My aunt Julka died this week. My father called to tell me last night.
Julka was 78 years old, and lived with my cousin Steva and his wife Mira in an apartment on Mišarska Street, right in the middle of Belgrade. She had worked as a maid for most of her life--“looking after rich people,” as my father puts it--which is how she came to live there.
Before the start of the Second World War, Julka worked for a Jewish man who owned the apartment. When the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, reducing great swaths of Belgrade to dust, the man fled, leaving the apartment to his young Serbian maid.
After the war, Julka married my uncle, Žika, and had two children by him, Steva and Jovan. Žika had fought with the Partisans during the war, and, according to my father, he was the never the same since. He drank heavily and flew into violent rages, which Julka was often the target of. His sons grew up watching this and seethed.
When Steva was a teenager, he confronted his father, beating him to within an inch of his life. Steva then ordered Žika to leave the apartment and to never come back. Žika did as he was told. No one in the family has heard from him since.
Steva did a stint in the Yugoslav army, then became a taxi driver. He married Mira soon afterward, and they had a daughter, Jelena. The three generations lived together in the apartment, as did, for brief periods, my father and his sister, Ljiljana. Ljiljana would go on to live in her own apartment in Banovo Brdo, a suburb of Belgrade, while my father made his way to Canada.
Whenever I visit Belgrade, Steva comes to pick me up at the airport, and we drive to the apartment on Mišarska Street. Steva is my favourite relative, with his shock of thick, white hair and armsful of pale blue tattoos. He smokes like a chimney, swears like a sailor, and laughs like a hyena, all proudly and often. His taxi is falling apart but he knows every vein of his city, which he navigates by feel.
Julka would be there when we reached the apartment, tiny and frail but still very much at its helm. Already, Turkish coffee steamed in small, white cups on the kitchen table, beside plates heaped with sausage and cheese and thick slices of bread. As soon as we had finished eating, a crystal ashtray waited for our cigarettes, which instantly filled the tall room with smoke.
I always felt welcome there.
It’s been three and a half years since I was last in Belgrade. Steva is still driving his cab, but Mira lost her job when the state-owned company she worked for was privatised. Julka never received a pension because she worked “privately,” so the family gets by on Steva’s cab fares and the money Jovan sends from his job in Greece. It’s hard for them, my father often says, as it is for so many others there.
To save money, they stopped heating the apartment with electricity, which became prohibitively expensive after Milošević fell. Instead, they use the coal stove that Julka learned to oil and clean before the Second World War. My father says that she was really good at it, a perfectionist. No one else could clean things like she could.
When Julka finished cleaning the stove last week, she opened the door to burn the oily leaves of newspaper she had used. The fire caught her sleeve. When Mira rushed in, Julka was covered in flames, which blackened the ceiling of the apartment. Mira seared both of her arms trying to save her.
Julka died in hospital the next day. My father sent Steva money for her funeral, which the family could not otherwise afford. My father always sends money home for funerals.
I asked my father what will happen to the apartment on Mišarska Street. He said that the Jewish man’s son is still alive, and that it will return to him when Steva and Mira are gone. I wonder how it is for them now, living in the apartment where Julka died. And I can’t help but wonder if they still use the coal stove.