by Catherine Rankovic
The Serbs I knew didn’t teach me to hate Croats, Muslims or anybody else. I thought if we were going to hate anybody it would be Germans, but that wasn’t so; married to Serbs, some of our community’s many Germanborn women, some of them Jews, became prominent members of the church auxiliary called the Circle of Serbian Sisters. And except for stray references to the local Croatian-American soccer team which seemed to indicate a garden-variety type of ethnic rivalry, I never heard any Serbs mention Croats at all. They sharply corrected me if I called their language “SerboCroatian” instead of “Serbian,” but never told me that we didn’t speak of Croats because the best and worst we could do to them now was to banish them from speech and memory. I was over thirty before I sought books – mainly passages in books, since the usual histories of World War II barely mention Yugoslavia – that would tell me why.
But, too, it was not until I was over thirty that being Serbian had any sort of meaning beyond the meanings I or others of Serbian descent applied to it. A long time ago Dale Carnegie, in a book on public speaking, mentioned an audience left thoroughly puzzled by a speech on Serbia: “Why,” he wrote, “half of them did not know whether Serbia was a town or a disease.” Beginning in 1991, instead of saying “What?” acquaintances who heard for the first time that I was Serbian sometimes jokingly retreated, covering their throats; and many people since appear to have been persuaded that Serbia is less a place than a disease.
My being Serbian was no longer a purely personal concern; my ethnic identity, formerly obscure, had been politicized, and opened to speculation largely negative in character. After the current civil war began, I was often asked how it came about and what I thought about it, or how Serbs could be so terrible, or why. I didn’t know. But I did know that the Serbs I knew seemed incapable of simply waking up one morning in the mood for massacre; that there must be facts, or a narrative, that would explain.
There never should have been a Yugoslavia. Uniting the Southern Slav groups – Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – in 1918 was largely a Serbian idea, meant at least in part to tie their small nations together against attack and partitioning – “balkanizing” – by larger nations and empires. Serbs, Yugoslavia’s majority, set the new country up under the reigning Serbian king. Croats, whose crucial difference from Serbs is their traditional Roman Catholicism and related cultural ties with Central and Western Europe, saw a Serbian power grab, and initiated a separatist movement. In 1934, some nationalist extremists called Ustashi assassinated the Serbian king while he visited France, and mutual enmity became entrenched. World War II gave Croatia the opportunity to break from Yugoslavia and expand its territory hugely. Extremist leaders then ordered the territory purged of non-Catholics, whether Jewish, Gypsy or Eastern Orthodox. Some were forcibly converted; others were driven out, and others systematically killed. Estimates of Serbian Orthodox dead range from 200,000 to 800,000; Nazi-occupied Serbia was able to engage only in scattered retaliatory acts.
This has not been easy for either Serbs or Croats to forget. Tito, a Croat, took steps after the war to suppress ethnic animosity, including jailing or otherwise punishing those still loyal to the exiled Serbian king. My father, a veteran of the Yugoslav Royal Army, could not return home and became one of 150,000 displaced Europeans relocated to the United States; he once said he had been given the choice of the U.S., Australia or Canada. Tito managed to hold Yugoslavia together for thirty-five years, until his death in 1980, and for ten years after that a collective presidency, rotated among representatives of all ethnic groups, appeared to be working. But then, under Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic, it began to break down.
When in 1991, inspired by other formerly Communist breakaway republics, Croatia again seceded from Yugoslavia, ugly memories on both sides resurfaced, were fanned into flame, and they fuel the civil war there today. It is doubtful that there is any ethnic or religious or other kind of tribe which has never in its history fallen victim to enslavement or genocide or oppression just as cruel as either. Probably, such persecutions themselves create the initial tribal bonds. As a Serbian-American, half Old World and half New, I have learned this: that it is not necessary, even if it may be desirable, to forget one’s history or forgive it. It is, however, necessary not to dwell on it, have it as one’s meat and drink, exalt it as the core of one’s identity. A sense of victimization, at first- or second-hand, is, as my father seemed to know, ultimately crippling. My father could well have explained to me that Germans or Croats were unfit to live, that they ought to reparate our kind with everything they owned, up to and including their lives, and that a proper Serb should hate them and their descendants unto eternity. Possibly he did not do so because he lived in America where any threat to us, as Serbs, was remote, as was the possibility of thoroughly satisfactory revenge. But if he did have such feelings he did not vent them even in the moments of his most furious anger, such as when, playing soldier, aged about eight, I shouted “Heil Hitler!” a phrase I’d learned from watching “Hogan’s Heroes.” I now see clearly that my father did not really forget or wholly forgive, but he and his fellow Serbs would not – because this alone was not beyond their power – pass on the poison. I cannot say the same for the Serbs in Bosnia now. But if Americans want to play an effective part in making peace there, every example in history including the present one proves that we cannot do it by demonizing an entire ethnic group. The key is to realize we have been well and to a great extent systematically prepared to discount these people’s claim to humanity, which is why that’s been so easy for many of us who are otherwise thoughtful – and doing so is doing exactly what we decry.
You might be wondering about my mother. She was Polish-American, the daughter of turn-of-the-century Polish immigrants who ran an unprofitable farm in far northern Wisconsin. But upon marrying my father she converted from Catholicism to Orthodoxy, learned the Serbian language and Serbian cooking, became an honorary Serb and raised her children as the same. There was no question about its being otherwise, although unlike most wives of immigrant Serbs, she worked as much as possible outside the home, giving us a number of material advantages not typically available to first generation Americans, particularly girls. For social and economic reasons, the first American generation of any ethnic group does not generally produce scholars or writers; a few spectacular exceptions prove the rule. Had my mother been an immigrant Serb – there were few single Serbian women among the displaced persons and postwar refugees, and marriage to German, Jewish, Russian or American-born women was common – I might have been encouraged to marry early and discouraged from pursuing higher education, which leads to occupations sufficiently restful and well paid as to enable the acts of reflection and writing. Without my American-born mother’s influence, I might have hoped only that my own children would be so privileged. Despite her different background – the link may be that they were both of peasant stock – my mother was like my father in that she did not indulge the past. Still, they differed: my father remembered but did not say so; my mother openly claimed amnesia of almost all events occurring before 1963, blaming anesthesia administered before an operation early that year. I am inclined to think she deliberately chose to deny her first thirty years because she found most of her memories unbearably painful. Even so, her amnesia did not save her a consuming bitterness which never revealed its source or object. I would be disingenuous did I not admit that some of this bitterness transferred itself to me, expressing itself as the rebellious urge to record, if not remember, everything: to lifting at any cost the curtain so firmly drawn, in our house, over the past and the not-nice. I did not see that for my parents, because of when and where and into what they had been born, these were in truth one and the same, and their choice not to speak of it deserved not the label of “repression,” but respect. It was furtively that my mother presented me with my inheritance, my father’s slave-labor camp dog tag, following his death in 1982. I had never seen it before, did not know he even had it: a one-by-five centimeter scrap of bruised steel stamped “Kr. Gef. Lag. (Krieg Gefangener Lager, prisoner of war camp) XB, No. 105445.” It embodies tragedy. But because he did not see his life as a tragedy – he reveled in America’s abundance, and appreciated freedom, and danced and sang – I can’t either.
The final installment of this four part series will be published on FEMigration on July 5, 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