A History of Slovenians in Cleveland

– By Ezra Ellenbogen

Slovenian statue in Cleveland City Hall

Ljubljana [lyoo-BLYAH-nuh], Slovenia is a city of over 270,000 twinned with Cleveland in 1975.[1][2] It is the centrally-located capital and largest city of Slovenia and has a very cosmopolitan culture, hosting over ten thousand cultural events annually.[3] Cleveland’s sister city partnership with Ljubljana was developed to recognize Cleveland’s historic Slovenian population. Cleveland has always been a city with a significantly high Slovene population – the city had the largest Slovene settlement group in the US for approximately ninety years[4], and is now the city with the largest Slovene population outside of Slovenia.[5] Slovenian development in Cleveland followed interesting patterns unique to their ethnic group.

Between the 1880s and the start of World War I, Slovenia experienced a significantly large pattern of immigration, particularly into the United States. Coveting newly created mining jobs in the United States, many Slovenians immigrated, especially to the areas of Georgia (in the 1730s), Michigan (Calumet), Wisconsin, Minnesota (Brockway), Illinois (Joliet), Iowa, Nebraska (Omaha), and Ohio (Cleveland).[6] However, Slovenians feared the American prejudice against Slavic (and especially Slovenian) people at that time. Thus, upon immigration, many said they were Austrian or Slavonic. Slovenian immigrants tended to quickly assimilate into new workplaces while maintaining strong cultural ties through their establishment of Slovenian settlements.

The most pronounced periods of Slovenian immigration into Cleveland were between 1890-1914, 1919-24, and 1949-60. Mass immigration from Slovenia was at first prominent before the start of World War I and eventually resurfaced following World War II and political troubles in Slovenia. However, the two distinct immigration groups (pre-WWI and post-WWII) were demographically dissimilar. Most immigrants who came before the start of World War I were of an economically underdeveloped and rural demographic. Immigrants to the US following World War II were mainly political refugees, hence a larger proportion were professionals and well-educated. The Slovenian community of Cleveland was drastically changed post World War II, with the introduction of not only higher educated Slovenians, but also of emigres from other Slovenian settlements in the US. Cleveland became principally attractive to the 2nd-generation-Slovenian-emigres because of the rapid expansion of its industrial sector, which called for large amounts of unskilled and semiskilled labor that Cleveland did not have. Moreover, at that time, the demographics of the American job market gave Slovenians an advantage, because the labor base was predominantly German, and many Slovenians knew German, especially those who emigrated pre-WWI. From the early 1900s until the late 1990s, Cleveland had the largest Slovene settlement group in the United States.

The Newburgh area (near the south side of Cleveland) was the epicentre of the initial Slovenian migration, followed by the area around St. Clair Avenue. Collinwood soon became established as a Slovenian settlement, expanding into Euclid. After the 1980s, cities in Lake County became points of interest for Slovenian immigration, and eventually so did Garfield Heights and Maple Heights. Interestingly enough, no successfully independent Slovenian settlements emerged in the West Side of Cleveland. Indicators at the time showed that Cleveland Slovenians, even as they acquired US Citizenship, were not giving up their heritage and certainly not culturally assimilating. This was unlike other groups that either entirely assimilated or remained entirely separated.

A rift of ideology grew among Slovene Clevelanders. This was strongly reflected in the liberal Slovene-language newspaper Enakopravnost’s conflict with Slovenian conservative religious groups in the city. By 1914, Slovenian Clevelanders were mostly split between conservative Catholics and “freethinking” liberals (many of whom identified as socialists). There were no major conflicts as a result of the ideological divide. However, a roadblock in the process of Slovenian immigration to Cleveland came with the start of World War I.

During that time, Slovenians in Cleveland flourished culturally and somewhat economically, despite a lack of new immigrants. Once the First World War ended, Slovenian immigration to the city gradually increased, and many professionals and higher-educated groups became prominent parts of Slovenian-American society. This led to the growth of successful careers for many Slovenian-Americans, including Frank John Lausche, a prominent Eastern European politician who later served as the first Eastern European mayor of Cleveland.[7]

The rise of World War II in Europe complicated the ideological divide in Cleveland. Slovenia, a part of Yugoslavia at the time, was split between rival resistance groups, and thus, Slovenian Clevelanders grew increasingly split based on their political opinions (pro-Communist/pro-Titoist against anti-Communist/pro-Religious-Conservativism). But World War II also saw a new period of Slovenian immigration to America, with thousands of new Slovenians coming to the US, especially Cleveland. The post-WWII emigres were typically better educated and viewed with politically-based suspicion from the more progressive wing of Slovenian Americans. Despite the growth of the ideological divide, post-WWII immigration reinvigorated Cleveland’s Slovenian cultural scene. Moreover, the ideological divide never led to any major conflict between Slovenian Clevelanders.

In 1975, former Cleveland Mayor Ralph Perk forged a sister city relationship with the capital of Slovenia as an acknowledgement of the long history of Slovenians in Cleveland. In fact, Perk reported that, among the many sister cities he partnered with, he was most proud of his efforts to associate Cleveland with Ljubljana. By the 1990s, the Slovenian population in Cleveland numbered well over 50,000, many of whom were still connected to their homeland culturally and linguistically. Although the city no longer has the largest individual Slovene-American settlement group, the number of Slovenians in the city has now surpassed 80,000, making Cleveland home to the largest Slovene population outside of Slovenia.[8]

Cleveland’s connection to Ljubljana is stronger now than ever, especially after a friendly 2011 meeting between Jurcek Zmauc, the consulate general of the Republic of Slovenia in Cleveland, and Mayor Frank Jackson.[9] Zmauc is well-aware of the connection between Slovenians and Cleveland, having said that “There is no village in Slovenia that does not have relatives in Cleveland.” The former mayor of Cleveland’s sister city, Vicenza, Achille Variati, also attended. Cleveland has worked diligently to form initiatives in the Eastern European region to lure new talent to the area, and to cooperate effectively with our many sister cities.

Cleveland’s history with Slovenia is a long and interesting one, reflecting the unique nature of Slovenian immigrants in the region. Many call Cleveland a Slovenian city, for the city reflects not only the cultural and historic values of Slovenian-Americans, but also mirrors the culturally cosmopolitan nature of Ljubljana itself. Although Slovenians in Cleveland have had historical ideological divisions and disputes, the community is still incredibly strong and interconnected. Our relationship with Ljubljana is one of the most important and historic sister city relationships Cleveland has ever forged, and the city looks forward to an enduring continuation of this historic bond.

– By Ezra Ellenbogen

Ezra’s blog: One Page Stories

[1] https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/slovenia-population/

[2] https://case.edu/ech/articles/cleveland-sister-city-partnerships

[3] https://www.timeshighereducation.com/student/where-to-study/study-in-slovenia

[4] https://case.edu/ech/articles/s/slovenes

[5] https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/289

[6] https://www.everyculture.com/multi/Pa-Sp/Slovenian-Americans.html

[7] https://case.edu/ech/articles/l/lausche-frank-john

[8] https://toursofcleveland.com/cleveland-city-hall-sister-city-ljubljana/

[9] https://www.cleveland.com/metro/2011/04/cleveland_to_seek_new_ties_wit.html