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A Tribute To The Most Interesting Uncle In The World

Editor's Note: Last Wednesday, our very own Natasha Julius announced to the world that she had birthed a son, Djuka Julius Peterson. "Pronunciation guide, please!" editor Steve Rhodes asked. "JOO-kuh," Natasha replied. Then, a few days later, the following e-mail landed in the inbox of a few lucky folks. We thought we'd share.

Dear Friends,

In 1939, fearing a Nazi occupation, my father's family fled their home in Zagreb, Croatia, and joined the partisan resistance. My father was ten and his older brother 14. The resistance needed every hand they could get, so once my father's family fled their home in Zagreb they all joined up. My father worked as a messenger until he was evacuated to Italy two years later. His mother, a nurse, joined him shortly thereafter. His father, who prior to the Nazi invasion had run one of the only psychiatric hospitals in Yugoslavia, served as a medic near the front lines. The older son joined the infantry.

When he was about 16, my uncle's unit was ambushed and he was shot in the shoulder. After the fighting stopped, the triumphant SS soldiers walked through the field shooting any partisan survivors. The one that found my uncle stood over him for a moment and crowed in German, "How does the SS shoot?"

He had probably said that to a dozen terrified, uncomprehending peasants before killing them, so he wasn't expecting what happened next. My uncle responded, in perfect German, that he was a spy sent to infiltrate the resistance. "Don't shoot me," he said, "I can still be useful."

The SS soldier searched my uncle and soon found his papers and, more damagingly, an emergency medical kit issued by the British RAF. He threw it in my uncle's face and told him, "Whoever gave you this can take care of you." Then he shouted to his commander that there were no more survivors.

The RAF did come and patch my uncle up, and he went on to fight more battles. The family was reunited after the war, but only briefly - when Tito's purges began, the tide turned for the family and my father and uncle both fled. My uncle spent some time in Cuba and South America before settling in Mexico and becoming a successful journalist. (For those keeping count, that's three languages; he was also fluent in Russian, English, Italian and Hebrew.)

He was, to my memory, a caring if not entirely engaging uncle. He taught me how to swim, patiently making me practice every hand position so I wouldn't panic and drown. I asked if I could touch the deep scars on his shoulder and he obliged. When I asked how he had gotten them he simply said, "in the war." He never boasted about outsmarting the Nazis. To him, it wasn't a moment of genius or bravery, but one of extreme vulnerability. And if you want to survive, you can't show any vulnerability. Be clever, or better yet, be charming if you need to, but never let anyone know you're scared. That''s how he was able to teach me to swim despite rarely venturing into the water himself (at 13, he'd cracked his head open diving into a half-empty swimming pool to impress a girl).

No one knows the details of his life, but that was his governing philosophy. Don't panic. Be brave, but have the sense not to boast about it. It's better to seem like the coolest man in the room than the smartest, even if you're probably both. And for the most part it worked. He lived comfortably and had access to power, he knew everyone worth knowing (if you ask nicely, I'll show the pictures of him at a press junket for To Catch a Thief, holding Hitchcock and Cary Grant in rapt attention). But living well has its own costs, and a pasty Jewish man can only spend so many years lounging on the beaches of Mexico with his glamorous second wife before it catches up with him. And despite his prodigious talents, you can't charm cancer.

My uncle came to stay with us when I was 16. He had convinced my father, by then a famous cardiologist, to get him into an experimental trial despite the fact he was probably too old and too far gone. He was dying, but he'd faced death before and guess who'd blinked? We grew closer during that time. He would wake me up early in the morning to help him wash his hair and get dressed, then tell me to go back to sleep for a while. That way, when the rest of the family came to breakfast he was there to greet them, dignified and poised as ever. Only he and I knew he couldn't button his shirts anymore. Then one day, the week before I started my senior year of high school, he filed his last column, went into the hospital and died.

He would hate that I've shared his story with you. He was proud and stubborn and he had no time for any kind of sentiment. At least that's what he wanted everyone to think. I knew him a little and, although he'd never admit it, I think he would appreciate a well-reasoned tribute.

That was my uncle. Djuka Julius.

-

Comments welcome.



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Posted on July 18, 2016


MUSIC - The Week In Chicago Rock.
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POLITICS - Trailer: Swing District.
SPORTS - Ryan Pace's Narratives Are Killing Us.

BOOKS - Chicago For Dummies.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - The Sears Motor Buggy.


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