BOOK REVIEW -REMEMBRANCES OF MY LIFE Memoirs of a Christian Holocaust Survivor

by Radovan Bratich

Reviewed by Father Stephen Siniari

When I met Radovan Bratich, my formal education, my training as an Orthodox priest, and the all too typical arrogance of the inexperienced rendered me far too self-assured to hear the voice of this man’s wisdom.

Sometimes we argued. Sometimes I took his advice. I know there were times when I drove him to frustration and there were times when he returned the favor.

But every time he and his wife Teresa, and good daughter, Rita, welcomed me at their home, Mira Flores, I knew, more than anything else, we were friends.

Tata, of course, means “father,” and it is I who should have kissed his hand and called him father.

“Oh, Tata.” How many times has a child said, “If only I could have the chance to be with you again.”

On the barrier island of Ocean City, New Jersey, in an Orthodox mission parish, I was blessed to meet a man who knew from the time he was a boy that he was called to priesthood. It was apparent in everything about him. The call to serve others was woven into his being. He wanted to offer his life and everything in it to the service of others.

A certain kind of person might expect, or even attempt to explain the circumstances that cause a man such as Radovan to stumble in fulfilling his call to serve God’s people. And maybe we do stumble along the way.

But when people of a worldly motive cause such a man to stumble?

“Woe to anyone who causes one of my children to stumble,” says our Master, Christ, “It would be better for that one to have a large millstone put around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” 

People focused on things other than the love of Christ and His church, purposely blocked Radovan’s path to seminary.

But, as it turns out, Radovan Bratich’s book, Remembrances of My Life, is nonetheless, an offering of his life. An offering no less sacred than the offering we make when we bake the Holy Bread for Divine Liturgy.

The unadorned telling of this one life:

Offers to anyone who possesses the God-given gift of seeing the divine in the other…

Offers to anyone who knows down deep there is such a thing as evil…

Offers to anyone who has within them the existential gene of relationship that makes a human being a human being…

Offers to any person striving for authentic personhood…

And especially anyone of Serbian ancestry or anyone who has grown up American in an “ethnic,” household of immigrants.

In truth, offers to anyone with a heart…

The opportunity to discover in Radovan Bratich’s words, the familiar echo of life’s innocent joys, her anguished sufferings, her cruel injustices, and her insistent hope, that in the end, there is ultimate redemption.

There is not a single word of high-faluting theory, no wordy theological sermons, no cynical self-serving analysis, or bitter complaint in Bratich, the man. His simplicity is his eloquence.

Remembrances of My Life is rather a headlong full tilt charge into life that begins on the back of Kulash the horse.

So, with the cross being made, the heritage honored, and Heaven as our hope, we begin our ride.

In 1924, when Radovan was 10, he went with his family, by train, from Zenica to Bilece. When he arrived, his uncles strapped him in the saddle on a horse called Kulash.

The 10 year old boy did not know there was a still a pin in his new suit of clothing, and when he poked Kulash, sparks flew from the hoofs of the frightened horse as they flew over the blue-granite paved roads till they’d traveled the fifteen kilometers to Meka Gruda, beating the rest of the family to the house of Radovan’s grandfather.

“My horse and I stopped exactly at the doorstep of my maternal grandfather’s stone house. The roof was covered with stone slate. The air and the fragrance of stone, so pure and clean, quite a contrast to the industrial air of Zenica. Kulash made horse noises I interpreted to mean he was proudly announcing, “I bring your grandson in good health. My grandfather, Obren Gachinovich lifted me down from the saddle and spanked me good for my wild behavior.”

Smiling?

This is the first of many instances that will make you smile.

And if you were to ask yourself, “How many times in this reading will my heart be broken?”

The answer would be, “Many.”    

I often wondered about the family name, Bratich, and Radovan takes the time to tell us:

“My great-grandfather had two sons who lived on the Mountain Vlasich. They were running from the Turks near Gacko. The Turkish Pasha, named Tanovich, spotted them from his balcony (chardak). He offered the two sons land if they would settle there.

The brothers accepted. In the arm of one brother was held a little boy. Nikola, who was friendly towards the Pasha.

The Pasha asked the brothers who was the father of this little boy. One brother answered, “He is the son of my brother.” So, the Pasha called all three males, Bratich, meaning, literally, “son of my brother.”

Having met Radovan Bratich so long ago (more than 30 years) I wonder if the mysterious affinity I felt at the time could be attributed to something I recently discovered in his book. Nikola, Radovan’s ancestor, learned from the Pasha to speak Albanian, the language of my ancestors.

Chapter titles lead us like tour guides through a time and world now quickly fading from the minds and hearts of a generation raised on 24 hour news cycles and instant communication. Not a bad thing, but…

When I recently referenced the war with Japan, a young woman grad-student said, “We had a war with Japan? Who won?”

Well, perhaps, if young people have forgotten, or never knew, we have only ourselves to blame for failing to tell the story.

Not so with Tata Bratich.

Not only was he familiar with the ongoing story of his family and their place in Serbian, European, and global history, he was also an active and passionate participant.

Before there was a fictional Forrest Gump photo-shopped and superimposed in history, Radovan Bratich, an “ordinary working man,” was encountering despots, military leaders, heads of nations, monarchs, CEOs of international corporations, political leaders, and archbishops of every stripe, and our “ordinary” Tata, never blinked when it came to finding the inner resolve to speak the truth to power.

Even though there will be times when you find yourself turning the page and saying, “No, Radovan, keep quiet!”

Aided by an extraordinary capacity for recall, detail, incidents, names, places, and people, and having kept meticulous notes, and more than 650 books in his library, Radovan Bratich is more than able to tell his story and that of his people in chapters like:

WWI On the Russian and Italian Fronts

The Education of Radovan Bratich

Escape to Belgrade

Forming a Volunteer Troop to Save Serbia

Gestapo Trap in Vienna

In the barren and cruel aftermath of war, Radovan was often labeled with the pejorative term, D.P., and like many displaced persons who had somehow survived the savagery of being reduced to a less than human “non-person,” resilient Radovan, who described himself as a living skeleton, endured events and behavior we in America today find difficult to comprehend:

Betrayal                       

Providential coincidence

Day to day struggle to distinguish the good from the bad: Muslim, Croat, Jew, German, Serb, or American, Monarchist, and even Communist

In every instance we witness in Tata the primal essence of priesthood: To offer everything back to God in thanksgiving.

Faith

Inhumanity

Intrigue

Injustice

Perseverance

Politics

Suffering

On the final page of Remembrances, Radovan asks the question, “Where is the world’s conscience?”

In the end, we discover the answer, along with Radovan Bratich, that there are only two kinds of people, the decent human being, and the other.

“Oh,  Tata.” How many times has a child said, “If only I could have the chance to be with you again.”

Why deprive yourself? Don’t be like me when I had the chance and missed it. Read Memoirs of a Christian Holocaust Survivor. Sit with Tata Radovan. Read Remembrances of My Life.   Ed Note:  This book will soon be available through the Serb National Federation. The family of Radovan Bratich, the same family who endowed the Radovan and Teresa Bratich Scholarships, has designated all proceeds from the sale of this book through the Serb National Federation will benefit the Pittsburgh Tri-State Lifeline Committee. Stay tuned for availability and details on purchasing the book in future issues of the American Srbobran and online at snf4u.com.

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