Serbian Americans

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Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
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Serbian Americans

Bosiljka Stevanović


Serbian Americans are immigrants or descendants of people from Serbia, a country located in the central area of the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe. Over history the borders of Serbia have changed several times. In 2012 Serbia was bordered by Hungary to the north, Romania and Bulgaria to the east, Macedonia to the south, Bosnia-Herzegovina to the west, and Croatia to the northwest. The Republic of Kosovo, located to the southwest between Serbia and Albania, declared independence in 2008, but as of 2012 the Serbian government still considered Kosovo, which is 95 percent ethnic Albanian, to be a region of Serbia. The northernmost region of Serbia is the autonomous Province of Vojvodina. A landlocked country with a varied terrain, Serbia has rich fertile plains in the north and mountains in the south. The country's flag consists of three equal horizontal stripes: blue, white, and red (from top to bottom). Without Kosovo, Serbia is 29,913 square miles (77,474 square kilometers), about the size of South Carolina.

Serbia's population of 7,276,604, based on a July 2012 estimate by the CIA World Factbook, consists of 82.9 percent Serbs, 4 percent Hungarians, 1.4 percent Roma, and about 4 percent Bosniaks, Germans, Romanians, Slovenians, and Turks. A 2004 study by the United Nations listed the Roma, officially 108,000 people but unofficially five times that many, as the poorest and most socially vulnerable population in Serbia. About 85 percent of the population belongs to the Serbian Orthodox church, 5.5 percent is Roman Catholic, 3.2 percent Muslim, and 1.1 percent is Protestant. Before World War II there were about 16,000 Jews in Serbia, which was part of Yugoslavia; all but 1,500 of them were murdered by the Nazi and Fascist occupying forces (German, Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Croatian) during the war. The official language is Serbian. Belgrade, located at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, is Serbia's capital and largest city with a metropolitan population of 1.7 million. Belgrade is a cultural, intellectual, and economic hub for all of southeastern Europe.

The first wave of Serbian immigration to the United States occurred in the early 1800s when the regions inhabited by Serbs were still ruled by the Turkish Ottoman Empire and the Austrian Empire. Early emigrants came from the coastal area of Montenegro and Dalmatia. More significant immigration of ethnic Serbs took place between 1880 and 1914 (from Austria-Hungary and Montenegro); Serbia, already independent, was not a land of emigration. Most of the immigrants were escaping poverty and persecution but planned to return home after making money working in the United States. They first settled in the San Francisco Bay area and New Orleans and later moved into mining and industrial areas of the east and northern Midwest, with communities developing in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Montana, California, Louisiana, and Alaska. After World War II, the majority of Serbian immigrants were politically minded refugees who tended to be urban and educated. Another wave of immigrants came when Yugoslavia broke up in the early 1990s; the region was subsequently embroiled in turmoil for the next two decades. Although ethnic Serbs emigrated from several surrounding countries due to conflict and changing borders, connection to Serbia as the central homeland has remained strong among all Serbian Americans.

The American Factfinder estimates that in 2010 there were 187,739 Americans of Serbian descent. More than two-thirds were born in the United States, and between 15,000 and 30,000 entered the United States after the year 2000. Serbian Americans are very integrated into the general population, and because immigrants are recorded by their country of emigration, ethnic Serbs may be recorded as Yugoslavian, Croatian, Slovenian, or Macedonian, for example. There is a large Serbian community in the Chicago, Illinois, metropolitan area, making it the state with the largest population of Serbian Americans. Other states with large numbers of people of Serbian descent include Indiana, California, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Other notable communities are in the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego; Cleveland, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Pittsburgh.


Early History The Serbs settled in the Balkans in the seventh century during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (610–41 CE). The Serbs are Slavs, whose prehistoric home had been in the general area of today's Byelorussia and Ukraine. In the sixth century CE the Slavs began to leave their land, dispersing Page 134  |  Top of Articlethemselves to the north, east, west, and south. The Serbs went south, forming part of the South Slavic group (including Croats, Slovenes, Bulgarians, and others).

During the Middle Ages there were several Serbian principalities or states. The first significant principality was ruled by Mutimir (829–917), during whose reign the Serbs accepted Christianity. Zeta, also known as Dioclea, rose to power in the tenth century under the reign of Prince Vladimir. His grandson Bodin (1082–1101) expanded the territory of Zeta to parts of Raška, Bosnia, and Herzegovina.

After Bodin's reign, Zeta weakened, and Raška achieved great political and military power. The ascension to the throne of Raška by the Grand Zhupan Stefan Nemanja (1114–1200) marks one of the most important events in Serbian history. Founding the Nemanjić Dynasty, which was to rule for the next 200 years, he ushered in the Golden Age of Serbian medieval history. An able politician and statesman, Stefan Nemanja ruled from 1168 to 1196, consolidating his political power within the state, undertaking Serbia's territorial expansion, and achieving independence from Byzantium. Religiously, however, Serbia became irreversibly tied to the Eastern rites and traditions of Byzantium. In 1196 Nemanja called an assembly of nobles and announced his abdication in favor of his son Stefan. Stefan married Anna Dondolo, the granddaughter of the Venetian Doge Enrico Dondolo, thus securing his power. In 1217 Pope Honorius III sent his legate with a royal crown for Stefan, who became Stefan Prvovencani, or the First Crowned. The crowning confirmed the independence of Serbia and also brought about the recognition of the Serbian state as a European state.

King Stefan then turned his attention to the creation of an independent and national church. His brother Sava undertook numerous diplomatic missions before he was able to attain this goal, and in 1219 he was consecrated as the first archbishop of the Serbian Autocephalus (autonomous) Church. This event marks another cornerstone in Serbian history and Serbian Orthodoxy, for in 1221 Archbishop Sava was able to crown his brother King Stefan again, this time according to the religious rites and customs of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Saint Sava is one of the most sacred and venerated historical figures in the minds and hearts of Serbs. Aside from contributing enormously to education and literacy in general, Saint Sava, together with King Stefan, wrote the first Serbian literary work, a biography of their father.

As the Serbian medieval state centered in Raška and Kosovo matured politically, it also developed a solid and prosperous economy. The state's Golden Age reached its apogee during the reign of Czar Dušan Silni, Emperor Dušan the Mighty (1308–1355). An extremely capable ruler, he secured and expanded the Serbian state while richly endowing the Serbian Orthodox Church, which was the center of learning and artistic creativity, predating even the beginnings of the Italian Renaissance. He elevated the head of the church to the patriarchy and consolidated the internal affairs through the emperor's Zakonik, the written Code of Laws, unique at that time in Europe. Emperor Dušan's accomplishments were such that Serbs today continue to draw inspiration and solace from the national pride and glory achieved during his time. Near the end of Dušan's reign the Byzantine Turks repelled what they viewed as Serbian expansion, and when Dušan died in 1355, the state was weakened, and rival nobles broke it into several principalities. The most important were the principality ruled by Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović and the one centered in Bosnia, which reached its peak in the fourteenth century during the reign of King Tvrtko.

Tvrtko's army participated in the Battle of Kosovo Polje (“The Field of Blackbirds”) on June 28, 1389, which was fought between the Ottoman Turks, led by Sultan Murad I (1319–1389), and the Serbs, led by Prince Lazar (1329–1389). This battle changed the course of Serbian history for centuries to come, for the Serbian defeat was followed by the incorporation of almost all Serbian lands into the Ottoman Empire, where they would remain for the next 500 years. Over the centuries Serbia remained totally isolated from the rest of Europe and could not participate in the enormous political changes or cultural and industrial progress unfolding in other European states.

The land and all other natural resources became the domain of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks became landowners called spahis, whereas the Serbs were reduced to the status of raya, the populace who worked the land they previously had owned; their labor was called kulluk, a term that to this day denotes the work of slaves. Every four years the countryside was raided; small Serbian male children were forcibly taken from their families and brought to Istanbul, where they were raised and trained to become Janissaries, the Ottoman's elite military unit. Another particularly distasteful practice was the use of economic pressures to convert people to Islam.

The enforced serfdom, conscription, and forced conversions caused two massive Serb migrations from Kosovo, one in 1690 and the other in the first half of the eighteenth century. They resettled in a strip of Austrian territory bordering with Ottoman-ruled lands. It was organized as a Military Frontier (Vojna krajina) in which Serb settlers, engaged in the protection of Austria against frequent Ottoman raids, were given certain privileges and freedom of religion. The krajina comprised the regions of Bania, Lika, Kordun, and Slavonia (in abandoned Croatian territory) and Vojvodina (in south Hungary).

Although the Serbs in Austria were fairly safe, rebellions against Ottoman rule in Serbia continued, causing severe reprisals. Karadjordje (Black Page 135  |  Top of ArticleGeorge, or Karadjordjević) Petrović (1752–1817), a merchant, led the First Serbian Uprising against the Turks (1804–1813). Severe Turkish reprisals caused many Serbian leaders to escape north to Vojvodina, where the monasteries at Fruska Gora became Serbian cultural strongholds. Miloš Obrenović (Milosh Obrenovich, 1780–1860), a local administrator, emerged as the leader of the Second Serbian Uprising against the Turks in 1815. In 1830 Serbia was granted autonomy by the Turkish sultan under a hereditary prince. A lengthy feud between the Karadjordjević and Obrenović dynasties ensued.

Serbia received recognition of its independence at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, at the same time as Montenegro; Austria-Hungary was given mandate over Bosnia and Herzegovina (which it subsequently annexed in 1908). Serbia's struggle to establish itself as an independent nation in the nineteenth century was marked by many changes of rulers and forms of government, until a monarchy was established in 1882, followed by a constitutional monarchy in 1903. Serbia also emerged as the strongest Balkan state at the conclusion of the First Balkan War against the Ottoman Empire in 1912, when Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and Bulgaria formed an alliance (the Balkan League) and defeated the Turks.

Modern Era Fearing Serbia and its leading role in the determination to rid the Balkans of all foreign domination, the Austro-Hungarian government systematically pressured Serbs living in its territory and in independent Serbia both politically and economically, until the tensions between the two nations led to the events that ignited World War I. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, chose to review the troops in Sarajevo on St. Vitus Day, June 28, 1914—the most sacred date of the Serbian calendar, commemorating the Battle of Kosovo—a small secret association called “Young Bosnia” had Gavrilo Princip, one of its members, carry out the assassination of the archduke and his wife. Austria, accusing Serbia of complicity, responded with an immediate ultimatum, compliance with which would have presented a serious threat to the sovereignty of Serbia. Having just fought two Balkan Wars, and not wanting to get involved in another conflict, Serbia offered a compromise. Austria rejected these terms and declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, precipitating World War I.

Although heavily outnumbered and drained of resources from the just concluded Balkan Wars, the Serbian army initially fought successfully against Austria-Hungary, but the addition of the German army to the Austrian side tipped the balance against Serbia. Eventually, the ravaged Serbian army had to retreat through Albania toward the southern Adriatic Sea, where the remnants were picked up by French war ships. After being reconstituted and reequipped, this newly strengthened Serbian army broke through the Salonika Front in late 1916, and over the next year and a half successfully fought its way north, culminating in the recapture of Belgrade in October 1918. This victory significantly contributed to the final collapse of the dual Austro-Hungarian monarchy.

The physical destruction of Serbia had been staggering, but the growing significance of the Pan Slavic movement and Serbia's effort to liberate Serbs and other South Slavs led to the establishment of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in 1918, including Bosnian Muslims and Macedonians. This postwar state was proclaimed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (“the land of the South Slavs”) in 1929 and consisted of Serbia and lands populated by South Slavs (Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes) formerly under the rule of Austria-Hungary. It was a monarchy ruled by King Alexander Karadjordjević (1888–1934).

Despite the 1934 assassination of King Alexander in Marseille, the country prospered as a result of increased trade and growing industrialization. This period was brought to a sudden halt by the bombing of Belgrade on April 6, 1941, which preceded the invading armies of Nazi Germany and its allies: Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria. The Yugoslav defenses collapsed within two weeks, and the country was dismembered. Less than a week after the beginning of hostilities, an Independent State of Croatia, headed by Ante Pavelić, the leader of the Croat Ustaši (Ustashi) Party, was established as a satellite to the Axis Powers. In addition to Croatia, the Independent State of Croatia included Bosnia, Herzegovina, and a part of Serbia. Serbia was divided into occupation zones controlled by Germany (Central and South Serbia, also Banat in Vojvodina), Hungary (part of Vojvodina), Bulgaria (South Serbia and Macedonia), and Italy (Kosovo and Metohia).

King Peter II and the government of Yugoslavia fled to London. Some Serbian troops, under the leadership of Colonel Draža Mihailović, withdrew to the mountains and organized themselves as guerrillas. They became known as the Yugoslav Army in the Homeland or, more popularly, Četnik (Chetnik), from the word četa, meaning a small fighting group. Promoted to general and named minister of war by the Yugoslav government in exile, Mihailović's legacy is controversial. Although some believe Mihailović and the Chetniks are national heros, many historians believe they collaborated with occupying forces, particularly in the Italian-held areas.

After Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Yugoslav Communists, under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, formed another guerrilla movement, which they called the National Liberation Movement, or Partisans. The Partisans and the Chetniks both fought on the side of the anti-fascist Allies but had disputes with each other. The Chetniks saw their fight as against both the Germans and the other occupying forces (the Croatian Ustashi, the Italians, the Hungarians, and the Bulgarians), and

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Tito's Communist Partisans. The Ustashi instituted a reign of terror that led to the massacre of 500,000 to 700,000 Serbs, as well as 50,000 Jews and 20,000 Roma. To counter Tito's and Mihailović's guerrilla attacks and sabotages, the Germans used reprisals against the civilian population: fifty hostages were executed for each wounded German soldier, and one hundred for each one killed. Thus, in one instance alone, the German Nazis executed several thousand Serbs in a single day (October 21, 1941) in the city of Kragujevac, including schoolchildren driven out of their classrooms that morning.

Tito's Partisans gained the support of the anti-fascist Allies, who withdrew their endorsement of Mihailović's Chetniks, a decision taken at the Tehran Conference in November 1943. Operating mainly in Ustashi territory, namely Croatia and the mountain ranges of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Partisans were joined by many Serbs who were attempting to escape Ustashi terror. However, the Communists had only partial support of the Serbian population at large.

Emerging victorious at the end of the war, Tito set out to further secure the power of the Communist Party and his own. Purging the country of its enemies, the new government tried and executed General Mihailović. After the redrawing of the internal borders, Tito's Yugoslavia became a federation of six republics: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Makedonija, and two autonomous provinces: Kosovo and Vojvodina, which were carved out of the larger Serbia.

From 1974 until Tito's death in 1980, Yugoslavia was ruled by a collective presidency made up of representatives of the six republics in the Yugoslavian Federation and the two autonomous provinces within Serbia, with Tito as chair and president for life. After Tito's death in 1980, the chair rotated; the central authority weakened, and nationalism within each of the republics rose, as did ethnic tensions. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 fostered radical changes in Eastern Europe, including Yugoslavia, where the rising tide of national autonomy led to the country's breakup. Slovenia was the first to declare independence and secede, followed by Croatia (both in June 1991), Macedonia (September 1991), and Bosnia-Herzegovina (March 1992). Serbia and Montenegro became the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) in 1992. The war in Croatia (1991–1995) ended with the expulsion of more than 250,000 Serbs. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which ended in 1995 with the Dayton Agreement, was tragic, resulting in significant loss of life, destruction, and a large number of refugees. In 1998 Albanians in Kosovo began armed rebellion against Serbian authorities. In 1999 the war in Kosovo prompted a seventy-eight-day bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia by NATO (without a UN decision) in support of Kosovo independence (which was finally declared in 2008). The International War Page 137  |  Top of ArticleCrimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia in the Hague indicted a number of political and military officials for participating in these wars, most of them Serbs from Croatia and Bosnia, some of whom were accused of genocide. The most prominent was Slobodan Milošević, former president of Serbia, who died of a heart attack in 2006 during the trial. The loose union between Serbia and Montenegro lasted until June 2006, when, after a referendum, Montenegro seceded and declared its independence.


Although the earliest Serbian immigrants came to the United States after 1815, the largest wave of immigration took place from 1880 to 1914. There were arrivals between the two world wars followed by refugees and displaced persons after World War II. Arrivals since 1965 have included the influx resulting from the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ongoing violent conflict in the Balkans.

Generally speaking, it is difficult to determine the exact number of Serbs who came to the United States in the early waves of immigration because immigration records often did not distinguish between various Slavic and, especially, South Slavic groups. The term “Slavonic” was most often used in recording immigrants from the various parts of the Eastern Europe. Church records are more helpful in distinguishing the Serbs, for these documents clearly state religious orientation of the parishioners. In addition, census statistics compiled before World War I had further confused the issue by listing immigrants by their country of origin. The Serbs were often included with the Croats and Slovenians as Austro-Hungarians or were registered as Turks. Consequently, of the 257,995 who reported Yugoslavian origin in 1990, it was impossible to tell how many actually had Serbian ancestry.

Many of the earliest Serbian immigrants did not come from Serbia proper; the emergence of Serbia as an independent nation during the nineteenth century offered hope for more political stability and economic development, which led to low emigration. Rather, the Serbs who came to the United States at that time were mostly from areas under the domination of either the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman empires, or from inland Montenegro.

Poverty and ethnic and religious persecutions were behind the decisions to leave one's village, family, and way of life for the United States, which appealed to able-bodied young men as the land of opportunity. In 1869 the Austrian emperor dissolved the age-old agreement with the Granicaris, the Serbians who protected the frontier from the Ottomans. The Serbs felt betrayed by the emperor, and in the words of Michael Pupin, who came from Vojvodina, they felt “delivered to the Hungarians,” who then subjected them to a severe campaign of Magyarization, insisting on official use of the Hungarian language in schools and courts, as well as seeking to convert them to Roman Catholicism.

The greatest number of Serbs arrived during the peak period of immigration to the United States between 1880 and 1914 from lands dominated by the Austro-Hungarian empire (Vojvodina, Lika, Bania, Kordun, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and the coast of Montenegro) as well as from inland Montenegro. Although the overwhelming majority of Serbian immigrants were uneducated, unskilled men in their prime working years—mostly peasants from the countryside—they did not come to the United States particularly to be farmers, and they did not intend to stay. Instead, they wanted to remain long enough to earn money, enabling them to return home and improve the lives of their families, in keeping with a practice called pečalba (pechalba). They settled in the mining areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, northern Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado, as well as in the big industrial cities of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago, working in steel mills and related industries. Others found work with the major meat-packing companies in Chicago, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Omaha, and St. Paul, and in the lumber industries in the Pacific northwest. The Serbian motto čovek mora da radi, “a man has to work” served them very well in this country.

The immigrants who arrived after 1945 were refugees from World War II. Among their numbers were former army officers and soldiers who had either been prisoners of war or attached to the Allied Forces, people deported to Nazi Germany as slave laborers, and supporters of General Mihailović during the Civil War who fled following the Communist takeover. Many Serbs, therefore, found a new home in the United States under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 and the Refugee Relief Act of 1953.

The differences between this wave of Serbian immigration and the previous ones are substantial. The new immigrants came mainly from the urban areas in Serbia proper rather than the rural areas outside Serbia. They came for political reasons rather than economic reasons and tended to see themselves as émigrés (exiles) rather than immigrants. On the whole, these Serbians were educated members of the middle and upper classes—many among them had considerable social status—and they came to join already well-established Serbian communities. Politically minded, these immigrants also saw this country as a safe house in which to develop strategic operations in opposition to the Yugoslav Communist state, rather than as a new homeland.

In the later decades of the twentieth century, immigration was motivated by the economy once again and was the result of economic and political failures of the Communist system. These immigrants did not experience the sense of cohesiveness of earlier groups. Until the dissolution of Yugoslavia, which began in 1991, the newest immigrants had come and gone freely between the United States and Yugoslavia/Serbia. Some worked for American companies, some for Yugoslav companies in the United States, and Page 138  |  Top of Articlemany, after staying abroad for a number of years, went back to Yugoslavia with hard currency and marketable skills.

Between 1981 and 2009 more than 90,000 persons from Serbia and Montenegro received Permanent Resident Status in the United States; of these, about 30,000 were classified as refugees and asylees. The Kosovo War (1998–1999), including NATO bombing with the goal of getting the Serbs out of Kosovo, led to mass dislocations of Serbs, Albanians, and others in the region. In September 1999 the United States began admitting the first of 5,000 Serbian refugees, most of whom were married to Americans or were considered at risk politically. They were identified by the U.N. refugee agency from among half a million Serbs who took refuge in Serbia from Croatia and Bosnia during the war. Over the next several years, there were several dozen high-profiles cases of Bosnian Serb war criminals who had falsified papers in order to enter the United States. States with the largest population of Serbian Americans include Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, California, and Indiana.


The Serbian language is part of the Slavic language group that also includes Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Croatian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian. In the seventh century two Greek missionaries, Cyril and Methodius, created the Slavic alphabet, called Cyrillic, which is still used by the Russians, Serbs, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Bulgarians, and Macedonians. The Old Slavonic, or Staroslovenski, was the original literary language of all the Slavs. It evolved into the Church Slavonic, or Crkvenoslovenski, which in turn engendered the Serb Church Slavonic, the Serb literary language up until the nineteenth century.

In the early nineteenth century Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (1787–1864), known as the father of the “modern” Serbian language, reconstructed the Cyrillic alphabet to correspond to the sounds in spoken Serbian, adding some letters and discarding others that were not used in spoken Serbian. He also promoted the use of spoken language as the literary language, resulting in a reawakening of Serbian culture in general. He published the first Serbian dictionary in 1818 and collected and published volumes of epic and lyrical poetry that had survived in the oral tradition. His voluminous correspondence is an important political and literary document.

Immigrants were confronted with the modification of their language as it came into contact with English, and they began to incorporate many English words into everyday use, especially those that were needed to communicate in a more complex society and that did not exist in their rural vocabulary. Another American influence can be seen in the fact that many immigrants changed their names for simplification. Often the changing of names was done by either the immigration officers at the time of entry into the United States or by the employers at the factories or mines who were not accustomed to dealing with complicated Slavic names. At other times, the immigrants themselves opted for simple American names, either for business reasons or to escape being a target for ridicule. Also, some changes were the result of the immigrants' desire to show loyalty to their adopted country; thus, the names were either simply translated—Ivan into John, Ivanović into Johnson—or the diacritical marks over the letters “ć” and “š” were dropped and replaced by English-sounding equivalents such as “Sasha” for “Saša” and “Simich” for “Simić.” By 2010 more than 62 percent of Serbian Americans spoke only English, whereas 37 percent spoke more than one language, and 12 percent rated their English as less than very good.

Greetings and Popular Expressions Some basic greetings and sayings in Serbian include: dobro jutro (“dobro yutro”)—good morning; dobar dan (pronounced as written)—good day; dobro veče (“dobro vetche”)—good evening; zdravo (pronounced as written)—greetings; hvala (“khvala”)—thank you; dobro došli (“dobro doshli”)—welcome.


The Serbs accepted Christianity in the ninth century due to the work of two Greek brothers, Cyril and Methodius, who were missionaries from Salonika; they were also called “Apostles of the Slavs.” Since that time, and especially since King Stefan Prvovenčani established the Serbian Orthodox Autonomous church in 1219, the Serbs have strongly associated their religion with their ethnic heritage. Srpstvo, or being Serbian, expresses this concept of the Serbian identity as encompassing the nation, its historic heritage, church, language, and other cultural traditions. Serbian communal life in the United States mainly evolved and, to a large degree, still revolves around the church parish.

Orthodoxy, which means “correct worship,” partly differs from Roman Catholicism in dogmatic issues, such as teachings about the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, purgatory, and the procession of the Holy Spirit, and clerical practices, such as not allowing priests to marry. Some Orthodox Christians, including Serbs, use the Julian calendar, which is thirteen days behind the Gregorian calendar. Thus, for example, the Serbs celebrate Christmas on January 7 instead of December 25.

Serbian churches, both in the United States and in the homeland, feature the altar, a carved iconostasis, and richly painted icons. A ceremonial pedestal or chair called a Nalonj, placed at a respectable distance from the altar, is used to exhibit the icon of the saint the particular church is named after. Upon entering the church everyone stops there to make the sign of the cross and kiss the icon.

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The first Serbian churches in the United States were established in Jackson, California, in 1894, followed by McKeesport, Pennsylvania (1900), Douglas, Alaska (1902), and Steelton, Pennsylvania (1903). At that time most Serbian churches were under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church in the United States, though served by Serbian priests. The first American-born Serbian Orthodox priest, the Reverend Sebastian Dabovich (1863–1940), the son of a Serbian pioneer in California, was appointed head of the Serbian mission in the United States by the patriarch in Moscow in 1905.

In 1921 a separate Serbian Orthodox Diocese in North America and Canada was created under the leadership of the Reverend Mardary Uskokovich, who later became the first bishop of the new diocese, establishing his seat in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1927. From 1940 to 1963 the diocese was headed by Bishop Dionisije Milivojević. After World War II the diocese was instrumental in arranging for the immigration of refugees, as well as placing refugee priests. Diocese publications included Pravoslavni glasnik (Orthodox Herald), established in 1937–1938; Glasnik (Herald), launched in 1963; and Staza pravoslvlja (Path of Orthodoxy), which dates to 1968.

In 1963 the Serbian Diocese of North America suffered a painful schism and split into two groups: one wanted an independent Serbian Orthodox church in the United States, and the other insisted on maintaining canonical unity with the patriarchy in Belgrade. The immigrant community became bitterly divided. The old settlers felt that the primary role of the church was to uphold Orthodoxy and to maintain the spiritual life in the communities; the newer immigrants saw the need to defend themselves against the communist threat.

The official reconciliation took place in 1991 and was followed by work on a new church constitution. The Holy Liturgy was jointly celebrated on February 15, 1992, by the Patriarch Pavle of Belgrade and the Metropolitan Irinej, the head of the Free Diocese in America, whose seat is in New Gracancia (Third Lake, Illinois).


It can be argued that assimilation into American life and society's acceptance of the new immigrants was uneven at best. On the one hand, some Serbs were impressed by the freedom and openness of the Americans, as well as by the opportunities available to all. On the other hand, late nineteenth-century Americans, feeling threatened by the large numbers of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, increasingly expressed anti-immigrant sentiment. The Immigration Restriction League founded in Boston in 1894 attempted to curb this type of immigrant tide by advocating the literacy test, which required immigrants over sixteen years of age to be literate. Since the eastern and southern Europeans were less literate than their counterparts from northern and western Europe, it was clear where the actions of the League were going to lead. The immigration laws from 1921 and 1924 established a national origins system and set annual quotas for each nationality based on the percentage

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tours the Gracanica Serbian Monastery with Bishop Teodosije (L) and U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Christopher Dell (R) in 2010. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tours the Gracanica Serbian Monastery with Bishop Teodosije (L) and U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Christopher Dell (R) in 2010. MANDEL NGAN / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

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of the total of that nationality already living in the United States. This was based on the 1890 and 1910 censuses, which respectively assigned 2 percent and 3 percent annual quotas, or 671, and later 942, per year for all immigrants from Yugoslavia.

The majority of the earlier Serbian immigrants endured the hardships and found that the degree of freedom and the opportunities available to them in the United States were worth staying for. However, the Great Depression of the 1930s adversely affected the old Serbian immigrant communities. Discouraged, many returned to their homeland.

Cuisine Serbian cuisine over the centuries has adopted the tastes and flavors of Balkan, Middle Eastern (Turkish), and Central European (Hungarian, Austrian) foods. Roast suckling pig and lamb are still served on festive occasions. Serbs are also fond of casserole dishes with or without meat; pies (consisting of meat, cheese, or fruit); all kinds of fried foods, and an assortment of cakes, cookies, and condiments that rival the displays in Vienna and Budapest.

A few representative dishes include šarma, stuffed cabbage made from leaves of sour cabbage or from wine leaves, and ground beef or veal, often in combination with chopped pork, onions, and smoked meat for added flavor. Serbs especially appreciate gibanica, or pita, a cheese pie made with Feta or cottage cheese (an American substitute for the cheese used in the homeland), or the combination of both; butter; filo pastry leaves; eggs; and milk. Ćevapčići, the summertime favorite for cookouts, are small barbecued sausagelike pieces prepared from a combination of freshly ground pork, lamb, veal, and beef, and served with raw onions.

At Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Jackson, California, the firing of shotguns into the air on Christmas morning has been a tradition for more than one hundred years and represents a merging of Old West and Serbian traditions.

Serbs like to drink wine, beer, and especially the plum brandy called šljivovica, which is the national drink, made from šljiva, or plums, the Serbian national fruit. Another word for šljivovica is rakija, which is once-distilled plum brandy; twice-distilled šljivovica is called prepečenica. Serbs drink at all kinds of celebrations: weddings, baptisms, and krsna slavas (a family's patron saint day), and every raised glass is accompanied with the exclamation: Živeli, or “Live long.” It is not surprising that many Serbs found California to be the perfect place for continuing the family tradition of growing grapes to produce wine or plums for šljivovica.

Traditional Dress Serbian traditional clothing consists of richly embroidered, colorful garments, which are worn today only by the dancers in folkloric dance ensembles or perhaps at other events inspired by folk motives, such as picnics, harvests, or church festivals. Each region has its own particular motives and ways of wearing these costumes, making it easy to discern one from another. The typical costume for women from Serbia proper consists of a fine linen blouse richly embroidered with floral or folk motifs; a vest called a jelek, cut low under the breast, which is made of velvet, embroidered with silver and gold thread, and worn tightly around the waist; an ample colorful skirt accompanied by an embroidered apron and a white linen petticoat worn longer than the skirt to show off the hand-crocheted lace; knitted and embroidered stockings; and a pair of handmade leather slipperlike footwear called opanci. The hair is long and braided; the braids are sometimes worn down the back or twisted in a bun around the head.

The costume for men consists of a head cap called a šajkača, a white linen shirt, a wool jacket, and pants. The jacket is short with sober decorations, and the pants are worn tight around the knees. A richly decorated sash is tied around the waist. Knitted and embroidered socks and opanci (leather shoes) are worn on the feet. The fabrics used were always homegrown, spun, or woven, and the costumes were made at home. The early immigrants stood out in an American crowd by the way their clothes looked, which provided an easy target for ridicule. Today, these costumes have given way to standard dress, and if still in existence, are brought out only at folk festivals.

Dances and Songs Music plays a very important role in the Serbian American community. The early Serbian immigrants from the Military Frontier areas brought with them their native mandolin-like string instrument called a tamburica (tamburitza), which varies in five different sizes and ranges. George Kachar, one of the first teachers of tamburitza in the United States, brought the love for his music from his homeland to a small mining town in Colorado, where he taught during the 1920s. His most remarkable students were four Popovich brothers who later became famous as the Popovich Brothers of South Chicago. Having started by traveling from community to community, they gained prominence by delighting Serbian American audiences for sixty years with their art, while also achieving national recognition for appearances at the White House and by participating in the “Salute to Immigrant Cultures” during the Statue of Liberty celebrations held in 1986.

During the annual Tamburitza Extravaganza Festival, as many as twenty bands from around the country perform for three days, with performers vying for the Tamburitza Hall of Fame. The new students and performers are actively recruited and trained by the Duquesne University Tamburitzans, which maintains a folklore institute, grants scholarships for Page 141  |  Top of Articlepromising students, and makes good use of the enthusiasm generously shared by the junior team called “Tammies.” A few active tamburitza manufacturers in the United States continue to assure an adequate supply of this favorite instrument.

The immigrants who came to the United States after World War II brought in a different style of music performed on accordions. Drums, keyboards, and the amplified modern instruments came into use in the last few decades. These musical groups mostly play the newly composed folk music, which combines traditional instruments, melodies, and styles with modern instruments, lyrics, and production techniques. Generally speaking, be they older or newer immigrants, the Serbs sing of love and death, of parting and hope, of the tragedy that accompanied them throughout their history, and of the heroic deeds that helped them triumph over adversity. One of the most beloved and nostalgic songs is “Tamo deleko” (“There Far Away”), referring to the distance of the homeland.

The gusle, another symbol of Serbianism, is a string instrument similar to a violin. Gusle musicians have used it since the earliest days of the Serbian kingdom in accompanying the chanting of epic poetry. Although this instrument is capable of rendering only a few melancholy notes, the guslar, or bard, manages to evoke myriad emotions. During the Ottoman period of Serbian history the guslari traveled from village to village bringing news and keeping alive ancient Serbian heroic epics and ballads, which played a role of utmost importance in the development and preservation of the Serbian national conscience and character.

The kolo, meaning the circle, is the Serbian national dance, and by extention the Serbian American dance. Danced in a circle as well as in a single line, the dancers hold each other's hands or belts, and no one, from teenagers to grandparents, can resist the lively tunes and sprightly motions. A good number of folk dancing ensembles throughout the United States have kept alive the rich repertoire of folk dancing, and it is difficult to imagine any kind of Serbian celebrations without a performance of one such ensemble.

Holidays The two most important religious holidays of the year for Serbian Americans are Božić (Christmas) and Uskrs (Easter). Both are celebrated for three days. Božić starts with Tucindan (two days before Christmas) when a young pig is prepared to be barbecued for Christmas dinner, or Božićna večera. On the day before Christmas—called Badnji Dan—the badnjak, or Yule log, is placed outside the house, and the pečenica, or roasted pig, is prepared. In the evening, straw is placed under the table to represent the manger, the Yule log is cut and brought in for burning, and the family gathers for a Lenten Christmas Eve dinner. Božićni Post, the Christmas Lenten, is observed for six weeks prior to Christmas, during which a diet without milk, dairy products, meat, or eggs is maintained. This

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Serbian American choirs, performing mainly at social functions, were formed early on. These included the Gorski Vijenac (Mountain Wreath) Choir in Pittsburgh in 1901, and the Branko Radičević Choir in Chicago in 1906. They were founded both by laity and the clergy, often priests together with singers. Vladimir Lugonja (1898–1977) founded the Serbian Singing Federation of the USA and Canada (SSF) in 1931. Many choirs joined in, connected with the church parishes, and totaled thirty by World War II. Their membership in the federation was contingent on their singing in church. Since 1935 the federation has been sponsoring annual concerts and competitions where both secular and liturgical music are performed. A number of Serbian priests have come from the ranks of the SSF; many are well-known directors and conductors such as Adam Popovich, director of South Chicago's Sloboda. A respected veteran of the Serbian American choir movement, Popovich and his choir performed at the White House for Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidential inauguration.

The SSF continues to be active today, not only sponsoring annual festivals, workshops, and conventions but also awarding annual college scholarships to members. Information on the federation can be found on the organization's website at .

strict observance is practiced by fewer people today, as most are willing to fast only for a week prior to Christmas.

On Christmas Day česnica, a round bread, is baked from wheat flour. A coin placed inside the bread brings good luck throughout the year to the person who finds it. The family goes to church early on Christmas Day, and upon return home the most festive meal of the year is served. The father lights a candle and incense, and says a prayer. The family turns the česnica from left to right and sings the Christmas hymn “Rozdestvo Tvoje,” which glorifies the birth of Christ. The česnica is broken, and each member of the family receives a piece, leaving one portion for an unexpected guest. Each person kisses the person next to him three times with the greeting Hristos se rodi (“Christ is born”) and receives in reply Vaistinu se rodi (“Indeed He is born”).

In the United States the burning of the badnjak is done at church after Christmas Eve mass. An elaborate Lenten Christmas Eve dinner is served in the parish hall for those who wish to participate.

Traditionally three Sundays before Christmas are dedicated to the family: Detinjci, Children's Day; Materice, Mother's Day; and Očevi, Father's Day. On each of these days the celebrants are tied to an object, and their release is obtained with a gift.

These traditions continued into the twenty-first century in Serbian Orthodox churches across the Page 142  |  Top of ArticleUnited States. At Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Jackson, California, the firing of shotguns into the air on Christmas morning has been a tradition for more than one hundred years and represents a merging of Old West and Serbian traditions, explained Saint Sava's pastor, Milletta Simonovich: “In the old country (Yugoslavia) it is a tradition to stand in front of one's home and shoot at the sky at midnight Christmas Eve to announce the birth of the Christ child.” From Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Christian Church in Butte, Montana, to the large community in Chicago, Illinois, the traditions are kept alive. Some in the United States continue a Serbian tradition of planting a small garden of wheat, called a pšenica (pshe-ni-tza), on December 19, St. Nicholas Day, which allows the wheat to sprout by January 7, Christmas Day, releasing the shoots of new life—a biblical metaphor for Jesus' birth.

Uskrs (Easter) is considered the holiest of holidays. A seven-week Lenten period, Great Lent, is observed, also without meat, eggs, milk, or dairy products. Vrbica, or Palm Sunday, is observed on the last Sunday before Easter when the willow branches are blessed and distributed to all present. This service is rendered especially beautiful and significant by the presence of children, dressed in fine new clothes worn for the first time, with little bells hanging from their necks on Serbian tricolor ribbons—red, blue, and white—waiting for the whole congregation to start an outside procession encircling the church three times while singing hymns.

Easter celebrations cannot be conceived without roasted lamb and colored eggs. The eggs symbolize spring and the renewal of the life cycle as well as Vaskrsenje, the Easter Resurrection. The Serbian tradition is to color at least the first ten eggs a deep red, representing happiness, rebirth, and Christ's blood on the cross, with designs drawn on with wax before coloring. The eggs may be dyed by boiling with an onion that makes a caramel-red color. Families sometimes bring their baskets of eggs to church for blessing, and they may exchange them with other families saying, Hristos voskrese (“Christ is risen”). The response is Voistinu voskrese (“Indeed He is risen”).

The Easter Mass is the most splendid one. The doors of the iconostasis, which remained closed until the symbolic moment of Hristovo Voskresenje, or “Christ's Resurrection,” open wide; the church bells ring, and the priest dressed in his gold vestments steps forward. The congregation sings a hymn of rejoicing, and a procession led by the banner of Resurrection encircles the church three times while the worshippers carry lit candles. The greetings Hristos voskrese, “Christ is risen,” and Voistinu voskrese, “Indeed He is risen,” are exchanged three times. The influx of immigrants from Serbia in the 1990s to the Seattle area revitalized the celebration of Easter at St. Sava's Serbian Orthodox church in Issaquah, Washington. In 2012 Gerogiana Gavrilovich, one of the original founders of St. Sava's Church, said that more than half of the church's current members were refugees, providing a youthful energy to what had been an aging congregation.

The most important Serbian tradition is the yearly observance of Krsna Slava, the Patron Saint Day. This uniquely Serbian religious holiday is celebrated once a year in commemoration of the family's conversion to Christianity, when each family chose its patron saint, which derived from the custom of worshipping protective spirits. Passing from father to son, this joyous holiday is observed with friends and family enjoying sumptuous foods, often with music and dancing as well. The central elements, which enhance the solemnity of Krsna Slava are slavska sveca, a long candle that must burn all day; the votive light lit in front of the icon representing the picture of the family's patron saint; and incense burning. Two foods are specially prepared: koljivo, or sometimes called žito, made with boiled wheat, sugar, and ground nuts; and krsni kolač, which is a ritual round bread baked solely for this occasion. It is decorated with dough replicas of birds, wheat, grapes, barrels of wine, or whatever else an inspired mother of the family can think of, aside from the obligatory religious seal representing the cross. The priest visits the homes and conducts a ceremony in which the kolač is raised three times, symbolizing the Holy Trinity. He and the head of the family cut a cross on the bottom of the kolač into which a little wine is poured to symbolize the blood of Christ. This family-based holiday continues to be celebrated in the United States, albeit with a few updates. For instance, according to a 2006 report in the Kansas City Star, one family moved their Slava from the more traditional December to May to make it easier for farflung relatives to attend. One year they started earlier than usual to accommodate the priest's schedule.

Every year on June 28 the Serbs commemorate Vidovdan, or Saint Vitus Day. One of the most sacred national and spiritual holidays, it commemorates a defeat on June 28, 1389, when the Serbs led by Prince Lazar lost their kingdom to the Turks in the Battle of Kosovo. The heroism and death of Prince Lazar and his martyrs who died that day for krst casni i zlatnu slobodu, or the “venerable cross and golden freedom,” are commemorated in epic songs and celebrated each year by churches and communities across the United States. The Serbs might be the only people who celebrate a disastrous defeat as a national holiday, but what they are really celebrating is the ability to with-stand adversity. For the last 600 years the Serbs have maintained the tradition of respecting their ancestors for living out the old proverb bolje grob nego rob, or “better a grave than a slave.” To Serbs in the United States and in the homeland Kosovo Polje (“The Field of Blackbirds,” where the Battle of Kosovo took place) is a sacred national site.

The commemoration of Vidovdan took on additional meanings after February 2008 when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. In a February 23, Page 143  |  Top of Article2008, San Diego Union-Tribune article titled “Violent Demonstrations Persist over Kosovo Independence,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is quoted as saying: “We believe that the resolution of Kosovo's status will really, finally, let the Balkans begin to put its terrible history behind it. I mean, after all, we're talking about something from 1389–1389! It's time to move forward.” Yet in a speech on Vidovdan 2008 at the Serbian Orthodox Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Fair Oaks, California, Serbian American M. J. Pejakovich said, “Ms. Rice, I was born in the USA, as was my mother. I have never set foot in Kosovo or Serbia, yet I can without hesitation say, 'Kosovo is mine. Kosovo is ours. Kosovo is Serbia. Kosovo defined what it means to be a Serb … While I have never set foot on Kosovo Polje, the lessons of that day, the love of freedom and the recognition of the sacrifices necessary to be a Christian will never die in the Serb heart—and will never die in the Christian heart.” Other Serbian churches used the commemoration of Vidovdan to raise charity for the Serbian minority in Kosovo. At the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in San Gabriel, California, Father Petar Jovanovic wrote on June 28, 2008, “By organizing The Kosovo Charity Banquet we want to show our support and solidarity with our brothers and sisters, in the once again occupied Kosovo. Our moral and financial support for our churches, monasteries and refugees, as well as for the Serbian people that still live in Kosovo, show that we are deeply conscious of the cradle of our heritage.”

Death and Burial Rituals Serbian Orthodox funerals in the United States are organized and conducted by the priest. There are no funerals on Sunday or days of celebration, but typically funerals are conducted just a few days after someone passes away. These ceremonies follow the customs of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The church arranges for an all-night vigil over the body before burial, and prayers are said. The eulogy and sermon are often in Serbian. Catherine Rankovic describes her father's funeral in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin: “Presiding at my father's funeral was a newcomer, less than ten years in the States: a bony, severe Very Reverend priest with a dry, gray beard. He spoke abruptly and never in English. It was said that he'd spent ten or twenty years in Tito's prisons. Who knew what he thought?” Prayers are also sung at the cemetery. Rankovic writes, “The priest, in his black cassock, intoned into the sharp September wind, and the two respondents sang the antiphons, mostly ‘Gospodi po-mi-luy,’ meaning ‘Lord, have mercy.’”

Serbian Orthodox visit the cemetery quite often in the first year after a death, bringing a candle, flowers, and flags, and sometimes eating near the grave. In 2006 a father near Chicago recounted how he honored his Serbian customs by visiting the cemetery each weekend in the first year after his son was killed. A report describes how he “opens the trunk of their car and pulls out plastic bags of supplies: a bouquet of flowers, a single rose and candles, as well as Slim Jims, ginger ale, and sausages.” The food and drink are intended for the soul of the lost loved one.


In their homeland Serbians were primarily farmers; all the family members lived together in a zadruga, a large family cooperative where everyone worked on the family land, maintaining strong family ties, as well as observing a strict hierarchical order from the head of the zadruga, called starešina, down to the youngest child. In the United States, however, each family member's occupation could be different, leading to less interdependence among the family members without destroying the closeness of family ties. To a great extent Serbian and Serbian American households still include grandparents or other elderly relatives needing care and help. It is also a common practice to have grandparents care for young children while their parents are working, as well as take charge of housekeeping in general. Elderly parents (or close relatives) live out their lives at home surrounded by their children and grandchildren. The structure of a typical Serbian American family also retains close relationships with the extended family—aunts, uncles, and cousins—going back a few generations, thus placing emphasis on strong emotional ties as well as offering a good family support system.

Kumstvo, or godparenthood, is a tradition deeply embedded in the Serbian culture. The parents of an unborn child choose a kum or a kuma (a man or a woman to be a godparent), who names the baby at the baptismal ceremony. The godparents also have the responsibility of ensuring the moral and material well-being of the child if need be and are considered very close family.

Although Serbian immigrants tended to live in closely knit, homogeneous colonies, they were never so totally isolated as to prevent any penetration of American influence, and that interaction inevitably led to changes in many aspects of their lives. Their children and grandchildren only rarely adhere to the old ways, and as a result the immigrant heritage became a strange mixture of old-country and American cultural elements.

Gender Roles Traditionally Serbian culture is male-dominated, and men are considered the head of the household. However, in post–World War II Yugoslavia, women had more access to education and legal equality. Under Tito, for instance, women gained equal rights in marriage, and divorce became easier and more common. Still, Serbian culture tolerates a lower status for women. It was reported in 2011 that 30 percent of homicides in the Republic of Serbia were victims of domestic violence.

Women's organizations among Serbian Americans are various groups of sisterhoods known as Kolo Srpskih Sestara, or Serbian Sisters Circles. They were organized in the beginning of the twentieth century

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Supporters of Serbia demonstrate against the U.S. bombing of Kosovo. 1999. Supporters of Serbia demonstrate against the U.S. bombing of Kosovo. 1999. JEFF HAYNES / AFP / NEWSCOM

in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Chicago. They are active in fund-raising activities and support children's camps and charities. Being closely associated with the Serbian church, they, unfortunately, were affected by the schism in the church.

Education In the United States the Serbian churches maintain parish Sunday schools where children learn the language, customs, and traditions of their ancestors. The Serbian Orthodox Diocese at the St. Sava Monastery in Libertyville, Illinois, runs a summer camp as well as the parish school. The children of immigrants have mostly attended public schools, and in the early days it was often the case that these children were the only source of information about American culture and history for Serbian adults.

Courtship and Weddings It is said that nothing is like a Serbian wedding. Though the ceremony may be similar to Russian or Greek Orthodox weddings, there are many Serbian traditions that have been kept alive in the United States. The festivities may begin the night before the wedding with the making of rosemary wreathes or corsages to be worn the next day during the wedding. Some report that in the United States, red roses have replaced the traditional rosemary. The day of the wedding begins with the pre-wedding Skup (gathering), often at the home of the bride, with friends, relatives, food, music (perhaps with a traditional tamburitza), dancing, and bartering for the bride. The bartering, conducted by a representative of the groom called a “dever,” is playful and entertaining, as in this description of a Skup in Pittsburgh: “the dever's first offer of a Pittsburgh Steeler Terrible Towel coupled with a case of famous Pittsburgh Iron City beer was promptly rejected. A velvet bag full of USA Gold dollars was offered next, but promptly refused as not being 100 percent gold. A wad of money unrolled at last….” From the Skup the wedding party heads to the church for the ceremony. The two witnesses, one known as the stari svat (godfather or “old man of the wedding”) and the other the kum (the best man), wear special sashes called peškir. The peškir may be white, embroidered, or feature the Serbian flag (Trobojka).

The traditional Orthodox wedding ceremony is divided into two parts, the Betrothal and the Crowning. The Betrothal begins with the blessing and exchange of rings. The bride and groom are handed candles, which they hold throughout the service. The right hands of the bride and groom are tied together, and they are “crowned.” They then drink wine from a common cup and take a “walk,” their first steps together as a couple. On their way out of the church, young children may throw coins at the newlyweds as a way to wish them good fortune.

Organizations In the early stages of Serbian immigration, fraternal mutual aid societies and insurance companies preceded the church as the centers of Serbian American community life. These were formed for economic reasons, as the new arrivals needed to find ways to protect themselves against the hazards of dangerous and life-threatening work in mines, foundries, or factories. In the early years the Serbs readily joined other Slavic groups, such as the Slavonic Benevolent Organization founded in San Francisco in 1857, which served all South Slavs.

In time Serbian immigrants formed their own organizations, starting as local groups, lodges, assemblies, and societies whose goals were the preservation of culture, social welfare, and fraternal sentiment. The first such organization was the Srpsko crnogorsko literarno i dobrotvorno društvo (Serbian-Montenegrin Literary and Benevolent Society) founded in San Francisco in 1880, then Srpsko jedinstvo (Serbian Unity) in Chicago in 1894. Other societies followed and began to form federations, such as the Srpsko crnogorski savez (Serbian-Montenegrin Federation), whose headquarters were in Butte, Montana, and which ceased to exist because most of its members left to fight in the Balkan Wars (1912–1913) and in World War I.


Although historically Serbs have placed high value on education, early immigrants were largely illiterate or had very little education due to their circumstances living in rural areas of Austria-Hungary, in poor Montenegrin villages, or under Turkish occupation. In the United States they worked, as already stated, in predominantly heavy industrial areas. In time they began to attend evening English-language classes offered by the adult-education programs in public schools, which proved to be enormously valuable to them and especially to their children.

The younger generations took an increased interest in education and slowly began to break away from the factory jobs and move to white-collar occupations. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, higher than Page 145  |  Top of Articleaverage numbers of Serbian Americans graduate high school and college: 93 percent of Serbian Americans graduate high school, and 40 percent have at least a bachelor's degree. Although Serbian American professionals can be found in nearly every American industry, a great many tend to opt for engineering, medicine, law, or other professions. Lately, however, more and more young people are attracted by financial service industries, such as banking, insurance, and stock brokerage. Boys and girls are educated alike, and everyone is free to set career goals to his or her own liking. There are a number of Serbian American women working in professions that were once thought to be the province of men, especially medicine and engineering.


Although their participation in American political life has evolved slowly, Serbs have demonstrated a great deal of fervor for politics. Generally speaking, most Serbian Americans are more likely to be concerned with the government's policies and attitude toward the countries in the Balkan region than with local politics.

World War I was the turning point in political activities and unity with other Slavic groups, and such activities had more to do with the politics in the homeland than in the United States. Exiled Serbians, Croatians, and Slovenians in the United States and England began to call for the union of the South Slavs into an independent state. As a result, the Yugoslav Committee was formed, its purpose being to inform and influence the American people, as well as to recruit for war and raise money. Thousands of South Slavs joined either the Serbian army or the U.S. army, and thousands of Serbian emigrants returned from the United States to fight for Serbia.

Among the immigrants who arrived in the United States after 1945, many were very politically engaged and considered the United States as a base for pursuing political goals related to Yugoslavia and, after 1989, Serbia. A number of political organizations were formed to reflect the differing views carried over from the mother country concerning the new regime and the affiliations with particular groups during World War II. After 1945 most of the large numbers of newcomers who joined the Serbian American community in the United States were Chetniks. Forming political organizations, they continued their fight against Tito's Communist dictatorship as best they could. Another faction, albeit much smaller in number, was an ultra-right-wing group called Ljotićevci, which was founded by Dimitrije Ljotić (1891–1945). These two groups polarized the attention of the Serbian American immigrants and heightened political awareness among Serbian American communities.

Many men and women of Serbian descent who have joined the mainstream of American politics today as mayors, governors, and senators have testified to the fact that a degree of “American” political maturity has been reached by this ethnic group in spite of its still intense identification with the motherland, as exemplified by the career of Rose Ann Vuich (1927–2001), who was the first woman to serve in the California State Senate. Vuich was born in California to a Serbian immigrant citrus farmer.

Serbian Americans continued to debate the political issues of the former Yugoslavia over the course of the two decades following the 1991–1992 breakup of Yugoslavia. They felt the policy of the U.S. government—through the presidencies of George H. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—was incomprehensibly against the interests of their homeland. Serbian Americans were alarmed by what they considered to be the premature recognition of the independence of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, first by most of the member states of the European community and then by the United States on April 7, 1992. Although the Serbian American community was at great odds with the Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević, they perceived the U.S. government as siding against the Serbian minorities in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. Serbian Americans demonstrated against U.S. policy during the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia and again on February 17, 2008, when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia and President George W. Bush extended formal recognition shortly thereafter. For many Serbian Americans, Kosovo is their Holy Land, “the cradle of Serbdom, and their inalienable, historical, national, and cultural heritage,” according to Milana (“Mim”) Karlo Bizic, curator of the 2001 Serb National Federation's Centennial Historic Photo Exhibit, which was held in Pittsburgh.

Military The degree of participation of Serbian Americans in the armed forces, as well as in the intelligence community, is high. During World War I thousands of American Serbs went to Serbia, an ally, to fight, whereas others established a number of humanitarian organizations to send help abroad. The response was overwhelming during World War II as well. A large number distinguished themselves in battle, and some were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Many Serbian Americans had distinguished careers in the military. Examples include Colonel Nicholas Stepanovich, U.S. Army, who had a brilliant career as a lawyer and military leader and was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the U.S. ambassadorial staff to the United Nations; and Colonel Tyrus Cobb, U.S. Army, who served in Vietnam both in war and in peace missions. The recipient of the Defense Superior Service Medal, Colonel Cobb was appointed to the National Security Council and was selected by President Ronald Reagan to accompany him on summits to Geneva, Moscow, and Iceland. Many other Serbian Americans served in the Office of Strategic Services (later known as the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]), including Nick Page 146  |  Top of ArticleLalich, George Vujnovic, and Joe Veselinovich. The Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War have also claimed Serbian American decorated heroes as well, such as Lance Sijan, for whom a building is named at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Labor Unions The labor movement and the labor unions in the United States found some of their staunchest supporters among the Serbs. Having worked very hard to earn their living and having given strength and youth to their new homeland, they felt, as many other Americans did, that strong unions presented opportunities to rectify many poor work situations. They were active with the United Mine Workers of America, the American Federation of Labor, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and the Textile Workers Union of America, among others. The contributions of the Serbs to the labor movement are numerous, as exemplified by Eli Zivkovich, who organized the story of the unionization of textile workers in North Carolina, as depicted in the film Norma Rae (1979).

Serbian Americans also made significant contributions in the field of labor law as exemplified by the tireless efforts of Robert Lagather, an attorney. The son of a mine worker and a miner himself as a young man, Lagather had a deep commitment to improving the working conditions in the mines, and the role he played in the Federal Mine and Safety and Health Act of 1977 testifies to his determination and dedication.


Academia Political science professor Alex N. Dragnich (1912–2009) served in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and as the cultural attaché and public affairs officer in the American Embassy in Yugoslavia. Dragnich wrote extensively on Serbian subjects and was the author of eleven books, including Serbs and Croats: The Struggle in Yugoslavia (1992).

Radmila Milentijevic was a history professor at the City College of the City University of New York. Born in Belgrade in 1931, she moved to the United States in the 1950s to attend the University of Chicago. In 1997 she moved back to Serbia to become the Serbian government's information minister in the administration of Slobodan Milošević. In 2012 she published a book about Albert Einstein and his first wife, who was Serbian.

Mateja Matejic, born in 1924 and emigrated from Serbia in 1945, was a professor of Slavic languages at Ohio State University and an Serbian Orthodox priest. He was an authority on medieval Serbian literature and translated many works.

Michael Boro Petrovich (1922–1989) was a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison specializing in Russian, Soviet, East European, and Balkan history.

Art John David Brčin (1899–1983) was a sculptor who immigrated to the United States in 1914. Drawing his inspiration from American subjects, Brčin sculpted busts of President Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and many others. He also created large reliefs depicting scenes from American history.

Journalism Walt Bogdanich (1950–) became the investigations editor for the business and finance desk of the New York Times in January 2001. In 2008 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for the series “A Toxic Pipeline,” which tracked how dangerous and poisonous pharmaceutical ingredients from China have flowed into the global market. Mr. Bogdanich also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Specialized Reporting for his articles in The Wall Street Journal on substandard medical laboratories and in 2005 for National Reporting for his series “Death on the Tracks,” which examined the safety record of the U.S. railroad industry.

Alex Machaskee was the publisher, president, and chief executive of the Plain Dealer, Cleveland's largest newspaper, from 1990 to 2006. He was born in Warren, Ohio, in the late 1930s.

Literature Novelist and publishing executive William (Iliya) Jovanovich (1920–2001) wrote many works, including Now, Barabbas (1964), Madmen Must (1978), and A Slow Suicide (1991). Jovanovich was the president of Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich for thirty-six years, from 1954 to 1990.

Natasha Radojčić-Kane (1966–) was the author of two novels as well as short stories and nonfiction published in The New York Times, among many other publications. She was born in Belgrade, and her mother was a Bosnian feminist who told her that “it was essential for a woman to have her own money and to know how to drive.” She was a cofounder of the literary journal H.O.W. Journal.

Poet and translator Charles Simic (1938–) was awarded the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection The World Doesn't End. He won the Wallace Stevens Award in 2007 and was a coeditor of the Paris Review. Also in 2007 Simic was appointed the fifteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. He published more than twenty collections of poetry, six books of essays, a memoir, and numerous translations.

Tea Obreht's (1985–) 2011 debut novel, The Tiger's Wife, won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. Obreht was born Tea Bajraktarević in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

Politics Djordje Šagić (1795–1873), later known as George Fisher, was born in a Serbian settlement in western Hungary and came to the United States in 1815, having agreed to become a bond servant upon his arrival. He jumped ship at the mouth of the Delaware River in order to escape his pledge and was named Fisher by the bystanders who watched Page 147  |  Top of Articlehim swim ashore. Wandering from Pennsylvania to Mississippi to Mexico and eventually to Texas, he joined in the battle for independence from Mexico, helped to organize the first supreme court of the republic, and held a number of positions in the Texas state government. Fisher also published a liberal Spanish-language newspaper. In 1851 he went to Panama and from there to San Francisco. While in California he served as secretary of the land commission, justice of the peace, and county judge. He finished his wandering and wondrous life as the council for Greece in 1873.

Awarded the GOP Woman of the Year in 1972, Helen Delich Bentely (1923–) was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maryland from 1985 to 1995. Rose Ann Vuich (c.1927–2001) served in the California State Senate from 1976 to 1992 and received the Democrat of the Year Award in 1975. Vuich was the first woman to serve in the California State Senate.

Rod Blagojevich (1956–) served as the governor of Illinois from 2003 to 2009. His father, Radislav, was an immigrant steel plant laborer from a village near Kragujevac, Serbia. His mother, Mila Govedarica, was a Serb originally from Gacko, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. In 2008 Blagojevich was charged with corruption for trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Obama. He was impeached and removed from office by the Illinois Senate and was convicted of federal extortion charges in 2010.

George V. Voinovich, born in 1936 in Cleveland, Ohio, began his political career as a Republican member of Ohio's House of Representatives in 1967. He served as the mayor of Cleveland from 1979 to 1989 and as the governor of Ohio from 1991 to 1998. He was first elected to the Senate in 1999 and served until his retirement in 2011. During his time in Washington, he was considered the Senate's leading expert on the Balkans.

Milan Panić (1929–), born in Belgrade, was the California-based multimillionaire founder of ICN Pharmaceuticals. He served as prime minister of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1993. The legality of retaining U.S. citizenship while holding this office was questioned based on a constitutional prohibition against a U.S. citizen accepting office on behalf of a foreign nation. He ran for president of Serbia in 1992 but lost to Slobodan Milošević.

Born in Belgrade, Serbia (former Yugoslavia), Danielle Sremac grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Throughout the 1990s, she served as a visible spokesperson for Serbian Americans, working for Republika Srpska, one of the main political entities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and director of the Institute for Balkan Affairs. She also appeared on hundreds of national and international television and radio programs. She has authored two books, The War of Words: Washington Tackles the Yugoslav Conflict (1999) and Heart of Serbia: A Cultural Journey (2012).

Etching of Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), naturalized American physicist and electrical engineer, who was born in Croatia to Serbian parents. Tesla was the inventor of polyphase electrical power systems and the AC induction motor. Etching of Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), naturalized American physicist and electrical engineer, who was born in Croatia to Serbian parents. Tesla was the inventor of polyphase electrical power systems and the AC induction motor. SSPL / GETTY IMAGES

Science Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), “the electrical wizard,” astonished the world with his demonstration of the wonders of alternating current at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893; in the first half of the twentieth century, this became the standard method of generating electrical power. Tesla also designed the first hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls, New York. Having introduced the fundamentals of robotry, fluorescent light, the laser beam, wireless communication and transmission of electrical energy, the turbine and vertical take-off aircraft, computers, and missile science, Tesla was possibly the greatest inventor the world has ever known. His work spawned technology such as satellites, beam weapons, and nuclear fusion.

Michael Idvorsky Pupin's (1858–1935) scientific contributions in the field of radiology include rapid X-ray photography (1896), which cut the usual hour-long exposure time to seconds; the discovery of the secondary X-ray radiation; and the development of the first X-ray picture used in surgery. His other interests covered the field of telecommunications. The “Pupin coil,” which uses alternate current, made long-distance telephone lines and cables possible. He also invented the means to eliminate static from radio receivers as well as the tuning devices for radios. Pupin successfully experimented with sonar U-boat detectors and underwater radars, as well as the passage of electricity through gases. In addition to his scientific contributions, Pupin was a prominent Serbian patriot. He tirelessly campaigned on behalf of Serbia during World War I. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography From Immigrant to Inventor Page 148  |  Top of Article(1925) Pupin stated: “[I] brought to America something … which I valued very highly, and that was: a knowledge of and a profound respect and admiration for the best traditions of my race … no other lesson had ever made a deeper impression upon me.” The Pupin Institute at Columbia University was founded in his memory.

Miodrag Radulovacki (1933–) was named the University of Illinois at Chicago's Inventor of the Year, along with his colleague David Carly, for their work on sleep apnea. Raised north of Belgrade in Sremski Karlovci, a small town on the Danube, he came to the United States to pursue his dream of being a scientist. He earned his MD and PhD in neurophysiology from the University of Belgrade School of Medicine, where he specialized in sleep research. Dr. Radulovacki was a foreign member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts beginning in 2003.

Sports Professional basketball player Pete Maravich (1947–1988) was perhaps best known as “Pistol Pete” Maravich. He is considered one of the fifty greatest basketball players of all time.

Stage and Screen Peter Bogdanovich is a film director and historian, writer, actor, producer, and critic. Some of his best-known films are What's Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973). He was born in 1939 in Kingston, New York, to an Eastern Orthodox Serbian father and an Austrian-Jewish mother. A prolific writer, he was the author of more than a dozen books, and he also appeared in as many films and TV shows as he directed.

Actor Karl Malden (1912–2009) born Mladen Sekulovich, received an Academy Award for his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951 and was nominated for a second Oscar in 1954 for his work in On the Waterfront. Malden is best known for his starring role in the television series “The Streets of San Francisco” and for his series of television commercials for American Express.

Steve Tesich (born Stoyan Tesich [1942-July 1, 1996]) was a well-known screenwriter, playwright, and novelist who received an Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 1979 for Breaking Away. His other screenplays include The World According to Garp (1982) and Eleni (1985). Tesich's plays include Passing Game (1977).


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Amerikanski Srbobran (The American Serb Defender)

Published by the Serb National Federation since 1906, this is the oldest and largest circulating Serbian bilingual biweekly newspaper in the United States, covering cultural, political, and sporting events of interest to Serbian Americans.

Cissy M. Rebich
938 Penn Avenue Fourth Floor
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15222
Phone: (412) 642-7372
Fax: (412) 642-1372

Serb World U.S.A.

A continuation of Serb World (1979–1983), this bimonthly, illustrated magazine was established in 1984. It features articles about Serbian American immigrants' cultural heritage and history, as well as other topics relating to Serbian Americans.

Mary Nicklanovic-Hart
P.O. Box 50742
Tucson, Arizona 85703
Phone: (602) 624-4887

Serbian Studies

Founded in 1980, this scholarly journal is published biannually by the North American Society for Serbian Studies. It offers broad coverage of history, political science, art, and the humanities.

Ljubica Dragana Popovich, Editor
Phone: (773) 702-0035

Liberty: The Official Publication of the Serb National Defense Council of America

Founded in 1952 by the Serb National Defense Council of America, this publication is an illustrated biweekly featuring articles on Serbian history and culture.

5782 N. Elston Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60646
Phone: (773) 775-7772
Fax: (773) 775-7779

Serbian Sounds of Music

The American Serbian Club of Pittsburgh sponsors this radio show every Sunday from 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. on WEDO 810 AM.

Valery Tassari
Phone: (412) 242-0570


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Serb National Federation (SNF)

Founded in 1906, the SNF has lodges throughout the United States and Canada. Its activities transcend business interests to include sponsoring and promoting many programs from sports to scholarship within the Serbian American community.

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George Martich
938 Penn Avenue
4th Floor
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15222
Phone: (412) 642-7372
Fax: (412) 642-1372

Serbian American Museum St. Sava (SAMS)

Founded in 1951, this organization is one of the oldest Serbian cultural institutions in Chicago. The museum offers exhibits highlighting Serbian culture and also sponsors community events.

448 Barry Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60657
Phone: (773) 549-9690
Fax: (773) 549-9690

Serbian National Defense Council of America (Sprska Narodna Odbrana)

Established in 1941 with chapters throughout the United States and abroad. Activities focus on political and cultural Serbian interests.

Slavko Panović, President
5782 North Elston Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60646
Phone: (773) 775-7772
Fax: (773) 775-7779

Serbian Singing Federation (SSF)

Founded in 1931, the Serbian Singing Federation organizes annual festivals and promotes the cultural, liturgical, and ethnic music of Serbia. The SSF sponsors an annual choral festival.

P.O. Box 71007
Madison Heights, Michigan 48071
Phone: (248) 542-4004


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North American Society for Serbian Studies

The NASSS is an organizational member of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES). Its mission is to research and promote Serbian literature, history, and culture. The organization attracts Serbian scholars from the United States, Canada, and Mexico, who meet at annual conferences of the ASEEES.

Phone: (773) 702-0035

The Njegoš Endowment for Serbian Language & Culture at Columbia University

The endowment was founded in 1997 with the goal of supporting instruction in Serbian language, literature, and culture at Columbia University.

East Central European Center
Columbia University MC3336
New York, New York 10027


Kisslinger, J. The Serbian Americans. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.

Pavlovich, Paul. The Serbians: The Story of a People. Toronto: Serbian Heritage Books, 1988.

Petrov, Krinka Vidakovic. “An Outline of the Cultural History of the Serbian community in Chicago.” Serbian Studies 20, no. 1 (2006): 33+.

Radovich, Milan. “The Serbian Press.” In The Ethnic Press in the United States: A Historical Analysis and Handbook, edited by Sally M. Miller, 337–51. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Ramirez, Anthony. “Upheaval over Kosovo's Independence Echoes in a New York Enclave.” New York Times, February 24, 2008.

Rankovich, Catherine. “Reflections of a Serbian-American.” Progressive, June 1999: 24.

Simic, Andrei. “Understanding Hyphenated Ethnicity: the Serbian-American Case.” Serbian Studies 21, no. 1 (Winter-Spring 2009): 37.

Singleton, Frederick Bernard. A Short History of the Yugoslav Peoples. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Tomashevich, George V. Portraits of Serbian Achievers. Toronto: Serbian Literary Company, 2000.

Webster, Andy. “Balkan Tale: Blood Ties, and Ties to Home.” New York Times, July 3, 2008.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300160