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Smoldering

Understanding her father -- and his war-ravaged Sarajevo childhood -- meant following his trail of secrets

By Courtney Angela Brkic
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page W21

FOUR DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS 2003, when my family was together for the holidays, a fire started on the first floor of my parents' Arlington home. It moved rapidly across several oil-painted walls, including the one on which our mother had recorded our heights throughout our childhood. This happened in the middle of the night, and we converged on the first floor from different parts of the house, squinting and trying to make sense of the rooms filling with thick, black smoke. My brother, Andrew, pushed his wife, my mother and me out the front door. My father, however, would not be budged. He moved like a sleepwalker, repeatedly filling a kitchen pot with water and throwing it at the flames.

My mother had the presence of mind to grab the cordless phone on her way out the front door and dial 911. "Get everyone out of the house now," the dispatcher told her with unfathomable calm. "The fire department is on its way."


The author in her father's lap at Ocean City in 1973.

My father refused to leave, even as Andrew returned to pull him to the front door. I screamed at such a hysterical pitch that the dispatcher asked my mother, "Why is that woman screaming like that?"

Later my brother said it was as if our father was in a trance. He did not make eye contact, nor did he give any indication that he heard my screams or Andrew's altogether calmer entreaties. He seemed to exist somewhere beyond our reach, but the intent look on his face made one thing clear: He would not abandon the house willingly. Finally, my brother picked him up and dragged him outside.

I SPENT MUCH OF LAST YEAR TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF THAT NIGHT. How could my father, an otherwise sane man, have placed his life in such jeopardy? Where was his instinct for survival? Where was the common sense that had helped him survive a world war, communism and the loss of those he loved?

My father was born Berislav Brkic in 1929. He escaped Yugoslavia in 1959, unwilling to join the Communist Party and unable to live the silent life that would ensure survival there. He spent two years in Germany as a political refugee before coming to the United States, where he landed in New York with a planeload of other refugees at what was then Idlewild Airport. He had approximately $50 to his name. Immigrants to the United States have tended to remain in communities that speak their language and share their customs. My father, though, did not settle near the Croatian population in New York, nor the ones in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago or any other urban center where specialty stores stocked pickled cabbage or Kras chocolate. New York was too busy for him; he found the height and density of its city blocks suffocating, and the constant throngs of people unnerved him. Almost immediately, he moved to Washington, where his brother later joined him. The way he tells it, they liked the wide boulevards, the low buildings and the cherry blossoms.

His was the typical immigrant fantasy of America, and the first few months of his immigrant's life here were typically disillusioning. He arrived before the civil rights movement, when schools and drinking fountains were still segregated. While he was on a trip to Texas, a restaurant refused to serve him because they thought he was Mexican. And although his English was proficient, his early professional life in America was frustrating. A respected radio playwright in Zagreb and a sound engineer for Armed Forces Radio in Germany, he worked as a waiter, car salesman and Peoples Drug Store cashier in Washington. Five years after arriving here, he had changed his first name to Barry, saved enough money to open a film production company in Georgetown and, not long after having made the transition from newcomer to successful U.S. citizen, met my mother, Brigitte, at a District swimming pool.

I have often marveled at how my father retained the core of his immigrant's vision of America, even as its edges eroded. When my brother and I were growing up, my father's mantra was: "I left so my children could be free." We invariably met this statement with grins and eye-rolling. Lacking a basis for comparison, we could not fully grasp its meaning. As we got older and began to muse over our future professions, my father pointed to the fact that Americans could choose their own educational paths. A person could work hard and succeed here. It was a cause-and-effect relationship that never failed to astound him.

I have heard that Americans move an average of 12 times in their lives, but my parents, neither of them born in the United States (my mother was born in Germany but raised in England), have lived in that same house in Arlington for 30 years. It is not of the best construction and tends to shudder when trucks pass; the ceilings have cracked from those reverberations. Its floors and walls display scars that do not lend themselves to superficial repair; for years children have hung from its banisters and chipped its plaster with airborne projectiles. The family dog (dead two years, his ashes buried in the garden) grooved the wooden floors with his paws during dizzying revolutions around the house.

The centerpiece of a hard-won and commonly held American dream, the house is where their children laughed, fought and shouted with thoroughly American accents. It is also a house in which hunger and fear were alien concepts, a feat for a man who had himself been acquainted with both.

MY FATHER WAS OBSESSED WITH PROVIDING HAPPY CHILDHOODS FOR MY BROTHER AND ME. The middle-class neighborhood where I grew up was safe, and we had a host of forgiving dogwood trees to climb in our garden. In addition to providing us with the usual consumer trappings of an American childhood, our artistically leaning parents would often make our gifts: wooden dollhouses, a sandbox with benches at each end, a clubhouse complete with skylight, Easter eggs painted intricately with scenes from our favorite children's books.

Our father told us that he sometimes dreamed about the happy periods in his own Sarajevo childhood, vastly different from our own. He cannot remember the village in Herzegovina where he was born or the father who died while he was still a toddler, but he remembers the city he moved to as a child. Our photograph albums show him as a slender, dark-eyed boy with a wide smile, sledding with his younger brother in Sarajevo's Veliki Park. Even in the black-and-white pictures you can see the fogged breath and flushed cheeks of the exuberant 9- and 7-year-olds. There are photographs of picnics, of hikes where they gathered wild strawberries and of summer trips to Gradac on the Adriatic Coast. In one of the last, the photographer has followed my then-27-year-old grandmother into the sea, where she floats like a grinning mermaid.

Certain events have a way of bisecting time, of splitting recollection between "the years before" and "the years after." The Second World War splits my father's photographs in this way, though we recognized that bookmark only vaguely as we were growing up. There are almost no photographs from the war years, and then, suddenly, my father appears at 16, proudly displaying dark fuzz on his upper lip. In the postwar photographs, his mother smiles only slightly. The man who photographed my grandmother splashing in the Adriatic, her longtime companion and a Sephardic Jew, has been killed in Jasenovac concentration camp.

Starting at age 8, I used to pore over the pictures, asking my father a battery of questions. "Who's that?" I would ask, pointing at a pretty, smiling woman with a fur hand muff. "That's your Great-Aunt Katja," he would say. Or, looking at a picture of their summer holidays, "Was that your donkey?" He would laugh. "No," he would say. "They were giving children rides at the seaside."


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