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Yugoslav Women in Organisations

1940 –

This essay written by Julie Glamuzina was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

1940 – 1993

From the late nineteenth century, immigrants from what was formerly Yugoslavia established strong communities in New Zealand, particularly in Northland and Auckland. [1] The majority came from the Southern Slav regions, especially Dalmatia, and initially most were men. [2] They were agricultural, fishing, sea-faring, labouring men (some related) who came mainly to work to support families ‘back home’. They laboured on the kauri gum fields and farms in harsh conditions. They were also entrepreneurial – opening restaurants and fish and chip shops, starting vineyards and wineries, and creating construction and haulage companies From the 1930s, women played an increasingly important role in the evolution of these communities by their direct work and support in families and in business ventures, as well as through mixed organisations because culturally this was the appropriate way.

Apparently the only all-women organisation was the Yugoslav Ladies' Social Committee (YLSC), which formed in Auckland in 1940 and functioned within the context of the Yugoslav Club (1930) and the Yugoslav Benevolent Society (1932). There had been earlier clubs and societies, consisting almost entirely of men, but these two were the first to be legally incorporated.

The founding members of the YLSC included women from both clubs: Mrs G. Versalko (chairwoman), Mrs M. Devcich (vice-chairwoman), Mrs M. Jakich (secretary), Mrs J. Borich, Mrs M. Pivac, Mrs D. Lindesay, Mrs Kavick, Miss S. Sokolich, Miss N. Marinovich and Miss Borich. The committee's aims were to assist the people of Yugoslavia by raising funds for the Allied war effort, and to support local Yugoslav communities.

The committee took part in government-promoted patriotic events to raise money for various funds, including the Sick, Wounded and Distress Fund, run by the Red Cross and the Order of St John. At a pageant in the Auckland Town Hall in June 1940, 'two girls in Yugoslav costumes gave national items'; [3] they were among representatives of various countries who provided samples of national foods and gave cultural demonstrations. Within five weeks the fund had raised over £250,000 from such events. In 1943 the committee arranged demonstrations of Yugoslav culture in a similar fundraising event organised by the YWCA, where the New Zealand Herald noted the 'excellence of costuming and effective staging'. [4]

The national costumes worn on these occasions were the first from the South Slav region to be produced in New Zealand, and were made by YLSC members and other women from the local Auckland clubs. The product of painstaking work, the heavily and colourfully embroidered costumes were patterned in traditional motifs. Women continued to play an important role in designing, producing and maintaining traditional costumes.

The women also raised funds independently through raffles, baking and social events. They knitted numerous articles of clothing and packed them with other items into parcels for Europe; but disrupted communications meant that parcels sent to people in Yugoslavia did not get through until the war had ended.

The number of clubs in New Zealand grew after the war as immigration from Yugoslavia increased: Auckland, Dargaville (1933) and Wellington (1938, and another in the 1950s) were followed by Hamilton (1950), Whangarei (1951), Kaitaia (1954) and Christchurch (1979). Membership of main centre clubs typically reached around 150–450, while in smaller centres numbers usually peaked at 30–60. Often one membership represented an entire family, so actual numbers were probably much higher. In the 1990s the Auckland Yugoslav Society had approximately 1000 members.

Auckland tamburica band, 1985.

Although the YLSC had continued its fundraising activities after the war, by the mid 1950s it had ceased to function. However, women continued to play active roles in the mixed clubs, which provided important cultural, social, emotional, and sometimes financial support for local Yugoslav communities. The clubs were places where Yugoslavs could meet, establish and renew social contacts, catch up with events in Yugoslavia, speak the language and enjoy the culture. Typical events included an annual ball, held in Auckland from the early 1930s until 1991; it featured the Tamburica band (of stringed instruments and accordion) playing predominantly Croatian music, and club members performing traditional dances such as the Kolo. The clubs also organised annual picnics and regular sporting and cultural events. In the late 1940s Yugoslav women in Auckland established the Zora basketball (later netball) club; it was one of the top clubs for many years, winning the senior championship several times.

Women were instrumental in transmitting the various cultures of the South Slav region to the next generation. In Auckland, for example, women of the Yugoslav Society were responsible for establishing and maintaining the club's library and for teaching younger generations the language, music, dances and customs of the different ethnic groups. Their success was reflected in the numbers of young people taking an active part in the clubs in the 1990s. Women were also prominent in organising club outings, concerts and other functions for the elderly. Although few women held executive positions in the early years of the clubs, by the early 1990s their participation at this level had increased.

Women also played a major part in organising and producing assistance for the victims of the political conflict in the former republics of Yugoslavia. In the 1990s, many of the New Zealand clubs redefined themselves, and changed their names, in response to the break-up of the Federal Republic.

The women who formed the Yugoslav Ladies' Social Committee in 1940, and those who followed them, made a major contribution to the development of the South Slav communities of New Zealand, to the success of their organisations, and to the survival of their culture.

Julie Glamuzina

1994 – 2018

The breakup in the 1990s of the state of Yugoslavia had ramifications across the world. Thousands of people in and near the conflict zones sought safety by migrating to relatively safer countries, including Aotearoa.  Compared to earlier arrivals, the newer immigrants came from all parts of the former Yugoslavia and presented a very different profile: primarily cosmopolitan, formally educated, professional, urban, and in family groups – mostly married couples with one or more children, in the 26–45 age group. They included sports people, teachers, doctors, economists, and technology workers.

Meanwhile, local communities followed the conflict and were forced to consider questions of identity. The Yugoslav Society Inc (previously formed by the combining of the Yugoslav Benevolent Society Inc and the Yugoslav Club Inc) changed its name to the Dalmatinsko Kulturno Drustvo Inc (Dalmatian Cultural Society Inc), retaining its original objective, ‘to promote and preserve our Culture and Heritage’. It catered not only for the Dalmatian Community, but for ‘all of the peoples from the states that made up the former Yugoslavia’. Individual Dalmatian cultural clubs existed in Auckland, Dargaville, Whangarei and Kaitaia.

In west Auckland, the Croatian Cultural Society (Hrvatsko Kulturno Društvo) was established to celebrate Croatian heritage and to enrich both the Croatian community within New Zealand and the wider community with the objective of ultimately advancing and contributing to the social fabric of New Zealand. Its cultural ensembles - Te Roopu Tarara, Klapa Samoana and the Kralj Tomislav Folklore Ensemble Aotearoa were recognised internationally. Croatian cultural clubs were established in Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington. Serbian groups were also established with similar objectives. The networks of clubs worked to promote the rich culture and heritage of the peoples from the regions of the former Yugoslavia while reflecting their specific regional and cultural differences in language, music, dance and religion. As family and social networks intertwined, memberships of clubs and participation in events overlapped.

As before, the societies maintained special sections for women: the Women’s League (of the Croatian Cultural Society) and the Ladies Group (of the Dalmatian Cultural Society, formed July 1999) provided social and educational opportunities for their members. Women continued to play an important role within the organisations, managing and maintaining cultural and historical knowledge and artefacts. In 2018, for the first time, key positions of the Dalmatian Cultural Society – President, Secretary and Treasurer – were held by women.

The year 2018 marked over 160 years of settlement in Aotearoa of people from the regions of the former Yugoslavia. The communities here had become more diffused, complex, and diverse, and this was reflected in the women who formed part of these organisations. At the same time, the importance of managing and maintaining cultural and historical connections and links remained a constant.

Julie Glamuzina


[1] 'Yugoslav' in this entry refers to people from what was formerly the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. 'Yugoslav' has been used, rather than specific references to particular ethnic groups, because it was a description commonly used in New Zealand (along with 'Dalmatian') and because the state of Yugoslavia existed for almost all of the period discussed – as a monarchy after World War I, and then as a communist republic from the end of World War II until its break-up in 1991. It was not intended to refer specifically to the 'Yugoslav' state which remained following the break-up.

[2] Dalmatians are a geographic sub-group of the Croatian ethnic group.

[3] NZ Herald, 7 June 1940.

[4] NZ Herald, 23 June 1943.

Unpublished sources

Glamuzina, Julie, interviews with Ivy Cibilich (first woman president of the Yugoslav Society), Auckland, 1992

President of the Dalmatian Cultural Society, personal communication, 2018

Yugoslav Benevolent Society, Auckland

Published sources

Batistich, Amelia, 'No Bells, No Bell Towers!', NZ Listener, 5 August 1966, p. 5

Croatian Cultural Society website,

Dalmation Cultural Society website,

Hyde, Tom, '1001 Dalmatians', Metro, October 1987, pp. 125–39.

Trlin, A., Now Respected, Once Despised: Yugoslavs in New Zealand, Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1979

Walters, Laura, ‘Faces of Auckland: Serbian culture still strong’, Stuff, 14 October 2014

Yugoslav Centennial Society, Yugoslav Centennial Souvenir Booklet, YCS, Auckland, 1979

Further information:

New Zealand People’s Story: Dalmatians,