Operation Velveta 1 — Part 10

Part 10  –  The Yugoslav Air Force hosts us and sends us to our airbase.

I woke up to a noisy and tumultuous environment. Our three room partners and many more from neighboring rooms were up, washed up, shaven and busy getting dressed in their uniforms. We were so tired that we hardly opened our eyes and sat up on our beds. I understood when I saw their uniforms and badges that they were pilots and aircrew. I saw through the door that there was a basin and a water-tap in the corridor so we went there to wash our faces, freshen-up and then returned to sit on our beds. A large number of young men came into our room to look at us inquisitively and started asking us questions in Serbo-Croat. At first we kept mum but we could not go on and shut-up much longer seeing their happy faces and hearing their questions which sounded very friendly. Meantime I decided that I would speak to them in French and so I said: “We are French pilots. We arrived from Paris.” I knew that Joe did not know any other language except English so that he will not utter a word and I hoped that they will be satisfied to speak only with me. To my surprise two of them started speaking to me in very poor French. I was happy when they did not ask what was our destination. The two who spoke a little French translated what I said to their friends and when everybody heard that we were Frenchmen from Paris they almost all uttered a sort of surprised and happy “oh-ah” and started shaking our hands warmly. Some of them settled on the beds for a long conversation and started asking general questions: What’s up in Paris? How is it there since liberation? And finally they surprised me with an embarrassing question: “How much is a loaf of bread in Paris?” I thought awhile and finally gave them a price in French Franks and Centimes. Then they started asking me how we got here and what are we doing here and I found myself in a fix: What should I reply and what should I tell them. But I was very lucky for at the same time three officers appeared at the door. Everybody jumped to attention and the senior young-man shouted: “Attention!”. The three officers were the Orderly-Officer, an officer with the rank of Colonel and behind him stood a young Captain. The Colonel turned to the men in the room , smiled at them and said a few soft words. They all stood-at-ease and we were asked to follow the three officers.

Apparently the Colonel had received a detailed report  concerning us and our situation for he approached Joe and looked at his skull closely. You could still see the clotted blood. The Colonel said something to the Orderly-Officer and they took us immediately to the medical-clinic of the airbase. We arrived there right when it was sick-parade time. The Orderly-Officer went into the Doctors’ room and the Colonel went away leaving behind the young Captain. One minute later the door to the Doctors’ room was opened and we were ushered in. The Doctor examined Joe’s head, cleaned the wounded part and bandaged him properly. I did not complain about anything since the blood stopped running down my nose long ago and I was not in pain. The place where my nose starts out from my head was just swollen and that was all. We were led by the Orderly-Officer and the Captain from there to the Colonel’s office. When we entered the Colonel turned to me and said in perfect French: When we came to the pilots’ room this morning I heard you speak in French. I also speak French. I am a graduate of the Military Academy of Saint-Cyr. I am a pilot and the Administration-Officer of this airbase and my rank is Colonel, and then he shook our hands. “The airbase Commanding-Officer who is a pilot with the rank of General asked to meet you. I will take you to him now.” We entered a neighboring room, large, covered with carpets and furnished with expensive office furniture dating from the thirties of the 20th century. Behind the the large writing-desk sat a small and thin General whose white hair were neatly combed on his head. His face was wrinkled. His grey eyes were smiling when we entered his office. The Colonel addressed him in Serbo-Croat and presented us to him and the Brigadier-General rose from behind his desk and shook hands with us. The General said something to the Orderly-Officer who left immediately and the Colonel said in French: “The General invites all of us to the Bar to raise a glass of friendship.” We went out to a large hut which must have been the Officers and Aircrew Club. We entered a small Bar which was very nicely furnished and equipped. The Orderly-Officer was already there with  the Barman and two more officers which seemed to be Wing Commanders or Squadron Commanders at this airbase.

The Barman gave all of us small glasses filled with a pale liquid. The General raised his glass and said: “Zdravo!” and everybody repeated his greeting and emptied their glasses with a single gulp. I was used, when needed, to raise a small glass of vodka and gulp it down at once. My father taught me to drink the way the Slavs did – in case of need.  But this was not Vodka.  It was excellent Slibovitch, and I was tired and very weak after the last two days. The drink hit me like a sledgehammer and when I was offered a second drink I asked to be excused. Joe saved our honor by drinking a second drink. Everybody was happy and laughed and the Colonel said: “You must be hungry” and said something to the General who moved his head in agreement and shook our hands again before leaving us. He spoke only Serbo-Croat and Russian and when leaving us he wished us success and his words were translated to me in French by the Colonel. We left the Bar and went to the Aircrew Mess. When we got there the Colonel asked us if we would like to see the kitchen. I was glad to find out that we were treated like welcomed guests. The kitchen was very large and clean. The cooks wore white aprons and had Chefs’ hats like in a kitchen of a civilian restaurant. They wore uniforms under their white aprons. There were many pilots and aircrew in the mess who were eating and I was surprised to see that although it was already close to ten o’clock they were eating meat and we were served the same meal. It came to us just in time. We were very hungry and needed many more calories.

The satisfying meal woke us up. The Colonel asked if there was anything else we wanted. I told him without taking time to think that we would very much like to take a hot shower and when I saw his face becoming somewhat serious I immediately regretted saying it. But he did not react to me. Instead he gave the Orderly-Officer some instructions and then said to me: “You will be able to take a shower in half an hour for they are now heating up the water. Let us stay here and have another cup of coffee (which was real coffee,though weak), eat, eat and don’t be shy!” He asked that we be given some more food. I asked him what was the order of their meals and how they decided upon the menu for their pilots and he told me that they had a feeding schedule which was written by a group of Air Force Doctors and that the Orderly-Officer goes into the kitchen three times a day when meals are prepared and checks together with the Chef if the meal is according to the feeding-schedule as far as the calories and the quantities are concerned and he also tastes the food.

Half an hour later we went to a building which was the bath-house of this airbase and was divided to several very clean bathrooms equipped with showers. On our way there we passed near the fence which divided the living quarters from the airfield. The airfield was very busy and I saw B-17 Bombers and “Spitfires” taxying, taking-off and landing. I found out much later that the Yugoslavs received a large number of airplanes from the British and Americans after they were liberated from Nazi occupation and that their Air Force was equipped mostly with western airplanes and not with Soviet made airplanes. When we entered the showers we were given each a large white sheet (and not a towel) and a soap in shape of a large and yellow cube which reminded me of the soap which we were using at home during the British Mandate on washing days. We started taking our clothes off and the group which was made up of the Colonel, his adjutant the Captain, the Orderly-Officer, the Sergeant in charge of the showers and a soldier who was standing near him were all standing aside and looking happily as we were showering. I said to Joe: “Now they will see that we are Jews.” But I remembered right away the Mosques which I saw in the city and concluded that we are not considered as an attraction to them, and so it was. The fact that we were circumcised did not make any impression on them. The water was boiling hot and it was a real pleasure to take a shower of hot water and soap after long days without it.

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