“In the colourless light descending its vaults there waited Constantine’s wife, Gerda, a stout middle-aged woman, typically German in appearance, with fair hair abundant but formless, and grey eyes so light and clear that they looked almost blind, vacant niches made to house enthusiasms.”
I VISITED BELGRADE in 2009, just a few years after Serbia had again reverted to its own republic following the independence of Montenegro. Joined until 2006, the two entities had made up what was left of Yugoslavia following the wars of succession in the 1990s and the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 following the NATO air campaign against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The evidence of that war was still manifest as I walked past mangled ministry buildings on the city’s main thoroughfare.
West does not spend much time describing the place. But she is evocative when she does. Initially Belgrade depresses her. “I felt a sudden abatement of my infatuation for Yugoslavia,” she writes. But her spirits are rescued by an extraordinary scene she witnesses in the hotel bar.
“[I]n none of those great cities have I seen hotel doors slowly swing open to admit, unhurried and at ease, a peasant holding a black lamb in his arms….He was a well-built young man with straight fair hair, high cheekbones, and a look of clear sight.”
This is the first reference to a black lamb in the book and while West here alludes to this encounter the titular animal actually follows later in the book. In the meantime, she marvels:
“He stood still as a Byzantine king in a fresco, while the black lamb twisted and writhed in the firm cradle of his arms, its eyes sometimes catching the light as it turned and shining like small luminous places.”
I strolled Kalemegdan park covering the historic battlements and a commanding promontory over the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. “Kalemegdan…is the special glory of Belgrade and indeed one of the most beautiful parks in the world,” West writes, accurately. She enjoys a stroll in the park, separated from the city bustle, passing “busts of the departed nearly great” as children play among the lilacs.
There is one peculiarity in the park, a sculpture by Ivan Meštrović whom West otherwise extols throughout her travels: the “Victor” war memorial. It is a statue of a naked male figure mounted high on a column at the prow facing the delta. West relates this is an awkward display. Too accurately male, Belgrade authorities felt its display would offend women if placed prominently at street level within the city. So it was located here in Kalemegdan where it is only slightly more appropriate, as the figure faces the direction from which so many have attempted to sack Belgrade over centuries. But that means the main public view of the statue from the park is the Victor’s ass.
West uses this view as a point of departure to explain, in often overpowering detail, the history of 19th Century Serbia. She illustrates this through the personal stories of two noble houses, cutthroat rivals for the crown of Serbia. For an observer from the 21st Century, these machinations of royal politics in the Balkans can appear tedious. And they are, at least in comparison to the sexualized violence of Game of Thrones or the exotic prize of Arrakis in Dune.
The Obrenović Dynasty ruled Serbia for most of the 19th century. Supported by the hated Austro-Hungarians, their rule came to an extremely violent end when Serbian nationalist officers, part of the secret Black Hand organization (led by Dragutin Dimitrijević, who would figure later in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand), murdered King Alexander I and his wife Queen Draga in her bedroom. They were shot and their bodies stripped, mutilated, and disemboweled before the conspirators threw them off a second-floor balcony. West recalls this horror early in the book as part of her early assessment of prior understanding of Yugoslavia.
Alexander was only 26 years when murdered. Draga had been his mother’s lady-in-waiting, 12 years his senior. Their marriage caused a scandal. Draga was widely hated. West documents ample fuel for the fire of public opinion, all of them quite beyond Draga’s control: she was older, a divorcée, sexually experienced, unattractive, and incapable of having children (likely because her groom was infertile).
This last fact is crucial to understanding their assassination. Because Draga had no children, Alexander had no heir to the throne. This set up a succession crisis with Alexander maneuvering his brother to assume power while the Serbian parliament positioned the Russian-backed House of Karađorđević to succeed the reviled Obrenovićs. Which is exactly what they did after the assassination, returning Peter Karađorđević to the throne 45 years after being deposed.
This history reads as a much more intimate and bloody history than anything shown in The Crown. Indeed, it makes for much more vivid storytelling than even the 1936 abdication crisis West had just observed. And the geopolitical stakes could not be higher, with every empire and major power in the region facing a loss or gain depending on the succession. More importantly, it positioned Serbia even more strongly against Austria-Hungary in the years leading to World War I.
History aside, in this chapter West introduces a character who will play foil to her Balkan reveries. As she arrives in Belgrade, in passing West introduces us to the antipole character in her narrative, the wife of Constantine, whom she calls Gerda. Their first meeting sets the tone for the rest of the narrative. West has a book under her arm that Gerda has no trouble judging by its cover. West finds this rejection out of hand to be baffling; Gerda doesn’t appear to evince even modest curiosity. She is too happily and self-righteously ensconced in the citadel of bourgeois ignorance. Gerda proves later to be a terrible traveling companion. Although West does capture Gerda in moments of content repose, a sliver of her humanity shining through dark clouds of prejudice and resentment, the overwhelming impression of Gerda is of a spiteful, sociopathic racialist and shrew. (Ironically, in response to her editor’s concern that Gerda is treated too harshly, West argued if anything else she had “toned down” her nemesis’ character.)
There was a larger personal dynamic at work in this awkward square dance. Constantine was indispensable to West as a guide, but given her experience with him (see Croatia, above) she deliberately traveled with her husband Henry Andrews to protect against Constantine’s predations. Constantine for himself appeared sincere in his affection, writing West a love letter in exquisite French. Every biographer of West writes that Gerda knew all too well her husband’s obsession for West and very likely elbowed her way into the traveling party to check him too. (West herself recalls their first meeting when Constantine calls home from his office: “Tell your mother that I will not be home to lunch because I have run away with an Englishwoman.”)
Gerda was Elsa Vinaver, born Elizabeta Silex in 1897 in Stettin, at the time a major port city for the German Empire, but today is now Szczecin in western Poland, on the Baltic Sea about two hours from Berlin. Her father was a Lutheran rector. She had a sister and two brothers, one of whom was named Karl Silex. West describes Karl in passing in her Collected Letters as a “Nazi journalist”. This is true as far as it goes. Karl Silex was indeed a journalist and the editor of the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung during the peak years of Nazi control (1933-1943) and after the war edited the Tagespiegel. He was a Rhodes Scholar, wrote in English, and while living abroad briefly married an Englishwoman. He wrote several books, including his memoirs.
He also served in both world wars with the Imperial German Navy and later the Kriegsmarine. During the waning days of World War II, he commanded a mine-laying ship attached to an unconventional “small unit” that fought in the North Sea. His ship appears to have participated in Operation Hannibal, the evacuation of German civilians and soldiers from East Prussia ahead of the Soviet Army advance in early 1945. He documented several attacks and sinkings of his flotilla but Silex himself survived the war.
This relationship provides some potential insight into Elsa’s character. West is unstinting in her disgust for her in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and that hatred is carried over in her letters. She describes Elsa as “mad,” having attempted suicide and infanticide and reports that she had been committed to asylum at least twice. “The Nazi business has made her madder,” West writes her husband. Elsa is horrified that she had married a Jew and had “polluted the sacred Nordic blood” by having two sons with Vinaver (the youngest of whom is named, not coincidentally, Konstantin).
While publicly available information suggests Silex resisted Nazi propaganda during the war — he was a member of the Fuhrer Council of the German Press but never joined the party — the truth is he served the regime both in and out of uniform. Knowing that her more prominent brother was serving the Fatherland may have been an aggravating factor in Elsa’s state of mind.
There is an extraordinary story buried below the few details about Elsa that we have. West and her husband offered asylum to Vinaver during the war but as a Yugoslav patriot he remained and served in the army opposing the German invasion in 1941. He was almost immediately captured and spent the remainder of the occupation in a prisoner of war camp. He managed to hide his Jewish origins which very likely saved his life. That was not the fate of his mother, who perished in the notorious Banjica concentration camp near Belgrade. It is all the more moving knowing her fate today, information that wasn’t available to West when she recorded their meeting.
It is impossible to ignore the contradictions involved in this family. Elsa apparently remained in Yugoslavia during the war even while her husband was imprisoned and her mother-in-law was murdered. It is not known what she thought of the German occupation. Information in English is scarce but it appears that the Vinaver marriage survived the war, as evidenced by a picture of Elsa and Stanislav taken with their youngest son soon afterwards (see above).
Stanislav died in 1955. Elsa outlived her husband by nearly 25 years. It appears she never left Yugoslavia and died in Belgrade in 1979. Perhaps the most extraordinary result of this union is the family burial of the Jewish Vinavers, Stanislav and Elsa, and their son Konstantin, who died in 2000, together in a Christian grave in the cemetery of Serbian heroes in Belgrade.
The extended family of the Silexes and Vinavers spanned the extreme experience of the war, from the Holocaust and occupation to national service, resistance and imprisonment. It remains an untold story of epic proportions.