It had been almost thirteen years since Pavle proudly marched into Belgrade as a combatant of the the 25th Serbian Assault Division of the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia on the 20th October 1944. He could still clearly remember himself trembling and struggling to withhold tears as he was walking along liberated Belgrade, intoxicated by exaltation and overcome by an immense anxiety at the same time, for he knew that after the liberation the time would come to find out the truth and face his worst fears: had any of his loved ones survived!?
Soon after, he visited familiar streets and knocked on the doors of his apartment and the apartments of his close relatives. He talked to the neighbours, he talked to other witnesses, and he talked to the rare survived Jews, just to find out what he had suspected for a long time: his father Julije and uncle Rihard were shot by a firing squad at Jabuka near the city of Pančevo, and the rest of them were killed at Sajmište in the terrible gas van. It was Pavle who reported the death of twelve members of his family and close relatives to the State Commission for Ascertaining the Number of War Victims, because there was no one else who could have done it.
Surviving the war was not easy, but for Pavle even living in peace was difficult to cope with. He was trying hard to find a meaning in that vast wasteland left in his heart after so many deaths. He kept asking himself: “Why all of them, why not me? Where is justice? Where was God? How can all these people around me walk, breathe and live at all? How come that we are not screaming all together out of horror of all this immense sea of injustice and meaningless deaths?” Every day was a challenge for him, every step a struggle. But as disinterested and relentless time went by, even Pavle gradually found the way to focus on his daily routine and keep living. He found a life purpose in studying at Teacher Training School in Belgrade: he was going to dedicate his life to educating children.
– Children will be better men than we are! – he used to say.
After having graduated, Pavle found a job as a history and geography teacher in the Third Belgrade Grammar School.
Thus thirteen years went by since the liberation of Belgrade, when during a long break between classes in the staffroom Pavle happened to hear a fellow teacher mentioning a young engineer Bogdan Živković.
– Bogdan! – Pavle exclaimed so loud that he frightened all other teachers in the staffroom with his sudden noisy reaction. For the first time after the war Pavle remembered Aleksandar’s best classmate – little boy Bogdan. His face lit up with joy as if he had found that some of his own flesh and blood had survived. He immediately enquired about Bogdan in detail. Shortly after that Pavle sent a brief letter to him, and before long they arranged a meeting.
Since Aleksandar went in the procession of the Belgrade Jews across the pontoon bridge to the other side of the river Sava towards Sajmište on that freezing December day, Bogdan had felt a dumb, dull pain in his stomach all his life, as if an icy warm had been burrowing into his soul. After the war his parents even took him to a doctor fearing that it was – God forbid – something serious. But the doctor said that it was all due to poor nourishment during the war, and that he just had to eat well and everything would be all right. But somehow nothing was ever all right.
The war had long been over, but Bogdan kept coming regularly to the spot on the river bank near the demolished King Aleksandar’s Bridge and looking at the other side of the river, towards Sajmište. Whenever he stood at that very spot the dull pain was strongest, and Bogdan would listen to it as if looking for answers in it. Deep inside he had still felt pangs of conscience mixed with the memories of fear, anger and helplessness. He was aware that as a little boy he couldn’t have helped Aleksandar on that fatal day, but at the same time he knew that someone should have, but had not done so. Bogdan would stand there waiting, as if expecting someone to shout and wave from that other side the river Sava, Aleksandar’s side of the river, saying: “I’m here, I’m here!” It was there, as he was staring at the remains of the demolished bridge and its piers protruding out of the water like broken teeth, that he realized that he should make a new bridge, thus connecting this one, his bank, with the Aleksandar’s bank.
When he graduated from the Faculty of Civil Engineering in Belgrade in 1952, Bogdan was looking for job and got one in the enterprise “Mostoprojekt”, which was founded that year with the very aim to construct a new bridge on the site of the old King Aleksandar’s Bridge.
The bridge had been built for four consecutive years in cooperation with the German engineers. On one hand Bogdan was really bothered by the fact that the Germans had been involved in the construction of “his bridge”, but on the other hand he thought it fair that they should be involved in repairing what they had destroyed.
Thus in 1956 a new bridge over the river Sava was finished and put in use, one of the assistants architect designers being a young, exceptionally hard-working and motivated engineer – Bogdan Živković. He was even specially commended for his work in front of all the employees. After completion of the works on the Bridge over the River Sava, as it was its official name, the enterprise “Mostoprojekt” was transformed into the City Authority for Bridge Design and Construction. It was there that Bogdan, as he was sitting in his office studying new blueprints, received Pavle’s letter brought to him by a fellow worker.
Bogdan and Pavle met on Friday the 23rd of August in 1957. For Bogdan somehow it was quite logical to suggest meeting on the riverbank under the new bridge, at the very spot where he had seen Aleksandar for the last time.
Pavle was very excited when he saw a tall young man with the glasses waiting at the agreed place.
– Bogdan, my child, my God, how much you have grown! – Pavle exclaimed shaking Bogdan’s hand, – Well then, how are you? How are you doing? –
– Uncle-Pavle, – Bogdan smiled – you’ve still got that hairlock!
Then they were silent for a few minutes looking across the river.
– This is where I saw him for the last time, – uttered Bogdan softly.
Pavle was silently looking across the river nodding his head.
– Daddy…a little voice was heard behind them.
Pavle turned around and saw a little boy of about five years old standing next to Bogdan.
– Uncle-Pavle, this is my son, I brought him along so that you two can meet each other. –
– Wow, mazal tov, attaboy! Well I had no idea… – Pavle stammered surprised.
– Aleksandar, offer your hand to Uncle-Pavle. – Bogdan said gently to the boy.
– Aleksandar…? – Pavle stopped and looked straight at Bogdan’s eyes inquisitively.
– Yes, Uncle-Pavle, named after our Aleksandar. –
Pavle was standing there dumbfounded, unable to move. Only his lower lip trembled and a tear came from his eye rolling down his cheek. Feeling that Unclе-Pavle was upset, little Aleksandar came to him and took him by the hand. Pavle felt a warm child hand in his hand and stood thus stiff, staring across the river not daring to lower his eyes to see the boy.
– Uncle-Pavle, have you heard that today a new Belgrade Fair was opened? – Bogdan asked to break the silence.
– Yes, I have, down there on the Belgrade side of the river Sava – almost imperceptibly Pavle pointed with his head up the stream.
– A new Belgrade has been built on the other side of the river. It will be a wonderful new world – Bogdan said as if to himself.
After several long moments, Pavle took courage to take a better look of the boy who was holding his hand. Then he noticed a toy car in the boy’s hand.
– Is it really… Is it possible that it is Aleksandar’s red race car? – whispered Pavle.
– Yes, it is mine! – said the boy cheerfully.