A River of Oranges

Fiume has a unique place in the history of Europe, and Italy in particular. The official language of Fiume was Italian until it was ceded to Yugoslavia in 1947; but the majority of the population has Slavic roots, predominantly Croatian and Slovenian. Before I began this book, I thought of myself as Italian but through my research I discovered that my background is Slavic. I am Italian only by the fact that I was born in Fiume while it was under Italian rule. Similarly, my father was born in Poland but he was Ukrainian. He came from a disputed zone and so did I. Because of his place of birth, when we arrived in Novara he was able to be classified as an international refugee rather than an Italian. This opened our way to the IRO (International Refugee Organization) camps and the opportunity to emigrate to another country.

My wife Linda and I travelled to Fiume, by then called Rijeka, with our friends Erica and Nadia, in 1993. Civil war had erupted in Yugoslavia. The various republics within the state were at war with each other. Slovenia had seceded and hostilities had ceased there. Croatia was still at war with Serbia, but the conflict was far removed from Rijeka.

My father had cautioned against going because, as I was born there, there was a chance that I could be conscripted, even at my age of 56. I ignored the warnings and we traveled to Rijeka. There is no longer any rail service between Trieste and Rijeka, so we boarded a bus and had two borders to cross where before there was only one. We crossed the Slovenian border and saw evidence of the war in bombed-out houses. The Croatian side, where we visited, was free of conflict.

Our stay in Rijeka in 1993 was brief – two nights and only one full day. On the first night, the four of us were strolling along the waterfront when we heard an orchestra playing popular dance music from the 1940s. We followed the music to a beautiful baroque building. The building was in darkness except for the third floor, which was brightly lit. We ascended the curved marble staircase and made our way in the dark towards the music and laughter. I knocked on a door and when an elderly man opened it, I asked what the occasion was. He told us that it was the first gathering of Fiumani from around the world who had left Fiume during the exodus. When I told him that I had been born in Fiume and my family was part of that exodus, he welcomed us with open arms. He insisted that we come in and sat us down at a table. In no time, we had food and wine in front of us. Seated next to us was a couple in their mid-60s from Melbourne, Australia. We struck up a lively conversation. As we talked about family names, I discovered that the man had been my Uncle’s Claudio’s boss at the torpedo factory.

It was an emotional time for me. I heard stories of my family from people who had also been part of the exodus. It was a memorable night of great company, wine, food, and dancing. The next day, before we boarded the bus for Trieste, we walked through the historic centre of the city. It was wartime and the city did not look its best. We overheard a woman whom we had seen at the party the night before exclaim to her husband, “I see Fiume with my heart, not my eyes.

A year later, in 1994, I journeyed to Novara on my own and revisited the Caserma Perrone. It had become the headquarters of the northern Italian army and was under heavy security. The guard on duty took down the particulars of my passport and my driver’s license and requested a guard to escort me through the building that we used to live in. I hardly recognized the interior; it had been completely modernized. Climbing the marble steps, running my hand over the wrought iron railing and walking down the second-floor corridor, now much brighter and welcoming with its modern lighting, brought back an overwhelming flood of memories. I could clearly see the faces and hear the voices of long ago. Eventually, the guard accompanied me to the gate where I thanked him and we shook hands. I walked into the street that I knew so well and never looked back.

Linda and I traveled to Rijeka again in the summer of 2003. We spent seven days there and I was able to do extensive family research. We had gone to the hilltop town of Kastav, where my maternal grandfather was born. By chance, we happened to meet Mirela, head of the tourist bureau in Kastav. When I explained to her who I was, she beamed and said, “You have Kastavian roots.” In fact, I had been able to trace the family in Kastav as far back as 1723, which probably means that they had been there for centuries.

On that second trip in 2003, we met my mother’s 75-year-old first cousin, Nadi Skomerza. Nadi was a warm, wonderful woman with a wicked sense of humour. I will never forget our first meeting. She kissed me and hugged me and said, “the last time I gave you a kiss, you were just a little boy.” I melted. In an emotional voice, Nadi told us the story of how she’d helped her brother Renato and his Partisan friends by delivering food and messages to them in the night. Nadi (Croatian for Hope, but when Italy took control of Fiume she was forced to call herself Speranza) was a strong and passionate woman. She offered to take us to the cemetery where Renato was buried after being shot by the Germans, along with fourteen others. She had brought a bucket and sponges from home and, before she showed us her brother’s grave, she bent to wash the headstone.

We spent that entire day at the cemetery. Nadi showed us the gravestones of my grandfather and other members of the Rubessa family. Linda and I were surprised to find that the effects of the oppressive Communist regime were still being felt by Nadi more than 10 years after its demise. She cautioned us, as we were enjoying an espresso at an outdoor café, not to speak too loudly as we might be overheard.

In 2008, Linda and I returned to Rijeka, this time with my brother Wally and his wife Linda. It was an emotional time for my brother and me to be in Fiume together for the first time since 1947. We made our way to the sanctuary of Tersatto, where my maternal grandparents were married. Tersatto (now Trsat) stands on a hill overlooking Fiume. It is a place of pilgrimage that my mother visited often. On May 10 each year thousands of pilgrims converge on the site, most of them making their way up the hill on the long winding road, but many pilgrims climb the almost 600 steps, built in 1531, to the top. I had accompanied my mother and my Aunt Emilia on the road to Tersatto in 1946. I’d been impressed by the paintings of ships in stormy seas and my mother told me that they were donated in gratitude by the families of sailors who believed the Madonna had saved them from drowning.

My father died on February 14, 1999. Three months before he died, he had asked me to come to Toronto; he insisted on paying my airfare. We had not seen each other since 1993, when he had come to Victoria for my wedding. After my mother’s death in 1979, we’d had no contact whatsoever for almost 12 years.

I did go to Toronto in 1998 and found him just as my brothers described, a lonely man living in seclusion, withdrawn from everyone. He was frail and paranoid, in the early stages of dementia. I stayed with him for several days while I arranged for a medical assessment and his long-term care, should he ever become unable to function in his house alone.

It was a difficult time for both of us. He was full of accusations levelled at his three sons. I was desperate to find some light in all this darkness. During this visit, I connected with Erminia Burul who lived only one short block away. Erminia was married to my mother’s cousin, yet my father had refused her offers of help. Erminia and I attended Mass together. On one of these occasions, I prayed earnestly to a woman who had recently been canonized. Edith Stein was a Jewish woman who became a Catholic nun and died in the Auschwitz concentration camp. My rationale was that, if there is forgiveness and hope, a Jewish woman turned-saint, coming to the aid of someone as rabidly anti-Semitic as my father, would be the ultimate test.

That evening I cooked a nice meal. When my father and I sat down to dinner, I was astounded to see him looking 20 years younger. He was lively and in good spirits. He laughed and joked and told me stories of his early life and of his life with my mother; stories that I had never heard before. This went on for an incredible five hours. I was elated and, before retiring, I put on paper as much of the information as I could remember.

That five-hour window of light was the only positive time of my visit. The following day we were back to the prevailing gloom. A few days later, my father asked me to leave. We embraced and I left; we never saw each other again. On my way to his funeral, during a two-hour stopover in Vancouver, I wrote him a five-page letter. I wrote about our relationship and our differences. I also wrote how grateful I was for the sacrifices that he and my mother had made to provide a better life for us. I sealed the letter and, before his casket was closed, I tucked it under his arm.

I wish I could have told my father the whereabouts of his native village but I only found this elusive hamlet in 2016 using Google Earth. The village of Baikivtsi is eight kilometres northeast of the western Ukrainian city of Tarnopol (now Ternopil) where my grandmother Katarina filed the paternity suit against Professor Slowik. Baikivtsi now has a population of 1200; probably only double that of 1912, when my father was born. Baikivtsi had been the home of the Nazarko family for many generations; the village has been in existence since 1653.

I was not able to show my father his village of origin on a map during those five hours of lucidity on my last visit. But he, with a glint in his eye and that familiar smile from my childhood, told me exactly where my life had started. In the midst of one of his many stories that night, almost in passing, he said, “you were conceived behind the market in Fiume.”

During our visit to Fiume in 2008, I had gone on my own one day to videotape the city, while Linda planned to write postcards. We decided to meet later at our hotel. On my way back from filming, as I strolled towards our hotel, I didn’t notice Linda until she called my name. We embraced and had a good laugh. She was on a quest to buy me a gold cross and chain. We had looked in several shops but hadn’t yet found “the one.” On the spot where we met that day, adjacent to a specialty wine shop, was a hole-in-the-wall jewellery store. There we found the cross we’d been looking for. Linda put it on me and I have not taken it off since.

The wine shop beside the jewellers, as Nadi had pointed out to me earlier on that trip, was the exact spot where Elsa once sat in the window at her knitting machine – the same spot where the young Vlado first laid eyes on my mother.

Excerpt from A River of Oranges: Memories of a Displaced Childhood by Aldo Nazarko (Longbridge, 2018).

Aldo Nazarko was born in the Italian city of Fiume. His lifelong love of opera led him to host a weekly radio show in Victoria, BC. He also co-hosts CFUV’s weekly Italian music show and has been a dedicated fan of Pacific Opera Victoria for over 30 years. He lives in Victoria with his wife Linda.

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