Yesterday in Serbia, my mother Elizabeth Karageorgevic and her first cousin Crown Prince Alexander of Serbia welcomed the return of her parents, long since buried abroad, to the Serbian Royal crypt at Oplenac. The church of Oplenac, with its gorgeous frescos, is an important place in Serbian history where six generations of the Karageorgevic Dynasty are buried in marble tombs, including the Supreme Leader Karageorge, his son Alexander I, grandson King Peter I, and great-grandson Alexander II. And now, rightfully, my own grandfather Prince Paul and his wife, my adored grandmother Princess Olga.
In the spring of 1941, when my mother was still very small, the country then known as Yugoslavia was overthrown in a coup while her father Prince Paul presided as Regent. The family was obliged to leave, never to be allowed back, and so began a long wandering in search of a home elsewhere. In the early 1990s my mother, concealing her identity and using her new name as the wife of a Peruvian diplomat, visited her homeland. Instantly she felt a kinship and knew she had found her place on earth, and soon after, as the old strictures were relaxed, she settled in Belgrade.
Apapa, as us grandchildren called our grandfather, was a presence I remember fondly. Holiday time, along with my first cousins, was often in a large house outside Florence, Italy. In huge rooms we would try to hide from our Apapa, under piles of cushions out of which we had constructed forts, we would listen to his steady steps, the unmistakable sound of his walking cane giving him away, and we would tremble with anticipation. On approach he would bellow, “Qui que tu sois, quoi que tu fasse, tu seras puni!” (Whoever you are, whatever you’re doing, you’re going to be punished!) Apapa mostly spoke to us in French.
What my grandfather’s life had been all about were details I would not grasp until adulthood. All I knew was an old man, always impeccably and rather formally attired, with a stoop to his shoulders, and a walking stick in his hand. To me he was someone cozy, and funny, and warm, with his rumbling deep voice and ready smile. And yet he could strike a pose and make a face and become utterly terrifying, have all of us grandchildren shrieking and running for our lives.
Sasha Stankovic (Саша Станковић) left the following comment on my wall:
Prince Paul was a remarkable man who suffered a lot for his services to the Serbian people, especially in the April ’41 war situation. He is an example of royal … people conscious enough to understand [their] obligation towards [their] own nation and country are beyond daily politics. 70 years after many, many people here understand that his policy was clever and patriotic … let him rest in peace, on soil of his own.
To which I say, humbly, Thank You. Hvala. (Hvala- Serbian for thank you).