Sunday, May 2, 2010

In Memory of Katarina

A recent posting discussion with a new Food Buzz friend has me waxing rather nostalgic.  This post is for you Vesna (Vesna's Fun World) because I said that I would take the time later to tell you the story of my late Mother-in-law and her fabulous Serbian Foods.  Her story however is so compelling that I decided writing it in a response to a post might prevent other people from seeing it (unless they were following that particular thread) and its something I think many would enjoy reading.

There is no better day to speak of Katarina, Katica (Kat-tee-za) than Mother's Day because in every way imaginable she was a second mother to me.  Yes, she was my mother-in-law for twenty years but she loved and treated me like a daughter and I loved her.  My oldest daughter is named for her grandmother.  We have always called her Katie but her 97 year old Serbain grandfather still calls her Katya or Katica...just like her grandmother.

Katica died in 2000 and shortly after her death, I filed for divorce from my ex...her son.  Maybe this sounds horrible but I had only stayed married for twenty years for two children and my mother-in-law.  My children were older and my mother in law died and I could find no more reasons to live with a man I handn't even LIKED in 15 years.  His father who was 15 years or so older than his mother is still living and he doesn't and probably never will forgive me for leaving but I still love the old man.  He was also very good to me over the years and I have many, many fond memories of the time when my Katie was small and we lived in their giant house in Chicago.  I am rambling however and want to get right to the reason for this post.

Vesna, I've been reading your Serbian recipes and find that most of them are pretty much the same as how I was taught to make them.  There is some variance between the ingredients in the Djuvic from region to region I think.  I have seen Gibanica made with strudel dough (phyllo leaves which my MIL, Kuma and myself made from scratch for 3 days straight and froze enough for the entire year) but I have also seen it made with wide homemade egg noodles in place of the phyllo.  Some Serbs like to sprinkle sugar on their Gibanica although personally I think that is ruining a perfectly fabulous savory dish!  For those of you who are not Serbian or familiar with Serbian foods, Djuvic (Juvich)  is a one pot dish (that will feed an army) composed of rice, chicken (although different regions may use different meats), tomatoes, vegetables and often cubed potatoes as well.  It is baked off in HUGE vats and unless you  have comapany of a Slava celebration, you'll be eating it for the rest of the week.  My FIL used to say that Djuvic got better after a couple of days.  Gibanica (Ghee-bon-eetza) is a savory cheese layered casserole.  Some people refer to it as Serbian Cheese Pie.  To me it more closely resembles a totally white, meatless lasagna but instead of lasagna noodles the savory cheese filling is poured between buttery layers of phyllo pastry and topped off with several more layers on top, brushed with more butter and baked until it's golden brown and puffed.  The top layers are flaky.  I'm salivating just thinking about it!  The filling for Gibanica varies from household to household in the old country.  Some, who had access to a lot of dairy (farmers or friend of farmers) made rich Gibanica.  If you were a city dweller, you might have only been able to get (afford) a little cheese.  In our household Gibanica was made with a combination of dry curd cottage cheese, rich sheep's milk Bulgarian feta, sour cream, cream cheese, and farmer's cheese all beaten with half a dozen or so eggs.  It's a cholesterol nightmare but it sure tastes good!

Pogaca, Kolac, Zito, Cevapcici, Kolacky, Kupus, Sarma are some of the more common dishes in any tradtional Serbian household.  Pogaca and Kolach are breads...the former tending to be a dense, flatter loaf while the ceremonial Kolach is a tall dense loaf used in Krsna Slava.  It's top is slashed in the sign of the cross and it is blessed, annointed with wine and a small piece is served to each person who stops by for Slava.  Slatko is a thick syrupy fruit concoction, usually the fruit of choice.  We often used cherries because my FIL had a cherry tree.  My favorite slatko was Quince however.  When you came to the Slava, you were given a spoonful of this extremely thick, sweet syrup with a chunk of the fruit, a bite of the Kolach and a spoonful of the Zito.  In our house you were also give bottomless shot glasses of homemade pear brandy...LOL  My FIL had 2 pear trees and he made enough pear brandy to last the year each time the harvest came in.  Of course there was too much for brandy alone, so we canned the rest and made Slatko, pear tarts, pear sauce ( like applesauce) and we STILL had pears coming out our ears!

Again I feel I need to explain before going on with the story.  Krsna(u) Slava(u) is the celebration of the family's Patron Saint Day.  The Djordjevic family patron saint was St. Micheal and our Slava was Oct. 31st.
This is a uniquely Serbian Custom.  All members of the same family (and often of the entire community back in the old country) observe together a day that is set aside to homor their Patron Saint or "family protector."
The veneration of the Saint is passed from father to son and is considered a tradtional, cultural inheiritance as well as a familial obligation.

 The custom is thought to have originated in Pre-Christian (pagan) times when families actually had their own family God.   Later when the Serbs were converted to Christianity they transferred this observance from a personal familial God to the Christian Saints.  They selected a Saint that had special meaning to the family or to the Saint whose celebration day was nearest the day when the family was introduced into Christianity.  The way in which Krsna Slava  is celebrated may vary slightly from region to region (as does the cuisine) but the basic concept is the same; edification of the family's Patron Saint.

Typically, the family will attend (together) the Orthodox Church early on the day of Slava.  They will return to the house and await the arrival of the Priest.  The priest will bless the Kolac and carve the top in the sign of the cross.  The bread is then sprinkled with the wine.  It is not however breaking traditon or dissalowed for the head of the household to cut and bless the Kolac.  In our house, it was always done by the priest who also blessed the Zito (wheat), sang (Orthodox Priests sing their prayers) blesssing throughout each room of the house while burning sme FOUL smelling insense! 

The ceremonial foods and other items on the table are specifically chosen to express the deeply religious concepts of the Slava.  The Koljivo or Zito (wheat) was established as the holiest and most symbolic because as a seed, it is the beginning of life...the nativity if you will.  Everything is born from seed.  The Slava Kolac represents an offering of thanksgiving to God for the his blessings upon the family.  Cutting of the Kolac in the form of the cross represents Christ's suffering for mankind.  Sprinkling the Kolac with wine symbolizes the cleansing of our sins by the shed blood of Christ.  The traditional Slava Candle represents the light of life and must remain lit throughout the entire day (we always had at least 3-4 slava candles laid aside so that when one was nearly spent the next could be lit from it thereby keeping the flame constant.  It was not extinguished until 1 minute after midnight).  The Koljivo or Zito is an offering to God for the fruits of the earth with which he has provided us for sustenence.

I hope I didn't leave anything out Vesna.  It has been many years since I've attended a Slava celebration.  After the ceremony there is a RIDICULOUS feast for which Serbian wives will often prepare for a week prior to Slava.  The Sarma...stuffed cabbage rolls, Djuvic, Gibanica, Pogaca, Strudel in three or four varieties, Kolacky (usually nut, apricot and prune), a whole spit roasted lamb or pig, homemade soup, name it and it was probably on the table! 

Now that I have prefaced this account with an introduction to the foods and a little of the culture, I'd like to tell Katica's story.  She was born Regina (Rey-gheena) Katarina Zahn of German parents but born inside the border of Yugoslavia.  This is important because later, when Hitler would come to full power and the Third Reich was established, Germans who were not born within Germany proper were distinguished (unfavorably) from Germans born in Germany.  I wish I could remember the name she told me they used when describing each.  I have googled it in vain...I simply can't find it.  These second-class German citizens were considered ethnic Germans since they largely practiced the customs, spoke the languages and married within the countries they were born. 

Katarina Zahn was the 3rd to the last of 11 children and her mother died giving birth to number 12 when Katya was only 3 years old.  Her mother was not even 35 when she died but my MIL once told me that she only had one memory of her mother.  That was of her lying in her deathbed with coins over her eyes and she was still.  So very still...which Katya believed was the reason that memory stayed with her.  Probably the only time the poor woman was ever still in her brief life.  She says the midwife brought the children to the room to kiss their dead mother goodbye.  She remembers her old grandmother (father's mother) holding a squalling infant and the sickening smell of perfume.  The had no way to keep bodies cold back then and she had been "layed" out on her bed for a couple of days, they now awaited the gravediggers to come collect her.  Throughout her entire life Katya HATED the smell of any perfume and she wasn't crazy about the smell of some flowers. 

Her youngest brother, the baby, died two weeks later of starvation because there was no milk and no wet nurse.  He had never even been named.  He was buried in an unmarked grave.  Katya's father was a harsh, mean man and often made the children kneel on rice as pennance for the sin of being born (that's what she used to tell me).  They were the only children in their strict Catholic school who came to class barefoot.  The nuns would spank the palms of her hands with canes for not having shoes.  She often told me that she never understood why God punished helpless children that way.

At the age of 7, the unthinkable happened.  Their one remaining parent, tyrannt though he was, died.  Elevan orphans, from 5 to 15 years of age.  Martin (Mar-teen), the oldest, was taken by some remote family memeber in Austria who did not want the smaller children.  Katya would not see him again until she was 18 years old.  The rest of the children were sent to the Catholic Orphanage but lack of funding and compassion from the Catholic Church soon had them homeless again.  The children were divided among anyone who would take them.  Katya was now 9 and sent to live with a childless Serbian/Hungarian Doctor and his wife to be their house servant.  She often said that from the age of 9 years old, she earned every piece of bread she ever ate.  Even though she worked very hard she said the doctor and his wife were good to her.  The woman taught her to sew, cook, embroider and she wasn't barefoot any longer. 

Katya never went back to school after 5th grade but she was an extremely intelligent girl and picked up just about anything with an uncanny grasp and ability.  She was already fluent in 4 or 5 languages before the age of 10; German, Serbian, Hungarian, Croatian and maybe Polish at this point.  She went from just helping in the house to helping the doctor in his office.  She thought this would be her home until she was old enough to have a home of her own.

When Katya was 12 years old a new person came to live in the Doctor's house...a 17 year old nephew.  The doctor's sister had died and her son was now their responsibility.  The boy basically had his eye on the little orphan girl from the first day.  When one day the doctor's wife heard her screaming and caught the boy trying to molest her, she knew Katya would have to be sent away for her own protection.  She told me that she grabbed the woman's legs and threw herself at her feet, crying and begging not to be sent away and that the woman cried too because she didn't want her to go.  In the end there was no recourse.

The doctor had a very interesting and noteworth patient at this time.  This man was the personal valet of the young King Peter of Yugoslavia.  When Peter's father was assasinated at the outstart of WWI, he was just a small boy and a regent had been appointed, his uncle I believe.  Now he was 14 or 15 and treated  more like a monarch, he had his private valet.  This man lived at court with his wife and small children.  His children, he told the doctor, were sorely in need of an older child to help them with their studies and be a companion to them.  Katya was brought before the man and he saw immediately what a quick wit and humble demeanor she possessed.  She was sent to live at the Palace of King Peter and be the companion of the first man's children. 

In order to be able to help them with their studies, Katya was forced to sit in their classroom and learn whatever they learned.  What an ironic twist of fate that a poor orphaned girl with second class German citizenship who was punished for coming to school with now shoes was now being educated in the Palace.
It was here that she picked up at least 3 more languages; Checz, Romanian and Russian.  She may have begun to learn English at this time but I don't know that for sure.  When she was not needed to mind the children she was sent to the kitchen to help the cooks.  She learned to cook from men and women who prepared the King's food.

These years passed without much incidence here.  Katya did have some contact with her 10 year old brother Peter (who had been named for the boy King) and at least 2 of her sisters, Raezi and Rheetzi (I know Im not spelling those right) and possibly a third, Anna.  But the tenuous connections have been lost in my mind over the years.  I don't really rememeber how she said she came to find and connect with them. 

When King Peter turned 17 he more or less took the reigns of what was to be the last monarchy of Yugoslavia.  Katya was probably 14 at the time.  When the war came,  Yugoslavia with no army of its own threw it's hat and it's loyalties into the wrong arenas and King Peter and his staff and court were forced to flee the country and take asylum in England.  Yugoslavia was divided, never to be a kingdom again and ripe for the picking for Marshall Tito. 

Katya left the palace and went to live with her sister Anna in a small town within the sector of Yugoslavia that eventually fell under Russian control.  She was 17 when the borders were locked, engaged to man who like many Serbs left to be a merchant solider in someone else's army.  She never heard from him again.  She and Anna and their brother Peter eeked out an existence the best way they could.  Katya repaired holes in the soldiers socks and uniforms for food.  Anna had a secretarial job of some kind in the city and Peter was dying from TB.  They didn't have enough to eat and the sisters knew that their little brother had no chance without more nourishment.  Anna bought bread on the black market and hid it in her coat.  She was caught by the Russian soldiers and beaten, raped and left for dead on the side of the road.  She lived a couple of days.  My mother in law told me stories of babies snatched from their mother's arms, tossed into the air and "caught" on the ends of Russian bayonets ( I don't think they called their guns bayonets but you get the idea,,,guns with swords on the ends) for SPORT.  The traumatized mothers subesquently gang raped and murdered in the streets.  She said nothing or no one can know how horrible the Russian soldiers were unless they survived it first hand.  She never admitted being raped herself but always believed that she had been.  She said their brutality knew now boundaries and respected no ethnicity. 

In the months after Anna and Peter died, plans had begun to be made to smuggle 18 year old Katya out of the Russian sector by her brother Martin, now a captain in the English Army.  The plan was to put the girl in a wooden box (much like a coffin) with air holes in it and bury it under the coal in on of the coal cars that transpored fuel across borders and check points.  The Russians were well aware that people tried to get out this way and since unloading the coal at every check point was not feasible, they simply opened fire on the coal piles at every stop.  The journey was two days and more often than not, the refugees were dead either from gunshot or asphyxiation by the time they got out.  Katya suffered neither fate and when the train finally crossed into the English sector she was dug out of her coffin.  Dazed, starved, covered in her own waste, black from coal dust and traumatized...but alive.  She said that she kissed the ground the Enlish soldiers walked on...and the Americans too.  She said the American soliders gave them food and treated them with dignity and kindness and she never feared for her safety from the English or the Americans.  It's hard for me to tell this story without seeing her face and hearing her thick German accent and truely knowing what this woman survived in her life because she wore that life in her gaze.  If you didn't know her, you assumed she was just a hard, cold old German lady.  But if you knew her understood. 

She passed the rest of the war earning her food and board sewing and mending soldiers uniforms...English and American soldiers this time.  She found her friend Ingrid that she had known since she was a small child living just a few blocks away.  They remained friends over the rest of their lives...through interment camps for displaced persons, steerage passage across the ocean to America, years of hard work in sewing factories in Cleveland and finally to Chicago.  Ingrid was the only piece of Katya's childhood that survived and she never took her for granted. 

I get ahead of myself though.  They survived the war and its rations and deprivations and blackouts only to find that when it was over, they could not go home.  Germany didn't want her because she was a second class citizen born in Yugoslavia and there was no Yugoslavia to go home to.  Tito closed the borders and nobody got in or out.  Ingrid married an American Soldier named Calvin and they waited in the Nuremberg Camp for Cal's tour of duty to be up so they could leave for America.  Katya worked in the kitchens, feeding the refugees and soldiers alike with no idea where she would go or how she would live after this was over. 

Men and women, even the married were not allowed to cohabitate.  There were mens barricks and women's.  In the men's quarters Cal met a Serbian man serving as a Guard in the English Army...assigned to guard Nazi war criminals until their trial.  His name was Radasin Djordjevic and Rade' (Rah-day) had his own story to tell.

The only male of a very wealthy Serbian landowner who left to fight in WWI and never returned.  His mother arranged his marriage to the only child (daughter) of the next wealthiest family in their villiage when he was 14 years old.  Their union made him the head of an 8000 ecter (I don't know if I spelled that right but he once told me it's a land measure that equates to about an acre and a half in our terms) nursery and sheep farm and head of the two combined households when he was 15 years old.  His wife bore two daughters by the time she was 16 and twin sons at of whom died at birth. 

When the war broke out, Rade' , like many other Serbs wanted to fight for their country but having no army they did the next best thing they could think of...join the forces who wanted to keep the Nazi's (or the communists) out.   That was by and large the English army...and they were paid for their services.  His widowed mother and the widower father of his wife, took Ranya and Rade's children and hid out in the mountains outside Belgrade.  But they needed more food than they had and Ranya stayed in Belgrade to work.  The city was heavily shelled and Ranya was killed.  

Rade' was later captured by the Germans and spent 3 years in a prisoner of war camp.  The end came and he had survived and was freed.  But he could not go home and he could not get his family out.  He was sent to Nuremburg to finish his tour as a guard and await the settling of his papers so he could decide where he wanted to go.  Cal and Ingrid conspired to introduce him to Katya who was n her early 20's by now.  Rade' was in his mid 30's

She told me they met for coffee in the camp cantina and they talked a bit about what they planned to do or go.  She said she had a sister in America who was working on getting her a visa but it was hard because they were not accepting single people at the time.  Rade' said he had a sister in Canada but Cal and Ingrid wanted him to come with them to America.  She said after about an hour he looked at her and said, (in Serbian), " are a nice girl and I'm a nice man.  How about you marry me and we can go to America?  I make you a deal...if you don't like me or I don't like you...when we get there we can go away from each other and no worries ok?"  She said she almost got up and ran from the table thinking he was crazy.  But later, alone in her bed she began to think that she had nothing, nowhere to go, nothing to go back to and why not?  She checked around with everyone who knew him because her one concern was that he had lied about his wife being dead because so many soldiers did that.  It just so happened that there was a woman in the camp who knew Ranya and vouched for the fact that she was dead.  They sent for a letter from her father and he wrote back confirming that his daughter was indeed dead and he gave Rade' his blessing to marry.

She only had one was black wool and she wore it to marry Rade'.  She told me later that she returned to her quarters and threw herself on the cot and cried the rest of the night because she couldn't believe what she had done.  They finally secured passage to come to America (steerage) and the journey took six weeks. Men and women were kept seperate beause they did not want DP's "breeding."  She had never spent one night in her husband's bed.  They arrived in New York and Rade' asked her what she wanted to do.  She said, 'well, you're ok, I'll stay with you and we'll see how it goes."

They eventually moved to Chicago and in 1955 and bought a huge old house (24 rooms) that at one time had been owned by the infamous gangster Al Capone.  The house was in disrepair and they worked for several years to repair, remodle and eventualy turn it into 4 apartments.  My ex husband and his sister were born in that house, my oldest daugther was born there, his sister died there in 2000 at the age of 38 years old...a life long juvenile diabetic and 15 year IV drug user...she died in her bed in the same room she grew up in...Katya found her. 

Katya health had been failing for years.  She was 73 and had already had two strokes and suffered chronic COPD and bouts of conjestive heart failure.  The day she found Svetlana (Shirley) dead in her bed, she never spoke another word.  By that evening she was nearly catatonic.  My ex husband (who was a pilot) flew to Chicago (we lived in Kentucky by this time) and when he saw her, he picked her up and carried her to the car and took her to the ER.  She probably suffered another stroke we don't know for sure.  She lived for 2 weeks after Shirley died...never having spoke another word to anyone. 

I left out SO much.  The years that we lived there and all the memories we made in that house.  The things she taught me and the lessons of life she showed me.  Her son and her daughter never wanted to hear her stories...but I did.  They always told her, 'mom that was your life and it doesn't have nothing to do with us...we're tired of hearing it."  She used to tell me that she was so glad that someone wanted to know about her life and she was happy that it was me because she knew her granddaughter's would eventually know their grandmother's story. 

I may regret many things in my life...including being a stubborn dumb KID of 18 who insisted on marrying a 26 year old man that still let his mama make his bed.  But, if I  hadn't, I'd have never had the children I have.  I would have never learned some of the things that I know.  But most importantly I would have never had the privledge to know, love and be loved by Katica (Katya or Katarina...she would answer to all).  I would have never divorced my ex husband so long as she was alive.  I couldn't.  Twenty years is a LONG time to live with a man you don't like because you love his mother.  The only regret that I have is that I was not by her side on the morning she one was.  My ex and his father were looking for a house to buy so they could leave chicago and come to Kentucky when she got out of the hospital.  I kept telling him to can look later...but he thought there was time.  I'll never forget that morning in the kitchen when he called to get his daily report and they told him she passed away at 7 that morning.  In truth, I always blamed myself that they were stil in Kentucky instead of Chicago...with her...where they belonged.  If I had just waited before telling him I wanted a divorce...maybe he would have been THERE and in Kentucky (with his dad for backup) trying to bully me into not divorcing him.  Who knows.  I hope that she knows and understands.  I feel in my heart that she does but I would go back to that week and leave him and his father sitting in my yard by the grill on their butts for a chance to be by her side she passed.  Some things you just can't get over.

Happy Mother's Day Katica (Mom).  I love you and will always miss you!


  1. Very moving post, a great tribute to her.

  2. That was so nice to write for her. That was touching.

  3. Thank you both...she meant a lot to me.

  4. What a great tribute to yoru mother in law!!
    thanks for sharing such a great story, I can see why you are working on her recipe's

  5. thanks Dennis...she was a remarkable lady!

  6. what a wonderful read, God bless you and the memory of Katarina

  7. I am moved by your expression and honoring your mother in law. Beautiful post!

  8. What beautiful and admirable gesture on your part to honor your mother-in-law! It was a great read and thanks for sharing. :)

  9. Thank you everyone. It means a lot to me to see that her story can touch people who didn't even know her. I appreciate the comments and am very pleased that I can share.

  10. Thank you, Jill, for writing about your mother-in-law. You were a good daughter-in-law. Thank you for sharing her story.

  11. Good to see a great relationship with mom-in-law.

  12. That must not have been an easy story to share. I found reading some parts of it difficult - it paralleled stories my grandmother used to tell me about the Japanese occupation of Singapore, when she was a young and very frightened mother.

    I am really touched by the depth and closeness of your relationship with your mother in law. Believe me, that is so rare and you were truly blessed. A wonderful, equally heartbreaking and heartwarming story. Thank you for sharing.

  13. Thank you Denise...and you are right, it is a hard story to tell. The really amazing thing about her was that she never told these stories like she was a victim. Her attitude was always one of the VICTOR. She had no patience for people who blame their failures and shortcomings on having a hard childood. She always used to tell me that only weak people need excuses. The strong will rise above any hardship.

  14. What a touching and fascinating story! Thanks for sharing.

  15. Thanks for sharing a beautiful story. Many of our grand parents
    went through hell during World War II,
    We all have much easier lives, thanks to their sacrifices.


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Fort Myers, Florida, United States