Nish: A City in Mourning

By M. Adorjan

[The New York Times/Current History, February 1916]

M. Adorjan, the Hungarian war correspondent with the Bulgarian Army, sent to The London Times this interesting message from Nish, the former capital of Serbia:

The first thing that struck my eye as I approached Nish was a great American flag flying over a building beside a small Red Cross flag to indicate that the American Red Cross Mission is occupying it. In fact, America seems to be quite well represented in the occupied city, for on most of the shop doors one can see an inscription in English, "American Property," a kind of precaution against the looting inclinations of the Bulgarian troops.

The streets of Nish are broad and pleasant, and make quite a good impression on the stranger. Over most of the houses flags are flying, either white ones as a sign of friendliness, or Bulgarian ones. On almost every house also one sees a small black flag and black drapery over the door, indicating that inhabitants of the house are in mourning. The whole of Nish gives one the impression that all are in mourning, for I have not seen two dozen houses without the black draperies and flag. It is also possible that these signs of mourning are being exhibited to symbolize the tragic fate of the town and Serbia. In the streets every woman is wearing black clothes, the men having a broad black band on their sleeves. This is the more touching, as every shop is closed and the people are walking the streets depressed and seemingly unconcerned, yet there is a most tragic aspect on the whole city.

I was billeted in the house of a chemist called Jovanovich. A black flag was mounted on this house also, and, although the women folk received me with evident displeasure, and the landlady declared that she could not supply me with any cover for the night, I asked her if she had lost some, one in the war, as I could see a black flag flying over the house. "Yes," she replied. "I lost my husband and son in the war, but they served in the Hungarian Army, because they were Hungarian Serbs, but I came home to my people as soon as the war broke out." Later on one of the servant girls brought wood into my room for a fire, and she told me that for three days there had not been a bit of bread in the house, so when I came back in the evening from supper I had with the officers of the General Staff, out of pure precaution I brought a whole loaf with me for the widow and her two maids. The next night I found an excellent cushion and a fine cover on my bed, but the landlady I did not see again throughout my stay.

The bread had a most wonderful effect. It was expected by the population that the invading forces would distribute food among the population, but this had not been done, for the necessary quantities had not yet reached the town.

It is evident that the people are practically starving; you can see by their pale faces that they have neither bread nor potatoes; yet they walk about in the streets with a dignity and contempt, especially for the Bulgarian soldiers, as if in the best of circumstances. At 7 o'clock in the evening the population has to be indoors, the streets are dark and deserted, and only the patrols are pacing their rounds. Not a light is to be seen in the windows, not because lighting is prohibited, but owing to the lack of oil and candles, which cannot be had at any price.

The Bulgarian Prefect whom I went to see told me that the attitude of the population has not been hostile, chiefly because the men had been taken away and the women had been seriously warned not to commit excesses, under capital penalty. "One proclamation to the people to give up their arms was quite sufficient," said the Prefect, "for they gave up every firearm they possessed without further trouble." He also said that the misery of the population as regards foodstuff was indescribable, for there was absolutely no bread, butter, eggs, or milk, and only a very little meat was available. The authorities were unable to supply them with foodstuff, owing to the blowing up of the bridges and the destruction of the railway lines by the Serbians, a circumstance which, under the present weather conditions, makes the transporting of large quantities impossible. The men, especially the German engineers, are working hard to put the lines in order, but at least another three weeks will pass before railway communication can be reopened. It also bears hardly on the population that Serbian paper notes have become absolutely valueless, and their silver coins are only accepted in the value of their silver weight that is, they only get 65 centimes for a dinar.

Next morning I was invited to breakfast by Prince Windischgratz, who lives in the building of the Austro-Hungarian Consulate. When I arrived there at 9 o'clock I found hundreds and hundreds of old men, women, and children before the building, the most terrible-looking, misery-stricken group I ever beheld, who had come there in their heart-rending misery to beg for bread. I had seen misery already two years ago after the fall of Adrianople, when the Greek refugees arrived at Saloniki, and this year in Galicia and Russian Poland, where the havoc of war ruined everything, but nowhere did I see misery so terrible and so naked as at Nish before the house where a sumptuous breakfast was awaiting me. But there was nothing to be done for them, and nothing will be done until railway communication has been re-established. The Prince himself distributed many thousands of crowns, Austrian money, among the famine-stricken population, but money does not mean anything to them, as they cannot buy food with it. Among the people standing before the house from early in the morning until 7 in the evening there were also many Austrian and Hungarian subjects, as well as Greeks, many of whom had been interned before the Serbians quitted the city.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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