For nearly two decades, Andjelka Raicevic, 74, has been working to help preserve a little piece of Serbian culture in the heart of Angels Camp.
Raicevic was born in Bihac, a city in northwestern Bosnia, and raised in Montenegro. She moved to the United States during the communist rule of Yugoslavia and later made her way to Angels Camp.
Upon moving to the area in 1994, she immediately became involved with the St. Basil of Ostrog Serbian Orthodox Church at 930 N. Main St.
“She’s very knowledgeable in the Orthodox faith and well-involved,” said Vernon Ratkovich, 77, treasurer of the 102-year-old church, which is maintained by a small group of dedicated parishioners who volunteer their time.
And for Raicevic, studying the church’s history and helping to preserve it has been a labor of love.
“It’s a little piece of home right here in Angels Camp,” Raicevic said.
Raicevic was born March 15, 1938, shortly before World War II formally began when German dictator Adolf Hitler ordered his Nazi forces to invade Poland in 1939.
Axis forces during World War II invaded Yugoslavia in 1941 despite the country’s attempts to remain neutral. Raicevic’s father, Vidak Vojic, was an officer in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia’s army and went to war. It would be 21 years before she and her father were reunited in the United States.
Raicevic moved with her mother, Darinka, older brother, Dragoljub, and younger sister, Branislava, to their grandparents’ home in southeastern Croatia, but were forced to flee when the atrocities committed by the Axis forces reached their doorstep.
As the fighting drew nearer, Raicevic’s grandfather ordered the women and children to hide in the woods at night, which Raicevic said she can’t independently remember. The family returned one morning to find he had been killed and placed across the threshold of their home.
They buried him and again retreated in the woods at night, and the next morning returned to find he had been dug up and placed in the same position. After the cycle repeated for a third time, the family decided they had to leave their home for good.
The family met up with a group of communist Partisans, who would help them and about 300 other Serbs — mostly children and mothers — make their way south to Montenegro, where Raicevic’s father was born and raised.
Raicevic can remember enduring many hardships along their nine-month journey, including having to hide from enemy forces underneath boulders and running from bombs being dropped by German planes in the sky above.
“It was most difficult for my mother,” Raicevic noted. “She had to carry us and go each morning to search for mushrooms or snails that we would cook and eat.”
Raicevic would spend the rest of her childhood in Montenegro. She met her ex-husband, Vojo Raicevic, a photographer and former medical aircraft pilot in WWII, while attending high school.
Following World War II, the communist Partisans defeated the royalist Chetniks to take control of the country and formed the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, consisting of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.
Raicevic and her husband secretly escaped Yugoslavia in 1959 when the country’s borders were still closed.
“I wanted to go to my father,” Raicevic said.
As a child, Raicevic didn’t see her father because he spent all of World War II trapped in a Nazi prison camp.
In 1941, a train car carrying Vojic and other soldiers bound for Belgrade, which had been devastated by German bombing on Easter Sunday that year, was intercepted at a station by Nazi soldiers and redirected to a prison camp.
Vojic spent all of his days cleaning up after animals and wasn’t freed until the Nazis were toppled in 1945, Raicevic said.
After the end of the war, Vojic fled to the United States as returning soldiers were being quietly slaughtered in Yugoslavia.
“They were welcomed back, but the majority of those who returned were killed,” Raicevic said.
Raicevic’s harrowing escape from Communist-controlled Yugoslavia began the day after she graduated from high school in 1959, with her mother being the only other person to know of the couple’s plan.
The couple rode a bus to the Austrian border and spent an entire night hiking through the Alps to get to a point where they could cross.
The trip wasn’t without a couple of close calls.
At one point, they had to duck into brush and remain silent as border police patrolled the area merely yards away. When getting close to the river they needed to cross into Austria, they were inches away from setting off trip wire that would have alerted nearby watchtowers.
After spending several years in Germany and saving up money, Raicevic was ready to make the move to the United States and see her father again.
“It was very wonderful, loving and beautiful,” she said of their long-awaited reunion at a train station in Illinois, where he lived.
The Raicevics had a son, Vladimir, obtained their U.S. citizenship in 1967 and moved to San Diego in 1973.
The couple divorced in 1991, prompting Andjelka to return to Yugoslavia with the Circle of Serbian Sisters, a women’s organization that provided aid to civilians in the war-torn country.
“I wanted to see what was happening out there with my own two eyes,” she said.
After returning to the United States in 1994 for the birth of her first grandson, Raicevic decided to move to Angels Camp, where she had purchased land near St. Basil Serbian Orthodox Church.
Raicevic began working to translate church documents written in Cyrillic to give parishioners a better understanding of the local Serbian Orthodox community’s history.
The church, which marked its centennial in May 2010, was constructed in December 1909 using money collected by the Serbian community, which totaled around 750 at the time, Raicevic said.
Over the years, most of the congregation dwindled after moving away in search of better economic opportunities or intermarrying with those of other faiths or national origins.
But Raicevic said the importance of preserving the cultural landmark for future generations isn’t lost on her, especially when considering the decades of near-constant turmoil her native country has faced.
“All of that needs to be put in the perspective of understanding and love of people,” she said.