The Citation and The «RUŽA» Order
Đerđika Papulin Messmann
For exceptional female boldness and a positive attitude


Đerđika Papulin Messmann is a brave woman who took her personal, family and social crises and turned them into happy endings, led by her daring attitude and positivity. There are many women just like her, who manage to survive, who become stronger and more powerful when faced with difficult times. They come out as winners, while still being mothers, friends, wives, grandmothers, housewives, activists. The importance of society recognizing these qualities in women is monumental. Milica’s Citation is symbolically dedicated to all women who recognize their own experiences and exploits in these stories.

Đerđika is a typical happy Yugoslavian woman, broken down by the 90’s crisis. But she survived those years, and a divorce, and all the volatile times and turned them into a good life for herself and her children. We’re amazed by her positive attitude and her persistent smile- through good times and bad.

She is a wonderful mother to Tanja and Bane, a super-grandma to Igor, Miona,  Bosko and Kosta a strict but fair Math teacher, always in the mood to laugh, a housewife and cook, a successful manager at Oriflame.



I often remember this story, of when I was a little girl, and I think it really defines me. It was in 1953. I was on to kindergarten, which was just down the street and near the store. The flour had just arrived. I knew everyone rushed in line to get it as soon as it came, so I told my brother “You run home, tell them the flour came, I’ll take up a spot in the line”. So I stood there with the adults and waited. It was almost my turn when my grandmother finally came. Coming up to the store, she said “Give the little girl some flour, I’ll pay for it”. So we got twice the flour, thanks to me. I was so proud.


About the balls, factories,
hats, camps, radio Luxembourg…


Đerđika is a babyboomer, born just after World War II, in Zrenjanin. Since it seems to count where she comes from, we asked her if her origins defined her- Hungarian and German, living in Vojvodina- the Mecca of brotherhood and unity of socialist Yugoslavia.

My grandmother was very eager for me to grow up so she can take me to dances. At the time, girls could only go with a chaperon. So when I was born everyone talked about how happy grandma Erzika must be now, since she only had male children and grandchildren so far.

Anyway, those dances were never Hungarian or German or Serbian- there were just class divisions: merchants, clerks, craftsmen…. So children of the merchants would marry to children of other merchants, and so on. It was like that in Zrenjanin, at least.
When I came back to Zrenjanin with my children, we’d always listen to song requests on the radio on Sunday, and there were always various artists playing- Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian….And I remember one time, we were eating lunch and a song came on, called “Four fat horses”, and it turns out it was requested by a group of factory workers for four of their four directors (laughs)

Our street was always very mixed. My best friend was a Serbian girl, Brankica, and she taught me Serbian and I taught her Hungarian. My mother used to say we sounded so funny when talking together – half in hungarian, half in Serbian.

We’re still friends today.



As for the German in me, my grandfather’s family was all German. My father always identified as Hungarian- my grandfather was German but he died quite early and my father was raised by his Hungarian mother. My aunt’s husband identified as German too. And they took them all away, their children too. But my mother and grandfather managed to get my aunt and her daughters back. Their apartment was emptied out.


Did you feel labeled by this as a child?

It was rarely talked about in front of children. It was only later that I found out. We didn’t have much at the time, but my mother always had beautiful dresses- silk, taffeta, you name it. And then hats….we played with them because she couldn’t wear them without people shouting “bourgeois!”. She was an office clerk.


We played very nicely as children. We had a big yard and I would round up the younger children and pretend to be their teacher, even then, I was always the teacher. It was a beautiful childhood.

We listened to Radio Luxembourg. We had dances on Saturday and Sunday, then the promenade. There was a band called The Omega’s in Zrenjanin, I remember, they used to cover songs from radio Luxembourg. Mostly The Beatles. And I was in love with Elvis, and James Dean was my favorite actor. And we all dreamed about what we’d be like when we turn 18…

On this scale of success and happiness, what was more important – having a career or getting married?

You see, at that time, just after the war, nobody was rich. When me and my brother enrolled at high school, our family and even other people, they were confused – why would you send your kids to school? They need to work, make money… My father was the one who pushed it. Around 1948 he made this machine, a patent for the oil factory he worked at, and he got a badge of honor for it. He thought education was very important.

Marriage, well, you were to get married by the time you were 25 or 26. I married at 24. I finished two years of college, Math, and then I wanted to earn my own money, When I was 21, I went to Srbobran and became a Math teacher, and continued taking university courses. But some of them turned out to be hard to pass without attending classes so I quit and moved to Novi Sad to focus on them full-time. When I was a senior, I got married to Pera, so he wouldn’t get away (ironic laugh).

When you fall in love
everything is just beautiful

Who is Petar Papulin?

I knew him for a long time, we were friends in Srbobran. He didn’t like me at first, or he was very discreet. When I moved from Srbobran he would wait for me after class a few times a week, with flowers, chocolate, an invitation to the movies… He was a friend at first, but, latter on, I fell in love.

Was he handsome?

Well he was to me. When you’re in love, everything’s beautiful (laughs). But in all honesty, I did love him very much.

An average family daily routine
or The Yugoslavian dream

In Srbobran, I taught Math in Hungarian. I worked in the afternoon, which was perfect. In the morning I’d clean up, make lunch, Pera would come home from work, the children would take a nap and I’d take a shower and go to work from half past two to six o’clock. My children didn’t even notice. We had a big house, two small children, and when I started working we had a maid.

I’ve thought about this – what young couple of school teachers can afford having a maid these days? She cleaned the house, helped with lunch, took care of the garden. I loved working in the garden but she did what I didn’t have time for. So the house was never neglected, and I was never nervous about not having enough time. So in the morning I would get the kids ready, we would have breakfast, Pera was at work, we’d go for a walk, do the shopping, have a snack, play a bit, then lunch, I’d start getting ready for work, the maid would clean up and leave by two. Pera would come home, rest, take care of the kids while I was away, give them fruit, then they’d stroll down to the school and wait for me. It was our routine. He’d take care of the children, too. Well, up until a point.

Lots of love, friendship, laughter
and a pinch of political correctness

Were you into politics at the time?

Yes, well, they’d always push me in somewhere one way or another – you know, Hungarian, female, educated, everything the Party needed. I grew up with my grandmother, we went to church together, though I can’t say I was religious. Though I went to church by myself in high school. When I came to Srbobran I couldn’t do that anymore. But I joined the party much later, only when Pera was supposed to get a Party position, so he didn’t have any trouble. Until then I’ve always had some excuse – young children, work, you weren’t allowed to say you just didn’t want to join.

Your house in Srbobran seems so pretty, with flowerrs and all… like in the fairytales.

There was concrete on the ground at first, we laid down carpets and cardboard. That’s how it started, and then we slowly worked on it. We had two thousand tulips!

I loved gardening – I loved the flowers, but also growing vegetables for the kids- carrots, potatoes, peas…

What kind of mother were you? Like your mother? Or “never like your mother”?

A mother is someone who keeps the family together. The whole family. Back in our house in Zrenjanin, everyone would drop by on their way to the market, for a minute or two, for a cup of coffee, a quick hello and then on with their day. My mother was the one who greeted them. My children remember Christmas and Easter at her place. When we got phones, she’d call a couple of days before and asked what she should cook, and we always said “It doesn’t matter, anything is fine”, and she’d always make chicken stew (laughs). There was a lot to copy from her, but there were also things I did completely different, and I think that’s natural. Everyone brings a bit of themselves to it.


With daughter Tanja: “Even though we do not live in the same city, we have a very good relationship and we are very close.”

Tanja and Bane don’t speak Hungarian. Why is that? Was it a pedagogic method, a political attempt to fit in?

No, never. I finished high school in hungarian. When I was applying for a job in Srbobran, I spoke to the principal in Serbian, he had to make sure I could also speak Hungarian. So I never had that sort of problem. But my children… We read the baby book of that time and it said you shouldn’t talk to your children in more than one language.

We heard you were strict as a teacher?

I was strict in school, yes. I gave a lot to my students but I demanded a lot as well. I don’t think I was wrong. I have a lot of my former students as friends on Facebook now. They all say I was a good, albeit strict teacher. I never favored anyone. You could be the son or daughter of the Mayor, but you either know what you have to or you don’t. Nothing can help you there.

I have this impression that at that time, there was always some sort of celebration, either public or private, people singing and spending time together, festive cakes…

We were very relaxed, people in general had very relaxed lives. People were not as stressed as they are today. Our family gatherings for Easter, in my friend Snezana’s garden, the egg hunts, the tulips, lots of children…

What about some sort of women’s circle?

Well yes, we had aerobics. We’d knit colordful legwarmers, eat healthy, you name it, and we did aerobics together. Like Jane Fonda. I even have a photo of me with her book, posing like her. But mostly it was spontaneous, we’d come over to each others houses. Someone would be in the neighborhoods, come over for a few minutes, we’d talk, share some recipes or discuss a problem, then she’d be on her way.


And then suddenly, this dream of a happy family fell apart?

Yes, that was in ’89. In the family I grew up in, I’d never heard about divorce or infidelity. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but I wasn’t aware. I read Anna Karenina in high school and I watched many movies, I was convinced these sort of things only happened in novels and movies. It never even occurred to me that my husband could find someone else. But, divorce takes two…I don’t think I was flawless. Maybe I was, in a way…too much, and men find that hard to handle.

You mean, you were stronger?

I was stronger. I know I was. Well, I know now.

He’d have these ideas, about what we should do, build a bigger house…I was against it, the kids were about to go to school and I thought an apartment in the city would be better.

So I turned it down, I’d even laugh at him….So he found someone who congratulated him on his every word. I think that was one of the reasons.

If you knew that then, would you be willing to nod and agree, to save your marriage?

I don’t think so.

Do you think some women do that?

Definitely. There’s even women who stay with there husbands despite knowing he has someone else..for some sort of comfort and security. They don’t want to get a divorce.

And when you found out about it, you were…

Insulted, humiliated. I told him right away, “If you stop right now and promise to never do it again, I’m ready to stay, for the children”. He said it’s stronger than him, he wants to have his own life. So there was nothing to discuss. I filed for divorce on October 13th 1989. I remember the date! And I remember finding out about the other women on our anniversary, August 29th. It was very hard for me. My mother has a weak heart and I couldn’t let the divorce get to her, I didn’t tell her about it at all. Still, she died in December that year. That too was a big shock. The kids were already in school in Novi Sad, and I was about to move, so that was it…

Well, then I met an ex student who worked in real estate and she told me about two very cheap apartments for sale in Novi Sad. I told Pera about it and he screamed about it being a financial disaster, but eventually agreed and signed over three acres of land to me. It was enough to get a lease on the apartment. I don’t know if I’d be ready for this sort of risk today. My pay in Srbobran was 3500 dinars and the credit rate was 2600. And I had two high-schoolers. But I was young and anything was possible, so I thought: I’d give private lessons and earn some extra money. We didn’t know then that the country would fall apart, that we’d have to go through all that. I thought I could pay back the loan. I worked a lot, I accepted every offer I got, I went to computer seminars and started teaching computer classes. Nobody knew about the divorce, they thought I was leaving for Novi Sad for the children. It wasn’t anyones business!

Were you embarrassed?

I don’t know. I didn’t feel like I was embarrassed, I just didn’t want to talk to people about it. The only thing that was important was finding work in Novi Sad, and I did. I worked in a primary school in Novi Sad and my pay increased, from 3500 to 6800 dinars. The school in Srbobran kept me for computer classes. So I taught four Math classes in Novi Sad in the morning, took a bus to Srbobran and then rode my bike to school and taught the computer class. I returned to Novi Sad in the evening. So the loan wasn’t a problem.

But this was all very different from your laid-back routine in Srbobran. How did you handle it?

I didn’t think about it. I just wanted my kids to get what they needed. The prices were already going crazy And you know, high-schoolers, outings…. I was scared for them, too, that they’d start drinking or doing drugs, get into the wrong crowd. But my kids were very good. We would sit and talk, we never argued, never yelled at each other. I’d say- this is how much money we have. We’d work out what we need and what we can do.

Was there a sense of emergency?

Well, yes. I started treating them like adults. Pera came and visited them regularly, and we invited him over for birthdays. Later, when we got grandchildren, he came over for Christmas and New Years Eve. As a teacher, I always told divorced parents how important it is too keep in contact, for the children, so obviously now I couldn’t do any different. It was painful for a very long time, and it bothered me. Here’s what I remember: while we still lived in Srbobran, when everyone left, I’d cry so much, and scream, about what was happening.

Did ending up alone, without a mother, a husband, force you to take matters into your own hands?

Certainly. Because the situation suddenly changed. A year later I lost my job in Srbobran, and the extra income. I held classes as a private tutor and could only afford a bottle of milk from the money I made. The inflation changed everything. Pera just said that he was out of money and didn’t care about providing for the children. He never paid alimony, I never sued him over it. He’d bring some money when he could and that was it. But even that stopped later. I heard he was having fun with this new woman, going out and so on. That’s probably when he got sick.

What happened to him?

He had two heart attacks in 1993 and then cerebral microembolism. This triggered his dementia. We put him in a home later, he couldn’t live alone. He was very well cared for there. Then he thought, now that he got over this other woman, that we’d get back together, because he knew I loved him. He’d call me three times a week and try to make up, for the children, he said. But our children were already taken care of, they finished school, they were adults and fully aware of everything.

And you had no more feelings for him?

No, it was over. He was the father of my children, but that was it. It was extremely hard for a year or two, but then it stopped.

Inflation, Transition, Empowerment

So then Oriflame came in, as an opportynity or a necessity?

It was a necessity. They hired me to do translations at first. They came here from Hungary to hold presentations and I had no problems doing simultaneous translations. So that’s how I got in. They paid me about 500, 600 deutschmarks when my paycheck was only two or maybe five in the school, depending on the time I’d pick it up. They said that could be my regular paycheck if I opened up a company in Hungary. So I did. It was January 1993.

So you worked for both the school and Oriflame? It was risky giving up a job in the public sector, wasn’t it?

Yes, I worked for both, but I was in charge of my own schedule at the school. I had two classes on Friday evening and two on Monday morning. So I had almost four days for Oriflame. I didn’t leave the school for very long. I quit in 2004, and I’ve been in retirement since 2005.

Were you torn between being a teacher and a saleswoman?

I thought everything was beautiful in Oriflame: the products, the smells, the packaging. As for any sort of dilemma, this should answer you- I was sitting in the teachers room one day, I had some free time, and my colleague who taught Chemistry is there. She suddenly starts crying and I ask, “God, what’s going on” She tells me she doesn’t know what to do anymore. Her husband died, she was alone with two children. She told me “I made rice for lunch yesterday, and there was some left for dinner, but around nine o’clock my son asks me if there’s anything left in the fridge, he was still hungry”. So I told her, look, you don’t have to work for Oriflame (I already asked her to join me and she said no), but you’re a good seamstress, you could do that, you could earn some extra money, have more food for your children. She just looked at me and said – “Are you crazy? Do you think I’ve gone through Chemistry school to be a seamstress now??”. That was her answer. I was never like that. I never wanted to cheat or steal, but I would do any honest work so we could survive. My children helped me and we, not only survived, but became quite successful.

It seems like mostly women work in Oriflame, is that right?

It’s very often couples. It’s a family job. But yes, there are more women. The men join in when the women become successful, mostly.

“Some people retire and let themselves go. My job keeps me going. I think it’s great! “

And your age? It’s all mine!

With all the work, the traveling, the friends- you’re also a grandmother, and you seem very involved in this role. How do you do it?

It’s all about being organized. I like keeping busy. Some people retire and let themselves go. My job keeps me going. I think it’s great! Once a day I visit the office, I spend an hour or two there, I do my job, I keep track of what’s going on, I push them in the right direction. When I need to travel, I always plan ahead and make sure my kids know I won’t be there.

What role do you identify with most?

Mother and grandmother. The girls from Oriflame call me super-grandma. Children give life more meaning. It’s like you’re alive as long as they mention you.

My grandkids keep asking me to tell them stories about when I was young. The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats are just not interesting anymore. Kosta once said “that was so long ago, when there were dinosaurs and Granny was young”.

We grandmothers have this wonderfully relaxed position. Can you eat this chicken wing with your hands? Sure you can.

Do you still count the years?

I told myself I’ll do it until I’m 55, and then I’ll start counting down (laughs). But I don’t hide or worry about my age. I definitely don’t feel 70, though.