This is the story of my great grandmother and a trip she took not for pleasure, but for survival.
Born in Serbia in 1894, the only daughter of a machinist, Anka Bojović was a strong-willed and independent child. She showed an affinity for teaching and finished her studies with ease. But the beginning of the 20th century was a tumultuous time. The First World War began, sparked by a swift Serbian bullet which took the life of the Archduke of Austro-Hungary. It changed her life’s course and set her on the trip of a lifetime.
When the Austro-Hungarian army retaliated against Serbia, they hit hard and the resulting occupation forced thousands to flee, along with King Peter and his troops. My grandmother was among them. Pregnant and unmarried, she joined the retreating army as a nurse and set out through Montenegro toward the mountain passes of Albania just as the cold set in. The winter in that region is harsh, so harsh in fact that half of those who tried to cross “The Damned” mountains (Prokletije) were left in the snow. Disease was rife and hunger an ever pressing concern, driving them to eat the horses that carried them. Anka was often forced to disguise herself and her growing belly, amongst the soldiers, wearing men’s clothes and stuffing her boots with newspaper to prevent frostbite.
Many weeks later, the army and refugees reached Greece and the sparkling shores of the Mediterranean sea, greeted by locals with oranges—a sight for hungry eyes. They were quickly ushered to the island of Vido, dubbed “The Blue Tomb” for the bodies of Serbs that were thrown into the sea when graves on land became scarce.
A poem “The Blue Tomb” by Milutin Bojić (my rough translation):
“Stop, royal galleys!
Drop your powerful masts!
I’m reciting a proud requiem
in the shivers of the night
above this sacred water.
Here on the bottom,
where sleep overcomes tired shells
and moss gathers on lifeless algae,
lies the cemetery of the brave,
lies brother next to brother,
Prometheuses of hope, apostles of misery.
Soon after, many of the survivors were shipped to other allied countries. In Anka’s case, she sailed for Algiers. They reached the French Colony just in time for her to give birth to a boy and for the soldiers to regain strength and later return to triumph at the Macedonian Front. But Anka’s joy was short lived. The baby Aleksandar (who my father is named after) lived for only 40 days and was buried at the Serbian military cemetery in Algiers.
Some time later, Anka was joined by her child’s wealthy father. It’s a subject of much debate in the family as to why he left her to fend for herself until then. They married in Algiers in 1916.
Eventually, they moved back to Serbia and Anka gave birth to a second child, my grandmother Ivanka. Not one to succumb to societal pressures, Anka ended her unhappy marriage divorcing her husband before her daughter’s first birthday. She returned to teaching to support herself and her little girl, continuing to travel from town to town and school to school, over the next 20 years.
I can only hope that her strength is hereditary, and I’m grateful to have the chance to tell her story.
1. Anka in Algiers (Photo by Tolédano Algiers, from the Janićijević family album)
2. Map showing the invasion of Serbia, September-December 1914.
3. Map showing Anka’s path from Serbia to Algeria
4. Serbian Infantry in new uniforms, 1914 (Source: National Library of Serbia, digital archives)
5. Serbian soldiers in Albania (Source: Musée des Arts Décoratifs, National Library of Serbia, digital archives)
6. Prokletije (meaning “Damned”) mountain range, also known as the Albanian Alps (Photograph by: V. Vujisić)
7. King Peter I in the Albanian mountains (Photograph by Bettmann/Corbis)
8. Serbian army retreating in winter (Source: unknown)
9. Topolianski bridge in Albania where the Serbian army suffered many casualties (Source: National Library of Serbia, digital archives)
10. The island of Vido near Corfu, Greece
11. Vido dubbed as “The Blue Tomb” (Source: unknown)
12. Algiers harbour, Algeria, early 20th century (Source: unknown)
13. Anka’s Certificate of Identity (in lieu of a passport) issued in Algiers on May 6, 1916.
14. Anka and Milivoje Simić (left) on their wedding day. Algiers, 1916. (Photo by L. Ménard & Co. from the Janićijević family album)
15. Anka as an infant with the father Radule and mother Jelena, Belgrade May 21, 1895 (Photo by Milan Jovanović, Royal court photographer. from the Janićijević family album)
16. Ivanka (far right) with relatives in Belgrade (Photo by Ljubiša Ćonić, from the Janićijević family album)
17. Medals Anka received in the Balkan and First World Wars.