The Serb National Federation: Champion of Serbdom in America – Part Nine – SERBIA ABOVE ALL

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. Earlier installments are available on the American Srbobran research site, – str

The American Srbobran reported on all activities of Velimirovic, Perunovic, the Yugoslav Council, and other organizations spearheading support for Serbia – the Serb National Defense, the Serbian Red Cross, and an organization called Serbian Orphans.

In order to stress “the moral aspect of the Federation” – i.e., its involvement in the war effort – the American Srbobran, publishing four pages, became a daily newspaper in November of 1916. Every single issue reported not only on events taking place on the front, but also on the battle taking place in America. The leitmotifs in every editorial were Serbia “The Promised Land” and Belgrade “our new Jerusalem.”

During the recruitment of volunteers in 1916 Serbia managed to secure funds for the transportation of recruits, which is stressed in the editorial titled “Let U.S> Go to the Homeland.”

The duty we have as people of integrity is to answer the car to help our brethren, whereby we will be helping ourselves. Who will help us if we do not help ourselves? When foreign nations in missions could go and sacrifice themselves for our brethren, we must do so as well, especially now that the journey to Serbia does not cost us a cent because it is funded by the Serbian Humane Society, which seeks to provide aid to Serbian soldiers and war orphans. Consider this and do not hesitate. Prepare to go and assume the noble duties of men and Serbia, Serbia above all, we say again and again! Serbdom in America is a Little Serbia…This is the most appropriate moment to unite Little Serbia in America and show that it merits the high honors our nation has deserved in this era of bloodshed.

The American Srbobran published editorials urging support for Serbia, patriotic poems, letters and articles from the war-ravaged Homeland, and reports on activities of Serb colonies in America and all organizations involved in the war effort. Aid was collected at parish church and lodge meetings, but also at individual Slavas, weddings and baptisms. The funds collected by the lodges were periodically sent to Serbia through Serbian diplomatic legations.

In December of 1916, for example, the SOF Srbobran sent 30,000 francs to the Serb legation in Paris. Many churches and lodges sent the funds to the Serbian Red Cross or the “Serbian War Orphans” organization. According to a report of the SOF Srbobran of 1916 the organization had collected 8,000 dollars in aid for Serbian war orphans. It had established a War Fund to which each member was donating 10 cents a month, providing the Fund 600 dollars monthly.

The American Srbobran reported regularly on volunteer units which were formed in a number of Serb parishes and lodges: in Butte, Montana; Gary and Indianapolis, Indiana; St. Louis, Missouri; Akron, Ohio; Jerome, Arizona; Joliet, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; Douglas, Alaska; Seattle, Washington; Omaha, Nebraska; and Midland and other places in Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Canada. The volunteer units received names after Serbian and American heroes, presidents, royalty (Ivan Kosancic, Milos Obilic, Vuk Mandusic, Svetozar Miletic, Adam Pribicevic, Woodrow Wilson, Kraljevic Djordje) or Serbian/Yugoslav place names (Lovcen, Sarajevo, Dalmacija).

SOF Srbobran supported the efforts of other federations (such as Sloga) – encouraging collaboration on common goals, working with the Serb National Defense, Serbian Red Cross and Serbian War Orphans. Serbian Americans – and especially Mihailo Pupin – appealed to the American government for support, which became more direct once America joined the war effort. President Wilson was especially praised and one of the volunteer units was named after him. At the same time, the Federation sought to strengthen ties with the Russians – which is reflected in the fact that in addition to the Serbian honorary president of the Federation, Nikola Tesla, there were two more – the Russian Archbishop Evdochim and the Russian Ambassador Yuri Bahmechov.

Several years after the ear, Mihailo Ducic pointed out that some Serbian organizations in America – such as the Serbian-Montenegrin Federation – lost almost all their membership because most of the latter left for Serbia as war volunteers.

This is particularly true of the Serb colony in Butte, Montana. The contribution of American Serbs – individuals, church, and numerous organizations – was recognized by Serbia:

All the pertinent factors during these glorious times, headed by King Peter I, have awarded the American Serbs a unique recognition of their contribution and have extended to them their profound gratitude. Everyone, including every shepherd in Serbia, expressed gratitude to their brethren on the other side of the ocean… However, although the financial aid of American Serbs was quite impressive, it has been by far surpassed by the sacrifice in lives… Serbs in America, imbued with the fantastic strength of Serbian epic songs, volunteered in great numbers to go to Kosovo – the Salonika Front. How many? Around 20,000. [Ducic: 101]

President Woodrow Wilson

The war had not yet ended when President Wilson made an unprecedented gesture in recognition of the sacrifices of the Serbian nation towards the common war effort. His unique eulogy to the Serbs was expressed in the invitation to Americans of all faiths and creed to pray for the Serbs, whose lands had been devastated and their homes despoiled, but whose spirit has remained unbroken. Here is an account given by Frank Columbus in his article “Serbian Americans.”

Sunday, July 28, 21918 was a hot muggy day in Washington, DC like most others. But not quite! Above the White House and all public building in Washington DC the Serbian flag proudly flew unfurled. President Woodrow Wilson sent the following message to the American people which was read aloud in churches throughout American and published in almost all major newspapers:

To the people of the United States on Sunday, 28th of this present month, will occur the fourth anniversary of the day when the gallant people of Serbia, rather than submit to the studied and ignoble exactions of a prearranged foe were called upon by the war declaration of Austria-Hungary to defend their territory and their homes against an enemy bent on their destruction. Nobly did they respond.

So valiantly and courageously did they oppose the forces of a country ten times greater in population and resources that it was only after they had thrice driven the Austrians back and Germany and Bulgaria had come to the aid of Austria that they were compelled to retreat into Albania. While their territory has been devastated and their homes despoiled, the spirit of the Serbian people has not been broken. Though overwhelmed by superior forces, their love of freedom remains unabated. Brutal force has left unaffected their firm determination to sacrifice everything for liberty and independence.

It Is fitting that the people of the United States, dedicated to the self-evident truths that is the right of the people of all nations, small as well as great, to live their own lives and choose their own government and remembering that the principles for which Serbia has so nobly fought and suffered are those for which the United States is fighting, should on the occasion of this anniversary manifest in an appropriate manner their war sympathy with the oppressed people who have so heroically resisted the aims of the Germanic nations to master the world. At the same time, we should not forget the kindred people of the great Slavic race – the Poles, the Czechs and Yugo-Slavs, who now dominated and oppressed by alien forces yearn for independence and national unity.

This can be done in a manner no more appropriate than in our churches. I, therefore, appeal to the people of the United States of all faiths and creeds to assemble in their several places of worship on Sunday, July 28, for the purpose of giving expression to their sympathy with this subjugated people and their oppressed and dominated kindred in other lands, and to invoke the blessings of Almighty God upon them and upon the cause to which they are pledged. – Woodrow Wilson, President, The White House, July 1918 [Columbus: 145-146]

Many years later, a tribute to Serbian American volunteers in WWI was published in the American Srbobran. The author, Mirko Popovic, was an army officer from Serbia who had fought in both World Wars. Popovic first describes his experiences in Bizerta (French North Africa), where the Serbian Army had a military school and training camp where numerous Serb volunteers from America were trained before being sent to the front. Among the volunteers – most of whom had never been in Serbia – there were some very big men for which it was hard to find the right size of uniforms and boots; they arrived from American well-dressed, with full suitcases, which they left in the camp.  At the Salonika Front, which was crucial for Allied military operations, they displayed exemplary courage and determination. Several years later, in times of peace, officer Popovic met again with some of the volunteers -  in Backa, Slavonia, and Podravina – where they had settled. And once again, in 1941, he would meet them, this time in another war. The old volunteers, who had settled in Yugoslavia, joined Popovic in the Chetnik movement – this time to fight the Ustashas.

Salonika Front

However, this was not the end of the story. In the final phase of his life, Popovic was in immigrant – in America. In the country he had known only through the stories told to him by Serbia American volunteers, he again met with a number of those brave men who he had trained in Bizerta and had fought with at the Salonika Front. The young men who had forged a friendship in Bizerta would meet again as old men in America. Towards the end of his life, there was one thing Popovic felt he must do and that was to remind us of the tribute we all owe to the Serb volunteers from America in WWI:

A great number of our volunteers were killed, perhaps many more have died, but some are still living, scattered around the world, here and in Yugoslavia. As a man who shared their tribulations and fought with them – in a sincere and brotherly manner – our gratitude for their sacrifice, and pray that Our Lord grant Heavenly Peace to those who were killed or died. Let them be an example to us and to future generations: how men have lived and died for the Holy Cross and Golden Freedom Za Krst casni i Slobodu zlatnu! We salute them.

Next Installment:  Americanization Begins  

Dr. Krinka Vidakovic Petrov

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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