https://rticktindc.wixsite.com/ruth
GREAT WAR & AFTER
Walking back to his rooming house on Trieste’s port, Semso reflected on the possibility of leaving. He knew why he’d needed to be left alone without conflict or change. He was still a child when recruited into an infantry over five years earlier, in 1915. Along with all the boys and men in their area of Herzegovina, Semso learned that his homeland was controlled by lands to the north for whom his field rifle battalion was mandated to fight battles. In this way, Semso found himself a soldier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, engaged in a great world war. Their infantry, the Bosniaken, was made up of Muslim, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Jews, fighting together in the Imperial Royal Common Army. Semso couldn’t articulate the cause. Instead of wondering about the politics of war, he honed his skills, intent on daily routine. By speaking very little and not thinking too hard he was able to focus on getting through the day. Each morning as he stretched and made sure to breathe deeply, his goal was to toughen his heart muscles.
Passing children in caps playing in the dart on cobble-stoned streets, Semso thought of his love of hats. At the beginning of the war, Semso and the others in his infantry wore the gray fez when outside of the barracks. In the heat of the battle in the mud and trenches, they eventually began wearing the steel helm or kaciga. By the end of his years in battle, nothing protected their heads from the smoke, the mud and the shell splinters flying down at them from the skies above. Semso chose to believe that the helmet helped, as did digging deeper trenches and obeying commands. He kept alert, as other country’s troops joined the army, especially in Slovenia as they moved north. Some in his troop learned German but Semso wasn’t interested in the non-Slav soldiers, their languages, religions or motivations. By working hard, he succeeded in keeping his mind numb. Along with several soldiers in his infantry, he passed safely through Croatia and continued along the Slovenia/Italy border. There they encountered multitudes of deaths; some soldiers were captured. Far fewer became heroes.
Semso was proud of the automaton who’d taken over his body and kept him alive. He adopted a mantra: follow commands; eat; sleep; and fight; all without thought. If there was a moment without an order, he would consider alternate ways to keep warm, especially his head, toes and fingers. He spoke so little; he could have lost his voice but for the marching chants and “Die Bosniaken kommen” sung with the troops at daybreak. By hearing his voice and the deep sounds of those around him, he could carefully follow and keep up.
Semso and his troop arrived at the Soca River between Italy and Slovenia. He heard the commander’s talk just before what became known as the eighth battle of the Isonzo Front.
“We are fighting Italy over this valuable valley, land overlooking a gulf, leading to another and another and finally onto the precious Adriatic Sea.”
Strolling along the Gulf of Trieste this evening, Semso remembered overhearing conversations about Soca valley vacation homes not far from here. In the battle, Semso had seen no beauty and couldn’t fathom luxury villas. They passed the Cicarija mountains, staying hidden, aware of the battles in surrounding mountain ridges. He was captured near the Gulf of Panzano in the middle of the night. Along with several other infantrymen, he was tied up and taken to a truck parked in a bombed-out section of a town.
Semso, relieved that he was still alive, shivered while gazing at the death surrounding them. Empty stone roads covered in loads of rubble were left. Sad-looking skinny trees, all barren, completed the devastation.
“Up ahead,” pointed one of his fellow captives, pointing to a tarp covering an area, “a market.” They stopped at the makeshift market down the road where they got out of the truck. Semso was most upset when forced at that point to give up his helmet and bayonet, two possessions which had saved him. The hat and stick were mementos of boyhood games played, a lifetime ago. The captors waited for a few days until the truck bed had filled up with a group of about twenty-five captured soldiers. They departed at sunrise and arrived at sunset at a prisoner of war camp, in Pistoia, Tuscany. The soldiers spoke of rumors they’d heard that the Isonzo battles had not been won by either side. The Italians were afraid of having any captor camps in the northeast of Italy.
“That’s why we’re stuck now in the middle of Italy, even farther from what was once our home,” his despondent comrades said.
Semso hated the drive, the waiting, the unknowing, and the boredom. Slowly he’d begun to thaw out from the cold, but that led to fidgeting, itching, and worst of all, over-thinking. The area where they were to be kept was a fortress they realized as they passed over a bridge, a moat, and entered grand arched gates. Down below they saw the barracks, the prisoner camp where they ended up living for two years. During those years, Semso realized that he would never get back to Mostar, his birthplace. That life was irrevocably over and a return was unimaginable. When they’d first arrived, they joined only a few hundred prisoners. As the months went on, the small group of men came to believe that they had been forgotten. With little to occupy their days, they became lost casualties of war.
A group of prisoner-soldiers asked the crew that served them their daily meal if they could work. The crew requested a meeting between the prisoners and those in charge. The prisoners explained that they might as well work and help out the local farmers who were short-handed due to the war. Weeks passed, and the soldiers assumed that nothing was going to happen until the growing season began. There was little to do but wait those five long months through the cold, cloudy, rainy days. Days passed when Semso didn’t see the sun and considered whether it would ever return. He’d watch and count until the clouds moved or he imagined they moved. Soldiers wrestled and some played football, but many sat around idly. Semso walked the square quad over and over, around and around. Sometimes he counted but often he’d lose track of the number and get upset with himself that he couldn’t even succeed with that simple task. He practiced the art of making peace with failure, with the idea that this would serve him well in life. He conquered hunger on the floor mat each night. He’d curl into a ball to become as small as possible, protect his unhappy barren stomach, breathe, count, and accept. Semso had forgotten, if he’d in fact ever known, certain sensations – the cadence of prayer, the fullness of warm food, bathing in clean water, touching one’s skin, or childhood laughter. His situation may have been easier than his fellow soldiers whose flavorful memories made them homesick and blue. While they talked of their families and hometowns with love, Semso listened, learned and strove to fill himself with warm sunny pictures.
After a bleak, bone-chillingly wet winter, the captured soldiers were told of a potential plan to relieve their boredom. The provincial fattorias had persisted and at last persuaded the Italian army to consider their use of the imprisoned infantry as free agricultural laborers. After a few more weeks, the rag-tag troop began to go out in truck loads to various farms. They weren’t planting, they were a clean-up crew assigned to the forests and woodland areas surrounding the fields. They had to pick up the fallen branches, fix the stones that made up a path of sorts and cut back the growth.
Semso glanced briefly down at the mess on the ground and looked up where he saw only clouds. The sun appeared and disappeared, in and out of the dense cloudy sky all day, continuing to deny him a lasting look at the sun. Nevertheless, Semso viewed the valley where he lived as a heaven with mountains surrounding them and various shades of green trees climbing up to the sky in patterns. There were brown leafy oak bushes that were everywhere with their acorns underfoot dotted with tall thin cypress that stayed green throughout the year, straightly lining up as a path along the way. The group cleaned debris so the earth could soak up the rains, and daily Semso grew stronger.
Rarely, were the prisoners asked to actually work the fields, plant, harvest, or press olives. In the fall, the farmers needed a small group of the workers from the camp to lay out the netting to collect the olives. They were then allowed to gather the olives from the nets, put them into baskets and load them onto wagons. The pickers were the ones poking the trees with their sticks and professionally shaking the olive trees. Semso was in awe of the farmers' pleasure in their labor. He was content with this farm work for the first time during those months, and almost forgot about the war or his sad childhood. He got used to the living conditions, the meager bread and broth, and remained hopeful that there would be no upheaval again. By all accounts, both sides of the war paid no notice to this small group of captured soldiers. And Semso preferred the camp routine, or any daily schedule, to the chaos of war.
At the end of the second harvest season, Semso heard the pickers shouting to the crew in Italian, German, and Slovak, “Liberazione! Befreiung! Oslobodenie!” They threw their hats to the sky. The Bosnians yelled Osloboden-je, repeating the “jey,” with great cheer. That sunlit autumn day was the armistice, the agreement that ended the Great War, November 11, 1918.
The small beleaguered troop of former soldiers remained neglected for a few months. In February, the Western Allies finally arrived at their fortress prison, a former monastery, and announced that all of the Austro-Hungarian prisoners were going to be repatriated. Every one of them had their original place of birth now in flux, neither this country nor that. Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina were no longer part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Each former prisoner was given some form of discharge papers. When given the choice of transports to Vienna or to Trieste, most of the Bosnian and Croats and all of the Slovenians chose Trieste. The few Poles and Romanians that were in their group, chose Vienna. Semso didn’t want to return to Bosnia, he was done with the past and feared the future of his former country. He had chosen Trieste because of the familiarity. Now, returning from work, he realized Trieste was also in flux and he may be departing again.
Leaving created more problems like when he’d left the army. A Hungarian officer who’d examined Semso’s papers, had asked for his family's nev, last name. Semso had responded,
“I’m ben Koren, son of Koren.” The man wrote Benkoren, stared at him and sternly stated, “As a Hebrew, you will be better off in Trieste than in Vienna. They can sort out your surname.”
Leaving Pistoia, at the end of the war, Semso’s truck was composed of twenty Bosnians: fourteen Muslims; five Orthodox Serbs; and Semso, who was called Hebrejska, Israelca, or Jevrejin. Travel was an entire day’s journey from the tree-lined countryside to Bologna where a few groups of people were lined up, the markets were empty, and soldiers lined the road. After the city, the view became less rich, with less forests and fewer small villages dotting the roads. They arrived at dusk in Trieste, and the city seemed hollow and dark under the cliffs. The driver told them,
“The post-war plan is for Trieste to become part of Italy. There are masses coming into the city now from the battlefields and camps. But everything could be worse.”
From the truck, he viewed city streets full of armed and uniformed soldiers, as in Bologna, although Semso wasn’t certain which armed forces were keeping the area in control. The Serb Red Cross had set up cots not far from the market square for all the arrivals in transit and distributed clothes, towels and a blanket. The towels were soft and luxurious, the blankets almost sufficient enough for the cool night, and the clothes were crisp, black, white and clean. They slept well in the tents.
Semso had walked towards the ports and arsenals along the Adriatic Sea on that first day in the city recovering from war. The central market was lively, next to Miramare Castle, Park and the train station. He returned to the tent, not wanting to get lost, and eager to be fed and checked in one by one for their distributions. The staff of the Red Cross sent the Moslems to the Caserma Grande, the Jew to the new Israelite Temple, and the Serbian Orthodox to the Saint Spyridon Church.
Aware of his black thick eyebrows, his mustache, and his dark eyes, Semso hesitantly entered the temple. He was thankful for his clean clothes but noticed that the men inside were better dressed businessmen. A middle-aged man approached, shook Semso’s hand and welcomed him. He explained that he was a merchant helping the Jewish community adjust after the war. He surprised Semso by asking what side he’d fought on. Noticing Semso’s open mouth, he expounded.
“There were some Trieste citizens who escaped into Italy and fought on the Italian side. They didn’t want to be recruited by the Austrians. Now the war is over, all of us Italians, Austrians, Slovenians, are struggling to make ends meet. We help each other.”
Semso responded that as a prisoner in Italy for two years, he was used to Italian government control and accepted their authority.
The man, assuming that Semso was looking for work and lodging, told him,
“Please, return here to the temple for Sabbath, we welcome you. Now you must go to the office of the Jewish Agency. You walk, ten-minutes from here.”
Semso nodded, saying “Si, grazie,” and managed a smile, pleased that there was a promise of some structure to his days.
He waited at the agency with several others for the rest of the day. By evening he was finally interviewed. They set him up with a job in a warehouse owned by a Jewish man. His new life began the very next day. Semso went to work at the warehouse, located at the very end of the city’s ports, past the gas works factory. The work was exhausting and not as enjoyable as his “prisoner” work in the forests. He preferred the work in the fields, but began to appreciate the water of the port side. When the bustle of the trade, and the warehouse scene became stressful Semso would miss the countryside.
He found energy to go to the temple nearly every week and became accustomed to the community. Despite the war, Semso saw that the Jewish community was wealthier, more urban and Western than his Southern Europe country and family. Semso chose to ignore the subtle bias towards him and to learn their Triestino dialect, a hodgepodge of Slovene and Serbo-Croatian. Years had passed since he’d actually understood every word in a conversation. This became an accepted part of his identity, a hard worker who knew no other way His co-workers spoke about the economy and what a mess they were in. Many had been against the war, and now with the recession, they were fighting for stronger unions, better hours and better wages. Semso, still the obedient worker, sensed the unrest around him and understood. He hoped that there would not be an explosion.
Content for months, Semso pushed down the depression, discrimination, and desolation that crept up on him unexpectedly. The palpable fear surrounding him helped bury his sadness. Trieste people on the street, at work, and in the rooming house spoke among themselves. “What will happen next?” “We are certain to be under the fascist leadership of Italy.” “We must leave.” Semso, alone, was devoid of fear.
Out of nowhere, he had received a strange offer to start anew and he trusted that he could accept.