Osage woman recounts life as a refugee

Member of Sacred Heart Parish fled Croatia during WWII

By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant

Croatia 2OSAGE — The year before Margaret Smolik was born, her homeland of Croatia, then part of Yugoslavia, was invaded by the Nazi German army.

“My family had a farm in north-central Croatia, near the town of Voćin,” Smolik, a resident of Osage and member of Sacred Heart Parish, shared in a recent interview with The Witness. But in 1943, when Smolik was just a year old, the family fled their farm and all they knew to escape the violence of World War II.

Smolik, her parents and two older sisters spent the next two years on the move, before finally settling in northern Austria, where they lived for seven years as refugees. “We were displaced persons, foreigners, not necessarily wanted there,” recalled Smolik. But the family learned German, the language spoken in Austria, and did their best to assimilate to the culture.

Smolik and her family were among the many millions left displaced by the time WWII came to an end in 1945. The ­United Nations established the International Refugee Organization (IRO) the following year as a response to the unprecedented refugee crisis. The IRO would coordinate the relocation of refugees to places like the U.S., Canada and Australia where they could start the task of rebuilding their lives.

Since Smolik and her family were Catholic, the National Catholic Welfare Conference provided them with assistance, and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque helped find someone to sponsor the family and their trip to the U.S. A farmer from Ossian agreed to be their sponsor and to have the family live with him.

In 1952, Smolik, who at the time was just a few months shy of her 10th birthday, together with her parents and sisters, traveled to Germany, where the five boarded a ship and headed for America. “Ours was one of the last ships to get out of Germany. The IRO came to an end later that year,” Smolik remembered. Weeks later the family arrived in New Orleans, then traveled by train to Chicago, then finally on to Iowa.

When they arrived in Ossian, Smolik said she and her family did not know English. “It was hard to communicate. I was shy, quiet and afraid,” she reflected. Despite the strong sense of fear she felt in encountering such unfamiliar surroundings, Smolik said the response of the local community to them as refugees was “incredibly positive.” “We were accepted – absolutely!” she said. “The friendship and welcoming people offered us was incredible.”

Smolik is still touched by a small act of kindness made by another child at school when she was still very new to America. “I was on the playground, just standing there by myself,” remembered Smolik. “Another girl came over and gave me her banana. I had never had one before. It was so neat. I didn’t know her, and for her to reach out to me in that way meant a lot.”

Some months later, the family moved to Roseville to work for a farmer. Smolik said the family was welcomed there as well. One family in particular invited her and her sisters over to play. A farmer gave her family a cow so they would have milk and offered them as many eggs as they could eat. Smolik said there was also a local priest who spoke to her and her family in German since that was a language they knew from their time in Austria and could more easily communicate in.

But the family also worked hard to learn English. “My parents made sure that my sisters and I learned the spelling and the meaning of new words each week,” Smolik remembered. Her English eventually became so good that friends today who have known her for decades are surprised when they learn she was not born in the U.S. since they don’t detect any noticeable accent.

The family eventually moved to Des Moines where Smolik completed grade school and high school. She attended Drake University and earned a teaching degree.

Last year, Smolik, the widowed mother of four and a retired English and composition teacher, returned to Croatia for the first time since her childhood. “I rented a car when I was there and drove to see the area where my family had lived. I had a need to see that place more than I realized. I can’t express how much it meant to see the church where my parents had been married and my sisters and I were baptized,” Smolik said.

Unfortunately, there was no one left for Smolik to contact while visiting Croatia. “No one we were related to was left in the country,” she said, “but I did find one elderly man who remembered the family.”

The same year as her visit to Croatia, Smolik also published a memoir, “Like a Haystack: Life From My Perspective,” that recounts her family’s experience as refugees.

“Writing this book has helped me feel more free to share my personal story and made me more willing to open up. It has touched me deeply,” reflected Smolik.

Despite all that she and her family went through during and after WWII, Smolik does not harbor anger. She said, “I have no hatred, no bad thoughts toward anyone.”

Smolik believes her own feelings on war and her own experience as a refugee are summarized best in the words of former Israeli president Shimon Peres. When he met last year with Pope Francis and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Peres was quoted as saying, “I was young. Now I am old. I experienced war. I tasted peace. Never will I forget the bereaved families – parents and children – who paid the cost of war. And all my life I shall never stop to act for peace, for the generations to come.” “His words expressed my own feelings so well,” she said.

With humanity now facing in 2015 what many are calling the worst refugee crisis since WWII, Smolik said she thinks often of those who have been forced to flee their homes and are living as refugees around the world. She hopes the same helping hand is extended to them that was extended to her and her family. “Dealing with refugees is difficult, but we did it back then (after WWII), and we need to do the same thing today,” she said.

Smolik is open to sharing her story with churches, schools and other organizations, hoping that by talking about her experiences she can help bring awareness to the plight of today’s refugees. Smolik can be contacted at masmolik@osage.net. Her memoir, “Like a Haystack,” can be found at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


This story is provided courtesy of The Witness, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.