The search for Slovenians in the Netherlands

Milena Mulder

Photo: Elfriede Bril

This web exhibition shows a selection of photographs compiled between 2004 and 2009 by journalist Milena Mulders as she went in search of the story of her Slovenian mother and other Slovenians in the Netherlands. The photographs have been taken from the archives of [Slovenian] associations and private albums. Over a hundred photographs from the collection have been included in the book Met de buik het brood achterna: Mijn Sloveense geschiedenis [tr. In search of a living: My Slovenian History] published 14 February 2009 by Aksant publishers. All photographs will be available online on the HBM website.


The first Slovenians to arrive in the Netherlands had neither Slovenian nor Yugoslavian nationality but were Austrian. This was because most Slovenian-speaking people up until 1918 lived in the Austrian part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. They inhabited the Krain province, the south of Stiermarken, the area along the southern edge of Carinthia and the districts of Gorizia and Triëst and the Küstenland. They also inhabited the region bordering Hungary in the East and the region bordering Italy in the West.

Migration from this area has been documented since the middle ages but did not reach dramatic proportions until the second half of the 19th century. At that time, most emigration was to the United States. Up until the First World War, Germany was the second most important destination country for emigrants. In 1905, a major mineworkers' strike led to the migration of Slovenians to the Netherlands.


The first Slovenians to arrive in the Netherlands settled in Kerkrade. They had Austrian nationality (from 1918 onwards they had Yugoslavian nationality) and went to work at the Domaniale Mine in Kerkrade. As a rule, they arrived on the offchance but between 1926 and 1931 they were also actively recruited. Their presence peaked in 1929 when it is estimated 4,000 Slovenians lived spread out across 29 Limburg districts. They were primarily employed by the mines.

South Limburg, where the Slovenians arrived, was originally agrarian but now an emerging industrial area. There was plenty of work and wages were good but there was a severe housing shortage. To solve the problem, new residential areas or 'colonies' and workers' tenements were promptly built by the mines with the help of the Church. However, immigrants seemed to prefer a board and lodging arrangement which often allowed them to live in together with other family members and friends.

The associations

The first Slovenians to arrive had to rely on each other for everything from information about work and housing to exchanging experiences and sharing feelings of homesickness. The men met up in the many cafés situated in the mining area which were the favoured meeting place. However, after a while the desire arose to form a group and sing or play music together. The very first association that Slovenians belonged to dates back to before the First World War and was called the Austrian Music Society.

The first real Slovenian association was founded in Brunssum in 1926 and named after St Barbara, the patron saint of the mineworkers. Similar initiatives followed in seven other district councils where Slovenians had settled. In addition to these associations, groups were set up for music (tamburica), singing (the Zvon Choir) and dance. In addition, Slovenian communist groups were active and these were the first to be deported during the crisis of the 1930s.


Following the compulsory layoffs during the crisis of the 1930s, the Slovenian community in Limburg was reduced to half its size. Unmarried men and women and problem cases were the first to be despatched by train. During the Second World War, Slovenians were required to register with the German authorities. They had to join German (and Italian) organisations or join the SS or the Schutztruppen destined for the Eastern front. Only the strongest were able to stand by their views. Except for the instances described, Slovenians remained neutral or joined the resistance.

After the war, the Catholic Slovenians in Limburg came under pressure again, this time from the communists who had seized power in the homeland with strong force. In 1947, around 200 Slovenians returned 'home' as part of an organised repatriation.

Staying behind

The transportation of 1947 signified a new point for Slovenians who remained in Limburg. Those that had not returned home at this point would remain in the Netherlands for good. The years after the war were marked by an intense struggle between the church authorities and the Yugoslavian embassy in The Hague. In the end, the prewar Catholic associations were fully reinstated.

Whilst opinions of Tito were initially divided, he won sympathy when he took a more independent line with Russia during the Cold War. Tito strove successfully to develop a 'Third Way'. This influenced the attitude of Slovenians in the mining area towards the old homeland, particularly when travel to and from Slovenia gradually became easier. Cultural associations, too, were able to perform in Slovenia and, likewise, popular Slovenian orchestras performed in the Netherlands. Cultural exchange programmes such as these not only gave the life of the associations in South Limburg an enormous boost, they also allowed the Slovenian community to win a place in Limburg society.

Slovenians today

In 1991, Slovenia won independence following a ten-day war. From the very beginning, the Slovenian community felt closely connected to the Yugoslav refugees, but did not commit themselves politically. Perhaps more than by Slovenian independence, the community of Limburg was moved by the dismantling of the last St Barbara association in 2001. This brought an end to the period of the Slovenian pioneers.

In 2009, there are still two Slovenian associations active in the mining district - the Folklorna Skupina Nizozemska dance group and Zvon, a Slovenian choir which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year.

The Slovenian labour migrants collection

Besides the photographs, Milena Mulders also compiled the Slovenian labour migrants in Limburg collection during 2004 - 2009. The collection includes, amongst other things, association archives, material from Slovenian archives and various periodicals. Research material by Milena Mulders, and additional material by Paul Brassé and Willem van Schelven (intended for their research into the assimilation process of pre-war immigrants conducted in 1979 - 1980) has been included in the collection. The collection can be consulted using the IISH online public catalogue.


Met de buik het brood achterna. Mijn Sloveense geschiedenis [tr. In search of a living: My Slovenian History] was presented to the Limburg Museum in Venlo on 14 February 2009 and will be included in the Kleur Bekennen project, a project of the Limburg Museum which over the next few years will research and present the migration history of Limburg. In honour of the occasion, a small exhibition on the history of the Slovenians in Limburg was programmed at the Limburg Museum from 14 February - 8 March 2009.

The exhibition entitled Met de buik het brood achterna [tr. In Search of a Living] did run at De Rijckheyt, centre for regional history in Heerlen, from 9 June to 30 August 2009, at BiblioNova in Sittard from 1 September to 30 September 2009 and from 7 December untill the end of January 2010 at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam.

An interview with Milena Mulders following the publication of her book can be downloaded at geschiedenis.vpro.nl/artikelen/41514962/ (Date of broadcast OVT / VPRO: 15 February 2009)

Take a look at De Tafel van Babel, an MTNL programme with Milena Mulders and Daniela Tasca (De Spaghettiflat - Little Italy in de polder [tr. The Spaghetti Block: Little Italy in the polder]): http://player.omroep.nl/?aflID=9568679

Translation: Kate Kuut