Banat Swabians, Bosnians, and the Lessons of a Forgotten Immigrant

Guest blogger Benjamin Moore writes about how he got started on what would later become his book, The Names of John Gergen: Immigrant Identities in Early Twentieth-Century St. Louis. Benjamin Moore is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Bosnia Memory Project at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, Missouri.

In 2004, I stumbled upon the World War I-era schoolwork that would lead to writing The Names of John Gergen. The book focuses on the author of the schoolwork, an immigrant orphan who lived in the working-class neighborhoods of south St. Louis and who died young in 1935. Coincidentally, shortly after I found the schoolwork, I began work on the Bosnia Memory Project, which is dedicated to documenting St. Louis’ Bosnian community, the largest outside of Bosnia. Over the past fifteen years, my colleagues and I have recoded hundreds of oral histories of Bosnian refugees in an effort to preserve their memories and perceptions. (The Bosnia Memory Project was recently renamed the Center for Bosnian Studies.)

I’ve reflected repeatedly on the relationship between these two projects, which unfolded simultaneously but separately. To this day, few of my Bosnian friends know about The Names of John Gergen, and Bosnians are never mentioned in the book. But looking back, I can see that the two projects were deeply intertwined and yielded similar insights. Together, John Gergen and my Bosnian friends have taught me much about immigrant and refugee identities and their complicated relationship to displacement.

Specifically, I have learned that transnational migration requires the development of new identities that respond to changing cultures and circumstances. In the best case, multiple identities enable immigrants and refugees to navigate the varied cultural spaces they traverse—between Sarajevo and St. Louis, for example, or (more commonly) between home and work. But multiple identities can also lead to a painful fracturing of experience. In his twenty-six years, John Gergen acquired seven names that responded to critical changes in his life, including migration, abandonment, and naturalization. Together, the names speak to the difficulty of attaining agency when the terms of one’s identity are constantly changing. Similarly, multiple identities among St. Louis’s Bosnians often cause a feeling of alienation that I have come to call cultural homelessness. “In Bosnia I’m American,” said one younger Bosnian, “and In America I’m Bosnian. There is really no place that I can call my own.”

Granted, there are fundamental differences between John Gergen and St. Louis’s Bosnians. John was a Banat Swabian—a German-speaking Catholic from an agrarian area of southern Hungary known as the Banat.  In the early 1900s, thousands of Banat Swabians migrated to St. Louis as laborers. However difficult their lot, they came willingly, and many willingly returned home to southern Hungary. St. Louis’s Bosnians, on the other hand, fled the ethnic cleansing the early 1990s, which was directed mainly at Muslims. While their connection to Bosnia remains strong, most have remained in St. Louis because they have no home to go back to.

Still, the parallels between the two groups are compelling. In the early 1900s, Banat Swabians in St. Louis numbered in the several thousands. Settling in the industrial neighborhood of Soulard, they formed a tightly-knit community that perpetuated for decades their ways of speaking, eating, and forming families. But they were also subject to the power of local and national institutions, many of which sought to Americanize immigrants and erase the identities of the homeland. John himself was reshaped by a library, a bathhouse, two schools, the courts, and the medical establishment. With no regard for his ethnicity, these institutions positioned him as an alien, a citizen, a “retardate,” a laborer, and a tubercular. Only a German socialist organization, which John joined a few years before he died, accorded him the agency to oppose the institutions that devalued him. Otherwise, John was regarded as inferior and expendable. And after his death, he was forgotten—by his family, by his community, and by history.

A century later, in St. Louis, Bosnians’ economic survival has also come at a heavy price. Upon arrival in the 1990s, regardless of their education, Bosnians typically worked long hours in low-paying jobs. As a result, they often sacrificed close relationships with their children, who learned English in the schools and who just wanted to fit in. The pain of the elders’ wartime memories has only deepened the intergenerational rift. Silence about the past pervades many Bosnian families. Younger Bosnian-Americans are therefore deeply affected by a war and genocide that they neither remember nor understand. The history of Banat Swabians in St. Louis tells us that it takes but one generation to forget. For Bosnians, intergenerational forgetting would be especially tragic, because it is exactly what the people who drove them out of Bosnia wanted. Personhood, I have learned, is complicated, especially for the displaced. If immigrants and refugees are to flourish in their host culture, then they must be allowed to live out the full range of their transnational identities, in all of their contradictory complexity. To require anyone—but especially an immigrant or refugee—to assume a singular identity is not only inhumane; it is also foolish, at odds with lived experience. It is my fervent hope that St. Louis’s Bosnians will escape the tragic limits on identity that American institutions of the past placed on John Gergen and others like him.

Join Benjamin Moore for a virtual talk about his book on Tuesday April 20th at 7p.m., hosted by Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri. Visit this website for more information.

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