Train in the evening, Slovenia | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

Jack Birns photographs the Simplon Orient Express in 1950 — part 5: Yugoslavia

The Twilight Zone of the Cold War

Nederlandse versie

After the relaxed first half of his 1950 trip, photographer Jack Birns entered the twilight zone of the Cold War. Yugoslavia was a communist country since 1945, but its leader Tito had broken with Stalin's Soviet Union in 1948. While Yugoslavia did not belong to the Eastern Bloc it certainly wasn't pro-American.

After Trieste the land and the people suddenly had a grim look. Third class coaches filled with peasants and soldiers where added to the train. Among the remaining Simplon Orient Express passengers there were no tourists anymore. Most of them where diplomats, supplemented with a few mystery women.

by Arjan den Boer

Fellow passengers

Besides Birns and his companion Rowan there were seven Westerners on the train. A Belgian businessman was on his way 'to see if Mon­sieur Tito wants to buy bricks'. U.S. couriers Ficken and Croasdale had the Belgrade embassy as their final destination. Two British diplomatic couriers were on their way to Sofia.

On board of the train was also an intriguing lady wearing two fur coats, whom Birns and Rowan referred to as the Mystery Woman.
She said she was a stateless Czech and she had a German concentration camp number on her arm.

Bill Croasdale and the 'mystery woman' | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950
French embassy clerk | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

A French embassy clerk wearing a long coat and sunglasses did not say much about herself.

Canned food

Wagons-Lits had no license for wagon-restaurants in Yugoslavia. The U.S. and U.K. couriers had bad experiences with Yugoslav dining cars, so they brought their own burners and ate canned food with crackers.

The Yugoslav dining car doesn't look that bad on the photograph.

Yugoslav dining car | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950
British courier with burner | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950
Soldiers at Zagreb station | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

Nowadays a small chapel with a statue of the Virgin Mary can be found on the first platform. Although Croatia always remained very Catholic, this would have been unthinkable in the communist era.

Zagreb station chapel | Photo: Arjan den Boer, 2012


At the railway station of Zagreb, capital of Croatia, the presence of armed soldiers was manifest. On the occasion of the May Day celebrations the station was decorated with pine garlands. There were also posters propagandizing the Five-Year Plan for improving the railways.

Until World War I Croatia was under Austro-Hungarian rule and Hungarian trains were running here. In the new country of Croats, Slovenes and Serbs the Yugoslav Railways were established in 1920. In the late 20th century Yugoslavia fell apart and so did its national railway company.

Decorated platform at Zagreb station | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950


The Zagreb main station was opened in 1892.
The Hungarian architect Ferenc Pfaff designed the 168 meter long neoclassical facade.

Zagreb station facade | Photo: Jaime Silva CC-BY-SA-NC
Zagreb railway station | Photo: Arjan den Boer, 2012
JDŽ 10-003 locomotive at Zagreb | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950


The JDŽ 10-003 express locomotive was built around 1925 for the Austrian Railways. After World War II it remained in Yugoslavia as spoils of war.

Vinkovci station | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950


At Vinkovci station, not far from the Serbian border, the station name was written on the facade in both Croatian and Serbian.
Above it was the emblem of the Yugoslav Railways: a winged wheel in conjunction with a red star, the symbol of Yugoslav socialism.

JDŽ locomotive emblem, Belgrade | Photo: Arjan den Boer, 2012
Roy Rowan with typewriter in the train | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

Rattling across the Croatian plain, which is sliced into huge collective farms, I saw several youth labor camps enclosed by barbed wire. The land and the people had a grim look.

Once I waved to a switchman watching the train pass. He glance furtively to make sure no one was looking, then saluted.

LIFE correspondent Roy Rowan


It was dark upon arrival in the capital Belgrade, but the station was a hive of activity. Railway officers, soldiers and travelers of all Yugoslav ethnicities crowded on the platform while luggage was unloaded and loaded.

In 1888, shortly after the Belgrade station was openened, the first Orient Express from Paris to Constantinople passed trough.

Belgrade railway station facade | Photo: Arjan den Boer, 2012
Bustle at Belgrade station | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950
Panoramic photo of Belgrade station, 2012


The terminus of Belgrade was constructed in 1884 for the Chemins de fer Orientaux as part of the Vienna-Instanbul railway.

There have been plans for a new central station for decades, but without success. Even the hanging flower boxes are the same as in 1950.

Flower boxes at Belgrade station | Photo: Arjan den Boer, 2012
Couriers and clerks at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

U.S. Embassy

The couriers Croasdale and Ficken completed their mission by delivering the diplomatic mail at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.
The relationship between the United States and Tito's new Yugoslavia had a difficult start. In 1946 the Yugoslav army even shot down some American airplanes.

After the 1948 break with Stalin the relations improved a little.
The U.S. mission in Belgrade has had ups and downs. The communist era was followed by the Yugoslav wars. In 1999 the U.S. took the lead in the NATO bombing of Serbia.

In 2008, Serbian protesters set fire to the embassy to protest against the recognition of Kosovo. In 2013, a new large embassy building was opened, indicating better relations.

American Embassy during the 2008 riots | Photo: JustUser/Wikimedia Commons
Train running trough Sićevo Gorge | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

Sićevo Gorge

After Belgrade the Simplon Orient Express entered the Sićevo Gorge, carved by the Nišava river over a distance of 16 kilometers. It is an ancient link between North and South — there was already a Roman road running through the gorge.

In 1887 the construction of a railway was a vital part of the Orient Express route. At some places the river, the road and the railway run next to each other through the narrow gorge.

Poster Visitez la Yougoslavie | Design: Janez Trpin, 1935

Pre-war Yugoslavia was eager to receive foreign tourists. The war and the new regime made ​​an end to this. From 1952 onwards Yugoslavia started focussing on tourism again. It became an important source of income, particularly in Croatia. Birns visited the country during the short period in which there were almost no tourists.

Bustle at Pirot station | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950 | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

Pirot and Sukovo

The county town of Pirot is divided into two by the Nišava river. The 1887 railway station is located in the less urban northern part.

In the tiny village of Sukovo, boys posed with their dog at the railway station.

Children with dog at Sukovo station | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

In the tiny village of Sukovo, boys posed with their dog at the railway station.

Carriage at Dimitrovgrad station | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950
Railway crossing at Dimitrovgrad | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950
Bulgarian railway man at Dimitrovgrad | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950
Woman in Dimitrovgrad | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950
Women at Dimitrovgrad station | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950
Cinema with Tarzan announcement, Dimitrovgrad | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950


Serbian Dimitrovgrad is the ancient Bulgarian town of Tsaribrod. Jack Birns photographed the bustle at the station and the daily life around the nearby railway crossing. Here Birns was in his element. As in his photo­graphs of Shanghai, which had made him a famed LIFE photographer, he lovingly depicted the life of the locals.

Birns may have been surprised to see an announcement of an American movie in communist Yugoslavia. In the 1943 movie Tarzan Triumphs starring Johnny Weissmuller, Tarzan was fighting the Nazis — something the communist partisans had had in common with the Americans.

Simplon Orient Express at Dimitrovgrad station | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

Border station

In 1919 Dimitrovgrad became Yugoslavian. Later on, Tito renamed the border town after the Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov. In the 1940s Yugoslavia and Bulgaria discussed a union of the two communist states. Stalin had prevented this, so after Dimitrovgrad the Simplon Orient-Express entered the Eastern Bloc which Bulgaria was since part of.

Only the British diplomatic couriers and a Yugoslav general continued their journey. Jack Birns and Roy Rowan had to get off the train: Americans were denied a Bulgarian visa.

Dimitrovgrad station, Serbia | Photo: Arjan den Boer, 2012
Reporter Roy Rowan at Dimitrovgrad | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950


We'll meet Birns and Rowan again at the Bulgarian-Greek-Turkish border triangle.

Jack Birns photographs the Simplon Orient Express in 1950



[Rowan, Roy (correspondent) and Birns, Jack (photographer)] LIFE rides the Simplon-Orient Express. Europe's most famous train has lost its luxery but kept its air of intrigue. LIFE september 11, 1950 p. 137.

Sölch, Werner Orient-Express. Glanzzeit und Niedergang eines Luxuszuges Düsseldorf 1974.

Online Sources

LIFE photo archive hosted by Google

RailSerbia Forum