Jovanka Broz (1925-2013)

ivansarmy via Flickr
ivansarmy via Flickr

On October 20th 2013, Jovanka Broz died of a heart attack at the age of 88. Like many elderly women in Serbia, she lived out her last years in isolation and poverty. Since the death of her husband in 1980, Jovanka rarely left the house. This is a banal tragedy that many women silently suffer through, their last years spent not so much living as slowly dying, as some old women do. But Jovanka was different.

Jovanka Broz was the wife of Marshall Josip Broz ‘Tito’, who ruled Yugoslavia from the end of WWII until his death in 1980, also at the age of 88. Jovanka was the First Lady of Yugoslavia. She lived a glamorous and high-profile life, always at the side of the leader of the non-aligned movement. In the days after the war, she lived alongside a secular saint. Tito and Jovanka were imprinted onto socialist Yugoslavia’s DNA, appearing not only in newspapers, radio, and television, but postal stamps and school textbooks. However, immediately following her husband’s death, Jovanka was put under house arrest, her property seized and her name written out of the history books and the national consciousness. It was as if she had never existed: the Yugoslav secret police had her quietly tucked away, hidden like a family secret in the attic.

In the years since Marshall Tito’s death, many regimes have come and gone across the former Yugoslavia. In those 33 years, nobody took much of an interest in her story. The only brief interview she gave was in 2009. Jovanka remained, however, the closest source to Tito’s life, possessing a singular wealth of knowledge about one of the 20th century’s most important figures. She had a unique perspective and a remarkable story that is gone forever; the newspapers let her passing pass. A history dies with her, an unwritten chapter in the story of a nation that is already being forgotten.

I meant to write something about Jovanka’s death last week, but I didn’t get around to it. ‘What difference does it make,’ I asked myself, whether I write it this week or next. Jovanka, after all, only passed away a week ago, but she has been dead for decades. They killed her in 1980. The rest is silence; it has been for years.