I woke today startled to realize Stanis died ten years ago this month. The years pass too fast. They don't give us enough time to put all the pieces into the pot and draw them out when we're ready to understand their complexity. Instead, memory serves itself up half-cooked, seasoned with our biases and selective remembrances. It puts them all in front of us and says "Eat this!"
And so tonight I will eat from my past and draw out one of the most unlikely people I ever imagined I'd one day call "friend."
I didn't like him when we first met. He seemed dark, petulant and distant, like someone observing the room and making lists of everything in it in case there was a quiz afterwards. I was in a small conference room in downtown Bellingham listening to the reason I was there, a woman named Anna who was so passionate about world peace that she was going to the roots of hate to reset the planet.
She had handpicked those of us in the room to take part in that resetting. We were all children of war. Some of us had parents who either perished in the camps, or who managed to survive by some miraculous unknown that spared them what befell everyone else. The others in the room were the children of those who had put them in the camps.
To say you could literally feel the air in the room was the grossest of understatements imaginable. It was why Anna believed if she started with us, if she stopped the seeds planted inside us from our parents, intentionally or unintentionally, then she could begin the process of ending war forever.
Throughout all the dialogue that followed, the anguish of trying to share what most of us only knew small bits and pieces of as told in unguarded and often drunken moments, Stanis sat without saying a word. Every once in a while he would lean over a small notebook and write a word or two. But nothing seemed to touch him. Not the tears. Not the anger. Not the moving of chairs away from or toward each other.
Until a woman close to my age, early to mid 40's who said earlier she was from Rome, stood up and gathered up her notebook, pens, glasses, and purse. "None of you can undersand...we couldn't even have German music in our home. I can't do this."
We forgave her before she was out the door and most were so focused on her they failed to see what I caught a glimpse of--Stanis with a brief look of pain so intense I ached for him. It wasn't the look of a lover but of a man whose last hope for a dream was suddenly dead. He caught me looking at him and the mask went back up immediately.
But afterward he sat next to me and asked me about why I was there. I told him I wasn't sure, but I knew that my desires matched Anna's and if she was so passionate about peace, then I owed it to her to help in any way I could. I told him that for me peace was more than a word, more than a concept. It was like a vein that carried the planet's blood, and I was part of that blood.
At this point, usually the tale goes on with "and we became deep and lasting friends." But we didn't. We were too different, and even though we were born a few miles from each other, all we shared was a similar gene pool on one side of our families. It wasn't enough for deep and eternal friendship. But it was enough to work on a common goal and we did that fairly well for awhile.
It was the height of the Bosnian War and Stanis was horrified at what was happening in the country of his birth. His grandmother and mine both identified themselves as Yugoslavians by birth. Mine was born in Pazin and his in Zagreb. No matter where they ended up later in life, that was part of them, that country that was created to unify southern Slavs.
It was Stanis who explained to me the linguistic nuances of the word "Balkans" and how the root of the word meant "crazy." But I also saw what he didn't say, that inside the turmoil of his soul that was always just beneath his surface, inside that detached and cool demanor, was a man so committed to world peace he made Anna's words seem tame. He was to put it in the simplest terms possible, ready to die for peace if that's what it took.
For the next two years he went against the autocratic tyranny of his father and his own place in the society that wealth and power digs for its children as a gravedigger puts his back into digging a grave for their lifelong interment. He couldn't single-handedly end the war, but he could try and save its victims. He used his father's money, borrowed the power of of his name and position and helped many children left orphaned find safe havens.
I'm guessing the final number was probably in the hundreds. He wasn't the kind of man to brag about the good he did in the world because he didn't do it for glory or recognition or even revenge. He did it, as he told me once, because he didn't want someone else to run from a room as the woman from Rome had done. As a violinist, an ardent believer in music as one of the keys to bringing together a diverse world, the idea that someone could grow up without ever hearing Bach or Beethoven was too much for him to accept.
It was an intense time for all of us involved in the peace movement at that time. It was a time when women dressed in black every Wednesday and stood in silent condemnation of the war on streetcorners all over the world. It was a time when sending a box of computer disks to an orphanage so the childen's history could be preserved was considered a violation of the embargo, the same embargo that denied the peace group in Serbia their peace grant because they weren't allowed to receive money, or disks or anything that would help ease the burden of war. If we were arms merchants, we would have had better luck getting something of value into that poor country in the middle of a horrible war. But for peace there were no exceptions.
Stanis, as the child of power and privilege, had a different concept of danger than the rest of us. He grew up in a world where the exchange of enough money, the awarding of a prestigious enough position, could erase most transgressions. We argued fiercely over it. I felt he put people I cared about in danger and he felt I was too timid in fighting an enemy that would kill me as easily as it killed other women and children.
He told me my Croat blood was a death sentence waiting to be activated by the right bigotry. He reminded me the only death camp in Italy was in Trieste, the city of my birth, and the most evil of the German commanders was stationed there specifically to put Slavs like me and my family to death because our blood made us impure Italians. He told me that as long as I was timid in my fight for peace, my actions were an insult to my family members and their friends who suffered at the hands of that monster.
I hated him a long time for those words at the same time as I understood why he spoke them. In all wars, in all crimes there are those who remain silent out of fear, out of a desire to not draw attention to themselves or because they convince themselves it's not their fight. It's how tyrants take over countries, how dictators appoint themselves overseers of decent people--through silence, ignorance and indifference.
Peace is about all of us and war is about the few. If Stanis taught me anything during one of those periods in my life where I was convinced I already knew everything there was to know, it was that lesson. War is about the few and it is about silence from the rest of us.
I last saw Stanis briefly in June of 2000. He was in the final weeks of Pancreatic cancer, far too young to die at just barely 51 years of age. He wanted only one thing from me, forgiveness for the emotional pain he knew he caused me, not realizing that when the war ended, so did my anger at him. I had forgiven him in 1995 and it took five years for it to catch up with him.
As two devout Atheists, there was no afterlife to make it up in so it had to all happen in the present. I hugged him goodbye and cried at his thin and frail body where before he had always seemed so strong to me. It was a moment as brief as a soft breeze on a thin curtain. He was there and then he was not.
He left me a poem, a rose I dried and still have, and a memory of what it was like to live among people who lived so completely outside themselves, so completely for others, that none of them survived for more than ten years. But they saved so many lives, that they live on in the hearts of hundreds they touched. I'm the last one left of the group and not a day goes by that I don't make use of some of what they taught me with their complete and total altruism. They were all good people and I miss them dearly, and I especially miss Stanis because finally, at long last, I understand him and I'm sorry it took so long for us to finally become friends.