A Wartime Serbian Refugee at St Mary’s

The question of refugees is always a topical if not controversial one, given even more relevance today by the continuing migrant crisis and the situation in Afghanistan. Refugees have come to the British isles for almost as long as mankind has been settled here and have made immeasurable contributions to British life and identity, whether they were to settle permanently or to return to their homelands once it was safe to do so. In the First World War, Britain offered sanctuary to Belgian refugees, many of whom were initially housed at Olympia by the Metropolitan Asylums Board before moving on elsewhere including to Birtley in County Durham which effectively became a Belgian munitions town with Belgian policemen. Most of the Belgian refugees returned home after the war. A smaller but still significant group of Great War refugees was of young Serbian men and boys supported by the Serbian Relief Fund. One of these refugees, Djurdge Dimitrijevic, was to study medicine at St Mary’s.

Djurdge Dimitrijevic was born on 29 October 1896 in Kragujevac, the son of Gavrilo Dimitrijevic. He was educated at Kragujevac Gymnasium, the oldest established secondary school in Serbia, but his education was to be interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. Called up for military service, he was wounded during the retreat from the Kosovo plain of the remnants of the Serbian army in November and December 1915 across the Albanian mountains to the Adriatic coast. The retreating army faced a rough terrain, harsh winter weather and aerial bombardment from Austrian planes. Between November 1915 and January 1916, during the journey across the mountains, 77,455 soldiers and 160,000 civilians froze, starved to death, died of disease or were killed by enemy action in what came to be called the Albanian Golgotha. The survivors who reached the Adriatic were evacuated to Corfu, but many were so weakened that they died after their rescue. Djura Dimitrijevic or Dimitrijevitch, as he was to be known more informally at St Mary’s, was invalided out of the army. Unfit for further military service, his salvation was to come from the Serbian Relief Fund. Formed in 1914, the Serbian Relief Fund, dependent upon voluntary contributions, had sent voluntary hospital units to Serbia and had carried out relief work with the survivors of the great retreat. It now turned its attention to the welfare and education of displaced Serbian youth who could rebuild their country after the war. The Serbian Legation in London declared that ‘our chief aim in bringing Serbian youths over to Great Britain was to save as many of them as we could for the future in our country and to educate them here, if they were promising, or to train them in commerce or other trades.’ The British in turn hoped to foster goodwill between the two countries and boost British influence in the region in any post-war settlement. Between

as possible from the Serbian Relief Fund, eager to save money and soon itself to be wound up. There was no possibility of any extension being allowed to his funding so that he could gain a better qualification. Yet he was able to return to St Mary’s and able to go on to do some research in 1926-27 in the bacteriological laboratories of Almroth Wright’s Inoculation Department before finally returning to the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which in 1929 became Yugoslavia Despite having been invalided out of the Serbian army and indeed sent to Britain in 1916 because of his unfitness for further military service, Dimitrijevic now began a career as a naval surgeon in the Royal Yugoslav Navy based in the Adriatic It was a service dominated by Croatian and Slovenian naval personnel, which was not surprising considering that Serbia had been landlocked before the war. As a Serbian, Dimitrijevic once again found himself navigating different cultural traditions. Catholic Croatia rather than Orthodox Serbia was henceforth to be his home,, especially after his marriage into a prominent Croatian family. In 1931 he was working at the military hospital in Zagreb. He was to rise to the rank of colonel and for a time was a research worker on behalf of the Yugoslav War Office. By 1934 he was director of the department of hygiene and epidemiology at the naval hospital at Hercegnovi. His publications included articles on ‘Harrison and Wyler’s methods of Wasserman Reaction’ and on the ‘Food problems of the Army’ in the Belgrade Review of Military Medicine in 1933, and on Yugoslav naval medicine in 1945 and on deep sea diving for the Yugoslav Sailor in 1946. A glimpse into Djura Dimitrijevic’s life back in inter-war Yugoslavia is given in an unattributed article entitled ‘An experience in the Adriatic’ in the April 1926 issue of St Mary’s Hospital Gazette. A Mary’s man, who had left the hospital at around the time Dimitrijevic had become a student there, had met a local anglophile nobleman and sailing enthusiast, Count Antun Pavlovic, at the palace of Diocletian while on an Easter cruise around the Adriatic. After leading them on a tour of Split, the hospitable Toni Pavlovic had insisted that the four people in the tourist group return with him for afternoon tea at his house to meet his 23 year old daughter Justina and his son-in-law who lived with him. The walls of the room in which they were entertained were hung with college group photographs from Magdalen and the bookcases contained the standard English medical text books of the time. It was not long before the son-in-law, Captain Dimitrjevic, and the author of the article had established that they were both Mary’s Men, with lots in common to discuss. The guests were accompanied back to their ship by their hosts, laden with flowers from the palazzo garden. The author of the article was impressed by such kind hospitality, which gave him a positive view of a country where ‘the past is thrown off and the present and future lie in the hands of a capable and admirable people.’ It was an optimistic view, one that the history of Yugoslavia in the twentieth century was bitterly to mock.

Dimitrijevic was again to experience war and the occupation of his homeland for the second time in his lifetime during the Second World War. After the war the Navy of the socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was based on the wartime partisan naval forces and the traditions and customs of the Royal Yugoslav Navy were now out of favour and forgotten. As a former refugee, Dimitrijevic was again in the all too familiar position of having to adjust to new and changing circumstances over which he had no real control. Living and working in Tito’s Yugoslavia, moving from Hercegnovi back to his wife’s birthplace Split in 1955, he still retained his sense of a close link with Britain, his refuge in an earlier war, and maintained his medical registration in Britain and entry in the Medical Directory until his death in 1961 although the post war political situation prevented international travel. His life reflected the turbulence and upheaval of the first half of the twentieth century in Central Europe. Djura Dimitrijevic had no problems in passing his finals at Oxford and gaining his BA in the summer of 1920 despite having arrived with little or no knowledge of the English language only four years earlier. For his clinical studies in medicine he moved in October 1920 to St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, and continued to be funded by the Serbian Relief Fund which paid his fees and provided the means for his food, lodgings and clothing. His academic progress was monitored by his sponsors and everything he possessed came from a charity to which he was beholden; even the clothes he wore had been passed on to him rather than being of his own choice and taste. He had to live economically during his time at Mary’s within the parameters set by the Serbian Relief Fund. St Mary’s at that time prided itself on being one of the least expensive of the London medical schools. ADjurdge Dimitrijevic and his fellow Serbs were acceptable wartime refugees. There was not an overwhelming number of them and they did not represent a threat to available employment. Indeed many of them helped out with farm work during the wartime summers, which they did. They were expected to go home to help rebuild their own nation once the war ended and they did. There was also wartime affection for gallant Serbia, an ally in the fight against German and Austro-Hungarian imperialism. The Serbian Relief Fund enjoyed cross-party support from both left and right of politics, despite some inevitable hostility from less open minded and less empathetic quarters suspicious of all foreigners and from government officials and politicians concerned about any charges that may have fallen on the public purse. Generally the Serbs were hard working, polite and well educated, willing to adapt to the customs of their new country and quick to learn the language. They were also respectable in appearance even if they were wearing suits given to them in acts of charity. They did not arrive in rags or with a different skin colour. Dimitrijevic was fresh faced, personable, educated and well-groomed which gave him a certain acceptability. His plight, though, was no different from that of all too many modern day refugees who have not been given so warm a welcome. Dimitrijevic’s experience shows what refugees offered asylum could achieve given the opportunities, despite, or perhaps because of, the problems they had had to overcome.

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