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Minnesota Descendants of Serbs, Croats Share Pain For War-Torn Ancestral Home

December 21, 1991

CHISHOLM, Minn. (AP) _ The descendants of Croatian and Serbian miners live side-by-side on Minnesota’s Iron Range, sharing the pain of a war that is tearing apart their ancestral homeland.

But they say the conflict in Yugoslavia has not divided neighbors who play together in tamburitza bands, drink in taverns like the Slovenian Home and cry over wrinkled letters from relatives in the combat zone.

″People up here are not going to let this war in the old country separate family and friends″ said Ron Zobenica, president of St. Vasilije Serbian Orthodox Church in Chisholm, 35 miles north of Duluth.

The tension found among people of Croatian and Serbian heritage in the country’s urban centers is rare on the Iron Range, in northeastern Minnesota and so-called because of its wealth of iron ore. Early in this century, it also became one of the first South Slavic settlements in the United States.

Zobenica buys groceries from a Croatian shopkeeper and hired a Croat to build his wooded home, where maps and magazines reporting on Yugoslavia cover a coffee table.

″I didn’t even have a contract,″ said Zobenica, his daytime veterinarian garb replaced by a University of Belgrade sweatshirt printed in Cyrillic. ″That’s the kind of trust we have in each other.″

At St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, the Rev. Frank Perkovich, a second- generation Croatian, ?0 Life in northern Minnesota was hard for Croatian and Serbian immigrants lured by the promise of mining jobs in the early 1900s. While religious and cultural traditions separated the two groups, grueling mine work and homesickness drew them together.

State Sen. Joe Begich, whose father came from Zagreb to work in the mines, said Iron Range descendants of Croats and Serbs are unified today by concern for loved ones caught in the conflict.

″People are very sad, and worried, too,″ Begich said. ″I have relatives there. It’s always in the back of your mind.″

Julia Latkovich, a retiree whose parents came from Croatia, said she fears for her relatives, some of whom now live in a bombed-out basement.

She keeps their letters, worn from repeated readings, in a brimming box and sends all the money she can spare to relief efforts.

″I am telling you right away that I am having a hard time writing this letter because my hands are shaking from fear,″ one letter begins.

Latkovich spends her time writing letters to newspaper editors, to President Bush and other world leaders, pleading for help in ending the civil war.

″I’m awful worried about those people of mine,″ she said.

Such fears and worries are voiced throughout the Iron Range, from the members of the Croatian Fraternal Union and the Serbian National Federation to the customers and proprietor of Mr. Nick’s Corner Bar in Hibbing.

″We tease a lot, but we’re all worried about what’s happening over there,″ said bar owner Nick Senich, a Serbian. ″What am I supposed to do, hate them just because they’re Croatian? We’re neighbors. We go fishing together. I wish they’d get along over there like we do over here.″

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