3. The Choice, Part 2.
In April of 1992, Nada Rothbart was living happily in Sarajevo, Bosnia, with her husband and two young sons–till the night the Bosnian Civil War broke out on the street in front of her home. By the time they recognized what was happening–it was too late; Nada was trapped with her children, surrounded by tanks and snipers. After 60 days with almost no food, no water, and no power, a surprise ceasefire was announced. Nada put on her shoes, grabbed her children, and walked out the door.
Nada Rothbart lives in Sonoma County, California where today she’s a realtor. She doesn’t play basketball anymore but she does do a lot of yoga. She’s actively campaigning to convince Robert and his family to move back to California–so she can see them as much as she wants.
Robert Rothbart is a proud dad of two. He just finished his 13th season playing professional basketball. He’s currently a center for team Hapoel Eilat in Israel.
Robert Rothbart and family in Eilat, Israel. 2017.
Sunnyvale, CA Firebirds Basketball. Coach Nada. Robert top-left. 1996.
Zoran and Nada (top), Ivan and Robert (bottom left) with friends in Sunnyvale, CA in 1994.
This is Lucky: True stories of unexpected events, adventures, and experiences. I’m Briana Breen.
Today’s Episode: The Choice, Part 2.
In the 1980’s and early 90’s one country dominated European basketball–Yugoslavia. At the time, there was a saying: “The Americans invented it; the Yugoslavs perfected it.” Nada Rothbart was one of Yugoslavia’s top women players. A 6 foot 3 center, she played division one basketball from age 13 to 30. She retired, finally, when she realized she was pregnant with her first child.
In April of 1992, Nada was living happily in Sarajevo, Bosnia, with her husband and two young sons–till the night the Bosnian Civil War broke out on the street in front of her home. By the time they recognized what was happening–it was too late; there was no way out of Sarajevo and, for Nada, there was no way to leave her home. Nada’s husband went into hiding–trying to avoid being captured by soldiers. And Nada was trapped with her children in an apartment building, surrounded by tanks and snipers. After 60 days with almost no food, no water, and no power, a surprise ceasefire was announced. Nada put on her shoes, grabbed her children, and walked out the door.
If you missed part one, you’ll want to go back and listen. Our story picks up with Nada and her children finally safe at her parents’ home in Serbia– the summer of 1992.
You know when a ball is flying through the air and somebody’s catching it and has a split of a second to decide whether to go for a layup or go for a pass-that training is crucial and I feel that training got us to survive. I knew intellectually there was no way we were going to survive. But that moment when I heard there is a cease-fire going on, I didn’t hear the rest of the sentence, I didn’t listen to the rest of the news. We just jumped into the first pair of shoes I could find and we were out. I am convinced that all this training got us to make it through this escape.
We were probably at my parents house in Novi Sad in Serbia for three weeks. One night I was tucking them in the bed and one of them said where is our dad. So in Sarajevo is he going to survive. I probably haven’t heard from him for at least two months. And I said to them You do know how your father is a really smart man and they were nodding–yeah. So if the situation depends on him I am 100 percent sure that he will find a way, just like we did, and get out of the war and join us. And we kissed and hugs and they went to sleep.
We found out that several countries got together and decided to let all the Jews that are willing to leave Sarajevo–leave. Former Yugoslavia had only fifteen hundred Jews. In order for my husband to get into that convoy–being a Serbian not Jewish–he had to have a paper. So my father faxed that to Sarajevo, The recipient was my husband’s best friend who was Muslim. He risked his life–he went across Sarajevo in the middle of the night–to get that fax to give it to my husband.
It took probably five days. I got a phone call from Zagreb capital of Croatia. And he says, “I made it. What are we going to do?” We were separated in war for 100 days.We met in a railway station in Budapest. We got out of the train. My husband had mustache. Kids were hesitating a little bit. They didn’t know who is this guy until he said, “Hey how are you guys?” They recognized his voice. The feeling that we are together is the most special amazing feeling. We made it. We made it. And now what?
Many refugees from Bosnian war went to other European countries and having a status of being a refugee. So what happens when you’re a refugee. As soon as the war is over they give you a one way ticket then you’ll go back wherever you are from. I didn’t want to be the one to go back in a ruined country-start building it from scratch.
I already made up my mind to go to Israel knowing that Israel would give me, as a Jewish person, an Israeli passport and a status of citizen equal to other citizens. I had the utmost confidence in my husband’s abilities and mine to recreate life in another country. That same night we flew to Tel Aviv and became citizens of Israel that same day.
My name is Robert Rothbart. My brother Ivan was 5 years old. I was 6. I remember bits and pieces of everything. I remember meeting up with my dad on the train. I don’t remember the plane ride. I remember waiting for our passports and citizenship in Israel at the airport. The next thing I remember was just our life in Israel in the immigration center that we lived for the next year.
So they put us in Tveria in immigration center and our new Israeli life started. The country gave us a one bedroom apartment, four blankets, four plates, everything else four. And we started from there.
That immigration center was, it was. a terrible place. I remember the smell of urine everywhere in the hallways. But everybody was so happy to be there, happy to be alive. We didn’t have anything–physical, material–we didn’t have anything. But we had learned that physical things don’t matter and I don’t think anybody there cared.
There were several families from Bosnia that lived with us. So I remember the friendships I had there with the Bosnia kids who had also escaped war. And there were Jews from Russia, from all over the world. WIth us came a group of Ethiopians that had immigrated to Israel; Ethiopians that were Jews who were found by some explorer who hadn’t been in contact with civilization for hundreds of years–from the mountains of Gondar. And they had been thrown in this place. We had been thrown in this same place in the same way.
All the men used to sit outside because it was so hot at night they used to sit outside and eat sunflower seeds and talk for hours and hours and hours. And I just remember my dad you know sitting there laughing with the other guys. I know it wasn’t a careless time. I’m sure they had all kinds of things on their mind. But I think all of them were just deeply grateful for their lives and it seems like such a happy scene to see them there.
I remember even seeing my parents–they acted different than they had been before. And I think the reason is because a second chance at life was just a feeling that it’s beyond happiness–it’s something much deeper than that. And I think everybody cherished that time and I remembered as the happiest time of my childhood.
Like Robert says, we had absolutely nothing. But it was the happiest time of our life–all of us felt that way.
We got 1200 shekels, which is around that time $300. The apartment was paid for by the country. We were put on a program to learn Hebrew.
I remember my first day in school I remember asking my dad, “How am I going to go to school, I don’t speak the language.” And I remember it was such an easy, “You’ll be alright, you’ll learn.”
We started to look for jobs. And my husband, before war, owned a software engineering company in Yugoslavia. And he didn’t want to do anything else except for engineering. His Hebrew was not good enough and people were not hiring him; he was getting frustrated about that.
I started working in a diamond company as a salesperson. One regular day at work I’m standing behind my counter and I noticed really tall guy I can tell you with 100 percent certainty it’s a basketball player and, probably, his agent. And I went straight there to say to the agent. “Are you an agent? Is this a basketball player?” “Yeah.” And I said, “I played basketball in Yugoslavia and I played for the national team.” And he says, “What are you doing here selling diamonds? He said let me call the female basketball agent.” I said, “What do you mean? I haven’t played for eight years!” He called the guy who says hey I found an Yugoslavian female basketball player .” I’m thinking these people are crazy.
I went home after my shift. And people started banging on my door saying you had a telephone call. And the phones were public phones and the outside of the building. The guy said he wants to represent me. And I said listen I really can’t play basketball. “No no no. You can play, of course. Go home. Think about this I will call you the next day.
So we hung up. I came home and I said to my husband guess what happens. This agent want me to play basketball. He says, “Nada, you always loved playing basketball. It’s being offered to you. Go to the downtown buy a pair of shoes.” “I can’t I’m out of shape.I can’t do this. This is too much.” “Of course you can buy a pair of shoes and start running.”
I started buying into this idea and went to the downtown and bought a light blue canvas all stars because eight years ago these were the best shoes Yugoslavian national team had but I never owned one because we were so poor as a country. They would give me a pair. And after the tournament they have to return them so another woman can wear them.
So I started running around the neighborhood. Very quickly maybe two weeks after I had the first meeting the agent called me and they asked me to go to the tryouts That particular day, we went to to the arena. I’m putting my shoes on and I see the players.. Some American kids, some Russian kids, everybody tall and taller than me. They were all 17 to 23. I was 38 years old.
So they gave me this lady from America to pair with her. She says, “Why didn’t you put your regular shoes on?” I said, “I have my shoes, these are the best shoes on Earth.” She laughed so much she fell down laughing.
So I haven’t touched the ball for eight years. I started running like crazy. Running so fast. She came to me pulled my my shirt. This is hey you’re making me look bad here. Slow down. I was just flying through the court fighting for my life because this is my way out of immigration center.
So the practice was over. The players went home and I’m sitting on a bench waiting for my agent and the lights are off. Just a little light in the back from the office. After like half an hour he finally walked out of the office. I remember hearing his steps across the arena on the hardwood floor. He came to me and he offered his hand. He says, “Congratulations. All these girls were trying out for that one position. These are the best centers. And they chose you.”
The coach was a female coach. Her name was Yael, I remember her very well and she says, “She looked a little rusty to me.” And agent says, “I lied to her that you haven’t played for a year or two because of the war.”
I went to the bus came to my immigration center after midnight. I walked through the main gate. And I hear little voices of my sons and their dad. And both of them are sitting there on the bench and I can hear their voices. And I said I got the job. They came and jumped on me kissed me hugged me and I heard their dad’s voice saying, “I told you your mom is a champion”. So that was nice.
We moved to Herzliya as a part of the deal. I got a really beautiful apartment in a beautiful area of Herzliya and a much better life started in Israel.
I didn’t know her as a basketball player up until that moment. So this was a new reality that my mom was a basketball player and we we were very much a part of that. Me and my brother would walk with her to practices every single day. Bother them while they were trying to practice. I remember we even broke a window in the gym during one of the practices and then they said that’s it you guys can’t come here anymore. So I remember my mom all of a sudden being a professional basketball player and going to her games and being a part of that.
This is the most fun I’ve ever experienced in my life. There is life after basketball. But those were the really wonderful years. I was 40 years old when I played my last game of basketball. I still have dreams of playing basketball and winning games and scoring points.
My husband couldn’t find a job–that was a very big concern . . . And he met someone in Israel. And he offered him to come to Silicon Valley. So we just grabbed on our opportunity to make a life for ourselves. The plan was he would go first. He spent four months here alone. I came once to visit . . . and he . . . It was July 5th 1994 when Ivan, Robert, and I flew from Tel Aviv to San Francisco to move to America.
My husband rented an apartment in Sunnyvale where everything was wonderful. We were fascinated by big grocery stores and going to all you can eat buffets. We were having fun.
After I had finally settled into Israel and finally made friends, you know people came to my birthday party, I felt comfortable in that place. And the next thing I remember is we were packing up and moving to the United States you know and it was just another move for us. And I started again. School in Sunnyvale. Not speaking a word of English. And pretty soon I caught on. I felt comfortable with that. Very quickly I was enrolled in city league basketball in Sunnyvale. And my mom was my coach
One year later my youngest son Ivan was eight and I picked him up from the school. And. He says mom I feel sick. And I. It’s Friday afternoon and I said you know what on Monday if you still don’t feel good we’ll see a doctor. He says OK. He felt fine. So couple weeks went by I was watching him. And I didn’t notice anything unusual. They played tennis; that weekend they both played really well. On Wednesday morning and Ivan says I can go to school I’m really tired, Mom.
My husband took him to the pediatrician. He came home with some medications–Advil, Tylenol. I saw him feeling worse and worse. I called his pediatrician 17 million times. Pediatrician said “Listen, this is a flu season. Your son has a flu. I told him I am not a doctor. I’m not only a mother’s intuition. If you have a flu you sleep half of the day or more–you sleep. There’s no runny nose, he not coughing. He doesn’t sleep. He’s in pain. He said something like–you be a mom, you leave me be a doctor. And three days later it was worse. They transported him to emergency.
They took me to the hospital. He was in intensive care. He was hooked up to all kinds of you know monitors and he had a breathing machine and he you know he was hooked up to everything that you could possibly think of. And but they told me. Go ahead and say say something to your brother. Even though he can’t answer you he would love to hear it. And I remember they closed the door and let me be together with my brother and I remember telling him that he needs to fight; that he can do it, you know. And. I don’t know why I told him that. I just . . . I so badly wanted wanted things to change I so badly wanted that to not be happening. And obviously now that I’m grown and if he did understand me and if he did hear me. That’s not what I would have wanted to tell him that he needs to fight–to make him feel like he needs to do something for us you know. I would have just told him that you know I love him. That’s it. And so a couple of days after that my parents came in they they told me that my brother was no was no longer coming home. My heart was torn to pieces. And things changed from then on.
He passed away seven days from the first day he says “Mom I can’t go to school, I don’t feel well.” We have never found out exactly why and how my son, Ivan, got sick and passed away. We let them do the autopsy and the autopsy report says that they found bacteria similar to brucella. Brucella is a bacteria and the disease is brucellosis. That is not fatal. It’s it’s deadly with animals and not deadly with humans. And the doctors explained to us that he is a second case that they are aware of that some human dies from this–that they they know of.
So my younger son Ivan was handsome, tall, funny, kind, polite.
We used to come home alone, with a key, and mom would tell us “No TV until homework was done.” And I would go straight to the TV and he would go straight to the room to do his homework. And I would you know put on a show or whatever and I would come to him and say, “Hey this show is coming on!” And he told me “No! Mom said no TV until homework.” And he was so intense about doing his work and being a good kid–he really was almost too good to be true, really.
He was just going to be a genius. Like his dad . . .It it’s very hard to to understand that kind of a loss.
Everything we had gone through up until then was nothing. And still is nothing. A unit of four–that was my rock and my foundation. My whole world was being just torn apart.
I was devastated so much that I remember first first year crying constantly like every awake moment I was crying. Two years after our loss my husband left the marriage.
So my parents got divorced And when my mom told me they were getting a divorce–I was in such disbelief. I was in such shock. Slowly, everything that I thought was real, everything that I thought was part of my life was was just getting ripped apart in front of me.
I was functioning a few hours a day to be a normal mom, prepare food. Every moment I can collapse and cry and be with my pain. That was happening.
One day I was in bed, my face in my pillow and Robert comes into my room and sits right next to me. He was 11 years old. He says, “Mom I understand you lost your son but I lost I lost my brother. And my father left. So I lost that, too. I need you.
As soon as he said that I jumped from that bed like somebody poked me with a knife and I said you’re absolutely right. I’m here for you. And I said you know what you’re going to do. You and I are going to go to the bike store and we’re going to buy two bikes. Don’t ask me why I said that.
And we biked and hiked the whole summer.
And I remember him biking in front of me.
He would turn around and yell, “Mom!”
I said “what?”
“I LOVE YOU!”
He saved he absolutely saved my life and I’m so lucky. He saved my life because when Ivan passed away I had a tremendous reason to live. I had the reason. I was responsible for Robert’s life. So just by being there it brought the strength out of me and now. And then we started getting better a little bit. Slowly slowly. We started getting better. So I feel my son saved me
After everything, I love being with my son. I love to watch him grow up into an amazing young man. I love just being and talking with him about everything and anything. He’s 30 years old, he’s 7’3”, he has a huge beard. And doesn’t let me hug him and kiss him as often as I would love to. And when I come close to him I can smell the smell of my babies. I don’t want him to start feeling weird but I want to inhale and remember the smell of their skin.
He plays professional basketball in Israel. Because he lives far away, of course we use the FaceTime and Skype, and all the technology helps tremendously. These experiences carry me for approximately six months. And then my wound in my chest–from losing a child and from him being far away–start bleeding again uncontrollably and I have to get the ticket and fly again and see him again to feel a little better.
Mom, they can hear the tears on the podcast.
It was amazing for me to hear what do you really remember.
Yeah, because it really happened.
It was really amazing for me.
Robert Rothbart just finished his 13th season playing professional basketball. He’s played professionally in Europe and Israel since he graduated from high school. He’s a proud dad of two and he lives with his family in Israel.
Nada Rothbart lives in Sonoma County, California where today she’s a realtor. She doesn’t play basketball anymore but she does do a lot of yoga. She’s actively campaigning to convince Robert and his family to move back to California–so she can see them as much as she wants..
Thanks so much for listening to Lucky. You can see pictures of Nada and her family’s life, and their adventures through war and basketball at lucky podcast.org. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe–wherever you get your podcasts. And please tell a friend.
Music in this episode is from blue dot sessions. Produced with help from Natacha Ruck and Tony Gannon. Special thanks to Nada Rothbart, Robert Rothbart, and Tom Wurst.
Thanks to Kristin Keith, Lucien Pevec, and Bryan and Kristin Posner, and David Newson.
Lucky is made possible by the support of BOS. BOS provides transparent wealth management and financial planning to individuals and organizations in the Bay Area and beyond. BOS doesn’t sell financial products. They provide customized plans and personalized service–to help keep you on track for whatever comes next in life.
Visit BOSInvest.com to learn more.
2. The Choice, Part 1.
April 1 1992, 4 days before start of war. Ivan & Robert
Nada, Zoran, and Robert (10 months old) in 1987 in a park in Sarajevo
Nada, age 17, at a tournament in Budapest. Nada is far right.
Nada is in the top row, second from left. Age 15 in 1971.
This is Lucky: True stories of unexpected events, adventures, and experiences. I’m Briana Breen.
Today’s Episode: The Choice
In the 1980’s and early 90’s one country dominated European basketball–Yugoslavia. At the time, there was a saying: “The Americans invented it; the Yugoslavs perfected it.” Nada Rothbart was one of Yugoslavia’s top women players. A 6 foot 3 center, she played division one basketball from age 13 to 30.
My name is Nada Rothbart. Since I was 13 years old I was this tall–six foot three–and fell in love with that game of basketball. In between 13 and 30, I played first division in Yugoslavia; that’s like the WNBA here in America. Coaches said I was one of the most talented players the country ever had. I loved it so much I never wanted to leave.
Since I moved to Sarajevo, the economic crises was the worst in history. So my last job was being a secretary slash lawyer. It was the most boring job you can ever imagine. I thought–this is it. I’m going to open my own law office. I found a space. I remember dragging the carpet across the town in high heels. And I already found some clients.
April 5th, 1992, the day before I was going to open my law office. Everything was there. I was so excited. The last thing I needed in my office was a telephone. The telephone guy connected the door, I locked the door, and I remember walking across the river Mijacka. I barely touched the ground–how happy I was and proud.
At that time my husband and I, my two little kids, 4.5 years old and 5.5 years old, we lived with my in-laws. We were sitting the dinner table and we started hearing unusual noises outside of the window. I looked through the window. [Sound of crowd shouting in Serbian.] It was unbelievable amount of people walking from one side of the town towards downtown. [Sound of crowd shouting in Serbian.] Hundreds of people yelling. It was scary. And suddenly I heard a gunshot in front of our balcony. [Newsreel footage sound of woman yelling in Serbian. Sound of machine gun shooting].
It was a sound I’d never heard before. My husband went through the door immediately to see what’s going on. And Later on, on TV, we heard that was the first victim of war.
I just said that that was a sound I’ve never heard before and I just realized it’s not true. Several months before war started we would go to concerts on the top of the hill in Sarajevo. And my husband and I and my best friend, Aida, we are going up to catch a concert on the top of the hill in Sarajevo and we hear gunshots maybe a street or two down. [Sound of shot being fired.] And we stopped. [Sound of two shots being fired.] I don’t remember who said who said, “Oh it’s not in our street.”
So these things were happening slowly, gradually, to the point that you’re able to say, “Oh this is not in my street I’m going to go to the concert.” That night my husband said I don’t think we will have war in Bosnia because the nationalities are so equal that nobody can win this war.
At that time Bosnia had three major nationalities Serbs Croats and Muslims. Among all our friends, there was always Serbs, Muslims, Croats, and I’m Jewish. We had neighbors with all nationalities and religions. We were all friends. We celebrated everybody’s holidays. My in-laws were Serbs and I learned how to celebrate their Christmas. We felt nothing would ever divide us.
First 10 days maybe, we had a somewhat normal life. The shooting was only during the night. And during the day we were going to get to work. Kids were going out to play.
My father called from Serbia saying, “Pack your bags and run.” I said, “Oh don’t worry Dad. They’re just shooting over our buildings. They’re not shooting at us.” And he–being the only Holocaust survivor in his family–was terrified! He said to me, “Nada, if you have any chance pick up your kids and leave.”
I remember saying, “They will stop in day or two everybody’s saying they will stop and I want to keep working in my office.” He said to me, “Nada, Six million Jews died because they were holding on their offices, their stores, their lives, their houses. Because they didn’t know that something like this can happen. Who could know that? Who could predict something like this? But your entire family died in Auschwitz so you know you don’t repeat the same mistake.”
It took me at least 20 days to figure out that it’s actually a war. in some level, I thought–maybe somebody is shooting a movie about the war in my neighborhood. And I remember thinking that’s pretty crazy thought; you know better. it’s very hard to accept that your entire life is gone. Everything you ever worked for, learned, studied, accomplished, planned. It’s absolutely gone.
I went to work several times until one day–I was all dressed up and ready to go in–and I remember grabbing the door handle the biggest bomb exploded. And it was in the in the middle of the day and I remember stopping and saying well they will be OK if I miss one day. And from that day I wasn’t going to work at all.
Sarajevo was divided by the river Mijacka. Mijacka was a beautiful river that had bridges to connect us. When war started, Milatzka divided the town in two. And I have never known before war that I live in so-called Serbian part. So now I’m living in the Serbian side of town. Mountains that are on my side of town are filled with Serbian tanks and soldiers. They’re shooting across the river to the Muslim side of town. Muslim side of the mountains are filled with their soldiers and tanks. And they’re shooting across the river. And one of the first victims was a little two year old that was sleeping in a crib. She was a muslim little girl living in the Serbian side of town. So Muslims killed her hoping to kill somebody who is a Serb. It’s just a representation of absolute nonsense of what happened and how these wars are absolute tragedy.
The Serbs put an announcement: If you are a male from this age to this age, maybe 16 to 68 or something like that, you need to report to join the army. As soon as my husband saw this. He came home gave me five thousand deutschmarks in cash. That was a huge amount of money for Yugoslavia at that time. And he says I’m not going to join the Army. I’m leaving.
He didn’t kiss the kids he didn’t hug and kiss me. He just left. I can just guess that it was too hard to say goodbye. I remember closing the door and saying–now it’s up to me. I have two old parents here. I have two little kids here. And I need to keep this together.
Then Serbs surrounded every building and came with tanks and heavy ammunition.
Some soldiers were holding these rockets on their shoulders. And when they shoot somewhere–that produces and amazing sound and the whole building would shake many, many times. From the shaking, the building material would get all over the house, in our hair and skin.
Very quickly figured out that the safest thing to do is to cover all the windows and place the shelves with books and the cushiony stuff from the sofas, mattresses, because the bullets and pieces of the bomb would be stuck in the fabric of the mattress and the layers of the books. Every time when we hear sirens we would go down in the basement and stay there until we feel we are safe to come up. Of course if the bomb explodes on top of our building would be all underneath. There was absolutely no safe place for us.
The only thing we had as far as food is 100 kilos of sauerkraut and we had probably a case of oil. Every single day I cut sour cabbage, and put a little olive oil as a salad, and a little red paprika. Try eating this every day with absolutely nothing else. It’s healthy, it’s probiotic, but there is absolutely nothing in your stomach.
One particular day I experienced a horrible bang on the door. I opened the door and I see 17 guys in front of me; I counted them all. The first guy standing in front of me is taller than me with a line of bullets across his shoulder and machine gun. I start assessing the situation. And the guy says, “What’s your name?” So I said, “Nada Rothbart.” “What’s Rothbart? What last name is this?” I said, “It’s mine.” He wants to know am I Serbian? He wants to know is he going to kill me or not. What is he going to do?
And I just found the kindest and the warmest voice. And I said, “Listen gentlemen, we don’t have anything here for you.” He asked me immediately, “Where’s your husband.” I said “He’s gone.” So I opened the doors wide open–so I’m not hiding anything. And I said, “We have here my in-laws they’re old and sick in the bedroom. I have two little kids and me. There’s nothing here really.” And I just stood there and looked straight into his eyes. I gave him respect. And I stood my ground. Several long seconds of silence. He says, “OK let’s go guys.” And they turned around and left. Later in my basement, I heard that they got into every apartment. They beat people up. They came to steal anything of value.
One of the nights being in a basement. My neighbor who was at that time 60 really broke down almost like a nervous breakdown yelling at me, “How dare you keep your kids here. Everybody left with the small kids and you stayed here with your little kids. I don’t know why you’re still here.” But at that time I didn’t have any way out. There was no way out.
I had the deepest pain in the bottom of my stomach really knowing that I kept my two precious sons in that situation–and I could have left earlier–and I am responsible for their life or possibly death. it was tearing me apart. I was convinced, we’re all going to be dead here.
One morning, it was quiet–unusually quiet. And I opened a drawer in the living room and I found that transistor radio. I didn’t know I owned one. And I listened to the news. That there was going to be a five day ceasefire starting that day. From the experience, a cease fire would happen except for it would last 20 minutes. And somebody would shoot and then war starts again.
I said, “Let’s go.” And I put my feet into the first shoes I found. I knew this is a place I will never come back again. So we walked out. My mother in law walked with us maybe for two minutes and she just said, “Well I will say goodbye. Her husband had a stroke. And he was in bed. She was not going to leave him. So we just briefly gave each other a hug. I didn’t turn around to see her. There was no looking back.
This is Yugoslavia–as my hand. In the middle of the hand is Sarajevo. On the right side more towards the north is Serbia, Novi Sad. We were going towards that direction, going towards my hometown, when I saw a new formed barricades and around 50 to 60 women and kids. Kids crying and women yelling, “I want to go.” So everybody heard on on the radio there will be ceasefire–and they’re trying to go. So the army is stopping us and saying, “Who are you and where are you going?”
And we are standing in the back of that line when suddenly one of the soldiers that appeared to be the main guy in that barricade said, “Hey, Nada, come here.” I didn’t know is it good or bad. And I started walking to the front of the line. And I come close to him and I recognize him. He’s one of these faithful fans from my basketball years that meet you in a bus or on the street says, “Oh I’ve watched your game last night. You played really well.” And I would always politely thank him and stop and talk to him. Suddenly he’s in a uniform and my life depends on what he’s going to decide.
And he says where are you going. I said, “I am from Navisad. I’m going home.” He said, “Oh, I’m going to help you. Hey buddy. Come on over. Help this woman and these kids go to . . . Where do you want to go?
The first place I had in mind to go was Pale–a little village.. If I made it there there was no bombing there. It’s on the top of the hill. Where actually the Serbian authorities and president were located at that time. So if I make it there– could hope to survive.
So now this guy shows up with a car. Beat up car filled with ammunition, bombs, everything. He looks like bad news. But he was asked to help us. The kids started to cry immediately. And I said, “Hey, don’t worry about anything. This is a really good man. He’s going to help us.” And I made a crucial mistake.
I gave him a $100 worth of money to motivate him to help us. He took the money–
which was at that time a yearly salary in Yugoslavia. He took the money, drove us literally around the corner of that building, opened the door and cussed us out, “Get out of here you piece of dot dot dot.” And we just got out. “I said, no problems no prob. Thank you so much. Thank you.”
My kids are screaming and crying. I hugged them and kiss them and kneel down. I said everything will be OK. We’ll be fine.
So we kept going, walking, kept going and suddenly there was a field full of women refugees–old women and women with kids–and unbelievable amount of army trucks. Every truck was full. And I thought, I’m the luckiest person if I can get the permission to go in the back of the truck with my kids to get out of Sarajevo. And I asked the driver, I said, “Is this ok if my kids and I go up there.” He looked at me and my beautiful kids and says, “No ma’am I will find something better for you.”
He walked me around and found another truck. Now I walk in the back of the truck. Two thirds of the truck were ammunition and food. And there was six soldiers. I put Robert, the older son, on the farther side. The younger son in my lap. Hugging both of them. So they have no contact with any soldiers. And we started our journey. So here we are in the truck. I thought this is it. These people are going to drive us and we’re going to be safe. After around 15 minutes our interrogation started. They started asking my kids questions.
“What are your names? What is your religious holiday?” So I’m Jewish and I never taught them any of our holidays; I grew up playing basketball and not too much in a religious world. They knew I was Jewish but there was not on the top of their head. We celebrated their father’s Serbian holidays. And they started telling them the right answers–because they were Serbian soldiers.
“We celebrate Christmas, we celebrate this, we celebrate that.” They said, “What is your grandma’s name? What is your grandfather’s name?” They just went through all the questions. And I knew for sure that if we were Croats or Muslims–they would kill us. And that would be the end of it.
So it one of their last questions is, “What’s your father’s name.” “My father’s name is Zoran Kajmakovic.” And the soldier next to me says, “Oh I know him. He’s the best friend of my neighbor.” “He’s a really good guy.” I say, “Yes, yes he is.” And from that moment the energy relaxes.
Well, halfway through the mountain, the truck broke down. And he says, “don’t worry we’ll find you another transportation–don’t worry.” So they stopped a truck and they asked these two guys to put us in the front. The truck has only one seat in the front for two people. Now we are five of us. So I said, “Fine.” I lost 40 pounds during the war so it’s doable.
And as soon as the truck left the driver was so drunk. I started elbowing the person next to me and I said he’s drunk. Do you want me to drive? He says, “No, he’s fine.” And I’m thinking I survived war in Bosnia I’m going to die in a car accident in the middle of the woods. I said, “Can I please drive?” He said, “No, he’s OK.” He was OK? I don’t know, maybe he’s ok only when he’s drunk–that’s kind of a driver. I have no idea.
We arrive to Pale. It’s a little village. I’ve never been at that village. And they said “Ma’am where where do you want me to drop you off.” I said, “I have no idea.” And they dropped me off in front of the police station. And they left. I looked around like a slow motion camera 360 several times and I saw like two football fields far away a man half an inch tall going away. Something familiar. And I realized oh my God my husband has a cousin here and I knew his name. His name was Misha. But how likely is that I see one guy in Pale and that’s his cousin?
I decided this must be Misha. And I started screaming his name 10 15 20 times screaming. My yelling turn into a real screaming with tears because if I stop I have no other idea what to do. After maybe 20 times the person turned around and started running towards me. And when he was close enough he says, “Nada, is it you?”
He took me to his home. Wow. Clean house. Hot shower. Wonderful dinner that I couldn’t eat. My kids ate dinner. Wienerschnitzel and chicken soup and all these wonderful things. I couldn’t believe that we used to eat this kind of food. But Pale never had war. Even though it’s so close to Sarajevo.
We went outside for a little bit to walk with kids and in a little park that was very close. We let them swing in the swings. It was so surreal to me. The silence. And my kids happy in the swings. We came home. She made some crepes with chocolate; the boys were loving it. They were just, oh my goodness, chocolate was around their faces and they were so happy.
So in my mind, I felt we made it. But I didn’t say anything. I thought, at that point, that we saved our lives. I didn’t know the war is happening all over Bosnia. And in my journey I had to go further through the land of Bosnia to get to Serbia.
Misha bought tickets, bus tickets, for next day for seven a.m. for us to go from Pale to Belgrade–capital of Serbia. I did manage to call my father from Pale and said we are getting into that bus. In the bus there was only women and kids below the age of being recruited for the Army. And we started our journey. That is usually 5 hours driving distance.
I remember seeing villages bombed–whole village emptied. I saw killed big animals, like cows and horses; on the edge of the road. Throughout that journey we were stopped by at least 13 very unusual groups of men. Several of them had some kind of army uniform. Some of them didn’t. They would come in and I.d. every single one of us. And then they would leave. It would repeat over and over again.
There was a grandma in front of me, on the other side of the bus that was hiding a young teenager who would be in that age bracket to join the army. And every time somebody stopped the bus and these weird characters walked in he would go underneath the seat and she would cover him with a blanket. And I have a feeling it was for a reason that he was right there where I was sitting. I would start talking to the guy and kind of distract him to take him away from this boy. I never talked to the grandma. I never talked to this boy. Bus was absolutely full of passengers. Nobody exchanged one word with each other.
Several hours later the bus stopped again and there was a new border in between Bosnia and Serbia. There was no border in between our republics before. So a little manmade kiosk and a soldier. He says, “You need to turn around. Go back to Sarajevo. Because Serbia is not accepting refugees anymore.
As soon as I heard that I took my kids and I walked outside and the soldier said, “What are you doing ma’am?” I said, “I’m not a refugee! I am from Navisad. I’m going home. I’m not a refugee!” And they both said, “Ma’am, go back to the bus.” So it’s war. So you don’t you. I mean I tried. I tried not to go back to Sarajevo–wouldn’t you? Go back to hell. I would rather walk for days then to go back to get killed.
Five hours sitting in the bus and waiting. I hear the driver turn on the engine and we left. I don’t know why and who decided to let us go. When we get to the Serbia part–I was 100% sure we were safe.
So approaching to Belgrade, my father he was waiting for probably six hours. We arrived and I saw him through the window. He saw me and he collapsed on the floor. And I picked up my kids and I walked outside. I said, “Dad, why are, why are you crying. I’m here. I’m safe.”
He says, “When the bus was late for hour, two hours, three hours–I went to the information window and I said, “When is that bus coming from Pale that left at 7am?” He says, “I don’t know.” “What do you mean I don’t know?” He said, “Well, the previous bus never arrived.” “What do you mean the previous bus never arrived? How come busses don’t arrive? Where are they?” He said, “Well, the groups of criminals in this mountains stopped the bus. The criminals knew if you’re leaving your whole life and you can’t carry anything–you can carry a little cash and a little jewelry. So they killed everybody in the bus to steal little valuables.”
When my father heard that. He is the only person surviving Holocaust in his entire family; including his 9 year old sister died in Aushwitz. He just couldn’t handle this but he didn’t want to turn around and go to Novi Sad. He decided to stay there until I arrived.
Even now I think about that. What did I do to deserve to be on that other bus. How lucky I was. I think about this often.
We drove from Belgrade to Navisad. It’s an hour and 15 minutes very soon we went to shower and to bed. I wasn’t able to sleep.
I go out to go for a walk and my dad says “why are you going in the middle of the night. It’s not safe.”
Of course it’s safe. Nobody’s shooting and bombing me. So of course I can go to walk and smell the air and be outside and listen listen how silence feels
Thanks for listening to Lucky. You just heard the first part of Nada’s story. We’ll be back in two weeks with part two of her amazing adventure which will take her and her family to a new continent and, also, back to basketball.
You can see pictures of Nada’s life before the war at luckypodcast.org. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe–wherever you get your podcasts.
Music in this episode is from blue dot sessions. Produced with help from Natacha Ruck and Tony Gannon.
Thanks to David Newson, Mary Helen Montgomery, Fernando Hernandez, Bryan Posner, Peter Keith, Sonia Paul, and Elyssa Dudley.
Special thanks to Nada Rothbart, Robert Rothbart, and Tom Wurst.
Lucky is made possible by the support of BOS. BOS provides transparent wealth management and financial planning to individuals and organizations in the Bay Area and beyond.
Visit BOSInvest.com to learn more.
1. The Cello
Have you ever walked through a door and had your life, literally, change forever? The Cello: A story about San Francisco’s Castro district, generosity, and coffee.
Featuring: Mike, Matthew Linaman, David Clarke, and Jean-Michel Fonteneau.
Additional content referenced in this episode:
Briana Breen: Hi, I’m Briana Breen. You’re listening to Lucky: Stories of unexpected events, adventures, and experiences. Today’s Episode–The Cello.
Mike: I’m Mike. I’m retired I’m 77 years old. I live on Castro Street in San Francisco. When my wife and I bought this house–I had no idea what the Castro was like. I looked out the window one day and I saw just sheer chaos, all the way across the street all the way up to Market Street. And it was the Halloween celebration on Castro. I had absolutely no idea what neighborhood I’d moved into. And it was it was a hoot. It was a total hoot.
Mike: I just uh hadn’t hung out with a lot of gay people and now I was sort of a blockbuster. And what’s come to pass is about 85-90 percent of my friends now are gay. Cause I live in the middle of one. I live one block from the geographic hub of gayness in the western hemisphere. And it’s a very cool neighborhood. I love it.
Mike: A lot of the merchants here aren’t making a killing. Realizing that and seeing that there are things that are needed . . . I notice for example at the coffee shop I’m going to now that the wall getting scuffed up. I’ve got a woodshop in my basement and I made up a chair rail. I don’t know, a 20 foot long strip of wood and went in and bolted it to the wall so that the chairs would scrape against that. Some of the benches outside were falling apart so I was always bringing over my tools and tightening up the the stuff or replacing broken boards. You know proprietors don’t have a lot of money to buy new stuff. So it was easy for me to just do it.
Matthew Linaman: My name is Matt Linaman and I’m a cellist. I discovered cello in my public school music program. I must have been 11 or 12 I think I actually started on violin in orchestra and then the first day I heard this kid trying to tune the cello with the teacher. It was like tunnel vision going right to the cello. I just loved the sound. So I went home that day and told my mom I wanted to get a cello.
Matthew Linaman: So when I was 14 my father got diagnosed with cancer. It was really advanced stage cancer by the time they caught it. And he didn’t have that long to live. So in that time I think I really used the cello as a way to sort of cope. As soon as my dad died. I sort of fused with the cello as sort of almost it felt like my soul trajectory.
Matthew Linaman: So I had just graduated from the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco. I graduated still totally in the fantasy of what my career would look like. It was a really inspiring vision for myself but not quite grounded in reality. My objective right after I got out of school was to get a studio of students. I had one private student who was this little 4 year old. I had no idea how to teach a four year old and the mom knew and little kid knew and I was just learning and experimenting. I decided to get a part time job while I was looking for more students . . . So I was sitting in a cafe in the Castro. And I look up to take a sip of my coffee and I see a flyer for the cafe that says that they’re hiring. So I immediately think this is a sign. So I decided to turn in an application right away . . . .
Matthew Linaman: I’m working at the coffee shop. And there were a lot of regulars that came in. So, over time, we sort of got to know what their orders were. A regular that came in everyday, twice a day, was Mike.
Mike: 6:30 in the morning 4:30 in the afternoon.
Matthew Linaman: I could usually start getting his coffee brewed as I was guessing he was walking down the block.
Mike: They just they see me coming and they just pour me a cup of coffee.
Matthew Linaman: He always got a black coffee of our choosing. No milk no sugar.
Mike: I have my own cup there . . .I’m not a coffee con-noisseur. If it’s brown and warm I’ll drink it.
Matthew Linaman: He was a favorite at the cafe. We all adored him. Another regular was David. He gets the amnesia roast. Medium sweet with cream.
David Clarke: Matthew’s just such a spirit that just talking with him makes you feel good. So it would always put a smile on my face to see how he was doing. And to see him behind counter.
Matthew Linaman: It was late June. I had just gotten off my shift at the coffee shop to get his phone call. I answer it and it’s my teacher. Jean-Michel.
Jean-Michel Fonteneau: I said, Matt, I found your cello.
Matthew Linaman: He had like total certainty. He had been encouraging me for a few years that I needed to upgrade my cello. So he told me about it and I said OK well how much is it. He was like . . .
Jean-Michel Fonteneau: For now just ignore the prices and just go and try it and see if you like it.
Matthew Linaman: So I said how much is this cello. How much money are we really talking.
Jean-Michel Fonteneau: The cello was priced at $125,000.
Matthew Linaman: He said that’s you know that’s what they’re going for these days. So I go oh OK. Alright well thank you for the call and I’ll check it out. Take care. And in my head I’m thinking–Thank you but that’s crazy. I’m just counting my tips from the coffee shop right now and I’m thrilled to have 23 bucks in my pocket.
Jean-Michel Fonteneau: I am Jean-Michel Fonteneau. Matt came to study with me when he was in high school. After that year he stayed four more years in college. So I’d like to go to violin shops. I visited Ifshan that morning in El Cerrito. He had two beautiful early 19th century French cellos. And I can’t resist in this situation so I tried the instruments for a good two hours. One of them was definitely the best of the two. And I immediately thought of Matt. I had this gut feeling that that must be the instrument. And of course the logical person in me was thinking well this is really expensive. So but at least I’ll mention that to him and he’d come and see. And we’ll start from there.
Matthew Linaman: There’s no possibility of me buying $100,000 cello. But it just so happened that I had to go into the shop that it was that it was out to get my current cello repaired. I was there so I was like well I might as we’ll try it. They set me up in a separate room and just in the middle is a chair and this beautiful cello. And then they had set out like three or four bows for me to try as well. Which I also didn’t realize at the time but the bows themselves were worth 25 to 30 thousand dollars. The sound was so beautiful. And something like I had never heard before. But I knew the price tag. And so I put it away and I went home.
Matthew Linaman: And I had to go pick up my cello the next week. So I went back to the shop and I was like well can I just try it again. I immediately felt a connection to the sound and just the way the cello felt while I was playing it. That day they were like oh you should just take it home just take it home and try it out for a week. So I ended up going home with two cellos that day; which is crazy that they just like I like take this $100000 thing. Like, I had taken BART to go to Berkeley. So I’m walking with two cellos on BART. So I was hitting the little turnstile. And then I had like a nightmare that night, of course, that like someone’s going to break into my house and I couldn’t sleep.
Matthew Linaman: So I got to keep it for a week. And at that time I wasn’t even really thinking that I could buy the cello. It was just a total pipe dream. So I was just having fun with it playing hours a day. And I think that’s basically when I fell in love with the cello.
Matthew Linaman: So at the end of the week the trial was up and I had to take it back to the shop . . . Basically I decided that I can either let it go and say well it’s just impossible or I can try . . . I had no clue how to go about achieving this goal. I didn’t even really know where to start. So I just created this online crowdsourced campaign. It was a 60 day. No I think it was a 30 day campaign. Which is crazy I thought I would raise $100,000 in 30 days. I didn’t raise the $100,000 but I did raise almost $10,000. It was sort of a stark realization like oh shit like I have a hundred and fifteen thousand dollars more to raise . . .. I spent a lot of time overwhelmed–you know, just like lying on my bed like freaking freaking out. I spent a lot of time freaking out.
Matthew Linaman: I had some faith that I could make it work somehow. But the fear often over-rided that. I was often just battling like the fear and the uncertainty of how I was going to go about doing it. And if I could do it. And if I was worthy enough to actually own a cello like this. Am I actually a good enough cellists to deserve this? . . . Because there was so much pain, and so much soul-stretching with this cello, I think it wouldn’t really let me give up.
Matthew Linaman: After one of my shifts I put up a poster for this fundraising concert. People were like–oh that’s such a nice poster. And then they’d sort of realize that it was me. People had no idea that I was a cellist. I was just working at this coffee shop. It was interesting b/c so many times had I gone into a cafe, with a suit on, carrying my cello, heading to some performance or something. And the barista would say something like- that’s really cool, I used to play cello, or I play cello, or I play violin. And I would sort of be like–oh, that’s really great, wow, like–keep it up. Best of luck. Now I was that barista. Seeing people come in with a cello–I’d be saying, “Oh, I play cello too” and I’d get the same response back.
Matthew Linaman: Two of the regulars in particular showed a lot of interest in the concert. And one of them was David who as soon as I put the poster up was was incredibly excited and he said oh my gosh I do real estate now but I actually am a trained pianist. The concert was literally I think the next day so he said Send me the information and I’ll be there. It was really my dream to be performing this cello as a soloist in a big hall and get to hear the cello fill the space. And share my music with people on this cello. David comes to the concert and was really excited about my project about fundraising and what I was working on and he told me that he just wanted to help me find ways that I could do it.
David Clarke: He was trying to raise an enormous amount of money. And I thought–this is going to be daunting for him. As a pianist I know if I walk into a concert hall to play with an orchestra, they’ll make sure that I have my choice of the finest nine-foot concert grand at my disposal. Not for a string player. A string player has to walk in with it–carrying it on its back. It’s quite a commitment beyond just making music of knowing that you’re going to have to make this investment in order to be able to do what you need to do. I hadn’t at that time formulated a plan but I had come to a conclusion that I wanted to find someway I could help. I said, “Hey, you know, I’m interested in what you’re doing. And was wondering if we might sit down when you’re not working and we can talk about how we might take it to the next level.”
Matthew Linaman: So David and I started working together creating some marketing things and planning our own joint recital and rehearsing, and after one of our rehearsals. David went to this dinner. And it just so happened that Mike was also part of the group. David’s all lit up and he starts talking about the project that he’s working on with me.
Matthew Linaman: The next day it was 6:30 a.m. and Mike came in while I’m making his coffee and he says to me, “When you get to the point in your fundraising where you might need a loan and I can be of assistance.” And I was stunned. One of the biggest challenges I had been having was if I can’t raise a hundred and twenty five thousand dollars–how am I going to get a loan. I was like 21 I think working at a minimum wage coffee shop job. No bank was going to give me a 100k loan. So there was one of my biggest obstacles and then this person just walks in that I had only really known through making his coffee and having the on and off conversation and basically offered to offered a huge solution to my problem. It was Incredibly generous.
Mike: He seemed like a very sincere and honest person who was struggling to get a start. There was a time in my life where I was struggling to get a start. It doesn’t hurt at all to help someone in need–when you see the need. So I just do it. It’s really easy to do. I got to this neighborhood in ‘87 and it was just sort of the height of the AIDS epidemic and it was a very sad neighborhood. I mean you know memorial services were going on all the time and there were people who were destitute and in need of help. I would just pay for things that people needed, like, buy glasses or a new dental crown or whatever. And what was neat about that was that instead of giving five percent of my income and wondering what the hell happened to it–hoping somebody somewhere to some system benefited from it. This was direct. I would just write a check to some dentist or to some opthamologist or what have you. And it was done. There was no overhead no administrative costs. It was just done. And I knew that my money accomplished something.
Matthew Linaman: So even with this offer from Mike to basically solve my problem, there was still one more thing that happened. Which was that the shop selling the cello decided to take the cello back to France to have it looked at by some experts. It had been attributed to this famous cello maker, Georges Chanot, but this cello doesn’t have a label. They said, “It looks like his cellos. It’s probably his cello. It looks pretty French. And it’s pretty old.” I was worried. I was like–it’s going to be authenticated and say yes it is a Georges Chanot cello and then the price is going to double if not triple. Or it’s going to come back and say no, it’s not a Georges Chanot, and then we’re not sure what’s going to happen. So it was gone for two months and during those two months I was worried that if they really did authenticate it to who they think made it, I Would have to just let the cello go.
Matthew Linaman: It had been 8 or 9 months that I’d been trying to buy this cello. And I was standing on the sidewalk. I’d just gotten off from a shift. And I finally get a call from the shop. The cello’s back And the owner has this very sad tone. “Well, you know, we weren’t able to authenticate that it’s a Chanot.” And so they lowered the price by $50,000. From $125,000 to $75,000. That’s when I knew, yeah, I could do it. I have $20,000. I can sell my cello and get this loan from Mike. My problem has been solved. And at that moment the shop owner, who told me this news in pretty somber tone, said, “So we can understand if you’re not interested anymore.” And I literally started jumping up and down. But on the phone I had to, you know, I was like “Let me think about it; I’ll let you know.” But I knew at that moment it was a done deal.
Matthew Linaman: Every time I take out my cello I feel this connection to its journey, and to its history, and to all of the hands that have miraculously brought it into my life and let it be part of my life, and let me be part of the cello’s journey. And I think about where it was made in France in 1830. I think about all the cellists that played it. The journeys that these people have gone through with the cello. I think about the wars it’s been through. All the things people probably had to do to protect it to keep it safe and in such great condition. And that this cello has been witness to all of this. So now that I’m part of this cello’s journey for a period of time, I’m going to play as much music as I can on it. And when my time is over, it’ll go on to the next cellist and play more music and take other people on wild, amazing journeys with it.
Mike: I don’t think Matthew was at the coffee shop more than six months and he was gone. The monthly check shows up in the mailbox and I go, “Oh, there’s Matthew again, right.” (laughs) Everytime I see him he’s he seems happy and I hope that continues. I hope he becomes YoYo Mah’s successor. I just hope he finds in life what he what he wants And that’d be a good thing.
Briana Breen: Thanks for listening to Lucky. You can learn more about Matthew and his music by visiting luckypodcast.org. We’ll be back in two weeks with our next episode. This season we’re featuring stories told by San Francisco Bay Area residents. But we won’t just be sticking close to home. We’re going behind the walls at San Quentin State Prison, to the site of a tragic plane crash in the midwest, and into the arena of professional international basketball. We’re excited to introduce you to some of the fascinating people we’ve met.
If you enjoyed this episode, you can subscribe on Itunes, Overcast, SoundCloud, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Music in this episode was performed by Matthew Linaman, David Clarke, and is also from Blue Dot Sessions. Production thanks to Elyssa Dudley and Tony Gannon. Extra special thanks to David Clarke, Mike, Jean-Michel Fonteneau, and Bryan and Kristin Posner.
Lucky is made possible by the support of BOS. BOS provides transparent wealth management and financial planning to individuals and organizations in the Bay Area and beyond. BOS doesn’t sell financial products, they provide customized plans and personalized service to ensure you’re on track for whatever comes next in life. Visit bosinvest.com to learn more.