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Coming Home to Croatia: A Spiritual Journey
By Marko Puljić | Published  09/11/2006 | Published Articles , Culture And Arts | Unrated
Don Wolf Photographs Croatia

KANSAS CITY, Kan. - They are images of a simple life - of expansive land and working people. But to photographer Don Wolf, they are so much more. They are a lifeline to his past. Wolf, a parishioner of Christ the King Parish in Kansas City, Kan., has spent the past 28 years photographing the country of Croatia. He says he feels compelled to capture the essence of the land and the character of its people not only because it s part of his family heritage, but also because he wants to share the country and its rich history with others.
   "When people think of Croatia, they think it's part of Poland or Russia, and they think [of] wartime," Wolf explained. "I want them to see it through my eyes. It's a place of tranquility, beauty and spirituality."
   Wolf's maternal and paternal grandparents migrated to the United States from Croatia in the early 1900s in search of a better life. They settled in the Croatian enclave of Strawberry Hill in Kansas City, Kan., partly because work was readily available to immigrants there in the meatpacking houses. Though both of his grandfathers grew up in the village of Gerovo in Croatia, they did not meet until they settled on "the Hill," but from then on their common background tied them together for life.


Wolf delighted in the opportunity to document the peasants of his ancestral land and their way of life. Here, 96-year-old Marija Kuzeli sharpens the blade of her scythe as she prepares to trim grass.

The ties between the two families were formalized when, one day, over a game of pinochle, the two men decided that their son and daughter - Joseph and Josephine - should be married. Arranged marriages were still quite common in Croatia at the time and, indeed, the two children were eventually wed.
   Wolf was the first grandchild born into the family in 1936 and was raised in the Croatian national parish of St. John the Baptist on Strawberry Hill. He spent a great deal of time with his grandparents while growing up, absorbing their customs and language.
He was always fascinated by their stories of life in Croatia, Wolf said, especially those told by his grandfather, Rudolph, who described family and community events in the Old Country and village life in vivid detail.
   "He would sit on the front porch and tell me stories about the forest, the deer, the rivers and mountains. His enthusiasm intrigued me and I knew I had to go to Croatia someday and see it for myself, " Wolf recalled.
   In 1979, Wolf took his first trip to his grandparents' homeland and fell in love with it. Since that first trip, he has returned to Croatia 15 times and has another trip planned for May 2007, when he will take another tour group with him.
   "It's euphoric being there. I feel as though I am back with my grandparents," Wolf said, although they are now deceased. "It's like revisiting my past. . .like going home."
   But his trips have also revealed an unsettling dimension of modern Croatia  - that of the communist regime. The first time he visited, communism was still very much alive, and he was shocked to find out he had a cousin who supported it.
   "I just assumed he would share the same Catholic faith that my grandfather and the rest of my family did," said Wolf. "My grandfather was a very devout Catholic. I can remember him always tipping his hat when we passed a church. It was his way of showing respect. It always impressed me."
   But when his cousin took him to a local bar and showed him off as his "American cousin photographer," Wolf threw his cousin off guard by asking what time Mass started the next day.
   "He elbowed me firmly and said, 'Do not embarrass me in front of my friends,'" Wolf recalled.
   The next morning, his cousin's son drove Wolf and his family to church, but dropped them off two blocks away.
   Its been years now since communism fell, but Wolf can't help but wonder how different his life would have been if he had been born and raised in Croatia. Would he have fallen into the hands of communism to survive? Would he have given up his faith?
   He can't imagine how, with the Catholic faith so deeply ingrained in both the land and its people for centuries, the years under communism could have taken such a toll. Yet, even as his cousin was regaling Wolf with his views on the subject on a different occasion, Wolf's aunt discreetly slipped a statue of St. Anthony into Wolf's hand - letting him know that she, too, still kept the faith.
   Of all the subjects he photographed in Croatia, Wolf keeps returning to two in particular - the land and the peasants who still work it.  
   "I have always identified with the peasant people and felt a special calling to photograph them," he said. "They work off the land and trade their goods to make a living. They are in constant contact with the earth. They understand its cycles, seasons, how to prepare for winter, when to plant. They are just so in tune with nature. And when you are in tune with nature, you are in tune with God. Nature and God, to me, are synonymous."
   Wolf is well-known in Croatia for his support of St. Theresas Orphanage in Zagreb, the capital city. Since 1992, he has worked to raise money to support the children and the facility and raise awareness of their existence and their needs. His efforts have brought the orphanage more than $750,000 to date.
   Wolf's most recent trip to Croatia was this past spring. He took this trip alone, at the urging of his wife Mary.
   "She sensed the need in me to go to Croatia with my camera and explore the villages,  unencumbered by other travelers," Wolf explained.
   And so he went. He made his way to remote villages, visiting with the people and documenting them with his camera. He photographed the peasants at work and at home, and the beauty of the ancient land, with its lush valleys and sparkling streams.
During his 50 years as a professional photographer, he has taken countless photos of people, buildings, fashion and food for companies throughout the United States. He once even photographed President Harry S Truman's birthday party.
But he believes his most recent photographs of Croatia are his best work.
They speak of hope, gratitude and deep spirituality, he said. They are passionate and real.
   "My visits are so satisfying, and I want to share them with others. My photography is a way of doing that,"  Wolf said. "The beauty of Croatia and the spirit of its people - it's what life's about."  


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  • Comment #1 (Posted by Marijan Stancic)

    I like it
  • Comment #2 (Posted by Kathy Yourich Egan)

    I would like to see the photos.
  • Comment #3 (Posted by Brenda Shanley)

    This essay is both beautiful and inspiring. The often debased culture which we now have needs MANY more like this !
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