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When Mother Was Away on Business: Ida Sabo, the Last Partisan Woman

Conference of the Anti-Fascist Women’s Front in Čukorovac, Moravian County, on May 8, 1944. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ida Sabo (Szabó Ida) was born in Pécs in 1915 from a Vojvodina Hungarian mother. She grew up in Subotica where in 1939 she became a member of the Yugoslavian Communist Party. During World War II she moved to Ljubljana and joined the Slovene Partisans. After the war she held several high-ranking offices, i.e., she was a member of the Presidency of Yugoslavia, MP in the Serbian parliament, as well as held various positions in the government of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina. Throughout the falling apart of Yugoslavia and the consecutive years she remained committed to the values of equality and supranational solidarity, and persistently represented those till her death in 2016 in Novi Sad. 

A few years after the Second World War had ended, on a winding Fruška Gora Mountain road, Ida Sabo, an official of the League of Communists of Vojvodina and former participant in the partisan resistance movement, met Philoxis Cosmidis, commissioner of the Greek partisan refugees in Buljkes (today Bački Maglić) and past member of the ELAS, the Greek People’s Liberation Army.

The two had already had an exchange in their official capacities before, when Cosmidis, known for his pedantry, had filed a complaint to Sabo, then in charge of social affairs in the Vojvodina government. In his complaint Cosmidis claimed no less than that the two wagons of apples that the province had sent as an aid to the Greek communist refugees in Buljkes were all rotten.

The encounter on the Fruška Gora was apparently no less unpleasant. Ida Sabo’s military jeep got stuck deep in mud. Philo Cosmidis, who happened to pass by, offered her a lift from the backseat of his official Chevrolet. Yet, Sabo not only vehemently refused the offer, she immediately stepped out to push the jeep herself.

In order to get a more detailed and intimate picture of the legendary Szabó Ida / Ida Sabo, in September 2020 we conducted a several hours long interview with her two daughters in Novi Sad. Reflecting on the above event her younger daughter, Uranija Kozmidis-Luburić, told us: “Ida declined help in a partisan fashion, and dad liked that very much.”

Although it’s unknown how Sabo reached Novi Sad that day, we know that the story continued with Ida and Philo getting married. Beforehand though, they needed to get the blessing of their party comrades, who didn’t understand why Sabo wanted to marry a foreigner. As Ana Kozmidis-Petrović, their elder daughter shared with us, Ida’s fellow party members envisioned a perfect model marriage between Ida Sabo and another Vojvodina-based former partisan, preferably also from ethnic minority background.

A woman should enter all pores of society

Considering the cosmopolitan values by which they both lived, the fact that Ida Sabo, an ethnic Hungarian woman of partly Jewish origin married a Greek from Turkey, was rather predictable. However, there were further, much less predictable or common aspects to this marriage of comrades.

The most unusual was perhaps the way they performed their gender roles within and throughout their marriage. Upon hearing the story of their meeting on the Fruška Gora, many would expect a plot in which Philo plays the main character. However, very little can be learned about him today.

The stories of Ana and Uranija, Ida and Philo’s daughters, testify to the fact that their father quickly stopped being active in politics. Instead, he dedicated his time to their children’s upbringing, running the household (with the help of a housekeeper), typing and proofreading Ida’s papers, and carefully choosing and ironing her suits and blouses for various meetings on various governmental levels.

In not one of her many interviews has Ida Sabo ever framed Philo’s focus on the family and his support for her career as a sacrifice. For her, it seems, these were the things that people of certain ideological beliefs do as a matter of course. Sabo viewed the socio-ideological context and personal commitment as the most formative also when talking about her daughters’ achievements, i.e. she maintained that they became successful physicists because of “their abilities and socialism.”

Although she never reflected on the atypical gender roles present in her family, her interviews suggest that Ida Sabo was very aware of the importance of upbringing. This can be concluded from the way she talked about her family of origin: Ida used to point at the influence her brother, Géza, who was imprisoned as a communist, and later shot during the war (just like Ida’s first husband, János Kovács), had on her. She also emphasized the significance of the free-spiritedness of her grandfather and mother: although they were poor workers, they encouraged her to read and didn’t force her to go to church.

An important part of Sabo’s political activity was her struggle for gender equality and for the rights she herself gained through difficult compromises. She never failed to point out in her interviews that a way to women’s emancipation leads through education. As a member of the AFŽ (the Women’s Antifascist Front) she participated in organizing courses on safe childbirth and on procuring food for political prisoners. Earlier on, as a young activist of the illegal Communist Party, women’s literacy was such an important mission for her that she was ready to cross twenty kilometres from Subotica to Tavankut on foot to teach village women the alphabet. Knowing Ida Sabo’s later trajectory we may conclude that long distance walking was the easier part of her undertakings in her struggles against gender stereotypes and misogyny.

“It’s hard to decide which was harder – to fight the war with a rifle in your hand, or to fight for equality after the war; for an idea that a woman should enter all pores of the society, that women should go to school, and that all spaces should be opened for them,” Ida Sabo recalled.

She didn’t think that women’s emancipation was needed just so that women could live more freely: “When women are in a bad socioeconomic position, I think that children also suffer, and so does the entire society. The society cannot progress if half of the population is without safeguards.”

According to Sabo the struggle for women’s emancipation is a fight in which everyone must participate regardless of gender and ethnicity. Yet, although Philo took it upon himself to handle family affairs unlike a typical man at the time, Ida was not automatically accepted as an equal in the world of politics.

Their daughter Uranija told us the following story, which she had heard from her mother. Yugoslav president Tito once visited a village called Čortanovci at the Fruška Gora. At the formal reception organised for the occasion, Sabo’s colleagues, also former partisans and ethnic Hungarian compatriots, told her: “Come on, Ida, get away with those children of yours, Tito is coming.” As her colleagues took places in the front rows, Ida, revolted, went for a walk in the woods with Philo and the children. There they accidentally met Edvard Kardelj, a former partisan comrade of Ida’s, a high-ranking politician and a close colleague of Tito’s, who immediately invited her to take the place, which was rightfully hers.

In her career, Ida was often regarded as a woman who couldn’t devote as much time to work as her male colleagues and thus couldn’t reach such high political positions. At the same time, when it came to her family, she felt stigmatized as a mother who didn’t commit to the extent that was expected of her. As her daughter Uranija admitted in an earlier interview, for a while she, too, condemned her mother for not spending enough time with her and her sister. To us Uranija confessed that to this day she had an aversion to hotels, because her mother so often took her along on business trips as a baby. Yet, there is a certain symbolic value in the fact that the family moved into an apartment where Sabo, the family’s breadwinner, could finally have a room of her own only when she reached the second half of her working life. Until then, she had written her speeches at the dining room table. “She was fantastically adaptable,” says her daughter Ana, “[that’s why] she survived very well in the male environment.”

Ida Sabo accepted the sacrifice of being the absent mother, as well as other sacrifices she made for the sake of her ideological convictions, as if they were a given for someone in her position: “My children were good and grew into great people, and at the time others also needed me,” she said in her last interview.

Ida Sabo. Source: Wikipedia

Nations and nationalities must fight against nationalism

Ida Sabo was among the few women holding high political positions at the federal Yugoslavian level, and she was the only woman with high governmental position in the Vojvodina province. Still, Vojvodina Hungarian historiography fails to acknowledge the existence of Szabó Ida. Thus far no historians writing in Hungarian in Serbia researched her role, and her name and contributions are never mentioned in ethnic Hungarian scientific, activist or political discourses.

The reason for this is that Ida Sabo did not see the Yugoslav / Serbian / Vojvodina Hungarian community in the way that this community sees itself today.

All throughout her career, she explicitly spoke out against so-called vertical integration, i.e. political organizing on a national basis. She believed that it is harmful to the country’s unity, moreover, it leads to the isolation of ethnicities by limiting their resources and opportunities, and thus relegating them into the position of national minorities – a position that is now accepted and normalized as the only possible position for members of groups that are not state-constituting.

However, for Ida Sabo a(nti)nationalism was not the same as the negation of ethnic affiliations; on the contrary, it meant that everybody should work equally in favour of the equality of all peoples and nationalities. As she believed that everyone, both men and women, must fight for women’s emancipation, she maintained that members of all peoples and nationalities must fight against nationalism: “Every problem in the town of Senta, every problem in [Bačka] Topola, is not just a problem of the Hungarian majority there, it’s a problem of other people who live there as well.”

As a member of the Commission for Interethnic Relations within the League of Communists of Vojvodina, she repeatedly stated that national equality is connected with the class struggle and as such, it is a task of all communists.

In discussions on national inequalities in the world and in Yugoslavia, she pointed out that in socialism “…One mustn’t speak of the superiority or inferiority of particular peoples or nationalities. Such way of speaking in Yugoslavia could mean that the Serbian people, as the most numerous, are therefore superior, while all other [nation]s are inferior. […] We know that our basic policy, which is the Program of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, outlined the obligation of the Communists to fight for national equality and for the development of interethnic relations. This is, in the end, a crucial question for the survival of our Yugoslavia. [… And] people in this Yugoslavia of ours cannot and must not feel superior or inferior. I have to say that I also joined this party as a communist, a worker, who by that logic belonged to an inferior nation, but I have never felt inferior.”

As her daughter Ana recounts, when she asked her mother about the Goli Otok labour camp and political prison, she said that Yugoslavia had two options at the time: to run such a prison or to suffer Russian occupation, so Yugoslavia chose the lesser evil. Referring to the same topic in a later interview she said: “Mistakes have been made, but they had been inevitable. There is, and there has never been a perfect human society, but what socialism at least achieved was to erase the centuries-old injustice towards women.”

The way she expressed unwavering defence of the Yugoslav heritage, rejected counter-arguments, and interpreted the negative sides of Yugoslav politics as a price that had to be paid  can only result from a deep belief in the flawlessness of the ideology in the name of which those deeds were done. This type of rhetoric and argumentation characterized Ida Sabo’s interpretation of her own life, too: “Luckily, I have never been a coward,” she commented, laughing, in an interview she gave as part of the “About Freedom” project, already deep in her nineties, on how she by unwanted circumstances learned to swim in the Sava river as a child.

Courage, sticking to principles, and hard struggle marked her entire life. At the age of one hundred, she said: “[Although] we had it difficult, it may have been easier for us than it is today. Because we were full of faith and we were united […] If I were just a little younger and healthier, I would fight today too. Look at what Europe and the world around us are turning into.”

A version of this article was originally published by Mašina. It was translated into English by Iskra Krstić as part of a cooperation between Eastern European leftist media platforms in ELMO (Eastern European Left Media Outlet), and adapted by the authors.

Krisztina Rácz is interested in issues of ethnic minorities, language, and gender, mainly in Eastern and Central Europe. She has as an MA in sociology and social anthropology from CEU and a PhD in Balkan Studies from the University of Ljubljana. She lives in a village in Vojvodina and is a researcher at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory of the University of Belgrade.

Petra Bakos is a PhD Candidate of Comparative Gender Studies at the Central European University Budapest/Wien. Her research interests include critical border studies, environmental humanities, feminist theories of corporeality, gender relations in South East Europe, and SEE literature and arts (late-20th century and current). Parallelly with her research work Petra has been also maintaining an active role in the Hungarian literary community as an editor and literary as well as social science translator.