Travel Stories


In 1964, when I spent three months in Lijesnica it had a population of about 1500, very few if any houses with electricity, and none with running water or indoor plumbing.  The socio-cultural categorization of the residents at the time was that of a rural peasantry.  It had been so since the middle ages.  The Lijesnican peasants' livelihood was subsistence level agriculture … a small garden, a cow, some sheep, a few chickens.  No one was an employee or a wage earner.  There were no tractors in the village.  Yet it was clear, even in 1964, that this way of life was nearing an inevitable end.  That the extended family (zadruga) lands which passed by equal division to each son, who then divided the land further ad infinitum among their sons, was no longer capable of sustainable subdivision, that the demands and desires for more modern, comfortable, expanded lives, for electricity, television, plumbing, perhaps a small old car, could not be realized by subsistence level agricultural peasants and that "modernity" in some form would inevitably overtake them.

So what did I find upon my return? What I found after fifty-two years of progress was both predictable, unpredictable, and somehow immensely sad, not necessarily for all Lijesnicans, but surely for American romantics.  First, the factory had now been there over half a century.  It had expanded, shrunk, expanded and shrunk, its high workforce numbering about 5000, its low about 1000.  The acres and acres of industrial waste the factory gifted to the land along the river were a stunning testament to the passage of time.  Abandoned trucks and box cars littered the view as far as the eye could see.  Pyramid high piles of sawdust, scrap bark, and slag were lined up one after another like huge bishops on a chess board.  An ever present weeping drooping pillar of smoke competed and merged with the fog hanging in the valley.  Junk car lots like pimples that would make New Jersey proud.  Many deserted and crumbling old houses.  A sprinkling of new houses about as densely (or sparsely) settled as the old. A few small gardens and a few larger obviously consolidated fields.  Almost none of the homeowners were Sehicians or their descendants.  There were notable exceptions.  Most of all I would say things had deteriorated, at least from an American aesthetic and cultural perspective.  For what Lijesnica now looked like to me was a rural slum, an Appalachian factory town not nearly as pretty as the little village it had been, with far more trash and the smell of sulfur and defeat, or at least passive acceptance of something less than victory, something other than dreams realized having replaced hope, again with a few notable exceptions.  And even though some of the roads had been roughly paved, the majority of lanes remained impassably rutted and muddy and my overall impression was of anomie, of isolation, of pathos.  But I wasn't there long enough to really know.  And I'm not a real anthropologist.

So here's the highlight of my afternoon in Lijesnica where I was guided by the kindness of Erwin who worked at the only hotel in Maglaj, Hotel Galeb (eagle), and his lovely bride to be Irma who accompanied me.  A man standing out feeding his lone sheep at the last house in the village - a descendant of Sehicians (given his last name was Sehic) directed me to the biggest farmer/landholder in the village, a man named Mohammed Sehic, who was apparently the last in the line of Sehicians who actually worked the land for survival.  Mohammed's father, who was still alive and lived with Mohammed (see photos) had actually been away in the Yugoslav Army the summer I was in Lijesnica, but one of the few photographs I still had showed his father, Mohammed's paternal grandfather, sitting in a circle of workmen constructing a house in Lijesnica, all a cause of great excitement.  (Well, okay, modest excitement, as these were shy and not very excitable folk.)  The father and Mohammed and I talked about the old days, about how hard they had been, but how rewarding was the sense of community, of belonging, of hope that infused the population experiencing the promise of the new Yugoslavia.  Not that life was bad for Mohammed.  He had acquired a substantial portion of the zadrugal lands over time and had become a dairy farmer, selling milk from his herd of twenty-seven gorgeous, fat, well fed, and very clean bovines.  Really, these cows had been in their stanchions all day … and Mohammed did not know an important guest from America such as I would be visiting … and I've visited 100s upon 100s of dairy farms (another story for another time) … and this was the cleanest occupied barn and cleanest stanchioned herd I have ever seen.

Besides which, Mohammed really liked it when I told him my profession because he needed a good lawyer and we had a good laugh.  But really, Mohammed wanted to know, really, what brought me to Lijesnica, what was my last name, what was my religion or ethnicity?

And here I am reminded of one of the many times I faced this notable "what religion are you" question, in this particular instance in the middle of a long line on my first day in the army approaching a sergeant seated at a table filling out cards with the information necessary to issue each man his dog tags.  When I reach the table the sergeant finds my name and military identification number on my card and asks my religion.  I'm not sure why but I just wasn't able to answer.  I don't think it was because I was afraid of anti-Semitism, or ashamed of being Jewish, quite the opposite, I was always rather proud of being Jewish.  It was more a sophomoric sense that I didn't think religion was anyone's business, or of any great significance, I mean this is the United States Army, is it not, and we were all equals right, brothers in arms.  I mean what did it matter?  It seemed almost unpatriotic to make such separatist declarations.

"What's your religion?" the sergeant asks again in a Southern drawl.

Still I continued to stand there quite mute and struck dumb.

"What's wrong with you," he growled, "what's your religion?"

But I just stared at him, unable to answer, unable to form the words, the sergeant growing more and more exasperated, and clearly thinking I'm a moron or something, and rightly so.

"I said, 'what is your religion?!'"  He said this very slowly, very slowly, through gnashed teeth.

And I just stared at him, unaccountably frozen, holding up the line, delaying victory over the forces of evil.

"Who are your people, boy," he finally yells exasperated and menacing.

Oh.  I was startled.  My "people"?  Not my religion? My people?  “Why Hebrews sir," I say.

"Hebrew," he repeats and writes it down.

"Next," he called.

Two days later, when I was issued my dog tags, they read just that, "Hebrew."  I still have them.  I don’t think there are or were many other Hebrews in the U.S. Army, but they are surely my “people” as I understand it.  And when it comes time to identify my mortal remains left scarred and unrecognizable on some desolate field of battle I will be far more comfortable being declared a Hebrew than I would being called Jewish anyway.  I'd like to be buried with them for some later day archaeologist.  But back to Lijesnica.

"Jewish," I tell Mohammed.  It's so much easier.

Really?  Jewish?  But what really are you doing here, he asks.  And again with the help of Ervin, my translator and earnest guide, I explain why I was here fifty years ago and why I wanted to come back.

I cannot say any of this makes much sense to Mohammed, but his father is smiling ear to ear, motioning for me to sit next to him on the couch, patting my knee in what I've come to recognize as deeply felt warmth and affectionate.  There really isn't much more to say.  The visit to Lijesnica all feels so immensely anti-climactic.  Not disappointing, really, real is real, and many loves from 50 years ago don't look all that good today, nor do I.  But it is so sweet to remember.  And then Lijesnica is in my life's rearview mirror … forever.

Alright, I've had my climactic moment, what next?  I've got over two weeks before my scheduled return flight from Prague and the only thing on my agenda is to meet Djorgje in Croatia.  So I take a bus to Doboj, BiH, thinking it might be worth a day or two and am promptly dissuaded of that brilliant notion by a little walk around town.  Next?  Did someone say "Zagreb."  Maybe it was Djordje, the Buddhist imp and guide.  Yeah, it was Djordje.  Yeah, Zagreb, bus in four hours.  Next.