Below is the letter written in 1920 by a Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić. It is the man who have met four characters that determined the world history; Gavrilo Pricip the assassin of Prince Ferdinand as young member of “Mlada Bosna” movement, Hitler as Yugoslav Diplomat, Stalin from the same position and Tito. Knowing how diplomacy works and having that kind of experience he left with us following quote: “If people would know how little brain is ruling the world, they would die of fear. …”
Humble suggestion to all who will spend some time to read the story that includes the letter of only six pages is to change the name wherever Bosnia is mentioned with the name of your country. Maybe then we will all understand how the project works and who is using it and for what. And yes! There are forces who want the Earth trimmed of us, that say, if we will lose our wealth and influence, we will destroy whatever we can. And they still can. Personally I wouldn’t mind escaping hatred by helping other people fighting it, and lose the life for that.
“March 1920. The railway station at Slavonski Brod. Past midnight. From somewhere a wind was blowing, and it seemed colder than it really was to the weary travelers, who wished only to sleep. High above, stars slipped between the clouds. In the distance, yellow and red signal lights traveled faster or slower along invisible tracks, with the piercing sound of conductors’ whistles and the long drawn-out howling of the locomotive, which we travelers invest with the melancholy of our fatigue, and the tedium of our long, bad-tempered waiting.
In front of the station by the first track, we sat on our suitcases and waited for the train. We didn’t know when it would come, when it would leave. All we knew was that it would be overcrowded, crammed with travelers and luggage.
The man sitting next to me was an old friend I’d lost track of for the last five or six years. Max Levenfeld, a doctor and a doctor’s son. Born and raised in Sarajevo, where he had built up a large practice. Jewish in origin, long ago converted. His mother was born in Trieste, the daughter of an Italian baroness and an Austrian naval officer, himself the descendant of French emigres. In Sarajevo, two generations remembered her figure, her bearing, and her elegant style of dress. She was marked by the kind of beauty respected and appreciated by people otherwise quite impudent and vulgar.
Max and I went to high school together in Sarajevo, only he was three years ahead of me, which at that age was a lot. I vaguely remember that I noticed him as soon as I came to high school. He had just entered the fourth class, but still dressed as a child. He was a strong boy, “The little Kraut,” in a navy blue sailor suit with anchors embroidered at the corners of the wide collar. He was still in shorts. And on his feet, perfectly shaped black shoes. Between his little white socks and shorts, powerful bare calves, ruddy and already sprinkled with light hairs.
Then, there wasn’t and couldn’t be any contact between us. Everything divided us–age, appearance, customs and habits, our parents’ financial position and their social status.
But I remembered him much better at a later point, when I was in the fifth grade and he in the eighth. Then he was already a lanky young man with light eyes that betrayed unusual sensitivity and a very lively mind; well, but carelessly dressed, with thick blond hair that fell in heavy slicks, now to one, now to the other side of his face. We met and came closer during a discussion with some senior boys in the park on a bench.
Such schoolboy arguments acknowledged no limits and showed no respect for anything: all principles suffered, and entire philosophical worlds were mined to their very foundations by our bombast. Afterwards, of course, everything remained in place; but those passionate words were significant for us and the fate awaiting us, as a foreshadowing of the great achievements and painful perplexities of the combative times that were yet to come.
After one such lively discussion, when I started for home still trembling with excitement and convinced of my triumph (just as my opponent was of his), Max joined me. This was the first time that the two of us had been alone together. This flattered me and intensified my sense of triumph and high opinion of myself. He asked what I was reading and looked at me carefully, as if seeing me for the first time in his life. I was answering excitedly. All at once he stopped, looked me straight in his eyes and said in a strangely calm way: “You know, I wanted to tell you that you didn’t quote Ernst Haeckel correctly.” I felt myself blushing and the earth slowly moving from under my feet, and then back again into its place. Of course I had quoted him wrongly–my quotation was from a cheap pamphlet, uncertainly remembered and, most likely, badly translated. All my former triumph turned into a pang of conscience and feeling of shame. His light blue eyes watched me without sympathy, but also with no trace of malice or superiority. And then Max repeated my ill-fated quotation in the correct form. And when we got to his beautiful house on the bank of the Miljacka, he firmly shook my hand and invited me to come the following afternoon to look at his books.
That afternoon was an experience for me. I saw the first real library of my life, and it was clear to me that I was seeing my own destiny. Max had many German and some Italian and French books which belonged to his mother. He showed me all this with a calm that I envied him more than the books. It wasn’t really envy, but rather a sense of limitless contentment and a strong desire that one day I too would move so freely in this world of books from which, it seemed to me, streamed light and warmth. He spoke just as if reading from books, freely, and moved without boasting in this world of glorious names and great ideas. And I trembled with excitement, with vanity, as I shyly entered this world of great men, fearing the world I had left outside to which I had to return.
These afternoon visits to my old friend’s house became more and more frequent. I improved quickly in German and began to read Italian. I even brought those beautifully bound foreign books home to my wretched apartment. I fell behind in my school work. Everything I read seemed to me to be the sacred truth and my sublime duty, which I couldn’t escape if I didn’t want to lose my self-respect and faith in myself. I knew only one thing: I had to read it all, and try to write the same or similar things. I couldn’t envision anything else in my life.
I remember one day in particular. It was May. Max was getting ready for his final examinations, but without any fuss or noticeable effort. He led me to a small, separate bookcase with Helios Klassiker-Ausgabe engraved on it in gold. And I remember being told that the bookcase was bought together with the books. The bookcase seemed to me a holy object, its wood imbued with light. Max took out a volume of Goethe and started to read Prometheus to me.
Cover thy spacious heavens, Zeus,
With clouds of mist,
And, like the boy who lops
The thistles’ heads,
Disport with oaks and mountain-peaks;
Yet thou must leave
My earth still standing;
My cottage too,
Which was not raised by thee;
Leave me my hearth,
Whose kindly glow
By thee is envied.
At the end, he rhythmically but powerfully pounded the arm of the chair he was sitting in with his fist, his hair falling down on both sides of his flushed face.
Here sit I, forming mortals
After my image;
A race resembling me,
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy, to be glad,
And thee to scorn,
As I do!
That was the first time I had seen him like that. I listened to him with awe and slight fear. Then we went outside and continued our conversation about the poem in the warm dusk. Max saw me to my steep street, and then I saw him to the river bank, then back we went to the street, and back again to the bank.
Night was falling and the people had begun to thin out, but we continued to measure that path pondering the meaning of life and the origin of gods and men. I remember one moment particularly well. The first time we reached my nondescript street and stopped at some grey wooden fences, Max stretched out his left hand in a strange way and said to me in a sort of warm, confidential voice, “You know, I’m an atheist.” A thick clump of elder was blooming above the tumbled down fence and spreading a powerful, heavy scent which came over to me as the scent of life itself. The evening was solemn, everything around us was quiet, and the dome of heaven above me, full of stars, seemed brand-new. I was so excited I couldn’t say anything, I just felt that something important had happened between me and my older friend, that now we couldn’t just separate and each go our own way home. And so we went on walking until late into the night.
Max’s graduation separated us. He left for Vienna to study medicine. For a short while we wrote to one another, but the correspondence petered out. We sometimes saw one another on vacations, but without our former intimacy. And then came the war, which separated us completely.
And now, after several years, here we were, meeting again at this ugly and boring station. We had traveled from Sarajevo on the same train, but we didn’t know it, and only saw one another here; and now we were waiting for the uncertain arrival of the Belgrade train.
In a few words we told each other how we had spent the war. He graduated in the first year, and then worked as a doctor on all the Austrian fronts, always serving in Bosnian regiments. His father died of typhus fever during the war, and his mother left Sarajevo and moved to her relatives in Trieste. Max had spent the last few months in Sarajevo, just as long as he needed to put his affairs in order. By agreement with his mother, he had sold his father’s house on the Miljacka and most of his things. Now he was on his way to his mother in Trieste, and then he might go to Argentina, or maybe even Bolivia. He didn’t say it explicitly, but it was clear that he was leaving Europe for ever.
Max had grown larger during his life on the front, had roughened; he was dressed like a businessman, as far as I could tell. In the darkness I could just make out his strong head with its thick blond hair and hear his voice, which had become deeper and more masculine over the years, and his Sarajevo dialect in which the consonants are softened and the vowels slurred and drawn out. There was a certain feeling of insecurity in his speech.
Even now he spoke as if he were reading from a book, using many strange, bookish, learned phrases. But that was the only thing that remained of the former Max. Otherwise there was no reminder of either poetry or books. (No one remembered Prometheus any more.) First, he spoke about the war in general, with a great bitterness revealed more in the tone than in the words, a bitterness that did not expect to be understood. There were not, so to speak, any opposing fronts for him in this great war; they had mixed, flowed into one another, and utterly merged. The general suffering had blinkered his vision and deprived him of an understanding of everything else. I remember how shocked I was when he said he congratulated the victors, and that he pitied them deeply, for the conquered see what they’re up against and what needs to be done, while the conquerors can hardly suspect what is in store for them. He spoke in the caustic and hopeless tone of a man who has lost a great deal, and can now say what he likes, well aware both that no one can do him much harm for what he says, and that it cannot do him any good. After the great war, there were many of these embittered people among the intelligentsia, embittered in a peculiar way, about something indefinable in life. These people couldn’t either manage to reconcile themselves and adapt, or find the strength for firm decisions in the opposite direction. He was, it seemed to me at that moment, one of them.
But the conversation quickly ran aground, because neither he nor I wanted to quarrel that night, after so many years, at this strange place for a reunion. So we talked about other things. Actually, he did the talking. Even now, he spoke in carefully chosen words and complicated sentences, like a man who spends more time with books than people, in a cold matter-of-fact manner, without beating about the bush, just as when we open a medical textbook, and find the symptoms of our illness inside.
I offered him a cigarette, but he said he didn’t smoke, stating that hastily, almost with fear and distrust. And while I lit one cigarette after another, he spoke with somewhat forced nonchalance, as if driving away other, heavier thoughts.
“You see, the two of us have just come to the first main-line station. That means, we’ve taken hold of the latch of the door that opens onto the wide world. We’re leaving Bosnia. And I will never go back, although you will.” “Who knows?” I interrupted, pensively, spurred by that peculiar conceit that makes young people want to see their own fate in distant lands and along unusual paths.
“No, no, you’ll come back for sure,” my fellow traveler said with certainty, as if making a diagnosis, “while all my life long I’ll be struggling with the memory of Bosnia, as if with some Bosnian disease. What its cause is–the fact that I was born and grew up in Bosnia, or that I’ll never be coming back again, I don’t even know myself. Not that it matters.” In a strange place, at a strange hour, even conversation becomes strange, a little like a dream. I looked sideways at the large, hunched silhouette of my former friend next to me and wondered; I thought how little he resembled that young man who pounded with his fist and recited, “Cover thy spacious heavens, Zeus!” I thought, what will become of us if life continues to change so quickly and profoundly for us; I thought that only the changes I noticed in myself were good and right. And while I was thinking all this, I suddenly noticed that this friend was talking to me again. Rousing myself from my thoughts, I listened to him carefully, so carefully that it seemed to me that the station noises around me had fallen silent and his voice alone murmured in the windy night.
“Yes, for a long time I really did think that I should spend my life treating children in Sarajevo just like my father, and that my bones, like his, would rest in the graveyard at Kosevo. This conviction was already shaken by what I saw and experienced in the Bosnian regiments during the war, but when I left the army this summer and spent three whole months in Sarajevo, it became clear to me that I could not go on living there. And the mere thought of living in Vienna, Trieste, or some other Austrian city revolts me, revolts me to the point of nausea. And so I began to think of South America.” “Fine, but may one ask what it is you’re running away from in Bosnia?” I asked, with the recklessness at that time typical of people my age asking questions.
“Well, ‘one may ask,’ but one isn’t likely to get a concise answer in transit at a railway station. But if I still had to say in one word what is driving me out of Bosnia, I would say: hatred.” Max suddenly stood up, as if he had unexpectedly run into an invisible fence in his speech. And I emerged to the reality of a cold night at the railway station in Slavonski Brod. The wind was beating stronger and stronger, colder and colder, signal lights were winking in the distance, tiny locomotives were whistling. Above us, even that diminished sky with sparse stars had disappeared, and just fog and smoke made a blanket worthy of this plain where, it seemed to me, man sank up to his eyes in rich, black soil.
At that moment we heard the roar of an express train, immediately followed by its heavy whistle, muffled, as if coming out of a concrete tunnel. The entire station instantly came to life. Hundreds of previously invisible figures moved about in the darkness and began to run to meet the train. And the two of us jumped up, but the crowd we were caught up in separated us even further. I only managed to shout out my Belgrade address.
About three weeks later, I received a rather long letter in Belgrade. I couldn’t guess who it was from by the large handwriting. Max had written it to me from Trieste, in German: “My dear old friend, When we ran into one another in Slavonski Brod our conversation was disjointed and difficult. And even had we had a far better occasion and more time, I don’t believe we would have understood one another and gotten to the bottom of everything. The unexpected meeting and abrupt departure made that quite impossible. I’m getting ready to leave Trieste where my mother is living. I’m going to Paris, where I have some relatives on my mother’s side. If they’ll allow me, as a foreigner, to practise medicine there, I’ll stay in Paris; if not, I’m truly going to South America.
I don’t believe that these few disjointed paragraphs I am writing in haste will be able to explain the matter fully, or justify in your eyes my ‘running away’ from Bosnia. But I send them anyway, because feel I owe you an answer, and remembering our school-days I don’t want you to misunderstand me and see in me an ordinary Kraut and “carpetbagger” who lightly leaves the country he was born in, the moment she is beginning a free life and needs every ounce of her strength.
But let me come straight to the point. Bosnia is a wonderful country, fascinating, with nothing ordinary in the habitat or people. And just as there are mineral riches under the earth in Bosnia, so undoubtedly are Bosnians rich in hidden moral values, which are more rarely found in their compatriots in other Yugoslav lands. But, you see, there’s one thing that the people of Bosnia, at least people of your kind, must realize and never lose sight of–Bosnia is a country of hatred and fear.
But leaving fear aside, which is only a correlative of hatred, the natural result of it, let us talk about hatred. Yes, about hatred. And instinctively you recoil and protest when you hear that word (I saw it that night at the station), just as every one of you refuses to hear, grasp, and understand it. But it is precisely this that needs to be recognized, confirmed, and analyzed. And the real harm lies in the fact that no one either wants or knows how to do it. For the fatal characteristic of this hatred is that the Bosnian man is unaware of the hatred that lives in him, shrinks from analyzing it, and hates everyone who tries to do so. And yet it’s a fact that in Bosnia and Herzegovina there are more people ready in fits of this subconscious hatred to kill and be killed, for different reasons, and under different pretexts, than in other much bigger Slav and non-Slav lands.
I know that hatred, like anger, has its function in the development of society, because hatred gives strength, and anger provokes action. I know that there are ancient and deeply rooted injustices and abuses which only torrents of hatred and anger can uproot and wash away. And when these torrents dwindle and dry up, room for freedom remains, for the creation of a better life. The people living at the time see the hatred and anger far better, because they are the sufferers by them, but their descendants see only the fruits of this strength and action. That I know well. But what I have seen in Bosnia–that is something different. It is hatred, but not limited just to a moment in the course of social change, or an inevitable part of the historical process; rather, it is hatred acting as an independent force, as an end in itself. Hatred which sets man against man and casts both alike into misery and misfortune, or drives both opponents to the grave; hatred like a cancer in an organism, consuming and eating up everything around it, only to die itself at the last; because this kind of hatred, like a flame, has neither one constant form, nor a life of its own: it is simply the agent of the instinct of destruction or self-destruction. It exists only in this form, and only until its task of total destruction has been completed.
Yes, Bosnia is a country of hatred. That is Bosnia. And by a strange contrast, which in fact isn’t so strange, and could perhaps be easily explained by careful analysis, it can also be said that there are few countries with such firm belief, elevated strength of character, so much tenderness and loving passion, such depth of feeling, of loyalty and unshakeable devotion, or with such a thirst for justice. But in secret depths underneath all this hide burning hatreds, entire hurricanes of tethered and compressed hatreds maturing and awaiting their hour. The relationship between your loves and your hatred is the same as between your high mountains and the invisible geological strata underlying them, a thousand times larger and heavier. And thus you are condemned to live on deep layers of explosive which are lit from time to time by the very sparks of your loves and your fiery and violent emotion. Perhaps your greatest misfortune is precisely that you do not suspect just how much hatred there is in your loves and passions, traditions and pieties. And just as, under the influence of atmospheric moisture and warmth, the earth on which we live passes into our bodies and gives them colour and form, determining the character and direction of our way of life and our actions, so does the strong, underground and invisible hatred on which a Bosnian lives imperceptibly and indirectly enter into all his actions, even the best of them. Vice gives birth to hatred everywhere in the world, because it consumes and does not create, destroys, and does not build; but in countries like Bosnia, virtue itself often speaks and acts through hatred. With you, ascetics derive no love from their asceticism, but hatred for the voluptuary instead; abstainers hate those who drink, and drunkards feel a murderous hatred for the whole world. Those who do believe and love feel a mortal hatred for those who don’t, or those who believe and love differently. And, unhappily, the chief part of their belief and love is often consumed in this hatred. (The most evil and sinister-looking faces can be met in the greatest numbers at places of worship–monasteries, and dervish tekkes.) Those who oppress and exploit the economically weaker do it with hatred into the bargain, which makes that exploitation a hundred times harder and uglier; while those who bear these injustices dream of justice and reprisal, but as some explosion of vengeance which, if it were realized according to their ideas, would perforce be so complete that it would blow to pieces the oppressed along with the hated oppressors. You Bosnians have, for the most part, gotten used to keeping all the strength of your hatred for that which is closest to you. Your holy of holies is, as a rule, three hundred rivers and mountains away, but the objects of your repulsion and hatred are right beside you, in the same town, often on the other side of your courtyard wall. So your love remains inert, but your hatred is easily spurred into action. And you love your homeland, you passionately love it, but in three or four different ways which are mutually exclusive, often come to blows, and hate each other to death.
In some Maupassant story there is a Dionysiac description of spring which ends with the remark that on such days, there should be a warning posted on every corner: “Citoyens! This is spring–beware of love!” Perhaps in Bosnia men should be warned at every step in their every thought and their every feeling, even the most elevated, to beware of hatred–of innate, unconscious, endemic hatred. Because this poor, backward country, in which four different faiths live cheek by jowl, needs four times as much love, mutual understanding, and tolerance as other countries. But in Bosnia, on the contrary, lack of understanding, periodically spilling over into open hatred, is the general characteristic of its people. The rifts between the different faiths are so deep that hatred alone can sometimes succeed in crossing them. I know that you could argue, and with sufficient reason, that a certain amount of progress can be seen in this direction; that the ideas of the nineteenth century have done their work here too, and after liberation and unification all this will go much better and faster. I’m afraid that this is not quite so. (In these past few months I think I have had a good view of the real relationships between people of different faiths and nationalities in Sarajevo!) On every occasion you will be told, and wherever you go you will read, “Love your brother though his religion is other’, “It’s not the cross that marks the Slav’, “Respect others’ ways and take pride in your own’, “Total national solidarity recognizes no religious or ethnic differences’.
But from time immemorial in Bosnian urban life there has been plenty of counterfeit courtesy, the wise deception of oneself and others by resounding words and empty ceremonies. That conceals the hatred up to a point, but doesn’t get rid of it or thwart its growth. I’m afraid that in these circles, under the cover of all these contemporary maxims, old instincts and Cain-like plans may only be slumbering, and will live on until the foundations of material and spiritual life in Bosnia are altogether changed. And when will that time come, and who will have the strength to carry it out? It will come one day, that I do believe; but what I’ve seen in Bosnia does not indicate that things are advancing along that path at present. On the contrary.
I have thought this over and over, especially in the last few months, when I was still struggling against my decision to leave Bosnia for ever. Of course a man obsessed with such thoughts cannot sleep well, and I would lie in front of an open window in the room where I was born, while the sound of the Miljacka alternated with the rustling of the leaves in the early autumn wind.
Whoever lies awake at night in Sarajevo hears the voices of the Sarajevo night. The clock on the Catholic cathedral strikes the hour with weighty confidence: 2 a.m. More than a minute passes (to be exact, seventy-five seconds–I counted) and only then with a rather weaker, but piercing sound does the Orthodox church announce the hour, and chime its own 2 a.m. A moment after it the tower clock on the Bey’s mosque strikes the hour in a hoarse, faraway voice, and that strikes 11, the ghostly Turkish hour, by the strange calculation of distant and alien parts of the world. The Jews have no clock to sound their hour, so God alone knows what time it is for them by the Sephardic reckoning or the Ashkenazi. Thus at night, while everyone is sleeping, division keeps vigil in the counting of the late, small hours, and separates these sleeping people who, awake, rejoice and mourn, feast and fast by four different and antagonistic calendars, and send all their prayers and wishes to one heaven in four different ecclesiastical languages. And this difference, sometimes visible and open, sometimes invisible and hidden, is always similar to hatred, and often completely identical with it.
This uniquely Bosnian hatred should be studied and eradicated like some pernicious, deeply-rooted disease. Foreign scholars should come to Bosnia to study hatred, I do believe, just as scientists study leprosy, if hatred were only recognized as a separate, classified subject of study, as leprosy is.
I considered whether I should devote myself to the study of this hatred and, by analyzing it and bringing it to the light of day, make my contribution to its destruction. Perhaps I was in duty bound to try, since, although a foreigner by birth, it was in Bosnia I first ‘saw the light of day,’ as they say. But after my first attempts and much reflection, I realized I had neither the strength nor the ability to do it. I would be required to take sides, to hate and be hated; and that, I neither wanted nor was able to do. Perhaps, if it had to be, I could have consented to fall a victim to hatred; but to live in hatred and with hatred, to be a part of it–that I cannot do. And in a country like present-day Bosnia, the man who does not know how to hate, or, what is still better and harder, consciously does not want to hate, is always something of a foreigner and freak, often a martyr. That holds true for all you who are born in Bosnia, and even more so for a newcomer. And so on one of those autumn nights, listening to the strange chimes of the various and many-voiced Sarajevo towers, I concluded that I could not stay in Bosnia, my second homeland, and did not have to. I’m not so naive as to look for any town in the world that has no hatred. No, I only need a place where I’ll be able to live and work. Here, I would not be able to.
You may now repeat your remark about my running away from Bosnia with mockery, perhaps even with contempt. This letter of mine won’t have the power to explain and justify my action to you, but it appears that there are occasions in life when the ancient Latin maxim non est salus nisi in fuga holds true. I beg you to believe one thing only: I am not running away from my duty as a man, but only attempting to perform it more completely, without hindrance.
I wish you and our Bosnia the best of luck in its independent life in the new state.
Yours, M. L.”
Ten years passed. I rarely thought of my childhood friend and would have forgotten him completely, had not the basic idea of his letter reminded me of him from time to time. Some time around 1930 I found out quite by accident that Dr. Max Levenfeld had stopped in Paris, that he had an extensive practice in the suburb of Neuilly, and that in our colony of Yugoslavs he was known as “our doctor’, because he examined workers and students free of charge and, when necessary, bought medicines for them himself.
Seven or eight years passed. One day, again by chance, I learned the further fate of my friend. When the civil war broke out in Spain, he abandoned everything and joined the Republican army as a volunteer. He organized a first aid station and hospital and gained notoriety for his keenness and expertise. In early 1938 he was in a small town in Aragon whose name none of us could pronounce properly. An air raid was carried out on his hospital in broad daylight, and he perished along with almost all of the wounded.
Thus ended the life of the man who ran away from hatred.”
The letter in English is presented here, with huge thanks, from https://www.thefreelibrary.com/%22A+Letter+from+1920%22.-a0165021316
There are some sentences here from which not one but the volumes of books can be written. One I chose will be published as a story soon. It has to do with beauty.
Our ATTIC Our LADDER
(is it still? Or we lost it?)