At the very beginning of this century, a Viennese collector, a doctor by profession, bought a well preserved Egyptian wall relief in an antique shop in Wieblenger Strasse. It was an impressive piece of limestone, 63.4 cm high, depicting a kneeling court official with his arms raised in adoration, dating from the late 18th Dynasty of the Egyptian New Kingdom.
As the doctor could not make a large income by his medical practice, he was bargaining patiently and required a positive certificate of the relief’s authenticity. His Studies on Hysteria have already brought him respect but not a sufficient number of permanent patients. A case of Adela Hitzig was characteristic. She complained of violent headaches. After a few seances in the doctor’s consulting room she gave up the treatment. When her relative, who had recommended the doctor, inquired why she had done so, she replied: “He massaged my neck and asked me silly questions. He was ein ekelhafter Kerl.
Numerous forgeries which have turned up at the works of art market, warned the Viennese doctor to be cautious. His colleague in Budapest, Sandor Ferenczi wrote him about it as well; he was also a collector who managed to obtain a few beautiful and cheap items from the newly discovered find at Duna-Pentele in Central Hungary. After all, it was already found out that even the famous “Lady with Ermine” in the Czartorsky Museum in Cracow is not at all a masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci as many have believed.
Trade was flourishing in that part of Europe. Everything could be bought and sold. As for the antiquities market, it was especially unrestricted. The offer was enormous, the prices relatively low and the collectors constantly encouraged by new excitements - from archaeological excavation at Troy to labyrinth of Minos discovery.
In such an atmosphere Friedrich Naumann’s request for many nationalities in Central Europe to be replaced with one united “economic people” (Wirtschaftsvolk) sounded quite real. “The spirit of large-scale industry and of super-national organization has seized politics”, said Naumann. “People think ‘in Continents’”. These sentences were quoted in innumerable articles and pamphlets of the time.
A lot of young men arriving from Serbia to Budapest, Graz, Vienna or Cracow to study, belonged to the “economic people” who “think in Continents”. Among them was D.T. As son of a wealthy swine merchant from Sabac, D.T. was never in need of money during the years he spent studying in Budapest and Vienna. He spent it in pubs and bordellos but also in shops selling strange goods. He was attracted by the latest inventions like radioactive soap or radio sets with ear-phones as well as the newly discovered objects of ancient civilizations which flooded Europe. That is how he met a doctor in Wieblinger Strasse having the same interests like himself who lived nearby. The doctor had his hair smoothed down and parted on the right side, pronounced moustaches and a short beard.
The three people’s destinies, accidentally touched at a certain moment in Central Europe, soon parted.
The Viennese doctor and collector marked the epoch by his work. He left his house in Bergasse 19 after the Nazi flag had fluttered on it. He died in exile in London, surrounded by Greek, Egyptian and Chinese statues. His ashes rest in a Greek vase dating from the fourth century B.C. The opinion which can often be heard that it used to be his favourite piece in his collection is absolutely groundless.
Adela Hitzig shortly moved to Budapest where she married a young merchant Henrick Koestler. They had a son named Arthur whose work would also be one of this century’s symbol. Zionism, communism and anticommunism had a passionate and convinced advocate in him. “Had my mother continued the treatment (in Vienna)”, he wrote in his autobiography, “she would probably have married someone else, and I would not have been born”.
A few years later D.T. returned to Serbia in order to take part in the two Balkan and one world war. Between the two world wars he was the owner of a very profitable bank in Sabac. He loved boasting and therefore claimed to have been one of the richest men in Serbia. Or that he was the first to bring radio set to Serbia. On the Second World War eve he went bankrupt and become broke. Later he used to say: “When communists came to power I had nothing, so they could take nothing from me.”
D.T had two sons and a daughter. The eldest son graduated at the Jagiellonian University, Slavic Department, in Cracow and soon afterwards died of tuberculosis. The younger son was a teacher in Serbia. After a large Gestapo and SA action in 1942 his trace was lost for good. A daughter survived and later become my mother.
When my mother’s mother died in 1959, mother’s father, D.T., sold the entire household and came to Belgrade to live with us. He only brought with him a large table which was said once belonged to the Montenegro king Nikola. We had a hard time trying to put it into the dining room. The table was used only for eating. Mother’s father introduced a rule: no one was to sit at the table before him or my father. They were the heads of the family. My father paid no attention to that. He ate in a hurry most of the time, very often standing. Bread on the table was not to be taken with the left hand. One had to eat up everything that was in his plate. White wine was drunk exclusively with fish and light meat. It was most strictly forbidden to leave the table and go to the toilet.
“He learned that in Vienna”, said my mother.
Apart from the big table, mother’s father only managed to save a very small, greenish stone beetle, out of all his valuables. We often saw such beetles with hard wings round the nearby yards, especially during heat waves. Mother’s father, however, claimed that the origin of his beetle was Egypt and that the Latin word for it was Scarabeus. Ancient Egyptians carried it on their heart, particularly when they died. Dead Egyptians were afraid that in the other world their heart might say something which ought not to be said, so they placed the stone beetle on their chests in order to protect themselves.
“That’s called an amulet”, explained mother to me.
“It is an ordinary shit beetle”, said my friend, who was older than me and, of course, more learned.
“Shut up, you Antichrist!”, replied mother’s father. “It is Scarabeus sacer. For the Egyptians the beetle was closely associated with the concept of resurrection and rebirth. It lays its eggs in a ball of dead matter, dung, from which new life was subsequently seen emerge.”
And that was not all. Mother’s father claimed that a few of such Egyptian beetles, as well as some other old items, he used to buy in a Viennese shop together with Dr Sigmund Freud. Freud, mother’s father used to say, was a well-known doctor for headaches in Vienna.
Later on Dr Freud became renowned, but the fact did not prevent mother’s father always to wave his hand with despise whenever he talked about him, because Freud allegedly used to ask questions the answers to which had already been known. Thus mother’s father claimed that Freud once asked him what love was. It happened while they were examining together a small bronze Venus figure dating from either the 1st or 2nd century A.D. He answered back quickly: “Love was made up by a scoundrel so as to have a woman free of charge”.
The Scarabeus beetle was not the only family heirloom which survived wars, movings and poverty. After father’s father Lazar had died, twelve orders originating from the two Balkan wars were found. The family managed to save only one, the one that was gold plated. In half round, ornate letters it was written in the order: “The Revenged Kosovo 1912”.
My father, who was expelled from the Communist party in 1951, also had an order. On a large five-pointed red star there was a painted man with his legs astride, with a large flag in his hand. The order was kept in a red box, on a soft bearing. Under the order there was a piece of paper folded in four. On the paper it was written:
Order of merit for the nation, the third rank, awarded by the National Assembly Presidium of the Federal People Republic of Yugoslavia. A decree number 362, dating 1.4.1947.
“He got it before he was expelled from the Party”, said my mother.
The Scarabeus beetle, “The Revenged Kosovo” and the five-pointed star with a flag were usually in my pocket. In time I became the absolute owner of these family valuables which could never have become the family relics.
I was twelve and the pioneer organization chose me to act in the children theatre performance called “Snow Queen”. I was given the role of the court counsellor. The court counsellor was an evil man, and justice was to triumph only at the end of the performance. My role was a negative role.
In order to dress up as a court counsellor, I borrowed a black coat and a black trousers. I tied the Egyptian beetle with a black shoe lace and put it round my neck. I put father’s order on the lapel. “The revenged Kosovo” hung beneath the upper small pocket and I was ready to leave for the Cultural Centre in Skender Beg street in Belgrade.
The hall was full and the stage illuminated. The performance began with some court putting on airs, and then I entered saying what I was expected to say: “Nonsense!”
The audience loved it, showing it by an immediate applause.
I noticed that I had not learned the text quite well. Whenever I was unable to recollect what I was to say, I would utter again: “Nonsense!” Every time I heard the applause. Therefore I began interrupting other actors while they were speaking and exclaimed: “Nonsense, that’s nonsense!” The boys and girls in the audience were delighted.
After the performance young gypsies ran after me shouting: “Nonsense, here’s Nonsense!”
Mother’s father said: “Couldn’t you have learned the text?”
Mother answered: “He is an improviser.”
Mother’s father said: “I had a leased box in Burgtheater for three years.
Even today my own childhood image, senselessly adorned with decorations, makes me feel sceptical towards great ideas, firm convictions, global reflections and judgements. That is why I told my own European story instead of analysing European history and its cultural and political tradition. In reality that tradition consists of two World Wars; pangermanistic, panslavistic and Zionistic movements; nazism and communism; Auschwitz and rigged Stalinist trials; Budapest 1956, Prague 1968, Berlin 1989, Sarajevo 1992...
However, Europe between past and future could be pondered over in another way, in paradoxes and details, as a search for spirit and life fingerprints, as making difference between the original and the forgery, as collecting data for a good story. What is Europe then? Here are only a few examples:
It is a house in Karlsbad with a front door in Germany and a back door in Czechoslovakia, through which Hannah Arendt fled before Nazism in 1933.
That is Lenin skating in the skating rink in Prague described by Jaroslav Seifert.
That is Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, but also his verses which he had written and offered to a Budapest children’s magazine when he was a boy of nine, six months after the First World War had broken out:
In the month of December Belgrade capitulated
And Magyar stood on its citadel, elated
The magazine refused to publish it
The history of Europe also comprise the fact which was recently quite positively established that Freud’s wall relief in the Egyptian New Kingdom style had been made in a famous workshop of the Armenian Oxan Aslanian, better known as a Berlin Forgerer. In the same time, American scientists have found out Leonardo da Vinci’s fingerprints on the portrait of “Lady with Ermine” in the Czartoryski Museum in Cracow.
(A fragment from the forthcoming novel Internationale)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
was born in Yugoslavia in 1947. Between 1993 and 1997 he edited leading Serbian weekly NIN
. In 1998, he launched Biblioteka Alexandria
, the first important literary journal in Serbia and the publishing house Alexandria Press. He has written numerous reviews, essays and short stories. His latest book is Amor Mundi
, a collection of short stories about life in Serbia during the NATO air raids of 1999.