Student Retreat Planning

Our Serbian Language A (Mother Tongue) teacher, Ms. Milica Jocić, invited me to attend a summer camp “Valuable Hands” near the town of Ljig. We are scouting for sites to hold ISB student retreats next September. I am looking for places that are rural, rustic, and have a strong connection to Serbia. The purpose of the retreats will be to foment relationships within the student body and with their teachers. We have many new students and teacher each year and many cultures and it is important for us to spend time together.

The camp we visited was on the grounds of the village school of Paležnica. It is a new school, built on the ruins of the old school which was destroyed by an earthquake about 10 years ago. Due to declining population in the village, this year the school has only 5 students. The school only goes up to fourth grade and then the students go to Ljig. Authorities have converted the school into a summer camp with a kitchen, bathroom/shower facilities, sleeping quarters, dining room, etc.

Several non-governmental organizations are assisting this program. UNICEF and the International Red Cross are two of them. They along with the Serbian government have constructed five camps in Serbia. One is along the Danube and specializes in fishing and another is a working farm. The one in Paležnica focuses on crafts such as basket weaving, making wool bags, etc. The idea is to develop tourism for children and developing lost manual skills. The camp is fortunately out of mobile phone range, and if we visit, I would like to ban personal electronic devices, especially headphones, to facilitate communication and quiet contemplation with our retreat group. UNICEF kindly found my family accommodation at the Hotel Park in Ljig. (Thank you!)

Besides hiking in the rolling hills and forests around Ljig, the camp also arranged a visit to the Brankovina Cultural Historic Village Complex. It is located near Valjevo and it is famous for the childhood home of the Serbian poet, Desanka Maksimović. She was a long-time Serbian language teacher and professor. Her best poem is called “A Bloody Fairy Tale” which commemorates a massacre by the occupying German Nazi army of school children. A translation is below:

A Bloody Fairy-tale

It came to pass in a land of peasants
in the hills of the Balkans
a martyr’s death was suffered by
a troop of pupils
in just twenty four hours.

They were all born
in the same year
their timetables were the same shape and size
they were all taken
to the same ceremonies
‘gainst the same maladies immunized
and all died on the same day.

It came to pass in a land of peasants
in the hills of the Balkans
a martyr’s death was suffered by
a troop of pupils
in just twenty four hours.

And just fifty five minutes
before the deathly toll
the tiny troop was sitting
in their benches in their rows
wrestling with the brain
exercises: from two stations
leave two trains…
and so it goes.
Their thoughts were full of
the same mysteries
and senselessly scattered
around the benches
were A’s and D’s.

Handfulls of shared dreams
and shared secrets
patriotic and romantic
were clenched tightly in their fists.
And each imagined
that for a long time,
for a really long time
they would run ‘neath the canopy blue
‘til all the exercises in the world
were through.

It came to pass in a land of peasants
in the hills of the Balkans
a martyr’s death was suffered by
a troop of pupils
in just twenty four hours.

Entire rows of boys
took each other by the hand
and from the last school lesson
to their executions went
as if death was nothing.
Entire rows of friends
in the same instant rose
to an eternal dwelling.

 The complex has a church, a preserved old school house, and a museum devoted to the poet and life of Desanka. We enjoyed a relaxing day at the complex.
I am excited about these projects and hope we can do some student retreats on the weekend of August 31-September 1.

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