In the early 20th century, J.’s family’s economic history briefly ran a parallel path with mine, which is perhaps why I found myself intrigued by his story. J.’s grandfather and my great-grandfather were both successful entrepreneurs and businessmen—his as a leather trader and mine in the seafood industry. Both of them purchased a sizable piece of real estate near their respective city centers: Varaždin, Croatia and Portland, Oregon. Because of the difference in geography and history, however, WWII and its aftermath disparately impacted our countries–and this is where our family’s paths radically diverged.
The Yugoslav Partisans, or Communist Party, actively opposed Fascism and Axis powers during WWII, but they were met with mixed reactions because of the complicated allegiances and geographical history (within the present day area encompassing Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro). Directly following the war, some Partisan units lashed out against suspected Axis sympathizers, resulting in many needless mass murders. Word of these atrocities spread, and because J.’s grandfather had been involved in Varaždin’s local government, he worried about being considered a “sympathizer.” So along with hundreds of others, he fled, leaving his wife and seven children. They received no word of his whereabouts for fifteen years. The Partisans moved in and confiscated the family’s property rights in the name of collective ownership, necessitating J.’s grandmother’s need to pay rent on the very property her husband had purchased years before. Furthermore, her husband’s name was erased from the city’s records, thus obliterating her rights to collect any kind of subsidy or help from the city.
J.’s father, thirteen at the time of his father’s disappearance, is now in his late seventies, but still rarely mentions the hardships in his early life. J. knows only the skeletal outline of the story, describing his grandmother’s non-stop toil in an effort to put food on the table for seven hungry children. Fifteen years after her husband’s disappearance, she met a woman who said that she had seen him rounded up and killed in Slovenia years before.
When Croatia declared its independence in the early 1990’s, the newly formed nation-state promised to return all confiscated private property. But this promised justice began to fray around the edges in the years following—only last month, twenty years later, did the family officially receive their property back, its cracked and shabby appearance narrating its obvious neglect by the state. For over sixty-five years, the family had been paying rent to live in their own residence, but now they will be able to collect rent from all the small businesses in their building.
Two family histories from different parts of the globe began in similar ways but progressed worlds apart. But the tale of these two stories does not end there. At one point in time, each family’s story intersected God’s story, thus once again bringing them parallel through their shared story of redemption. Stay tuned for part 2 to read this part of the story.