I recently interviewed Miljko Bobrek, who grew up in Bosnia, a state in communist Yugoslavia in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Two weeks ago, I posted part 1 of that interview, in which we discussed the similarities and differences between childhood and toys in the United States and those in Bosnia during those decades. Some questions still remain.
One of the original questions on my interview list was whether most toys were store bought or homemade in Bosnia. By the time I got to that question, it had obviously already been answered. Imitation soccer balls, red brick and ball bearing marbles, a game using sticks in place of balls and bats . . . .
“First of all, I remember every single toy that I owned,” Miljko reminisced. “There were not that many of them. I remember making my own pistols from wood that looked like those revolvers from western movies, and that was my homemade toy. We were all into western movies. One of the games that we played a lot was cowboys against Indians.” Hey, just like we did in the U.S.! As young as seven years old, I used to pretend that I was going into the nearby woods to seek adventures and fight bad guys with Cheyenne, Maverick, and Bronco.
“Really, I cannot remember that our parents spent any money on toys.” Miljko laughed. “Yeah, my dad brought that soccer ball from the Soviet Union, but he wouldn’t go out and buy it from a store in Bosnia. We had a chess set a little bit later that Dad bought us, and he taught us how to play. And those marbles.”
“I remember when my brother, who was one-and-a-half years older [than I], got pneumonia. He was in first grade. It was really bad and he ended up in the hospital. We went to visit him and Mom and Dad bought him a whistle. It’s a stick that imitates a branch, and there’s a bird kind of sitting on it. That may be the only toy that they bought but just because we went to see my brother. We did not have any complicated toys or trucks that kids have nowadays. It was a simple time.”
I asked Miljko where most of Bosnia’s store bought toys were manufactured—in Bosnia or elsewhere? I wondered if many of their toys were made in China as ours were and still are. He simply does not know because so few of his toys were store bought. He recalled, “We had one rubber soccer ball, but it was much smaller than the regular soccer ball. My dad’s aunt, who used to live in Czechoslovakia, would come and visit her family, and she would bring us those Czechoslovakian made rubber balls.”
I wondered that since toys were so limited in Yugoslavia whether TV’s were available. My brother remembers that he used to go next door to watch Saturday morning cartoons in 1951, the year I was born. My parents bought our first “television set” in 1952. My first recollections of TV shows were of Howdy Doody and Clarabelle the Clown.
Miljko tells me that his family did indeed have a TV in their home, initially black and white as we did. “It’s interesting that my Uncle Peter used to work with a TV manufacturing company, and he got us a TV early compared to our neighbors. Before that we had the big radio. So I don’t exactly remember what year that was, but it was sometime in the sixties, the mid-sixties.”
I assumed that Miljko had first learned about cowboys and Indians from TV, but I was wrong. “Comics,” he remarked. “They were so popular you could not buy them that easy. You tried to borrow. People were collecting them. The comics were coming from Italy, I think. Italy was producing those movies that we call western spaghettis. Is that the term? I guess Italy was printing those comics, and they were translated, obviously. That was our source for cowboys and Indians.”
Spaghetti westerns were western films produced and directed in Italy in the mid 1960’s. The best known were Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, directed by Sergio Leone and starring a young Clint Eastwood.
Miljko added, “We had access to western cultures. There was no ban, no restrictions. I remember Fleetwood Mac, for example.”
Toward the end or our conversation, Miljko’s wife Sonya joined us and chimed in on some of her childhood remembrances. You may remember from part 1 of the interview that Miljko and Sonja had known each other since childhood. She lived in a small town not far from Miljko. Located in a more rural area than his home near Banja Luka, Sonja’s family raised cows and chickens.
Sonja tells me that she did have dolls. She remembers owning some homemade dolls and getting together with her friends to make dresses for them. She also remembers playing with store bought dolls with a friend when she was seven years old. “It was a girl’s world,” she reminisced. Oh, yes. We girls in the U.S. were crazy for dolls as well in the 50’s and 60’s. We were “stay at home” mommies; we dressed our dolls, fed them, put them to bed, tended to their sicknesses and injuries, and loved them dearly.
It appears that Sonja’s family had a little more toys than Miljko’s. “We had presents for birthdays. Always.” Her grandma supplied Sonja with toys (and clothes) as well. “I was the oldest grandchild.”
Just out of curiosity, I asked Miljko if schools in Bosnia ran on the same schedule as ours with classes five days a week for nine months and then three months off during the summer. He answered, “Yes, but we had two shifts—morning and afternoon shifts. The first shift would be 7:00 to, let’s say, 1:00, and the second shift would be 2:00 to 6:00 or so. There probably was not enough room [for all those students at one time]. Or that was just the way they did it. I don’t know.”
I found Miljko’s description of his childhood fascinating. He clearly had plenty of fun, but I am mystified as to why there were so few toys available in Yugoslavia compared to the U.S at that time. Miljko said that toys were rarely on store shelves. Why weren’t they available in stores? Was it related to Communist rule? I read that heavy industry was promoted at the expense of producing consumer goods. Is that why? Can anyone shed light on this quandary?
At any rate, despite having few toys, Miljko affirms that he had an enjoyable childhood. “Not going to war was considered a happy childhood because my dad went through two wars in his lifetime. So that became a factor, and when we were growing up, it was a time of prosperity in Yugoslavia. Right after the war there was struggling with our parents and so on, but during our time, there was prosperity all the way to our adulthood, and a big part of our lives was the best place. Looking back, even though it was a socialist communist country, we didn’t really suffer in any way that you would remember.”
“Both Sonja and I had a very happy childhood, and I am sure more toys would not make us any happier. What makes a childhood happy is the parents’ caring love and a peaceful time.”
Miljko certainly lived and played near a picturesque town. Banja Luka, which lies on the Vrabas River, is known for its tree-lined avenues, gardens, and parks. It is surrounded mostly by woodlands, but part of the Dinaric Alps mountain range is close by.
So, Miljko was lacking in the toy department. But what did he have in abundance? He was fortunate to have devoted parents—a responsible, family-oriented father and a mother on call 24/7 to dole out the Bandaids, bake his favorite sautéed spinach with sour cream, and dry his tears during boyhood crises. He had a brother close in age to while away his hours playing with their homemade masterpieces.
This is a theme that I’ve addressed before through the bare bones childhood of Helen Geiszler to my own childhood as represented in my fictitious memoir, The Crab Hollow Chronicles. No, Miljko didn’t own a state-of-the-art ten-speed bicycle or a shiny set of cats-eye marbles, but he did have a loving family and plenty of friends, including one who became his wife and is still by his side 38 years later. Those, sprinkled with a little dose of imagination and ingenuity, made Miljko’s childhood one to savor as he relives those memories through his children and grandchildren. Who needs store-bought toys?
One last thing that Miljko felt compelled to mention: Although he was not a child but a 30-year-old at the time, he speaks proudly of the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia (present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina). Read more.
MILJKO BOBREK grew up in a small town twenty miles north of Banja Luka, Bosnia’s second largest city. He lived in the Banja Luka area all his life until he escaped with his wife Sonja and their 13-year-old son Alex during the Bosnian War in 1992. He now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with Sonja and their daughter Katya, who was born after they immigrated to the U.S. Miljko has a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee and is currently a member of the Senior Research and Development Staff at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.