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The Son of the Real Indiana Jones

Daniel Bernstein
Daniel Bernstein

The Son of the Real Indiana Jones

On a lazy Saturday morning last November, after my first cup of hot chamomile tea, I dragged my sleepy body to my 27 inch Apple cinema display computer monitor, grabbed the mouse and clicked on the SKYPE icon on my Mac Dock. Not really to talk to someone, just to see who is connected. As soon as the application opened and the round icon with my name turned green, signaling that I’m online, my cousin George Dragojlovich from Subotica “hit” me with a connection request.

Tibor Spiegel (Interview)What happened? Why so suddenly? Did anyone die back home? As I was considering all these scenarios in my still unusually slowly functioning head, almost mechanically like a robot, I put on my headphones, flipped open the small Logitech USB camera cover so the lens were pointing at my puffy face, and clicked on ACCEPT.  “Hey, listen! I need you to find me somebody in New York!” – came out of his mouth right after the: “Hello, how are you?”

Find somebody in New York?!

Is he crazy?

Does he really know how big this city is? According to the 2010 US census, there were 8,175,133 residents living in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx and Staten Island and he wants me to find a person? And anyways, who is he looking for and WHY?

And here is where this story really begins.

During my teenage years in my city of birth, Subotica, which at that time was part of the Yugoslav federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces, I met Tibor Sekelj, a explorer, lawyer, internationally published writer and Esperantist who in 1972 settled in the city and became the curator of the local Museum. During his frequent public presentations in the museum library or city hall, while describing his travel experiences, the first thing that one noticed, was his great inner peace when, with infectious enthusiasm, he spoke about cultures and traditions. It was a great joy and a pleasure to attend these events as Tibor didn’t just simply inform, entertain or educate everyone present by talking about events and concepts. He also exposed us to Internationalism and Cosmopolitanism, two very popular movements in the seventies and emphasized the importance of constant collaboration, mutual respect and tolerance between all nations. But most importantly, I know definitely for myself, he was the first live-in-person world-renowned explorer.

Stop for a minute!!!

Did I say, explorer!?

Yes, Tibor Sekelj was the first explorer I ever met in my life! One who ventured into and came out alive from the Amazon rainforest, climbed snow covered mountain peaks of the treacherous Andes, walked across barren deserts in Africa and navigated crocodile infested rivers in South-East Asia. Why did I find all this so fascinating? I don’t know about you, but sometime after my fourteenth birthday, I felt a deep desire to travel to far away lands, meet strange and fascinating people, and possibly - call me crazy, but I really believed it could happen - stumble upon some long lost treasure. How did my fascination with travel and exploration begin?

When I went to High School there was no Internet, Google, Wikipedia, Youtube, MySpace or Facebook so I read. Books. Yes, books, these amazing collections of bound paper that had words and sentences printed on their pages. Like millions of other teenagers around the world, the first books I read were the adventure stories by Jack London, Jules Verne and James Fenimore Cooper. Fortunately, this love of reading lead me to meeting and listening to Tibor Sekelj in person, which ultimately elevated my fascination with two of our basic human urges, to travel and to learn, into a life-long obsession.

Sometimes in late 1973, upon my return from a year-long study in the United States, I visited Tibor’s apartment with a journalist buddy of mine, who worked for the local weekly 7NAP. He was doing a story on Tibor and I tagged along. As an apprentice journalist myself, I wanted to learn how to conduct an interview with a world-renown celebrity. During our two-hour stay, Tibor was very hospitable and entertaining. I even remember asking him at one point very excitedly: “So when are you going on your next trip?” He looked at me through his enormous glasses and replied firmly: “One needs to know what to look for, before he takes on a journey into the unknown.” Then I was too young to understand what he meant but now, as I myself flew thousands of miles in all directions from my current home, and eat fish from the Euphrates in Dubai, drank desalinated ocean water in Aruba, took a pocket submarine dive in the Bahamas, left my footprints in the pink sand beaches of Bermuda, swam with the turtles in Hawaii, walked across the Hoover Dam in Arizona, sipped Canadian Ice wine under the mist of Niagara Falls and enjoyed high speed air-boat rides in the Florida Everglades, I realize traveling is not the same as wandering. Travel has to have a purpose and its precious reward is the actual act of seeing and experiencing something new and meeting people who are so different but still very much like us.

So who was my cousin asking me to find? The only living descendant of Tibor Sekelj, his son Daniel Bernstein. Why? Tibor’s 100th birthday anniversary is in 2012, and the city of Subotica is organizing a commemorative celebration, and they wanted to kick off this event with an interview with Tibor’s son, Daniel. The fact that I knew and admired Tibor personally brought on a flood of not just memories of him, but my entire High School teenage years. With all the heavy nostalgia in my heart I happily said yes, and immediately started planning the list of questions I was going to ask, and the topics I would like to talk about. After George gave me Daniel’s email that he got from the world Esperanto organization, I sent off a few lines introducing myself and asking if he was interested in sitting down with me somewhere in mid-town Manhattan for an interview. The response came the next day. Daniel was into it; we just had to decide on the actual day, time and location. I suggested a lunch after 1:00 on Friday, December 4, and Daniel recommended Rickshaw Dumpling Bar on 67 West 23rd Street, which sounded very good as I also like Chinese food.

That morning, I had an AVID demonstration at Tekserve, a Apple specialty store, just a block away from our agreed lunch spot, so after I was done at 1:15, I headed to the meeting. I took along with me a Tascam DR 40 linear PCM recorder. It’s small, unobtrusive with high quality built-in microphones, so I figured it would capture our entire conversation. Just in case, so I can quote him verbatim.

As soon as I walked into the place, a casually dressed man stood up from his table, walked toward me and with a big smile extended his hand for a handshake. I froze for a second, as he looked just like his father minus the thick glasses, but after a second of hesitation I shook his right hand, walked to his table, pulled out a chair and sat across him. When I asked him what would he like me to order, he pointed to an empty soup bowl in-front of him, suggesting he already had his lunch. This threw me off, as I planned to treat him. Hmm… what now? I didn’t feel ordering for myself as it would have looked silly asking questions while chewing on dumplings and noodles while Daniel is politely talking to me. “Lets just set it up and start” - a voice was telling me in my head so I asked Daniel if he minded moving to a table out of the way, by the wall. He agreed. We got up, moved and sat down. I took out the recorder, turned it on and plugged in the headphones to check for the sound. And this is when I realized, in the excitement meeting the son of my childhood hero, I totally missed that the restaurant was echoing with the sounds of techno music.

Not just any kind.

The one we here call euro-trash.

And it was pounding pretty loud. OK, I accept that we were in a Manhattan fast food restaurant, the center of the world, in a truly cosmopolitan environment, filled with a smell of burned oil, teriyaki and soy sauce, with monotonous euro techno overpowering the sound mixture of at least a half dozen foreign languages. And I know this, because while trying hard to phase out the loud music, next to us I heard Portuguese and Italian, to the left of us Spanish and Russian, and behind us Swedish and Chinese spoken. It was great that we were in a upbeat, hip place but unfortunately it wasn’t suitable for conducting a serious interview.

“What am I to do?” - asked the voice in my head again. I couldn’t get up and move deeper in the back of the place, as the speakers were installed in the ceiling, so the music was loud in the entire restaurant. I certainly couldn’t have suggested another place as it would just simply looked stupid. What now? As I was nervously engaging Daniel in small talk, like “How was your lunch?”, “How was your subway commute from Brooklyn?” - Daniel came to Manhattan just for this meeting - I suddenly realized, I don’t need the recorder! I have conducted interviews for the print media since the mid-seventies without any electronic devices. I should be able to remember the answers Daniel will give me, and even if I forget a word or a sentence here and there, I will just trust my instinct and write about the atmosphere, smell, sounds and the vibe of the meeting. Anyways, this is not a court hearing or a legal deposition. This will be a friendly sit-down with two adults engaging in the oldest form of human communication. Talking. One will ask, the other will answer. (When I found out that Daniel was a Berklee College trained Jazz guitar player, the interview changed pace and there was no more questions and answers. We just started talking about the joy of listening to live music.)

As I was contemplating all this, Daniel placed a small stack of documents on the table, opened it and showed me a few grade books, some faded photographs and letters written by his father. They were very old, and I’m sure very valuable to Daniel as they were the only remaining link between a past era and present. I felt that Daniel was offering them to me, not just as a proof that he is really the son of Tibor, but trusting that I can use them in my story. I took one of the grade books into my hand, and with aw flipped a few pages. “Wow!” – I though, “I am touching a piece of paper that may have a DNA residue of a man who shook hands with presidents, generals and head-hunting cannibals.”

When I returned the little gray book, I explained why I asked to meet and conduct this interview and told Daniel about how I admired his father. I also told him that the city of Subotica is planning a three-day celebration to honor his father’s memory and legacy. Daniel didn’t know about this but in his eyes, I could see, he was well aware of his father’s fame and hearing accolades from someone who knew Tibor Sekelj personally, impressed him very much. From that point, he seemed a bit more comfortable than at the initial handshaking. His eyes, which were so much like his father’s, suddenly brightened up and looked like they were constantly twinkling. At this point I knew, no yelling waiters, loud talking guests nor the pounding techno will be able to distract me. I will have a great interview, so I placed the DR-40 in front of Daniel, and pushed the record button.

** When did you realize that your father was a famous man?

“I’m originally from Argentina, which is where he met my mother. When I was sixteen, I went back to visit my relatives, and it was the first time I went back as a semi-adult and my aunts and my uncles started showing me these books written by Tibor Sekelj, saying this is your biological father and I became interested and started reading them. I didn’t really remember him, as he left in 1954 when I was maybe around four and I never heard of him after that. I think he didn’t contact my mother because he was respectful of the fact that my mother got remarried.”

** When and how did you make your first contact with him?

“The first time I made contact with him was in 1968 at the end of first year of College when I went to Europe. Before I left, I called the Esperanto office in New York and asked for his address and they gave me his contact information. I knew he was involved with Esperanto, as I read his books and my mother talked about how both of them were Esperantist and they met at an Esperanto convention, so I contacted Esperanto. I wrote to him that I am traveling across Europe and asked to see him. I was in Nice, France when I received his response, and he was very happy to hear from me. He wrote that he’d love to meet me, so we agreed to meet in Trieste.”

** This was the summer of the 1968 student unrest in France, was it not?

“Yes, before I went to Nice, I was in Paris on June 6th, for the first month anniversary of the general strike and student protest. It was total pandemonium. It was crazy. We were running around escaping the police. You know I had come from the University of Wisconsin where we were protesting against the Vietnam War, and I was very involved. I was kind of political at the time. They were powerful times. I was eighteen and wanted to see the world and wanted to know where my roots were so anyways, toward the end of the summer, we hooked up in Trieste and spent about three days together. We were both a little nervous at first.”

** What was your language of communication?

“We spoke English. We could have spoken Spanish, as his English wasn’t his strongest language, but he spoke it very well. You know he spoke so many languages, it was ridiculous, and he picked them like it was nothing and we talked about staying in touch and then he left and I continued East across the former Yugoslavia.”

** Was that the first time you visited Yugoslavia?

“Yeah, I crossed into Yugoslavia from Trieste and traveled through, and I was able to pick up the language and the dialects, so I was able to speak about twenty words where ever I was and that’s how I spoke all four languages Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian and Macedonian. After Yugoslavia I continued to Greece and ended up in Istanbul. So after this European trip, we sent a few letters back and forth, but I somehow dropped the ball and lost the contact.”

** When did you meet Tibor again?

“In 1984 I was about to get married and for some reason I had this idea that I should contact my biological father, who I think at that time was in Zagreb, so again I contacted Esperanto in New York, I went and talked to some man up there, and said: “I’m Tibor Sekelj’s son” – and he looked at me and said: “There was a rumor that he had a son! And you are in luck, he’s gonna be in New York in two weeks.” So he called me two weeks later and we started talking and I told him that I would like to get together and asked how would he feel if my mother joined us. You know, they haven’t seen each other for thirty years. So he said OK and I set up a time and a restaurant and three of us were sitting at this little table. It was very interesting as they were both very subdued, very gentle with each other. I think they have not split on best of terms because there was a child involved, but that day they were very nice to each other. They seemed to get along together. And that was just a month before I got married. My lasting image was, he was this great adventurer and two of them were the great explorers who went into the jungle in Peru looking for archeological finds, which was quite amazing, and here in 1984 we all left the restaurant at piece with each other. As I was leaving, I turned around and there was sort of this old couple, holding unto each other walking down the street together. It was a beautiful bookend I thought and it turned out that was the last time I saw him. We stayed in touch one or two letters after that but I didn’t know that he passed away. I heard about it just a year later. He was very intelligent, very… ”

Daniel’s eyes got glossy for a second, but the unstoppable pounding of the techno music brought him back very fast and this was where I had to tell him, that his eyes are so much like his fathers. He flashed a big smile and took this compliment with grace. ”Yeah that’s what I’ve been told and he said to me that he knows I’m his son because I have his messed up nails, as we both have short nails.” I felt, now was the perfect time to ask him about his interest in Esperanto and exploring.

“I’m a acupuncturist, I do Chinese medicine. I was a musician for many years as a guitarist, saxophone player and composer but I got tired of beating my head against the wall, as they say, so now I do acupuncture. I still play music, I’ve also written a few novels and I’m actually finishing a screenplay based on Tibor and my mother. It’s meant to be a feature film. It’s based on how they met and how they went into the jungle together, so it’s based on his two books Donde La Civilisacion Termina and Por Tierra De Indios. It started about a year ago when I translated these two books from Spanish into English. I also read a translation of a short story Kumeuaua, that someone did from Esperanto to English, and found it awful, and after translating it I though what can I do with all this? Here is this lawyer, turned journalist who somehow managed escaping from Fascist Europe and simply by sheer luck went to Argentina to do a story on Croatian immigration, and ended up staying and climbing Aconcagua, the tallest peak in South America. Oh, by the way, do you know how he and my mother met? He was giving a lecture and my mother went to hear him speak. So his friend, who was a psychologist told him, when you talk to people, don’t talk to a group, pick a person and focus all your emotions on that person. So my father saw this woman with a nice little white hat in the first row and read to her. After the reading they were introduced, and after twenty-five minutes of talking to her, he asked her: ”Would like to go to the jungle with me?” And she said: “Yes!” I though, what two fascinating and strong characters and they stayed together for nine years, which was amazing, because you got these very powerful characters, each with their own life and agenda, so I knew there was a screenplay there. Right now, I’m three quarters done. I don’t know if anything would happen, but I felt like I had to do it like I was somehow lead from the short story, through my father’s two books and then my interpretation of the facts. I have so much respect for both of them for having done things that people find fascinating. At one point I went back and did a lot of research and that’s when I found out about Percy Fawcett, a English explorer who disappeared in the jungle in 1926, into the same area my parents went into. After Fawcett disappeared, hundred people and thirteen different expeditions were looking for him and they all disappeared but somehow Mary and Tibor went in the same area in 1946 and they managed to survive and came out alive. And that is part of my screenplay, my story. I don’t know if you know the story of how my father climbed the Aconcagua?”

Well I knew that he climbed it in 1944, but that was pretty much what I knew about it. As I didn’t want to embarrass myself, so I moved the portable recorded closer to Daniel and asked him to give me the inside scoop. Was I in for a surprise!

“Starting in 1883, there were many expeditions that attempted to climb the summit. Some made it, some failed. My father was part of the 1944 expedition led by Juan Jorge Link and his wife, who both died up there. A year after my father joined an Argentinean army expedition to retrieve their bodies, which they successfully did. For this, president Juan Peron offered him the golden medal of the condor and an honorary Argentinean citizenship, which my father politely refused by saying: “Thank you, but I am a citizen of the world.”  I took me a long time to come to this stage in my life where I’m interested in my parents past. Like for example, nobody in Yugoslavia knew that Tibor was married before and had a son. There was a rumor, but nobody knew for sure. My father certainly didn’t talk about it. It’s almost like he and my mother erased each other from their lives. I know that my mother kept no pictures of him when I was growing up. We came to New York in 1955 and I grew up here, so until I made the first trip back to Argentina and then meeting him in Trieste, I didn’t have any connection with my biological father.”

By this time, the restaurant got almost empty, lunchtime was over, besides two of us, there was only five other customers lazily finishing their steamed dumplings or sipping their hot teas. A lone oriental cleaning guy was wiping tables, lifting and moving chairs and dangerously getting close to our table with his wet cloth. It was a signal to both of us; we have been sitting here a bit longer than regular lunch customers. For a few minutes, Daniel politely asked me about how I came out to America, about my musical upbringing and tastes in music, but the core of my interview was finished. I was done. There was nothing more that I could think of asking, so I thanked Daniel for sitting down and talking to me about his personal journey of discovering his roots and connecting with his world famous father. I also suggested, that he establishes the connection with the anniversary celebration organizing committee in Subotica, as I’m sure they would really love to get their hands on those Tibor Sekelj grade books, photos and letters. I packed up my portable recorder, stood up from the table and shook hands with Daniel.

We walked out to a sunny 23rd Street and waving good-bye wished each other a great weekend. I wonder if any of the passers by would ever imagine that I waved to a man whose father is part of our common history, our civilization. Without his documented travels, we would have not learned about cultures, traditions. And for this I thank Tibor Sekelj again, and wish his son Daniel the best of luck with finishing and selling his screenplay.

Wouldn’t that be something?

A movie about Tibor Sekelj, the original Indiana Jones!