Ženi Lebl

1927 – 2009

Ženi Lebl was born into a bourgeois family of secular Jews in 1927 in Aleksinac. From 1932 until World War II, she lived in Belgrade. At the very outset of World War II, her father, a mining engineer, was taken into German captivity as an officer in the army of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, while her mother, grandmother and many other members of her family perished in the Sajmište camp. Ženi and her brother Aleksandar managed to escape the persecution of Jews by fleeing Belgrade. In December 1941, Ženi took shelter in Niš under an assumed name, staying with Jelena Glavaški, who was awarded the title of Righteous among the Nations, while Aleksandar Lebl, after a period in hiding in Split, ended up in the Rab concentration camp, where in 1943, after Italy’s capitulation he joined the Partisans.

Under the assumed name of Jovanka Lazić, Ženi was arrested in early 1943 and taken away to be used as forced labour in the Third Reich. At the time of liberation, she was an inmate of the Gestapo’s Berlin prison. On returning to Belgrade, she found that her family house had new tenants. Her persistence, knowledge of languages (German, Russian, French) and her iron will allowed her to finish secondary school, start studying law, and enrol in the College of Journalism and Diplomacy, while simultaneously working as a contributor to the Politika newspaper. In April 1949, in the wake of the summer of 1948 Cominform resolution, she was accused of “slander against the people and the state” for telling a joke about Tito, “a hundred kilo violet”.* However, much like in a series of related cases, the real reason lay in incriminations by her colleagues from the editorial board, who had set their sights on the post of Paris correspondent, for which Ženi had been nominated.

She was questioned and tortured in Glavnjača, and, having been sentenced to an administrative punishment, sent to the women’s “re-education camps” in Ramski Rit, Zabela, Grgur and Goli Otok. According to UDBA records, she was interned in camps from 28 April 1949 until 30 August 1951. Upon her return to Belgrade, she could not find a job, and spent years trying to obtain a permit to go to Israel, for which she finally left in 1954, to continue her struggle for a new existence. With the encouragement of Danilo Kiš, who together with Aleksandar Mandić had filmed Goli život (Naked Life) (1989), a documentary about the fate of the women held on Goli Otok and Sveti Grgur, she wrote and published a book about the same subject-matter, Ljubičica bela (White Violet) (1990).

It was on your ridge, saint Gregory, that the classic question began: “To be or not to be?“ If you beat, you’ll be. If you don’t beat, you’ll be beaten.

We were given barbed wire. We had to enclose ourselves, I don’t know why. There was no better barbed wire than the sea.

The shameful pages of history have to be written down … for the future. That it may never repeat.

 

*We are grateful to Ženi’s niece Ani Lebl for allowing us to use her photograph and for her participation in the project.