Another of his favorite themes was his monumental importance to the Fourth Reich. His records could not possibly be duplicated. And it was not just his records, he assured me. There were also the funds he personally controlled. Certainly the Party leaders would not like to see that money go up in smoke.
What money? “Nothing I keep about the house, you may be sure, Captain Tanner.” My rank had dropped again; perhaps the question had been impertinent. “Money tucked safely away in a numbered account in Zurich. Money that no Jews or Communists can ever take away from us. Money earmarked for Party activities throughout the world.”
How much money? I asked him that question more than a few times. It was not that he was evasive exactly, but that he gave me a different answer each time. The figures he gave me varied from a low of a hundred thousand Swiss francs to ten times that amount, a range in dollars of $20,000 to $200,000. I was sure it was closer to the top figure than to the bottom one. Twenty thousand dollars is a lot of money for an individual but a fairly small amount for an international political movement. I was fairly certain the funds he was talking about ran well into six figures, if in fact they existed at all.
The money gave me something to think about. I had to worm his records out of him once we reached Lisbon, but the records did not concern me personally. They were the bacon for me to bring back home to my nameless master. The money was something else again. I did not want to leave it for the Nazis, nor did I feel it ought to remain forever in the custody of a Swiss bank. The United States government, as represented by my anonymous chief, had no particular legal or moral right to it. It was at that point that I got a shade more interested in the job I was doing. Now, for the first time, it looked as though there might be something in it for me.
But that was the last chance I had to pump Kotacek about it. Because by then we were two and a half days into Yugoslavia, and shortly thereafter he did everything possible to get us both killed. Whereupon I fixed it so that he didn’t talk to me again for a while.
It happened somewhere south of a town called Loznica. It was morning, and we were eating breakfast in a farmhouse with two men whose names I did not know. The four of us were talking. It was one of those conversations in which I was speaking Serbo-Croat with them and Slovak with Kotacek. It could have been safe enough. I knew he didn’t understand a word of Serbo-Croat, and I never suspected that the taller of the two understood Slovak. But you can never take ignorance of a language for granted in that part of Europe. It is not safe, and I should have known better.
Our hosts were Serbs, very passionate Serbs. Their primary discontent with the national government stemmed from the fact that it was not wholly Serbian. They felt that Serbs and Serbs alone should run the country, and that those portions of Macedonia controlled by Greece should come under Serbian jurisdiction, along with considerable territory in both Bulgaria and Rumania. Pan-Serbian nationalism is old-fashioned but still has a certain charm for me, and I was seconding their arguments with just the right amount of Serbian zeal.
The problem grew from the fact that Kotacek thought our hosts were Croats. There is no logical reason why Croats and Serbs cannot get along together, but there are a number of historical explanations. The Croats are Roman Catholics, the Serbs Greek Orthodox. The Croats use the Latin alphabet while the Serbs employ Cyrillic. During the war, the Nazis exploited these differences to weaken the country by setting each group against the other. The experiment was not entirely successful; Yugoslavia was the first country in Europe to organize a Resistance, and the partisans gave as good as they got.
But some of the German puppet leaders did a lot of damage. The Croat leader, Ante Pavelic, organized his own SS and developed a final solution to the Serbian problem. Pavelic is supposed to have kept several bushels of human eyes in his office. He is supposed to have referred to them as “Serbian Oysters.” I don’t know whether he did or not, or what he may have used them for besides display. It is not the sort of thing I care to dwell upon.
But while I was agreeing in Serbo-Croat that Serbia ’s claim to the Greek portions of Macedonia was unquestionably valid, I was also nodding my head in assent as Kotacek said something like this: “The Croats were grand allies, believe me. They had an outfit called the Ustashis. Good troops, stout-hearted fighters. Killed Serbs by the thousands. I knew Ante Pavelic well; he’s in Argentina now as I recall. And another Ustachi leader, I don’t remember his name, but I believe he lives in your country, in California. Or he died recently, I don’t know, these are terrible times, all of the old men are dying…”
One of our hosts, the tall one, the one who understood enough Slovak to get the gist of what Kotacek had just had the bad grace to say, drew a gun. And pointed it at us. And held it on us, to Kotacek’s amazement and my distress, while he translated Kotacek’s ill-advised speech into Serbo-Croat. At which point we had not one but two persons in the room who wanted to kill us, which made, with myself included, three who wanted to see the last of Kotacek.
To top it all off, he was shouting in my ear. “What is this? What is it all about? I thought these men were our friends. I thought they were Ustashis. Didn’t you tell me they were Ustashis, Captain Tanner? Or should I say Lieutenant? Why is…”
I tried to explain. No one wanted to listen. The two Serbs were arguing over our fate. One wanted to kill us at once; the other wanted to find out more about us. We had come well recommended, after all. They wound up locking us in a windowless cellar, and there, with my trusty flashlight with its pencil beam, I put Kotacek once more to sleep.
When they came for us, reinforced with four more men holding rifles, I talked as quickly as I knew how. “I make no apologies for my companion,” I said. “He is a fool, a lout. You know that and I know it. I speak for myself. On July 23rd last year I donated twenty thousand Swiss francs to the Council for a Greater Serbia. The donation was made to an office in Paris, but there are men in Belgrade who will confirm it. Call Josip Jankovic. In Belgrade. Or get a message to him. The words I say to this scum with me are of no consequence. The words he says are of no consequence. You should know who your friends are. You must…”
I went on like that, and gradually they wavered, and finally they checked the story I had given them. It happened to be true, as they found out in due course, and ultimately they unlocked the cellar door and helped me drag Kotacek out of it. They thought he was dead, which pleased them no end. I saw no reason to change their minds on this score. I agreed that he was dead and convinced them, God knows how, that I had to take his body back with me. Since they had no particular use for his corpse they made no great objection. I was provided with a donkey and a cart and left that night.
So we got out of there with our skins. But Kotacek had done his best to sink our little ship, and he had certainly managed to scare the hell out of me. From that time on I did not give him a chance to screw us up again. I could not take the chance. For an old revolutionary, he had certainly forgotten how to keep his mouth shut. He simply could not be trusted, not with the infinite variety of hosts and helpers we had to make use of if we were going to get out of Yugoslavia.
From that moment on I kept him in his blue funk. Twice he came out of it, and each time I let him stay conscious just long enough to eat and drink and urinate and take his insulin. Then the light appeared and flickered in his red-rimmed eyes, and out he went again. He didn’t much like it, but then he didn’t have much chance to complain about it, either. He just stayed out, and he was better that way, much better.
We still had the donkey cart when we crossed into Greece, and Kotacek was still lying in the cart. So was I. Some bales of straw and bundles of vegetables were arranged artfully over us. A Macedonian named Esram drove the cart and used some of my money to bribe the border guards not to take too close a look at the cart’s contents. The bribe was accepted, the cart was passed on through, and we were in Greece.
It might have been a difficult border to cross but Esram crossed it all the time. He did not feel he was actually passing across a frontier at all. He was a Macedonian, and as far as he was concerned he was simply going from one part of Macedonia to another. That one part was said to belong to Yugoslavia while another part was said to belong to Greece, this was a matter of complete indifference to him. Someday he fully expected to lay down his life in an attempt to end this state of affairs. Macedonians had been dying in this fashion since time immemorial, and Esram expected to follow in the wake of his ancestors. Meanwhile he was content to follow his trade, crossing from Yugoslavia into Greece and from Greece into Yugoslavia, while never once leaving his homeland of Macedonia, crossing and recrossing a border in which he did not believe while smuggling contraband for profit and friends for friendship.
“You know,” he told me, “we have not forgotten you. In the village of Tetovo you are a hero.”
In Tetovo I had unwittingly touched off a one-day revolution.
“The town is rebuilding,” Esram said. “The government has sent experts to assist in the redevelopment, and there are new buildings to replace all that was destroyed. If you were to go to Tetovo today and tell the people that the time has come, they would level all the new buildings. You remember Todor, who died in the fighting? His sister expects a child and swears it is yours.”
“She speaks the truth.”
“That is good. I cannot go much further; I must return soon. We are a good distance from the border, but still in Macedonia.”
“Is it far to the train?”
“There is a train in Naousa. Twenty, twenty-five miles.”
“If you will ride that far with me, you may have the donkey and cart. They are of no use to me now, and if you do not mind the trip you may take them back with you.”
“I cannot pay for them, my friend.”
“I meant you to have them as a present.”
“You are kind. But you can sell them profitably in Naousa. The animal is old but still in good health, and the cart is sound. You might realize as much as-”
“I do not need money. I have more than I need. And I would want the donkey to go to a man who would treat her kindly, and not abuse her. She has been a good companion.”
“Better than the one in the back, eh? More lively?”
We laughed. He pulled out a goatskin pouch, wadded up tobacco, crammed it into the bowl of a cracked old pipe. He lit it and smoked and called in Macedonian to the donkey. Domestic animals in that part of the world must answer and respond to a wide variety of languages. What he now told the donkey was, “Keep walking, nice little donkey, and I will take good care of you.” Whether the animal heard or not, she most assuredly kept walking.
“She is evidently a Macedonian donkey,” Esram said. “See how nicely she obeys?” He laughed again. “I will be glad to have her. You are kind. And I will treat her well.”
At the railroad station in Naousa I bought two tickets for Athens. When the train came Esram helped me carry Kotacek inside and sit him upright in a compartment. “Too much wine,” we explained to a passing conductor. “He is old now. He cannot handle it the way he used to.”