An Emigrant's Tale

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By rights, there should be 52 candles on Cookie Krizmanich's birthday cake, but the family opted for an easier-to-manage half dozen.

This may be the last birthday she celebrates in Cleveland. About a year from now, Cookie is planning to start a new life, in a little town called Zumberak, in a new country. Or to be more precise, in the "old country" - Croatia, her ancestral homeland. The birthplace of her 82-year-old father, Adolph.

Adolph Krizmanich: That's what she intends to do, yes. I don't know. It's a big decision for her, really.

Cookie Krizmanich: But, isn't that a better life over there? Now, knowing what you know about the United States, and seeing the way the United States is going, don't you think it's better in Zumberak?

Adolph Krizmanich: Well, I'm not as skeptic as you, really. Sure, there are things that changed - computer age, and all this instant communication. And the morals of the people changed, too. If you compare to 1950, when I came to the United States, for instance, the way of life is totally different, really.

Mala Djevojcica was one of Cookie's favorite songs when she was growing up. It's about a father praising his little girl, and her big dreams.

Adolph Krizmanich left his homeland to escape the murky politics of Europe following World War II, where borders had shifted for centuries, where a German dictator was being replaced by a Soviet dictator. And so, Adolph set his sights on America, the traditional land of opportunity for immigrants.

Cookie Krizmanich: He chose the United States because he learned English by watching American movies.

Adolph Krizmanich: My first port of entry was New York City, so it looked just like I imagined, if you ever saw the "Dead End Kids" (chuckles).

He came to Cleveland (and) he met Judy, the American-born daughter of immigrant parents, who weren't so taken with movie English.

Judy Krizmanich: They only spoke Croatian. In fact, my mother didn't know English.

Adolph and Judy got married, moved from the city to the suburbs, and had four kids - Rosemarie, who acquired the nickname of "Cookie," Judi, Joe, and Randy, all of whom were raised in the Croatian culture.

So many have moved to the suburbs that there are only about 50 people in the pews on this Sunday morning at St. Nicholas Byzantine Church, near East 36th and Superior. This is the church where 80-year-old Judy Krizmanich made her first communion, and she still makes the trek from Parma with her girls to attend services.

On this Sunday before the 4th of July, the Deacon adds something to the service. He asks the congregation to sing in praise of America. Cookie looks stunned for a few seconds. Given her future plans, she smiles and silently shakes her head at the irony.

After the service, the Krizmanich sisters return to a friendly argument they've been having in recent weeks over Cookie's plans.

Cookie Krizmanich: I'm an hour from Zagreb. I'm probably even less from the border.

Sister: If you're up on a roof somewhere, and you fall off and break something, and there's nobody around except your dog, it'll be like "Lassie! Go get help!"

Cookie Krizmanich: I have a cell phone. I promise, when I go up on the roof, I'll put a cell phone in my pocket so if I fall off, I'll call.

Cookie thinks the reality of her departure is starting to sink in for the entire family. A couple weeks ago, her father took her aside for a heart-to-heart talk about the little town where she wants to live.

Cookie Krizmanich: He talks about how this is still a "rough" area. There's an outhouse. There's no plumbing. They're an hour from the Tommy Hilfiger store in downtown Zagreb, but they're still living in an outhouse. That's what he means by "rough". He says, "You lived in the city. You had everything you wanted." He doesn't get that I don't want that anymore. I don't need that anymore. I want to live off of my own wits.

Zumberak is not unlike the village she visited 15 years ago as a field engineer for CNN, part of a news team that covered the Croatian war for independence from Yugoslavia. The experience left a lasting impression.

Cookie Krizmanich: One of the stories I did was two Canadians who were fighting for the Croatians in the war. And I asked them why they were there, and they said, "Our parents raised us as Croatians. We went to the Croatian church, we sang Croatian songs, we played the Croatian instruments. Of course, we had to come here and fight as Croatians."

She listened, she looked around, and saw a country that was finding its identity. She could relate to that. She also liked the fact that the cost of living was so low.

Cookie Krizmanich: I can't afford to live here anymore. I can't afford to retire. And it's only going to get worse. It's not going to get better. The only thing I can do is to reduce my expenses.

And one way to do that is to live in a place where you don't have running water; where you grow your own food in the backyard, and trade with your neighbor for what you don't have. Mother Judy seems highly skeptical.

Judy Krizmanich: People that came from there tell me she's going to be in for a rude awakening. It's not going to be everything she thinks it is.

Adolph Krizmanich joins the other family members in applauding his oldest daughter's birthday. Like his wife, he's not too sure about Cookie's decision to relocate in Croatia. But, he sure understands the attraction.

Adolph Krizmanich: I always wanted to go back. Now, it's too late for me. I've been here 55 years and still I have that longing for the old country.

David C. Barnett, 90.3.

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