Natalija Nogulich and the origins of her book, “One Woman’s War”

I wrote this article for the January/February 2014 issue of Serb World USA   it is posted here with their permission. Click: One Woman’s War to order the book or Natlija Nogulich to view Natalija’s website. ~~~~

The Serbian Women of the Northwest San Fernando ValleyAnita Rowe, Natalija Nogulich,  & Sylvia Simpson Book Club was holding a special book event. Two members – Sylvia Chorovich Simpson and Anita Sabovich Rowe -invited me, along with several other non-members, to the special book club luncheon they were hosting. This event was to include the author of One Woman’s War, Natalija Nogulich.

The idea and event came together when Sylvia Simpson and Anita Rowe attended St. Steven’s annual Serb Fest in Alhambra, California. At this year’s festival, they had the opportunity to talk with author Natalija Nogulich, an accomplished actress of stage, screen, and television. Natalija was there as a first-time novelist, anxious to promote her book to an audience that could best relate to its subject and characters. She had a booth to do just that and was available to sign and sell copies and to talk with those interested in One Woman’s War.

Well, Anita and Sylvia were equally eager to talk with Natalija. Anita had already read the book and was suggesting it to Sylvia for their next book club meeting when they spotted Natalija’s booth at Serb Fest. After exchanging just a few words, these three women became fast friends.

Before they left Natalija’s booth, they set a date and decided to host a lunch with the author at Sylvia’s home. While their book club in the past had included only women of Serbian descent who lived in the northwest quadrant of the San Fernando Valley, they expanded this invitation to several lucky friends and family members.

Natalija Nogulich’s novel, One Woman’s War, is set in the Shar (Sar) Mountains of Kosovo in the 1990’s. During the course of the book, the main character, Yelena, travels to New York where her sister lives and back again to her village in the Shar Mountains.

Kosovo MapThe story unfolds during the time “between wars,” according to Natalija. Somewhere between two of the Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990’s-what some are now calling the Bosnian War (1992-1995) and the Kosovo War (1998-1999)-when the United States and NATO became directly involved.

The story focuses on Yelena, a young widow who is struck by a tragedy so great that she is compelled to leave her beloved mountain village and seek comfort in the arms of her sister in New York. It is in New York, while still coming to terms with that horrific event, she uncovers the identity of the perpetrator. She is then equally compelled to return home, but is it to seek justice in a court of law or, perhaps, to settle the score herself?

There were about twenty of us in attendance at the book event on that lovely, sunny afternoon in early November. More than half of us had read the book, but in order to not spoil the ending for the others, we chose’ to’ keep the discussions primarily to learning more about the author, her process, and just a few bits specific to the book, including the humorous vehicle the main character uses to improve her English – Gracie Allen from the Burns & Allen TV show. Natalija just loves the way Gracie “flips logic” and the way a non-Serbian describes a slava held in Queens, New York.

Jelena and Walter Nogulich c.2012

Jelena and Walter Nogulich, 2012.

While sharing our delight with the vivid description in the book of a slava celebration, Ljiljana “Lil” Stojanovich, formerly of Chicago, said, “Now that I live in L.A., we have a very small slava … only 25 or 30 people.” Natalija offered that her description was based on the slava celebrations her parents would host on Sveti Kliment (St. Clement’s Day), and that now, at the ages of 90 and 93, they only recently cut down the guest list from 60 or more people and two days of celebration.

As is the makeup of the region, the characters in One Woman’s War are both Serbian Orthodox and Muslims. In the villages of the Shar Mountains, prior to the 1990’s wars, everyone lived, worked, and played together side-by-side. The whole village lived in harmony. Back then it seemed that their only differences were in the way they worshiped.

“While it is fiction, the story is real,” explains Natalija, meaning the backdrop of everyday life during that period is real. The essence of her characters is real: where they live, how they live, how they relate to one another, their day-to-day lives, their celebrations, and their sorrows.

As the afternoon progressed, we learned about Natalija herself-her education, her career as an actress, her travels, and her family. Those of us who read the book were now able to truly understand how she came to paint her story with such detail. Those who had yet to read the book were anxious to begin.

Natalija’s mother, Jelena Mandusich,was born in Paciki village in the Sar Mountains of Kosovo. She lived in the house her father, Jake Alexander Mandusich, had built. The village consisted of only about twelve families at that time. It more or less remained that way until the end of the wars in 1999.

Jelena (nee Mandusich) c 1939

Natalija’s mother, Jelena Mandusich, in Paciki, Kosovo, c. 1939.

The closest town to this mountain village is Sredska. Of course, when Jelena lived there, and subsequently when Natalija first visited the village, the only way to get to the town was by foot or beast. While the city of Prizren was only about seven miles from town, it was no easy journey.

Jelena’s father, Jake Alexander “Big Jake” Mandusich, was living in Chicago when the United States entered World War I in 1917. He immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight for his adopted country. It was for his act of bravery on a battlefield in France in August of 1918 that he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Uncle Alex Mandusich, Jelena, Velinka Zrnzevich (sitting) c.1935

Uncle Alex Mandusich, Jelena, Velinka Zrnzevich (sitting) c.1935

After the war, Big Jake returned to Paciki village where he married Velinka Zrnzevic and started a family. With his own hands, he built a house for his family before returning to the United States. Fearing another world war in 1941, he sent for his family to join him.

His daughter Jelena was just 17 when she moved to Chicago. She remembers that her mother, Velinka, would never have left that village or that house except to reunite her family with Big Jake and keep: them from harm’s way.

Walter & Jelena Nogulich c.1948

Walter & Jelena Nogulich c.1948

 

Six years later, in 1947, Jelena met Walter Christ Nogulich at Holy Resurrection Serbian Orthodox Church on Schiller Avenue in Chicago. They were married in that same church within six months of their meeting. Walter Nogulich was born in Chicago in 1920, but his parents had raised him back in their hometown of Trebinje, Hercegovina. He returned to Chicago as a young man to live his “American Dream.”

Walter and Helen Nogulich have three children: Christ Nogulich, who recently relocated to Los Angeles; Daniella Nogulich Gomez, who continues to live in Chicago with her husband and puppy; and Natalija.

Today, more than 66 years since her parents met, their daughter Natalija smiles as she speaks of them and how they still take great care of each other: ‘They continue to talk, share, laugh, and love as I have always observed them doing.” That loving supportive relationship can be seen in the way Natalija describes the interactions of some of her married fictional characters.

Natalija, now a resident of Los Angeles, was born and raised in Chicago. She went to Serbian summer camp at St. Sava Monastery in Libertyville, Illinois, every summer. As a young girl, she attended Serbian school every Saturday at Holy Resurrection in Chicago “until I could convince my parents my other Saturday activities were more important to my future” she muses today.

Lil Stojanovich and Natalija shared a smile with their common memories of Serbian school: the red-haired Mrs. Tomich and the perpetual aroma of kupus, or cabbage, whose stuffed leaves, or sarmas, were often being prepared for this celebration or that wedding.

Of course, Natalija spoke Serbian at home with her parents, but at Serbian school, under the tutelage of Mrs. Tomich, she was also taught grammar and the Cyrillic alphabet. Perhaps it was Mrs. Tomich who set the stage for the additional languages Natalija would master: Russian, Italian, Spanish, and French in addition to Serbian and English.

Among the other Saturday activities that Natalija wanted to participate in was acting, both in school and in community plays. She began acting when she was just 8 years old. “At that time, and throughout my school years, acting was strictly for fun. I never imagined it would turn into a career.” That would come much later, after college.

We learned that she obtained her B.A. in fine arts-painting and art history’. She had received a full four-year scholarship to Lake Forest College after graduating early from Lake View High School. It should be no surprise that, with an art background, she would be able to paint such beautifully detailed scenes in her book.

Her art studies took her to Europe. After completing courses in Spain, she had a month-long break before classes were to begin in Italy. That was in December of 1970.

The break was the perfect opportunity to make her first journey to Kosovo. She was eager to visit her mother’s village and meet her mother’s cousin, Teta Jelitsa Mandusich.

As soon as she arrived in Kosovo, she felt a connection. Growing up and in college, her non-Serbian friends would often refer to her as Gypsy, for she had a different look and a different outlook than they did. It was intended as a compliment, and while taken that way, it still emphasized that she was different. In Kosovo, she saw people who “looked like me”, she recalls. The familiar rhythm of their language filled her head and heart as if she had returned home.

Natalija first trip to Paciki, Kosovo 1970

Natalija on her first trip to Paciki, Kosovo 1970

She soon settled in at Teta (aunt) Jelitsa’s, who lived in the house that Natlija’s grandfather, Big Jake, had built so long before. The aroma of the wood burning fire, the comforting tastes of the Turkish coffee, slatko (fruit preserves) and šljivovica (plum brandy, homemade of course) she was offered caused her to sit back and sigh “This is who I am”. She knew she belonged, she no longer felt like a Gypsy.

She returned to Chicago after completing her studies abroad – in Italy, Spain and France. It was there, after obtaining her Bachelor of Arts degree that she decided to take an acting course. She studied acting at St. Nicholas Theatre Co. in Chicago with David Mamet, Steven Schachter, and W.H. Macy.

As strongly as she felt her connection to Kosovo, Natalija now knew she needed to pursue acting, she had no other choice – it was her. She eventually moved to New York, where she lived for about six years. She acted on Broadway with starring roles in Hurlyburly, The Ice Man Cometh, and Accomplice.

She continued to study in both New York and Los Angeles with Stella Adler and Michael Moriarty as well as Kenneth McMillan. It was Kenneth that encouraged Natalija to teach and direct. Today she teaches graduate and undergraduate film directing students at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and at the AFI (American Film Institute) Conservatory in Los Angeles.

In addition to acting and teaching Natalija is also a director, producer, and playwright. She wrote and directed a short documentary Corporal Jake, about her grandfather, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

It was through acting that Natalija became a writer. She always writes a background biography for each character biography. And there have been many as her acting career includes roles in over 30 films such as Phil Spector, Hoffa,Christmas Vacation, and Postcards From the Edge.

The list of her television credits covers just about every network and major cable company from ABC to Fox and Disney to HBO. She is perhaps most recognized for her recurring role as Admiral Alynna Nechayev on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. She even wrote a biography for her role as Paulina, a cleaning woman in an episode of Two Broke Girls that was to air the night after our book event.

Natalija told us that she always knew she would write a story about a young immigrant woman from Kosovo. She never quite knew what that story would be, only that the woman would be her contemporary and come from her mother’s village to New York. She would have one foot in each country-at home in both, tom as to where she truly belonged.

Natalija and Jelitsa on farm 1997

Natalija at the family home with Teta Jelitsa 1997

Natalija had spent a month in Paciki village with her aunt, Teta Jelitsa, in 1988. That was when her fictional Yelena started to come to life. Natalija began making notes on her always-at-hand index cards. Yelena’s life was taking shape: she had face and form, a family, duties on the family’s land, a place among her fellow villagers, and a bond with her church. She was a Gypsy to those in New York. She had life.

War broke out in Kosovo just a few years after that visit. Natalija followed the news closely. She soon realized that what was being reported in the U.S. media was very one-sided. Even the initial reports of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 were falsely attributed to Serbians.

With her knowledge of Serbian and Italian, she began to read the Italian newspapers and listen to Serbian radio out of Kosovo. Natalija looked for unbiased reporting in every language she spoke. From as many sources as she could find, she collected articles and newspaper clippings about Kosovo for several years. She would gather firsthand accounts from communicating with her family in Paciki whenever possible.

She read about the peace negotiations held at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, in late 1995. As a result of the Peace Accord, elections were held in Bosnia in September of 1996 under NATO supervision. A cabinet was then appointed in January, 1997, by Bosnia’s newly elected, multi-ethnic parliament. While there was still dissent between and within the various groups of the region at that time, NATO forces were in place to help maintain the peace. Their withdrawal was scheduled for June of 1998.

Sveti Bogarodica 1997 In the summer of 1997, Natalija decided to return to Paciki herself. While the effects of war were visible, she was relieved to see that her village remained as she had left it. The house her grandfather had built still stood strong. The local church, Sveta Bogorodica (Holy Mother of God), with frescoes dating back to 1489, was still there, and its little window in the choir loft continued to frame the beautiful countryside.

Life continued much as it had before. Natalija once again helped her Teta milk Natalija 1997 milking the cowsthe cows. They would pick plums together, some finding their way into homemade sljivovica. The familiar aromas and tastes had not changed: the wood burning stove, Turkish coffee, slatko, and sljivovica.

Natalija had been bringing Yelena, the central character of One Woman’s War, to life for some time now. This visit really inspired her to create many of the colorful characters that would round out Yelena’ s life in the Shar Mountain village.

In addition to the beautiful and straightforward Yelena, there were her friends: Zorka, voluptuous, big-hearted, and prone to early coffee breaks (or perhaps “just a little sljivo”); Miriana, the chubby mother of four, the eternally happy optimist; and Yelena’s best friend, Zima, raised in the Islamic faith by her Albanian Muslim father, her mother a local Serbian.

There was Yelena’s Aunt Sofia with whom she and her son lived. Aunt Sofia is compassion and love and, like most mountain women, a hard worker who never complains. Aunt Sofia was modeled very closely on Natalija’s own beloved Teta Jelitsa.

Sveti Bogarodica 1997 interiorThe joy Natalija herself felt upon seeing the church of Sveta Bogorodica, standing as it always had, confirmed that it too would play a role in her ultimate story. Therefore a priest was also required: Father Voyn was created. He would be the epitome of what we all want our priest to be: dedicated, steadfast, spiritual, yet very much connected to the real world.

Natalija observed that Muslims and Serbians still lived and worked side by side. Her cousin was married to an Albanian Muslim. The local school had both Orthodox and Muslim Bosnian refugees that summer. Everyone got along and mixed together. It was mješano, or mixed.

Of course, that would soon all change. War erupted once again, only this time it was much worse. The U.S. dropped bombs on Serbia. The rhetoric had escalated, and world opinion had cast the Serbs as the sole protagonists.

The war was declared to have ended in 1999-after central Belgrade had been bombed, after a NATO “mishap” of three missiles struck a residential mining town. The Kosovar Muslims saw this as a victory and took power in the Sar Mountains.

That same year, at age 85, Teta Jelitsa answered a knock on her door. It was a group of Muslim men. “You have 20 minutes to leave this place. Set your animals free and go” was all they said.

Teta Jelitsa moved to Krusevac, Serbia, with her son and his family. She died soon after. The house and land that had always belonged to the Mandusich family were now gone. There was no one to appeal to. Laws of ownership, laws of order no longer seemed to apply to the Serbs of the region. No one ever moved into the Mandusich house. It was ransacked and left to rot.

Just a year after Teta Jelitsa’s cruel eviction, in the year 2000, Natalija was rehearsing for a reading of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall at L.A. Theater Works. This is when she discovered what Yelena’s story must be. It came to her during a dinner break with her fellow actors.

“We were all sitting around the same table: eating, chatting, catching up on the news,” Natalija remembers. Suddenly an actress, who had been reading the New York Times, declared out loud, “Those Serbs must be terrible people!”

Natalija recalls that, in the time of one deep breath, she ran all the optional responses through her head. She then, slowly and clearly, stated to all present, “I am one of those terrible Serbs.”

The whole theater went silent-not even the caterers made a sound. It was as if everyone had been touched in a child’s game of tag and was required to freeze in that moment, some holding-their sandwiches in mid-air, unsure if they should take a bite or set them down. All were waiting to hear what would come next.

“Now, let me tell you the history of Kosovo,” Natalija began with the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, fought on St. Vitus Day, or Vidovdan, against the Ottoman Turks. “This is where one must begin in order to understand what Kosovo means to the Serbs,” she said.

She shared the history of World War II-who had been allies and who had sided with Nazi Germany. She shared the history of Tito’s Yugoslavia and how ethnic Albanians had been relocated to Kosovo to dissipate the Serbian population, thus protecting his position from any coup attempts. She shared points of view not found in the U.S. news coverage.

Sveti Bogarodica 1997 Yelena's Window

The window inside Sveta Bogorodica became “Yelena’s window” in One Woman’s War

She then went on to tell her own family’s history. Of her own travels to beautiful Paciki village. They learned about the real lives of the real people of Kosovo: the Serbians and Muslims. She ended with Teta Jelitsa’s eviction-and her own realization that she would never go back to that mountain village-her Paciki no longer existed.

Everyone was dumbstruck. How little they truly knew about the situation there! They all had to admit that a civil war is never one-sided: one side does not commit all the atrocities alone while the other is peacefully planting daisies. Civil wars are ugly. Neighbors kill neighbors. Brothers kill brothers.

It was at that moment that Natalija knew that her Yelena would come from this war-torn Kosovo. .She knew that, through her Yelena, she could tell people about the Kosovo that her family came from, about the Kosovo she knew from her many visits with Teta Jelitsa. She now knew the story that her Yelena was meant to tell. Her story needed to be personal, not a broad history of the Balkan wars of the 1990′ , but the story of One
Woman’s War.

Sveti Bogarodica 1997 interiorAfter that she would carry not only her ever-present index cards of character biographies, but also her Kosovo notebook. The three-ring binder that kept her focused on the book that was to be written, the three-ring binder that inspired her. That binder contained her Kosovo. It held maps of the region and photos: photos of her mother as a teen in Paciki; of Teta Jelitsa in front of the Mandusich house that her own grandfather had built; of Sveta Bogorodica with its frescoes and Yelena’s window; of her parents; and of her many trips to the Sar Mountains. It contained her book that was yet to be written.

Of course, she still had questions: what would compel Yelena to leave her village prior to 1999, and what would compel her to return? Although Yelena was fictional, as is her story, Natalija wanted it to feel real to all who read it.

Once Natalija had answered those questions, she was left with how to end this woman’s war. She wanted the ending to be “inevitable but unpredictable.” She relied on Father Voyn to provide the voice of forgiveness. But whose voice would Yelena yield to?

Our hostess Sylvia asked, ”The book is so visual. Do you have plans to turn it into a movie?” With her background as an actress, director, and writer, the answer was “Yes”-provided that she retains control over the story. She will not allow the story to be rewritten the way the war itself had been.

Our other hostess Anita was interested in a sequel. We were all pleased to learn that Natalija has completed the outline for one, but as she continues to work as an actress and teacher and is busy promoting this book, she has not set any deadlines for its completion.

By the end of our day with Natalija, we understood how she utilizes all of her skills as an author. First, the director in her outlines the story. Then the artist in her paints the location with vivid details. The teacher does the research to provide an accurate context. The actress then gives voice to each character and how he or she interacts with the others.

Natalija says she envisions the location, and then the sounds all come from there. Each character has his or her own biography, written completely and separately from the story, so that when they speak, they speak with their own unique voices.

Natalija’s closing words on being an author: “Writing is easy. You just sit down, open your veins, and write.”

~~~~~~~~
Click: One Woman’s War to order the book or Natlija Nogulich to view Natalija’s website.
(The photos used in this article were in Natalija’s “Kosovo Binder” that she carried for inspiration while writing One Woman’s War. The map is copyrighted by SerbWorldUSA. All photos and map are copyrighted and cannot be used without permission).

Remembering Our Past Through Celebrations at LA’s St. Sava & Jackson’s Summer Camp

This article was published in the July/August 2011 issue and is posted here with  permission from Serb World USA.  Order a copy of the magazine to also view the companion piece “Everything Old is New Again” by Nadine Radovich and Anita Sabovich Rowe.  Related postings: “Sophia Ducich & Serbian Sisters Bake Sales”, and “The Potluckers”. (Click on photos below for a larger view.)

“Remembering Our Past. .. We Build Our Future” is a motto of the St. Sava Mission in Jackson, California, and this spring on Memorial Day weekend, the organization’s summer camp program fulfilled those words when it celebrated its 50th anniversary.

For me, that celebration capped off a year with two important anniversaries, beginning last fall with the centennial celebration of St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Los Angeles. Both the church’s centennial and the summer camp’s golden anniversary made me realize how true the motto is.

In order to celebrate these anniversaries, or any anniversary, it is important to understand what came before. Nothing really begins on the anniversary date:  graduation is preceded by years of classes and learning; marriage by courtship; and institutions by many meetings.

Each of these starts with an idea followed by people coming together to achieve a common goal. And, as with all things worthy of an anniversary celebration, that idea is formed with a better future in mind. Today, we all share in that future the founders had envisioned.

I am proud to say that my grandfather, Jovo Kujundzich, was one of a group of Serbs-with Todor Colich, Risto Kilibarda, Todor Batinich, Danilo Dakovich, and Todor Polich-who, in the early 1900’s, pioneered the organizing of St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Los Angeles. The members of Los Angeles’ Serbian United Benevolent Society “Jedinstvo” granted the parish permission to build a church on the society’s land, and in 1910, Father Sebastian Dabovich came to Los Angeles to consecrate that new church.

Almost fifty years later, in 1956, land in nearby San Gabriel was donated by Charles Barzut, a member of St. Sava parish. A new and larger hall was built and completed in 1963. It was the last building blessed by Bishop Dionisije before the schism that divided the church and its people for many years.

Dan & Desa Pavich with Gloria

Another thirty years after that, under the direction of Father Petar Jovanovic, a committee was formed to construct a new St. Sava Church in San Gabriel adjacent to the hall. My uncles – Petar Kujundzich, who served as chairman, and George Gustovich- were on the construction committee along with Father Petar, John Pecel, William Radulovich, Nick Kavic, Stanley Vukoje, Nick Pekovich, Mike Perko, and Daniel Pavich. In 1984, after just three years, we were celebrating the completion of the new church.

As I celebrated the centennial of the church last fall (October 2010) with the hundreds of other children and grandchildren of the parish’s old families, my friends and I shared our memories of growing up at St. Sava’s. Mine were of my first kola lessons taught by Lani Padadol at the old Jedinstvo hall, of being a flower girl at my Tete Anne Kujundzich’s wedding to Uncle George Gustovich, and of the sodas kept in buckets of ice at the pavilion after church.

Despite the fabulous music at the centennial, we only danced one kolo that fine Sunday in San Gabriel. And what a kolo it was!

It started, as kolos often do, with two friends joining hands. Then another and another joined in. In all, there were several hundred of us. It lasted nearly thirty minutes, and we felt it ended too soon.

Just one line, all joined together, no one wanting to start another, everyone feeling connected to one another, to the past and the present. It was joyous.

What had started as an idea among friends became the community I was now celebrating. But 100 years ago and the founding of the church all seemed so long ago to me. How could I truly understand what it was like for those visionary immigrants? Most of them came to this unfamiliar country unable to speak the language. All were young, and many were alone-without parents, siblings, or wives. My grandfather was one of them, just 21 years old when they began construction of the church.

Then I received the notice for the 50th anniversary and reunion of St. Sava Mission’s first summer camp in Jackson, California. Now, the Jackson Camp Reunion was another matter. Not only could I relate to it, but I was there that first year of camp. I witnessed much of this story and know many of its players.

Of course, camp did not just begin in 1961 with all of us campers showing up in Jackson on one fine summer day. The idea and planning began long before with the coming together of many great minds.

I remember well the “store” that Sophia Ducich – all of us kids called her “Baba Sophia”- would open after lunch at camp. There were some religious items; scarves; trinkets; and, most importantly, postcards and stamps. So, I am sending you postcards and letters from Jackson as I imagine they might have been written.

While the words are mine, the content and the people are all real: many anecdotes were shared with me at the reunion held over Memorial Weekend in 2011; others are from stories repeated over the years.

Ned “Nedjo” Vukovich was already a prominent business man in Jackson, even though he was just 30 years old in 1960. He and his young family had a house on Main Street, only two blocks from St. Sava Church. He was a lifelong resident of Jackson. The son of a miner, Ned attended the University of Southern California (USC) on a football scholarship.

He loved Jackson and returned after college and serving in the U.S. Army. He began a successful insurance business in 1951, also on Main Street. Today his grandson, Beau Gillman, owns an insurance agency in that same building on Main Street.

Ned was soon the youngest district manager in Farmers Insurance with eight counties under his direction. He was active in several more business ventures, service clubs, and civic volunteer duties over his lifetime. He received many awards and recognitions, including having a street named for him in his beloved Jackson. He passed away at his home in Jackson in 2005, and true to his word, paperwork related to the St. Sava Mission was spread over his desk.

The lady to whom he wrote, Sophia Ducich, was also a legend at St. Sava Mission, but her roots were in Butte, Montana. When Sophia’s children were nearly grown, she began to get involved with the Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church in Butte. In 1934, she was one of the founders of Butte’s Serbian Sisters Circle “Holy Trinity.” Her dedication to her church and the Kola Srpskih Sestara (KSS) would last the rest of her life.

In 1950, Sophia moved to Fresno, California, to be closer to her daughter, Ruby, and son-in-law, Leonard Land. She quickly became active in the local Serbian community during the founding of the Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Peter the Apostle, begun in 1951 and consecrated in 1957. Sophia also continued to work with the Kolo Sestara, becoming vice president of the American Federation of Serbian Sisters Circles in 1956. Three years later she was elected President of the Western Region of KSS. She held that position from 1959 through 1966.

Talk began in 1957 about a Serbian summer camp in the West when a meeting in Fresno was conducted by Sophia Ducich. In attendance were Kolo Sestara leaders from the Midwest-Mary Stepanovich, Sally Ranich, and Olga Parnisari-along with seventeen “California Sisters.”

The children’s summer camps in Libertyville, Illinois, and Shadeland, Pennsylvania,  were well established. The first had opened in 1942, the second in 1953, and after 1945, they were run by the American Federation of Circles of Serbian Sisters. The purpose of the Fresno meeting was to introduce the California sisters to the work of the federation which had been established in 1945 with its primary mission “to help the Diocese and Monastery conduct and maintain the summer camps (Libertyville and Shadeland).”

The idea quickly took hold. The first fundraiser for a Western Region camp was held in 1958 in Alhambra, California, even though a location had not yet been chosen.

Many sites-from San Francisco to San Diego-were considered for the Western Region’s Serbian Camp for Children. But Jackson-with its revered Serbian history coupled with Ned Vukovich and the Jackson delegation’s unbridled enthusiasm and determination and with its affordable land-won the debate. In addition, the large amount in pledges they raised helped sway the final vote, and they continued to raise money from contributors across the Western States.

In 1961, 173 acres of land were purchased. Another motto of the St. Sava Mission states it best, “We build not for ourselves alone … But for the generations that will follow us.”

At that time, Sophia Ducich decided it would be advantageous for her to live in Jackson during the building of the new summer camp and mission. Ned arranged for her to live in the house next door to his own which had been his parents’ home. His mother had recently moved into a smaller place. At just the right time, the house was available for rent, and for Sophia, the location was perfect–close to the Serbian church and to downtown.

The large, old Victorian house had plenty of room to house visiting board members. Father Pavlovich’s wife, Protinica Angeline Pavlovich, kept a room there, and the many meetings, which were required to establish the camp, were also held at Sophia’s.

Sophia soon made the move permanent, and she lived in Jackson for more than 30 years. Eventually, she moved back to Fresno to be near her daughter Ruby once again, and there she passed away at the age of 96.

In the early 1950’s, Protinica Angeline Pavlovich-a native of Akron, Ohio-had been called upon by her husband, the parish priest Proto Boro Pavlovich, to help establish a children’s summer camp at Shadeland, Pennsylvania. After all, she already had experience working at the summer camp in Libertyville, Illinois, in the 1940’s, and he knew firsthand of her never ending enthusiasm and skills.

Until Protinica Angeline gained the support of philanthropist Andja “Angie” Polich of San Marino, California, the funds for Shadeland came from modest donations by retirees and displaced persons who lived on the property and gave what little they had. Protinica Angeline and Andja Polich made a dynamic pair: they both had great organizational skills and the ability to bring others into whatever projects they were working on. Soon, Shadeland summer camp was up and running.

Andja Polich was not only a generous benefactress, but she also gave her time and energy to the Serbian Orthodox Church and its children. She felt it was her calling to do so and remained active with the Serbian Sisters’ federation from 1953 at Shadeland through serving as president of the federation from 1960 until her death in 1970.

Andja was introduced to civic and church responsibilities from an early age, perhaps learned from her father, Mihailo Budincich, who was on the first committee to build a church in Los Angeles in 1909. Long before her involvement with the KSS began in 1953, she was a member of local charities and civic groups, most notably the Serbian Women’s Club of Los Angeles and the Parent Teachers Association (PTA).  She often served as president, for she was a “natural born leader,” according to her family.

As president of Los Angeles’ 42nd Street School’s PTA, she was in charge of a fundraiser to buy a grand piano. She recruited several Serbian women to help make stuffed cabbage, and each sarma was sold for 25¢: the 42nd Street School got a grand piano.

Married to Todor Polich-a prominent leader of Los Angeles’ Serbian community, a pioneering member of St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church, and later, a member of the first Board of Trustees for St. Steven Serbian Orthodox Church-Andja devoted herself to her work. She and Todor made a formidable pair. They were able to travel to many of our churches and communities where they raised funds to be added to their own generous donations. Andja especially enjoyed supporting various choirs, folklore groups, and any other project related to children and their education.

In addition, Andja formed another club in Los Angeles. This one was of a social nature, but one that also raised money for various charities. It was called The Potluckers and began in 1955 with women who were members of Los Angeles’ two Serbian Orthodox churches at that time, either St. Sava’s or St. Steven’s. So, with Andja as President of KSS, and with the Western Region organizing the St. Sava Mission in Jackson, it should come as no surprise that Mrs. Polich would ask her Potlucker ladies to get involved.

As most of The Potluckers had children who would likely be attending the camp, they were more than willing to support the St. Sava Mission. Several held positions on the board of directors for the summer camp, including my mother, Gloria, Camp Treasurer; Evelyn “Evie” Mulkovich, Secretary; and Helen Vico, Senior Counselor.

The Potluckers held a fundraiser with an “Old West” theme, fitting for Jackson’s location in the heart of California’s Gold Rush Country. Serbs from both of Los Angeles’  churches were in attendance, and everyone dressed in costume. Not only did they all have a great time, but they gave generously. The enthusiasm at the event carried over to enthusiasm for the camp as many in attendance also volunteered to help set up the camp and enrolled their children as campers. After all was tallied, they were able to make a nice donation and buy all the necessary blankets for the children’s beds.

That first year, much work was yet required to get ready for the first campers. Camp was scheduled to begin in the summer of 1961 even though there were no completed buildings on the newly acquired land. It was decided that St. Sava’s church hall could be converted to accommodate our needs.

Mostly just in their 30’s, the young mothers and fathers, and even some grandparents of future campers, heeded the call and arrived by the carload ready to work.

I recall a caravan up old Highway 99 from Los Angeles and the kids often changing cars to ride with their friends at each stop along the way. A favorite stop was to buy fresh cherries at roadside stands in California’s rich fruit-growing valleys.

Once in Jackson, some stayed with families they knew in the area, others at motels,  and some rented homes. One large house, the one on Peek and Schober streets, was my home that first time in Jackson, and I remember that everyone was given a job to do, including the future campers.

”The Muumuu Girls” was the nickname given to the Los Angeles women who, along with their children and Father Mrvichin, rented the old house that first summer. It was located on the comer of Peek and Schober streets and is still referred to as “The Peek and Schober House” by those who were in Jackson that year.

As Jackson can be quite hot in the summer, the women often wore Hawaiian muumuu dresses. Referred to as ”The Muumuu Girls,” they were Gloria Kunzich, Dee Lubanko, Evie Mulkovich, Bessie Mrvichin, Pat Sabovich, Millie Pecel, and Helen Vico. The children of ”The Peek and Schober House” were Meg and Paula Kunzich; Bobby Lubanko; Nikki Mulkovich; George, Mitchell, and Xenia Mrvichin; Anita Sabovich; Marlene, Bobby, and John “Peppy” Pecel; and Sindi and Steve Vico.

There were only three bedrooms in the Peek and Schober house. I remembered the girls had one, the boys another, and Father and Popadija Mrvichin had the third. When I asked Helen Vico where the mothers slept she replied, “Everywhere and anywhere. Only the kitchen and dining room were free of beds and bedrolls.”

Every morning we were awakened by Evie Mulkovich singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” To this day, whenever I hear that song, I think of her, and whenever I think of her, I hear her voice singing it. Eli Mulkovich, Sr., and Eli, Jr., would often join us during that summer. Eli, Jr., found space in the boys’ room, and somehow a fourth bedroom was created for Evie and Eli, Sr., under the eaves of the old house.

We all remember that my father, Milan Kunzich, and George Vico each spent a lot of time helping in Jackson, but we just can’t remember where it was that they stayed.

We kept the house the whole summer, from camp setup to closing. Meals would often be cooked at the Peek and Schober house and transported by pickup truck to the church hall—especially when setting up the dormitories.

The Muumuu Girls were always laughing and creating fun in the midst of all their hard work, and for that reason, people would often stop by the house. Many to this day remember having stayed there (even when they had not) because the stories are now legends.

Helen Vico recalls that her son, Stevie, and John “Peppy” Pecel – each around 8 years old – were asked to be altar boys for the Sunday service. During the middle of the liturgy, they noticed that the icon that the parishioners would be kissing at the end of church looked like it was in need of cleaning.

Having witnessed their mothers constantly cleaning in preparation for camp, they decided to pitch in. They quickly ran next door to the kitchen where they were sure to find what they needed. Helen’s mother, Stane Miletich, was helping prepare food for everyone, and she saw the boys were in a great rush. Without question, she accommodated their request for cleaning supplies. To the dismay of some, the boys cleaned the icon during service. At the end, it was sparkling for all to kiss!

The St. Sava church hall in Jackson has two stories. Upstairs there is a large dining area and stage. Downstairs is a smaller hall and kitchen. For that first summer camp, it was decided that the upstairs could be divided into two areas: a boys’ dormitory and a girls’ dormitory. At one end slept Father Mrvichin, and at the other, a “Dorm Mother,” Virginia Stefanovich for the first week.

There were restrooms, but no showers, so the men built temporary outdoor showers. The kitchen and smaller hall downstairs would serve both for meals and classes. St. Sava Church was adjacent for twice daily services, and of course, because it was summer in Jackson, many activities took place outside, including kolos.

Fortunately there were a few people with previous “camp experience.” Sophia Ducich and Andja Polich, through their roles with KSS, knew about the management required to run a camp. Protinica Angeline Pavlovich had hands-on experience at both Serbian summer camps in Libertyville and Shadeland.

Protinica Pavlovich, Millie Dabovich, Gloria Kunzich, Gilbert Popovich

Protinica Angeline was named the first “Western Camp Chairman.” Her husband, Proto Borivoj Pavlovich, served as the first camp priest. Millie (nee Legino) Pecel had been a Junior Counselor at Libertyville in the 1940’s, and she was often asked how it was done there. Her reply would be, “I don’t know. Iwas only there one week when I was a teenager.” She would then offer suggestions based on her memories, knowing her little experience was more than others had.

Proto and Protinica Pavlovich had moved from Ohio to California in 1959, when Father Boro was appointed the parish priest in Oakland. Protinica was certainly in the right place at the right time when Jackson was selected as the location for the first Western camp. She had already proven herself to be a great organizer and leader, and she and Andja Polich had established a strong relationship dating back to Shadeland in 1953.

Andja Polich tapped another from Los Angeles, Gilbert Popovich, to be the first Camp Director and Head Counselor. She knew him to be well qualified as he was not only an enthusiastic supporter of the Serbian Church, but he was also then working with kids as the vice principal of Belvedere Elementary School. Gilbert was Camp Director for the first four years of the summer camp in Jackson, and at that time, camp ran for six weeks: the first four for youngsters, the last two for “Teen Camp.”

Jean Couglin, Gloria Kunzich, Helen Vukovich, "Gussie" Bulaich, Stane Begovich, "Bertie" Urdesich

Gilbert remembers his time as Camp Director with great fondness. Each morning began with church services, followed by the raising of the American flag and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

After those rituals, breakfast would be served-always on time!-from John Ljepava, our head chef. We kids called him ”Uncle John:’ and in fact, he had every meal ready on time: breakfast at 8:00 a.m., lunch at 12:00 noon, and dinner at 6:00 p.m.

Mealtime was when Gilbert would make camp announcements. He would ring a cowbell to silence the room, and both adults and children would all stop to listen.

While religion remained one focus of camp, never far from mind was the day-to-day excitement of a children’s summer camp: harmless pranks and innocent summer romances.

One first-year romance led to the marriage of Mara Dabovich and Bobby Pecel many years later. Five-year-old Johnny may not have known how to “short sheet” a bed, but John Radanovich says that by the time he was in Teen Camp, he had “perfected the fine art of camp pranks.” Obviously, he was well prepared when he be-came a counselor himself.

Another pair of pranksters, who wish to remain anonymous for fear of being “expelled from camp” even 50 years after the fact, laughed at the recollection of greasing the dormitory door knobs and, then, at 3 o’clock in the morning, playing Kafu mi draga, a song that was often played at 7:30 a.m. to wake us up.

Gilbert’s memory is very kind as he remembers the campers all being very well behaved. He makes one exception: the occasions during ‘Teen Week” when the clapper on his cowbell would sometimes be taped, rendering the bell silent instead of the room.

From the beginning, camp activities included classes in religion; Serbian language;  Serbian history; music; kolos-my favorite, taught by Diki Cheyovich; and arts and crafts.There was physical education twice a day, including daily swimming instructions in the mission’s Olympic-sized pool, built in 1962. Prior to its completion the Jackson Public Pool was made available to us.

Late afternoons were dedicated to rehearsals for the weekly talent show every Friday night when the public was invited. Not only did some of our parents come, but many locals also attended. Even non-Serbs were already well acquainted with the Serbian traditions, after all St. Sava’s was built in 1894, and Serbs were a social and political force in the area. Many especially enjoyed Jackson’s Serbian Christmas open houses and the tradition of firing guns into the air to proclaim the arrival of the holiday. In  addition, Protinica Pavlovich, Baba Sophia, and Ned Vukovich had visited the local residents and businesses to tell them about our camp and invite them to our Talent Show.

We played music, sang, danced kolos, and performed skits in Serbian-all to proudly display our Serbian heritage and what we had learned in camp. I must confess I never learned the language, but I was able to memorize my few lines for a skit. Not understanding the Serbian language did not impede our audiences’ generous applause for each one of us.

Everyone recalls the first talent show when Mara Dabovich sang for the first time. The room fell silent to better hear this beautiful young girl with a voice to match sing Harbor Lights and the then-popular song Alley Oop.

Of course, there were also field trips. Gilbert Popovich says he would plan at least one field trip a week during the years he spent as camp director. Some were to the nearby Gold Rush towns like Volcano with its sweet shop featuring “Volcano Sundaes” or sarsaparilla drinks; Angels Camp with its St. Basil of Ostrog Serbian Orthodox Church; or Columbia, a town preserved just as it was in the 1850’s. Other places we went during Gilbert’s tenure included the Kennedy Tailing Mines, the Jackson Museum, the State Capitol in Sacramento, and Big Trees State Park. I remember going to the Mokelumne River for a picnic and swimming that first summer.

Sometimes we would go on a long hike into town, singing Marsirala; marsirala Kralja Petra garda the whole way. Although the mission’s camp was not far from town, Gilbert would nonetheless create a path that took us through the rolling hills and grand oak trees, over a “monkey bridge” high above the creek (at least it was high to me).

Protinica Pavlovich had taught us Marsirala. She would bang out the rhythm on the  piano while we learned the lyrics and how to march in a straight line to the beat of the music. Our walks into town would always be rewarded with a stop at Sophie’s Old  Fashion Ice Cream Shop before taking a more direct route back to camp.

For the more distant field trips, we campers would pile into the back of a pick-up truck, not really caring where we went: the coming and going was always such fun. We’d sing the whole time—- favorites included the Serbian Marsirala and Tamo daleko with the old Irish-American “Harrigan” song. Sung at the top of our lungs with the lyrics changed to:

S-e-r-b-i-a-n spells Serbian, SERBIAN!
Proud of all the Serbian blood that’s in me, in me!
Divil ‘a man can say a word agin’ me, agin’ me.
S-e-r-b-i-a-n you see.
It’s a race that shame never has been connected with:
SERBIAN, that’s ME!
(Were any of you former campers singing along?)

My mother really didn’t need to worry: in addition to Proto’s prayers, there were always camp counselors watching the younger kids and adult volunteers, in turn, watching them. Many of the counselors during the first four weeks would then become campers for the final two weeks at Teen Camp.

Marlene Pecel, was my first Junior Counselor. She was the first of many to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Through the camp’s fifty years, many campers went on to become Junior Counselors, then Counselors. Counselors became teachers and adult volunteers.

This was never more evident than at the reunion. As first-year campers, Dawn Salata and Danica Milosevich were among the event organizers, along with Dawn’s daughter Kristina Pavlovich, also a former camper and current counselor. Dawn’s mother, Dorothy Salata, had been a volunteer from the beginning and was Camp Secretary for over 20 years starting in 1964. Danica  recalled being a camper every year until she was old enough to become a counselor. Today, she continues to volunteer at camp every summer.

While many of the campers’ mothers were volunteering at the camp with the kids, many of their fathers were helping with construction of our new camp grounds. Some came up on the weekends-in time for the Talent Show-to help; others took vacation time and stayed a week or two.

There were buildings to be built: dormitories, a chapel, a kitchen, a hall, bathrooms, and a swimming pool. But first, the land had to be prepared: pipes for plumbing to be laid, connection to the city’s power supply, a road … in short, everything!

As September of 1961 approached, all the campers were back home. Camp was now a memory and likely the subject of many a “How I spent my summer vacation” essay. However, the construction work and planning for the following summer continued.

Fortunately, there were many Serbs in the construction industry, and they gave greatly. Donations came in the form of money, equipment, supplies, manpower, and know-how. Among them were: Todor Polich; Luka Pecel; Dan Prodanovich; Bob Kosach; Sam Martinovich, Sr.; and the Joel Radjenovich Company. As generous as they all were, more was needed- much more.

Archimandrite Irinej Kovacevich, as the newly appointed administrator of St.

Gilbert's Tree Donation Campaign

Sava Mission, and Ned Vukovich, as the Building Committee Chairman, made four long trips during 1962 to seventeen Western states and British Columbia. Their slogan was “Give a Little of Today… For Tomorrow.”

They traveled back roads, dirt roads, and highways. They shared coffee with fellow Serbs in their modest kitchens or fine dining rooms-all at their own expense for they wanted every dollar donated to go towards the building of the Mission.

They shared stories of the success of the first year of camp and the vision of what the Mission would be in the future: a summer camp that could accommodate 90 children each week and a senior citizens’ home for the aged and infirm with various social, religious, and educational activities.

Using a plan developed by the University of California, Berkeley marketing students for Father Irinej, they recruited members in every parish in the West. Each member would visit with ten others in the area, share camp brochures, and solicit donations.

The Los Angeles fund-raising committee was headed by my father, Milan Kunzich, and Pete Salata. The other committee members working through the Los Angeles regional office were Sam Maletich, Luka Milosevich, Evelyn Mulkovich, Dan Pavich, Helen Rafaelovich, Pat Sabovich, Steve Stefanovich, Mary Stipo, Betty Stipo, Nick Stipo, and Pete Zotovich.

Donations and pledges came pouring in. Donations, large and small, added up. They knew the buildings would be ready for summer camp 1962. They knew that St. Sava Mission would be the center so many had envisioned.

On May 21st, 1962, St. Sava Mission Corporation was incorporated in the state of California as an independent non-profit organization. The Articles of Incorporation were signed by the members of its first Board of Directors: Rt. Rev. Bishop Dionisije, Libertyville, lllinois; Theodore P. Polich, San Marino, California; V.Rev. Vladimir M. Mrvichin, Alhambra, California; Luka Peeel, Shennan Oaks, California; Obren Cuckovich, Oakland, California; Sam Bogdanovich, Fresno, California; V. Rev. Borivoj Pavlovich, Oakland, California; and, V. Rev. Jrinej Kovacevich, Jackson, California.

The second year of camp opened on schedule in July of 1962 with the dedication of the newly completed administration building and one dormitory, leaving the seeond dormitory and the Olympic sized pool for completion in August. Todor Polich was the sponsor, or kum, for the Mission, Andja Polich was kuma for one of the dormitories, and Luka Pecel was kum for the other.

Then and now, the purpose of St. Sava Mission is “to preserve and promote the educational, charitable, cultural, and other institutions of people of Serbian heritage. To promote and maintain activities commensurate and consistent with the ideals and teachings of our Serbian heritage.”

At both the centennial of St. Sava’s of Los Angeles and the 50th anniversary of Jackson’s St. Sava Summer Camp, we remembered the past, we rejoiced in the present, and we hoped for the future. For me, the kolos at each event reflected that: both the single connected line at St. Sava’s l00th anniversary with people of all ages honoring our past and the multiple lines at Jackson’s 50th reunion, each line a reflection of our time at camp.

As we joined kolos next to fellow “camp mates”-there were campers from throughout the summer camp’s 50-year history, each filled with joy at being there and being together. One of the lines that captured everyone’s attention was that of just 3 or 4 girls, each less than 10 years old. They were doing the dances they had learned at their first camp-last year!

Danica Milosevich, Dawn Salata, Paula Kunzich, Lana Vukovich, John Radanovich, Angie Martinovich, Anita Sabovich, Millie Chuck, Jeffrey Jaksich

And finally, my own postcard …

Authors Note:  Special thanks to those who shared their stories-especially Helen Vico, Gloria Kunzich, and Gilbert Popovich. It was a pleasure to relive those fun-filled summer days with you and learn more about our history. In the great tradition of Serbian “double-dipping” through our holidays on two calendars, if you missed the 50th Camp Reunion this year, you can attend the 50th Anniversary of the Mission 1962-2012 next year.

Priganice: One Family’s Story, “We’re Lucky We Have Each Other”

This is the third in a series about “The Serbian Cooking Show” initiated in the May/June 2010 issue of Serb World USA. This installment was published in the September/October 2010 issue and is posted here with permission from Serb World USA.

Note:  “Baba” in Serbian translates to “Grandmother”, and “Djedo” is “Grandfather”

For those not familiar with the delightful pastries named priganice, they were described at the Junior Potluckers’ “Serbian Cooking Show” as: “Deep-fried dessert from another era when our Babas and Moms had time to have them rise on the stove and fry them up for visitors.”

At the cooking show, making priganice was demonstrated by sisters Veronica and Georgia Polich. Theirs was the third and final demonstration, and as a special treat, the sisters brought their heirloom “priganice pot,” now serving its third generation.

True to the Potluckers’ description, the Polich sisters’ recipe is from another era. They learned to make priganice from their mother, Jovanka “Jean” Polich, who learned it from her mother, Cvijeta Vukoje.

Veronica is certain that the recipe comes from her babas family because she says of her grandfather, Djedo hardly knew where the kitchen was, except to eat.” About the recipe, she adds, ”We’re lucky we have it.”

 

Priganice!” Just saying the name makes me smile. Appropriately it is Jean (nee Vukoje) Polich’s smile that first comes to mind when she is remembered by her fellow-Potluckers. It is the same warm and welcoming smile that her daughters, Veronica and Georgia, share as, I am told, did Jean’s mother, Cvijeta.

This priganice story begins with the Vukojes, Djuro and Cvijeta, who were born in nearby villages in Hercegovina, he in 1887 and she in 1889. But they met and married in Los Angeles at St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church.

Djuro arrived in the United States in 1906. Cvijeta and her brother, Lazar Kisic, came around 1910. The story is that when Cvijeta arrived at Ellis Island, she was asked what her name meant. The interpreter said, “Flower,” and her name was recorded as ”Flora Kissich.”

Djuro and Cvijeta Vukoje raised six children-George, Stan, Mike, Vlado, Mildred, and Jovanka-in a downtown Los Angeles neighborhood that boasted many Serbian families. Among them were Sabovich, Zotovich, and Prnjat. The corner grocery store was owned by Mike Mihich, and in the 1930’s, my grandfather, Alex Radovich, had his butcher shop inside that store. Like the Vukojes, the daughters of some of those families were original Potluckers, and their daughters are now Junior Potluckers.

Cvijeta Vukoje was known for her priganice and would often make them for events at St. Sava’s. The old church, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in October 2010, was new when Cvijeta and her brother first arrived in this country. Many recall priganice piled high like pyramids on platters along the length of the bar in Jedinstvo lodge’s social hall where the celebrations were held.

The Polich sisters smile as they fondly remember Serbian Christmases at their baba and djedo’s home. How excited they would get when the phone rang to inform them that the men, who were going house-to-house observing an old Serbian custom, would be stopping there next!  Of course, they were well prepared with plates of pastriespriganice and rostuleand nut roll-povitica-among the many dishes ready to welcome their guests.

Although the tradition of “making the rounds” on Serbian Christmas is no longer practiced in Los Angeles, the Polich sisters-Veronica, Georgia, JoAnn, and Virginia-along with their daughters make those same Christmas treats every year. Only one sister is married to a Serb, but they all share the traditional foods, serving them alongside the newer items added to their annual celebrations by succeeding generations.

Although Veronica and Georgia’s mother was a native Los Angelina, their father, John Polich, was born in Hibbing, Minnesota. In 1935, he came to California to attend Loyola University on an athletic scholarship. While he excelled in both football and ice hockey-his scholarship was for both sports-it was ice hockey that would change his life.

While we in Los Angeles especially enjoy football and all sports that take place outdoors, in the 1930’s Loyola’s ice hockey games were sold out, especially when they played against the University of Southern California (USC). As fate would have it, Jean Vukoje attended one of those games.

She was there with her girlfriend who was dating one of the Loyola players. Because the girls were still in high school, the only way her friend was allowed to attend was if Jean accompanied her.

After one of the games, John Polich asked his friend to introduce him to Jean. In May of 1940, Jean Vukoje and John Polich were married.

Also in 1940, the outstanding young athlete from Hibbing was named to the U.S.A. Winter Olympic Ice Hockey Team. Those games were to be held in Sapporo, Japan, but sadly, the Olympics were canceled that year due to the outbreak of World War II in Europe.

As a result, John Polich, the recent college graduate, decided to give up his amateur status. He chose hockey over football although he had received many offers to play professional football. John went to play professional ice hockey for the New York Rangers.

Two years later, when John and Jean were starting a family, Jean urged him to move back to Southern California where she wanted to raise their children close to her family. John liked the idea and admitted he, too, missed the California sunshine.

They returned to Los Angeles in 1942 when he was offered the position of player-coach by the Los Angeles Monarchs, a team named for his high school team. John Polich remained with the Monarchs for six seasons.

After leaving professional hockey, John went on to a distinguished career of over 30 years as sports director for the Los Angeles television station KTLA. On New Year’s Day in 1947, he was the director of the first ever live telecast of the Tournament of Roses Parade.

When the young Poliches bought their first home in Los Angeles, John built a “Sports Room” at the back of the property. It became home to John’s many athletic trophies and memorabilia-and the site of many hockey parties.

Veronica and JoAnn remember their Uncle George, one of Jean’s brothers, as their father’s biggest fan. He was a frequent visitor to the “Sports Room.”

Soon after starting his career at KTLA, John built a much larger “Sports Room” -a cabin in Big Bear, California. In the community about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, the Poliches built a mountain retreat in this area known for skiing in the winter and for fishing and hiking the rest of the year.

All of John Polich’s sports-related items were moved up to Big Bear. The cabin was enjoyed by the whole family: baba, djedo, aunts, uncles, and cousins included. The girls remember their dad roasting a whole lamb on a spit outside the cabin and their djedo turning the handle to keep the lamb moving.

In the mid-1950’s, John and Jean found their dream property in Chatsworth, an area northwest of Los Angeles bordering the Santa Susana Mountains. There they built their ideal home on five acres of rural land: picture old TV Westerns like The Lone Ranger or The Virginian which were both filmed nearby.

In Chatsworth, the girls were all members of the local 4H Club and raised chickens, a goat, and sheep. They even had a horse of their own. In addition, the girls learned many traditional recipes from their mother and grandmother. They all loved visiting Baba and Djedo at their house.

Georgia remembers, “Baba was in the kitchen, ALWAYS at the stove cooking. I think my love for cooking came from my mother and baba. Of course we heard many ways to say the names of different foods and how to spell things. ‘Is it povitica or potica?’ I would ask.”

They were mesmerized watching Baba make polenta, the Serbian favorite palenta also called kacamak; with cheese. She served it to their four uncles and Djedo, and although they never thought it looked like enough food, it fed everyone.

“We learned a lot by just watching our baba cook. I never could understand why only the men sat down at the table and Baba and Mom served,” Veronica said recently.

Their mother, Jean Polich, was an original member of the Potluckers, the social club started by Andja “Angie” Polich in 1955. Naturally, I asked Veronica and Georgia the obvious question – “Was your father related in any way to Angie’s husband, Todor Polich?”

“No,” they said. “Our dad was Croatian! Mom and Angie were good friends and ‘sisters’ only as Potluckers.”

Veronica told the story of her wedding. She married Rod in 1965. He wanted the ceremony to be held at Christ the Savior Serbian Orthodox Church in Arcadia. Because Jean Polich knew few people there, she was in a bit of a panic. Angie Polich stepped in and recruited fellow- Potlucker Marie Dragovich and her sisters, Olga and Snookie Milosevich, to prepare all the food and decorations. The wedding was beautiful according to Rod and Veronica, and Todor Polich served as the master of ceremonies or stari svat at the reception.

John Polich and Todor Polich looked very much like one another according to Veronica. One day when her father was returning to the TV station, a coworker said, “John, your father is here to see you.”

John was taken by great surprise: his father had passed away many years earlier. He then saw Todor Polich. As they retold that story time and time again through their many years of friendship, they would each smile. So, the true answer to my query, I believe, is they were not related, they were family.

By 1969, the girls were each at a point in their lives when the mother-daughter relationship begins to change. Veronica and JoAnn were married. Each had two young children. Georgia was just finishing college while Virginia was just about to begin. They were developing a friendship with their mother in addition to being her daughters.

That year tragedy struck when Jean Polich and her daughters Georgia and Virginia were in a tragic car accident. Jean did not survive. The family was devastated.

One year later, Georgia and Virginia were living with their father in Chatsworth. Georgia was still recovering from the physical injuries she sustained in the accident, and they were all yet struggling to help each other through their grief.

That’s when a fire-the type that becomes national news-swept through Chatsworth. The girls had just enough time to set the horse free before fleeing just to stay ahead of the flames.

In the end, the fire had claimed 135,000 acres and 226 structures. The home that John and Jean had built was engulfed in flames before the girls reached the end of the driveway. All the treasured mementos of a full and rich life were gone.

In the rubble that was once such a joyful and loving home, Georgia made one last attempt to recover something-anything-of their mother’s. On her hands and knees and with one leg still bad from the car accident, she combed through the ashes.

To her amazement, something caught on the tool she was using: her mother’s wedding ring. It was the first time in over a year that Georgia smiled through her tears.

In trying to cope with such losses, the family became closer than ever. John Polich would push and encourage his daughters to keep moving forward, and it brought him comfort to know they were following the path on which he and Jean had placed them.

Georgia said her father’s favorite line was, “Today is your best day.” She added, “My mom imparted (a message) to me in a birthday card four days before she passed. ‘Live each day to its fullest’ is a quote that has been remembered and lived in my family. The message is on my kitchen wall, and each of my children memorized the verse for school projects.”

In the days after the accident and the fire, the four grandchildren brought everyone a sense of joy and hope that life would go on. The girls, encouraged by daily phone calls and frequent visits to Baba, would cook all the family’s favorite dishes. The familiar tastes and repetitive tasks in the kitchen brought comfort and, in time, even smiles.

Years earlier Baba Cvijeta had given Jean her favorite cast iron pot, the one she used for deep frying-and making priganice. It became Jean’s favorite pot. Soon after Veronica married, Jean gave that favorite pot to her, and during the days of recovery, making priganice in the heirloom pot became much more than preparing treats for a special occasion. The pastries truly brought comfort-and were always made in the “priganice pot.”

That very same priganice pot was brought to the Junior Potluckers “Serbian Cooking Show” by Veronica and Georgia. They both smiled while telling the history of that pot, a story now shared with all the Junior Potluckers, making all of us smile.

Their baba, Cvijeta Vukoje, enjoyed giving her recipes to all who asked. Her granddaughters follow the same philosophy, adding, “Sharing recipes is important. It keeps us in touch with our roots.”

Today, when they bring priganice to a Serbian event, someone invariably asks where the recipe came from. ‘They taste just like I remember,” they’ll add. “Of course they do,” smile the sisters in reply, “because Baba was a good friend of (fill in the blank with someone’s grandmother, mother, or aunt), and she taught her how to make them.”

Forty years have passed since the accident took their mother’s life. The warm and welcoming smiles that characterized their mother and grandmother returned to Veronica and Georgia’s faces long ago. Those smiles radiate from deep within and embrace you like a warm hug.

Maybe it’s because they survived great tragedies as young women, and then again, maybe it is their nature, but the Polich sisters seem to truly appreciate life. They cherish the everyday routines, remembering “Today is your best day” as their father would say and “Live each day to its fullest” as their mother wrote in that last birthday card.

Georgia and Veronica live in the Los Angeles area and are both active members of the Junior Potluckers. Their sisters JoAnn and Virginia live in Northern California.

Despite the miles between them, the whole family – which now numbers nine of the sisters’ children plus spouses and seventeen grandchildren – stays in close contact. “Another cook in the making,” laughs Georgia, thinking about her new granddaughter who was born in August 2010.

John Polich passed away in 2001, but his family continues to share the cabin in Big Bear that he and Jean built in the late 1940’s. It has become a bit of a museum to their father’s career: the hockey sticks, trophies, and photographs kept at the cabin were safe and far from the devastating Chatsworth fire of 1970.

John’s grandchildren and great grandchildren called him “Poppo” and associated him with butterflies due to the way he would “flutter like a butterfly” from one child to the next, always giving them love and encouragement. The butterfly image was reinforced through the Monarch hockey memorabilia kept at the cabin, and to this day, they all-including those born after John Polich passed away-point to a butterfly and call out, “Poppo! Poppo is here with us.”

“We were so blessed having had the enrichment of our Yugoslavian culture as our roots,” Georgia explained. “We have continued to raise our children with that upbringing and cultural pride.”

“My children love to make Yugoslavian dishes with me,” she said, “especially during the holidays. My mom was so patient in allowing me in the kitchen when she was making things. I’m lucky I had her to show me the way!”

Veronica added-in reference to the Junior Potluckers, but applicable to her sisters as well- “We’re lucky we have each other to sustain and support our Yugoslav heritage”

Roštule: A recipe shared from mothers to daughters to granddaughters

This is the second in a series about “The Serbian Cooking Show” initiated in the May/June 2010 issue of Serb World USA. This installment was published in the July/August 2010 issue and is posted here with permission from Serb World USA. Click here for the recipe:  Recipes by Paula ~ Roštule

Growing up I may have taken roštule for granted. They seemed so simple, so basic.  Thinly rolled sweet dough was cut and shaped and fried until golden. The delicate pastries were then sprinkled with powdered sugar. No nuts, no filling ~ just pure, light-as-air delight in your mouth.

Over the years, I have tried many different pastries that look like roštule, always seeking that childhood memory of my Baba Rosa’s roštule. I have tasted Italian crostoli, Polish kruscik, Croatian and Dalmatian hrvostule, Hungarian csoroge, and any pastry that goes by the name of “Angel Wings” or “Bow Ties.” I keep searching for that light, delicate taste, that crisp bite that melts in your mouth ~ none of them delivered.

I can’t remember my first taste of roštule. I was too young. I certainly remember my most recent: it was at the Junior Potluckers’ “Serbian Cooking Show.” The roštule that the sisters Natalie & Romilda demonstrated that day evoked all my childhood memories and filled my adult palate with wonderful flavor. How had all those other seemingly similar pastries failed? After receiving a copy of their recipe, and researching many others, the answer seems to lay in two factors: 1. Whiskey. None of the other recipes contained whiskey and 2. Montenegro. Specifically the Montenegrin coast.

While I cannot locate my baba’s recipe, I recall it was a sweet dough with whiskey. The recipe presented by Romilda and Natalie also contains whiskey. My baba came from the Montenegrin coast, specifically the Bay of Kotor. Natalie & Romilda’s family was also from the Montenegrin coast, the Pastrovic seaside community of Petrovac na mom. Now, I am sure there may be other regions of the former Yugoslavia that also make great roštule: I just have not   tasted them yet. As a proud descendant of Crna Gora, I am reluctant to consider that Montenegro may not be a major factor.

The roštule recipe that Romilda and Natalie shared at ‘The Serbian Cooking Show” is one that has been handed down in their family for countless generations ~ four of them here in the United States. The sisters learned it from their mother, Helen, who had learned it from her mother-in-law Andja, who most likely learned it from her mother, and so-on and so-on.

Andja came from Petrovac na mom on the Adriatic Sea along the coast of today’s Montenegro. In Bisbee, Arizona, she met Nikola from the selo, or village, of Rafailovici on the Budva Riviera. They were married in Bisbee in 1909. Some time around 1920, they moved to San Diego, California, with their two sons and two daughters. Another daughter was born later.

Their son, Mitchell, married Helen in 1940. Soon Helen was in the kitchen with her mother in-law learning the family recipe for roštule. Interestingly, Helen’s family came from the Cetinje region of Montenegro, which is inland and was once the capital of Montenegro. To her daughters’ knowledge, Helen did not know how to make roštule prior to her marriage. However, she soon became an expert. In turn, Helen taught her daughters Romilda and Natalie, to make these delightful pastries. Not only are they family favorites, but they are integral to special occasions: at the Christmas table for Boiic; for the daca, the meal following a funeral; and for slava, the Serb family’s patron saint’s day.

As youngsters, Romilda and Natalie would dread the hours spent making roštule. But they always had a good time. Once they were in the rhythm of the kitchen, they would laugh and share stories and forget time altogether. Later, when Romilda and Natalie had families of their own, their mother would prepare the dough in advance so that, when they arrived, it was ready for shaping and frying. While they then spent less time in the kitchen, they were still making roštule together, and laughing and chatting as they had since they were girls.

Over 100 years have passed since Andja and Nikola were married, and their family tradition of teaching each generation how to make light-as-air roštule continues.

Helen’s recipe has been included in bridal shower gifts for all her grand nieces. Natalie’s daughter, Meghan, first learned to make roštule in her grandmother’s kitchen. She now helps her mother and aunt make them. Romilda is looking forward to the day her granddaughter, Madeline, will be old enough to join her in the kitchen for roštule. Natalie and Romilda’s aunt, Helen, is Andja and Nikola’s youngest child, and she spent time making roštule this past Christmas season with a new generation: her granddaughter and eight-year-old great granddaughter who made the trip from San Francisco to San Diego in order to spend a day learning about the treasured roštule.

Sadly, we lost Helen (Natalie & Romilda’s mother) in 2000. Her legacy, however, continues through her daughters, her five grandchildren and five great grandchildren, her many friends, and now all of us who are sharing her story and her recipe.

Click here for the Roštule Recipe

A Bridal Shower Idea …

Taking a cue from sisters, Natalie and Romilda, who include a copy of their roštule recipe in bridal shower gifts: why not host a Serbian* Cooking Show Bridal Shower instead of a catered or restaurant affair?

What better way to join two families while helping the couple start their new life? Introduce the bride to her husband’s heritage or teach the bride treasured recipes from her own family. Sharing good food, recipes, and family stories is sure to please all.

The kitchen utensils used in the demonstrations would be wonderful shower gifts-anything from measuring cups to the electric frying pan favored by Natalie and Romilda.

It will surely be a party treasured by all and may begin a new tradition for generations to come.

*Of course it doesn’t need to be Serbian, just put together some family treasured recipes along with family, friends and the joy of sharing.

The Serbian Cooking Show

I wrote this article for the May/June 2010 issue of Serb World USA magazine. It is copy written and appears here with their permission.

What is a “Serbian Cooking Show”? How can I be a part of one? Two very good questions. Another is: Why should I host one?

I hope to answer these questions and more while telling you about ‘The Serbian Cooking Show” I was lucky enough to attend. You may even find yourself planning one before you finish reading this article.

“The Serbian Cooking Show” that I attended was held at a Junior Potluckers luncheon in February of 2010. Of course, if there are Junior Potluckers, there must be Potluckers. That is the original social club of Serbian women in Southem California that began in 1955. They have been gathering together for potluck lunches and friendship ever since. (Click for “The Potluckers”)

When we, their daughters and daughters-in-law, wanted to join their group, they referred us to their first rule: No children. However, they did encourage us to form our own group: the Junior Potluckers.

The Junior Potluckers began in 1972 and met for several years until the demands of families and careers made it too difficult to continue. The group was re-launched in 2007 with much enthusiasm and over 30 active members. All of our members are either of Serbian descent or married into a Serbian family. This is in no small part why the food is always so plentiful and delicious and why we laugh and talk so much, often all at the same time.

While each luncheon has been special in its own right, it is “The Serbian Cooking Show” that I want to share with you. “The Serbian Cooking Show” was held in the home of Anita. Cynthia “Sindi” co-hosted with Anita. They had the idea early on to make their potluck a Serbian-themed luncheon. After all, that is our original connection. “But what prompted them to host a cooking show?” I wondered.

Was it the potluck hosted by Sylvia and her cousins last March? For that potluck, Sylvia requested each of us to bring a short written piece about our “Serbian/Croatian memories: travel, poetry, or prose.” When we read aloud what we each wrote, it brought us all close. We recalled events that brought to light our connected and shared history.

Sylvia remembered being a child who was curious about our Serbian tradition of “things done in threes”: we crossed ourselves three times; the bride and groom walked around the Holy Table three times; choir responses were sung three times; and, to her young eyes, we even gathered in threes after church in three main areas of the church grounds. She went on to describe the old St. Sava Church in Los Angeles, comparing the “red brick and bumpy, white mortar” to the mostaccioli that was served every Easter. Oh, that mostaccioli! Yum!

Natalie wrote with pride of being raised a “Crnogorka” (Serbian word for a person from Montenegro). She described how she, like all the children, fought with her mother every year when it came time to memorize a poem to recite at St. Steven’s Church, but how much taller she stood upon seeing the smiles on her parents’ faces as she took the stage in her Montenegrin costume. She explained how being raised to be proud of her heritage and faith gave her the inner strength that has carried her through life – good times and bad.

Several of us shared stories of our first trips to Yugoslavia ~ our expectations, our realities. Meeting relatives who had very little but shared all they had. Of seeing familiar faces and hearing familiar rhythms of language and music, only to realize they were part of us and were a reflection of our own heritage.

Each story prompted another. The weekly and annual rituals of our Serbian Community and church were repeated time and time again, year after year. While there are many years separating some of us Junior Potluckers when it comes to age, we each seemed to recall the same events: kolo or tambura lessons; Serbian Summer Camp in Jackson, California; and Sundays at church with the great lunches that followed.

We shared common stories about our grandparents and their lives in the Old Country or about their early years in America when they founded our churches and established communities. We recalled Serbian poems and songs that we memorized as children. We sang them once again.

Thinking I had found the origin of “The Serbian Cooking Show,” I asked Sindi and Anita if this was their inspiration. Surprisingly, they said, “No.” They added that, of course, that day cemented their plans for a Serbian-themed lunch but explained that the cooking demonstration idea came much later ~ at the Christmas Potluck held in my home in December of 2009.

In December, two Junior Potlucker sisters, (actual sisters) Diane and Dona, contributed their burek to the luncheon. While devouring their burek, conversations quickly turned to food and our favorite Serbian dishes.

We spoke of how our grandmothers and mothers would lay a table of fabulous food about which today’s celebrity chefs could only dream. We were in awe of their ability to not only prepare such tasty treats but also to do so without many of the modem tools we rely on today: no Kitchen-aid mixers, food processors, or dishwashers. We marveled at the variety of dishes they prepared and at their perfectly set tables with ironed damask cloths and napkins setting off their spotless silver and crystal. They did all that and got their families dressed ~ with hats, gloves, and ties ~ and to church on time!

We were lamenting the fact that we had each learned only a few of those marvelous dishes because our heritage is in those recipes. Our “foremothers” brought them from the Old Country. Yet, somewhere in the years between childhood and adulthood, many of us hadn’t taken the time to learn as many as we would have liked. The reasons were varied. The recipes often seemed to take too much time or were too rich for today’s diets. We were too busy with school, sports, or careers to stay in the kitchen and learn. But, we now realize what a priceless treasure those recipes are.

At this very point, while on our second or third helping of that burek, the idea of ‘The Serbian Cooking Show” emerged. Why not share what we had learned with one another? ‘The Serbian Cooking Show” was on!

Anita and Sindi had already started making plans for a Serbian themed luncheon. All they had to do now was line up the cooking demonstrations. Of course, Diane and Dona’s burek, still fresh on our palates, was the first recipe that came to mind. The discussion centered on which Serbian recipes the group most wanted to learn and who among us made them the best.

Two more sets of sisters came quickly to mind: Natalie and Romilda’s mother Helen’s light-as-air rostule, and Veronica and Georgia’s mother Jovanka “Jean”‘s perfect priganice.

To complete the show, Donna was tapped to be our own “Paula Deenovich” for commentary. The lovely Donna arrived in the perfect silver-white wig and made sure we didn’t miss any critical steps during the cooking show.

The foods being demonstrated became part of the lunch menu ~ yeah!  All the same, Anita and Sindi provided a Serbian feast: kajmak (a Serbian soft cheese spread), kupus i kastradina (cabbage and smoked kid), kobasica sa kiselim kupusom (sausage and sauerkraut), and many more dishes.

A few of us filled in with appetizers or desserts, as requested, to “complete” the menu. In truth, the menu was already quite complete but, being Serbian, we had learned the golden rule of hosting from our mothers and grandmothers, ”You better have a little extra… just in case.”

Our grandmothers would have been proud of the tables Sindi and Anita set. There were Serbian touches everywhere: red, blue, and white tablecloths, napkins, and plates; bottles of sljivovica with their distinctive leather-appliqued covers; and a copy of The Serbian Cooking Show Vocabulary at each plate. Kolo music played in the background, not that you could hear it through all our laughter and conversation. We each wore an apron, most with a Serbian theme. We appeared ready to help, but mainly we were ready to taste.

The “Show” began with Diane and Dona making their now-famous burek. It is a meat strudel or pita rolled tightly in phyllo dough and can be cut into appetizer-sized pieces.

They began with a sheet of phyllo dough laid on a clean kitchen towel and “Lots of butter!” as our Paula Deenovich joyfully exclaimed. Not being a shy crowd, those of us who include burek in our own repertoire offered tips and variations on how “we” do it.

However, we all fell silent as we watched Diane deftly lift one side of the kitchen towel and roll the burek into a perfect, tight roll ready to be placed on the baking sheet. We broke into applause. We were silent once again as we bit into the warm, flaky burek slices. The only sounds were muffled sighs: ”Mmmm.”

Next up were sisters Romilda and Natalie to share their mother’s rostule, the classic delicate, fried pastries. Although Natalie tells me that the first time she made rostule on her own, her Uncle Dan said, ‘I don’t need a spoon for my coffee, I’ll just use Nat’s rostule”. However, her cousins Diane and Dona, Dan’s daughters, insisted that their cousin’s rostule were fantastic, which is why they were selected for ‘The Serbian Cooking Show.”

And they did not disappoint. As soon as I tasted them, I was transported back to my Baba Rosa’s kitchen in East Los Angeles. I didn’t think anyone could make rostule as tasty as I remember hers. I was wrong. These rostule were as beautiful to look at, golden-brown rosettes and bow-ties lightly coated in powdered sugar, as they were melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

Our final demonstration of the day was priganice, the quintessential Serbian doughnut. Our third pair of sisters, Veronica and Georgia, presented the recipe their mother, Jean, taught them. She had learned the recipe from her mother, Cvetija. We all knew that Veronica kept the ”priganice pot” she inherited from her mother on the ready: these are her husband’s favorite dessert.

Toasting a job well done!

After tasting the priganice that resulted from their demonstration, I know why each generation was so eager to learn. They were light and sparkled with a dusting of granulated sugar. First, the warm sweet dough fills your senses, and then a bit of warm apple fills your mouth-lovely!

Not only did these three pairs of sisters share their wonderful recipes and techniques with us, they also shared history and tradition. They came better prepared than most chefs on my favorite TV cooking shows. Each pair brought all the raw ingredients, mixing bowls, and cooking utensils they would need. And, yes, the “priganice pot” was there too.

Where certain steps would take too long to do from scratch with an audience- for example, waiting for yeast dough to rise-they brought along one to “swap out,” allowing us to see the steps required and the final result. Most importantly, they brought joy: the joy of us all being together; the joy of sharing; and the joy of creating new memories so closely linked with our past.

Due to ‘The Serbian Cooking Show,” a few of us have braved making these dishes we have so long loved to eat, but never knew how to make. Others are looking into their old recipe boxes for favorite Serbian recipes to be revived.

Several weeks later, when Marlene (another Junior Potlucker member) volunteered to make fresh green beans for the Easter banquet at St. Steven’s Church, she thought it would be fun to have her “Potlucker Sisters” help out: 10 Junior Potluckers showed up on Saturday morning to clean and prepare 200 pounds of green beans. Eleanor even brought her grand-daughter along to help. Yes, the rituals of our Serbian church and community are repeated time and time again, year after year.

I asked several of the ladies who participated in ‘The Serbian Cooking Show” what the day meant to them.

Natalie recalled how preparing rostule would take hours because her mother Helen’s recipe made huge quantities. “We would grunt and groan anticipating having to spend the time preparing that dessert,” Natalie said, “but once in Mother’s kitchen, time was forgotten. We chatted about family and friends and laughed endlessly, remembering numerous stories from our youth, just as we did at “The Serbian Cooking Show.”

Anita said, “It’s seems that so much of culture is carried in the food as it is so key to the togetherness and socializing that maintains a cultural group. Taste is also powerlul in evoking memories. Our cooking show brought that together for me in a very personal way.”

At the conclusion of our fabulous “Serbian Cooking Show,” Anita shared an adage her mother and grandmother would often repeat: “To do something with a friend cuts the work in half and doubles the pleasure.”

Sindi echoed that sentiment: “The whole thing was a tradition being passed from one generation of Potluckers to another. Anita and I decided that it would follow the food channel format just to make it fun. We just had the best time planning everything. We used the Serbian colors and aprons to accent the whole affair because we wanted to be surrounded by traditions.”

So, are you ready now to host your own “Serbian Cooking Show”? Here is a recap of a few basics you’ll need: Determine which dishes you want to share, and have copies of the recipe(s) available. Choose your audience, and assistants: family, in-laws, friends. Have all ingredients and pans ready to go. Don a great apron. Put on music. And, be prepared to laugh and tell stories along with sharing great cooking tips. Now you can be part of a tradition that has been repeated in many different ways over many, many years.

To quote Anita and Sindi, “Thank you for coming to ‘The Serbian Cooking Show.”‘.

Click for the recipes:
Serbian Meat Burek
Rostule
Priganice

Bora Gajicki ~ Life in 2/4 Time

By Paula Erbay, reprinted with permission from SerbWorld USA, the July/August 2009 issue. Contact SerbWorldUSA.com to subsrcibe or order a single issue.  (This issue also contains a wonderful tribute to actor Karl Malden, aka Mladen Sekulovich.)

Bora Gajicki 1985 by Eliot Khuner

Bora Gajicki 1985 by Eliot Khuner

Some might say it started in Dubrovnik, which is where Bora Gajicki met the young American girl who changed his life.

However, I think of Bora’s entire life as an intricate kolo whose tempo changed that night in Dubrovnik, one change among many. But that change in tempo, had it been a kolo, would have caused many dancers to drop out, unable to keep up with the complicated steps.

In memory of this outstanding folk dance instructor, the mentor of so many, here is the story of Bora Gajicki’s life told in a dance syllabus form. It is set to a Serbian kolo in 2/4 time, such as U Şest or the Gocino Kolo and Divçibarsko Bora introduced to America.

Introduction (no action)
The music starts slowly

In 1937, Borivoj “Bora” Gajicki is born in the Serbian village of Gospodjinci, Yugoslavia. His father, Živko, was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1912.  Although the family moved back to their village in Serbia’s Vojvodina when Živko was a baby, Bora no doubt heard stories from his grandparents about their American adventure. So it came as no surprise that, as a young man, Bora-as his grandparents had before him-would leave his beloved village to seek opportunity.

Open line, arms loosely linked
The dance begins

Bora moves to Belgrade to attend a school of bookbinding, his chosen profession. While in Belgrade, he spends his free time kolo dancing and becomes a member of an amateur folk dance group, performing strictly for fun-or so he thinks.

One night someone from the internationally acclaimed folkdance troupe, Ansambl Kolo, sees Bora dancing. He is immediately asked to join the company, but Bora cannot because he has yet to fulfill his required military service. He spends the next two years with the Yugoslavian Navy.

While his military service may have peaked his interest in Serbian and WorId War II history, it is his love of dance that sets the course of his adult life.

Solo: The leader breaks away from the line
The line continues (Slow, Quick, Quick)
The tempo increases

Upon his return to Belgrade, he is again contacted by Ansambl Kolo. Without missing a beat, Bora becomes a member. He spends the next seven years traveling throughout Yugoslavia and Europe as a solo dancer for the troupe. The company performs dances from all the regions of Yugoslavia.

The leader rejoins the line
(Hop, Step, Step)
The tempo increases yet again

The year is 1967. The town is Dubrovnik. It is a beautiful summer night, the kind of fateful night when “boy meets girl.”

Many members of Ansambl Kolo are at a restaurant following their concert. And, just as Bora had been noticed by Kolo seven years earlier, he now spots a young, vibrant woman.

The women start their own line,
Jump onto both feet with plie

Who is this woman who would change the tempo of Bora’s life? Margarita “Marge” Tapia from Long Beach, California, is an avid international folk dancer. While at EI Camino College in Torrance, California, she had discovered folk dancing through a physical education class, a requirement at the time. Her favorite music and dances are from the Balkans. Due to her interest in these folk dances, she is on her third trip to Yugoslavia.

This summer of 1967, she is traveling with two of her girlfriends she met through folk dancing. They plan to be there for 21/2 months.

On her first trip, Marge, with no Yugoslavian heritage, was armed with a few words and phrases of Serbo-Croatian. By this third trip, she is able to speak in first person, present tense. She has been taking classes at San Pedro Night School and is proud to report that she was Mrs. Mikulicich’s star pupil.

While in Belgrade and through a prior contact of one of this lovely trio of folk dancers, the young women meet several members of Ansambl Kolo. ”But not Bora,” says Marge. “That was to come later.”

Through the dancers and musicians of Ansambl Kolo, they learn about the troupe’s upcoming tour schedule, including Zagreb and places along the Dalmatian Coast. As a result, the girls plan their own travels to include many of Kolo’s concerts. They hope to reconnect with their new friends at the end of Kolo’s tour in Dubrovnik.

The two lines become one
The music becomes stronger, faster, hands field tight
(Slow, Quick, Quick)

Marge writes to her family to say that she is bringing home a most unusual souvenir- a husband. She is now “Mrs. Bora Gajicki”! They were married in his village of Gospodjinci in August of 1967.

Bora & Marge January 2007

Bora & Marge January 2007

Hop-Step-Step, Kick-Leap-Turn
A couple separates from the line without missing a beat
The tempo is faster still

Perhaps because his father was born in the United States, or perhaps because Marge is so charming, Bora’s decision to move to the U.S. comes easily.

He and Marge settle in San Pedro, California, in November of 1967. Bora enrolls in an English class at San Pedro Night School, the very school where Marge learned Serbo-Croatian.

As folk dancers, Marge and her friends went to dances at the Croatian Hall on Budlong Avenue and at St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church, both in Los Angeles. Her folk dancing friends include Lani Papadol Rompokos, my first kolo teacher at St. Sava’s, and many others who become well respected teachers, performers, and choreographers in international folk dancing.

Marge introduces Bora to the L. A. area’s various Yugoslavian venues where she has danced before. He fits right in. Bora begins teaching kolo classes at the Yugoslav-American Club in San Pedro, now the Dalmatian-American Club. He soon becomes the director of a performance group.

The couple takes the lead of a new line
Hop-Step-Step Turn-change Line of Direction (LOD)

One night Marge introduces Bora to international folk dancing. Forty years later, their friend, Donna Tripp, retells the story of that first night with the glee of a child watching her first fireworks display:

“Over a hundred friends are there to meet Marge’s husband. They are already dancing-dances from Scandinavia, Greece, Hungary-when Marge and Bora arrive.

“Bora reluctantly joins a kolo line. He is unsure among this American crowd; he is still learning English.

“Then Bora hears a familiar tune, a dance he knows from Yugoslavia. There is an explosion of intricate footwork and perfect rhythm. Bora is dancing. All are hushed in awe.

“The silence then erupts with applause. We flood Bora with requests for him to teach us how to dance like that.”

Bora and Marge, a business major, had already started a bookbinding business, but the number of requests for Bora to teach dance sets them on another course.

Bora becomes a dance instructor and teaches at dance camps, workshops, and Serbian Orthodox churches throughout the United States. He and Marge start importing opanke, the traditional Yugoslav shoes worn by villagers. They offer them for sale at Bora’s teaching venues. Stockton Dance Camp, where Bora often teaches, is a favorite.

Borino 1975

Borino 1975

Now he begins teaching himself how to play the accordion in order to have the music he so dearly loves because he feels that recordings of the kolos he dances and teaches are hard to come by.

Bora is soon an accomplished accordionist and forms an orchestra. They record albums under the name Borino Kolo (Bora’s Kolo), the same name as Bora’s dance performance troupe. They perform at weddings, festivals, restaurants, and church events. Bora becomes famous for playing well into the night at many dance camp “after parties” or any venue where friends want to dance and play.

Marge recalls many a time when she needed Bora for something at the business and would follow the sounds of music to find him. Often she herself stayed to enjoy the music and dance.

Father Petar Jovanovich of St. Sava Church in San Gabriel tells me that whenever asked to play for a children’s benefit, Bora would donate the orchestra’s fee. Bora, as a member of St. Sava, ran a weekly radio show for two years.

Turn-Face LOD
Leap-Step-Step

It is 1970. Bora has been in the United States for three years. His bookbinding training provides him the leather skills he needs to teach himself to make opanke. His opanke are beautiful and well crafted. Marge is a gifted seamstress and an expert on traditional folk costumes.

The Gajickis start a new business catering to Serbian and international folk dancers. The Folk Motif, is born. They offer custom-made opanke and other dance shoes, imported costume pieces, books, and related merchandise. Marge becomes involved in commission costuming with orders ranging from a single piece to a whole set. Long Beach’s

The Folk Motif is two doors down from the Gajicki’s new home, and they continue to take their wares to the various dance venues, festivals, and camps-just as they did those first imported opanke from Yugoslavia.

The couple breaks away from the line
The music slows; the bass plays like a strong heartbeat
(Slow, Quick, Quick)
They now dance as a Troika

Keeping an eye on Anna ~ 1974

Keeping an eye on Anna ~ 1974

It is the fall of 1971. Bora and Marge become the proud parents of a baby girl, Anna Tinka Gajicki. Anna grows up in the family business and on the dance floor. Her first steps are certainly to music – and on beat. She is often dressed in full Serbian folk costume, and as a child, she looked just like the dolls that Marge makes today.

Bora & Anna play at Just Accordions 2007

Bora & Anna play at Just Accordions 2007

While Bora is happy that Anna is able to perform all of his dances, he is prouder still that she chooses to play the button accordion.

The Troika rejoins the line, hands held low or loosely linked
Dance etiquette states dancers should join at the end of the line:
Friends, however, join next to friends
The dance becomes one long line, filling the entire floor
The tempo is at a moderate “conversational” pace, continue in LOD

The Folk Motif is well established. Bora travels to Yugoslavia every year to see family and friends, research dances and music, and buy merchandise for the business.  Marge and Anna accompany him as often as possible.

Bora’s opanke are prized among folk dancers, and some might say they have even gone into outer space: he fills an order for the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Marge has made costumes for many stages, including New York’s Broadway. Her customers are Greek, Croatian, Serbian, and international dance groups in California, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and even Japan, the latter, her best customer. They include: The International Folk Dance Ensemble at Brigham Young University in Utah; Duquesne University’s Tamburitzans in Pennsylvania; Ethnic Dance Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Koraci Croatian Folk Ensemble in San Jose, California; and St. Steven’s Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles for whom she recently (May 2009) completed a set of Montenegrin costumes for their annual kolo celebration called Kolobration.

In addition to The Folk Motif, the Gajickis operate an international dance studio, Veselo Selo, in Anaheim, California, for about five years. It is indeed a “happy village.” Bora’s orchestra often plays there. Some nights he teaches; every night feels like a festival.

To me, The Folk Motif is much more than a shop for folk dancing supplies. Much like the traveling salesmen of a bygone era-or a gypsy caravan- Marge, Bora, and Anna keep all the folk dancing “villages” connected. As they travel from one venue to the next, they share news and information. And, if you’ve ever been to a folk dance festival, you know that their presence makes the event a little bit brighter.

A festival is always a welcoming place to ask about this person or that, someone you once met at this camp or that festival, for we all stay connected through the Gajickis and The Folk Motif.

Marge once wondered aloud, “Why does everyone break in (to the dance) next to me?”

“Because we all think of you as our friend, and friends join next to friends,” was my response.

The music stops.
The dance ends abruptly

Bora passes away in August of 2008.

The online guest book at Risher Mortuary (type in Gajicki) includes entries from across the United States and from Serbia, including both the Serbian and international dance communities. The funeral is held at the original St. Sava Church in Los Angeles. Family, friends, dancers, and musicians overflow in the small church. They unite to say farewell to Bora and to embrace Marge and Anna. Three priests serve at the funeral: Father Petar Jovanovich officiates, with fathers Velimir Petakovic and Ilija Dajkovich assisting, a sign of their respect to this “ambassador of Serbian folk culture.”

Lisa Milena Simikic and Gabriel Vamvulescu, standing in the front and on the left, sing the responses. They also sing The Lord is My Shepherd and Lisa’s original composition, Svjati Bože (click for a favorite video of Lisa’s as sung at Ground Zero, New York City ~ the piece was written during the bombing of Serbia and dedicated to the victims there).

Bora would be proud of Lisa: he accompanied her when she was just a young girl and first sang as a soloist at Serbian celebrations.

The old St. Sava church underwent renovations in 1997, but other than the removal of the pews, it is exactly as I remember as a child: the candles and incense, the beautiful icons, and the painted ceiling.

The traditions of our church, coupled with the rich voices of Lisa and Gabriel joined with the priests’, transport us all to another time or place.

The service looks and sounds as one might imagine a funeral in a Serbian village. For some, it is their first time at a Serbian Orthodox church, and they seem unsure. Yet, they fall into place, as if in a dance, following Bora’s lead one last time. Some by themselves, others with arms linked-friends join next to friends -we all follow in silent step. Our procession ends across the street where Bora is laid to rest.

The women reach out their arms, right over left-
each woman holding strong
They sway to an unheard beat
(Slow, Quick, Quick)

A memorial dance is held to honor Bora. It is hosted by Veselo SeIo, Laguna Folk Dancers, Narodni International Folk Dancers, and the San Pedro Balkan Dancers. Again, friends from far and wide attend.

Musicians and dancers, Serbians, Croatians, Greeks, Armenians, Turks, and Americans remember Bora with words, music, and dance. We dance the kolos Bora introduced to the West: Divçbarsko. Gocino Kolo, Gružanka, Moravac, Raca, Stara Vlainja, and Strumička Petorka among them. Money is raised to fund the scholarship that Marge and Anna establish in Bora’s name for the Stockton Folk Dance Camp.

Marge and Anna Gajicki continue to live in Long Beach and run The Folk Motif. They travel to all the venues together and fill custom orders through prior contacts and word of mouth. Only a few pair of Bora’s prized opanke remain in their inventory; Marge assures us she has found a very good source in Serbia.

Anna made her annual journey to Serbia alone this year, spending six weeks with her family while continuing to learn and play the accordion. She left one of Bora’s accordions in the care of a relative there, so it will be ready for her next trip.

Softly, slowly a musician begins to play to the women‘s rhythm
The women-backs erect, heads held high-start to dance with the music
(Slow, Quick, Quick)…

Go to my other website Recipes by Paula for the Koljivo recipe that accompanies this article

The Potluckers

50th Anniversary

50th Anniversary

(Reprinted with permission from SerbWorld USA. To order the November/December 2008 issue, or subscribe to the magazine click here www.SerbWorldUSA.com )

It is often said that we don’t appreciate what we have until it is gone. I am happy to share the history, and some recipes, of a group that is still very much here and appreciated. I pay tribute to what is simply called ‘The Potluckers.”

There is still much debate as to when the idea was formed, on this one’s birthday or at that one’s baby shower. Frankly, I think they just enjoy the 50-plus-year argument.

We do know that Andja “Angie” P.  wrote about The Potluckers in the Jugoslav American Herald on February 1, 1957.In that article, at the first luncheon in January of 1955, she writes, “We started out with sixteen women,” and adds, “By June of that year, we had over thirty.”

Angie P.

Angie P.

This group of Serbian-American women, led by Angie P., recognized that, with two Serbian Orthodox churches in Los Angeles—St. Sava’s and the new St. Steven’s completed in 1952- they might see less and less of each other because this group of friends included members of both churches. So began The Potluckers.

The rules were quite simple: 1. No children, 2. No husbands, and 3. The Unspoken Rule (No church politics.) The organization was equally simple: they would meet at each other’s homes once a month and bring a dish to share.

When the group grew to over thirty, they decided not to allow any new members; their homes were simply not large enough. New members would be added only to replace those who left the group.

In the first year, each woman donated a small amount of money in order to buy a gift for each member who had a birthday that month. After that year had passed and each woman had received a gift, they decided instead to raise money for charity.

In 1956, they began to sell raffle tickets at each luncheon, the hostess providing the prize. That first year they raised $90 which was donated in equal amounts to the Annunciation Mission in Arizona for Navajo children, St. Sava’s Sunday School, and St. Steven’s Sunday School. In addition, several babies were born to potluckers in those early years, and each newborn received a sterling silver spoon and knife set from The Potluckers. (I am proud to report I still have mine!)

The Potluckers’ commitment to charity and their Serbian heritage led them to become very active in the founding of the St. Sava Mission Summer Camp in Jackson, California In 1961, they hosted a fundraising event with an “Old West” theme at Higgins Brickyard in Torrance, California. Everyone dressed the part the handsome husbands could have starred in TV’s Maverick or Gunsmoke. The women were prettier than ”Miss Kitty.”

"We are the Jackson Girls"

The Jackson Girls - Gloria, Millie, Pat & Evie

I can still remember Gloria K., my mother; Millie P.; Pat S.; Evelyn M.; and Dee L. performing ”We Are the Jackson Girls,” sung and danced to the tune of the French cancan song from the Moulin Rouge. Actually, my memory is of their rehearsals and is enhanced by photos they were real sticklers about rule #1: No children. There were many more fundraising events in the years that followed.

Today, the original raffle basket from 1956 is still in good use; a raffle is at each luncheon. The hostess continues to provide the prize, and the money raised funds the treasury. The “Sunshine Chairwoman” uses the funds to send cards and flowers whenever a member is in need. Some feel that this is the glue that has held them together all these years.

As with all groups, be careful when you volunteer. Helen V. has been the “Sunshine Chairwoman” for well over forty years now, a title that suits her to a tee, I might add. And Lorraine C. has been the Chairman, the Secretary, and the Treasurer for at least fifteen years.

In 1972, the daughters and daughters in- law asked to join the fun because this group of women really does enjoy being together and having a great time. We had all heard, for example, about the Christmas Potluck when Millie P. dressed as a Christmas tree and led a kolo line out Helen V.’ s front door and into a neighbor’s party, much to the delight of the neighbor’s guests.

When they heard our request to join, our mothers, the wise women they are, referred us to their original rule # 1: No children. They suggested instead that we start our own group. “Junior Potluckers” was the result.

We too had a space issue-far more girls wanted to join than any of our houses could handle. For this reason, Junior Potluckers was limited to daughters and daughters-in-law of original members of Potluckers and to those of a certain age. Some of us were still in high school.

Unlike our mothers, we were only able to sustain the organization for about five years: careers, family, and freeways were the causes of the demise. That is until now.

In recent years, many of us assisted our mothers when their turns came to host Potluckers. Again, we envied the fun and camaraderie our mothers shared. We realized how important this connection was.

Fortunately, a few of the daughters were together at a social event a couple of years ago. They said out loud what many of us were thinking: ”Let’s restart the Junior Potluckers.” And so we did.

Age is no longer a factor for membership, except that while some of us may be eligible for Social Security, we are still called “Junior Potluckers.” We may not get together as frequently as our mothers, but when we do, we enjoy the same things-good laughs and good food!

We are forming new friendships and renewing old ones through a social club that our mothers started before some of us were born. Speaking for myself, it has been an opportunity to reconnect with the past through shared memories of family members, many long gone; kolo lessons; Easter Sundays when we all wore new shoes and hats and stained our hands with colored eggs; church camp in Jackson; and so much more. But, most importantly, we have that connection our mother’s recognized back in 1955-we really enjoy being together.

So, who are ‘The Potluckers”? They are sisters, cousins, in-laws, kumovi, fantastic cooks, wonderful mothers (now grandmothers and great-grandmothers), and above all else “friends!”

They support one another through all the highs and lows life presents. They live each day with style and grace. Theirs are the faces I look for at any Serbian event Theirs are the faces I see clearly in so many childhood memories: red lipstick kisses on my cheeks, dancing kolos in high heels, singing Tamo Daleko in the church hall. And they are the women who continue to share at Potluck as they have for over 50 years.

Author’s Note: I have had the joy of laughing with many of the Potluckers while gathering information for this piece-too many stories to tell here. As Lorraine C.. said, “Had we known we’d still be meeting after 50 years, we would have had a historian.”

I thank them all for being who they are ~ then and now.
~ Paula

For recipes related to this article go to Prijesnac ~ Serbian Cheese Souffle  and Spinach Prijesnac at Recipes by Paula