BUILDING THE NEW NATION (Part 2)

Construction of the railway line Samac - Sarajevo 1947

Introduction to part 2.

It was already early September 1946 when I returned home from the construction work on railway Brcko - Banovici. Many significant social and political changes have taken place some that were really hurtful and distressing too. The worst of all these changes was the absolute nationalization of all ground and properties, all private enterprises, industries or workshops. As the only privateers were accepted lawyers and priest by the new regime. The habitations became rather demanding due to the great influx of peoples into the cities and war's devastation. Larger flats of wealthier citizens were first to be challenged by city's authority as the regime considered these ones as notorious "enemies of the new nation". Thus my father had to vacate his lawyer's office rooms at the ground floor of our house in which moved in a family sent from the mayor's office. My parents bought the ground and standing house on it in 1936. Now my father had to certify his lawful house ownership again but lost the property of ground as it was nationalized by law.

My stay at home wasn't too long as I had to enroll myself into the 2nd study year for a Civil Engineer. My sister made her baccalaureate and was preparing to move to Zagreb too where she would study medicine. The parents would remain alone in their house and father decided to move his office into the living room and his personal office to my room at first floor. Our house was reasonably occupied by the number of inhabitants there wouldn't be any need for official intervention to put more tenants in it now. At the People's court father was very busy with charges put up against well of people, owners of shops and workshops as well as richer farmers called "kulaks" - name known from times of Russia's revolution under communist's regime. The regime allowed the farmer to keep as his property about 4 acres of land and the garden next to house including a reasonable amount of poultry and beast for personal needs only. The ground became state's property according to the general nationalization ordered by the new regime. All defendants' bill of indictment followed a standardized scheme declaring them to be "Peoples' enemy", "Servant to the Occupancy", "Cooperator of the Germans", "Traitor of Antifascist cause" etc. There were many cases of imputation and denouncement that were extremely difficult to defend and in some cases the People's Court set a death penalty to the offender. Most of the death penalties were executed at short notice and the offender's property confiscated by the People's government. The times were rather depressing and the common people had too many anxieties a year or so after the war ended. A new class emerged with the regime that everybody had felt its oppressions as well as its secret police activity anew.

My second study year of 1946/47

I inscribed the 3rd semester without any problems and was looking with particular interest for lectures of more practical topic like "Strength of Materials" or "Structural Mechanics". All students of Technical faculty visited together several lectures on general subjects like mathematics, physics etc. However the number of 2nd year Civil engineering ("CE") students decreased so there were about 180 of the original number of some 250. We have been advised to form a "kruzok" (a "ring" of an unchangeable group of students) of about 10 colleagues in which one or two were politically reliable colleagues. Later were ones were members Communist party as the SKOJ, the communist youth organization of prewar times, was suspended now. Any non-member was considered to be reactionary from its social orientation and by indoctrination and political coaching he would become a loyal citizen of the new nation. The avant-garde was the Communist Party guided by its infallible leaders to create the fair new society of workers and proletarians.

CE students got two drawing rooms - the larger one was for us of the 2nd year and elderly students occupied the other one. There were flat tables and simple seats crowded in our room but the number of working places wasn't sufficient for all of us. I had my own drawing flat wooden board with a T-square on which I made all the drawings as requested in various courses. At first I got hold of few leaves "Schelleshammer" special drawing cartoon that was used for drawing with china ink and water colors. The damp cartoon had been glued with a paste of flour at its edges onto the board and let to dry slowly. A good clue would affix the paper perfectly flat making it easy to draw on with a special china ink pen. One could erase wrong lines with a razor blade pointed edge so with some skill also several times without getting through the paper. When the drawing was complete with dry white bread one cleaned and wiped out penciled lines prior to water painting. Then the drawing was cut out slowly and careful along a standardized frame otherwise the paper would crack irregularly. It was always a "feast" when the drawing came of the board in perfect condition and to be admired by colleagues prior to be submitted to the lecturer for scrutiny and the note into ones' study booklet called "index".

We had meet in the larger drawing room every Saturday at 9 AM for political coaching. At first each kruzok's representative reported about the group's progress in studying as well as about reading and discussion of the assigned literature. Then followed the political coaching that included discussion and often one was called upon for. These meetings would last for several hours and the only excuse to leave earlier was that one was on duty in a student's canteen. I was a member of the canteen for one semester only but left it because I couldn't stand the food that was served there in plates and with spoons of aluminum. One got a piece of white bread and "polenta" (maize mush) with thick soup made of boiled potatoes, barley, cabbage, turnip, beans or UNRRA's dry peas. In a brew like a "goulash" were microscopic pieces of meat. Too often one would found a dead mouse, cockroaches and plentiful corn moths and any larvae particularly in peas and beans. The food was really appealing even if one was very hungry so a lot of left their food untouched. We had to pay very little for the canteen's food but didn't have to give our ration cards for it either. I moved to a canteen that served food for civil servants or workers in neighborhood although I had to pay more there and give a part of my ration cards say for meat.

Our "ring" was formed of colleagues who would to be the best and fastest studying ones of all other. Our ring had 8-10 comrades and our "controller", that's the link to the Party, was Zdenko K. whose family suffered dearly being of Jewish origin. Zdenko knew well Marxist's and dialectic literature and was an excellent rhetoric so we gave him the nickname "John, the Golden Mouth". He has made our life easier by "organizing" the obligatory discussions and reporting to higher places. [Zdenko left Yugoslavia by mid of 1949 for Israel leaving the Party for good because he became dissatisfied and disillusioned in the communism thoroughly.]

I was rather interested in lectures about "Strength of materials" and the attached exercises "Testing of building materials" in particular. My personal ambition and desire was the chemistry or something with of experimenting nature. The testing of materials would satisfy my aspirations to a full extend that would play an important factor in my professional life later. Also I've resumed with the regular training of light athletics at the academic sports club "Mladost", which I joined past spring already. It was necessary to improve my physical dispositions as I'd lost a lot of my bodily strength a year ago. I couldn't run well due to the still sore feet so I concentrated on technical disciplines like ball or disk shot and general training with calisthenics to improve my muscular body.

My voluntary work on the construction of SAMAC - SARAJEVO railway

In spring of 1947 we were called upon voluntary work as bricklayers as we're supposed to know how it's done being CE's students. We gathered at a construction site of several multi-story houses close to Zagreb center. We've tried "hard" doing our best but the amount of mortar used and the produced brick wall's unevenness and irregularities put an early stop to our building activities. Shortly after that the CE Department announced formation of its own works brigade named a "Niko Tomic" (a war hero too), which would be working on the construction of Samac - Sarajevo railway line. Of course I had to volunteer again as one never knew what would happen in such an uneasy times and regime too.

On the brigade's information board one could read CE student's new names daily who wanted to volunteer on the youth's work activities in the summer of 1947. Niko Tomic's brigade would have male students only as there were too few feminine colleagues studying CE. We were told that a few professors would visit brigade's site and we're encouraged to prepare for the exams that would be accepted by the visiting examiners. I got a free railway passage to go home first from where I'd join the brigade at a small station Zelece near Zepce early in July. Back to Osijek I took my scripts for the exam in "Surveying III" and collected other necessary utensils packing everything in my old rucksack as before. With certain amount of food as my "iron rations" at hand I boarded a train to Vrpolje. There I changed to another one traveling to Slavonski Brod and at Bosanski Samac (across river Sava) changed to a train for Doboj and Maglaj to reach the brigade's HQ at a small station near Zepce after all.

[Note: A narrow gauge of 760 mm railway started at Slavonski Brod or actually at Bosanski Brod across the river Sava and proceeded to Doboj - Maglaj - Zepce - Zenica to Sarajevo. The new railway line would have 1.435 mm norma gauge to care for the constantly increasing traffic enabling faster and more economic transport on this important route. Marshal Tito has called upon Yugoslavia's Youth to help by buidling the New Nation again.]
 

The cutout from a general road map of the Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina to scale 1:500.000 printed by TRSAT d.o.o. Zagreb of 1997/98. The red underlined places are mentioned in the text. The small railway station of Zelece is next to a marked place of  Zepce. Trbuk railway station is between marked places Pridjel and Sevarine above place Trepce. Blue ribbon lines show sections of railway construction works described here.

 

This red badge was given to a spearhead ("udarnik") worker on the construction works of the railway line of 1435 mm gauge from Samac to Sarajevo in 1947. The inscription reads: "OMLADINSKA PRUGA" - 1947 (translation: YOUTH RAILWAY 1947).

The brigade's camp and construction works on the railway line

The camp was situated in lumber men's barracks at a rather narrow flat place close to the river Bosna. The river flew here through a narrow ravine flanked with heavy wooded hills along which wound around a macadam road and a railway line that came in and out of many tunnels. The barracks were a fairly good accommodation for us although it was quite cool living there too. Barracks had boarded floors and proper roof covers that provided good sleeping quarter for the brigade. The place was by far a better spot compared to the one I had experienced a year ago. The food was prepared in a canteen that had a proper stove and large stores were clean and well kept. The roll call procedure was about the same as before except that there wasn't place enough to have some 100 comrades standing in a line. There was a flagpole and an open fireplace close to it around which the brigade rallied almost in a full circle. Nearby at the periphery stood a large pile of logs that we used for sitting or basking in the sun and made the roll call area looking on like the stage of an arena. It seemed to me that volunteer's work would be better organized and would present better results than the last year.

There were several comrades whom I remembered from construction work on Brcko - Banovici railway in 1946. Djuka V., the politico, was one of them and had the same duty in the brigade this year. Nikola P. was in charge of a group I was assigned to and our first task was to clear undergrowth and fell trees on a steep incline at the foot of which the railway curved around on a retaining wall following the deep riverbed of Bosna's stream. It wasn't an easy place to work asking for a lot of precautions not to drop debris on the tracks at any time. Guards stood on the track removing litter and rubbish that has slid down and put it aside or dropped it into Bosna. Some days later we were grossly involved felling a mighty beech- tree that thick routes spread all over firmly fixed into rocky underground. We secured beech's upper trunk with a few ropes found by fixing them at a sturdy tree standing more uphill.

We started excavating routes around the beech and to cut them when exposed enough on the downhill side. The work progressed too slowly for Nikola who was unhappy because his daily progress reports were so meager. After several days of careful work ropes tightened and everyone worried about whether we could be able to pull the beech trunk to fall uphill and not slide downwards onto the railway track. After lunch break (as food we got a chunk of white bread and varying content of tins some of UNRRA too) we were considering the order of cutting the exposed routes on uphill side as all on downhill side were split already.

Suddenly Nikola appeared brandishing a huge ax went straight for the uphill routes. I knew Nikola's foul temperament from the last year (he was one of those who injured their hands severely and couldn't work for weeks) and there wasn't any chance stopping him in his attempt. All of us stepped aside watching the ropes in the hope that they would hold so that the beech tree would fall to uphill side. But there was no chance for it at all! In a few seconds struck the disaster: the remaining routes cracked aloud, the trunk leaned uphill first loosening the ropes, then the bulb of tree's route leaped out of excavated pit and started an unconstrained sliding downwards straight onto the tracks below where it stopped at last. The railway line was blocked thoroughly as well as cutting of signal and phone lines too. We had about half an hour to clear that bulky obstacle so the next train could pass uninterruptedly unimpeded.

A panic broke out! A messenger run towards the nearest station and watchers were sent far out to stop approaching trains well away from the accident. Comrades from all over run to help, crews with long hand saws (power tools were not available then) started cutting the trunk at several places and comrades with axes removed branches and route's appendages. As ropes still held the trunk the main objective was to cut of the bottom part of trunk and to push aside as well as the route' bulb. Crews on hand saws changed often and slits deepened but too slowly for brigade's commandant who rushed in shouting and crazy about what happened looking after Nikola who had vanished. Within an hour the trunk was cut in manageable pieces, rolled down next to the track and the route's bulb pushed over a wall into Bosna's riverbed. Railway's worker checked and repaired damages on rails, sleepers and signal lines after the signal went up and a passenger train passed unimpeded. The brigade returned to camp as the darkness was setting in already. The roll call passed in a dead silence after which everybody picked up his evening meal and ate it in a gloomy stillness.

Few days after this disaster the professor M. lecturing surveying and mapping visited the camp so I'd ask him to be examined. It was a sensation for my coworkers as nobody else was ready or thought seriously about any examination here. I got a day off and after the late roll call and meal my colleagues went to seat on trunks in the "arena" to listen to my oral exam in "Surveying III". This subject permitted an unwritten exam that consisted of professor's questioning that I'd tend to answer in length so the professor had to stop it after a while long. Turning to the audience M. asked whether I've passed the exam and what note should have earned. The audience replied with acclamation in unison: "Passed with ten!" So I probably was the only volunteer who passed an exam with the best possible note during the voluntary works in 1947 or at least in the brigade of CE students.

Close to the camp a group of specialized carpenters were working on the scaffolds for a new bridge of one span over the stream of Bosna river. Several colleagues helped them with the scaffolding erection but complained about standing in river's cold water for hours although they had rubber boots. It became better for them when one started fixing the shuttering for two big beams in which concrete would be cast as soon the steel reinforcement is placed. A large amount of reinforcing bars of different sizes were deposited near the bridge site including manually operating tools for cutting and bending. Thus the brigade got a new job to cut and to bend rebars according detailed drawings. As we would be civil engineers in sometime so it was thought it would be a good practice for us to work with rebars for a while - said the commandant. It was certainly a more interesting job as before although the cutting and bending thick profiles over 30 mm diameter was to be a rather hard task. As the bars were exposed to sun they got heated up so one couldn't touch them with bare hands. With simple gloves we'd protect our palms of heat and rust that was probably even worse of.

At first we started placing the lighter profiles of rebars for stirrups into the shuttering. Once these ones were in place next came the main rebars of 40 mm diameter of which some were 40m long and that had be carried on narrow board path fixed to shutters perilously high above the rushing river. The rebar's weight of nearly 400 kg was rather significant but it was even more difficult to prevent oscillation as a dozen of coworkers had to walk in a row moving rather slowly forward balancing on a narrow footpath over a rushing stream below. It was a scary job that didn't last too long for me.

The commandant called two of us both training light athletics in the same club to pack our belongings because we were seconded to a newly formed "sports' brigade". It was begin of 5th week of volunteering when two of us boarded a train that brought us to the new destination that was a small station near of Trbuk, not far away of Doboj at north. We found there another brigade's command post where we were instructed to erect a tent for us on a flat ground for that night. Next morning a few newcomers arrived so we started putting up a proper tent camp to accommodate tenants of newly formed "Sports brigade". We were supposed to train comrades in various sports at first after which they would return to their brigades as sport's referents. We started clearing terrain for various sports like basket and/or volleyball, football field, a running stretch etc. The main problem was the drinking water because we heard about an outbreak of typhoid in brigades around Bosanski Brod through which most of volunteer's brigade passed through. Talk to locals was my premise and we found a proper spring of water that sparkled a little bit and had a slight foul taste of sulfur. People came from afar and filled large bottles from this spring so we thought that it couldn't be as bad or unhealthy. When all these substantial problems were solved a near tragedy hit the nearby brigade where we picked up our meals.

It was dark already when a train stopped near brigade's camp and comrades were ordered to unload flat wagons full of rail sleepers. First sleepers were dropped next to wagons from where they were carted away to the stock. The sleepers were quite heavy so four men had to carry one with their bare hands - nobody told them that sleepers are freshly out of conservation plant that was using a bitumen derivative for it. Soon workers complained about burning pains so medics got a real troublesome problem that night. When we arrived to the canteen next morning there was quite a commotion in the camp and comrades showed us burns on palms and hands and no stop of lamentation. Brigade's CC begged us to show up our sportive spirit and finish stocking of sleepers. Seeing what has happened we decided to find some tools for carrying sleepers first. The station's master gave us some dozen of scissors' like handlebars that were the right tools for carrying sleepers and we completed the job in a few hours. We got a great commendation for our motivation that certainly was a confirmation of my full loyalty to the cause of "Building the New Nation". At the end of my 2nd year of volunteer's work I got the "Red Badge" that decorated every spearhead worker ("udarnik").

Our host brigade was thwarted in achieving its daily production norm so comrades of the "Sports' brigade" decided to join host's brigade decimated workers. The work was rather simple and similar to the one near Banovici but the terrain was flat and excavation easy in that loose soil. Soon I was "driving" a wheelbarrow ("wb") using a self made harness similar to the one of last year and other comrades made some for themselves too. The number of wbs rose well over the norm of 200 per day and the brigade's norm was achieved or even overrun that was another good reason for our citation at brigade's roll calls. The excavation work, filling and compacting of the rail bed progressed fast and we were coming closer to the "foul" spring fast. Now, we drank greedily the fresh water from this spring despite its "foul" taste as its slight content of carbon dioxide made it really appetizing.

There was a joke being told about this "foul" water as locals persevered that it makes men more potent too. A train with cistern wagons full of this "foul" water was stopped at the border. The custom officials checked the only closed wagon at the end of train that wasn't a cistern. When they opened the door they found a number of men seating inside it. "What are you doing here?" - asked the custom official and the men replied promptly: "We are the spare parts for the water transport!" The train continued to its destination where males to improve their potency awaited this special water. Later I heard that the "foul" water had dried out because one heedlessly excavated into the hill from which foot the spring produced that "special" water.

The epilogue

The return home was less spectacular then last year most probably because I haven't smelled so badly to our Doberman bitch this time or she was getting too old. We got the new outfit from the host brigade's stores when we left the camp first days of September 1947. At home I learned about the norm that each household had to produce 200 hours of voluntary work. My father didn't want to do it at all excusing himself because weak heart and stayed at home but mother went to volunteer. In truth father was an opportunist to all kind of political or demanding actions of any repressive regime since I knew him. As I had some time before going back to Zagreb I opted to volunteer working for the benefit of my parent's household. I went out accompanying my mother on the prescribed days to the dam construction at the left bank of Drava river. I knew well the dams there as they run for many kilometers dividing the marshland of Old Drava into several flood pools. The dam's crown provided a wide enough path for bicycle riding and we rode here disturbing couples in the natural affairs often. It was essential to drive fast and not to slip of the crown that wasn't easy or simple particularly at twilight.

I'm was running a wheelbarrow again and my mother was filling it with sand that there was plentiful of in the synclines between the dams. The only difficulty was driving the wheelbarrow up to the crown that was supposed to be lifted for a meter or so. Wheelbarrow's drivers "organized" boards and canvas cloth from old sacks and the daily norm was achieved soon. Thus I could help my parents adding many hours to their household's prescribed 200 hours of voluntary work to build the new nation too. Father was happy about his point of view that there is no regime that could "force" him to volunteer. Mother collected so many hours that she stopped going out to the dam construction even before I left home to commence my third study year during year 1947/8.
 
 


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Email Zvonko Springer at : zzspri@aon.at