Sunday, October 20, 2013

Jovanka Broz R.I.P.

The news today about the death of Jovanka Broz -- widow of Yugoslavian leader Marshal Josip Broz Tito -- will likely create a fresh wave of so-called "Jugonostalgija" -- a deep nostalgia for the Yugoslavia destroyed by the wars of 1991-1999.

Broz joined the partisan movement as a teenager and eventually worked her way into Tito's inner circle as a secretary. They married sometime in the early 1950's and she served as Yugoslavia's "first lady," travelling the world with Tito -- including accompanying him on his 1971 visit to the White House during Richard Nixon's presidency (see photo above). She was one of the chief victims of the political infighting before and after Tito's death in 1980 (she disappeared from public life three years before his death) and she lived largely in seclusion in Belgrade after Tito's funeral until her own death today.

Multiple news outlets have reported that it was Broz's last wish to be buried alongside her husband in the "Kuća cveća" (House of Flowers) in Belgrade -- a wish that it appears will be granted.

I visited the mausoleum in 2001 with my friend Ivana Aleksic and wrote about it for Time magazine's website. The article is now behind a paywall (sigh), but here is a relevant potion of it:

Despite her misgivings, Ivana accompanied me on my pilgrimage. Ten minutes out from the city center, our cab driver dropped us along the busy Boulevard of Peace. The center was open, but seemingly abandoned. As we trudged up the hill in warm autumnal sunshine, we happened upon a single armed soldier at the entrance. He told us that the park was taking an "unscheduled pause" in operations, and that we should wait for half an hour. 

We ambled over to the museum, which was shut tight, and sat on a nearby park bench. We talked a little about Tito, and Ivana opined that it was good that the Marshal was such a legendary hedonist. "It was a softer totalitarianism as a result," she noted. "It is better for people if a dictator enjoys himself." 

Forty minutes later, the "unscheduled pause" ended, and we sauntered up to the "House of Flowers" in which Tito is buried. It's the only building in the center that remains open. There was a bit of Graceland feel to the place, particularly in the parallel lanes (with directional arrows) and the odd statuary tucked between the shrubs and shuttered buildings. There was something sad in its massive emptiness; the center was clearly built to accommodate hundreds, if not thousands, of perpetual mourners and tourists. 

For the few who do visit, Tito's white marble grave sits in the center of an airy glass and stone pavilion. On this afternoon, the tomb's gold letters glittered in the bright sunshine, and a dying bunch of flowers and a tiny wreath rested forlornly on it. Only five other people showed up during our visit. Two were Croats, and three were young Belgraders in T-shirts and jeans, out for a lark. Judging by the guest book, this particular Saturday was among the memorial's busier days. Only ten or so of the pages were filled in two months, many by Slovenes visiting Belgrade for their nation's World Cup qualifying match on Sept. 5. The comments ranged from sentimental greetings to "The Old Man" or the "Boss" to a more analytical take by one visitor, who noted, "The only sin of which you are guilty is that you died." 

If the funeral is at the House of Flowers, it will likely be one of the most intense blossomings of Jugonostalgija in many years. Stay tuned.

(Photo of official White House visit of Josip Broz Tito and Jovanka Broz in 1971 is in the public domain.)

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