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Jerry Malinar, Croatian Artist

I had the opportunity to visit the Croatian Heritage Museum and Library before Christmas where I met Jerry Malinar and saw Jerry’s beautiful Croatian Nativity Scene that he created in 1987 for the museum’s Christmas exhibit.  It was made from papier-mâché, burlap, straw, and paint.  There is a lit cave with the Holy Family and shepherds surrounded by many Croatian dolls dressed in regional folk dress.  A circle dance of dolls, a kolo, turns on a rotating platform. A Croatian water mill is also turning its wheel. Croatians in Cleveland donated most of the folk dolls for the scene.  Jerry had been creating nativity scenes ever since he came to America including one for the Cleveland Library, for churches, schools, travel bureau and for individuals as gifts. Jerry was inspired to create Nativity Scenes as a child working along with his father, Jerolim who donated such Nativity scenes to village churches and poor families. The mother of the Croatian missionary, Father Viziak, in Bengali, carved the figures from cooked wood.

Born in Zagreb, Croatia on February 12, 1932, Mr. Jerry Malinar provided us with a very touching story about the circumstances that led to him immigrating to the United States back in 1956.

Mr. Malinar’s father, Mr. Jerolim Malinar, a prominent businessperson, community leader, and philanthropist; was executed as an “enemy of the people” in July, 1945, after Tito came to power in the aftermath of World War II. All of the family assets were seized and Jerry’s mother was blacklisted from employment. She and her four children had to rely on the generosity of friends and family until she finally found work as a stenographer in 1950.
Jerry was a teenager at the time and shared his father’s views about Croatian nationalism and the importance of using one’s religious faith to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Thus, Jerry was very opposed to the Tito regime and was even arrested and confined in jail for several weeks after taking part in an act of civil disobedience as a student. After this, Jerry was expelled from the academic junior high school and could only study in the trade school.

Finally, in  the summer of 1952, an opportunity to escape occurred when he was 20 years old and was taking a mountain climbing trip with 19 other climbers from Croatia and Slovenia, in the Slovenia alps which border with Austria. Jerry and his friend Vlado Gracanin (who would later become a noted heart specialist practicing in Cincinnati), waited until a violent storm took place which enabled them to obtain a good head start over those monitoring them as they made use of their mountain climbing skills to cross over to Austria.  When they arrived safely in Austria, they were extensively interrogated by both the British and U.S. Intelligence agents. After spending three years in a refugee camp Asten by Linz (where conditions were quite bad; not much food and advanced TB quite widespread), Jerry was eventually freed, due to the intervention by people in Austria who knew his family, and obtained a job doing artwork for a publishing company in Passau, and later in Munich, Germany.

To be sure, it was Jerry’s goal to emigrate to the United States, but, by his own admission, he was very outspoken about what he believed was wrong with U.S. policy towards Eastern bloc countries. He had a particularly sharp confrontation with a U.S. Intelligence agent about the people attending at Tito’s rallies and whether they actually liked him (the position of our Intelligence forces) or whether they were there because they had to be (Jerry’s position); ultimately the U.S. Intelligence agent came around and admitted that Jerry was right. So, finally, after three applications, Jerry was allowed to migrate to the United State in 1956 after the Hungarian Revolution.

After arriving here, he went to work as a laborer in a steel mill in Lackawanna, near Buffalo, New York, where he worked alongside another European immigrant, Dr. Gredelj, who had three doctoral degrees from his country of origin. This man did not feel degraded at all about having to push carts with mud around all day; in fact, he was quite grateful for the work because he wanted to bring his family here from Europe, too, and he had a child who was of ill health and would need a lot of medical care that he, as a father, would have to pay for here in the United States. In order to bring his child to America, he needed to have money in escrow to pay for the child’s medical bills.

Jerry worked for about 8 months at the steel mill before he left to come to Cleveland, where a friend gave him a lead regarding a possible job in an art studio. Not only was Jerry hired, he was also encouraged to apply to the Cooper School of Art because his artistry displayed a lot of potential.  As part of the application process, Jerry showed the school administrators drawings that he did depicting the misery that people in Croatia were experiencing.  So impressed was the school administrator, Mr. Whitsett, (who was used to seeing less serious stuff) that he encouraged Jerry to do a one-person art show. The end result was a 3 1/2 year scholarship to the noted art institute with half from the school and half from American Greetings.   His tutelage lead to a job with American Greetings, where Jerry worked for 34 years before he retired in 1994.

It was while he was working at the art studio and studying at the Cooper School of Art in the late 1950’s to early 1960’s that Jerry met his lovely wife, Ms. Branka Malinar who is now the curator of the Croatian Museum in Eastlake, and they have four daughters. He became a U.S. citizen in the early 1960’s but not before tangling with immigration officials about his nationality which they insisted was Yugoslavian but Jerry maintained (correctly) that it was Croatian. Eventually he had to go along with them but this bothered him very much. “Ignorant bureaucrats often hurt people,” he told us sadly.

We talked to Jerry about his life on December 30th at the Croatian Library (containing approximately 4,000 books) which is adjoined to the Croatian Museum. Jerry loves his country of origin and, over the years, has accumulated enough articles and other educational materials about its history and current events to fill 30 file cabinets. He is quite proud of the accomplishments of his three siblings, all of whom chose to remain in Croatia. His sister is a sculptress and his two brothers are, respectively, an author of technical books and a chemist/physicist. His beloved mother passed in 1998 at the age of 96.

Above all, however, Jerry wanted to tell us about his father, Mr. Jerolim Malinar who has been an inspiration and role model for him throughout his life. Jerolim Malinar was  born in Vrata, Croatia, in 1897, the youngest of 18 children. His father worked at the railroads, and Jerolim Malinar, trained as a welder, otherwise had very little formal education. He was an intelligent young man, though, and this was recognized by the local priests who gave him the opportunity to write articles about Catholic youth organizations for local publications. In 1923, Jerolim Malinar became an editor of a local newspaper and a respected advocate for the young people by urging the well-to-do to financially to support endeavors that would impart to the youth the value of high moral standards and positive community activism. Other noteworthy projects that Jerolim Malinar was involved in were the creation of libraries, promoting camping expeditions in the countryside, and promoting tourism in the mountain area of Gorski Kotar, where he was born.

In 1927, Jerolim Malinar started his own bookbinding business in a rented basement. There he met Miss Vera Jesensky while delivering his articles to the Catholic newspaper where she was a secretary.  When he began to court her, her family was initially very opposed to their union — they didn’t believe that Jerolim Malinar would be successful. She was the daughter of a jeweler and watchmaker.  Miss Jesensky adored Jerolim Malinar for his religious convictions and his passion for making the world a better place.  She refused to be discouraged from marrying him. Certainly. things were very financially difficult in the beginning, but Mr. Malinar persevered and became a very successful business person, employing 20 some people.

During World War II, Jerolim Molinar’s intervention saved the lives of some 200 people from Germany’s legions who occupied Croatia and the Croatian nationalist government who fought the communists and Serbian Monarchist Chetniks during that time period according to Jerry’s careful research. Among those Jerolim Malinar assisted was a fellow bookbinder who was both Jewish and a competitor of his. He later asked Jerolim Malinar why he would go out of his way to aid a competitor and Jerolim Malinar replied that the competition made him work all the harder and thus put out a better product. He did not want to lose his competition.

Even though he was executed by Tito’s forces when he was still a relatively young man, Jerolim Malinar received several citations for his humanitarianism (including one from Pope Pious XI in 1933).  He is now regarded as a Croatian Christian martyr, revered by the generations that have succeeded him. With great love and high regard, Jerry showed me his very thick scrapbook full of articles praising his father.

Regarding the atrocities that he had witnessed as a young man, he very much appreciated the fact that in the United States, the government cannot pick a person up and throw them in prison and “we do not hear from them anymore.”  In 1990, when Croatia became again independent, people uncovered in Croatia and Slovenia 60 pits, caves, and mine shafts full of bones of communist victims which were murdered from 1941-1991.

At the conclusion of our interview, I asked Jerry if one of the things that he liked about the United States was the freedom that we have here to take exception to our government’s policies if we do not agree with them. Jerry nodded and agreed that this was very definitely true.

“It is very distressing when we do not call out those of power,” he said.

Jerry Malinar has been active in the Croatian Heritage Museum & Library as well as the Croatian Cultural Garden in Rockefeller Park since 1983.

Justin Faulhaber