Vasilije Vasiljević – Bogdan’s Illustrious Great Grandfather
This is a chapter from the memoir “My Dad, Volunteer in WWI”. If you wish, you can see the previous chapters starting here.
Bogdan was born in Delnice, a small village in the province of Croatia, where his father, originally from Vojvodina, was posted as a judge by Austrian authorities. When I travelled through Gorski Kotar in 1958, I saw Delnice from the road – a row of about fifteen houses on either side of the railway line. That was all. It must have been a culture shock to the young judge and his wife Julia to find themselves in such a desolate place after life in the thriving cultural metropolis that was Novi Sad.
The family later moved to Ogulin, a much bigger town, Jovan Stojić’s next post as district judge. The boys loved their life here as much as their father did, who was a passionate hunter. The magnificent forests of mountainous Gorski Kotar provided him with plenty of wild life he wanted to hunt. The boys, most probably, took part too. But, when they finished primary school they were sent to Novi Sad, to stay with relatives to get Serbian education in a Serbian high school. Jovan Stojić wanted his boys to learn more about Serbian history, about their ancestors from the glorious past in the Middle Ages to their heroic fight against the Ottoman oppressors, about the Battle of Kosovo on St Vitus’ Day in 1389, about Prince Lazar and his knights, about the legendary epic hero Kraljević Marko and his piebald horse Šarac. About the Great Migration led by Patriarch Arsenije Čarnojević in 1690 into Habsburg lands, today’s Vojvodina. About the Serbian Revolution against the Ottoman Empire, which started in 1804, led by Karađorđe. He wanted them to know their Serbian roots and to become proficient in the use of the Cyrillic alphabet. His wife Julia was the great granddaughter of Vasilije Vasiljević, a rich merchant and a prominent citizen, a senator and a friend of Vuk Stefanović Karađić, the great Serbian literary figure, linguist and collector of Serbian epic folk poems and reformer of the Serbian language and alphabet. In Vasilije’s house in Zemun, a town on the Military Border under Habsburg rule, across the Danube from Belgrade, which was under the Ottomans, there was always a room ready for Vuk when he came for a visit from Vienna, where he lived – not only a room, but also money for his friend who was always short of cash.
The two men joined forces to oppose Metropolitan Stratimirović, who was against the introduction of Vuk’s primer to teach in schools the language as it is spoken by common folk. It is not widely known that it was Vasilije’s idea that such a primer was necessary. In 1819, Vasiljević was appointed as school inspector in Zemun. On visiting schools, he quickly came to the conclusion that schoolchildren would benefit greatly from textbooks written in the language they speak every day, instead of struggling with Old Church Slavonic. He put his idea for consideration to the School Board in Vinkovci and the relevant administrative bodies in Petrovaradin and Vienna, and in 1827 was granted approval to write a new “bukvar”, for which he named Vuk Karađić as editor. On my bookshelves there is a cherished book, “Vukova Prepiska”, a collection of letters between Vuk and Vasilije over half a century, from 1818 to 1864, discussing, among other things, the matter of the alphabet. The Serbian Orthodox Church was against any innovations with regard to language, Metropolitan Stratimirović insisted on keeping the old Slavonic script and language. But Vuk was a moderniser. And Vasilije supported him. In a letter of 26th February 1820 he writes to Vuk in Vienna “…. I’ll defend your grammar and orthography and I’ll never allow the Serbian language to be different from what you have written down. As a citizen of Zemun, I am looking forward to the first grammar as spoken by common Serbian folk being taught in Zemun, and my joy is even greater that this task has been assigned to me, your true friend.” Vuk modified the alphabet to make it phonetic: one letter for one sound. “Write as you speak and read as it is written” was his motto. (I might one day come up with an idea to simplify the nightmarish English spelling!!!)
“Vukova Prepiska” – “Vuk’s Correspondence” – was published in Belgrade in 1909. In these letters I’m discovering the strong bond between Vuk, the great man of letters, and my great great grandfather, his staunch supporter. They come alive on these pages as two passionate and dedicated people. Vasilije acted as a bookseller of Vuk’s many books, The Serbian Dictionary, The Serbian Grammar, The New Testament and others. Vuk would send him the books from Vienna, Vasilije would sell them and send the money to Vuk. They also exchanged news about the political life concerning the Serbs, divided between the two superpowers, as well as personal, family news. He often enquired about Kopitar, or sent greetings to the Slovene philologist who used his influence to promote Vuk’s work. In quite a few letters to Vuk in Vienna, Vasilije is telling him to pick up a parcel with cheese his grandmother has made, or apologising he can’t send him any cheese as it hasn’t been salted yet. Towards the end of the book Vuk is asking Vasilije for recipes for four dishes that he believes his spouse would know for certain. The next letter, his last letter in the book, is the response to Vuk with the recipes, and opens with these words:
“My old and new friend!
Thanks be to God who renewed our old friendship through the marriage of my granddaughter to the brother-in-law of your daughter. May it be happy and long-lasting.”
The four detailed recipes follow: džomlek ćevap – baked beef stew; kapama – lamb stew; čorba od štuke – pike soup; posni ren – horseradish dish. And he ends his letter thus:
“Well, when all these dishes are done, then may God give you a good stomach, pleasant company and good Negotin wines, and then, English puddings and French cakes are no match for it.”
The name of Vasilije Vasiljevic would be known today if the church leaders had not thwarted his cultural work. In those times he was one of the rare merchants who was also a writer. He wrote regularly for Davidović’s newspaper in Vienna, penned a story about Charles II, king of England, and translated from German a story about a duchess (“Vojvotkinja Cerfalčka”), written in fine Serbian according to Vuk’s orthography. Although approved by the War Council in Vienna, the manuscript for his “bukvar” was fiercely rejected by the Zemun priest Jeftimije Ivanović and Metropolitan Stevan Stratimirović and all the priests and monks. In a letter to Vuk of 1st January 1828, he complains about the slander by priest Ivanović regarding “that Shulbericht of mine (school report)… and he told lies to the Metropolitan, and to make me even look more disagreeable, he told him I was your greatest friend and kept corresponding with you all the time.” The Metropolitan’s anger was directed at Vuk in the first place. When Vasilije retired from the position of school inspector, disheartened by the opposition of the clergy, he abandoned the project and it seems that the manuscript for his “bukvar” had been lost.
Thanks to a link on the internet written in Serbian, I now know that Vasilije’s legacy is not only the work he did for Vuk and his own literary work. He also corresponded with many notable Serbs of his time, was one of the first revolutionaries in Zemun in 1848, became a member of the People’s Council in Temisvar regarding the new organisation of Serbian Vojvodina, and in 1866, he helped financially the newspaper “Zastava” – “The Flag”. Two years later, he was one of the creators of the Zemun Savings Bank, being its president for many years, a bank which still operates today. He also bequeathed a substantial amount of money for the establishment of a fund in Zemun, still managed today by the Serbian Orthodox Church. The writer of this article believes that the life of Vasilije Vasiljević should be included in school textbooks as an example of a man successful and productive, showing great love for his native town, the Serbian people and Serbian literature. I couldn’t agree more.
Vasilije watches me amused from the wall in my dining room. Perhaps he is pleased to see he won’t be forgotten, not now in our digital age. Next to him is his beautiful, bejewelled Greek wife, Jelisaveta, and next to her their daughter, Katarina, my great grandmother. These portraits are copies, the original oil paintings, painted by Pavel Ðurković in 1817, are housed in the National Library of Novi Sad. Years ago, my father tried to get them back, explaining that they had been stolen during WWII, but his claim was unsuccessful. I’m glad they are there – Novi Sad was and remains their home – they are part of Serbian cultural heritage.
Julija Radulović – oil painting by Stevan Todorović, 1880
I never knew my father’s parents, they passed away when they were in their eighties, before I was born. Grandma Julija was very beautiful, with black hair and black eyes – I can see that in her portrait as a young woman, which hangs in my living room. There is a certain sadness in her eyes. Or does it seem so to me knowing she had lost her first three children to diphtheria in 1890, all three perishing within two weeks? Dad noted this on the back of the photo as well as their names, Katarina 5, Jerina 4 and Bogdan 3. I can’t even imagine the depth of her grief. Child mortality in those days was a common occurrence and it is possible that bereaved parents took it as part of life, and just went on having more children. She must have been very fond of little Bogdan to give my dad the same name.
Copyright © Irina Dimitric 2017
Renowned Zemun Citizens (in Serbian)