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