Construction of the railway line Brcko - Banovici 1946
On August 15, 1945 I returned to my hometown Osijek from a POW's camp for officers of the Croatian Home Guard (Hrvatski Domobran) at Kovin at East Vojvodina (Serbia). I left Osijek as Junior Lieutenant in a Howitzer Battery on April 13, 1945, which joined in the withdrawal of Croatian Army and civilian population westward. The constant pressure of the Yugoslav Army forced the Croatians to leave their country by May 8 on the Day of Armistice. They marched onwards through Slovenia in the attempt to surrender to the Allied Forces that were in Carinthia (Austria) already. The bulk of Croatians crossed over Drava River and some surrendered to the British Army that extradited them to Tito's Army near Bleiburg by May 15, 1945. The Howitzer Battery was late to cross Drava at Dravograd so I decided as only officer left to lead remaining servicemen into captivity.
From a temporary POW's camp at nearby Slovenjgradec some 40.000 POWs started their Death March on May 17 that the majority did not end alive. I marched mostly barefoot some 500 km and reaching Osijek after 16 extremely arduous and merciless days on June 2nd loosing half my body weight. My foot soles were just a wound and the body a physically ruin but mentally I was very badly injured. As the eyewitness and survivor of the Death March I would be stigmatized for the rest of my life.
My first year of study in 1945/46
I was too happy to be back home in Osijek after those most frightening and dreadful 4 months in my young life at last. It took several weeks until recovered part of my body weight and some strength returned sleeping too many hours in my proper bed after all. Slowly and persistent I'd succeed to bury experiences on all those horrors and humiliations I got through deep into my subconscious. Sometime in September of 1945 I've decided to get my documents ready for the inscription to start a study at the University of Zagreb. The main problem was to get approved my diploma of baccalaureate at the 1st Male Real gymnasium (Secondary School) of Osijek. The new regime requested to check and to reconsider the endorsement of any school or university diplomas that have been issued during the time of Ustasa regime in Croatia from April 1941 until May 1945. There were some initial troubles with my diploma that was sanctioned by the new school authorities after intervention of my former class master and an elderly colleague. Both were members of the Communist party (KP) what I didn't know during my schooling days. Now the way was opened to start studying again as my first attempt was abandoned after being called to army service in October 1943.
I've enrolled the course of Civil Engineering (CE) at the Technical Faculty (TF) early October 1945 and soon after moved into a small anteroom at my aunt's big flat in Zagreb. I was a rather conscious student attending all lectures prescribed for CE's course and got up early morning to be at Faculty's only Auditorium maximum well before the lecture's time. Lectures like for Mathematics or Physics were attended by all TF's departments first year students like of the mechanical, electrical, civil etc. There were over 800 "freshmen" that just wanted to find a place in the Auditorium that could accommodate 400 students at its maximum capacity. The room wasn't heated despite rather cold winter so we sat in our heavy coats and boots (who had them!) and tried hard to hear the lecture but writing down anything was hardly possible unless you got a comfortable place in a bench. The only heavy coat that would fit me was father's green "Hubertus" that wore out significantly after 3 winters of such a student's heavy duty.
The first heavy blow to my newly acquired peace of mind came during all Technical faculties Students' Club first Convention late November 1945. The Convention was held in Workers' Union biggest hall that could take some 800 people. The hall was overcrowded by students and certainly by a large number of Party's activists. It lasted some 9 hours during which too many harsh words, shouts and threatening activities took place bringing the audience to a frantic and anxious mood too. The beaten up and chased out ones were all "Enemies of the People" or "Collaborators of the occupation" or "War criminals" etc. I couldn't understand who made such a verdict and why it was performed in a brutal way accompanied with shouts like "Throw him out the window" or "Beat him to death". I kept my profile as low as possible waiting for a longer pause to cool down the spirits and then by good luck disappeared unnoticed in the mass of other students leaving the Convention.
The summer semester was coming to end when a large notice appeared calling for volunteers to join the students' work brigade. I knew that it's essential for my study's continuation to present myself to the Brigade's command and to my surprise I was accepted immediately. My political past - the "black dot" on my soul of a survivor and eyewitness - was catching upon me despite all my endeavors to keep a very low profile in freshmen's crowd as far as possible. Father was still an active layer (advocate) who couldn't stop showing his aversion to any totalitarian regime like fascistic or communist now. Layers and priest were the only free professions - everything else was nationalized and had to serve the Peoples' new government. It was high time to show my loyalty to the new regime and actively contribute in building the new nation too.
My voluntary work on the construction of BRCKO - BANOVICI railway line
[Note: A new railway line of normal 1435 mm gauge had to be constructed from Brcko via Lukavac to an open air mine of young brown coal at Banovici. The new mine was close to the Konjuh Mountain that played an important role during the partisans' war in 1942/43. The Youth was called upon to help building the new nation of Tito's Yugoslavia.]
The summer semester ended in June 1946 and I'd return home to pick up my luggage before joining the brigade. We got a free railway passage from home to a place Zivinice where all colleagues were supposed to join the 1st students brigade "Krsto Ljubicic" named after a Partisan war hero. I took some old civilian cloths, a pair of old hiking shoes and most important utensils with "iron rations" of food for a 2 month stay in a camp. I packed all my goods in the rucksack that passed with me that deadly march of a year ago. The experience of it would help me a lot during the next two months of my "voluntary" work to build the New Nation. Early July 1946 I took a train from Osijek via Vinkovci to Slavonski Brod where I had to change to a 760 mm narrow gauge railway at Bosanski Brod. Crossing Sava River bridge we traveled to Doboj first and then changed to a train for Tuzla leaving it at Lukavac. Army trucks were waiting for us there and drove onwards over old aged stone macadam roads to a small village Gornje Zivinice where we got of at last. About lunch time we had to form a queue in front of a strange looking tent.
One by one we entered in this tent where two paramedics were handling some kind of hand pump. Then my order came to be "treated" with this pump that spewed a cloud of white powder on my hair ("Comrade close your eyes" blared the paramedic), under my shirt and into trousers. Our bodies were white with this strangely smelling powder that turned out to be the DDT insect repellent. All students were looking like coming out of flower mill now but there wasn't much time for contemplation and we boarded the trucks again. We drove on a rather narrow road along a small gauged railway line following a rivulet until one reached a narrow valley encircled by thick forest. Since midday we didn't have a chance to have a drink and no food was given out. Now, mid afternoon the heat was almost unbearable and its blast hit us the moment truck stopped. Colleagues jumped onto a grassy floor grumbling and swearing and with some astonishment viewed the camp that would be their "home" for 2 months now on.
At narrow valley's center stood a rather wide and long tent behind of which was an open-air shanty supposedly to be a kitchen and a store. At the valley's far end was a footpath ascending to a sheltered place that could be the brigade's command shelter. Later we would excavate a dip rectangular pit some 50m away of it and out of the way behind some shrubs. This pit was to be our latrine serving both female and male students. Above ground level the pit was divided by a partition made of interwoven branches. At each side of the pit was a wooden bar fixed on top of two short stumps that would provide a sitting facility for those "on duty" there. What was missing was a sign: "Beware of falling into pit!" In the coming days pit would fill up gradually, stench became horrible and one would prefer going deeper into woods to perform one's needs. At last the command found it necessary to excavate a new pit for us nearer to our tent and not so far up the slope. Also somebody up there in the command got the "idea" to bring some quick lime that reduced pestilent flies and quenched the odor a little bit.
Girls went occupying the rear tent part that was divided two compartments by a flimsy and see-through blind made of reed. I found myself a place further away of that blind putting rucksack on the barren earth floor and went out to collect leaves to spread them below my blanket. Soon I found large ferns in the adjacent forest and cut some big branches before returning to the tent. Few colleagues looked puzzled at my doings but soon followed my example to prepare their sleeping place too. After a while were called out for a roll call and to form U-shaped two row deep rank around a flagpole. The commander arrived accompanied by some comrades who would be the group leaders in our brigade of some 120 students. After a short speech of introduction the flag was lowered with singing the nation's new anthem "Hej, Slaveni". After this ceremony, which would repeat day to day mornings and evenings, we went to that open-air shanty alias a canteen to fetch evening meal.
A kind of "one pot" thick soup was served in aluminum deep plates if one didn't own a pan and a large chunk of white bread went with it. Aluminum spoons were available too that had to be returned clean to the canteen later. With foresight I brought my ex-military saucer (serving me well last year in POW's camp) and eating kit so I hadn't any problem with getting food that was prepared in ex-military mobile kettles. White bread big loafs were not prepared in the camp and were brought in most probably from Zivinice village. We were sitting where one found a place on a log or trunk and small groups formed between acquaintances or colleagues of the same study course. I've noticed several colleagues with whom I haven't had any particular contact yet and other brigades were from different technical courses.
Darkness came slowly to the valley bringing some fresh breeze cooling of the daily heat a little bit but in the nights it may become rather cool not to say cold. At the foot of the hill was a spring of fresh water flowing as a brook towards nearby river Oskova. Next morning a latrine would be dug out few hundred meters uphill of this spring. Later we drunk fresh water from this spring and washed dishes and other belongings there too. I would fill my aluminum flask with water putting it together with remaining bread in a knapsack to carry on me when going out of camp for work. All my behavior was governed by the experiences gathered during the deadly march just a year ago. That also included keeping a low profile and not entering into any discussion or to familiarize with anybody. Returning to the tent I spread my woolen blanket on fern leaves but as I was just lying down to sleep somebody came in and wondered why do I not attend the welcome ceremony. Well, do what other do and follow the mass hiding yourself in it as an insignificant "comrade".
Near the flagpole was a camp fire on and sparks flew in the breeze that
made just wondering when the dry grass or shrubs would catch fire. Comrades
of both sexes set in a circle around the log fire and soon they were singing
partisan's songs that stirred up me very uneasy feelings. I pretended singing
repeating words but keeping my voice very muffled almost unheard of. After
a while some comrades started dancing around the fire too making me shivering
and a chill run down my spine. I stood there looking at my feet waiting
for the moment to creep away back to tent unnoticed. Luckily the welcome
affair didn't last too long and I could return to my fern bed to sleep
in open again. I told myself - try to sleep and rest as long as possible
tonight because you never know what brings the next day. This was to be
my premise from now on.
The brigade's camp and works on the railway construction
Next morning we were waken up at 6 AM and after a formless face washing went to fetch a brown liquid alias for "coffee" and a chunk of white bread as for breakfast. The morning roll call and lifting the flag cum singing of the anthem was at 7 AM after that Camp's commander read the daily orders. At about 8 AM some 100 mostly male comrades left the camp to pick up the tools and proceeded to first working plot. The tools on disposal were shovels, pickaxes and heavy hoes as well as dozens of wheelbarrows. The first task was to clear undergrowth and bushes along a stretch that marked by wooden profiles and posts for the future railway line. Groups of tens formed of which appointed comrades were in charge and started working exaggerating it too much. The charges slowed down soon as the heat rose and at noontime they commandeered only keeping to the shadows. The first working enthusiasm evaporated with the sun burning on our perspired bodies seeking for anything to drink. All the time I kept on a shirt and covered my head with a makeshift handkerchief but never stopped to work. I kept the pace of other comrades who worked with me in pair say filling the wheelbarrow that kept pushing back and forth.
At noon a group from the camp brought us the "lunch" that consisted of jugs of "ersatz coffee", large loafs of bread and tins marked UNRRA. Tins of say 20 lbs contained cheese, coconut butter, marmalade, sweet minced blood sausage or anything what happened to be in them. Each group got a tin of unknown content first but when it was opened wasps knew exactly where to go at once. One can imagine what happened with tins containing cheese or butter or sausage at temperatures at 40+C and how the distribution went on between comrades. Everyone tried to get his portion and run far away of the tin swarmed by wasps and melting into a thick brew. The plague of wasps and other insects swarming upon hungry workers was certainly one of the worse experiences of this railway construction. The lunch break lasted half an hour after which we returned to work sites at the peak of daily heat in the climate of continental Bosnia.
The first working day finished at 4 PM after 8 hours of back breaking earthwork. The column was returning to the camp at a very slow pace and with the enthusiasm evaporated in the scorching sun. Soon we were queuing for dinner exchanging experiences and problems of sore hands and sunburns. I have expected that this could happen so I undertook certain precautions like holding firm any handle not letting it turn or move in the hands. Keeping palms dry was another precautionary measure as well as putting on an ointment that I used after horse riding on a sore calf. However, several comrades had blisters hands some of them open and these would become a real problem for a paramedic - which wasn't with the brigade. Striking the flag and singing the anthem was by far less joyous than the night before as well as the "spontaneous" after dinner gathering around the campfire.
The next morning waking up was accompanied with some heavy sighs and bad words including girls ones behind that blind. The odors inside the tent were getting ghastly and I was happy getting to some fresh air and hurried towards the spring to refresh myself. The morning roll call was becoming a routine but the number workers became smaller. Several charges were missing too so groups had been reorganized to collect tools and wheelbarrows for the daily chore. When the clearing work ended we started a cutting for the railway line. The excavated material had to be carted away few hundred meters to form a fill for the rail bedding. The fill had to be and new tool appeared at the site. It was large wooden stump with two handlebars fixed at each side to be used for compacting. The lifting and dropping of this heavy stump became one of the dullest jobs but allowed intervals of relaxation from sometimes. I decided to go for the carting a wheelbarrow as it offered a constant moving and precluded any discourse with comrades who were on loading or compacting.
I would make a harness for carting similar to the used by sand bearers at Osijek who were unloading barges full of sand for the local construction market. It took me several days to find a useful leather neckpiece and long wide band with slings at both ending to fit on wheelbarrow's handles named as "WB". The first week passed and the working gang number stabilized around 70 but we got supervisors who were counting the number of WBs passing them from excavation is to compacting. The daily production depended entirely upon this number and WBs handlers were the one watched best. The best gang's results were mentioned at the evening roll calls now. There were two classes of distinction to become the "udarnik" meaning a spearhead worker or the "pohvaljen" for a praised worker. I was never mentioned though I drove constantly a good number of WBs that was close or above those who were praised at least. I knew exactly why and just continued carting hopping that my intentional participation would allow my study continuation.
Despite the scorching sun at over 40C the cut widened and extended as well as the fill for the rail bedding coming closer to our camp site with every day. We got more water bearers never stopping bringing fresh water to dehydrated workers. Several comrades performed as surveyors to control and measure our work now - most of them couldn't work because of their sore or injured palms though. At lunch pause the haphazard distribution of UNRRA tins made me abhor the sweet blood sausage forever. We learned how to divert wasps' onslaught smearing this blood sausage on a strip of paper or board and go to eat in peace at good distance of such a lure. The next day all lures of sausage were gone so the procedure was to be repeated. At cut's far end one came in contact with a neighboring brigade whose workers were from villages in Vojvodina. I couldn't believe my eyes when at lunch these guys took out some 6 cm thick slabs of white bacon only and munched onion and white bread with this melting fatty mass.
I have reduced my daily toilette chores to a minimum by not shaving and not using toothbrush almost for weeks now. My palms became callous and rough and the taut skin became tanned without usage of any sun oil. I didn't wash myself too often except the eyes to get rid of a salty crust do to intense perspiration. On other body's parts it was enough to wipe it down with a wetted white towel that became almost black at the end. Shirts and shorts disintegrated with time but kept them on until they would fall to pieces. I wouldn't visit the latrine used by both sexes at all as it was filling up fast and smelled awfully even down at the campsite. I preferred going the "natural way" whenever it was necessary so did almost everybody else until a disclosure was announced during an evening roll call.
Gradually the camp was becoming more homely and one could see the women's touch every where. The camp cleanliness improved significantly, footpaths got graveled and curbstones of larger stones placed along. Some greenery was planted around the tent and shallow ditches excavated to prevent flooding. The roll call place has been decorated with some slogans and the fireplace walled in to prevent sparks jumping over into dry grass. I improved my "bed" with a layer of bark and fern leaves on top which I placed cartoons from UNRRA large boxes - the bedding was dry and not too hard now. Also the upper latrine was closed for good by spreading quick lime and filling it with soil. A new latrine was excavated at lower level and closer to campsite with strict order to spread quick lime every day. New latrine was away from the spring that was good too as an effluent from the former latrine might have contaminated the fresh water. After a week or so started the political indoctrination at campfire gatherings to be combined with more partisans' songs and "kolo" dances. It became rather difficult to find a good reason for my absentees so I've attended lectures as an interested listener but never asking or saying anything. It was all clear to me anyway! You comprehend everything what was said, isn't so comrade?
One day in August we were called back from work and boarded trucks that took us to nearest station of the forest railway called "shemandufer" (from French "chemin de fer"). A line of flat wagons were waiting for us pulled by a puffing locomotive with a huge conical shaped chimney topped up with a wide mesh to prevent sparking. We got axes and shovels, boarded wagons when the train started ascended slowly a track of 600 mm gauge leading towards the slopes of Konjuh Mountain where forest was on fire. Turning behind a narrow bent we saw Konjuh like in a haze through a cloud of smoke and few hundred meters later we disembarked the train. [Note: Mountain Konjuh is praised in a sad Partisans' song. The forests there were almost like a jungle and few humans ever passed through.]
First we cut longer branches with leaves on and then spread in a line entering the forest of giant hardwood mostly beech trees. There wasn't much of undergrowth so we advanced fast uphill and reaching its rim found a small valley down bellow containing several huts. The fire was coming closer to us and continued down into the valley too. Our line turned towards the fire and started clearing undergrowth making a wide free path of it and at that we stay preventing sparks do not jump over. A courier descended to warn the inhabitants and to bring some water if possible as thirst and heat worsened with time. After a while he returned with an old man carrying bags of sour apples good to quench thirst but none of the villagers came with him to help us and to save their hamlet. The explanation he gave us was as simple: "Kismet!" (meaning "It's the fate!"). That was it so we stayed until dark when the danger of fire spreading subsidized. We boarded the waiting "shemandufer" and returned to the camp near midnight - very tired and totally dried out. Next morning waking up has been delayed so the roll call during which there was laughing and teasing between fire fighters whose skin was in hues of gray and some had scorched hairs too. Later our brigade received for its great efforts the extraordinary praise and got the title of a "Spearhead brigade".
Few days later I had to join workers who would start a new cut on the opposite side of the previous working site. This hillside was much more slanting and the Oskova riverbed was at its foot. There wasn't any footpath yet except for the profiles that showed a deep cut into hillside as and signs as that one might encounter rock there too. It was a rather dangerous site and without proper precaution one could easily loose hold and slid down into Oskova. Serious injuries might be fatal because of nonexistent emergency medical care and long distance to a proper hospital. One gave us chisels and hammers, rock sledge mallets, crowbars and long ropes - good wishes for the success. One fixed a rope around the waist and the other end tied to a firmly driven in chisel above the working place. First we used heavy hoes and crowbars slowly enlarging the footholds that gradually widened to both sides until joining the neighboring one.
Within a week or so the cut became deeper and the working there safer so the command praised our group more often too. It happened so suddenly one day that we got really scared seeing a bush fire spreading through the dry grass on a nearby plain towards the river's wide bent just bellow our camp. The camp was not in danger but the large timber stock on Oskova's opposite side that was next to the forest railway stores and dumps. We skipped our ropes, got some branches and run down to help comrades trying to stop sparks and fires jump over the river. There was a lot of commotion on both sides of Oskova river but fortunately it didn't take too long to get the fire out. All this happened at noon and one just couldn't resist a quick dip into river's cool waters to wash down all ash and dust smudge. The day's work was ruined anyway so everybody cursed about those who got the brilliant idea to start a grass fire. It was bad luck that the order was given by the camp command to scorch the grass instead of clearing it at the site foreseen for a new stratum. Some jokers said that there were many poisonous snakes hiding in the high grass and that the fire would destroy them easily - to comfort our good girls, it was said. Although the CC wasn't happy about the fire at all it was for a good cause too: it opened a wide path and a safer access to Oskova's bank where one could do washings easier now.
The camp was hit by a storm and rain downpour followed on a night late in August. The old tent material wasn't impermeable and it rained through in a fine spray everywhere. This was a perfect chance to have a heavenly shower so I filled the rucksack with dry cloths quickly and run out in a summer downpour for shower. Several comrades took this opportunity to wash down dirty crust and swab hair and beard thoroughly for the first and only time. Next morning we noticed that the rain had washed out at some places the earth fill and there were several gullies that had drained the overflow. Thus it was obvious to us that drains would be needed to safe the earthwork for future. The intense heat had gone with this first rain in 50 days of our stay here and there wasn't so much dust when excavating this bone dry stratum.
Few days after this downpour rumor had it that we'd be leaving soon that coincided with fresh greenery sprouting on parched soil. The proof for rumors came up to with bundles of blue uniforms and sacks full of boots that were stapled at the camp's stores. A day after the camp commander announced during morning roll call that it is our last day of work at site and we should collect tools bringing to the camp afterwards. Tomorrow the camp has to be cleaned and everything put in order prior to our leaving. Also we should collect new uniforms and boots that were presented by the Government for our selfless and voluntary work on the construction of the railway Brcko Banovici.
On my way to stores to pick the uniform and boots Djuka V. asked me to step aside for a talk. Djuka was Brigade's political commissar alias "Politico", an old time Partisan who was the chief for political education during war too. Djuka was a colleague of mine but he never was acting or talking to us in public and I haven't seen him working with us at all times. When we were alone Djuka said: "Do you know why I want to talk to you?" I replied negatively but felt that it must be something of importance to me if a politico wants to talk to you in private now. Djuka told me he was watching what and how I was trying hard to fulfill my tasks day by day. My performance was very good particularly as I never did stop working that one couldn't say for most of the other comrades.
Djuka continued saying that many of them were praised for their performances and I was never mentioned individually for my good work. "Do you know why?" put Djuka this strait forward question to me that I've expected the moment I joined the brigade. My answer came promptly: "Yes, I was officer of the Croatian Army that fought against the Partisans and I surrendered to the Yugoslav Army on May 15, 1945. After the Amnesty I was released from a POW's camp to become a loyal citizen of the new state." Djuka was a little bit taken back by my well learned answer, smiled and said: "Zvonko, I know everything about you as well as about your survival in the march from Slovenjgradec to Osijek. Let's forget it now. I would like you to continue your study without maltreats in future." He explained that the Committee wanted me to be expelled from the brigade thus preventing to continue my study. However, Djuka has convinced them that I should be proclaimed a "spear worker" due to my exceptional performance but as this wasn't "practical" I shall be a "praised worker" at least. So it happened at the evening roll call when I got the "Blue Badge" and my name was read aloud in the list of praised workers.
The last campfire lasted long into the night and there were speeches by brigade's commander and few more charges as well as lot of singing and dancing. I stood in fire's shadow where the coworker Pavel K. approached congratulating me for my blue badge pinned to the blouse. He wasn't envy at me at all as he hadn't become one and was not mentioned in the list of other comrades either. He also was an officer of ex-Croatian Army and was accept in the brigade to be dismissed out of as a dishonored student who wouldn't be allowed to continue his study. He also said that I was supposed to be the other of two that were chosen for this purpose when the brigade was set up in Zagreb 3 months ago. I knew that Pavel was telling the truth and we continued talking about our future under different auspices now.
Next morning trucks arrived and drove us back to Zivinice and to railway station at Lukavac where we were supposed to board trains taking us back to our homes. Unfortunately there wasn't a train to Brcko and Vinkovci until early night so had to wait several hours until a passenger train arrived at 10 PM. We tried to board it but train's conductors refused to let us in as the train was full and because of our "wild & unkempt manners" they said. Nevertheless we entered into several wagons where the passengers were somehow pleased to help and talk to these wild looking students - heroes of voluntary work of building the new nation. So I was back home next morning again walking slowly the same path as the one a year ago after I was released from the POW's camp on August 14, 1945.
A lot of changes happened since but I had a good feeling that I would finish my study after all. I was greeted enthusiastically by my family except for our Doberman bitch Peggy fleshing her teeth and barking viciously at this strange smelling person dressed in the uniform. Soon Peggy was appeased after I cuddled her and she recognized me by voice at last. After a perfect bath and mother's breakfast my bed was waiting for me to have a long sleep. The next day a barber made of me a good looking young man despite me being lean and skinny tanned again. Soon I'd be going to Zagreb to inscribe and start the 2nd year of CE study of 1946/7.
Email Zvonko Springer at : email@example.com