Serbian-American Friendship – Things to Consider

Douglas Meriwether Dold, Adventure in the Balkans 1915, Edited by Lj. Dožić,
The Archives of Vojvodina, Novi Sad 2018.

By publishing the almost completely unknown manuscript by Douglas Dold, an American who left us his precious memories of the occupied Serbia in 1915, the Archives of Vojvodina has successfully preserved a document which is important for interpreting historical events and processes, and more importantly – it reminded us of the humanitarian mission that the US conducted during the First World War in Serbia.

In the year that marked the hundred year anniversary of the Great War, and when all efforts and notable contributions were made to keep us from forgetting everything concerning one of the greatest tragedies that the Serbian nation faced – whereby the work was finally completed, the appearance of Douglas Dold’s manuscript seemed, dare I say it, unusual. We all know about the Allies’s missions that were conducted with the goal of helping the Serbian people, and we also know about many testimonies by foreigners about this period… However, what gives Dold a certain sense of uniqueness is that he writes with incredible sincerity. This is visible by his description of the Bulgarian Army which entered our war-time capital Niš, a description that does not hide a certain sense of admiration… This could be read into Dold when we consider all of the things that we should not remind ourselves about with regards to what the Bulgarians did in this period, but this can surely be overlooked when we read about his shocking lines about the crimes committed by the Germans. The work was based on the notes by his brother Elliot who accompanied him on this mission, Dold’s work came about later on. Hence, we got this presentation. In comparison to the Germans, to him the Bulgarians in Niš were a sign of safety and order.

But let us return to the beginning of the story which starts with Mihajlo Pupin. It was Pupin who is to be credited the most for organizing the Columbia Relief Expedition in the US, which was mostly comprised of students from the Columbia University. As a reputable member of the American academic community, and thanks to his important position in scientific circles, when the First World War broke out Pupin at once put all his effort into sending all sorts of missions to Serbia via the American Red Cross, to create relief councils for helping Serbia and to create humanitarian groups for helping children. The Columbia Relief Expedition was supposed to operate under the supervision of the Red Cross and had the goal of helping the country by providing it with food, medical equipment and medicine but also to help the endangered people by returning them to their abandoned homes and their agricultural lives and to ensure somewhat normal conditions for living. Pupin’s role in gathering volunteers was obvious. However, it is necessary to ask if he, regardless of the influence he had, could prepare the young men for what was to come? Surely not. It is clear that he, with his example and personality, made it so that twenty-four students, mostly from Columbia University, decided to go on a journey that was filled with uncertainty, disease and the unknown… But what resulted, meaning the decision to stay and help as much as possible as part of the Red Cross after the end of the expedition, was definitely something of a personal choice. This is a prime example of selflessness and courage. This also includes the decision to, together with the bishop of Niš, wait for the Bulgarian forces and to use American neutrality to save the innocent and unprotected people. Douglas Dold, together with his brother and few others, stayed and continued with his humanitarian work in Serbia even after the end of the Columbia Expedition in 1915, all of which happened not long after he graduated at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at the Columbia University. Joining the expedition was basically his first experience. This is worth noting when taking into consideration all that we know of during these times of conflict when a part of the Serbian Army and the civilians retreated from Niš. The majority of those who did not retreat were old people, women and children. Dold’s inexperience did not hinder his love for humanity. While waiting for the Bulgarian forces, uncertain and afraid, and after the Bishop surrendered the city to the enemy as well as the emotional plea, and as a representative of the American delegation, Douglas Dold also spoke to the Bulgarians and had asked for a favor – to not allow any violence towards the unprotected people and to protect the warehouses with the humanitarian aid. It is important to highlight this event from his manuscript because it’s prime example of the very point of the mission and of every desire of these foreigners who selflessly risked their lives for a higher purpose. It is known that Dold, during his work in Serbia, damaged his sight and that he later on almost completely went blind which gives a whole new aspect to his endeavor – one of a personal sacrifice.

In the fight between the personal and general part of Dold’s memories, but always with the same and most important goal in mind which we noted, it is impossible not to think about something that today represents a moral question with regards to the relations between people. I will dare to mention a certain Serbian volunteer who forgoed his studied in France, survived the retreat over Albania and spent all of his time as a doctor in Vid, the forgotten Miloš Đorić who, after the war on the 16th of November 1919, published in the then renewed Politika journal a text titled ”Door to the Future” (Kapidžik budućnosti), whereby he asked the question, through the eyes of a disabled person, of how is one to use the experience of war and will the future of the people be based on trust or on constant doubting. The unknown, and translated for the first time in Serbia, manuscript of the American Douglas Dold, as a reminder of a specific and tragic period of Serbian history, gives an answer to questions that are again being posted with regards to our recent past. Should the future then be based on forgiveness, tolerance and bearing or on hate, and should we create trust between people or doubt? In any case, Dold’s answer is straightforward and offers true and humane considerations, both personal and general. I believe that we don’t need to remind ourselves again about the honesty that is present in Dold’s manuscript.

D. Bedov

Scroll to Top