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Excerpts from Joe's journals

[homeless in Europe 1944 - 47]

Food and Citizen Papers

Sunday morning, I like to go down to the bridge where there isn’t a soul besides me. Sitting on a broken telephone pole, I hear birds singing, see grass and the reflection of the collapsed bridge on the mirror-smooth surface of the water. The sun is up a ways by now and everything is almost like home: the trees, the water, the birds singing and clear sunshine, yet there are different things there.


A long row of river vessels laying on anchors, dead colors, desolate and quiet; there is cobblestone pavement parallel to the riverbank and the smell of fish and tar gives a harbor atmosphere to the whole picture. There is not a sound in the air except for an occasional gurgling sound of the water caused by some frog who has had enough sunbathing on one of the rocks that are only a few feet away from the water.


Looking down the street the uneven cobblestones with asphalt patches every 20 or 30 feet indicating a spot where an American bomb had landed a few months ago; looks shiny from the rain that fell early in the morning and the ruins that used to be houses on both sides look peaceful.


Seeing all that one can hardly believe that in the same street last night drunken sailors, ex-soldiers, and students now racketeers, celebrating the end of the war. They celebrate that way every night. In the bars that are as regular on this street as house numbers. There is nothing to be had but cheap, 1.5 % beer and American cigarettes for 4 RM a piece.


Nevertheless, every place is crowded and judging by the five foot smoke cloud underneath the ceiling, there is also prosperity. Yes. Nobody is outdoors. The traditional scene of a bum with no money and no friends, looking into a saloon through a window, is not to be found on this street, for everybody has money. The value of it is nothing - but nobody is broke.


The food situation is very bad, but wonderful if compared with the rest of the population. My breakfast I eat on the walk to the plant. Almost always one apple or 2 end pieces of bread. My lunch consists of one bowl of thick soup and two more slices of bread.


After a few weeks, I obtain the sympathies of the cook in the plant who thinks I am very nice and handsome but too young (I am 16) but from now on the soup supply is unlimited which was my goal in the first place. I have by now become an expert in the art of having people feel sorry for me and obtain their help and I am careful not to spoil my “soup relations” with Mizzi. Lately, I have been getting fresh carrots, too.


My morning walk takes me past the farmer Kaffee Kassenhaschem. Now the American Red Cross Club. When my breakfast is particularly meager, (nothing, that is) I try and stop a few feet away from the entrance in order to smell fresh donuts and coffee. Unfortunately, the guard spots me almost the minute I stop and waves me to go on or throws me a cigarette butt not knowing that I am here for a good smell.


On the second floor, there is a terrace leading around the front of the building on which GIs are lying on Army cots and sleeping. Only a few early risers are sitting in the lounge. Too far in for me to be able to recognize the food they eat. Before the war, I drank coffee, too, but I have never seen doughnuts. Almost every morning my mind is trying to attach a form or shape to that wonderful smell which thrills my nostrils and stirs my imagination and creates a little hate inside of me when I look at the guard with the stern look in his eye.


I can hardly see a reason for us to hate each other being Americans by birth. But after I look down on the so-called clothes I am wearing and smell those doughnuts again, I can hardly blame the guard for I am a citizen on paper only. I feel my urge to pull the paper out of my pocket (I even slept with it since Oct. 44) hand it to the GI and expect sympathy but he would react like dozens of others before him have.


They take it in their hand, begin to read, a bright smile comes over their faces and they slap my shoulders and excitedly shout a continuous flurry of sounds which is called the English language of which I can understand “god damned” in-between syllables. I suppose they are happy to see a little Yank but when I say “Ay no spik eng-lish” they murmur something and walk away with disappointment written all over them.


It seems that I can always understand the situation I am in but I can hardly cope with it. Still a lot to learn.


[entry from Joe's thirties]

The Land of Unlimited Opportunity


“So, then to every man his chance--to every man regardless of his birth, his shining golden opportunity--to every man the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him  -  this, seeker, is the promise of America.”


“You Can’t Go Home Again”

Thomas Wolfe


April 1, 1929, I was born to immigrant parents in Chicago. We returned to Yugoslavia when I was 16 months old, to Banatski Karlovac, between Belgrad and the Rumanian border. Raised as an only child, I attended grade school in the Serbian language, worked in my father’s butcher business, played the accordion and soccer. In 1941, my father was taken away as a hostage because our forefathers had come out of Germany 300 years ago. Thus, at age 12, I first gained insight into, and aversion for the extreme, pathologic feeling of nationalism as known throughout Europe.


Our town was occupied by German troops. I witnessed mob hysteria, the capture, trial, and execution by German troops of an ignorant, stupid drunkard for extreme patriotism against Germans. Since I had known him as a neighbor, I became more enraged about blind nationalism and mob brutality. 


Germans built an airfield at the edge of my hometown, where our gang and cur dogs spent happy hours sitting on parachute packs and listening to German aviators’ grand talk of flying and admiration for their British opponents as terrific fighters, very rarely mentioning Churchhill or Hitler. I developed an early love for aviation, flew a glider solo for 12 hops. My hometown was soon bombed by the US Air Force.


October 1944, at age 15, I was taken by Germans in a freight train to Austria and Czechoslovakia to avoid being taken to Russia when the Red Army overran Yugoslavia. When mustered in Vienna, I declared my citizenship as “American” when questioned by an SS guard. He advised me stealthily to remain “ stateless” until better times are here again. I was subjected to much propaganda about “all Americans, who are gangsters, moral degenerated, a mixed-race, and vicious murderers.“ I helped clear streets after air raids and often speculated about fellow Americans who were doing the bombing and strafing. I organized “passive resistance” protests against the German guard and learned how hard it is to get more than one person to stick to an agreement in the face of real danger. I was pardoned by the court because of my youth and because the movement had collapsed.


April 1945, drafted into the German Army, I escaped one night to Budweis and hid in a small room in a girls’ institution through the kindness of a friend of a friend. When detected, I moved on to Austria through association with “The Iron Fist,” an SS colonel who was a communist, nazi, and friend of the allies at the opportune moments and thus always escaped legal punishment, though not the terror of a restless conscience. In an abandoned railroad station, I befriended and shared my belongings with two 17-year-old deserters (Panzer soldaten). We discovered a whole railroad car of German wine and, after a monstrous orgy of desperation and alcoholic debauchery, I was liberated by the US Army, who pulled me out of the boxcar of German army sweaters.


Since all movements were forbidden, means of transportation were nonexistent and roads were patrolled by American patrols. We moved on side roads and walked 500 miles in the company of my two Soldaten friends, 3 women, and a blind horse, living off the land, stealing chickens from one farmer, unloading hay wagons of another while his wife cooked it and added the potatoes. I sought help from Americans but was told the “Accident of birth” doesn’t make citizenship and I gave up trying to be American. I arrived in Manheim on the Rhein, lived high on the hog through the skillful operations of my friend’s mother, a fortune teller, who used me as a doorman because of my high cheekbones and black eyes which added an oriental flavor to the crystal ball business.


I “moved to the suburbs” and lived on my own in a very clean basement, worked as a stock boy in a crane factory, then got into the black market, specializing in unroasted coffee (no odor to give away when hidden under my shirts in streetcars), cigarettes, and nylon stockings. I tried to smuggle myself into Austria, was caught, and thrown in jail by an American (“where did you bury the guy this paper belongs to?”)


I met a German girl born in New Jersey. Her papa wrote a letter for me. I took it to American Consulate and arrived in New York, in March 1947, ready and eager to go to college. I spoke not a word of English, had no trade or high school in any language, but did have the address of a “long lost uncle in Detroit,” and the ambitious dreams of Andrew Carnegie and Rockefeller. At the Welfare Office in N.Y. I was told from a sweet old lady social worker  – and a shot in the arm as inspiring as seeing the Statue of Liberty: “The people of New York and of the United States of America hereby present you with $30.00 which you won’t ever have to pay back, --- so you can buy a ticket to Detroit.”


On the train, wearing a suit made of a German army uniform, and a green hat with a peacock feather, I felt the need to blend in with the rest of the people. Therefore, in order to appear as a typical American, I bought a comic book and studied it conspicuously. Twenty-four hours after my arrival in Detroit, I started my new career --  at the top: with a safety belt, I was a window washer on the tenth floor of the US Rubber Company building.


The dollars came hard when working on the Detroit waterfront. The January wind formed icicles on the window sill, and my red swollen hands dipped the sponge into the bucket of water and alcohol. I worked for a dozen different companies, cleaning office buildings, jails, insane asylums, night clubs, Detroit Athletic Club, every automobile factory, funeral parlors, colleges, and all the time, I was talking and listening, and watching, learning American’s language and its way of life.


I took a night school citizenship class and sang “Nobody knows the troubles I have seen” and “Swing low, sweet chariot” with my fellow students, foreigners, and illiterate southern black men who knew less of the Bill of Rights than I did and had come to fill the desperate labor shortage of the Detroit auto factories. Evenings, in my room at the YMCA, I groped my way through the English translation of Tolstoi and Dostoyevski, whom I had read as a child, and made long lists of synonyms. Gradually, I became fast friends with the writings of H.L. Mencken and Thomas Wolfe and speculated over the ideas of Upton Sinclair and Jack London. I lived in Santa Barbara California for a while and become a first-aid man in the Michigan National Guard.


Having learned the ins and outs of the window cleaning business, I invested $300.00 in a car, $60.00 in equipment and established the Metropolitan Window Cleaning Company, of which I was the owner, manager, bookkeeper, solicitor, and total labor force. When negotiating with the hardboiled, self-made immigrant type owner of a successful tool and die business, I would get the contract by being the striving, ambitious newcomer to America in whom he could see himself. If the purchasing agent was the first generation brat, or snob, who had never known the hard life, I was the salesman of an old firm and full of the assurance that “we never have strikes in our company” have not had a single accident in the past 5 years”, and “our crew arrives and finishes early in the morning without interfering with your own workers.” I paid union dues as a laborer, but had no vote because I was a capitalist, but also didn’t strike against myself.


One day I walked into an office to get a window cleaning contract and instead ended up with a $2.00 marriage contract, 6 months later, to Irene, the daughter of a Lutheran minister. My wife suggested to me that I should try to go to college. When I was told that one needs to go to high school first, I told the white lie that I had gone to high school in Europe but had no credentials because all records were lost in the war. I was given an entrance examination, placed on a trial program, and promised to be matriculated if I got B averages grads after one semester. I continue cleaning windows from 5 am till 9, then attended classes (after changing clothes in a garage near the university) and studied at night, and got my B average. I then became a pre-med student and almost gave up when I got into science subjects. Lack of math, physics, and chemistry put a double load on me because I was learning from scratch when others were reviewing. I didn’t know a proportion from a proposition. But I knew “probability.”


Meanwhile, I learned that my parents were still alive in concentration camps in Yugoslavia (as property holders they had been disowned and interned by the Tito government) and I brought them to America.


The business was going well and my wife worked as a secretary. Since I had wanted a fly an airplane since my childhood, I bought a Luscombe two-seater and got a private pilot license and Irene became my co-pilot. When I was accepted for medical school with more than the minimum of 90 hours of college ( I had 91) I sold my business and started medical school at the University of Indiana. I knew that most young doctors had to go into the service, so I applied for a reserve commission in the Navy and was commissioned in 1955. I had heard that the Navy had the best doctors, but someday, on the pentothal couch, I might learn that white, blue, and gold braid had something to do with it.


With medical school, I encountered the hardest work I had ever attempted. I was now in a race with professional students who had had their eyes on the A’s for many years. Some of them were able to amass and assimilate more factual knowledge in one night of highly systematic study and reproduce it down to the finest detail on exams than I had ever thought possible. Percentage-wise, they were the most diversified group of people I had ever met.  Many of them had piloted airplanes, played musical instruments, done deep-sea diving, written press, excelled in sports, debating, read extensively, worked on the stage, circus, and been salesmen in every conceivable field.  Many were restless spirits in search of they knew not what.  Many had been successful in business, then chose medicine, for notions that were as varied as their personalities.


Memorizing countless names of nerves, muscles, bones, and chemical formulas was hard work.  But, there was always time for amusing speculation. Such as, how my first cadaver, a big old man had gotten his rear end full of buckshot.  There was also much psychic trauma, such as sitting calmly and thinking constructively at the bedside of a patient who is in extreme agony, such as a woman in labor, or afraid of dying, such as a middle-aged man with a heart attack. Acquiring the detached yet compassionate look came easily to some, and never to others.


The many characters and emotions I had encountered in the camps of wartime Europe seemed puny if compared to the experience I gained in the emergency rooms and the many outpatient clinics:  high blood pressure clinics, diabetes, VD, orthopedic, neurological, surgical, dermatological, and of course, psychiatric, which was always represented in some form in all the preceding ones.  I learned that the patient can never be divided cleanly into physical and emotional halves.  I learned how difficult and exasperating it is to deal with anxiety because it is too threatening that even some physicians cannot conceive (consciously) of themselves as having emotional problems.  Sewing up a small cut in a little girl’s forehead took only one-tenth the effort and skill that the enduing talk with her parents often required.  It took patience, tact, and diplomacy to peel away the layers in the defense of many patients.


My money had run out and I was now the father of 2 boys. I sold my airplane, bought a trailer, then moved into a Quonset hut and was a house doctor in several small hospitals on the side. This meant working every day and every other night for $125.00 per month for 2 years.  Since all of it involved working with patients, it was not really too hard for me but terrible for my family life. It all culminated in chatting the Hippocratic oath, then an internship in Detroit’s Womans Receiving and Children’s hospitals. More coronaries, fractures, measles, anxiety, pain, narcotic addicts, and stab wounds.


When looking into Navy medicine again, I learned of the flight surgeons program.  I decided to learn to fly again the right way.


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