The Last Hero of the Great War
Even now, with the sixtieth anniversary of his service approaching, he never takes off the Serbian army uniform. Although officially retired, he still comes every day to help his successor. He still guards the tombs and memories of the greatest heroes of Serbia in its modern history. Being with them, he became one of them. Every encounter with Đorđe Mihailović, including the latest one, raises the same question: what about us, the descendants, who are we? Do we know and are we worthy?

By: Mišo Vujović

He entered his tenth decade of life in May. Years have taken away his strength, they pull him, bend him towards the ground, he walks with a stick, but when he goes down to the ossuary, among titans, those who remained at the gates of homeland in their victorious campaign, he is reborn. Inspiration and energy return. He becomes the old keeper of holy tombs, relentless and dedicated to his solemn vocation.
Every encounter with Đorđe Mihailović raises many questions about the meaning of contemporary life, attitude and preoccupation with everyday trivialities. The fight for survival often catches us unprepared to pay a bit of attention to people who walk past us every day, to break the gloomy clouds or storm in someone’s soul with a smile and gentle word. The encounter with the shadows of our ancestors, fallen for the most sublime ideal – defending their homeland, changes and destroys many contemporary conventions and imposed norms of interpersonal relations. Zeitenlik is a perfect place for one to question their haughtiness, usually euphemistically wrapped into personal autonomy.
After bowing to the titans, settled in a foreign land for eternity, fallen in their rushes to liberate their homeland, we all leave filled with silent pride, seen off by warm words and knowledge about many officially unspoken truths. We leave enriched by this great man, who indebted the entire Serbian nation with his invaluable deed.
He speaks in vivid pictures and turns back time. For almost every marked niche (compartment) with remains of soldiers, Đorđe knows where the soldier was from, his unit, age, where he died. After entering the ossuary, with a military church above it, he plays the hymn of Salonica front warriors ”Tamo daleko” (”There, Far Away”) on an old tape recorder. The warm, melancholic tones fill the narrow, cold marble hallways, where 8.000 warriors found their peace, together with those buried on the cemetery surrounding the ossuary. (The Republic of Greece ceded this piece of land to the Serbian state without compensation for permanent use.)
He is officially retired, but he comes every day to help his successor. The interior of the ossuary hasn’t changed a bit. Funerary wreaths brought by state officials are kept for decades, plaques, trophies, gifts, photographs of brave participants of past wars. He had to move some of them, but only from eye view, because they are still there, only a bit aside. ”For me, they are heroes. Politics can call them whatever it wants”, says Đorđe categorically, convinced that this overcrowded décor of a unique Serbian space, without political or state borders, will never be changed during his lifetime. Everyone is here, from great field marshals, Stepa, Živojin, Petar, Putnik, General Šturm, Mayor Gavrilović, Field Marshal Vuk, poets Milutin Bojić and Vojislav Ilić junior, to participants of the recent wars. Those who created Yugoslavia and those who defended from consequences of the breakup of that artificial creation.


Đorđe Mihailović has been the keeper of the Serbian Military Cemetery in Thessaloniki officially since 1960, unofficially his entire life. He arrived there as a baby with his father Đuro, who succeeded the first cemetery keeper, his father, warrior at the Salonica front, Savo Mihailović. After the war, Savo Mihailović, volunteer from Grbalj – Boka Kotorska (as Đorđe always underlines), was appointed to exhume military cemeteries along the front line with his unit.
Savo was succeeded by his son, Đuro Mihailović, who married a Greek girl and with her, besides his stepson Đorđe, had three biological sons. However, Đorđe was his devoted companion and assistant ever since he was little. He knew the last names of soldiers in every tomb and told stories to visitors about the fate of each soldier buried under these warm, brotherly skies. After retiring in 1960, Đuro asked the officials to be replaced by Đorđe, his right-hand man at the time.
What hasn’t been noted in the movie and monograph made for the 90th anniversary of the Salonica front breakthrough, I couldn’t talk Đorđe Mihailović into having a single lunch with us during the ten days of filming. He never left his workplace in summer, not for a single moment. Like a dedicated monk, from morning to dusk, he greeted and saw off groups. He didn’t rest after their departure either. Grandpa Đole would then take his garden tools, shears, rakes, and take care of tombs of warriors who ascended Serbia to unfathomable heights. ”It is high season now and the gates must be open for everyone”, he was unrelenting. Already thirty-odd years ago, due to his almost monastic dedication to his work, I felt the need to pay him back in a certain way. The monograph Keeper of Holy Tombs and movie with the same name, made ten years ago for the 90th anniversary of the Salonica front breakthrough, is just a small piece in the big mosaic of this humble man, who greeted and saw off the most important people and statesmen of a country created on the sacrifices of those whose tombstones are guarded by Đorđe Mihailović.
”Many things remain unspoken in history. Allies wrote what they found convenient and that’s false history. From the beginning, from 1915, when they occupied the Salonica front lines, they didn’t advance a single meter. They had artillery, 1.900 cannons, powerful armament, a well fed and equipped army. The Salonica front moved only after the arrival of Serbs from Corfu in 1916. The war could’ve ended after the conquering of Kaymakchalan and the fall of Bitola, but they ordered the army to stay”, tells aging Đorđe.
Field Marshal Živojin Mišić played a crucial role in it. He was from Struganik near Mionica, Valjevo, but he was also a Montenegrin, originating from the Kaljević family from the village of Tepac, in the vicinity of Žabljak. He decided to take the infantry to Kaymakchalan, where the enemy didn’t have artillery concentrated due to the terrain configuration and height. Today official history writes that the allies made the breakthrough of Salonica front. It is true that the ally artillery was active from Bulgaria to the Albanian border, but the Serbian infantry broke through the front with bayonets and reached Bitola. That year, in 1916, in autumn, Colonel Vojin Popović, better known as Field Marshal Vuk, leader of the chetnik units, died.
”I know what was happening”, explains Đorđe. ”For years I was talking with Salonica fighters, who came to visit the graves of their war friends. They all wore uniforms – Serbs wore šajkača, Herzegovinians and Montenegrins war Montenegrin caps, people from Lika wore their Lika caps. The last Salonica soldier, Naum Đorđević, MD, died eight years ago, at the age of 102. He was one of the survived 1.300 corporals.”


Thoughts pure and clear like his love towards the comrades of his grandfather, Savo Mihailović, Salonica warrior. He repeats that our historians must truthfully present what was happening in the Salonica front. It is their obligation to generations.
”History says: a million and seven hundred thousand Yugoslavs died. In fact, they were all Serbs”, says Đorđe categorically.
He takes us to the place where remains of Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević Apis, mayors Vulović and Živko Malobabić are kept. They were convicted at the Salonica Process in 1917, shot and buried as John Does in the other end of Thessaloniki, and later transferred to the memorial ossuary under the same names.
”My father told me that Apis was brought and placed in compartment 5027, Mayor Vulović in the following 5028, and Malobabić in 5029. Now they want to transfer Apis’ bones and rehabilitate him. To raise him a monument. Why? I think he should stay here. That is how God wanted it to be, because his hands are very bloody too”, reckons Grandpa Đorđe.
While we are speaking, a smaller group of young people with children approach us. They are from Gornji Milanovac.
”Šumadija Division” concludes Grandpa Đorđe and asks: ”What is your last name?”
”Đukanović”, they reply at once.
”You are from Montenegro?!”
”Originally”, they reply.
”More than half of Serbia originates from Montenegro. There are two Đukanovićs buried in the ossuary”, shows Grandpa Đorđe.
The young woman asks whether there is a Martinović in the cemetery.
”My mother is from the Martinović family”, she says. ”It’s my uncle’s last name.”
”They are Montenegrins too, from Bajic. The family of King Nikola’s uncle”, Đorđe immediately replied. ”Most here have Montenegrin surnames. And now Milo Đukanović claims that he is not a Serb. He should come here and say it before these holy tombs. He should come and learn about his history. He doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know. How can he say that he is not a Serb? More than 50 percent of the almost 8.000 buried soldiers are last names from Montenegro”, says Đorđe reproachfully. ”Grandfather of defense minister Pavle Bulatović, Boško Bulatović is buried here. I talked to Pavle and he told me that there are 2.500 members of the Bulatović family scattered everywhere. There are members of Petrović family, Radović from Morača, Bojović from Andrijevica, Vukotić from Čev…”
Even today, Đorđe never takes off his uniform. He was born in Greece at the time of Kingdom of Yugoslavia. He worked at the time of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro, and now Republic of Serbia. He won’t go far. He will be with the Salonica warriors for eternity. Somewhere far away in the immense space of eternity, where wars and cannons have been silenced a long time ago, where yellow lemon trees are constantly blossoming…
”Only when God says so!” – he says, escorting us to the very exit and reminding that we mustn’t be late for the celebration. A hundred years of a great jubilee, a hundred years since the end of the Great War, a hundred years since the most sublime moment in Serbian modern history.
Today Đorđe is the only living connection with those times. He still stands steadfast on the rampart of memory and with his dedication pays respect every day to those titans who brought glory to their nation. We can freely say – Đorđe Mihailović is the last living hero of the Great War! What about us, the descendants, who are we? Είμαστε άξιοι? (Are we worthy?)


Death from the Newspapers
The media have buried Đorđe Mihailović several times during the past few years. Two years ago he was severely ill and prognoses were not optimistic. Someone informed that Grandpa Đorđe had passed away. The Serbian Ministry of Defense requested to keep his body in a freezer until further notice, in order to organize a funeral worthy of his life and work. The Consulate was instructed to prepare the tomb where Savo and Đuro Mihailović were buried, to bury Đorđe there. However, Đorđe Mihailović still serves the tombs of holy Serbian warriors.


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