Love in the Shadow of Illness

13 July 2022.

Written by Matija Čaić

Two families

They knew each other from childhood. Their families were neighbors in Mesnička street so they spent time together often. She was Ljerka of the Šram family, and he was Milivoj of the Dežman family. Both families were of noble origin who were willing to accept the transformation into a respectable citizenry whose members were engaged in serious jobs such as politics or law. It was the end of the nineteenth century and the time of the ascension of the wealthy citizens class in Croatia.


She was born January 19, 1874. Already at the age of 14 she has been playing in a theater that she has remained faithful to the end of her life. Because of her outstanding beauty and unparalleled talent she became the most popular Zagreb and Croatian actress of her time.
Because of her relaxed and unobtrusive nature she made his career in the comedy and was remembered as “Madame Sans-Gene”


He was born August 30, 1873. He was a physician, although he was most active in writing and editing. He studied medicine at the finest European universities in Prague and Vienna. He was one of the founders of the Croatian modernism, and was also the editor of the most important modernist magazines “Život” and “Hrvatski salon” and the most popular croatian journal “Obzor”.


It his early years Milivoj had to go to the noble’s convent school to prepare for medicine studies. Discipline was very strict there and he completely lost contact with the outside world and with Ljerka. The young man was eager for learning and preparing for a doctor’s career and he almost forgot about the girl from the neighborhood.
And Ljerka has grown into a real beauty.

The fate wanted him to meet her again just where Ljerka shone the most, in the theater. He fell in love with her at a performance at a nobleman’s house. Since they were both still very young and inexperienced, their love remained at an innocent level where they, together, investigated their mutual feelings.

Soon it was time for Milivoj to leave Zagreb and to go first to Graz, then to Vienna to study. Knowing that he would not see her for a long time and Ljerka had a lot of wooers, Milivoj asked her, and she promised to wait for him.

Whether her promise and love were honest we would never find out because Milivoj, in those rare moments when he talked about her, spoke only the best. The fact is, however, that Ljerka’s heart was won by a somewhat wild and shameless banker, Aleksandar Isaković, for whom she married and gave birth to his son Saša.

Milivoj wrote in his diary: „It’s a fact that I’m in love. And she is not in love with me. Probably never will be. Yet, I’m waiting. My logic tells me she’ll return to me.“
The mischievous Aleksandar soon ran away from the prosecution after he stole a large amount of money of the the bank he worked in.

Although she broke his heart by breaking the promise, Milivoj, who was still in love, returned from the study in 1897. and got job at the Mercyful Brothers’ Hospital, gives the hand of salvation to his beloved and her son by taking them to his home. As versatile as he was, a young doctor even wrote a few theatrical pieces in which Ljerka played the main role.

It seemed that everything finally fell into place. He worked, she acted, they loved each other, and he did not mind that people were mocking him because he was raising another man’s child.

Their happiness lasted for 12 years. In 1909 Ljerka got tuberculosis.

German scientist Robert Koch was already on his way to discovering a vaccine that would one day eradicated disease forever, but for Ljerka it was too late. Milivoj launched the first organized fight against this disease in Croatia and actively encouraged the community to build a health resort in Medvednica where the air is clean and fresh, exactly what patients needed. The land was given by Miroslav Kulmer, money for construction was collected by donations, lottery and selling pictures of famous Croatian painters such as Bukovac or Iveković and finally on May 22, 1909, the first 40 patients came to the sanatorium Brestovac.

The sanatorium was very effective and mortality began to decrease. Unfortunately, one of the victims who did not endure was Ljerka who died four years later in Milivoj’s arms.
He joined his beloved again in 1940.

Sanatorium Brestovac

As the fight against tuberculosis became more and more successful, Brestovac expanded and became a real small town. Employees and their families lived and worked there, they had their bakery, library, cinema, shop, bowling and volleyball courts, even pigsty, the first x-ray in Croatia and their own radio station.

Many anecdotes are linked to this sanatorium. There was a bell that marked important events in the day like brakfast, lunch, waking up or when someone died. On one occasion, the patient arrived and heard the ringing. When he asked what was it for, they told him that the bell will ring untill someone dies. The next day patient was no longer near santorium.

During one period of time, bottles of alcohol started disappearing. It turned out that the culprit was the principal of the sanatorium who was so much addicted to alcoholism that he sometimes fall asleep with the patient in bed.

Night watchman Buba (the Bug) was considered a vampire. He lived in Brestovec with his mother, it was assumed that she might have been something more to him, and he could never be seen by day. Only when night came, Buba would go out and walked around the sanatorium to see if everything was fine. Which was his job.

The dark side

During World War II, Brestovac was a hospital for wounded germans, domobrans and ustaše (they were both collaborators of fascists). When the Partisans liberated Zagreb, they killed all the wounded they found there, but spared the staff and turned Brestovac into their hospital.

The Sanatorium was officially abandoned and closed in 1968 and since then its inhabitants are the only ghosts of the dead and killed who wander through the forgotten tunnels and catacombs.

Background image:

The Fortress


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Contact us