Of Art and Money Under Communism: Interview With Ljubica Vuckovic

Total Croatia News

An interview between Total Dubrovnik’s Miso Mihocevic and Ljubica Vuckovic. Ljubica and her CEO of the time were the first people in Croatia to manage to gain the rights to operate using foreign currency outside of Belgrade during a suspicious and centralised Yugoslavia.

Ljubica is the mother of my old friend. Some time last year my friend invited me for a casual lunch. As usual, Ljubica had prepared a full menu, the good old granny way, the kind of thing that takes you back to your childhood. My friend (her daughter), and I stayed on in the kitchen to have a smoke, and Ljubica withdrew to her room for her routine ”post-lunch” rest.

Not many minutes later, the door of the kitchen opens with quite some force, and there is Ljubica with a big shawl around her shoulders and a furious face: “Just now on TV, I mean, what is this? Where is this world going to?! Have you heard that about the education system in America?! This is crazy!” Ljubica worries about such things, she is only 87, afterall.

The other day, I got a friend request on Facebook, from none other than Ljubica! Defeated and eternally impressed by her curiosity about the world; I asked her for some time, just her and me, please. She sent me a text message and there I was. It was mid afternoon and her big kitchen was full of the scent of pancakes.

“I thought you would like something sweet after lunch. Here, I have filled them with two different marmalades”. Both marmalades of course, are home made from the fruits in her own garden. The house was silent. “Alone for a couple of days, at last. You know, people go to old people’s homes because they need peace, to be able to think about stuff undisturbed and have their own way with things”. Or, to be on Facebook.

“I was really fed up with writing letters, envelopes, stamps, going to the post office. My daughter thought I was too old for the internet and e-mails, and nobody around the house wanted to teach me, either. So I found a free course, one month, three times a week. I made some new friends there, we meet for a coffee, so that’s another good thing. New people are always interesting”. Not impressed by her own vitality like me, obviously. 

I had told her I was going to make our chat public, especially because of one big episode of her professional career (please, read on!). She agreed readily, but modestly (as always) added “Whatever you write, you are not allowed to make it feel as if I had done something because I was something special – it is the circumstances that make us do things; my time was the way it was, with wars, Communism, forced emigration, poverty… of the daily fights for a piece of bread, and literally so. Misery created me, made me a rebel, it taught me to fight, to generate energy from inside, to not be ashamed or afraid to ask, to find, to find out.”

Ljubica’s father, from a family of sailors from the Northern Adriatic, was wounded multiple times as a volunteer carried by the then fashionable pan-Slavonic ideas at the Southern Front in WW1. An invalid, he was remunerated by the new state of Yugoslavia with several hectares of arable land in the vicinity of Subotica (northern Vojvodina, today in Serbia). He got married to a girl from a wealthy Croatian family from Lika. Ljubica was raised in the endless fields, playing cheerfully in a very mottled, multi-ethnic environment.

”Just one day after my 11th birthday, on April the 6th, 1941, the Germans bombed Belgrade. Shortly after, Hungarian troops marched into our area, giving us 48 hours to leave. Stuffed in cattle wagons, we were transported to Croatia. I still remember the Croatian flag at the station at which we were disembarked. We thought we were in heaven.” 

After a very long journey to Zagreb, the young Ljubica and her family moved from the house of one close relative to another and finally settled with a distant cousin. 

“Who ever wants refugees? A couple of days of pity and mercy and that’s it. Arrange yourself!” 

Her mother managed to set up a small business in the form of a shop and life did not look so bad. Ljubica went to school and finished her elementary education in Zagreb. “Ah, it was great fun. The school was out more than not, because of air-raids, clashes, holidays or whatever. We actually only sat for exams. And I can tell you, I did very, very well!” 

Her father died in 1943 due to improperly repaired wounds from WW1, two years later the ”Independent State of Croatia’’ (NDH) collapsed together with Hitler’s Germany and its fascist allies. Yugoslavia, now a Communist system, was restored.

“The Communists ordered all the refugees back to their place of origin. So again, we were put in another cattle wagon, and sent on a seemingly endless journey back to Subotica. There we found our house totally pillaged, stripped most absolutely, even the floor boards were gone. Fortunately, in those 48 hours before we had to leave (Subotica), my mother had stowed away some things with some trustworthy neighbours. Among them, was her sewing machine. God bless! Had it not been for the machine, we would have starved to death. My mother sewed things for local people, and owing to that, I could go to school. The only real thing I still carry in my memory of those days is my desperate longing for a pair of normal ”girl shoes”, like those the other girls at school had, and who teased me mercilessly for my mountain or military shoes or whatever type they were. My mother could not afford new shoes and I felt terrible, both for the situation and for my mother”

Four school years went by and Ljubica excelled at the school despite her so-called ”non girl” shoes. The graduation ball ended up being truly memorable, especially for a girl who now owned (finally) brand new shoes! “Those couple of days I stayed with a friend in town. My mother had made me a beautiful dark blue evening dress, and I had a brand new pair of shoes. In those days, not all city streets were paved, in dry weather the city was covered with dust, under rain the dust turned into mud. Finally, the moment arrives when my friend and I; shiny, glittering in our beautiful gowns, left the house. But alas! Just a few metres from the house, my beautiful dress got hooked on some object in the street, I stumbled and fell over into the dust. You cannot imagine the tears I cried while my friend’s mother was trying to clean the dress of my dreams! Anyhow, we made it to the ball. I still wonder why is it that joy must be spoiled, but I guess that’ s how life is meant to be”.

Ljubica wanted to study chemistry in Zagreb, she was late to qualify but somehow managed to get into agronomics on a modest scholarship granted by a small private farm. The year was 1949.

“At the end of the first school year, the owner of the farm decided he was not interested in me anymore and I did not want to go home. I rented a tiny attic room with only one bed with a friend of mine who equally could not afford anything. My mother could only afford to send me very little money, and I started knitting and embroidering and had someone to sell it for me at the Central Market (Dolac). That could keep me, just about. No toil, no gain. Nothing in life comes for free.”

And no shoes, I guess. The graduate year, however, passed seemingly as if through a haze. Ljubica met a student of civil engineering, fell madly in love, moved in with he and his family and in a short time, got married.

“When I found out I was pregnant, my husband had to go into the Army. I decided I had to take my finals before I gave birth, and before he came back home. So in some six months I took 18 exams, one after another, and never failed at one”

One of her subjects was Economics in Agronomy. International aid to Yugoslavia was meagre rather than opulent at that time, but there was a project of assistance to individual farmers provided by FAO (www.fao.org). The newly placed and illiterate partisan bosses, unsurprisingly, did not know what to do with it. Someone thought of a brilliant student by the name of Ljubica. She was employed, worked night and day as well as doing the house work with the help of her dear in-laws. She went on to visit the small farmers in untrustworthy vehicles and on shabby public buses, where she worked on lists, budgets and accounts. Her new office was soon allocated to a bank. It was about money, at the end of the day.

“It is always about money. Remember, in the modern world, it is money that knows everything. It is money that predicts wars.”

It took me a second. Oil is money, actually, as we have come to recognise in recent wars and recent times.

Ljubica, now an Economist in Agronomy, became a bank official, climbing up the ladder quite quickly.

“I joined the Communist party as a student, well actually, I was joined to it because nobody asked you if you actually wanted to or not. But, indeed, life was easier in some aspects if you were a member. While my family, Croatian patriots, who could never reconcile with a life with or under the Serbs, did not take it lightly at all, some would call me bad names but I took it as my very personal problem. Such were the times, you know. We had to be foxy, in Croatia. You know that Croatia and Slovenia were the main contributors to the federal budget. Croatian tourism was the major source of the foreign currency trade, but all the foreign money was stationed in the central bank in Belgrade. We could trade, of course, but the way of doing business was pretty complicated. For each deal we had to beg the central bank for permission, but we never saw one dollar ourselves. We just had ‘the rights’ on so much of the currency, but that was only on paper. So one day, the then President of the bank decided he had had enough. He summoned me for a confidential conversation on the subject. Then he met some bank CEO’s in Slovenia, and soon we were on the way to Belgrade to lobby for our rights. Nothing political, just business.”

Ljubica continued…

“And then our almost weekly visits to Belgrade ensued, god knows how many. Lobbying was very difficult, they never liked us Croats. And the fact that I was born in Subotica helped a lot, they thought I was Serbian and deep down had sympathy for the Serbs. It was never mentioned, of course, but we knew only too well how they could not stand us otherwise. Each trip implied gifts. The ‘’comrade-ladies’’ in the offices loved our chocolates and sweets, and this main guy in one of those unnecessary, do-nothing offices loved whisky which back then was not so easily found, and it was not cheap either!”

Bootlegging will never die, it seems.

“Eventually, we were granted a document called ’’Superior Permission’’ and we could start doing our business abroad. But it took so many lunches, dinners, so may trips and repeated calls to the same offices. Then came the problem of getting our money back from yet another federal fund which both Croatia and Slovenia were feeding more than amply. The Serbs would, of course, first send the money to cover their subjects in Serbia, and we had to beg and call and beg over and over again – for our own money! Then at one of those infinite lunches, the main guy of that fund mentioned, and not without several deep, uncomfortable sighs, that his son had decided to become a painter, and that he could not sell anything and was practically living out of his father’s pocket. He was a Montenegrin, his family lived in Montenegro and he was restoring his old family house. Kind as he truly was, he invited us to visit. We did, out of our business interest, but we did not forget to take lots of paint he needed for the house.”

Paint covers anything.

“Then it dawned on me how we could finally get a grip on the situation. This guy, with the budding painter for a son, was the guy who decided where the money would go, I knew we had to find a way to his heart, not through any logics, fair business and that s**t. I offered to organise a big exhibition of his son’s paintings in Zagreb. He was besides himself with happiness, naturally, but I was aware that if the exhibition did not sell, there would not have been much use of it. So I called our business partners, one by one, and got them to buy a painting each. It was a sell out, the guy made lots of money, publicity and all that goes with it”.

The real beauty of art!

“Soon after, the situation reversed completely – my begging and asking and pressing him to please allocate some money from that darned fund, turned into his phone calls to me which always included the words: “Ljubica, how much do you need!?”

Times, they were a-changing.

“Then came the 1980’s, enormous inflation, changes in bank management, a pro-Serbian CEO, a huge scammer who later had to do with evaporation of some smaller local banks in Croatia, made the job utterly difficult. When he left we found heaps of our guarantees that were not entered into any book. The guys who knew business were not there any more. The banking system was falling apart, our bank was in high debts, was even blacklisted because it could not meet the dictates from Belgrade anymore. Plus those unregistered dues. Money was signalling something huge was around the corner. Money knows! Fortunately for me, I could retire at the very beginning of 1991. They wanted me in the new, independent Croatia’s ministry of finance, but I was worn out. And I could not watch as the holdings of our one time rich bank started to vanish.”

Money or material items?

“Both, I am sure. Just for instance, Miljenko Stančić ,who was one of our greatest painters of the last century, was friends with our CEO in the 1970’s, and the bank was buying his paintings almost as fast as he could finish painting them! Some paintings would arrive wet, even. God knows how many were bought, by the bank or by the people within the bank. Regardless of inventory books, I could witness their disappearing from the walls. People were taking just them home. I would feel sick. So maybe it was the art that decided upon the next step in my life, similar to what it had done to my career some 20 years previously. I can make more pancakes, if you want.”

Ljubica is by far one of Zagreb’s most impressive individuals, her insatiable lust for life and her boundless curiosity are the defining character traits, along with her incredible inner strength and intelligence, which took her down such an interesting, difficult yet rewarding path in life and gave her experiences which hardly come into the comprehension of most other people. Her acheivements, won through her dogged sense of determination, benefited the lives of many during an oppressive and paranoiac time. One can find no other emotion or feeling for this incredibly talented woman other than love and admiration.


Interview provided by Petar Miso Mihocevic of Dubrovnik, who can be contacted at: [email protected]


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