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.
The Serb National Federation approached the youth issue with serious considerations regarding the future of the organization. The activities dedicated to making the SNF attractive to new generations of Serbian Americans point to a sustained and well thought out effort to secure membership in an adverse economic situation and an ongoing process of assimilation. The ultimate goal was to forge and preserve the Serbian American cultural identity, as well as to educate the new generations in the moral values of the Serbian heritage and the best American traditions of freedom, tolerance and democracy. Branko Pekic, the secretary general of the Serb National Federation, was instrumental in developing the youth program as a key strategic element of the organization. In 1935 the Serb National Federation received an autographed picture of young Peter II, who became king of Yugoslavia following the assassination of his father, King Alexander, in Marseille (1934).
On February 3, 1936 the Pittsburgh Post Gazette published an article entitled autographed photo of boy king on the front page, together with a picture of Branko Pekic showing the king's photograph. The article stresses that this is the only autographed picture of the 12-year-old king in this country and that it will hang in the offices of the Serb National Federation. The photograph was sent as a gift to the 7000 members of the Junior Order of the SNF.
Another expression of this strategy was the SNF sponsored the First Youth Convention held in 1940. Delegates from across the USA and Canada came to attend the First Youth Convention held in Pittsburgh. Branko Pekic appealed to Serbian American youth to follow the example of their forefathers:
… follow the example of your friends who convened last summer. If you all follow this example, we are convinced that our identity and our organizations, first and foremost our Serb National Federation, will not cease to exist when we, the elderly, are not here anymore. We feel stronger, more secure and relieved at this first youth convention. We look into the future of our people in this land, America, with hope…[Pekic: 33]
As part of the drive to involve the young generation in the development and preservation of the Serbian American identity, as well as the growth of the Serb National Federation, the latter organized a nationwide essay competition on the topic, “Why I should be a member of the Serb National Federation.” The prize-winning essays dealt with the “spiritual and ethical value of SNF membership,” as well as with other important aspects of the organization’s activities. Samuel Bojanic, from Steelton, PA, won the first prize. His essay explained why the Serb National Federation was “the heart, the center, and the very soul of American Serbs,” providing protection through its insurance programs, teaching the virtues of fraternity and patriotism, promoting national education, and fostering creditable athletic, musical and cultural organizations. Bojanic also highlighted the important role of the American Srbobran in promoting fellowship “by uniting the Serbian youth and keeping in close contact with them.”
In the essay that won second prize, Sophie Radakovich Ignatov from Flint, Michigan, mentioned the insurance benefits provided by the SNF, but highlighted the moral support exerted by the organization “to make very American-born Serb conscious of his beautiful heritage and the constant reminders through the medium of our Srbobran lest we forget that to be a good citizen of this country we must first be a good Serb.”
Lilie Hayden of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, concluded her essay with the following words:
I am a member of the SNF because it represents what I am – a good Serbian and a good American.
A whole section of the 1941 American Srbobran Almanac was dedicated to Serbian American youth issues. In addition to the above mentioned essays is a very interesting article by Mildred Vukmirovich, in which this young graduate of Ohio State University addresses three important American prejudices affecting turn of the century immigrants. One of them was the view that these immigrants arrived at a time when “all the trails had already been blazed,” that they came to a banquet table which had been prepared for them by others.
America did not make her appeal to the potential immigrant from the standpoint of developing a future citizen. Her appeal was made from the materialistic viewpoint. This was not time to dilly dally with ideals. This was a money for muscle deal. Then the steel was made, the bridges spanned the rivers, the railroad crawled across the breadth of the continent, and lo – the immigrant was discovered! What to do with him now?
The second prejudice purports that the new immigrants were not willing to integrate into the American environment. Vukmirovich stresses that integration was hard in itself, but that it was made even harder by the Americans’ attitude towards the newcomers:
He [the immigrant] was no longer respected; he was despised as an inferior being…He ran up against social and anti-immigrant prejudice, became a social outcast. Because he was a foreigner, it was his lot to receive the most inferior of our country’s social, political and economic jobs Is it any wonder that he and his fellow men segregated? Is it any wonder that assimilation has been difficult? The only place where the immigrant could assert himself, where he could still find respect, was in his own nationalistic colony, and there he fled.
The third prejudice was that somehow the immigrants were at the core of the American political left:
It is a popular fallacy that most Communists, Socialists, elitists in this country are aliens or immigrants. As a matter of fact, the greater part of party membership is native American.
She concludes with a tribute to the immigrants who blazed the new spiritual trails for the new generation and an America “which we are just beginning to understand, and which is just beginning to understand us.”
However, by the time this article was written, things had radically changed. First, the new generation of Serbian Americans was integrated in the American environment, so the main issue became: how to preserve the Serbian part of the Serbian American identity. Second, at the beginning of the century the only insurance the immigrants had was that provided by their fraternal organizations, but now there were other commercial insurance providers, which competed with the former. Branko Pekic drew attention to this issue, stressing the “moral” and “national” role of the SNF:
What our youth is looking for in our organizations, our lodges and our Savez are the same things they could find in other similar American organizations. The need to socialize, they need entertainment and they want to get involved in various activities, while the purely insurance issue has taken second place.
Another problem was the loss of the linguistic element of the Serbian-American identity and the importance of non-linguistic elements, a problem addressed by Fr. Danilo Kozomara:
If there were no way of avoiding the loss of the language, which has happened to other ethnic communities in America as well, then we should immediately begin focusing on preserving our Faith and the Serbian national soul and philosophy If no other way is possible, let us do it through the English language. If the language must be lost, let us work on preserving our religious and national traditions together with true Americanism.
Kozomara pointed out that up until WWII the only Serbian organization in America which had invested its own funds to provide Serbian books from the Old Country had been the Serb National Federation, for which it deserves the gratitude of all Serbian Americans. However, he correctly emphasized that providing more books in Serbian, even if the SNF had the means to do it, would not resolve the problem because “the time has come when we must educate our youth mainly in the English language.”
Several years earlier, Pekic had written on the importance of education the young generation, which needed to know more about Serbian history, the teachings of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the literary and cultural tradition, etc. However, the question was how to accomplish these goals Speaking of “our future,” Pekic pointed out that there were not enough Serbian schools in America and that they were understaffed and lacked the mans to satisfy these needs. He also observed that the Serbian-American community did not have enough intellectuals, people who could successfully cope with the educational needs of Serbian American youth. Finally, he put his finger on a general problem: the lack of adequate organizational skills and funds for the development of educational programs.
However, the ‘30s were a turbulent decade. Those were the years of the Depression in America, while Europe was witnessing the rise of fascism. One of the first victims of these developments in Europe was King Alexander I of Yugoslavia, who was assassinated in France in 1934. Alexander I Karageorgevich, known as The Unifier (a reference to his role in the establishment of Yugoslavia), was mourned by Serbs on both sides of the ocean When the SNF stipendists arrived in Belgrade, the city was in mourning. The young students placed a black wreath on the king’s coffin on behalf of the Serb National Federation. Four years later the Serbs of American built a monument to King Alexander. The monument, erected in Udbina (Krajina), was unveiled on Mary 29, 1938. The ceremony was attended by many priests and people carrying Serbian flags and wreaths. This was one of the finest expressions of the love of American Serbs for the king whom they viewed as a symbol of the Serbian future in Yugoslavia.
Although the Serb National Federation had accomplished a lot in its first decade of existence (1929-1939), another war was already beginning in Europe. The rise of Hitler in Germany would soon lead to the occupation of Poland and in 1941 the destruction of Yugoslavia. Thus a new chapter in the history of the Serb National Federation would open, a chapter marked by another war – this time one in which America would not wait too long to join. The war years would pose a new challenge to the Serb National Federation.
Next Installment: Another War and the Collapse of Yugoslavism
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.