Serbian lineages

In Serbian peasant families, surnames were often taken in the very early years of the 19th century. Say there were three brothers, Andrija, Pavle and Stojan, each of whom settled and married in or around the same village. Their families then took a patronymic as their surname, becoming respectively Andrić, Pavlić and Stojanović. The children of the three brothers therefore had different family names, and so on down each male line of descent, which in Serbian is known as a vamilija. Traditionally, kin within a vamilija cannot inter-marry, no matter how far down the lineage. 

Each vamilija has its own patron saint and celebrates the saint’s feast day or slava. The slava is of central importance in Serbian tradition and, especially where a surname is common locally, individual families will be known and distinguished by their slava. The family’s patron saint does not appear in any official state or church records but, if it is known or can be found out, it can prove of assistance in identifying related families when undertaking genealogical research to locate surviving family in Serbia. Historically, too, each vamilija tended to reside in its own neighbourhood of a settlement, although in this respect it should be remembered that many Serbian villages are dispersed communities of scattered smallholdings, rather than concentrated and clustered in the manner of villages in many other places in Europe. Often, too, in rural areas (and Serbia was and still is very much a rural land) the vamilija will have its own burial ground (perhaps on a hillside, unconnected to the church), or section of a village cemetery.

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A woman officer in the Serbian Army

In the 1881 census for England,  a five year old girl named Flora is to be found residing with three sisters, her mother Sophia and her father, the curate, Samuel Dickson Sandes, at The Rectory in Monewden, Suffolk. The living for the rural parish of St Mary’s was valued at £265 in 1868. The National Archives’ handy currency converter tells us that this sum would be worth about £12,110 in today’s money – not much but then it was a small and obscure parish. By the time of the 1891 census, the family has moved a little cross-county to The Rectory in Marlesford. 

At the next decennial census in 1901, the family is living in suburbia, at St Paul’s Road, Thornton Heath, Surrey. Rev Sandes, now 78, is recorded as “living on own means”, so one assumes that he has retired from the curacy of Anglican souls. Flora is still at home, a 25 year old spinster, described, like her sister Fanny, as a correspondent.  In 1911, the most recent census of England & Wales currently publicly available, the family is still at St Paul’s Road. By this date the Rev Sandes, aged 88, is describing himself as a “retired parson and barrister”. He may have become curmudgeonly with age, or perhaps was registering a minor objection to the exclusion of women from the franchise (in tune with the “No Vote, No Census” protest): either way, the census return, which is neatly completed in most respects, records against the Ages of Females simply “full” against his daughter Flora and the other women in the house (excepting his wife Sophia, who is an acknowledged 78).  The census enumerator, one William Warman, has pencilled in the remarks “will not give ages” and “refuses to give ages and any further information”, his irritation almost audible. 

And as for Flora herself, the column Personal Occupation says: None. Yet five years later Flora Sandes was a Captain in the Serbian Army. 

Flora volunteered for overseas service immediately upon the outbreak of WW1 in August 1914. She was rejected by the Volunteer Aid Detachment but got in to the American Mabel Grujić’s Red Cross Unit on a temporary three-month stint and headed to Serbia. She then returned home to fund-raise before returning in 1915 to join the Serbian Red Cross. She served in Niš, caught typhus in Valjevo, was attached to the Serbian Second Army, and worked as a medical orderly in Salonica and Monastir before making the transition from nurse to soldier. Commissioned as an army officer, she fought at Kajmakčalan before accompanying the retreating Serbs on their long winter march across Albania to safety in Corfu and Bizerte (Tunisia). 

After the War, Flora Sandes lived in Yugoslavia and married a White Russian officer named Judenič (later imprisoned and killed by the Nazis), before returning to England in her sixties. 

Flora Sandes was one of hundreds of British women who volunteered and served as nurses in Serbia during WW1, at places such as Kragujevac, Mladenovac and Valjevo. Some served under the aegis of the Red Cross, others as part of the independent Scottish Women’s Hospital for Foreign Service. Most came from relatively comfortable and privileged backgrounds and the contrast between their early life experiences and those of the war must have been acute and unimaginable. 

For those researching an ancestor or family member who was one of those women, there is a significant collection of records in the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London.

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Jewish research in Belgrade, Serbia

 The Jews of Belgrade were largely exterminated by the Nazis and their local accomplices between October 1941 and May 1942. The Nazis declared the city Judenfrei by August of 1942. Of course, as elsewhere in Serbia and throughout Europe, this was seldom entirely true – individual Jews managed to go in to hiding, or were concealed and protected by kind neighbours, or left Belgrade for the relative safety of an obscure village in the countryside, or fled while there was still time with view to returning later. Nevertheless, the great majority of the pre-War Jewish population of Belgrade was destroyed. 

The Jews of Belgrade were both Ashkenazic and Sephardic, with the latter in the majority (as tended to be the case throughout the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans), forming approximately 80% of the overall community. Before the Shoah there were four functioning Sephardic synagogues and prayer houses in Belgrade. However, families were not necessarily religious – the Jews of Serbia were usually assimilated and often upwardly mobile and, as well as merchants and craftsmen, there were many shop salesmen and clerks, professionals and intellectuals. 

Although the community was destroyed in 1942, there are excellent surviving records covering the period from the turn of the century up to the Holocaust. These are not online but in some cases have been digitised and can be interrogated locally. Other and frequently more informative paper files have to be called up in the traditional way in the municipal archives. If an individual or a family was established in the city, especially in the Stari Grad (“old town”) neighbourhoods such as Dorćol, we can usually find a very good paper trail for the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s up to 1941/42, detailing dates of vital events, occupations, residential addresses and so on. Such records often indicate connections elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia or abroad – a sojourn in Croatia perhaps, a wife born in another city with a thriving Sephardic community, or a parent from Sofia in Bulgaria. 

If you are interested in Jewish family history research in Belgrade, Bluebird Research would be delighted to assist – please email us for an assessment and estimate of costs.

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The Jews of Belgrade

The very nature of the trade of a professional genealogist is to undertake research into someone else’s family history. As a genealogist, one is accustomed to researching one’s own tree and generally feels reasonably confident when visualising the past and imaginatively reconstructing the lives of one’s ancestors, based upon what one knows of local history and culture, the places where they lived and what they did for a living. At least that is certainly the case when one’s ancestors come from the same country and, as in my own particular case, the same county and often the same town. 

It is of course different if you live in diaspora, if you are, for example, a resident of North America or Australia or South Africa with ancestors back in the unfamiliar old world of continental Europe. When, as a professional genealogist, one conducts investigations on behalf of such individuals into their family background in Europe, one brings to bear the wide experience of one’s previous research across multiple cases, the knowledge derived from reading and, in many instances, from travel; but most of all one has to have what Keats called negative capability. This is the ability to suppress one’s own personality and to project oneself into the lives of others, to try to think and feel the world through their eyes. One might argue that this is largely spurious but I do not think it impossible to gain practical insights into avenues of research from this kind of imaginative or lateral thinking. Certainly, one often finds that one becomes preoccupied with particular individuals or lines of a family being researched, as one wonders about their lives, their motivations, what prompted them to emigrate, for example, or how they managed to survive adverse circumstances. 

David Albahari published in 1998 a book called, in English translation, Götz and Meyer*.  His book is an essay in negative capability, an attempt to come to terms with the experience and unknowable inner life of participants in the terrible drama of the extermination of the Jewish community of Belgrade once Serbia had been forced to capitulate to Nazi occupation. Between April and July 1941 almost 9,500 Belgrade Jews had to register with the authorities. The Jewish men of Belgrade were mostly shot in October 1941, but the women, children and elderly were taken to the Sajmište concentration camp (in the grounds of a former trade fair on the outskirts of the city) in December 1941. The protagonists of the title are Wilhelm Götz and Erwin Meyer, NCOs of the Nazi SS who operated the gaswagen that liquidated the Sajmište camp Jews between March and May 1942, using the truck’s exhaust fumes, on daily or twice-daily trips (excepting Sundays). What can one know of Götz and Meyer? Albahari presents them not as callous or psychopathic but as regular guys carrying out a perhaps unpleasant but necessary duty for the greater good. Gradually over the course of the book they are used as a means of teasing out the last days and demise of the family Albahari doesn’t know, those lost in the Shoah: 

“When I first tried to sketch out my family tree, it looked like… a blade of grass, like a bare tree, without leaves.” 

He interviews an ailing elderly relative living in care but still able to record the names of multiple uncles, aunts and cousins, whose lives Albahari then researches as best he can using the surviving vital records of the Jewish community of Belgrade: 

“My family tree now looked quite different, it had filled out with leaves and branches, and it was sturdier… I ought to have had 67 relatives, some of them close, others more distant… in fact I had only six, including the cousin in the old people’s home.” 

The cousin passes away shortly after. The other five kin, “the last kernels on a gnawed ear of corn”, lived in Argentina, Australia, Israel and USA. Their average age was 80 and all were childless. 

“I was an ear of corn with nothing but a few loose kernels left on it… when all of us died off, when our kernels fell into the washtub of time, nothing would be left from my parents’ families.” 

Although ironically, perhaps, the book is an easy read – you can read it in two sittings – it is a serious and sobering reflection on persecutor and victim, as well as a personal journey in discovering and attempting to come to terms with the past and realising the significance of memory. It also makes one start to think about the ones who got away, and how; what role was played by chance or luck or circumstances, and what part by the initiative, or sheer determination, or instinctive will to survive of those Jews of Belgrade who somehow came through the Holocaust years alive, against all the odds. 

*published by Vintage, 2005, in translation by Ellen Elias-Bursać

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Professional research in Serbia

We offer professional family history research services across the former Yugoslavia, including of course Serbian genealogical research.

In Serbia itself, we can provide assistance: 

  • in Vojvodina, including Banat, formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As well as ethnic Serbian research, we can help investigate ancestry for those with roots among, for example, the ethnic German Donauschwaben and Hungarians of this region.
  • south of the Danube, in continental Serbia, formerly under Ottoman Turkish rule. As well as those with Serbian roots, we can also help those with Jewish connections to Belgrade and other towns.
  • in Kosovo, researching Serbian roots, subject to local conditions.
  • researching the family histories of the many White Russian émigrés who settled in Yugoslavia after the 1917 Revolution and the defeat of the White Army in Russia.

For Serbian ancestral research beyond the borders of modern Serbia, the types of records available and the prospects for success vary with the territory. It is important to understand that few regions have an unbroken documentary record and, therefore, to manage your own expectations as to what is achievable. However, we can assist with research into the family trees of ethnic Serbs whose ancestors came from: 

  • today’s Republika Srpska and elsewhere within Bosnia-Hercegovina.
  • Croatia, including the Krajina around the town of Knin.
  • Macedonia.
  • Montenegro, such as the Bokelji from Boka Kotorska who were prominent among the earlier waves of emigrants to North America.

In these places, vital records created by church and state have been lost or destroyed at various times, including as recently the 1990s. However, even where records are incomplete, it is usually possible to recreate a family history using alternative sources, so please contact us for a free opinion and an assessment as to the prospects for research.

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