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Germany’s Orthodox Serbs

A parish brings together generations of immigrants

Apart from the occasional passerby, the streets of Mengendamm are deserted on this quiet Sunday morning. But as the clock approaches 10, this small industrial neighborhood on the north side of Hanover, Germany, momentarily awakens from its slumber.

As he does every week, Zarko Petrovic sounds the bell for worship at St. Sava’s Serbian Orthodox Church. The now retired 74-year-old Serb has spent most of his adult life as a guest worker outside his native country. For 20 years, he worked on the line at a Michelin tire factory in France. He then moved to Germany, where he worked for 14 years as a bartender at Hanover’s InterContinental Hotel before retiring. Now a volunteer sacristan, Mr. Petrovic summons the community to prayer by tolling bells.

At the top of the hour, Father Milan Pejic enters the sanctuary. Since 1976, the 56-year- old priest has led the Hanover parish, which numbers some 2,500 people.

Only 30 worshipers made it on time this morning, but up to 200 people will be in the church by the liturgy’s end. At the right of the nave, a handful of sick and elderly parishioners are seated in places reserved for them. The rest of the congregation faces the iconostasis and stands for the next two hours: women to the left, men to the right. A gilded chandelier hangs above their heads, lighting the dark sanctuary. The perfumed scent of incense fills the air.

Accompanied by a 10-member choir, a sung dialogue unfolds between the pastor and his flock. Some faithful enunciate the prayers’ every word; others pray silently, contemplating the splendid icons on the iconostasis and church walls.

St. Sava’s parishioners hail from 20 different nations, including Ethiopia and other unlikely corners of the world. For this reason, Father Pejic varies to some extent the liturgy’s content and sequence, he says, “depending on who is present.”

Following tradition, Father Pejic celebrates the Divine Liturgy in Church Slavonic, but pauses at several points to repeat select passages first in Serbian, then German. Readings from the Gospel, on the other hand, are chanted in Serbian and then read aloud in German.

“Chanting twice would be inappropriate, but the contents can be received better by the listeners if it is read. This way, even the Serbian-speaking parishioners understand the biblical text better,” he says.

Father Pejic usually delivers his short sermon, generally based on the readings, at the end of the Divine Liturgy.

“Most parishioners are present then. It is quite normal for people here to arrive late.”

During occasional pauses in the liturgy, coins can be heard jingling as parishioners toss them into small donation baskets.

“Every newcomer donates several coins, kisses the icon of the Blessed Virgin and looks for a place among the worshipers,” continues Father Pejic, who at present is the parish’s only full-time staff member.

Latecomers need not worry about glances of disapproval, at least not from Father Pejic. “I am just as happy about the last worshiper as the first,” he says with a smile.

Parishioner Johannes Wolf, for one, appreciates Father Pejic’s efforts to adapt the Divine Liturgy ever so slightly to accommodate the parishioners’ diverse linguistic and cultural needs. The 50-year-old lector is one of a dozen or so Germans who have joined St. Sava’s. After a long period of soul searching, Mr. Wolf found his spiritual home in Orthodox Christianity.

“It is a faith that touches the heart and not just the mind,” Mr. Wolf explains.

Drawn to what he calls Orthodoxy’s “unspoiled quality,” he says it bears a strong resemblance to early Christianity. For the past 12 years, Mr. Wolf has been translating and publishing Orthodox Christian resources into German and is quite knowledgeable about Orthodoxy’s many churches.

“The foundation of the liturgy and the mysteries [the sacraments] is the same everywhere. But there are differences in mindset among the Orthodox. In general, Serbs and Greeks are more relaxed than Russians, for example, regarding dress code or preparation for Communion,” he explains.

The diversity of St. Sava’s parishioners demonstrates that the faithful are as difficult to define as their church’s rites and traditions. No one is a “typical Serb.” Members come from all over present-day Serbia, the newly independent states of the former Yugoslav republic and further afield.

Mr. Petrovic, for instance, traces his lineage to the village of Skorica near Nis in central Serbia. The avid churchgoer has had a close relationship with Serbian Orthodoxy since birth. “Three of my uncles were priests,” he explains.

Such religious bonds are uncommon for an elderly Serbian guest worker who knew firsthand the suppression of the church by the former Yugoslavia’s Socialist authorities. But his story demonstrates why stereotypes and clichés do not accurately describe Germany’s Serbian community.

Even more than their place of origin, Serbs living in Germany can be differentiated by the time and circumstances of their arrival.

Serbs first settled in Germany unwillingly; the Nazis imprisoned tens of thousands, forcing them into concentration or internment camps for forced laborers and prisoners of war. At the end of World War II, thousands of Serbs elected to remain in Germany because of Yugoslavia’s unstable postwar political climate. These pioneering émigrés founded Germany’s first Serbian Orthodox churches in Dusseldorf, Hamburg, Hanover, Munich and Osnabrück.

From the mid-1960’s until the 1970’s, a second wave of Serbs came to Germany as temporary guest workers. But, Germany’s economic and political freedoms lured many to settle down on a more permanent basis. All told, the number of Serbian nationals in Germany rose to 200,000 during that period.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia and the bloody wars that followed in the 1990’s resulted in a third wave of Serbian migration to Germany. Church authorities estimate that as many as 30,000 Serbs managed to settle there. Given the Serbian government’s role in instigating the war, Serbian refugees had difficulty securing safe passage. Most were women and children who entered the country on tourist visas at the request of relatives already living in Germany.

In recent years, Germany has seen yet another wave of Serbian immigrants. Distinct from those belonging to previous waves, these immigrants tend to be students, young professionals and skilled workers.

Regardless of when and why members of Germany’s Serbian community first came to the country, most now call it home. Mr. Petrovic, for instance, only travels to southeastern Europe on vacation, preferring to spend his golden years in Germany.

“I am an old man. Medical treatment and the circumstances of life are simply better here,” he says. “Besides, everything here is less expensive.”

Nenad Milovanovic observes the diversity and generational differences within the Serbian community on a daily basis. The 29-year-old Serb, who moved to Germany only 30 months ago, runs a shop in Hanover specializing in products from the former Yugoslavia. His customers choose from a wide range of products, such as dark chocolate from Serbia, a condiment from Croatia, a beer from Bosnia and a natural, caffeine-free soft drink from Slovenia.

“Those are the things that people are buying, since they know them from their childhood. They smack of home,” he says.

Several of his customers are older guest workers, who hardly speak any German even after decades of living in the country.

“They have few German acquaintances, only watch Serbian TV via satellite and read our own newspapers,” says Mr. Milovanovic.

He notices a growing divide between the older, more culturally insular generation of Serbs and the new, more open one that is growing up in a multicultural, multilingual Germany.

“They [the younger generation] have seen more and want more,” he continues.

But when it comes to music and movies, young and old converge at Mr. Milovanovic’s shop, which carries a multiple assortment of CDs and DVDs from the Balkans.

A shared culture and language also brings together some members of Germany’s various “Yugoslav” communities in a way unheard of since the days of a united Yugoslavia.

“Somehow, Yugoslavia is still alive here. People do not go to ‘Bosnia’ or to ‘Serbia,’ but to ‘Yugo.’ They love the traditional cuisine and listen to the old music,” says Milos Miljuk, a music student from Serbia.

Since the 21-year-old student came to Germany two and a half years ago, he has been pleasantly surprised by the warm relations and sense of togetherness among Germany’s Albanian, Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian communities.

As in most of Germany’s large cities, a dance party for Balkan youth is held in Hanover most weekends — an event Mr. Miljuk rarely misses.

“It has made me very glad that politics do not play practically any role among young people here. People’s characters are the deciding factor for mutual understanding, not their origins,” he explains.

While Germany’s new generation of southeastern European immigrants may not be allowing the bloody events of the 1990’s to sour relations among them, older immigrants have been far less willing to let bygones be bygones. With the outbreak of war, Germany’s multiethnic Yugoslav cultural associations disbanded. New ones restricted to individual ethnic communities took their place. Some families, of mixed Southern Slav ethnic lineage, now struggle to find a place in Germany’s post-Yugoslav Balkan immigrant communities.

Since the violent unraveling of Yugoslavia, the Orthodox Church of Serbia has grown steadily in Serbia and beyond, attracting record numbers of new faithful. This revitalization is remarkable considering the unique challenges the church has faced. Namely, it has met serious accusations that members of the church leadership supported an extremist Serbian nationalist ideology, which not only fed the war, but justified the ethnic cleansing of conquered territories and the slaughter of thousands of civilians. Therefore, critics argue, the Orthodox Church of Serbia is morally culpable for these genocidal acts. The ongoing conflict in Kosovo further complicates the church’s position since Serbs consider this area the cradle of the Serbian church and state.

But in 1993, the Orthodox Church of Serbia voiced its opposition to the war in a joint declaration with Germany’s Evangelical Church. In addition, the two churches condemned the brutal violence and rejected the nationalist ideologies behind it. They also expressed their solidarity with the victims as well as their support of the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.

“It is important to distinguish between the political and the ecclesiastical perspective,” explains Bishop Konstantin Djokic of the Serbian Orthodox Eparchy of Central Europe. “The Orthodox Church of Serbia back then stood behind the Serbian people, speaking out in defense of their needs, but that did not mean that it stood behind the politicians who quite often opposed ecclesial directions.”

From the Monastery of the All Holy Mother of God in Himmelsthür, about 12 miles southeast of Hanover, the 63-year-old bishop leads the eparchy, which includes some 700,000 faithful in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Despite the church’s status as a minority faith in the region, he believes it plays a more influential role in Central Europe than it does in Serbia.

“In moral and cultural questions, German and Austrian politicians place great emphasis on the opinions and voices of church representatives,” says the bishop.

The bishop considers his collaboration with other Christian communities among his most important tasks. He is an active member of the Commission of Orthodox Churches in Germany, which brings together representatives from, among others, the Serbian, Bulgarian, Georgian, Greek, Romanian and Russian Orthodox churches to address matters of faith.

In Germany, about 1.5 million people are Orthodox Christians, of whom 300,000 belong to the Orthodox Church of Serbia. Altogether, some 500,000 Serbs live in Germany, nearly half of whom possess German nationality. Forty-five Serbian Orthodox priests serve 37 congregations. Apart from contributions from political and ecclesiastical institutions, each parish supports itself with the voluntary donations of its parishioners.

Even as the celebration of the Divine Liturgy continues, St. Sava’s parishioners move about the church’s glassed atrium, which serves as an anteroom to the church sanctuary on one side and to the community center on the other. From time to time, worshipers unobtrusively enter the atrium, taking a break from the liturgy to stretch their legs; not everyone is able to stand in one spot for the full two-hour service. There, they exchange warm greetings with latecomers, who take off their coats, buy candles and make their way to the church.

Too young to appreciate fully the Divine Liturgy, children run in and out of the atrium, laughing and playing. Two children — a brother and sister — sit quietly against a wall. The boy is playing a handheld video game. The girl is drawing a picture, though she periodically glances over her brother’s shoulder and comments on his game tactics. None of the adults takes offense at the rambunctious children. Even pious Mr. Petrovic watches them benevolently.

Among his duties as sacristan, Mr. Petrovic tends the atrium’s tiny shop.

“Just take a look at our choices. We have various candles, Orthodox Christian books, CDs with religious chants and there are some gilded vigil lamps here, too,” he says, pointing to several lighted oil lamps and a collection of religious icons.

Today, however, Mr. Petrovic does not expect to sell much of anything. Along the wall opposite the shop are two boxes full of old icons that the church is giving away. The decision to bring out the icons, which had been stored in the community center’s basement, was made so that an additional classroom could be set up.

Since the 1950’s, St. Sava’s has offered its youngsters catechetical courses and cultural classes — held every Saturday — that instruct and reinforce the church’s religious teachings and cultural heritage.

“In our new community center, we originally planned for two classrooms,” remembers Father Pejic. “Thank God we were underestimating the need!”

Currently, the community center has barely enough space to accommodate the nearly 130 children, between the ages of 7 and 17, who attend the classes. The curriculum includes seven grade levels with courses in religion, the Serbian language, traditional dance and singing.

Twenty-eight-year-old music teacher Jelena Agbaba Milosavljevic gives classes in traditional folk songs and hymns. She and her husband, Nikola, first came to Germany eight years ago to study music. St. Sava’s schooling program is a matter close to her heart.

“For the children to become integrated and understand German culture, they also need to know from where they came,” she says.

The Milosavljevics have also made a point to educate their 7-year-old son, Mihajlo, and 16-month-old daughter, Mina, about their Serbian heritage. Every year, they celebrate their slava — a mostly Serbian Orthodox tradition in which families venerate their own patron saint on the saint’s feast day. The family also celebrates Christmas twice a year, first on 25 December with German friends, and then again on 7 January. The Orthodox Church of Serbia follows the Julian calendar, which is now 13 days behind the Gregorian used globally.

Svjetlana Bojic, another teacher at St. Sava’s school, shares a similar enthusiasm about the program. Since 1992, the 37-year-old woman has been living in Hanover, where she teaches mathematics and sports at a public school. But on Saturdays, Ms. Bojic teaches a different subject — the Serbian language. In class, her students practice writing Cyrillic and develop their oral communication skills.

Every year, St. Sava’s students participate in a competition with students from other Serbian Orthodox churches all over Germany. The competition’s various contests test the students’ knowledge about their faith and its traditions and history.

Parents appreciate the competition and volunteer to help out at the events.

“This is a one-of-a-kind opportunity,” exclaims an enthusiastic mother. “Here I can once again, together with my son, learn about the foundations of our religion.”

But the woman’s 8-year-old son finds himself surrounded by mostly girl students. Gender imbalance favoring girls is a constant challenge at St. Sava’s, particularly in the higher grade levels. “The boys just prefer playing soccer,” explains Ms. Bojic.

For 35 years, St. Sava’s parish had made its home in a renovated chapel in downtown Hanover. Then in 1991, the parish moved to its current, larger facility in Mengendamm, on property it shares with a Greek Orthodox congregation.

The Serbian community raised the funds to build the new church and community center. Volunteers helped with the construction, and many of the materials were donated. Now and then, members of the larger community even pitched in.

“A Croatian building contractor learned about the project from his colleague,” Father Pejic says.

“He donated the plaster on the first floor and even paid his employees to do the plastering.”

Similarly, a Bosnian-owned joinery produced the interior woodwork, which it sold to the parish at almost cost.

But the project’s crowning masterpieces are indisputably the Serbo-Byzantine murals that cover every inch of the church’s interior. Originally, the plans only called for iconographers to decorate the sanctuary. But thanks to private donations, the parish community employed and accommodated the iconographers for two and a half years, during which time they painted the entire interior.

As the Divine Liturgy winds down, parishioners make their way to the adjoining community center where they sit together for coffee and cake. Today, someone recently passed an exam and to celebrate, parishioners are also passing around rakia — a traditional fruit brandy.

Some parishioners find the congregation’s sense of community to be as important as the liturgical service. For many, especially the elderly, the parish community helps keep fresh the memories of the lives they once had in their native country and of the close friends and relatives they left behind.

“By building this community center here, people have tried to create a piece of home abroad for themselves,” Father Pejic says. “And I believe that it has worked.”

Based in Hamburg, writer Joachim Dethlefs contributes to a number of German publications. Photographer Andy Spyra, also from Hamburg, recently received a grant from Getty for a project in Kashmir, India.

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