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Till Death Do Us Part….in Brestovac

The city of Zagreb lies beneath the mountain Medvednica. The lives and lore of the city and its ‘green lungs’ have been interwoven in many ways. The forests of Medvednica have crawled into the city making it a curiously woody urban area. Likewise, the citizens have been influencing the mountain for centuries. One of the examples of this connection is the story of the Brestovac sanatorium. It started more than a century ago in the very center of Zagreb, and it ended on the mountain that rises above the city. It’s a true tale of love, success, philanthropy, war… and death. Ghastly events that actually took place there make a fine fit for the rumors that the sanatorium ground is haunted. Read on, and you too will wonder if there’s more to these rumors.

The love story I’m about to tell you lasted an entire lifetime, so I’m forced to keep it short. It all begun at the end of 19th century. The adored one was lovely Ljerka Sram, also known as Lady Sram. She was a story herself, for the whole city loved this beautiful actress with divine voice. Even the greatest cynics had nothing but praises when it came to Lady Sram. For a quarter of century, she ruled the stage enchanting the public, the directors and the critics. It seems that her sparkling charisma was so strong that she would gain everyone’s attention as soon as she’d walk into a room. They say that even the monarch Franz Joseph I of Austria fell in love with her when he was attending the Croatian National Theater opening ceremony in Zagreb.

And then, there was poor Milivoj Dezman who gave away his heart to unconditional love for Ljerka. Although it seemed that they had a romance going on when they were young, it turned out that the most intimate moment with his beloved one would be laying her in her coffin. He made it as a journalist, a theater reviewer, father of Croatian modernist movement and, above all, as a doctor. He showed immense altruism when leaving the surgery behind, in favor of specializing in tuberculosis treatment. But despite his remarkable and diversified carrier, and although he’s far more deserving a citizen then his beloved one, Lady Sram keeps getting all the attention of this tale, just as she used to draw all the attention when she walked the streets of Zagreb. All of his achievements seemed to be guided by his never ending and unrequited love for Ljerka Sram. He fell in love long before she was famous, as a kid, for they lived only few houses away. He was certain in marrying her when he would return from studies abroad. Flirty Ljerka had done nothing to discourage his dreams, but nevertheless ended up marrying another man before he got back. Not only did Milivoj suffer from sever heartbreak, but since he was a notable citizen, the entire city mocked him behind his back.

Although he was overwhelmed with anger and despair, he didn’t give up on her for a moment. Instead, he did everything in his power to get closer to her. He became a theater critic and even wrote a few scripts for her to lead. And when she got sick, he turned his doctor career upside down dedicating it to care for those infected by tuberculosis. He went as far as to passionately convince the city authorities that a sanatorium for the sick workers is needed. That’s the story behind the founding of Brestovac. 

The construction of the respiratory hospital Brestovac on the mountain Medvednica lasted a few years. First patients were admitted in 1909. Among them was Ljerka Sram. In the meantime, her husband got involved in a major financial scandal and disappeared from Zagreb leaving her behind. Dezman looked after her and her child, completely disregarding the rumors and ridicules he was exposed to all over Zagreb. As a doctor, he must have had known that she was facing unrelenting death, but he took over the chessboard and made every move he could to intercept the Reaper and make her live longer. He had been waiting for her for decades, never giving up on hope that she might be hiding some gentle love for him in a distant corner of her heart. He didn’t hesitate to take her in even when all he got was a dying woman with a criminal’s child. 

Some called Lady Sram the soul of the hospital, for she selflessly offered her time and company to other patients, both working class and high society ones. She managed to take their minds off the illness giving them many moments of joy and laughter. But just as her charm and good vibes were not eroded even when her health was drawn deep into the claws of consumption, she was often caught looking down at the valley of her home town with a tear in her eye. Even though the feelings of sadness and despair were familiar to her when she was on stage, they had been strangers to her real self until those lonely moments arrived. She questioned the fairness of it all, when she, who had something to offer to the world, she was captured by the disease, while there were lowlifes who were to be executed by the hand of law. Wouldn’t it be better if the infection got those people, thus stopping them from doing harm? They were bound to die young anyway.

She was right about one thing – she really had something to offer and she did leave a trace in this town’s history. Her life tale has grown to be known as Lady of the Camellias of Zagreb. The roles were being written with her in mind, she had the honor to play at the gala opening of Croatian National Theater, and it was almost impossible to force her to leave the stage. She left it only months before she passed away, when the sickness got her so badly, that she couldn’t stop coughing and spitting blood. She died in Brestovac in 1913, at the age of 39. The lethal sickness just choked her to death. They say that she died in Dezman’s arms and that he was the one to place her inanimate body in the coffin. However, it seems that he wasn’t among the thousands to attend her funeral. Local newspapers were mentioning many distinguished citizens who escorted the deceased Lady Sram to her burial ground, but his name was not on those lists. It seems that he fled on a lonely journey to ease his soul from suffering and get away from the mean gossips.

So, when they’re talking about strange noises or shadowy apparitions in the halls of the abandoned Sanatorium, the first thing that comes to mind is the sad image of long haired Lady Sram imprisoned by her aspiration to reach the stars again. But, she is not the only candidate unwilling to pass the foggy river Styx, eager to hang on to this life. There were, of course, others who lost the battle to tuberculosis on that very spot. They even say that in the basement of the main building there is a passage that leads to a) catacombs where they buried some of the patients, or b) somewhere in the city of Zagreb. Supposedly, there’s something like a quarantine tunnel used for transporting the sickest patients, which wouldn’t be unusual at all. It was in fact a common practice in such facilities. This way, the remaining patients wouldn’t know how many of them had fallen by the sword of so-called ‘white death’ which was a good way to at least preserve their mental health. 

Oh, and another painful fact. In the early days of Brestovac, while Dezman was still running the sanatorium, it was thought that the best treatment for the infection was nutritious food and relaxation in fresh air with plenty of sun. The patients were lying there under a long porch and the benevolent climate is what made Brestovac a sanatorium widely known. But, later on, as the medicine moved forward, surgical practices were taking place in Brestovac. These included surgical ways to expand the lungs to allow more oxygen in. Needless to say, experimental era of removing the ribs or blowing balloons into the chest was soon abandoned. As for the patients, some succumbed instantly to the procedures, and many others found themselves disabled with severe lung damages years later.  

If this amount of pain, suffering and death isn’t creepy enough for you, I’m sure that the fact of at least 200 bodies buried somewhere around the hospital ground will convince you that this place bears a heavy burden of its past days. 200 is the approximate number of the wounded soldiers that were executed to make room for others during the WWII. There’s no doubt they must have been buried somewhere in the area.

After the war, the sanatorium continued its work up until late 1960’s. After that, the medicine moved on again and there was no need for such treatment of tuberculosis anymore. For more than four decades now, all of the buildings stand empty. The time joined its forces with the elements of nature to destroy the facility as much as possible. It pretty much succeeded in doing so, and what’s left today is a dangerous set of ruins used as nothing more than a paintball playground. Still, even after 40 years of neglect, the traces of the past combined with the way that nature has usurped this peace of man’s work, make a visit to Brestovac a unique experience. Impressions of the place remain with you days after. Seeing traces of dark blue wall coloring, lively opened window frame or the benches on the terrace make you imagine subconsciously what the scenery must have looked like at the beginning of the past century. Stumbling upon a half-a-century-old shaving cream, a glass syringe or a hospital plate someone had actually eaten off once, it all makes you visualize the place in its most vivid days and makes you wonder what’s left behind. What else is left beneath the ground of the woods that surround it, below the buildings down in the cellars, and even behind the time gate? What else is left behind from those days when Brestovac still had reasons to live?