baptism underground

St. George’s Church (1761) in Sombor, Serbia

I visited Sombor last week and walked into St. George’s Church on main street.  Some of my family history is recorded in church documents here.

During the era of Tito’s communism in 1960s and 1970s in Yugoslavia any religious expression was at best seen as provocative, and at times it was sanctioned by the party (The Communist Party).

My maternal grandmother Stojanka, my great aunt Vida and my maternal great grandparents were the four people present and instrumental in organizing the baptism for me in 1971. My dad recalls that the ritual was not performed in the church but more discretely in my grandparents’ house, and that he and mom knew about it but weren’t involved as their participation would be considered reactionary.

My father is a WWII orphan. His parents, Bosko and Vera Vrebalov, communist revolutionaries, were killed by their countrymen, Serbian nationalists. There are streets and schools named after Bosko and Vera, and two of my siblings have their names. My younger sister and I (Marija and Aleksandra), fancied as little girls that we were named after the royal couple of prewar Yugoslavia. Our assumption was repeatedly shushed by our grandmother Stojanka, with no explanation. We knew that royals were expelled by communists so the silencing by our grandmother for the two of us meant that what we suspected was for sure correct.

Well, we were wrong. I was named after one of the communist party leaders, Aleksandar Rankovic, who was a prewar comrade of my paternal grandparents and took upon himself to look after their orphan – my dad. Rankovic was ousted before I was born and persona non grata in Tito’s regime. He never made public appearances and even though we would visit him in isolation in his home, the origin of my name was not discussed in my presence while he and Tito were alive.

Lots of us born during the existence of Yugoslavia were born into families with similar ideological polarities often resulting in painful divisions, blame, and loss.  Those historic divisions carry into the current political reality, and not only in Serbia. Through reconciling and integrating them into a balanced, complex identity we have a chance to better understand and serve our environment and, on a larger scale, the polarized world.  The service might show as kindness to a political opponent at a family dining table or as bridging cultures and connecting with the other from a radically different religious, political, or social background.

My personal interest has been to integrate polarities within my own identity so that I can contribute with work that’s relevant and unifying, which then, I believe, is beautiful as well.