“Language is also a kind of homeland”
Irena Vrkljan was born in Belgrade in 1930, her mother came from Vienna, her father read her poems by Morgenstern. “I actually lived in a European world,” says the writer. In 1941 her family fled to Zagreb. But it was not until after the war that she learnt about the war.
Car: We begin our conversation in the peculiar spring of 2020, when we are facing several difficult problems. I would like to begin by asking you to describe your childhood.
Vrkljan: I always used to say that I have no geography, I have a room. Even as a child, I liked living with four walls around me, so that I can’t see or hear anyone. [laugh]
Car: So, you associate the place where you grew up mostly with indoor spaces?
Vrkljan: Yes, because naturally I travelled a lot to here and there and never had my own geographic landscape. As a child I was always in the city, riding my bike or roller-skating, while this was still possible. This was in 1937, so I needn’t tell you anything further. [laugh]
Car: Do you have an item from your childhood that you’ve kept and still own?
Vrkljan: I do, I have some letters from childhood because I had a very good friend, Miron Flašar from Belgrade, who later was my professor of Greek at the University of Belgrade. When we left for Zagreb after the bombing of Belgrade on April 6th, he kept writing to me from 1941 to 1944. I always enjoyed reading these letters, I must still have around a hundred of them, I never really checked how many.
Car: When you were a child, did you have a favourite book? Can you even determine this in such a formative period of life?
Vrkljan: I must say that I loved Heine back then, I mean, his poetry. I still have it here. I hated that book Struwwelpeter [A children’s book by the German author Heinrich Hoffmann, editor’s note]. It wasn’t my parents who gave me this book, I don’t know who did. No, I was only interested in poetry, poetry. The book of poetry, Heine.
Car: Who was responsible for your strong interest in culture, literature? Your parents, I suppose?
Vrkljan: Yes, because they read to me when I was a child. Dad read Morgenstern to me, all his poems. My mom was from Vienna, she came to Belgrade from Vienna when she was 27 and met my father there. So, I was immediately surrounded by three countries – Austria, Germany and Croatia. I didn’t live just in one world, but in a European world, actually.
Car: Did you speak about the war with your parents or grandparents?
Vrkljan: No, no. My dad always used to say, “not in front of the child”, so it was not until after the war that I learnt about the war and generally about the time I lived in. As a child I didn’t know anything … Later I read books, about the persecution of Jews, about the Holocaust, it was all much later on. It was not until later that I realised what had happened and what my pre-war and war life was. It was not until later that I learned about the number of murdered people and Jasenovac [Jasenovac was the largest Ustasha death camp in the so-called Independent State of Croatia, a satellite state of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, editor’s note]. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was hiding a Jewish lady during the entire war, I found out about it only after the war.
Car: Tell me, Europe – did this exist for you when you were a child?
Vrkljan: No, no. Just as there was no Yugoslavia, there was nothing as far as this is concerned. My parents somewhat cocooned me.
Car: When it comes to a sense of belonging, what is home for you, where do you feel most at home?
Vrkljan: You know, home for me would once again be my room, my books, my plants, photos of my friends on the walls. I actually have just this room. And it stayed like this. I’m living here now, aren’t I?
Car: Yes, of course. Especially now, when we are all locked in our apartments.
Vrkljan: Yes, when we are locked in, that’s when I feel at home. The only thing I miss is walking. I walk around the room, but it’s not the same thing.
Car: Since our listeners probably don’t know this, tell me of the times in your life when you had to leave your home.
Vrkljan: Yes, we had to leave Belgrade in 1941, after the bombing on April 6th because that’s when my sisters were born. They are twins, ten years younger than me, born in 1940. We were in a train travelling to Zagreb as some fugitives when there was another air strike, a Stuka airplane [Stuka or Junkers Ju 87, a German dive bomber, editor’s note] above us, and we all came running out of the train and lay on the embankment next to the rail tracks. And when we finally stood up, I thought that some just continued laying there, I didn’t understand everything that was going on. When we came to Zagreb to stay with my father’s relatives, I was terrified of noise, so at any loud noise, such as banging the doors, I would run and hide under the table.
Car: You’ve changed countries; you’ve changed languages. Which language do you consider your language, the language of home?
Vrkljan: Well, I have two tongues [laugh] because I had two mother tongues at the same time. When I was a child, everybody spoke German to me and then I went to a Serbian-German school in Belgrade. So, I’ve always had these two languages and I was always reading books and everything else both in our language and in German.
Car: That’s right. So, tell me: Is Europe your home, the place to which you belong?
Vrkljan: Absolutely. In any case, my notion of it encompasses more than just Zagreb or Berlin. I travelled through France with Benno [German writer Benno Meyer-Wehlack who Vrkljan was married to until his death in 2014, editor’s note] and liked it very much.
Car: Which place would you choose as home, Zagreb or Berlin?
Vrkljan: Well, that’s why I left Berlin – because I felt that it wasn’t good for me. I wrote under the name Irena Vrkljan and they couldn’t even pronounce my surname, so the publishers told me I should change my surname, which I didn’t want to do. I was from Croatia or from Yugoslavia at the time and this didn’t change. And I think that this is what really matters, it’s not a longing for home, but for a language. Language is also a kind of homeland, is it not?
I was from Croatia or from Yugoslavia at the time and this didn’t change.
Vrkljan: Well, my education was mostly literary. I began working on TV around 1960. Before that, I worked at the radio station where they told me that just working the news wasn’t enough for me, that I had to go to TV, do the movies. And then we did portraits and encounters, films about painters, about artists and authors. Until 1967 I’d made about 60 films and then one friend, a journalist, sent me forms to apply for the Film and TV Academy. So, I went to Berlin to take the admissions exam. I passed, but I felt like an alien there. Had I not met Benno, my husband, who was a dramaturge and professor at the Academy, I wouldn’t have stayed in Berlin, I would’ve returned to Zagreb.
Car: To what extent have history and great political events influenced your plans in life?
Vrkljan: Well, I can’t say that they have. What has? Making 60 films made an impact on me, I said that I just couldn’t take it anymore, inventing screenplays. I was tired and needed a change of milieu, so I applied for the Academy and went to Berlin.
Car: Do you remember how you crossed European borders when you were travelling?
Vrkljan: We had passports. As soon as I came to Berlin, I got a residence permit because I was a student at the Academy. Later I had to change my surname to Meyer-Wehlack because I had just that permit, and it had to be renewed at the police station. You always had to wait there for a very long time, it was horrible, with all these people who also wanted to renew their permits. It was a police station specialising in foreign nationals and after the wedding one of the officers told me to take the surname Meyer-Wehlack and that I would be granted a permanent residence permit. This turned out to be true.
Car: Was there a moment when you felt irritated by your surrounding when you were living in Berlin?
Vrkljan: Except with Benno and our people at the Academy, I felt very strange at the time, in 1976. There were student riots and they perceived us from Yugoslavia as traitors. They were not Stalinist, and perceived Yugoslavia as Stalinist and hassled me, so I felt uncomfortable.
Car: Did you feel as a citizen of Europe when you were living in Berlin?
Vrkljan: Well, yes, I did, both as a Croatian and a citizen of Europe.
Car: Did the moment in which Croatia joined the EU affect you?
Vrkljan: Well, no, I was very glad. We still aren’t part of the Schengen Zone, but we are a part of the EU. We are now presiding over the EU, Plenković is doing a good job. [Croatia held the EU Council Presidency from 1 January 2020 to 30 June 2020, editor’s note.]
Car: You’ve spent a lot of years in the EU and now you are elderly. What does it feel to be an elderly person in the EU? Does this provide you with a feeling of safety or is this hard to tell?
Vrkljan: I can’t say, I don’t think it applies to me. What is happening to me is what is happening in Croatia. I know that we’re not well off economically, but now no one is because of the coronavirus. That’s a heavy blow no one counted on, no one even knew that it would happen. It is a big, huge problem for Europe and solidarity.
Car: Have you as a European ever felt pride or were you ashamed because of Europe?
Vrkljan: No, I was never ashamed. And what pride is, I have no idea. But I was never ashamed, no…. In any case, Europe must see that all the countries remain democratic. You need to have the right to your own opinion, journalists must be able to write freely and critically.
Car: Which European countries haven’t you visited yet?
Vrkljan: England. And I’ve always wanted to go because of Virginia Woolf, to see the Monk’s House [laugh], but also her garden. After she committed suicide, her husband Leonard planted roses, and everybody says that it’s a fantastic garden. I’ve always wanted to see that, their garden, but I never got to see England. I wrote a book about that. And I’d like to see the Tate Gallery because my Rothko, the painter I adore, is there.
Car: Do you have any message for future generations in Europe?
Vrkljan: Tolerance. That’s something that would be very important to me.