Bolje Grob Nego Rob!
Better Grave Than Slave!
St Vitus Day

by Alma A. Hromic

July 1, 2002


The 28th day of June is the holiest day in the Serbian calendar. St Vitus Day, "Vidovdan" to the Serbs, the day most associated with Serbs and a day heavy with associations for them.

One of the most potent Vidovdans in history took place six hundred and thirteen years ago -- on Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds, that very battlefield which is so much a part of twenty first century wars of the region. This was the site of the battle which is the Camlann of Serbia, the final dark chapter of our Camelot legends, the fall of the Serbian kingdom. As the old folk poem has it:

From Jerusalem, the holy city,
Flying came a swift grey bird, a falcon,
And he carried in his beak a swallow.

But behold and see! 'Tis not a falcon,
'Tis the holy man of God, Elias,
And he does not bear with him a swallow,
But a letter from God's Holy Mother.
Lo, he bears the letter to Kosovo,
Drops it on the Tsar's knees from the heavens,
And thus speaks the letter to the monarch:
"Tsar Lazar, thou Prince of noble lineage,
What wilt thou now choose to be thy kingdom?
Say, dost thou desire a heav'nly kingdom,
Or dost thou prefer an earthly kingdom?
If thou should'st now choose an earthly kingdom,
Knights may girdle swords and saddle horses,
Tighten saddle-girths and ride to battle--
You will charge the Turks and crush their army!
But if thou prefer a heav'nly kingdom,
Build thyself a church upon Kosovo,
Let not the foundations be of marble,
Let them be of samite and of scarlet....
And to all thy warriors and their leaders
Thou shalt give the sacraments and orders,
For thine army shall most surely perish,
And thou too, shalt perish with thine army."

When the Tsar had read the holy letter,
Ponder'd he, and ponder'd in this manner:
"Mighty God, what now shall this my choice be!
Shall I choose to have a heav'nly kingdom?
Shall I choose to have an earthly kingdom?
If I now should choose an earthly kingdom,
Lo, an earthly kingdom is but fleeting,
But God's kingdom shall endure for ever."

Lazar chose Heaven.

One hundred years before Columbus discovered the New World, a tiny nation took a stand against the magnificent Ottoman Empire in its full glory. In what was to be one of the first of many such stands, the Serbs declared "Bolje grob nego rob!" ("Better grave than slave!"). Lazar's choice of Heaven over Earth was honored. The battle was a crushing defeat for the Serbs -- they lost 77,000 lives, and were plunged into half a millennium of slavery and Ottoman oppression.

But because of what Lazar had chosen, the spirit of the nation -- and the spirit of Vidovdan -- lived on.

Centuries later another Empire, ruled by the Habsburg dynasty, sent an Archduke from the throne city of Vienna to inspect the Imperial troops in what had become an Imperial conquest, the province of Bosnia. On June 28, 1914 -- Vidovdan -- a Serbian student shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the city of Sarajevo. He shot a figurehead of a foreign invader, in his own land, on the holy day of his people. Historians ignorant of the context and seeking the easy language of convenience would brand him a terrorist. In fact, the assassination itself was not the reason for the start of World War I, merely the excuse that the Austro-Hungarian Empire needed to light the fuse which had already been prepared. The Vidovdan of 1914 was another echo of "Better grave than slave."

World War I decimated the Serbian population. But the nation survived, pulled itself together, licked its wounds, and soldiered on.

World War II arrived less than fifty years later.

In at least one infamous massacre of the Serb population in what is today Croatia, the Croatian Ustashe squads came into Serb villages and rounded up the people, taunting the frightened women and children, "Do you know what today is?" and demanding an answer until someone said it was June 28, Vidovdan. "Indeed it is!" the Ustashe crowed. And threw dozens of men, women, children and infants into the chasms and deep crevasses that honeycomb the Herzegovina mountains. These caverns were excavated in the 1990s, with elderly survivors -- often a single survivor from a family of 18, or 20, or 30 people -- gathering around to exhume these bones and grant them, finally, a proper resting place and a Christian burial. In a harrowing TV documentary shown on Yugoslav TV recently, a human chain of these survivors stood in silence, with tears running down their cheeks, handing bags of jumbled bones from hand to hand, passing them down the line to be sorted into piles and coffins. One old man, who had survived all the horrors of the wars, could not take any more heartbreak. The scene where the human chain stands gazing at this frail old graybeard, lying open-eyed at their feet, dead from a heart-attack, is hackle-raising. These too are Vidovdan's dead.

For centuries Kosovo and its memories remained at the center of Serbian national consciousness and cultural life. Monasteries from the 12th, 13th, 14th centuries, jewels of medieval art, glowed in this landscape, a legacy of a long and rich history.

But then NATO came. And the treasury of the Serbian middle ages, the cradle of the Serbian spirit, was handed over to the vandals.

Since the arrival of NATO's KFOR troops in the region of Kosovo, close to a hundred old Orthodox shrines -- churches, monasteries -- have been dynamited, desecrated, destroyed, demolished. "So what if some old ruin is gone?" a KFOR soldier was on the record as saying. "It gives room for something new to be built in its place..."

But what is gone is irreplaceable. Take for example the Holy Trinity Monastery (Musutiste, Suva Reka), built in the 14th century. The monastery housed a collection of manuscripts ranging from the 14th to the 18th centuries. This included a hand-written Gospel from the 14th century. All of it is gone. In the second half of June 1999 -- note the date, we're approaching Vidovdan again, the date when Serbs are traditionally punished for being Serbs -- the monastery was dynamited, and completely destroyed.

In further desecrations of Vidovdan, even more recently, the government of the sycophantic Zoran Djindjic sold Slobodan Milosevic for the traditional 30 pieces of silver (which, somehow, never quite materialized, despite all Djindjic's best intentions) to the kangaroo court in The Hague -- kidnapping and handing over Milosevic on June 28, 2001. As if to make a point. If Milosevic was guilty of anything, he was guilty of sins against his own people, no more and no less. The kangaroo court has no jurisdiction over these. As it is, they've been struggling to keep up the evidence which will support the pre-ordained verdict of "guilty," whenever that is brought in. One almost has to wonder why the expense and the posturing of the whole charade in The Hague was ever necessary. Shoot the man now. (They were planning on it anyway.)

I tend to write in my native tongue rarely these days, and then only for special issues and/or occasions. Two years ago I wrote a poem for Vidovdan, to which I have the name "Kosovski vez" -- the "Kosovo embroidery." In literal terms, this is a very specific kind of needlework which originated and is commonly found only in this area. But I used it as a metaphor for other things. The poem seems to have remained appropriate. I translated it, in honor of Vidovdan 2002.

The Kosovo Embroidery

Here someone
lit a candle.
Incense billows from the monasteries.
Here they ploughed their fields.
Here they celebrated a wedding, and there is still
a ghostly echo of distant music.
Here they danced the kolo, and here
the children played.

Today only the wind blows through roofless houses,
softly sobbing.

Here they used to pass
beside the monuments of their tribe.
Here the women in black kerchiefs
in ancient churches talked to their God.
here, in times gone by, songs were heard,
and one's name was worn proudly.

Today only the mementoes sigh,
and memories flock.

Here, long ago, the roots were deep.
Here legends were wrought, and history was born.
Here the blood-colored flowers bloomed,
on this field we became ourselves,
from this place we took our pride and our memories
to feed us and to lift our heads high
when the world whispers evil of us, and when we are far from our land.

Today our cradle is guarded by foreign guns;
the hills are full of those who hate us.

And the ancient monasteries remain behind in the wake of our refugees,
abandoned and alone,
and Kosovo is silent
while the thin flames of tallow candles slowly flicker and die in the black dark night.

Original written Vidovdan 2000 (translation: Vidovdan 2002)

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Destruction and desecration of Orthodox shrines in Kosovo and Metohija

Serbian Epic Poetry (highly recommended)


Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her last novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, was published in September 2001 by Harper Collins. Hromic is an essential member of Swans. She maintains her own Web site (with Deck Deckert) where she provides information about her work and the professional services she offers: ButterknifeBooks.com

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Published July 1, 2002
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