by Yvonne (Vonnie) Trbovich Orlich

Being a ‘boomer,’ I started elementary school just a few years after the end of World War II.  Schoolbooks had not yet been updated with any significant information about the war and its effects on so many cultures.  My only knowledge of that came from snippets of conversation around my maternal grandfather’s kitchen table, when they would talk about our relatives from Lika (present day Croatia) who were displaced by the war.  These relatives were located in the Displaced Persons* Camp in Eboli, Italy, and the wheels were set in motion to have them emigrate to the United States. And, so began my first-hand education about what it is to be a refugee, a displaced person.

That began happening in the early ‘50s, and it opened a whole new world of interest and history for me as a young girl.  An influx of displaced persons, relatives and non-relatives, began arriving in East Chicago, Indiana, known as the Harbor.  They spoke no English and needed some guidance and help adapting to their new life in America. Because my mother spoke Serbian fluently and was the only one of the five sisters in her family who drove, she became the interpreter, driver, advisor and comforter for her nieces, the daughters of her cousin, another unknown relative – younger women she had never met, had never communicated with prior to this time of transition, but was willing to help them and their friends wherever needed.

I distinctly recall their faces – these immigrants.  I sensed an underlying fear.  How could they not be afraid? The horrors of what they had witnessed, the weight of everything and everyone they had lost, must have weighed so very heavily on all of them. My mother would go to their adopted homes in the Harbor shortly after they arrived in the states, sometimes meeting them at the airport.  There were hugs and tears and smiles all around.  Words of encouragement from my mother to help them feel less frightened of the unknown.

We would visit them often, as my mother would help them fill out paperwork for any number of things:  new living quarters; utility companies; employment opportunities and applications; new resident paperwork, and who knows what else?  While I sensed their fear (how is it that children know that?) they were soon happily adapting. They welcomed us into their new homes with such warmth and open love and appreciation.  Some of them never spoke of the ugliness and losses, but some shared their stories of death, torture, loss and being housed in different DP camps, travelling across the ocean and then across half of the American continent to their final destination in Indiana.

Over time I got used to our phone ringing and one or another of them asking my mother if she could intervene in a family dispute over a proposed arranged marriage; or come take someone to the doctor or hospital; or if she could help with the arrangement of their weddings.  We spent many hours with some of them at wedding shoppes while my mother interpreted with the saleswomen about the gowns, the bridesmaids gowns, and in my case, the flower girl’s outfit. My mother patiently helped arrange the ‘skup’ (pre-wedding gathering of family and friends), the ceremony, the reception.  Because I was so young, I was exposed to all of this as I accompanied my mother to their homes to sit quietly and listen to her explain the hows and whys of marriage in the United States.

During those trips and visits with my mother, I learned about life as they lived it in their former homeland. I witnessed their tears and sorrow when reminiscing about their former homes, the family and neighbors lost at the hands of the enemies.  This was all so strange to me, a child of American-born Serbian parents.  What did I know of war and death and loss and displacement? They are stories that are emblazoned in my memory now.  Often, as my parents would talk about what they, too, were learning, my mother would cry softly at the inhumanity of it all.

My parents embraced these newcomers with great compassion and empathy. Sadly, some of our American Serbs were not so kind, but my parents always impressed upon us to be kind to these immigrants, always stressing that we as Americans could not fully comprehend all that these people had lost and yet had the fortitude to pick up and start again in another country. We were welcomed by these newcomers just as warmly in return.  We were included in their celebrations and their grief.  We sat at their tables and listened to their stories and their songs. The singing of these newcomers was a marvel to me.  They sang with such abandon. Their sorrow was brought to the surface, but at the same time it was assuaged by the melodies they sang. To this day, when I hear an old Serbian song that they may have sung back then in their homes or in the Serbian hall on Elm Street, I cry, as did my parents at the time.

No history book could teach us what we learned from these immigrants. Their sheer strength to keep going when all was lost.  Their love of their heritage and their adaptation to their new surroundings is a marvel to me.  That my mother in many cases was instrumental in their transition to the American way of life – and my dad’s support of her need to help – is not anything any teacher or book could convey. I am and will always be grateful for having been there to meet these wonderful, strong, souls.  And, I am eternally grateful that my parents taught us to appreciate their trials and to treat them, always, with respect and kindness.

*The term Displaced Persons was the common phrase used in reference to refugees following World War II. The words evolved to the acronym “DP” and were, unfortunately, often used in a derogatory manner to diminish newcomers to American shores.

Yvonne Orlich was raised in Northwest Indiana.  Both her parents were first generation American born Serbs.  Her father, Manuel, was born in Minnesota and raised as an orphan by his uncle, Mihailo, in East Chicago, Indiana.  Her mother, Mila Popovich, was born in Ruth, Nevada, the eighth of ten children of Nikola and Ljubica Popovich and subsequently raised on the South Side of Chicago.   She now lives in the Phoenix, Arizona metro area; her older brother, Marco, lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Yvonne can be contacted by email at:

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