My mother’s triumph – exhumation & burial of Prince Paul of Yugoslavia

“The arc of the moral universe bends slowly towards justice” – Martin Luther King Jr.

This beautiful quote epitomizes my grandfather, Prince Paul of Yugoslavia’s life. He has finally been vindicated, 35 years since his death, thanks to my mother’s 25-year struggle to clear his name.

This October, the Serbian government agreed to honor him as head of state, by giving him an official burial. His body had to be brought back from Switzerland, accompanied by his wife, Princess Olga and their son, Prince Nicholas.

The new president’s advisor, Oliver Antic, happened to be the lawyer who headed Mom’s legal team during the rehabilitation process last December. It was Oliver’s speech that that convinced the judges to overturn a 70-year verdict that falsely branded my grandfather a war criminal, traitor & Nazi sympathizer.

Now he was being brought home a hero.

On September 26th, I flew to Lausanne, Switzerland, with my mother, to witness the exhumation of our predecessors.

It was a mystery to me as to why they were all buried in Lausanne, as Nicky had died in a car accident in England in 1954, and my grandparents had both died in Paris – Paul in 1976 & Olga in 1997.

In a way, it was ironic that they had ended up in Switzerland, as Paul’s vision as leader of his country was to establish a neutral Yugoslavia during WW2  – the Switzerland of Eastern Europe.  Tragically, this plan was thwarted at the final hour and in 1941, he and his family were sent into exile at gunpoint, never to return to Yugoslavia. My mother was 4 at the time.

As we drove towards Lausanne, three magnificent, vibrant rainbows chased us down the highway – I saw it as a heavenly welcome from the three souls who we were coming to greet.

Upon our arrival, the Prefect of Police asked Mom if she thought we needed security. Apparently word had gotten out about the exhumation and there was concern that there could be some volatile anti-Serb factions who might protest, or worse, cause us bodily harm. Geez!

Mr. Poletti, the head of the funeral home, gave us brochures of his cemetery. This was no ordinary resting place, it was star-studded with the rich and famous – notables such as Coco Chanel, and the inventor of the bikini were buried there! Mom had a pang of regret. “What if they didn’t want to be moved from this beautiful place?!” I had to agree with her, it was the most pictoresque cemetery I had ever seen.

There was quite a large crowd, with a lot press in attendance – thankfully no terrorists! – who had gathered to witness this unusual, if not slightly macabre  event. I was feeling fine until I saw the open gravesite where they had dug up the coffins. Ugh! They had left them in the ground, all lined up. It was the creepiest image – so Halloween! I could have been on the set of a vampire movie!

The outer wooden coffins had disintegrated, leaving the dilapidated lead coffins with giant golden crosses on them. One coffin was intact, the 2 others showed more signs of wear and tear.

A crane lifted the caskets one at a time, out of the muddy grave. My grandfather’s coffin almost flew into a bush as the crane lurched violently. We all gasped. I wondered if this was his way of signaling that he was ready to leave!

We were asked if we wanted to view the remains in the caskets, as they had to be transferred into new coffins in order to travel across Europe. My mother did not. On the other hand, both my brother and I were curious.

After all, how often does one get the chance to see ones dead grandparents and to meet an uncle who died before I was ever born?

We went into the mortuary to watch them open the caskets. I was immediately struck by the pungent odor – it was almost unbearable. We saw my uncle Nicky first. We were all in shock. My mother – who did come to see in the end – almost fainted. She hadn’t seen her brother since she was 16. His body had been perfectly preserved. It looked like an Egyptian mummy. Hands crossed, fingers looked eerily alive. Visible were dark strands of hair across his forehead and his black wool jacket, almost intact. I put my scarf over my nose, trying not to inhale.

I had anticipated an innocuous pile of bones. Not entire bodies. My grandfather was completely decomposed down to the skeleton. I could see his spine, he was all black and his skull and spinal column were exposed. My grandmother, on the other hand, was quite well preserved. Not as well as Nicky, but I could clearly see the pattern on the fabric of the dress she was buried in – blue leaves on a white background.

I was curious as to why my uncle was so intact, considering he had died so long ago. What I learned was that burial techniques had changed over the years. They use to seal the bodies completely in lead, creating a vacuum – which prevented them from decomposing. Now, they opt for faster decay by leaving openings for air to get in. I guess overpopulation didn’t use to be an issue!

There were several dignitaries in attendance, including government officials who had flown in from Belgrade. The Serbian Ambassador to Switzerland, Mr. Protic,  told me that he had met Mom when she first came to Belgrade in 1998 – when it was still Communist Yugoslavia. She was trying to get a book published telling the truth about her father, and it was very difficult – actually it was illegal in those days. No one would touch it. Eventually, in 1989, she found one publisher who was brave enough to translate the manuscript. The Ambassador not only wrote the forward, but travelled with her through Yugoslavia promoting the book.

On October 4th, back in Belgrade, Mom and I were driven to the Serbian/Croatian frontier by a police escort to meet the bodies. We draped Paul’s casket with the Serbian flag, put wreaths on the coffins and kissed them, according to Orthodox tradition.

Oliver Antic told me that, coincidentally, he was related to Milan Antic – who had been my grandfather’s most loyal supporter and minister. Milan had spent 16 years in jail after he refused to denounce Paul. In his words, “Life is not worth living if you have to sacrifice your personal dignity.” His daughter Olga, was one of the guests at the burial.  She confided how hard it had been visiting her father in jail during her entire childhood. Sadly, he died shortly after he was released.

I thought of how history had come full circle, and how connected many of the players were. Oliver said that Milan Antic appointed his grandfather – another Antic – as Chief of security for King Alexander I – Unfortunately, he no longer held that position in 1934, when the King was brutally assassinated. As a result of that fateful event, Paul, my grandfather, became the Regent.

Oliver said, “I feel like my own cousin is coming home.”

We followed the convoy into Belgrade, to the church of the Archangel Michael. The police had closed all the streets for our arrival. The Patriarch was waiting for us at the entrance of the church, as well as the President, the Prime Minister, many Ambassadors from around the world and many family members.

I was wearing a little diamond and pearl cross necklace that my grandmother had given me many years ago. I imagined that she had most likely worn the cross in this exact location.

The Presidents’ guards brought the caskets and lay them on the same rug that my grandparents had stood on during their wedding ceremony, on October 22, 1923, almost 100 years ago, in this same church.

The bodies remained in the church until the following evening, with a constant stream of people coming to pay their respects.

Every time I looked over at the coffins, I was overcome by emotion. Presidential guards lined up in either side of Paul’s coffin, with guards in Serbian national costume flanking the other 2 coffins. The priests performed a final liturgy to send them off to their final resting place. It was a beautiful ceremony.

Oliver stood behind me with tears in his eyes, “At last, Paul is happy.”

In the evening, the bodies were moved, again by police escort, to a town outside of Belgrade called Oplenatz – to the Karageorgevic family crypt.

We walked outside the church, and were swarmed by the crowd. A priest grabbed my arm, “I was the one who placed Paul’s body in the sarcophagus at the time of his death in Paris.”

It seemed like everyone who had been connected to him in any way, had come to pay their respects.

The following day, on October 6th, we drove by bus to Oplenatz, for the burial.

The choir was exquisite, truly celestial. And Bishop Irene’s sermon was deeply moving. “”For only one who has experienced beauty in tragedy…only he maintains true nobility with which to enact the deeds of a true knight of faith.”

The President arrived towards the end of the ceremony and made a speech. It was miraculous to think that my grandfather, a man who had been condemned and vilified, was now being heralded as a hero and visionary. My mother translated some of the Presidents’ words, “Paul had been maligned by the Communists long enough, it was now time to change the history books in schools.” Afterwards, I complimented him. “That was wonderful.” He gave me a smirk, “But you didn’t understand anything I said!” True, his speech was in Serbian, but it wasn’t complete BS. I knew he was honoring my grandparents, and, most importantly, re-writing history for the country.

We then followed the coffins into the underground crypt where the bodies were going to be buried. They were placed opposite Paul’s father, Prince Arsen.

We barely had enough time to get back to Belgrade to freshen up before we had to turn around and drive up to the White Palace for a reception in Paul’s honor. About 100 friends and family had flown in from around the world to attend the events. My mother escorted all her friends up into her mother’s bedroom, the room where she was born. This was the palace that her father had built. Her first home. The last place she and her parents had been before they were sent into exile.

Today, the palace had been transformed into a place of celebration, instead of a symbol for the great injustice that had befallen my family. Closure at last. Our family legacy restored. I thank you, Mom, with all my heart.

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