Toma Fila: Defending an Innocent is the Greatest Challenge
You know him as one of the most prominent lawyers of today and the defending attorney of high-profile personalities. But in addition to his shining career, the name of Toma Fila hides much more that you may not have known. In an interview with 011info, this celebrated attorney recounts his memories from post-war Belgrade, reveals how he took up fencing and became a fencing champion, why he dropped out of his studies in the ‘city of light’ and what represents the greatest wealth in his life.
You were born in the midst of World War II. How do you remember your childhood?
At that time, people only listened to the radio, so the first word I uttered was ‘Auto’ (car). Now, you must be wondering what this has to do with anything. Simply put, German cars with antennas were cruising the streets of Belgrade, “hunting” those who had transistors in their homes. While we were listening to the radio, someone was always on the lookout, and when the “hunters” passed by, shouts of “Auto, auto!” could be heard from all sides. That’s why my first word was ‘Auto,’ and not mom or dad.
My father, Filota, who later became a famous attorney, was an illegal worker. He worked for the partisan intelligence service. Since he was involved in a dangerous job, he sent my mother and me to Negotin to protect us. In the local hospital, I became friends with the late Miroslav Zaric, a journalist with “Vecernje novosti”. He was being treated for an allergy, and I was being treated for asthma.
What happened to your father?
He spent three years, from 1942 to 1945, in the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp after being exposed as an illegal worker. It’s hard to believe, but he survived that hell thanks to shoe shining. You see, his shoes were always shining. He emerged from the deepest mud with shiny footwear, while I found mud in the desert. (laughs) Anyway, a German sergeant was looking for someone to clean his boots so he could shave with them. My father volunteered and became his lackey. For six months, he didn’t receive any food and survived on potato skins that he had previously crushed.
Incidentally, Mauthausen is responsible for us celebrating Saint Nicholas. On that day, my father was sent to the so-called “Bathroom.” It was actually a gas chamber that ran out of gas on that day of December 19. He managed to get out of the camp alive. In fact, he only became aware of this after the liberation when he was told that he was supposed to have been killed in the camp.
When did you return to Belgrade?
It was after the end of the war. Since I didn’t know what had happened to my father, my mother took me to the Red Cross once a week, where lists of the living and the dead were announced. One time she read her husband’s name but not his surname. His name had been supplemented with the suffix “vić,” and the list stated “Filota Filović.”
When she went to fetch him, he was skin and bones and suffering from tuberculosis. However, he didn’t go to a hospital in Belgrade but to one in Bitola. He did this at the urging of his brother, who was a doctor. My uncle believed that a person could only be cured in their hometown, where they first breathed the air.
And then you moved to Macedonia?
That’s right. Father returned there as a liberator. He was welcomed in Skopje by the city council and spent several months there before moving to Bitola, where we lived until I went to high-school.
And then you moved to Macedonia.
That's right. My father returned there as a liberator. He was met in Skopje by the Prime Minister of the People's Republic of Macedonia, Lazar Kolisevski, whom my father could not stand. Laza asked him to "get his hands dirty", as he said, and sign the order to shoot "three hundred of his Cincars". Dad, of course, refused. And then he was forced to return to Bitola. He first established a court there, and then a law office. But that was not the end of his troubles.
During his time working in court, one of the other prosecutors was a veterinarian by profession. When my dad asked him how a doctor for donkeys could be a prosecutor, he replied that "the people are nothing but cattle". Then my father said that "Thugs cannot rule the country". He got a year in prison for that.
It was his third imprisonment in his life. First, he was given 15 days of "custodial imprisonment" for turning a blind eye to Milan Bartos, a professor at the Faculty of Law, and then three years in the infamous prison camp.
Basically, he "served" ten months, and during that time they tried to kill him, as well as my mother and me. After that, we had no choice but to return to Belgrade. All in all, my father was a prisoner before, during and after the war.
What was Belgrade like at that time?
At that time, Belgrade was still extremely primitive. There was nothing. Only the communist aristocracy, as we called them, feasted on ham and prosciutto, while lard and bread were "reserved" for the rest of us.
Let's say, the best-dressed student in my school wore a white T-shirt, short blue pants, white skirts and "Bata" sneakers. We called him the arbiter of elegance. I mean, we didn't have much, but we were very happy.
By the way, on my mother's side, I belonged to those old Belgrade families, the so-called bourgeoisie. Her family had money, although the state took a lot of it away from them. However, I never felt that I belonged to that social caste. My father stood by me and made sure that I did not differ from others in any way. And we didn't lack for anything.
Were you naughty as a child?
I was, and I wasn’t. I had a friend called Backo, whose father was a major-general and one of the biggest tank experts in this area. He was able to enter the diplomatic warehouse, which was located near the "Zvezda" cinema. On one occasion, I went with him. While he was ordering what his mother sent him to get, I was looking for something to swipe. I managed to "snatch" one ham, which I shared with everyone.
I don't know why, but poverty brings people together and makes them happy.
By the way, gangs ruled the streets at that time. You weren't allowed to go outside at night. They were boys a little older than me, but rebellious. However, when the gendarmes on horses grabbed them, all that revolt would be "beaten" out of them.
Was your father strict?
My father never beat me. He only slapped me once, and the reason alone will make you laugh.
When I was 14 years old, my friends and I decided to all fall in love and not go to class. Everyone chose a girl to fall in love with and suffer for it by not going to school.
Of course, the teachers informed my parents, and my dad, after receiving the news, slapped me, saying that I shouldn't leave school because of love. What can you do, it's your childhood! (laughter)
As for the school, they took us on trips to the zoo and around Belgrade. For example, the biology teacher dragged us to New Belgrade, which was a veritable swamp at the time, to look at frogs and snakes.
What school did you go to?
I was the last generation before the so-called "osmoljetka" school. I attended the First Boys’ High School, which during my education ceded its premises to the Fourth Girls’ High School. Before graduation, a Serbian language teacher who was a big fan of "Gorski vijenac", Mr. Radovic, offered me to join the Communist Party.
I asked my dad what he thought about it, and he told me that I should look around and think for myself because I will soon become an adult. On the way from my house, which was located at 27 Dositejeva street, to the school, I concluded that my sharp tongue could only get me into trouble, and that it would be wiser to refuse.
The teacher took that decision to heart to the extent that he refused to congratulate me on my excellent success. Moreover, when I came to shake his hand at graduation, he turned his back on me.
When did you become interested in fencing?
Everyone thought that I got into fencing because of The Three Musketeers, but that was far from the truth. In fact, I took up the sword because of the play Cyrano de Bergerac, whose titular character had a big nose and was very unattractive in himself.
I liked two scenes in that play by Edmond Rostan. The first, when Cyrano tells the nobleman: "All your literacy fits into four letters, and together they make one word - fool." The second is the final scene, where the protagonist is wounded and says: "I didn't have anything. I didn't even acquire anything, but no one touched my talent."
This led me to take up fencing. In the end, I was so engrossed in fencing that I kicked off a "craze" in my whole class, and I became the national champion as a "Red Star" fencer.
What is your fondest memory from fencing?
That would be one related to my great rival and world champion, the Polish fencer Jiri Povlovski. He regularly wiped the floor with me in matches. I couldn't hit him at all. Once when he beat me, he asked me if I wanted him to let me beat him. I got so angry that I promised him that I would throw my fencing helmet at him if he conceded even a single point to me. (laughter)
Since your father was a lawyer, did he direct you to study law?
Actually, my father recommended that I study in Paris, where I experienced by far the biggest defeat of my life. Although I was reluctant, I went anyway. I stayed within walking distance of Notre Dame. That hotel was run by the wife of my father's friend and only students lived there, so there were plenty of dancing girls.
At the first dance I attended, I asked a certain French girl to dance with me. She agreed. However, while we were dancing, to my astonishment, she hugged me. I'm used to playing side by side with girls from Belgrade, so her move was really a surprise for me. However, since I saw myself as a heart-throb, I did the next dance with another girl. That's when I saw the first one dancing with a dark-skinned young man. And then they started kissing. I felt completely defeated. It was as if someone had thrown me off the fifth floor.
Upon returning to the hotel, the owner saw me so depressed and asked what the problem was. I told her everything, and she explained that this is normal in Paris. To make it easier for me, she introduced me to a maid who worked there. Now, after we spent the night together, the maid introduced me to her boyfriend the very next day. I thought I was going to get punched, but he was totally fine with it. Moreover, the three of us started hanging out. (laughter)
Why did you leave Paris?
That is an interesting story. While attending the First Boys' High School, I translated films from French to Serbian. When the great Alain Delon was filming in Belgrade, our "tough guys" came to try and provoke him. I translated all those provocations for him. When Allen had had enough, he suggested that they settle things outside. What they didn't know was that Delon was in the Foreign Legion, so they soon ate pavement.
Then more of them rushed in, but the situation calmed down and we headed towards "Majestik". There I met Misha the Slovenian, who was extremely intelligent, like many other dangerous guys. Not long after, they found themselves in France.
Anyway, while I was in Paris, I met with them. That's when I told my father that if I continued to hang out with them, I wouldn't graduate from college, but I would end up behind bars. That's why I came back to Belgrade.
You have defended countless clients, can you single out any of them?
Believe it or not, the hardest part is when you represent an innocent person. I know it sounds strange, but you wouldn't believe how much shady business I've encountered behind the scenes during my career. It is very difficult for me when everyone knows that the accused is innocent, but they are still being punished for a crime he did not commit.
When did you decide to put an end to your legal career?
Look, on July 1st, 1963, I became a trainee, and two years later I became an attorney. I practiced law for over 50 years. My last straw was the case in the Hague in 2014, when I experienced a terrible injustice. Don't get me wrong, injustice has always been and always will be. However, I have always been guided by the thought that I should not do what does not make me happy, and I was no longer interested in practicing law.
Well, that's when I decided I'd never step foot in a courtroom again. I returned to the Belgrade office and told the partners Mihajlo and Vladimir that I was leaving the practice to them. Those two are my heirs.
Although I did not have children, I did have apprentice children. During my career, I trained 60 trainees. Today they are on different sides, but every time I see them I am happy. It is the greatest asset I have.
Are you planning to write a memoir?
I already wrote one book, "The Final Word", and that's enough for me. Even that was, in fact, extorted. Journalist Manojlo Manjo Vukotic forced me to write it.
Unlike me, my father has written three books and is also a better lawyer than I am. The first and most important is "I defended those condemned to death". The second, "The Truth about Sefka", which dealt with Sefko Hodzic, whom we both jointly defended. That, as I realized relatively recently, is actually the only case in which my father and I represented someone together. The third and last was "Against the Death Penalty", which almost sent the father behind bars for the fourth time.
How are you spending your retirement days?
When I decided to retire, I went to a cottage with my wife for a week. During those seven days, it became clear to me why our marriage worked - because we weren't seeing each other at all. (laughs) And then I had nothing else to do but think of something to occupy myself with.
As I am a great devotee of the church, I started decades ago and was very close to Patriarch Pavle. Today I am the president of the ecclesiastical municipality of the city of Belgrade, deputy patriarch in the archdiocese of Belgrade-Karlova and a member of the patriarchal council, which is the greatest reach for a "civilian". So I invest all my strength and efforts in the church.
If I need some peace, I go to the cottage, where I have an orchard. Honestly, I don't even care if it bears fruit. It is important to me that it blooms, that is the most beautiful sight.