Reading up on the Balkans

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From the time Yugoslavia began to explode in this decade, I have wanted to better my understanding of the passions that drive events there.

Nadine GodwinA New York Times columnist recommended Rebecca West's "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon." However, I found that 1,150-page tome, while full of historical material, loaded with personal opinions and unreliable sweeping generalizations.

Last month, I turned to "A Short History of the Yugoslav Peoples," written by historian Fred Singleton.

It is a coincidence that Joe DeFilipps at Holiday Travel & Cruises in Lexington, Neb., lent me "Four Years Behind the Iron Curtain," by former State Department employee Steve Cebuhar. I temporarily set aside the scholar's work for this first-person account.

Cebuhar, born to Croatian immigrants, spoke the language of his parents fluently. He worked in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow during the last year of World War II, when Averell Harriman was ambassador and George F. Kennan was counselor. (He lived at the National Hotel; when visiting Paris, he stayed at the Crillon.) Then he spent a year and a half in Yugoslavia, first in Belgrade, then in Zagreb, followed by a year and a half in Poland.

He vividly describes post-war scenes of destruction in Europe, was witness to the "free election" that put Tito in power in Yugoslavia and recounts run-ins with the secret police in all three countries.

Cebuhar also tells how, without the sanction or knowledge of the State Department, he helped five people escape to the West. All came to the U.S.; one teenager became a history professor at Berkeley.

Beyond his immediate family, all his relatives lived on the Adriatic Coast; he visited them several times.

This book is not literature. Also, it does not, nor was it meant to, address my prime questions about the Balkans. But it is a compelling personal story. Besides, I knew Steve Cebuhar. I did not know him well, but his wife, Peggy, whom he married in Gdansk in 1947, was a colleague at the Des Moines Register. Steve spent 11 years in the foreign service, after which he and Peggy returned to their home state, Iowa.

It was Peggy who recommended I use a travel agent. That's how I came to buy my first international air ticket and a Eurailpass from Steve, who operated World Travel in Des Moines. I left Iowa soon after; now both Peggy and Steve are deceased.

When I worked with Peggy, she talked a bit about their experiences overseas, but there was plenty in the book I had not known. I regret I did not have the foresight to ask more questions when I had the chance.

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