My Passion for Croatia
Croatia is in my blood. Growing up in our home, symbols and stories of the homeland filled my heart and mind. My parents always spoke our native tongue. Our meals were from recipes passed on from generations past. Croatia was everywhere. The Croatian Coat of Arms, the Grb, along with other artifacts and woodwork from Croatia adored our walls and shelves. Croatian music filled the air. I remember the beautiful songs, but most importantly, I remember hearing the accounts from my parents and their friends of a life in a Croatia when it was called Yugoslavia. To my parents, Yugoslavia was an evil and oppressing place from which my father fled for freedom, and for a better life, to my sisters and I it was a place of caring families, beautiful scenery and a place of mystery. I sensed in their stories a loss, like pieces of their hearts were broken, maybe never to be mended. Even at a young age I could begin to comprehend my parents anguish and pain for their birthplace. I knew then it was my duty to pay closer attention to my parent’s passion for Croatia and make it my own.
I am still am very interested in my parent’s stories as well as stories from their close friends, about life in former Yugoslavia. Although Croatia struggled in the clutches of communism for almost eight decades, it was still a country of beautiful loving people, a country swept with the be-witching blue coastline of Adriatic Sea, the ancient history of Dalmatia and the natural wonders of the Plitvice Lakes. But surrounding this beauty were the stories of oppression, injustice and poverty. It was these hardships that caused many a family to struggle to survive, and for some, a plan to escape a country that was no longer their own. These were the stories of great escapes, not only for freedom but in many cases for survival. It was then I began to understand how special my parents were, and how intense the Croatian plight for life burned in their hearts.
In 1986, my parents, my two sisters and I went to go visit the homeland. My Dad hadn’t been there since 1971, and it was on that trip when I received an education in the evils of communism. The country was on the brink of war, a war that eventually came in 1989 but at that time we could already feel that something terrible was going to happen. The signs were everywhere. The streets were occupied with Yugoslavian police, armed with machine guns and attack dogs. Even a simple conversation on the street drew the ere of the ever watchful communist police.
The Catholic Church remained the support for the Croatian people, and it was in these cathedrals of peace that communism was at bay. It was the church that gave the Croatian people solace and the strength to continue with their daily lives. We went to visit the magnificent Zagreb Cathedral, and as were walking from the church; the armed Yugoslavian police came with their dogs and told us to keep moving. I had never been surrounded by armed police, it was then I realized the evils of communism.
Since that time in 1986, I’ve had the opportunity to visit a free Croatia three more times and eagerly await my next opportunity. I realize that there are many challenges that arise from a former communist country transitioning into a democracy, but I know in my heart that the promise of free enterprise, open elections and the voices of the people heard, Croatia will once again be whole and that the people will prosper.
My passion continues and with the help of the internet and my involvement in Croatian organizations, it has given me the opportunity not only to learn new things about Croatia but to keep current on Croatian political news. Most importantly it has given me the ability to connect and make friends with other Croatians. Recently, I was invited to join the Los Angeles Croatian community to view the film “Freedom from Despair” by first generation Croatian Brenda Brkusic. This documentary brought attention to the inhumane and repressive Yugoslavian system where her father endured; I was captivated by her Dad’s remarkable story, his desperate life in a communist country and finally his dangerous escape. I saw his anguish, felt his pain, and rejoiced in his new life. It was like I was watching the story of my Dad, and millions of other Croatians who were forced to escape from their own home. It was an emotional time for me, much more than I expected but I found myself surrounded by fellow Croatians whose passion for our homeland was as intense as mine. I was home, and Croatia will always be in my blood.
Michelle Dunaj, Rad Artukovic and Hilda Marija Foley
Brenda Brkusic and Michelle Dunaj
Hope all is well and Happy Thanksgiving.
I went to LA to view Brenda Brkusic’s film, and I was amazed and thrilled at the job she accomplished. The music was also wonderful! Not only was the film and epic account of her father’s story, but it also brought you into his desperate life and the complex life of the others in a former Yugoslavia. My father also had to escaped, and one day I would like to write a book detailing his journey to America, and yes, a documentary would ultimately be my goal. Brenda and I have that in common, and it’s really special because without our fathers having the courage and faith to escape, we possibility wouldn’t be living in America.
I really hope that Croatian pays homage to the ones who died in the name of freedom or died vowing never to bow down to the communists. I am truly in love with my heritage.
LA was really a fantastic time, but meeting Brenda was really special.