Old Homes of New Americans

The Croats in Croatia and in America
Chapter 12

A Surprisingly Beautiful City -- A Spot of Pathetic Interest -- A Musical Language -- A Hard Stepmother -- Too Many Eggs in One Basket -- The Terribly Barren Karst -- Three Hundred Thousand Croatians in America -- The Peasant Life of Croatia -- The Peasant Girl and her Marriage Chest -- Notes of a Croatian School-Teacher -- The Sad Departure of the Emigrant -- The Sorrowful Friends at Home The Good Old Days -- The Contributions sent to the Old Home -- The Heartache and the Hope.

I shall not soon forget my surprise on reaching Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, one November afternoon, to find a city so beautiful and substantial. I must confess that my geographical knowledge had not made me thoroughly acquainted with this metropolis; and under the German name, Agram, by which I had formerly known it, I had thought of it as a third-rate provincial city, scarcely worthy of a traveler's time and money. Judge, then, of my mild amazement when I found a charming city, with all the conveniences and many of the luxuries of modern city life, a city that would rank for beauty and enterprise with any of the smaller capitals of Europe. Here is a fine art museum, handsomely housed, a prosperous university with hundreds of students, a beautiful park with handsome statues of Croatian worthies, a South Slav Academy of Arts and Sciences, and excellent industrial and trade schools. All this profusion of monumental buildings for art and literature greets the traveler when first he leaves the railway station, and gives him an impression of a cultured people with a distinct individuality and national life of its own.

Further back towards the hillside which is climbed by the residential section of Zagreb (I prefer to give the capital the Croatian name) isa busy retail street and an interesting market-place that centres around the heroic statue of Ban Jellacic, the great national hero of Croatia. Beyond the market-place is a handsome Gothic cathedral, reminding one not a little of Cologne's masterpiece.

But the spot of supreme pathetic interest to me in Zagreb is an old church of the thirteenth century, called St. Mark's. It is small and battered, but it marks the last stand of the Croatians for independence. In the pavement in front of the church are five holes sacred in the eyes of all Zagrebians, for here were set the five iron posts to which was bound the last Croatian king. Fagots were piled up around him and set on fire, and the old king was burned alive. But the spirit of liberty did not die with him. The intensity of the national spirit of the Croats is surprising, considering that for nearly a thousand years they have been subject to other powers. Their language, their customs, their dress, are as dear to them as ever.

At Left, a Croatian couple in holiday dress.

Nowhere in all Europe does one see such Picturesque peasant costumes as in Croatia. White or very light colors predominate, relieved by beautiful colored embroidery. The Croatian language, too, is one of the most musical of all Slav tongues, abounding in open vowels. This language is used in their schools, as well as in their courts, and there seems to be little danger of its being lost to the world.

Most of the time for the last nine hundred years Croatia has been united to Hungary, a country which, it must be confessed, has been a hard stepmother at times. This is not to be wondered at, perhaps, when we remember all the provocation that she has had.

In the revolution of 1848-49, for instance, when Hungary was making her brave fight for freedom under Kossuth and the other patriots, Croatia sided with Austrian tyrants and helped the Hapsburgs to put a galling yoke on the neck of Hungary. The Croats, however, did not gain much; for though they were free from Hungarian dominion for a season of years, and enjoyed for a little tilne a practical independence, yet in 1868 Croatia was given back to Hungary. "We hate the Hungarians and fear the Austrians," said an intelligent Croat to me. It is somewhat difficult for a stranger to understand the reason for this racial dislike of the Hungarians, since Croatia now enjoys a large degree of autonomy.

Indeed, her relation to Hungary, as one of the "crown lands of St. Stephen," is very much the same as the relation of Hungary to Austria. In postal and military affairs Hungary and Croatia are united under one system, but in religious and educational matters Croatia is quite independent. Her own beloved language is used in the schools. The towns have Croatian names, though sometimes supplemented by German names in German guide-books. The streets of Zagreb are named in Croatian and after Croatian heroes.

Croatia suffers, like most of the countries of southeastern Europe, because too much of the wealth and intelligence of the country is centred in the capital. Too many of her eggs are in one basket, so to speak. Her culture and education are not diffused as they should be through the country districts. Much of the country, especially the western and seashore districts, is poor and sterile and mountainous.

In thousands of acres of the so-called Karst or limestone district not a blade of grass has courage to peer between the rocks in this hideous desolation. It is from this region naturally that emigration to the United States has chiefly taken place, and it is said, though it is somewhat difficult to untangle the nationalities from this Part of the world in the Census Reports, that there are at least three hundred thousand Croatians living today in America. Though most of them are farmers at home, they flock to the coal, iron, and copper mines of America, lured by the high wages, and undeterred by the hardships which they know will be theirs. If this living Croatian river could be directed to the fertile prairies of the Dakotas and Nebraska, it would be a blessing not only to the Croats, but to these prairie states as well.

I would not give the impression that the Croatian peasants are undesirable immigrants, by any means. There are few better. They have the virtues developed by poverty and a hard struggle with human enemies. For centuries they were, with the Hungarians and Transylvanians, part of the long bulwark of Christianity against the Turk, and it is their proud boast that they never came under the power of Islam. Few in our day realize what Europe, and America as the heir of Europe, owe to these intrepid Christians, against whom the tide of Mohammedanism broke invain for many centuries. Had they given way and let in the Mussulman horde, the history of civilization would have been written in darker and bloodier characters.

The peasant life of Croatia, though poor and illiterate, is by no means hopeless. We I must rid ourselves of the idea that to read and write are the only essential elements of an education. Though of the older peasants of Croatia less than half can read or write their own names, yet we have pleasant pictures of their gathering in groups on winter evenings to listen while some one reads to them, not only the newspapers, but translations of Tolstoy, Turgenieff, and Dostoyevesky. Who will say that men and women who can appreciate such modern classics are not quite as well educated as young Americans, who have been through nine grades of the public schools and then find their literary aspirations fully satisfied, as many of them do, by a yellow journal or a "penny dreadful"?

Many of the Croatian farmhouses are by no means inhospitable in their appearance. They are built of brick or wattle, covered with plaster and often painted a bright color. Around them are frequently clustered comfortable outhouses for the cattle, while a number of little shelters for the hay, sometimes a score of them on one farm, seem to be a peculiarity of Croatia.

Very likely you will see a gayly clad peasant girl Watching her geese or her sheep while she industriously knits a long gray stocking, and you may know that she is making part of her wedding trousseau. She may be but six or eight years of age, but she has already begun the unending click, click, click of the knitting needles, with which she must provide part of her bridal costume; for the unwritten law of the land prescribes that when she gets married, she shall have stockings enough knit to last her husband as well as herself the rest of their lives. Indeed, her chest must contain a complete outfit for the bridegrooln as well as for herself, -- jacket, underwear, shoes, and cap, --while he is not expected to bring thing to his prospective bride. The parents of the happy couple usually arrange the details of the marriage in advance, going very minutely into every'question that ought to be considered. Finally, the most interested parties are brought together, when the parents have arranged all details, and the young man presents his future wife with an apple, while she returns the favor with a handkerchief, and the engagement is complete. This is a reversal of the Adam and Eve story, and we may hope that the fruit is never an apple of discord.

Though not strictly of the same stock, a few words about our neighbors from Dalmatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina may not be out of place in this connection. Dalmatia is the long narrow strip of seacoast fronting the Adriatic, back of which lie the homes of the peasants of whom I have been writing, as well as the provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which Austria annexed as recently as 1908 after having "administered" them for many years.

Dalmatia is a frighfully sterile country in many parts, but extremely picturesque, and richer in antiquities than almost any part of the earth's surface. Ruined castles and temples and palaces that date back to the heroic days of Rome line the Shore; and as I have described in another chapter, no more fascinating journey can be made than down the island-sheltered shore of Dalmatia, Until one comes to the inhospitable Black Mountains of Montenegro, which of course lie outside of the boundaries of Austria-Hungary.

The emigration from these sections of the empire has been small, scarcely totaling thirty thousand in the ten years between 1899 and 1909, which seems strange when we remember how great are the numbers sent to America from the rest of Austria. Though the Dalmatians are Slavs, there is an a mixture of Greek and Latin blood. From the north of the Dalmatian coast come to America many Italians; for Trieste, as we shall see in another chapter, is an Italian city on Austrian soil, but these new fell citizens have all the characteristics of those who come from Italy proper.

I am tempted to quote at some length from some "notes" written by a Croatian schoolteacher. They present the matter of emigration from the inside so graphically that I believe no one can read them without having kindled in his soul a new interest in the word "Americans."

Quoted in Our Slavic Fellow Citizens, by Professor Emily G. Balch.

Today they are telling in the village that fifteen are going to Fiume tomorrow by the early train, - men, women, and young girls on their way to America. They were all blessed by the priest after mass. The prayer for their happiness away from home was very moving. All who knelt before the altar were pale, struggling against the tears in eyes which may never see this church again. On this consecrated spot they took leave of the fatherland, our dear Croatia, who cannot feed her children because she is not free nor the mistress of her own money. She must let them go among strangers in order that those who remain may live, they and their children and their old people. And the old people die in peace because they have hope; the little ones shall fare better than ever they have done.

This morning all went early to confession. With God they go safer on their long journey. Toward evening they can be seen hurrying from house to house, taking leave of those that they love. Who can say that there will ever be another meeting for them? It is very late before they have finished these visits, and the family waits for them with impatience. With impatience, how else, when this evening or rather the few hours still left are so short. This is the last supper at home. There is no going to bed, for at three they must start for the station, as the train goes at four. It is so sad to hear them driving through the village singing a song which expresses all the feelings of their sore hearts.

The saddest moment of all is the departure. The train has come, they must get on board. How many tears and sobs and kisses in our little forest and rock-bound station! Friends go with them to Fiume -- all but the children and the old folks, who stay in the village alone.

In Fiume the girls buy what they need for the journey, and a little gold crucifix. That must be bought in the fatherland. So must rings, too. Often the parents buy the betrothal rings for their sons and daughters, who marry in America, and send them to them. Faith and love come from the homeland.

Finally, at the ship good-byes must be said, the last. One little girl, whose older sister was going by train to Vienna, had gone with her to Fiume. But when the train was about to go the little one flung herself down upon the ground in her distress and shrieked terribly. Every one tried to pacify her, but she pressed her little hands over her eyes to hide the engine from her sight, and answered, "It is easy for you to talk, but this hateful engine is robbing me of my sweet sister." She was quite ill with suffering, and they had much ado to get her away. But it is hardest for the mothers who let their daughters or their sons go.

Very late, after midnight, people come home -- I alone. Now come quiet tears and prayers that God may grant the travelers a safe arrival. With what anxiety and joy do they wait for the news from the agent that their dear ones have reached New York in safety. There relatives are already expecting them, and the journey can be peacefully continued in their company. Our people generally go to Michigan. In one town there are so many that our people call it "New Lipa."

The money for the journey always comes from relatives or friends to whom all is honestly repaid later. The young fellows try to save the money to bring over a young girl. When she comes to America -- generally she does not know her suitor -- she is married. If she is unwilling, not finding him to her liking, she must pay back the money, but it very often happens that another lad pays it for her and takes her for his wife instead.

Many girls are very fortunate in America. For instance, this very day a family is coming home. The wife was poor and ill-favored. Relatives sent her money for the journey to America, and there she married a poor and very humble sort of man. By work and saving they have got together six thousand dollars in thirteen years. They have six children and with them are now returning. In those days she was poor, ridiculed, alone; now she is well to-do, respected, the mother of a family. The women are full of curiosity about her. At noon they were all in the street in hopes of seeing her, but in vain. She and her family are staying in Fiume and will come to-night, perhaps. My housekeeper is her godmother, and so awaits her happy godchild with much pleasure, for she is to offer her, for purchase, a large meadow which once belonged to the parents of her godchild, but which they were obliged to sell. I think that would be a very pleasant feeling, to be able to buy back again a piece of land lost in one's father's time, and to let the happy grandchildren jump and play about where once the poor grandfather worked, and whence misfortune drove him away to die.

My housekeeper, who is already sixty-five, cannot tell without crying how it used to be here in the good old days. Thirty-four years ago there was no railroad. Our splendid highway, the "Lujziane," even then a century old, saw such activity as will never return. All travel was by this road, and our people were happy because they always had the opportunity to work and to live in peace. In one house they kept ten servants, men and maids. Day and night the teams with their heavy loads were on the highway. Labor was very cheap, a man got about thirteen cents and a woman six cents a day. To be sure, they had good food besides, bread, meat, and wine as much as they wanted, and the children of the women servants were fed, too. The wages were low, as I have said, yet the people were contented. Some got very rich, but the poor, too, were well provided for.

Twenty years ago two men went to America from here, the first from our place to go. Now nearly half the village is in America. It is hard to till the fields, for there are no workers to be had. Whoever has strength and youth is at work in America. At home are only the old men and women, and the young wives with their children. Every wife has much to do for herself. Only poor girls work in the fields. "And they must be paid a crown (twenty cents) a day," sighs my housekeeper, and thinks of the better days of old....

What especially pleases them is the respect in which workers are held in America. They are better cared for, too, mentally. They have three or four Croatian papers, they have organizations, and learn much that they bring home later. They have their priests and churches, but as yet only two Croatian schools. All is founded by the contributions of workingmen. They send a great deal home to the churches, too; they are supporting a poor man, and in 1903, when there were the disturbances in Croatia about the Hungarian flag and the Hungarian inscriptions on the railroad stations, our brothers in America sacrificed a great deal for the support of the families of those under arrest. They love Croatia dearly. Each one longs for home and wants to die here. We Slavs are so soft-natured. Homesickness is our disease. On account of it many Croatians cannot hold out, and return home too soon.

The talk is all of America. Our newspapers write so much what a bad thing it is for whole families to go there as they do. But it is no use. People must eat. The stones are hard. There is too little land. The Government does nothing for the good of the people. There are no factories, there is no building, no mining. So how can people live and pay taxes? And if the taxes are not paid the cow is taken from the stall, the pillows from under the head.

Only American capital could lessen the gtream of emigration. Croatia is a beautiful country. Our mountains doubtless hold great treasures, but we lack the money with which to seek them. Only American capital could bring them to light. We have the beautiful sea, the lovely Plitvica lakes, and the fine district about Agram, but we cannot make use of these beauties as a rich and free people could. We have a sufficient income, but as a public man has said, "Our pockets are in the Hungarian trousers." The Hungarians have our money, and give us just enough to keep us alive. Only a free and independent nation can progress. We are like dead capital.

But we hope for our national resurrection. So many have already died in this hope. It is our ideal, our dearest one. For this Zriny and Frankopany died. The innocent blood of our best sons must at last bring us good fortune.

Doubtless this schoolmistress, in her deep love for her native land, depicts her condition and the rule of Rungary in too gloomy a light; but this long extract is well worth quoting, for it reveals the heart of the emigrant not only from Croatia, but from all these other lands, and the hearts of those left behind as well, as no foreigner could possibly reveal them, and it should strike a sympathetic chord in the heart of every reader. The love of home, the high patriotism, the inexorable conditions that drive the exile across the sea, the homesickness, the void left behind, the high hopes of the new home -- alas sometimes dashed, but more often fulfilled -- all this is depicted in these simle but eloquent "notes." As we look at the new arrivals, swarming to our shores at Ellis Island, or Boston, or Baltimore, we may well think that for every one, from whatever country he comes, there is something of the heartache and the hope revealed In these words.

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