|The moment I saw the familiar sadness in my mother’s eyes as she looked out over the land she helped her grandfather farm, my experience of being a daughter of Istrians—and more specifically, Istro-Romanians—crystallized. Tears came to her eyes as she looked upon the topola (poplar) trees her grandfather had planted with his son when he was a young boy (note that all non-English words used are Croatian unless otherwise specifed). The trees had brought her grandfather solace, she said, after his beloved son was killed in an act of mistaken identity at the end of World War II. He was only 17 years old.
My mother was from Nova Vas, a small town graced by the church Sveti Duh (Holy Spirit) and shadowed by the storied Ucka mountain. The main town, Susnjevica, lay just north. A few kilometers away is Brdo, where my father comes from.
Though the driving distance between the two towns is only about 15 minutes, my parents had never laid eyes on each other—much less been to each other’s towns—until they met in their late teens in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. When they were small children growing up in war-torn Istria, their people had no cars and few horses, no electricity or running water, no telephones. People got around primarily on foot or perhaps a wagon pulled by cows or oxen.
Babich family in Brdo.
My great grandmother and grandmother in the back;
my dad, Bruno, in the middle. his oldest brother, Ray,
in the suit and brother, Ettore, to his right. Circa 1940.
At our dinner table growing up, stories of Istria were told almost nightly, and Istrian customs and food were part of our daily lives. We ate polenta, menestra (soup with beans, vegetables, potatoes, pork and saurkraut), kobasice (sausage), cabbage and potatoes and eggs with asparagus; we were given chamomile tea when we were sick and sometimes a taste of rakija (alcoholic drink made from grapes; akin to Italian grappa) when it was very cold out. We had palachinka (crepes) for dessert. We listened to Istrian music in the house and my parents spoke Istro-Romanian to their friends, relatives and to each other—especially when they didn’t want my brother and me to understand (I understood though!).
As a child growing up in Brooklyn, NY, my first language was Istro-Romanian and even as I transitioned to English, I continued to say my prayers in Istro-Romanian. Though English was mixed in with Istro-Romanian, it wasn’t until we moved to Long Island, when I was four-and-a-half, that it became my primary language.
I always got a sense my parents were happy when they lived in Istria—probably because they talked about it so much—though more often than not, their stories were terribly sad. They always seemed be about wartime, strife and tragedy, extreme poverty and sacrifice, cold winters, hot summers with little water, not enough food, fear and ignorance. But through it all was a vision of beauty and almost mythological adventures. Tall mountains—especially Ucka—loomed, life-and-death situations occurred regularly, acts of heroism, these unbreakable bonds between people, forgiveness and open-heartedness, and, of course, the dream of the Adriatic.
Looking at Brdo from Nova Vas
The Istria I encountered on my first trip there in 1998 was a much different place than it was in the 1940s and ‘50s. Modern conveniences could be found in most towns—though my aunt living in Nova Vas still had no indoor bathroom. Tourism was a quickly burgeoning industry and many shopkeepers and businesspeople spoke English, though Croatian, German and Italian prevailed. I was unprepared for the beauty of my parents homeland, but in retrospect I shouldn’t have been.
I have learned about Istria and the Istro-Romanian people through a mixture of fact and folklore. On our large family trip in ’98, I discovered that this combination has been fitting, as our tour guides described the history of the towns and region in the very same way. I realized then that my vision of Istria was the right one for me and seemed most fitting for a place ruled by numerous countries and factions throughout its history.
The CiribiriGiven the name Ciribiri by their Croatian neighbors, the people from Zejane, which lies north of the Cicarija Mountains, and those from towns further south, on the western slope of Mount Ucka near the shores of what was once Lake Cepic are known in linguistic and historical circles as Istro-Romanians. They have been referred to as Istrian Vlachs as well, denoting the belief that they originally descended to the area from the Wallachia region of Romania. Though early history is difficult to pin down, it is now commonly believed that the Istro-Romanians ultimately came to the area they are now settled in from northern Dalmatia, probably in the 14th or 15th century.
UčkaAnyone you speak to in the Istro-Romanian community will undoubtedly have a story about the great Mt. Učka. Until the tunnel through this enormous mountain—the largest in Istria—was constructed in 1981, Istrians often made their way over the mountain on foot. My grandmother seemed to have gone over that mountain numerous times—even as a child—in order to get to Rijeka to work, or to trade goods in other towns. She used to tell a story of being a young girl crossing the mountain with a friend. The friend’s shoe was lost in the snow and rather than leave her there, my grandmother stayed with her. When her father found the girls, the story goes, they were close to dying from exposure. One of the legends that talks of how the Ciribiri got their name has to do with Učka. Transformed from the Croatian phrase “cire bire”—which roughly means “hold it well” or “hold it tight”, the story has it that Istro-Romanians hauling coal over the mountain to bring to Rijeka or Trieste would be threatened by the strong winds called the "bura," blowing from Učka. The winds were so strong they could upturn carts of coal or firewood and cries of “cire bire” could be heard. Another story claims that Istro-Romanians working on the docks in Rijeka would call out cire bire to each other to encourage the strength to hold their heavy loads. The Great Mt. Učka
The ExodusThe Istro-Romanians left the Susnjevica region in vast numbers after World War II: some under cover of night and at great peril to themselves—like my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather—and others more easily when the borders were opened around 1950. My grandmother escaped from Istria in the mid to late ‘40s, fleeing to a refugee camp in Trieste. Her passage to the U.S. was a colorful one: she responded to a mail-order bride advertisement and figured she’d deal with the consequences once she arrived. Once she arrived in the U.S., she admitted to her prospective bridegroom that she had no intention of marrying him, hoping he would understand. He didn’t and moved to have deportation proceedings begin. But her close-knit band of Istro-Romanian relatives in Brooklyn came to her rescue, recruiting a family friend whose parents came from Sibenik, to marry my grandmother so she could stay. The man, who was my grandfather, agreed and as luck would have it, their arranged marriage turned out to be the real thing and they remained husband and wife until their deaths. Like many Istrian women, my grandmother became a seamstress, working in New York City dress manufacturing shops. My paternal grandfather also escaped and came to the U.S. by boat, jumping ship in Pittsburgh, PA. He made his way to Brooklyn and, like many men from Istria, went to work in the restaurant business, starting out as a salad man and eventually becoming the chef in a restaurant he owned with his oldest son. Louisa Yurman playing the accordion on the balcony of her apartment in Rijeka. Circa 1956-7. After the end of world War I, Istria had become part of Italy. During Italy’s reign, most Slovenian and Croatian schools, customs—even people’s names—were replaced with the Italian. For instance, my maternal family name had been Jurman, but during Italian rule was changed to Jurmani. Nova Vas was called Villa Nova and Brdo, Brianni. Many Istrians initially left when the Italians took over, so the area had already been depleted of much of its native population prior to the second World War. After World War II when most of Istria was turned over to Yugoslavia, another exodus began. Many—such as my father’s family—chose to go the Italian route and they left Brdo for Trieste (my grandfather went to the U.S. separately). In 1955, my father, his brothers, mother and grandmother, joined my grandfather in Brooklyn. My mother’s family, on the other hand, decided to stay and be part of Yugoslavia. My mother left Nova Vas at the age of around 10 to live with her aunt in Rijeka so she could get a better education. She returned to Nova Vas every summer to be with her grandparents, who remained, along with other older neighbors. My mother was a very patriotic Yugoslav and told me that, upon coming to the U.S. in 1958, she remembers giving up her “little red book” to the authorities.
Always HomesickThough there was little question as to whether or not my parents would be leaving their devastated homeland in Istria once the war was over—and they have always said their lives were much better here than they were in Istria—there has always been a longing for home in both of them. In fact, the Istro-Romanian people I know seem to all have that ache. On our trip in 1998, we visited parts of Istria that my family rarely—if ever—had a chance to see as children. The beautiful seaside towns of Porec and Rabac; the Roman colosseum in Pula; the enchanting island of Krk and the majestic hilltop town Motovun: we saw them as tourists, eating in restaurants, sunbathing on the beaches, examining frescoes and artifacts in ancient churches. Historically, Istria always has been a place of strife, transition and upheaval. Though the Istro-Romanians have experienced those changes throughout the ages, they have managed to preserve much of their own unique culture. Today it seems Istria is stable and its beautiful towns and proud people are working hard to cultivate its existing gifts…its natural beauty, its talented people and its historical treasures that have been hidden in the turmoil. Though the Istro-Romanian community is small, its spirit is great and its people undaunted. Through the sincere efforts of people around the world to preserve and revive this singular culture, I believe the twinkle will remain in the eyes of the Ciribiri. Arena at Pula: Built 1st Century An Istro-Romanian Primer
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