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Conquering a Balkan Blood Feud—in Bovey, Minnesota

An American family descended from Serbian and Croatian immigrants finds a way to overcome old-world hatreds.

· 15 min read
Conquering a Balkan Blood Feud—in Bovey, Minnesota
Bovey, Minnesota, circa 1940.

In the late 1970s, I spent a lot of time with my Serbian-American great-grandfather Isaac at the house of his son Milan (my grandfather) in the small iron-mining town of Bovey, Minnesota. Recently widowed and eighty-some years old, Isaac was then taking his dinners on a rotation basis at three different homes. One of these was my grandparents’ home, situated up on the flats beyond Finn Hill, several blocks from where he lived, on the town’s lower slopes.

On the appointed afternoons, my Croatian-American grandmother Marilyn, Isaac’s daughter-in-law, would bring him over to the house, set him up with a Seven & Seven, and sit with him on and off in the family room while she prepared dinner. Speaking in Serbo-Croatian (the mutually intelligible language of most South Slavs), they would converse casually and laugh warmly as she came and went. Sometimes the TV was turned on. Other times, strummy Yugoslavian folk music was played on the hi-fi console that ran beneath the front window.

Returning from the kitchen, Marilyn would ask me, her dear ljepota, if I needed anything. And discovering Isaac’s drink empty, she’d ask him if he would like to have another.

“Are you?” he would reply, in the same (to my ears) foreign tongue.

Knowing that he wanted a refill, Marilyn would say that she intended to have another. “Then just a small one” (a mali one), he’d insist, as if going along out of sheer politeness. Depending on when my grandfather Milan got home from work and cleaned up for dinner (he was a plumber), there might be several rounds of mali ones.

Isaac Zobenica and his son Milan, in Bovey, Minnesota, circa 1980.

I spent as much time as I could at my grandparents’ house in those years—mostly in the warm, scented summer months—drawn to a home that seemed alive with a history both aged and mellow (unlike in my own home, which was alive with the lingeringly turbulent 1960s). I liked being close to that history, even if, during the friendly, awkward spells with my great-grandfather, I felt more like an observer than a participant. He probably felt a similarly vague detachment from the modern present. To live long enough is to find that one’s future, when it arrives, is as foreign a country as the past is in L. P. Hartley’s famous formulation.

While Marilyn tended to dinner preparation in the kitchen, a chorus of clanking saucepans and utensils, Isaac and I sat mutely in the family room, neither one able to adequately speak or understand the other’s language. He would occasionally get my attention and open up silent communication with string tricks involving his wedding band, producing incredible crisscross patterns from which it seemed impossible to extricate the ring. I was urged to try (and fail), whereupon Isaac would complete his practiced magic and look hopefully for the wonder to wash across his great-grandson’s face. Being both impressed and polite, I responded appropriately, at which point Isaac would summon me closer, hug me, kiss me on the cheek, and say—in a weak, raspy, heavily accented voice—“You good boy.”

Being only 10 or so, I was too young to understand why something like that could mean so much to an old man, though I was mature enough to understand that it somehow meant the world. For much of my life, the main things I recalled from those tender moments were my great-grandpa’s fading voice, painful beard stubble, and sour whiskey breath. The pure, smiling affection behind it all was like a song picked up on a radio station nearly out of range, a lovely melody almost overwhelmed by scratches and static.

Isaac and Marilyn’s relationship set the emotional tone on those afternoons. They had a love that extended into the almost more formidable realms of friendship; the kind of rapport, chosen rather than inherited, that emerges only in the absence of blood obligations. They seemed closer than family—having been spared, I thought, the typical rites of family strife and discord.

One of the great gifts they gave me, as they went about their easygoing afternoons in my presence, was the opportunity to nurture this agreeable misimpression, this truth so far from whole as to be almost a well-meaning fiction. The fuller story is that however much the world around them had calmed by the time of my arrival, it had been, in the early years of their acquaintance, a violent tempest.

Isaac Zobenica was born in 1893 or 1895 (records vary), in a part of Habsburg Austria that is now Croatia. He came to the United States in “nineteen o’eleven” (as he put it, in his patchwork English), and originally settled in Kansas City. The manifest certifying his departure from the English port of Southampton on the S.S. Adriatic had him down as “Iso Zobenica,” bound for Chicago, the whole page having been filled out in an elegant calligraphic hand worthy of some ancient guild.

War was then imminent in the Balkans, as ethnic minorities within the teetering Habsburg and Ottoman empires had (once again) become restive. One family story has it that Isaac’s parents sent him across the ocean because, even though they knew they’d never see him again, they preferred that to the thought of his being conscripted and killed in a conflict everyone knew was coming. (One of Isaac’s grandsons, a brother of my father, would later refer to him approvingly, if somewhat facetiously, as a kind of draft dodger.)

Passenger manifest on the S.S. Adriatic with Isaac Zobenica’s entry highlighted.

Three years after Isaac’s emigration, a Serb who was roughly Isaac’s age—Gavrilo Princip, a member of a South Slav nationalist group opposed to Habsburg control of Bosnia-Herzegovina—assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, helping to precipitate both the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia and, of course, the Great War. It was exactly the sort of cataclysm that Isaac’s parents, minority Serbs living at the outer edge of the empire, had apparently been anticipating when they put him on a boat so that he might sail out of their lives.

(Ironic historical twist: Nearly a century later, at a dinner party in Boston during which the attacks of 9/11 were being discussed, a Hungarian illustrator, gazing impishly over the rim of his martini glass, remarked to me that of course a Serb was the original international terrorist, to which I could only smile and reply that Gavrilo Princip had been spoken of as a hero in my home when I was a kid, which was true, even though we were among the grateful posterity of a draft dodger.)

Out of harm’s way, Isaac eventually fetched up in Missouri and found work in one of Kansas City’s meatpacking plants—what, in his accent, he called “pecking houses.” There, he befriended a Negro coworker (as he then would have been described) who occasionally took him dancing at mixed-race “black-and-tan” clubs. Later, as an old man who still had little to no command of English, Isaac would recall with wonder and affection those nights on the tiles—“I do neeger dance. I go like hell!” (Again, in regard to his word choices, the past is a foreign country.)

But the carefree single life was a brief one for any immigrant male who hoped to marry one of his own. The ratio of male immigrants to female immigrants was out of proportion, so if a man wanted to raise a family with someone who shared his language (to say nothing of his culture and values), he was wise not to delay. Women with whom Isaac could even converse were at a premium. Accordingly, in 1913, at the age of 20 (possibly 18), he married a Serb woman several years his senior, Anica Dimich (originally “Dimić”), whom he’d known glancingly in the old country. They’d lived down the street from one another in the same village, and he recalled seeing her crocheting while tending sheep.

Farmers’ Day in Bovey, Minnesota, September 6th, 1915.

In 1914, their first child, a daughter, was born; and in 1916, their first son, my grandfather Milan, arrived. At around this time, Isaac decided that working in a refrigerated meatpacking facility didn’t agree with him. He was tired of being cold all the time, so he, Anica, and their young children moved to northern Minnesota, where Isaac could find work in pit mines that were frigid only part of the year.

In 1937 or thereabouts, Milan, by now in his 20s, started going out with a teenage Croatian girl from a neighboring town, a waitress turned union secretary named Marilyn Sutich (originally “Sutić”). They’d met at a Yugoslav function of the sort that in those days drew Slavs of whatever stripe for the food, the music, and the dancing. But however ecumenical the social scene—with Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats uniting around old-country flavors—Isaac’s wife, Anica, drew the line at encouraging this budding romance twixt her son and a Croat.

Photo from the 1939 wedding of Milan Zobenica and Marilyn Sutich.

Her efforts, however, were unavailing, not least because Isaac countered her every act of dissuasion. He made a habit of fetching Marilyn and bringing her over to the house unannounced. And lest she feel like an uninvited guest instead of a welcome, soon-to-be addition to the family, Isaac openly embraced her in his and Anica’s home, doing everything to express his own approval.

Anica’s want of charity wasn’t just the quirk of an embittered immigrant woman. Ethno-religious enmity (mutual, sometimes murderous) has spiritually deformed countless generations of South Slavs.

Marilyn witnessed a quiet reminder of this decades later, when she travelled to Yugoslavia in the late 1980s, not long after Milan had died. Along with visiting her own cousins and other Croat family members who’d stayed behind, she would have visited the relatives of her recently deceased husband, too. It would have been easy enough to do, since the Croat Sutić clan and the Serb Zobenica and Dimić clans were all from the Lika region of modern-day Croatia.

On Marilyn’s own Croat side of the family, the Sutić clan hailed from Kosinj, a village about 30 kilometres’ drive north of Gospić (now the administrative centre for the Croatian county known as Lika-Senj). On her in-laws’ Serb side, the Zobenica and Dimić clans hailed from Ostrvica, a village just to Gospić’s east. But during World War II, members of these (and numerous other) Serb communities were murdered by Nazi-allied Croatian fascists led by Ante Pavelić’s ultranationalist Ustaše organization. The victims of Ustaše sadism and ethnic cleansing included large numbers of Croatian Jews and Gypsies (now more properly described as Roma), but the killings focused principally on the ethnic Serb population living within the borders of Pavelić’s fiercely Catholic Nazi puppet state (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, or NDH—known in English as the Independent State of Croatia).

Croatian dictator Ante Pavelić (left) with Italy’s Benito Mussolini during the May 18th, 1941 ceremony marking Italy’s recognition of the NDH as an independent state.

A 224-page document whose title roughly translates as Victims from the Districts of Gospić and Perušić: 1941–1945 lists two Zobenicas, both peasant Serb women, shot by the Ustaše in Ostrvica on August 2nd, 1941: Andja, who was 80 years old, and Marta, who was 47. (To read the phrase shot by the Ustaše in the original Croatian—“Strijeljale je ustaše”—brings to mind the fanatical Strelnikov from Doctor Zhivago. Strel- is the Slavic root word for shoot. The word strelnikov would translate from Russian as something like executioner.)

Andja Zobenica was Isaac’s mother, whom Isaac hadn’t seen since sailing to America three decades earlier. Marta Zobenica was Isaac’s sister-in-law, the wife of his brother Todor. At the time she died, Todor was living as a boarder in West Virginia and working at a local coal mine, probably remitting most of his earnings home to Marta and their children. (The children, as far as can be determined, are not among the victims listed.)

The records indicate that on that same day, August 2nd, a Dimić was hanged and another was captured and taken to prison, where he was killed. On August 3rd, eight people with the surname Dimić were killed. The youngest was two years old. The oldest was 82—Anica’s mother, Boja. Some met their death in a field. Others had apparently taken to the hills, where they were hunted down. Two were simply marked as “slaughtered.” On August 5th, 10 more people named Dimić were killed, ranging from four years of age to 70. There were more, too, every one of them marked as having been killed by the Ustaše.

Something like 1,800 lives were taken in the orgy of Ustaše violence that unfolded over more than 10 August days in or near Gospić and the neighbouring district of Perušić. And this was just one part of the bloodshed inflicted by Ustaše killers throughout the NDH. A separate document purporting to list all Serb victims gives the number of Zobenica-surnamed victims as 62 and the number of Dimić victims as 211.

The accuracy of these numbers is unknown and to some extent unknowable. Balkan death tolls remain furiously contested to this day, and will probably remain so forever. On the outer fringes of this argument, passionate exaggeration of guilt competes with passionate exaggeration of innocence, each being cited by purveyors of the other as proof of bad faith. But the degree to which the numbers can’t be known with precision is owing to the sheer scale of the violence.

All in all, scholarship cited by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum indicates that the Ustaše murdered between 320,000 and 340,000 ethnic Serbs, along with about 30,000 Croatian Jews (either directly or by deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau), and more than 15,000 Roma. Individual stories have disappeared into the rounded, statistical mass, and many of the details have gotten lost because those who would have spoken on behalf of the victims tended to fall victim themselves. Thus, forty-some years after the war, a Croat-American woman, my recently widowed grandmother Marilyn, couldn’t find any of her extended Serb in-laws in Croatia. Those branches of the family had been eliminated. Ostrvica had become Serb-free.

This helps contextualize the most notorious family story I heard while growing up, in which Anica told her grandson Ron (my future father, then a boy of maybe two or three years of age) to spit on his own mother, Marilyn, who’d brought him for a visit with his grandparents that day. This was 1942 or so. Isaac and Anica—through reports filtering in from the old country—had probably begun piecing together the fate of the Serb minority under the NDH. Marilyn’s offense, in Anica’s eyes, was simply that she was a Croat—worse, a Croat who’d joined the family at a time when Anica sensed (rightly) that her own family was being annihilated by Croats.

Anica Zobenica (née Dimich) and Isaac Zobenica, in Bovey, Minnesota, circa 1950. Detail courtesy of Jean Cyronek.

Ron at first timidly refused to spit on his mom, while Marilyn pleaded with Anica not to persist. But Anica, an intimidating presence bent on completing this gesture of contempt, persisted, and Ron ultimately complied out of fear, reducing Marilyn to tears. Thus was Marilyn, to put it in bastardized Croatian, strijeljale je sinćić—shot by her little sonny boy. (Sinćić, a diminutive of the word son, was Marilyn’s lifelong term of endearment for her firstborn.)

It must be noted, however, that Anica and Marilyn got on just fine in later years, once the stresses of wartime tragedy subsided to a degree, and as Anica began to see her family in increasingly American terms.

Marilyn and Ron, as mother and son, had the kind of relationship (loving, blood loyal, but also thorny on more than a few occasions) that Marilyn and Isaac, as daughter-in-law and father-in law, didn’t. In 1995, Marilyn had to throw Ron and an Orthodox priest out of her home when they browbeat her about the then-current bloodletting in the Balkans, insisting that she share their assessment of it. Like Isaac, she had no stomach for litigating old-country conflicts, and she wasn’t going to be forced to take sides by her son any more than Isaac was by his wife.

Marilyn Zobenica (née Sutich, holding her firstborn child, Ron) and Anica Zobenica (née Dimich), Bovey, Minnesota, 1940 or 1941.

Marilyn and Isaac, sentimentally, were immigrants in the sense that the British expat author Jonathan Raban has used the term, contrasting it with émigré. Immigrants, by this conception, embrace the manners, customs, and tastes of their new country, and break with ancestral pasts rather than perpetuate them. Hence Isaac’s going out to jazz clubs in Kansas City with his black buddy. Hence his welcoming a Croatian girl into his Serbian family. This was America. He’d said goodbye to a world where such things weren’t possible, or weren’t done.

The émigré mentality, ironically, often can become stronger in later generations of immigrants, among people who have never lived in and rarely—if ever—visited the “old country.” This faraway land remains a place of revered myth, whose culture was never substantially theirs, and whose language is usually beyond their grasp save for the words used in recipes, stock phrases, and a handful of cherished family anecdotes. Atavism, to such later generations, is a form of tribute, of honoring the family’s genuine immigrants by preserving outlooks and ways of life those forebears are thought to have cherished.

Milan Zobenica and Marilyn Zobenica (née Sutich) in an undated 1960s photo.

But when Marilyn tossed her son and the priest out of her house for haranguing her about the breakup of Yugoslavia—that emerged from a very different reflex. I imagine it was because arguing over those old-country hatreds seemed to profane the sacrifice that Isaac, for one, had made. He’d left such things behind at a tender age, along with everything and everyone familiar to him, including his doomed mother. He didn’t submit to a life of immigrant disadvantage only so that such animosities could be reprised on new shores, within his own family.

Isaac’s last words to Marilyn, perhaps the last words of his life, came as he lay in hospice a mere hour or so from death. It was early December 1982. As Milan stood by the window, looking out, unable to put his grief into words, Marilyn pulled a chair up beside Isaac’s bed and took his hand in hers. Speaking in Serbo-Croatian, she told him how proud she was to be his daughter-in-law, how glad she was to have had sons that could carry on his name.

Isaac’s breathing was labored, but as she spoke, he kept looking directly into her eyes. She’d get him a sip of water and then continue, telling him again how happy she was to be a part of his family. But when his breathing troubles continued, she said to him that she thought he was tired, that maybe she shouldn’t talk anymore, and that perhaps he’d like to go to sleep.

Then, still looking her in the eye, Isaac said, “Ti si meni sav od zlata.” That was the only thing he said the whole time they were with him. Literally, “You are entirely of gold to me.” Or more simply, “You’re everything to me.” Long after his death, Marilyn remarked that, in the same spirit of the phrase itself, there was no wealth in the world she would take in exchange for hearing that.

One of the last times I saw Marilyn was on my 45th birthday. I drove over to her home and sat with her in her family room, just the two of us—the same room in which she’d tended to Isaac and me decades before.

It was late on a snowy, overcast, midwinter afternoon, borderline gloomy, far from my sunlit memories of string tricks and a more active Marilyn who’d glided from room to room doing several things—and taking care of several people—at once. By this point, she was barely ambulatory.

But in spite of this, she and I sipped Seven & Sevens, reminisced, and celebrated the fact that we’d both lived long enough for me to reach exactly half her age. We raised our drinks to one another, well aware that we were in the twilight of our time together. “Mali ones,” we called them.

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