Anka Cavrak – Oral History

I was born at home in a house that my mom and dad shared with a Serbian couple. The Serbian woman helped deliver me, so I often qualify my birth by saying that I had a Serbian and a Croatian mom. This was in Creighton Mine, near Sudbury in northern Ontario, a region which at one time was considered the nickel capital of the world. There were many ethnic groups in our community — Italians, Ukrainians, Polish, Finnish and Croatians.

My dad came from a village called, Gorinci, Toplice, Lesce na Dobri, near Karlovac. He was born in ’04 and came to Canada in 1928, so he would have been twenty-four. I think he was able to save enough money to pay his own passage to Canada. That used to be mindboggling to me, that somebody would get on a boat and come to a country where they didn’t know a soul!

He came over before the Depression, so he had a pretty difficult time getting settled. It took him seven years before he could acquire enough money to send for my mom. Jobs were hard to come by and he worked in the lumber mills for a while. The men moved along from one place to the next until they could find a job. In 1933 he ended up in Creighton Mine, living as a boarder with another family from the Old Country.

My mom came from a little village called Soline — a few miles from my dad’s village. They probably knew one another from church. My mom was nineteen when they were married and my dad was three years older.

When my mother came to Canada they lived in this house with the family my dad was boarding with, this Serbian family I mentioned. I was still an infant when my dad was able to get a company house and we moved to our own home.

I went to high school in Copper Cliff and then went on to school in Toronto to become a medical record professional. I came back to Sudbury to work for a few years until my mid twenties.

I came out to San Francisco with two friends. Choosing San Francisco was not by any design, we just went “eenie meenie miney moe” and picked San Francisco. Weren’t we lucky!?! We planned to go to California for a year or two and then go back home. We were all pretty close to our families.

I went back to Canada and lived in Montreal for a couple of years. Then a friend I had gone to California with the first time around needed a roommate and asked me to come back to San Francisco. I applied for a job at the Old Mary’s Help Hospital here, now Seton Medical Center, and would you believe they hired me sight unseen! I came back and lived in the City for about ten years before I moved to San Mateo.

LISTEN. Every time I would go back home to visit, Mom would ask me, “Have you run into any Croatians?” It took me quite a while to find the Croatian community here. I remember going to the California Hall on Turk Street once or twice in those early years in the 60s. Then eventually I heard of Napredak in San Jose and Caroline Bahr, and Veseli Seljaci I went to concerts there, and once I got to take my mom with me. But they were isolated events like that.

My friends knew I was Croatian, but since not many people knew what a Croatian was, they thought of us as “Yugoslavian.” When my parents left the Old Country we were known as Croatian or Slovenian or Serbian, though some had passports that said Austrian. When I was a teenager, if I would talk with an Anglo person, I would have to qualify my Croatian identity as being Yugoslav. You certainly don’t have to do that anymore. Things have changed in the 90s. People have taken stronger positions where they used to be much more subtle about their ethnic backgrounds. They are much louder, because they are more comfortable with what has happened with the old Yugoslavia.

It was difficult right after World War II. I remember sending parcels with basic things like sugar and coffee. My mother would hide money on spools of thread, because there was, supposedly, screening of what came into the country. Even letters were screened. There was said to be thievery amongst people who were just delivering the mail. Later you could send money and be sure that people would get it. I was shocked when I went back to Croatia the first time to see how poor people were and how backwards they were living. They were still ploughing the fields with an ox.

LISTEN. Croatian was my first language. When we went to school we learned to speak English. As we got older we youngsters weren’t able to speak Croatian as well as our parents wanted us to, so they formed a little committee, ten or twelve Croatian families, and set up a little schoolroom in an extra bedroom of the home of a Croatian family, and my dad taught us Croatian.

So I actually learned some basic grammar and spelling. Now I can read and write Croatian well enough to communicate with my relatives in Croatia. And I can read the newspaper, but only at the level of everyday stuff. I can manage if there is no alternative. If I know that the other party knows English, I resort to English. But if I’m over in Croatia, and I know that no one knows how to speak in English, I just go for it! And I’m always delighted to find that I get better and better.

LISTEN I grew up with music; my mother was a very happy-go-lucky lady. She loved to sing and she sang at home all the time. That’s where I learned a lot of Croatian songs. Some of my peers now are amazed that I have a repertoire of all these really old songs. I know of one that my mother sang that is really old, because she learned it as a child and it must have come from the World War I era.

We were a small community of Croatians in Creighton. I was envious of the kids in Sudbury, which had a much larger Croatian community. They had teachers for dancing Kolo and playing tambura. I always thought I’d love to play tamburitza, but we lived twelve miles out and my family didn’t have a car so I couldn’t get to class.

I got exposed to tamburitza music at dances and weddings. The bridal couple would import a tamburitza orchestra from Hamilton or Toronto and, as a youngster I would watch the people dance kolos and that is how we learned to dance them.

LISTEN. I learned of the Slavonic Cultural Center through a friend at the hospital where I worked. I had already been in San Francisco over ten years. This gentleman sponsored me and I was initiated in 1979 as one of the first women members.

I was so warmly received by that group. I’ve never forgotten that. I walked in “cold turkey,” not knowing a soul. I came to social functions, whether it was music or dancing, often without an escort. So a great way for me to get in there was to help serve the tables. All the fellows around would take their turns dancing with me. I got to know “the gang” by just being one of the people that served the plates at dinner.

Then I got involved in the Cultural Committee. I’m no longer on it, but that group has done wonders for the Club in terms of keeping the cultural part going. Out of the Cultural Committee evolved Slavonijo, our very first dancing group. John Daley brought in Elsie Dunin, and Neal Sandler. We performed at San Francisco State a number of times and at the Kolo Festival in Berkeley. After that the Dalmacijo singing group which I was in for several years, was formed and continues to this day.

The Slavonic Center has been very important in continuing my cultural connection because of the singers, the dancers, the festivals we put on. Tamburitza music especially. I loved it as a youngster and I’m wild about it now. Anyone can tell you if there is a tambura within miles I’ll be the first one in line and the last one to leave!

Now when I hear tamburitza music, I often have humongous tears well up. All my friends know that, and they kind of make fun of me. It’s just that not only is it a beautiful song, but the particular song evokes memories of the past — of my mother and father. My mother more so, because my father tended to be more reserved, not a singer, although one of my aunts told me that as a youth he used to lead the Kolo.

I’ve made more of my non-Slavic friends aware of the traditions and the culture and it fascinates them. I drag everyone I meet to festivals at the Hall or introduce them to tamburitza music. So it’s important to me not just in carrying down the culture through Croatians, but to make the rest of the world aware of our culture and music.

You ask me what is the most important part of my culture to carry on to the next generation? Well the music. The music, the music. That’s the biggest thing.