Vital Signs

The Yugoslav God That Failed

The fate of one family rarely matters except to those directly involved. Yet family histories—often tragedies can sometimes tell us a great deal about a nation's social fabric. One such story involves my aunt, Vida Knezevich Kontich—my mother's older sister—and her family. Their fate was never far from mind during my diplomatic assignment with the American Embassy in Yugoslavia and many years of teaching and writing about communist systems.

I met the Kontiches when I first visited Yugoslavia in the summer of 1939, while I was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. Aunt Vida, garbed in black, was widowed; her husband had been killed during World War I. They lived in poverty after the war in their native Montenegro. When Vida learned that Yugoslavia's monarch. King Alexander I Karadjordjevich, would be visiting the capital, Cetinje, she traveled to see him. Alexander walked among those present, and shook hands with Vida and asked her how she was. When she told him that her husband had been killed in the war and that she needed help with her four small children, he promised her a pension, which she soon received. I never did learn when or why she moved to Belgrade, but it was a move that provided some education and progress for her children.

The 1939 visit was largely social, although I detected a critical attitude toward the government of Prince Regent Paul, Alexander's...

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