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Reviewed by:
  • The Children of Lazo’s Grove
  • Robert P. Gakovich
The Children of Lazo’s Grove (video documentary). Produced and Directed by Andrei Simić and Maria Budisavljevic Oparnica Simić. A Byzantine Production. 95 minutes.

Andrei Simić, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern California, has participated in the production of over thirty ethnographic films. One of his most successful efforts was Živeli: Medicine for the Heart, produced in 1987. This film documents the struggles of early Serbian settlers and their contemporary life and activities in various communities in the United States. The Children of Lazo’s Grove was produced at the initiative of his wife, Professor Maria Oparnica Simić, who collaborated in the production of this historical documentary about Serbian and other East European immigrants in the economically depressed industrial town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where she lived as a child.

Lazo’s Grove was a recreational retreat owned by a Serbian immigrant, Lazo Gjurich (Djurić). It provided a weekend respite for the Serbs who worked in the coal mines and steel mills, and was also frequented by other ethnic groups in the Johnstown area. The film is narrated by Professor Oparnica Simić who combines her own memories with those of elderly residents whom she interviews on camera. These interviews reveal that the Serbs and other Eastern and Southern European immigrants lived in mutual harmony. They were brought close together because they all suffered the same discrimination and exploitation by the steel and other industries. Nevertheless, these diverse groups preserved their own ethnic identity and traditions, maintaining their own churches, organizations, gathering places, and cemeteries.

This documentary provides a socio-historical view of the lives and struggle for survival of working-class immigrants (with primary focus on the Serbs) in an industrial town in Western Pennsylvania. This work spans the period from the last decades of the 19th century to the present. The film is most successful when it allows the subjects to speak for themselves. For instance, one can feel the pain expressed by an elderly woman who, as a young [End Page 363] pregnant wife, was widowed when her husband died in an accident in a steel mill where working conditions were extremely arduous and dangerous. The gravestones of young men in a Serbian cemetery speak for themselves. One can also imagine the crowded and unsanitary boarding houses where men shared the same beds on a shift basis, or the hard labor involved in splitting abandoned railway ties to heat the immigrant homes. Nevertheless, the interviews reveal the sense of community, cooperation, and mutual respect which characterized these immigrants who shared the same struggles and hardships.

During the early years, Johnstown’s socio-economic stratification was based almost entirely on ethnic origin. The well-established upper and middle classes with origins in Northern and Western Europe contrasted sharply with those who had arrived more recently from Eastern and Southern Europe. Accentuating this divide, these relative new-comers comically referred to more established “English-speakers” as “cake-eaters,” a term which the Serbs translated as “keksari.” Another amusing moment in the film is the recounting of the various, sometimes humorous nicknames, which were often the only names by which people knew each other.

This documentary has two major themes: the first, a history of the early Serbian and other immigrant settlers and their survival up to the present time; and the second, a more general account of the social and economic context in which they lived. The Children of Lazo’s Grove is skillfully assembled, employing old photographs, interviews, and scenes of Johnstown today. This work constitutes a valuable addition to the study of early immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. In so doing, it calls attention to the great contribution they made to the building of this country, and the hardships and sacrifices they endured in doing so. [End Page 364]

Robert P. Gakovich
University of Wisconsin, Madison


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