The Serb National Federation: Champion of Serbdom in America – Part Eleven – PUPIN’S DREAM COMES TRUE

South Bend Serbs

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, www.snfpaper.org.

Another important issue affecting fraternal federations was the fragmentation of Serbian American organizations. There were several Serb fraternal federations competing with each other and splintering due to diverging position of their leadership. Now the union, proposed long ago by Pupin but never really embraced by the leaders of these organizations, was gaining ground. The decline of some fraternal federations and bankruptcy of others prompted the merger of Sloga with Srbobran, and Svesna Srbadija with Sloboda. Finally, the two federations merged on September 21, 1929 into the Serb National Federation. The importance of this accomplishment is highlighted in the report submitted to the First Convention of the Serb National Federation held in 1931 in Pittsburgh:

The old wish of our people here to unite our federations was finally fulfilled on that day…We extend our special gratitude to all those who worked sincerely for the establishment of a united Federation and to our membership, which overwhelmingly understood the need for such action and worked decisively toward the accomplishment of this goal.

Once this was accomplished, the SNF could focus on three main issues – how to operate in conditions emerging from the Great Depression, how to recruit new members, and how to communicate and preserve the cultural tradition (introduction of English as a means of preserving Serbian culture).

The Great Depression fostered a number of economic and social problems. One of its effects was the development of labor organizations promoting social programs and rights of workers. These labor organizations competed with the existing ethnic fraternal organizations, advocating inter-ethnic collaboration on broad social issues and action. Their position was that all workers were in the same position regardless of their ethnic background. Therefore, they should organize on a purely social basis, in order to speak out with a stronger voice. Joint cross ethnic organizations based on common social goals adopted leftist political ideologies, which were further strengthened in the ‘30s. Unlike fraternal organizations, which sold insurance but also promoted ethnic culture, labor organizations were not concerned with ethnic traditions or cultural issues.

The second issue – recruiting new members – forced the Serb National Federation to turn to second an third generation Serbian Americans for expansion of its membership. In order to attract young Serbian Americans, the SNF gradually developed special youth-oriented programs dealing with education, culture and sports. The question of language was crucial in this effort, since many young Serbian Americans grew up speaking English as their native language and Serbian as a “home” language with limited functions. In 1930 the American Srbobran, published until then in only Serbian, introduced an English Section designed to satisfy the needs of those who had difficulties in reading Cyrillic and understanding Serbian. The editors recognized the need to address Serbian American youth in English, which became a means of transmitting information about the Serbian cultural heritage. This is the time when the first articles and essays on Serbian customs and traditions began appearing in English – so that young readers would understand what they were about and what their meaning was. This linguistic situation is rendered very well in a story written by Djordje Petrovic, in which the author describes a gathering of Serbian Americans, sometime in the ‘20s, to attend a performance by a popular guslar. In a dialogue following the performance, one man asked a young man if he liked the songs. The latter replied:

Vel, kume, bilo je najs. Ja sam mnogo lajka, ali samo ne mogu da understandam. [Vidakovic Petrov: 1996, 183]

One field where the knowledge of language was not crucial was that of music, and this is where the Serb National Federation supported an important breakthrough – the founding of the Serbian Singing Federation. The single individual most instrumental in the founding of this organization was Vladimir-Vlajko Lugonja:

This movement perhaps more than any other brought the young Serbian Americans closer to each other, to their Eastern Orthodox Church and to their Serbian culture…The Serb National Federation has always been and continues to remain the greatest benefactor to the Serbian Singing Federation. Their monthly stipend, in addition to their generosity in publishing the SSF and its member choirs in the American Srbobran, has enabled the SSF to prosper and grow. [Bielich-Papich: 55, 58]

Vladimir Vlajko Lugonja with the Serbian Singing Federation

A New Orientation: Education and Sports

The second special youth program established by the Serb National Federation was education. One of the most important decisions of the SNF in the ‘30s was to fund the education of young Serbian Americans in Yugoslavia. One goal was to provide children from poor families with access to a university education. However, there was an even more important goal, that of “arming these children with the national spirit” so that on returning to America they could become able leaders and “promoters of our national spirit;” the moment “we lose our children, and they don’t care whether they are Serbian or Irish or German, we will have lost everything that is ours in this country.”

In 1933 one Serbian American student, Mihajlo Vrlinic, received a fellowship from the SNF in order to pursue his university studies in Zagreb. In 1934 the SNF adopted a unique decision: to fund the university studies of ten young American Serbs in Yugoslavia. The students chosen to participate I this praiseworthy academic project were Mihajlo Rajacic, Draga Trbovic, Savka Stojanovic-Radicevic, Vasa Purlija, Nenad Marich, Vujo Prica, Djordje Vujnovic, Ruzica Mamula, Toma Zoroja, and Velimir Nikolin. Three more students were given SNF scholarships soon after: Blazo Vuksanovich, Nikola Marunic, and Danilo Andric.

Not all of the students remained in Yugoslavia throughout their academic studies. Some returned to America in 1937, some lost their scholarships, some graduated and returned in 1939, while six continued their academic studies: in Belgrade(Purlija, Marich, Vujnovic, and Marunic) and in Zagreb (Vrlinic and Vuksanovic).

The importance attached to the Scholarship Fund is stressed again in 1939:

It is imperative that we do everything within our power to help our youth, so they realize the Savez dedicates its paternal care to them. In order to truly help our youth, the Executive Board has decided to propose to the Convention a far-reaching plan – to fund the education of our youth at American colleges and universities to help them forge a better future. By doing so these young people would strengthen and perpetuate their ties to our community and our organization. It would promote the reputation and respect of their parents, our members, as well as non-members for the Federation. Once these young people graduate and begin their careers they will remember the organization which made it possible for them.

The Executive Board proposed to strengthen the Scholarship Fund of the Junior Order by transferring $20,000, a move already approved by the Pennsylvania Insurance Department. The plan was to allot $300 each year for loans to good students or children from poor families, which they would pay back once they began generating income. Candidates would be chosen bearing in mind the geographic provenance of the students (so colonies from across the country would be represented). Each year ten such scholarships would be awarded. The Board also proposed that the registration for SNF conventions be raised and part of that money be used to strengthen the Scholarship Fund.

The students who left in 1934 arrived in Belgrade just after the assassination of King Alexander in France. Some were still there in 1941 when the Nazis bombed Belgrade, occupying and dismembering the country.

Many years later, Eli Roknich, Junior Order elder and financial secretary of SNF lodge in Hobart, Indiana proposed, at the SNF Convention held in Chicago in 1987, that the SNF Scholarship Fund be reinstated. The motion was unanimously approved and among the first donations were those of Marich, Purlija, and other SNF stipendists. As predicted by the SNF leaders in the ‘30s – these young men would never forget the help they received from the Serb National Federation. On sending his donation to the SNF Scholarship Fund in 1988, over 50 years after he had been in Belgrade as a SNF stipendist, Nenad Marcih wrote:

The past generosity of our Serb Old Timers, respectable and loving parents, made this possible when jobs were scarce and times were tough during the Great Depression…This is why I have long felt the need to return in like measure that which was given to me during my formative years.

The SNF youth program was especially enhanced by the introduction of sports tournaments. It all began when several teams from the same geographical area decided to get together and compete in an informal manner. Then in 1936 the first basketball tournament was held in Cleveland. It was such a success that a golf tournament was organized the next year and a bowling tournament the year after.

First Women

The first SNF Athletic Program Director was Edward Milkovich, then Fred Milanovich was followed by Sam Milanovich. The athletic events – basketball, golf, and bowling – organized by the SNF remain to this day one of the most popular gatherings of young Serbian Americans in the U.S. and Canada. The SNF athletic program is famed as one of the best organized by any fraternal organization on the continent. In a way, this was a continuation of what the Soko organizations had been in their own time. It was not only a matter of athletic competitions. It had to do with the development of friendship and solidarity, enhancing moral values through religion and culture, and having fun and learning to be “a good Serb” as well as “a good American.”

Val Medich

Next Installment:   A Key to the Future: The Youth Program

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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