It had been almost thirteen years since Pavle marched proudly into Belgrade as a combatant of the 25th Serbian Assault Division of the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia on the 20th of October, 1944. He could still clearly remember himself trembling and struggling to withhold tears as he walked along free Belgrade, intoxicated by exaltation and overcome by 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?
He visited familiar streets and knocked on the doors of apartments. He talked to neighbours, other witnesses and the rare and few Jewish survivors, just to find out what he had suspected for a long time–his father Julije and his beloved uncle were shot by German firing squad at Jabuka near the city of Pančevo. The rest of the family was killed at Sajmište in the terror of a 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 to do it.
Surviving the war was not easy but for Pavle even living in peace was difficult to cope with. He would fumble with his keys opening his door. He would walk past Kalemegdan park on his way to buy milk. He tried hard to find meaning in the vast wasteland that left his heart barren after so many deaths. He kept asking himself: Why 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 we are not all screaming out of horror for this immense sea of injustice and meaningless death?
Every day was a challenge for him, every step a struggle. But as disinterested and relentless time went on, even Pavle gradually found a way to focus on his daily routine and keep living. He found a purpose in studying at a Teacher Training School in Belgrade. He was going to dedicate his life to educating children.
“Children will be better people 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. Terazije Street was rebuilt, Hotel Moscow still safeguarded the crowds passing by and sitting outside the shops with neon lights, however, the signs were all different and the facades looked like they were cloaked in strangers’ clothes. And on one day, a day like any other, during a midday break between Pavle’s classes, he happened to overhear a fellow teacher mentioning a young engineer’s name: Bogdan Živković.
“Bogdan?” Pavle exclaimed so loud that he frightened all the other teachers in the staffroom with his sudden noisy reaction. For the first time after the war, Pavle remembered Aleksandar’s best friend and classmate–little Bogdan. His face lit up with joy as if he had found out that some of his own flesh and blood had survived. He immediately inquired about Bogdan in detail. Shortly after, Pavle sent a brief letter to him and before long they arranged a meeting.
Since Bogdan saw Aleksandar in the procession of the Belgrade Jews crossing the pontoon bridge to the other side of the Sava river heading towards Sajmište camp on that freezing December day, Bogdan felt a dumb, dull pain in his stomach all of his life. It was as if an icy worm had burrowed into his soul. After the war, his parents took him to a doctor fearing that it was-–God forbid-–something serious. 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 back regularly to the spot on the river bank near the demolished King Aleksandar Bridge, always 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 it would give him answers. 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, expecting someone to shout and wave from the other side of the Sava river, Aleksandar’s side of the river, saying: “I’m here, I’m here!” It was there, as Bogdan stared at the remains of the demolished bridge and its broken columns protruding out of the water like broken teeth, that he realized that he should make a new bridge. Thus, connecting this bank with Aleksandar’s bank.
When Bogdan graduated from the Faculty of Civil Engineering in Belgrade in 1952, he looked for a job and landed one at the ‘Mostoprojekt’ enterprise, which was founded that year with the very aim to construct a new bridge on the site of the old King Aleksandar Bridge.
The bridge was under construction for four consecutive years in cooperation with German engineers. On one hand Bogdan was really bothered that the Germans had been involved in the construction of “his bridge” but on the other hand he thought it was fair that they should repair what they had destroyed.
In 1956 a new bridge over the Sava river was completed. One of the assistant architects was a young, exceptionally hard-working and motivated engineer–-Bogdan Živković. He was even especially commended for his work by the president of the Workers Committee. After completion of the works on the ‘Bridge over the Sava River’, as it was officially named, the ‘Mostoprojekt’ enterprise 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.
Bogdan and Pavle met on Friday the 23rd of August, 1957. Somehow for Bogdan, 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 to see the tall young man with glasses that was waiting before him.
“Bogdan, my child, my God, how much have you 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 lock of hair!”
Then they were silent for a few minutes as they looked across the river.
“This is where I saw him for the last time” uttered Bogdan softly.
Pavle silently gazed 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 could meet each other.”
“Wow, mazal tov, attaboy! I had no idea…” Pavle stammered, almost surprised at the passage of time itself.
“Aleksandar, offer your hand to Uncle Pavle.” Bogdan said gently to the boy.
“Aleksandar…” Pavle looked straight into Bogdan’s eyes inquisitively.
“Yes, Uncle Pavle, named after our Aleksandar.”
Pavle stood there dumbfounded, unable to move. Only his lower lip trembled and a tear from his eye rolled down his cheek. Feeling that Unclе Pavle was upset, little Aleksandar came up to him and took him by the hand. Pavle felt a warm child’s hand in his and stood stiffly, 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 opened?” Bogdan asked to break the silence.
“Yes, I have, down there on the Belgrade side of the Sava river” Pavle imperceptibly nodded, pointing upstream.
“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, looking at the rising blocks of concrete in the distance, cranes constructing huge cement boxes one after the other, filled with new homes for New Belgraders.
After several long moments, Pavle had the courage to take a better look at 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.
Yes, it was mine.