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Serbia: Jovanka Broz, Widow of Tito, Dies Isolated and Forgotten

She was a revolutionary, a commended war veteran, a style icon and first lady to the leader of the only socialist country in the world that refused to be a Soviet satellite. Jovanka Broz (nee Budisavljević), widow of Marshall Josip Broz Tito, passed away in Belgrade [en] on October 20, 2013. On Saturday, October 26, Jovanka Broz was honored with a state funeral in Serbia's capital and buried in the mausoleum known as “The House of Flowers” [en] next to her husband, a full 33 years after his death.

President Josip Broz Tito and Mrs. Broz, President Richard Nixon and Mrs. Nixon overlooking arrival ceremony on the South Lawn from the South Balcony of the White House; photo form the  White House Photo Office Collection, public domain.

President Josip Broz Tito and Mrs. Broz, President Richard Nixon and Mrs. Nixon overlooking arrival ceremony on the South Lawn from the South Balcony of the White House; photo form the White House Photo Office Collection, public domain.

Jovanka Broz spent a lifetime being loved, hated, praised and criticized by many. Few and far apart are those who had no opinion of her at all. Born into a family of humble means in Lika (Croatia), she joined the revolutionary partisan forces at the age of 17 and soon became one of Tito's secretaries. Their whirlwind romance began sometime during the Second World War and they were married in 1952, when she was 28 and Tito 60.

Although 30 years her powerful husband's junior, Jovanka was decisive, opinionated and had tremendous influence over her husband at times. Those who met her through diplomatic and political circles claim that she was a highly intelligent woman of elegant poise. There were also those in Yugoslavia and, more recently Serbia, who criticized her spending habits, along with her husband's, who was a well-known hedonist of expensive taste. The video below shows Tito and Jovanka Broz at the height of his power in 1971, during a state visit to US President Richard Nixon.

Jovanka enjoyed a jet-set lifestyle while she was first lady of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, but lived the last 30 years of her life as a recluse in Belgrade in poverty, never inheriting any part of her late husband's estate or receiving much from the state. Reports began emerging in 2005 on blogs and later in media about the conditions in which the former first lady was living in – with no heat, a leaking roof, doors that wouldn't lock, in an old house in the once high-end Belgrade neighborhood of Dedinje that was, essentially, falling apart. Since her death, the blog Bašta Balkana quoted [sr] one of these reports from 2005, when they visited Jovanka, describing the poor state of the house she was living in and a conversation with Jovanka's sister, Nada. The reporter asked:

- Živi li vaša sestra ovde potpuno sama i bez grejanja?! Kako je moguće da se nadležni godinama oglušuju da joj stvore elementarne uslove za život?!

- U ovoj ledari, moja sestra živi sama i to godinama traje – odgovara Nada. – Ponekad ostane i bez struje, nekad se prekinu telefonske veze, plafon prokišnjava. Ali nije samo ona ugrožena. Njenu sudbinu dele i njene komšije. I oni su danima bez grejanja.

- Does your sister really live here all alone and without heating?! How is it possible that the [institutions] responsible for this are ignoring to provide basic living conditions for her?!

- In this icebox, my sister lives alone and it has been like this for years – Nada responds. – Sometimes she is left without electricity too, sometimes the telephone lines go out, the ceiling leaks. But she is not the only one at risk. Her neighbors share this fate with her. They are also left without heating for days.

The government then reacted fairly quickly after these reports and some assistance and reparations were provided for Jovanka and her neighbors occasionally over the next few years. Jovanka remained as far from the the public eye as she could, although media interest had been raised. In the months prior to her death, knowing that her health was rapidly declining, the former first lady of Yugoslavia decided to publish her memoirs, as recorded by author Žarko Jokanović. The book, titled “My Life, My Truth”, was released just three weeks before she died [sr] and is being sold at newsstands at the price of 449 dinars (4 euro or 5.50 US dollars).

Blogger David Bailey, a British expat living in the Balkans, quoted what Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić said at Jovanka Broz's state funeral on Saturday, wondering whether the PM's words were hollow or heartfelt:

The absence of a religious funeral service was the wish of Jovanka and her family.

Serbia’s Prime Minister Ivica Dacic led the tributes at the funeral ceremony, saying: “Today marks the departure of the last icon of the former Yugoslavia.” He said it was time to admit that the treatment she received after the death of her husband was a “sin”.

On social networks these days, there is no majority opinion on who or what Jovanka Broz was. Some say she was “an icon” [photos], “a heroine”, others call her “a leech” and “a fake”, while a few simply lament the country's disregard for its own history and its neglect of Jovanka Broz in recent decades. There are very few in-betweens and no particular hashtags to follow, but people are visibly talking about her passing which, in many ways, gives closure to an era that ended 30 years ago. Whatever their opinion or political affiliation, many social media users posted “Bella Ciao”, an Italian song often sung by the partisans of Italy and Yugoslavia before and during WWII, made popular by Giovanna Dafinni in the early 60′s and often tied to Jovanka Broz. Tetka, a popular Serbian portal, wrote in a post titled “Bella Ciao – The Song That Saw Jovanka Broz Off”:

A možda nam je ovim taktovima na svom poslednjem ispraćaju poslala poruku o ujedinjenju, ideji koja je sve nas na prostorima bivše zemlje razjedinila do krvavih ratova jer ova pesma u Italiji i jeste postala popularna kao pesma u kojoj je ujedinjena jedna ideja.[...]

Koliko je ova pesma popularna i danas kao himna pobune, dočaraće vam podatak da su ove godine u Turskoj, buneći se zbog planova da se na mestu poslednjih “zelenih pluća grada” u Istanbulu grad tržni centar, mladi koji su protestovali protov ove odluke premijera Erdogana pevali ovu pesmu.[...]

Jovanke Broz srpska javnost se setila tek kada je dospela u bolnicu i to onda kada više nije sama mogla da donosi odluke. Dok je mogla, odbijala je lečenje kao da je jedva čekala da ode sa ovog sveta, iz društva koje ju je stavilo u izlolaciju i zaboravilo je.

Or perhaps in her last farewell she sent us a message about uniting through these beats, an idea that divided all of us on the territory of this former country through bloody wars, because this song became popular in Italy as the song that unites one idea.[...]

A fact from this year from Turkey will demonstrate the popularity of this song as a revolutionary anthem, where young protesters, rising up against the building of a shopping center in the place of the last “green lungs of the city”, sang this song as they protested this decision by Prime Minister Erdogan.[...]

The Serbian public only remembered Jovanka Broz when she ended up in hospital and even this was when she could no longer make her own decisions. While she could, she refused treatment, as if she could hardly wait to leave this world, this society that put her in isolation and forgot her.

  • ivonotes

    Fascinating, Danica. I wonder – were the reactions to her death confined to Serbia, or were they evident in other parts of former Yugoslavia as well? Any reactions from Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, etc? Be interesting to know whether there’s any regional sentiment left, that surfaces with her passing. My guess: it’s confined to an older generation that’s not especially active online.

  • Jovana

    Jovanka, amazing woman! Its our shame that we forgot her! Wars, poverty, greed and crime eaten us! So sad!

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