Magic in Zemun and Serbian boys in Scotland

What is the link between one fairytale house in Zemun with a mural of flying hearts and ships, and Serbian boys who lived in Scotland during the First World War

Words: Zorica Stevanović

This nightmare we are living in has been going on for far too long. Many changes, fears, bad news, too much, and too close. We are hungry for good news, good company, hugs, and kisses. That is exactly why I wanted to share the story of one interesting woman, of the “grandma” house, and the magic of Zemun.

A few years ago I met Branislava Stefanović under very interesting circumstances.

Let me start from the very begging. I read that Mrs. Louise Miller is working on a book on boys who spent the First World War period studying in Scotland. Prior to that Mrs. Miller explored the faith of British doctors and nurses who have during the Great War come to Serbia to help with the tending of the wounded and sick. Over 20 British women died in Serbia. One of them, Elisabeth Ross, of Scottish descent, is buried in Kragujevac while her tombstone says “She has given her heart to the Serbian people”. In the book “The Life of Captain Flora Sandes” Mrs. Miller described the life of Flora Sands who had received the medal of Karađorđe’s star, and who was the only British woman to have formally been a

soldier in the First World War, and the only female officer – a title she gained in the Serbian army.

Prof. PhD Mihajlo Radovanović and Dr Dimitrije Dulkanović, Serbian boys who have studied in Scotland
PhD. Slavoljub Đorđević, one of the boys who had arrived at Corfu with the Serbian army

My great uncle was one of those boys who crossed Albania and reached Corfu with the Serbian army. Most of the French ships transported our soldiers to North Africa, Italy, France, while one British ship took our boys all the way to Scotland. That is why I found Mrs. Miller’s publisher wrote him an e-mail and within half an hour I was already exchanging letters with Louise. She had already gotten in touch with families of the boys who have studied at Edinburgh, at the prestigious George Heriot’s School founded in 1628.

The prestigious George Heriot’s School where they received their formal education

Louise organized a gathering for the boys’ families in Belgrade, where Branislava and I have met. It was the start of one beautiful and interesting friendship.

Branislava is the daughter of Dr Dimitrije Dulkanović, one of our boys. Dr. Dulkanović has, as most of our boys, returned to Serbia (my great uncle fell in love and therefore stayed in Scotland) and used the gained education and experience to help his home country. He was a noted pulmonologist, the founder of Antituberculosis free clinic in Zemun, a voluntary firefighter, sports doctor, mountain climber. The boys played rugby in Scotland so successfully that they had even managed to win, and brought the sport home to Serbia. The main organizer of rugby in Serbia was Dr Dulkanović. They visited George Heriot’s School, and Dr Dulkanović was buried with the school’s tie, in its colors – blue and white, in 1995 in Zemun.

Celebration of the school’s anniversary today

In June 2016, heirs of our boys had the lovely opportunity of celebrating the school’s anniversary in Edinburgh with current students, professors and staff. Branislava spoke of her father and our boys generation on multiple occasions. The warmth and honestly of her words touched the hearts of all of those present. They must have been an inspiration to new generations and activities of the school. As a matter of fact, three years ago the school has, in the spirit of our boys schooling, granted three scholarships to three Syrian boys, and the name of said grand is under Dr Dulkanović’s name. 

Family members of the famed boys evoke memories at Edinburg’s fort

And the thanks to Branislava’s energy and organization, the heirs’ families gather each June Day and evoke memories of their ancestors, but now our own memories as well. Louise visits us in February when she attends the commemoration in Kragujevac and laid flowers on graves of dedicated Scottish doctors and nurses. As a commandment for the research and commemoration of the plural collaboration between Scotland and Serbia during the Great War, Louise received a medal from the president of Serbia. Two years ago at the commemoration, we were joined by representatives of George Heriots’ School. They laid a blue and white festoon in the school’s colors, as a reminder of our brave and hardy boys, excellent students, and superb sportsman. That way we have returned a fraction of the hospitality shown to us in Edinburgh.

Branislava, my dear Brana used to work at JAT, until and even past her retirement, she worked at the Regional office for America and Canada in New York, and is still considered a legend in JAT. The challenging 52.5 years in air transportation are a bit of a long story. In 1973 in former Yugoslavia she organized the first IATA – Prorate Agency yearly conference at Hotel “Jugoslavija”.

But Brana wouldn’t be Brana unless she constantly came up with new ideas and projects.

The building she was born in, in Zemun, in Gospodska Street has since this July been decorated with a mural Zemun Plakat, work of our artist, architect, and caricaturist Dragan Rumenčić.

Branislava Stefanović-Skoko and Tatjana Filipović author of the mural Zemun’s Poster

The exterior of the building was renovated during the overhaul of multiple buildings in the old heart of Zemun. The tenants wanted to save it from commercials, scribbles, and other artistic” attempts. The building’s nickname is grandma since it was built in 1792, on the spot of buildings that had burned down in 1788. Prior to World War I the building was bought by Brana’s grandfather from her mother’s side, Jovan Blažon, a renowned artisan and father of six. He chose the house since it had one of the best drinking water wells in its garden. The well exists to this day. The building was damaged during the allied bombing on Easter 1994 in World War II, but was reconstructed by its owners.

The Cultural Monument Protection Institute gave its consent, as well as the artist, creator of Zemun’s Poster, Mr Rumenčić, for this lovely idea of creating a mural.

Zemun’s poster was transferred to the building’s facade by skilled artist Tatjana Filipović, preserver and restaurateur of wall and easel pictures, with significant experience in those fields. One of her noted works was the restoration of fresco paintings in Belgrade’s oldest Orthodox Christian church, Nikolajevska Church (which was built in mid 18th century on the foundations of a church which most likely dates to times prior to the arrival of Turks in Zemun in 1521). Tatjana worked for approximately three weeks on this 60 square meter mural, which was an immensely challenging feat, mostly done from scaffolds. But the result is wonderful.

The facade is now cheered up by flying hearts and ships, fishermen and fishing boats, water skiers, and the panorama of Zemun. Zemun has its own magic, not only for real old-timers who are in love with their Zemun but visitors as well. Houses lining up the hill to Gardoš, restaurants on the shore, the farmer’s market, the view from Millennium tower, also called the tower of Sibinjanin Janko, and of course the blue Danube, source of countless songs and memories.

During these dark times, when everything is being relativized and when human relations have been changing at the root, a mural filled with optimism, beauty, history, continuity, and joy of life is a treat for all proud Zemun’s inhabitants and us. Brana and her husband, Uroš Skoko, had done what our ancestors always did – gifted their city and fellow citizens something beautiful, dignifying, a treasure. Pure love.