Neverending story

Local photographer spins revenging story of faith, family — and growing up Croatian .


by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

When questioned, Don Wolf will speak long and enthusiastically about his family, his old Croatian neighborhood, his faith, his travels to Croatia and his charitable projects.

But one question stumps him:  What is your book about?

“Well, I . . . hmmmm,” said Wolf, a member of Christ the King Parish in Kansas City, Kan.

In addition to being a talented professional (albeit retired) photographer, Wolf also likes to write.

Two years ago, he collected the various family stories he had penned and shared them with his friend Patricia Antonopoulos.

“Don,” she said, “you’ve got to write a book.”

This past June, Wolf sent “Croatian Love Story” to the publisher Xlibris, and the first copies are now available.

Wolf’s hesitation is understandable. The 200-page book defies easy classification.

It is full of beautiful color photographs (mostly taken by Wolf), some historical photographs and a number of artistic renderings. It recounts personal history, family history and ethnic/religious/neighborhood history. And it explores the land and people of Croatia like a National Geographic special.

So, what is the book all about?

“Love of family and tradition,” he finally said.

It’s the best kind of history — not academic and analytical, not coldly objective — but very personal and emotional. It’s the kind of history that friends and family swap when they gather and say, “Hey, do you remember when . . .”

Wolf tells the stories of how, when he was young, neighborhood boys would play dangerous games in dangerous places, like leaping off a bridge into a railroad car. Or how a poor neighbor lady persuaded him to enter into a life of “crime” so she could feed her chickens (but he did repent). Or how a boy caught his pants on fire while sledding.

Other stories are more serious — even tragic. One story is how four aunts ended up in a concentration camp during World War II. Others are about the violent breakup of the former communist country of Yugoslavia and how individual relatives were affected.

Wolf tells the story of one cousin, who he met in 1978 during his first visit to then-communist Yugoslavia.

The man, a committed Communist and atheist, told him  “Tito is my god.” The cousin had a good life as a minion of Josip Broz Tito, the authoritarian dictator of Yugoslavia. After a night of drinking, Wolf chided his cousin about his fear of flying by saying, “Why don’t you pray to Tito?”

The man’s face turned red and the veins stood out in his neck.

“If you were not my cousin,” he said, “tonight — in jail!”

He meant it. Wolf went back after the fall of communism, and his cousin was no longer an important communist functionary.

“Donny, Donny,” said the deflated man, “how can this be? Before we could not say the word ‘Bog’ (‘God’), and now they are having Misa (‘Mass’) on televisi (‘television’).”

Some people have cried after reading his book, Wolf said. Some told him that it makes them wish they were Croatian, or grew up on Strawberry Hill, the Croatian  enclave with a great view of Kansas City, Mo.

“That’s why it’s called a love story,” said Wolf.

This love story is actually one great story after another, like one of those heirloom quilts your great-grandmother pieced together — each story like bits and pieces of clothing worn by a huge, loving, extended family.

Perhaps storytelling is in his blood. Wolf’s grandfather Rudolf Volf, who grew up in the then-Austro-Hungarian province of Croatia, was charged with tending the fire at night in the logging camp in which he worked.

“He had to keep the fire going all night,” said Wolf. “If he let it die, the lumberjacks would throw a log at him.”

At night, the lumberjacks would gather around the fire and tell stories, and Volf listened. As an adult, he shared these stories with his family.

Wolf honed his writing abilities in the mid-1950s at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kan., under the tutelage of Sister Mary Faith Schuster, OSB, and Sister Liguori Sullivan, OSB. After graduation in 1956, he entered the U.S. Navy and learned to be a photographer. Donnelly and the Navy set him on his professional track for the rest of his life. Among other things, he has freelanced on an occasional basis for The Leaven.

In the past, some people have questioned Wolf’s tendency to focus on old people, old villages and old ways of doing things. Why not show the modern? they ask. At the end of his book, Wolf answers with this caveat:

“[My] eyes are drawn to people and houses that have stood the test of time. That is where I see the texture of the wrinkled faces of octogenarians and peeling paint and sun-baked surfaces on two-hundred-year-old houses.

“Where else could I wander into a village where I have never been, be invited to eat and drink . . . sing a few songs, share a few hugs and stories and then move on to the next village, carrying with me heartwarming memories that will last forever. I make no apologies.”

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