by Catherine Rankovic
If you’ve never read an essay by a Serbian-American about being Serbian-American, that might be because there aren’t many of us, and we tend not to say much, or rather, write much. If my experience growing up among them is any indication, that’s because Serbs tend not to reflect much, especially on themselves. Those I knew discouraged in their children anything resembling self-preoccupation, warning of its threats to one’s spirit or sanity. My father told the story of the Serbian scientist who thought to calculate how many times in his life he’d change his clothes. The total so horrified him he killed himself. This was less a story than a parable.
We – for I am as Serbian as I am American, a cultural hybrid, a true hyphenate – are traditionally a fatalistic people. My father’s circle of immigrant Serbs, made up mostly of displaced persons and political refugees almost all of peasant background, voiced this fatalism as acceptance of God’s will. My father, born in the village of Krnjevo, in Serbia, in 1919, spent 1941 to 1945 as a slave laborer in a German prisoner of war camp. Over the twenty-five years his lifespan matched mine he said within my hearing perhaps five sentences about it. The past was past. Trained as a blacksmith after an eighth-grade education, his youth lost to war, displaced to the U.S. in 1950 and employed thereafter in a foundry and factories to support four American-born daughters, he had a hard enough time trying to manage the present. He also hoped, I think, to spare us nightmares and what he may have considered a crippling sense of victimization – I think he was somehow actually ashamed of his enslavement-and for so graciously sparing us, at an unknown cost to himself, I thank him. In all this he was typical of the men in his circle, which centered on the Serbian Orthodox church they founded in our city; in fact, he was often voted their leader.
I was, as it happened, among the first of the American children born into that circle, and so thoroughly socialized in its ways that I was all of twenty-five years old before I first thought to look back on life, and felt stupendously enlightened to see there, instead of fate and chaos, patterns and cycles forming a narrative, a drama. This came courtesy of psychotherapy, product of another, an enemy, culture. So overpowering had been the unspoken family proscription against personal reflection, expressed as a deep suspicion and terror of reading and writing beyond what schooling required, that a college education and even life itself had failed to so enlighten me. Serbs did their best to avoid looking back at a past filled, as it was, with ugly and inexplicable things. We could not, for the sake of hope, believe the past determined the future. In a very American way breaking these taboos marked the point at which I became a genuine American rather than a Serb, and it felt liberating at the time. But it now seems to me that the gifts of hindsight are not identical with those of insight, and that the folks off the boat may have shown a superior wisdom in keeping their selective silences.
The Serbs I grew up among – and I stress that our community was unusually homogenous, founded and sustained by men like my father – followed tradition in letter and spirit, preserving religious rituals 900 years old without apparent interest in their antiquity or sources, but with enormous and vocal interest in keeping them intact. They made enthusiastic if vague reference to the more glorious moments of Serbian history, which in the early 1970s were codified for their culturally endangered, half-American young in the form of a dual language textbook filled with pious, muddy illustrations and shipped in hopeful bulk from its author in Toronto. I never read it; by then I had quit our raucous Serbian “Sunday” school, having sat from age four to fourteen in the church hall from nine to noon on school year Saturdays, in all that time learning nothing except Serbian folk songs and hymns, because our priest refused to teach us in the English language we preferred and could shut us up only when we sang. (I did stay with the church’s all-girl folk dancing team until I went to college.) The adults often talked politics, and even the priest did so, vehemently, on Serbian patriotic holidays, giving to the crowd wildly amplified speeches featuring the word “Kommunistika” – used with contempt, for Tito’s policies had been at the root of his and his congregants’ displacement, and, perhaps worse, were atheistic besides. So these were not people of few words; on the contrary. But of war and exile, the central facts of their lives, they did not speak personally; they were too proud, too polite, too fragile a community and just too busy living to fetishize their personal pain.
Yet, very early in life I sensed that something the size of a continent shadowed us, breathed shadow upon us, and impoverished us, even at worship or feasts. In our church hall, two commanding portrait photographs, of a boyish ex-monarch in a uniform blistered with medals and an aging, bearded, fire-eyed soldier, oversaw us from exile and beyond the grave. Photographs, as clues to what troubled us, began to intrigue me; I think it was photographs that taught me that the way to live in both my worlds was to live in each as an observer, at one remove. In Serbian homes in America, including my own, I found caches of dog-eared, deckle-edged, black and white snapshots posed and taken in sunlight of a positively foreign intensity. They showed couples, family groups or assorted adults arm in arm; often there were studio portraits of young soldiers, their faces as composed and. inaccessibly beautiful as saints’. Inscriptions of any kind were rare. These small collections might be kept in a cigar box, tacked up near the radio, or mounted in cumbrous albums with black pages. Badly damaged or very precious photographs were sometimes restored so that the human figures were shorn of context and set forth on blank white fields; these were the pictures most likely to be framed and displayed. They weren’t like American photographs, which had dates automatically emblazoned in their margins, marking them as supplements to memory; rather, they seemed, like the ikons in our church, to function as windows into the hereafter. I do not remember ever asking who the people in the photos were, but now and then, caught studying them, I was gently told: “My brother,” “My godparents,” “Friends from my village.” If there was no more to say, it wasn’t said; for different reasons, neither children nor the adults who might be present needed to hear explanations. This was delicacy, not denial; it was a graceful, because well-taught and practiced, bow to God’s will, however costly and enigmatical appeared His reasoning. But I intuited the meaning of the many abrupt and conspicuous silences, and being half-American and a seeker of ulterior motives, grew to believe they were kept against me: I thought they asked me to forget what I could not remember, an impossibility. And for a long time I thought that the phrase “Iron Curtain,” used so freely and darkly on TV and radio then, had something to do with containing the awful thing that we found unspeakable.
All this lay banked, while, like coats of thick, obliterating paint, I acquired layer upon layer of blissfully uncomplicated white American-ness. I spent the American half of my hyphenated life-in school, socializing, and starting to work (as a photographer, typesetter, stockroom clerk, office temporary: anything at one remove)-trying to forget I was Serbian, and largely succeeding. In that world, where the melting-pot ideal as yet went unchallenged, someone’s comment on my surname or my decidedly Slavic face, my father’s face, might cloud my mind with at most a passing thought or two. First, that being Serbian was an accident, and an unfortunate one; I deserved better. Were I French I would have a real culture to point to. Were I Irish I could have that people’s pride. I felt I had neither. “Syrian? Siberian?” puzzled people said to me, “Serbian” being completely beyond their ken. And I couldn’t blame them, call them ignorant, because for over seventy years, for most of the 20th century, there was no nation called Serbia. There was a Yugoslavia, but it did not pay to say proudly that Serbia was part of Yugoslavia, since if Yugoslavia as a whole had produced anything to be proud of no one educated in America, myself included, had any idea what it might be. Eastern Europe in general was a blank, a void, unstudied, unknowable, obscured as it was by the Iron Curtain and not really a part of Europe at all. At school I came to understand that the real Europe is Western Europe, the closer to England the realer and better, and that all white Americans were “Anglos” by fiat, just a little less so if they had names like mine.
To be continued – part two of this four-part series will be published on FEMigration on June 21, 2021
Author Bio: Catherine Rankovic’s books include Fierce Consent and Other Poems (WingSpan, 2005) Guilty Pleasures: Indulgences, Addictions and Obsessions (Andrews McMeel Universal, 2003), Island Universe: Essays and Entertainments (WingSpan, 2007), and Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis (Penultimate Press Inc., 2010). She received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, where she taught from 1989 to 2010; she now teaches poetry and creative nonfiction writing in the online MFA program at Lindenwood University. Her essays and poems have appeared in Boulevard, Garbanzo, Gulf Coast, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Natural Bridge, The Progressive, River Styx, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Umbrella, and other journals, and the anthology Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America (Penultimate Press, Inc, 2008). Her awards include the Missouri Biennial Award for essay writing, first place in the Midwest Writing Center’s annual Mississippi Valley poetry competition, and an Academy of American Poets award. She is a professional book editor and her website is www.BookEval.com
Amazing insights into your chidhood. While I was born to American Serbian parents, I witnessed much of what you wrote of through my extended family and our church community. I look forward to your next installments.
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Thank you. I’ll be writing mroe.
Very interesting. Love your writing.
I look forward to your next installments.
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Thank you Catherine for this captivating and visceral brain walk down memory lane. As an American born daughter, 3rd of 4, born 2 mos after we emigrated from Germany refugee camps, I hear, see and feel all that you have written here…my 2 sisters were 3&4 when we flew to America…only because my mother was harboring me in the womb. Fully entrenched in my Serbian weekend life and my American school life during the week, I and my sisters did all we could to normalize our not so normal dichotomous life…There was no escape from the reality of our parents living and escape from “kommunisticka” Yugoslavia, with a Cetnik father and a mother who left her village family for a better life, and the awkwardness we felt in our neighborhoods, schools and even at the grocery store translating for my mother at the cash register …not to mention the first day of school when the teacher would hesitate during roll call when she got to our Serbian names..I knew we were different at a very young age. I grew to love and appreciate that difference over time …we have many stories to tell and share…I look forward to hearing more of yours.
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You write well! How about writing an essay of your own? Well do I remember loud speeches about “Kommunistika!” and learning nationalist songs. Daddy was not a Cetnik but some of the Serbs in the area were.
This is so keenly accurate of the displaced persons I knew and grew up with in the Midwest. As an American-born Serb, I could not then grasp why the children of these people were so very eager to be American. We, on the other hand, were being taught to learn and practice all the Serbian traditions, songs and religion. It still troubles me that our survivors of WWII and the accompanying atrocities were so reluctant to tell the world what happened. I fear it did the Serbians everywhere a great disservice. Just my opinion.
But, thank you for your story as you saw it.
Masirala, masirala, Kralja Petra Garda! Did you learn that marching song?