The SNF: Champion of Serbdom in America PT. 3

Part Three – The American Srbobran

By Dr. Krinka Vidakovic Petrov

Ed Note: The 120th year of the Serb National Federation takes place in 2021. As we plan the future of the SNF through financial and membership growth, we take a moment to reflect on our origin, our commitments and our accomplishments. In her highly researched account written for the centennial book “Serb National Federation First 100 Years 1901-2001,” Dr, Krinka Vidakovic Petrov produced a work as interesting and valuable today as the day it was written. It is being presented it in installments over the next several issues and eventually will be included on the American Srbobran research site. – str.

One of the most important contributions of the Serb National Federation to the promotion of Serb interests in North America has been its official publication, the American Srbobran.

Although it was not the first Serbian newspaper to be founded in North America, it has become the oldest continuously published Serbian newspaper in the world. No other Serbian newspaper, including the Belgrade Politika, has been continuously published longer than the American Srbobran. In the Diaspora, the American Srbobran is the newspaper with the longest and richest tradition, a true and extraordinary reflection of the history of Serbdom in America in the 20th century.

The first Serbian newspapers in the U.S. had been published by the Bokelji (Montenegrin) immigrants in San Francisco, where the oldest and most organized Serbian communities were located. Several new newspapers appeared at the turn of the century. In Butte, Montana; Pueblo, Colorado; New York, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Belgrade in Minnesota and Nebraska. However, only the American Srbobran has spanned the whole twentieth century as a true voice of Serbian Americans.

The early Serbian pioneers who founded the Serb Orthodox Federation Srbobran were very much aware of the importance of having a newspaper in order to communicate their ideas and goals to fellow Serbs dispersed throughout the United States. Vijenac (Wreath) – a newspaper published sporadically by Jovo Miljus in Pittsburgh – could not perform this task, so they invited Spiro Radulovic, editor of Sloboda (a well-established newspaper published in San Francisco) to transfer his print shop to Pittsburgh. Since this did not work out, they contacted Mitar Saban, who has a print shop in Pueblo, Colorado and had published a few issues of several newspapers (Mir, Srpski Odjek, and Srbin). Saban accepted the invitation, so his newspaper Srbin became the first official organ of the Serbian Orthodox Society Srbobran. In a 1901 issue we can read the following words written by Velemir Hajdin:

Who could defend and unite the Serbs in this country better than the Srbobran? It is the center around which Serbian hearts should come together to strengthen their name…It is the duty of every true Serb to become a member of the Serbian Orthodox Society Srbobran and to enroll another member immediately, so Serbs can show that they have not perished in this country…Many will say that Serbs have taken too long to establish their own organization, which is true. However, there were many reasons for this, the main one being the lack of a newspaper that could communicate with our people and organize them to the benefit of every individual and the Serbian community as a whole.

After a short period of time Saban traveled to Montenegro (due to health problems), so Velemir Hajdin took over the editing, while the typesetters were Sima Vujnovic, Luka Savicevic and Vlado Petkovic. In 1903 Saban sold his print shop and went back to his native Ljubotinj in Montenegro (where he soon passed away). Finally, the SOF Srbobran decided at the Convention held in Harrisburg in 1905 that it would found a new newspaper titled the American Srbobran. The first issue was published in January of 1906.

The name of the federation and its official organ – Srbobran – was a reference to another newspaper of the same name, which was one of the outstanding Serbian publications in nineteenth century Austria.

“Our First Word,” the article featured on the front page of the January 1906 issue, was written by Fr. Sava Vojvodic, whose hope was that the American Srbobran would play an important roled in the life of Serb immigrants in America:

Our newspaper will guide our readership on the path of Serbian national awareness and dedication to the holy Orthodox faith, so that in this distant land they do not forget the faith and the nation they have come from and for which our ancestors have shed so much blood, leaving us these two holy legacies to defend and preserve…Even now we hear a soft voice in our hearts whispering Christ’s words: “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”

From the first issue till this day, the American Srbobran has been the beacon of Serbdom in America. It has reported on all events – in America as well as in the “old world” – affecting Serb interests and has championed all worthy Serbian causes: political involvement, labor, economic and social issues, the establishment of Serbian parishes and churches, schools and education projects, and a wide scope of cultural activities and sports programs. It has been a soft voice in the heart of Serbs in America, as well as a strong resounding voice in defense of the integrity of Serbian Americans and Serbs in general.

The strong tie between Orthodoxy (religion) and Serbdom (ethnicity) – mentioned in Fr. Vojvodic’s editorial – would be preserved as a core element in Serbian American culture just as it had been in the Serbian tradition of the preceding periods in the “old world.” The high cost of preserving these two elements of the Serbian national identity throughout long historic periods of pressure explains why they are described as untouchable.

Due to forced migrations in the Balkans during several centuries and the fact that many Serbs lived in lands dominated by foreign powers, rodoljublje or nationalism (love for one’s nation), was not always equivalent to patriotism (than love for the patria or homeland). Austria-Hungary had been the “homeland” of the vast majority of the turn of the century immigrants, but it was perceived – with a lot of reasons – as hostile. Unlike the state of emigration (Austria-Hungary), the state of immigration (the United States of America) was a land of economic opportunity and freedom, but at the same time culturally alien. The homeland was either a local district under foreign administration (the regions where they came from: Lika, Banija, Kordun, Vojvodina, Patrovici, Boka Kotorska, Bosnia, and Herzegovina) or the historic homeland – Serbia. America became a true homeland for the immigrants only after a prolonged stay in the New World, where their children and grandchildren would be born and raised.

At first, most immigrants believed their stay in America would be a temporary one, so during the first years of their stay they did not make efforts to integrate in the American environment. Many of them did return. Those that stayed realized after a certain period of time they would never return, but even so, integration was a slow and difficult process because the immigrants lived in isolated ethnic “ghettos.”  Mladen Sekulovich, fondly known to the American public as the Academy Award winning actor Karl Malden, was born in 1912 in Gary, Indiana. He offers an accurate description of this situation on writing about his father Petar Sekulovich:

My father would keep the old world with him for the rest of his life. By the time we moved from Chicago, Pa had lived in this country for ten years, nearly half his life to that point. Yet he was still very much the immigrant. He could barely speak English, let alone read it. It fell to me, the first child, to bring the new world into our home. As I grew up, I was constantly amazed at how unwelcome that world turned out to be. How often my struggle to be an ordinary all-American kid left me feeling the outsider, caught between my Serbian home and the entire rest of the world. Every son must battle his father on his way to becoming a man. But as I was growing up I often felt like I was battling the entire old world.

You could make no mistake about it. Loyalty to Serbian heritage would always be held as the highest value in my father’s home. His heritage positively defined my father. He was a funny, charming, well-loved man. He could captivate the room when he told a story. But more importantly he was a respected leader in the Serbian community. His community. His people. He was a Serb, obsessed with being a good Serb and with helping the people around him to be good Serbs. He clung to his Old World heritage, almost for dear life. And he insisted that his home remain a cornerstone of Serbian culture in the isolated, insular Serbian ghetto he rarely ventured from…He would say, “One who is born into a Serbian home who doesn’t care to be a good Serb will not also be a good American. [Malden: 16-17, 25]

Next Installment: The Issues At Stake

About the author: Award winning Dr. Krinka Vidakovic Petrov was a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Literature and Arts in Belgrade, has been affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh, is a renowned scholar and diplomat, and has authored several books and numerous articles in literature and history. She is a Belgrade native and holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Zagreb. In addition to her books Serbian Americans: History. Culture. Press, From the Balkans to the Pacific: Serbian American Culture and Literature, The Great War 1914-1918: The Kingdom of Serbia, the United States of America and the Serbian American Diaspora, and Essays in Comparative Folklore, she has co-authored several language textbooks, and published in professional journals in at least six countries including the United States and the former Yugoslavia. She is a past editor of the English section of the American Srbobran. Dr. Petrov researched, compiled and served as managing editor of the Serb National Federation centennial book Serb National Federation First 100 Years 1901-2001, in which this article “The Serb National Federation: Champion of Serbdom in America” was originally published in its entirety.

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