This Is the Way... "She's Ours"

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This Is the Way... "She's Ours"

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Most of our reading audience is familiar with the wonderful story of the rescue of the baby Moses from the waters of the Nile River. It is a story of daring and courage on the part of several parties. It is a constant reminder that parents will go to incredible lengths to preserve their children from the grips of oppression. Moses’ name, which literally means “drawn out,” also reminds us it is a two-part equation. Someone else on the other end has to be willing to step forward and literally scoop a little life out of the clutches of death. But not everyone happens to be Pharaoh’s daughter, and not everyone turns out to be a Moses, and it’s not always a little basket of reeds headed down our personal stream of life that demands within us a discerning spirit towards the preservation of a life. Nevertheless, this miracle of courage and sacrifice is borne out generation after generation by ordinary people who perform extraordinary deeds of kindness far away from the banks of the Nile. Such countless events with nameless individuals should continually remind us that it is not the stature of the personalities involved, but the stature of the event which is paramount. Recently, Los Angeles Times staff writer Paul Watson placed a spotlight on such “nameless individuals” and gives us names, a rescue and an inspiring story of courage lived out in the 20th century. In his article “The Heirs of Kindness in Croatia,” which appeared in the Los Angeles Times, July 24, 2000, he brings to life acts of courage in one of the most historically troubled sectors of oppression and counteroppression known as the Balkans. What we have witnessed over the last 10 years in this troubled region is only the latest chapter of suspicion, hatred and war that has plagued this area for hundreds of years. It is the story of Croats during World War II who risked life and limb for Serb children adrift from their parents. It’s a story over 50 years old, but a story being repeated somewhere today, by someone else, for a little life caught up in the squeeze of history. It may be your story one day. It’s worth repeating. Meet little Nena Watson begins by taking us to a train platform in 1942 where Croatian troops were separating children from their parents. Little Nena Koncar is separated from her mother. Her father has already been killed in a massacre perpetrated by Nazi troops and their Croatian Ustashe allies in their mountain village home in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Now alone in the world except for her 3-year-old sister, Dragica, and her 13-year-old Aunt Dora who accompany her, little Nena travels in a cattle car headed for a Ustashe concentration camp at Sisak designed for young Serbs. Watson describes vividly that “dysentery was a common killer in the filthy camp. Children often went days without food, and the gruel they were fed was frequently poisoned with caustic soda according to survivors’ testimonies.” About 4,000 of the 7,000 little “residents” would die. The numbers would have been higher except for the clandestine and extremely dangerous efforts of Red Cross volunteers working secretly with Yugoslavia’s Communist underground in rescuing as many as possible and planting them as domestic servants or farm hands in the homes of Croatians, whose brethren had liquidated these children’s parents. As Watson shares, “this rescue effort relied on people working under code names in secret cells coordinated both in simple farm houses as well as aristocratic homes.” After some time in Sisak, a man came to find a servant girl for his elderly grandmother and chose Dora (who was older than her nieces). Dora began to cry. So much so that a Red Cross volunteer, Stefica Prpic, was moved to intervene and take both of them. Unfortunately, this act of kindness was a day late for little 3-year-old Dragica who had died the day before. Nena realizes to this day that her aunt’s crying saved her life. Her aunt knew that Nena’s fate, if left alone, would be the same that befell Dragica. Prpic asked her sister and her sister’s husband, Barbara and Josip Jandricko, to find a home for Nena. The childless couple looked no further than themselves and took Nena to her new home, a one-room wooden shack. But this would only be the beginning of the challenges that lay ahead. As Watson shares the now intertwined story of Nena and the Jandrickos, he tells of the probing questions of the local Ustashe snoop named Perkovic, who started asking questions about the village’s latest arrival. The Jandrickos insisted that Nena was their niece, but Perkovic didn’t buy their line. He insisted that the entire family be rounded up as Communists for defying the official dogma that Serbs were enemies of the state along with Jews and Gypsies. Death was a very real possibility until a local notary public put his life on the line as well by guaranteeing that Nena was a full-blooded Croat. While that was sufficient for the moment to quiet the local fascists, the Jandrickos had little Nena repeat over and over again her phony Croatian parents’ names. As reporter Watson puts it so powerfully, “to stay alive, she had to deny who she was!” Meet Tillia Durieux The name Tillia Durieux may not be on the tip of our tongues, but this well-known Croatian silent screen and stage star shared a role in a greater saga, the saving of Serb children. She spent most of the war in Zagreb after her husband, Jewish industrialist Ludwig Katzenellenbogen, was arrested and sent to his death in Germany’s Sachsenhausen concentration camp. She took up residence with an old friend, a wealthy heiress named Zlata Lubienski, who was also in the “underground.” Their lovely residence, whose interior was bedecked with Renoir and Chagall paintings, became a favorite social stop for Nazi officers. Durieux secretly buried records of Serb children’s identities so that, one day, those who survived could know who they really were. During the war, meat was so hard to come by that she raised rabbits, 70 of them in the yard, which gave her a good excuse to work in the dirt of the garden each day. This allowed her to conceal lists of more Serb children’s names and other vital documents. Working “life” into the soil with her bare hands and a child’s shovel under the very eyes of their tormentors ultimately gave her the underground code name of “Puma,” denoting a stealthy mountain lion as black as her own hair. But “her secrets,” which could have cost her dearly, were almost discovered near the war’s end. As partisan guerrillas pressed closer to Zagreb, a German major showed up in the mansion’s garden looking for the best place to set up five machine guns. “To my horror,” Durieux wrote, “one of the places he chose was the one where I usually buried the bottles with the fatal content.” She continued to share in her own words, “I was very close to fainting, but came to my senses quickly and smiled at him in a friendly way.” She then helped him to find a “better location.” The “Puma” would live to see another day! The battle continues after the war After World War II, the Communist partisans’ leader, Josef Broz Tito, himself a Croat, became Yugoslavia’s dictator. As reporter Watson puts it, “he tried to exorcise the demons of ethnic hatred with a strict dogma of brotherhood and unity.” Nena Koncar could now readily admit who she was. But while Nena’s life was no longer in jeopardy, her way of life was under daily assault. The local school required an Orthodox Serb child to learn the Catholic rites, and it was in a 1947 class that Nena realized for the first time “that something was wrong.” After the first two lessons, Nena did not get her homework right, and her instructor, a priest, gave her a sharp reminder of her place with a slash across two fingers. Then he called her a “vlach,” an ethnic slur, that as Watson writes would “cut deeper than the ruler’s edge.” Nena recounts, “He told me that I am an Orthodox child who had no business being there, and with that-with this blood-I arrived home.” It’s never been easy for Nena and it’s never been easy for the entire area formerly known as Yugoslavia. It’s simply hard to put away “the hate.” As much as Marshal Tito strove to erase ethnic hatreds, it still led to war after his death. A fountain with seven statues of children playing was raised as a memorial over the site of the Sisak Concentration Camp. Inscribed in a plaque on the fountain was a reminder of this horrific past event lest the local residents forget. But the fountain has remained dry since 1991 and the commemorative plaque was torn down the same year that Croatia and Serbia went to war. The former camp’s main structure where Nena slept on clumps of straw now houses a discotheque called the “Crystal Block of Happiness.” Nena used to go to this spot often to get in touch with her feelings about her long-lost family. When she visits now, it moves her to anger at how quickly the world forgets. Two people who don’t forget But Nena Koncar and Barbara Jandricko don’t forget! Nena, who is now well into her 60s, still makes the trek every Saturday and Sunday by bus to see her adoptive mother and gain the support of her Croatian brother, Duro, who is the Jandrickos’ only biological child. Just like the thankful leper in Jesus’ parable regarding gratefulness, Nena returns often to the source of her childhood rescue. She simply cannot forget the moment of deliverance. The old shack is still there, with newer scars of bullet holes from the latest round of conflict between Serb and Croat in the early ’90s. As reporter Watson so aptly puts it, “Jandricko in her 87 years has survived enough ethnic hatred to ruin several lives, but she has never surrendered to it.” Yes, it’s simply hard “to put away the hate.” Sometimes, it seems it is just easier to give up or simply join in and be like everyone else. Sometimes in frustration, you almost wish for total removal of the problem. As Shakespeare so eloquently put it when Romeo and Juliet had both died because of the feud between their families, the Montagues and the Capulets: “a pox on both your houses!” But, problems don’t go away that easily in real life. There has always been a steady line of heroes who have moved beyond the moment of personal safety to help the refugee. Pharaoh’s daughter picked up a Hebrew baby. Rahab gave quarter to Hebrew men in an enemy city. Many a person risked everything to be one more link in the “Underground Railroad” moving slaves from bondage to freedom during the time of slavery in America. The Dutch and Danes are renowned for giving refuge to their fellow Jewish citizens during World War II. How many Hutus have given quarter to Tutsis in the mindless genocide in Central Africa? You can be sure there are stories to be shared. Long ago, David offered a plaintive cry in Psalms 142:4 Psalms 142:4I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul.
American King James Version×
, “Look on my right hand and see, for there is no one who acknowledges me; refuge has failed me; no one cares for my soul.” A reality statement echoed out of a cave where David was hiding. He saw relief in verse 5 by stating, “I cried out to You, O LORD: I said ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’” Since that time there have been many “Davids,” many “caves” and many cries for help. Yes, on occasion, God sends angels to the rescue. But, I sense that His favorite tool is a human being, be it royalty like Pharaoh’s daughter, a prostitute like Rahab or a former film star like Tillia Durieux. Maybe you are such a person, “a tool in waiting.” He is not limited in the human tools that He uses. What limits God from using us is perhaps our narrow perspectives. Again, my own perspective was jolted and then enlarged by the story of these two women of the Balkans. It reminded me to never paint an entire people with a broad brush of disdain. Long ago, God told His people in Leviticus 19:33-34 Leviticus 19:33-34 33 And if a stranger sojourn with you in your land, you shall not vex him. 34 But the stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
American King James Version×
, “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself….” I don’t know if Barbara Jandricko is acquainted with this particular verse in Leviticus, but she is living it daily. In her own words, “It always seemed to me the right thing to do, and God probably made it that way.” When asked by a visitor talking to both of them about what motivated her 58 years ago to save a young Serb girl’s life, Barbara Jandricko turned to Nena and asked, “How did I take you? I grabbed you with both of my hands and said, ‘she’s ours!’” As Isaiah 30:21 Isaiah 30:21And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, This is the way, walk you in it, when you turn to the right hand, and when you turn to the left.
American King James Version×
says, “this is the way, walk you in it.” There are footsteps running from the banks of the Nile to a little shack in the Balkans. Perhaps it’s our turn to take that walk and add a step. WNP

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