Friday, November 19, 2004


Very late last night, I learned that I am a descendant of radical neo-Protestant evangelicals. I discovered this fact while reading a Master's thesis by Bojan Aleksov, which I happened across during a particularly ambitious web-surfing session. I was aware that my paternal grandfather had belonged to a religious sect that had broken away from the Serbian Orthodox church sometime in the nineteenth century, but other than their name – Nazarene – and a few stories I’ve heard from my father and aunt, I knew virtually nothing about my grandfather’s religious life. My previous attempts at further research have been largely unsuccessful, as there seems to be no historical record of the sect nor common knowledge of them among the former-Yugoslavs I’ve talked to. Until last night, all I have found is a wall.

According to Aleksov, the Nazarene movement was founded in 1831 by a Swiss pastor named Samuel Frölich. From Switzerland, the movement spread to Alsace, southern Germany, and eventually to the southernmost reaches of the Hapsburg Empire, which at that time included the Serbian province of Vojvodina, the area in which my father’s family later settled. A peasant sect, the Nazarenes bear certain resemblances to both the Russian Dukhobors and central European Mennonites: e.g., they refused to perform military service; they rejected the authority of the state and of state-controlled churches; they refrained from voting, and so on. Aleksov writes:

In both Hungary and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the Nazarenes were perceived as a kind of social movement of the oppressed, as their ethical and religious perfectionism prompted them to strongly criticize the prevailing religious and political order. Their national and social origins and the potential for such movements' expansion provoked extremely severe persecution from both the Austro-Hungarian and Serbian and later Yugoslav kingdom. 1.

As peasants, my father’s family left few traces of their history behind. There are a handful of photographs, fewer letters, and no bourgeois tradition of genealogical preservation. For years, my aunt has tried to construct a simple family tree, but despite her best efforts the line extends only as far as my great-grandfather. Even my grandparents’ lives remain somewhat mysterious to my father, who left Yugoslavia when he was eighteen and has only his own and his siblings’ early memories to draw from. These include vague recollections of my grandfather’s refusal to take up arms, even as invading Nazi forces murdered those closest to him; his repeated imprisonment by the post-war Communist regime; and the absence of music on days of religious celebration, a silence my father remembers as being especially stark in comparison to the boisterousness of rural Orthodox revelry. But in the absence of a larger historical narrative, these memories have remained fragments at best, quietly separate from those of their village neighbours and undocumented by Yugoslav scholars.

Having read Aleksov’s short thesis, I suddenly have a frame for the stories I’ve been told, and a far richer sense of two generations of lives that preceded my own. I understand now why my grandfather eventually abandoned his church, and why my father nearly starved in the years after the war, and why my grandmother always wears a black headscarf in the pictures I’ve seen of her. I also understand why my father was raised, for all intents and purposes, as an atheist, and why I was as well. And I know how much it will mean to my father to be able to understand his father just this little bit more, even though he’s been dead for over twenty years and his small, two-room house is falling down and no one lives in it anymore or likely ever will.

1. Aleksov, Bojan. “The Dynamics of Extinction: The Nazarene Religious Community in Yugoslavia After 1945.” MA Thesis, Central European University, 1999. 19 Nov 2004.

No comments: