Jul 2004 Journal

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Filling in a blank on the map

The other day my son announced that he intended to take his family to Croatia for the summer holidays. It was obvious that to him, and them, Croatia was just another location offering sun, sea and sand on a par with Minorca and Corsica.

I asked myself: where had I gone wrong? How is it that he doesn't know about the Croat component of his ancestral homeland, Austria-Hungary? Of how in 1848 the Croat general Jellacic reconquered rebellious Budapest for Franz Joseph - an action that saved the Habsburg Empire from falling apart?

In addition to being intrepid soldiers, Croats were also snappy dressers. They invented an elegant item of neckwear known as the cravat, deriving from the name of their country.

In Austria, on the other hand, the term Krawot, of identical derivation, was synonymous with vagabond - a symptom of the Slavophobia rife in the country.

Under the Double Eagle, Croatia nested quite comfortably between Bosnia and Slovenia - two Habsburg provinces which, for me, personally carry bitter-sweet associations. My great-uncle Jakob served as postmaster of Sarajevo (the Bosnian capital) in the 1900s, and it was to him that I, an enthusiastic teenage philatelist, owed the most valuable stamp in my collection.

I had no such connection to the Slovene capital Ljubljana, formerly Laibach, which, as some readers may remember, figures in the punch-line of a hilarious half-Yiddish joke.

I do, however, have another family association with Croatia. My parents honeymooned on the Adriatic island of Rab and I have a romantic notion that I was conceived there. Close by is another 'monosyllabic' island whose name - in one of the quirks the Slav language is capable of - consists only of consonants: Krk.

It was on Krk that as a seven-year-old I spent my last holiday en famille. (The date was 1931 and my father had just lost his job.) On that trip I first learnt how sparingly the Southern Slavs use vowels: Serbia they call Srbska and Croatia Hrvatska - an agglomeration of letters that could have come straight off an optician's reading chart.

Hrvatska is the origin of the surname Horwath, whose most famous bearer is the playwright Odon von Horwath of Tales from the Vienna Woods fame. In typical Habsburg Empire fashion, he was born in Italian Trieste to a Hungarian father and wrote in Viennese dialect.

The seed of this multiculturalism fell on stony grounds in troubled interwar Yugoslavia. In 1934 a Croat Ustasha Fascist killed the Yugoslav king, and in 1940 a triumphant Hitler created a Croat puppet state. In it the Catholic Ustasha ran Jasenovac concentration camp as a Balkans Auschwitz, in which thousands of Orthodox Serbs and Jews were done to death.

So, maybe, it's just as well that to my son's family Croatia will just make a pleasant change from Corsica. They will encounter a landscape, and seascape, of great natural beauty, touched here and there by the magic of Imperial Rome or Renaissance Venice.

Pula (Pola) has an impressive Roman amphitheatre. The great Adriatic port of Rijeka owed its previous name, 'Fiume', to the river - flumen in Latin - flowing through it.

The delightfully positioned Split was once called Spalato - from the palazzo the Emperor Diocletian built there. Further south lies Dubrovnik, a veritable jewel (with an ancient synagogue) damaged in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. It was once called Ragusa, which mutated via some strange syllable shift to 'argosy', Shakespeare's term for merchant ship in The Merchant of Venice.

Maybe the best way to view Croatia is through a wide-angled lens. After all, the Croats have been there for many centuries and behaved like savages only in the early decades of the twentieth. It's just our ill-luck to have been alive at the time.
Richard Grunberger

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