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Cleveland Slovenians on Melania Trump

From the first Slovenian modeling shots of a teenaged Melania Knauss (PHOTO: Stane Jerko)

Donald Trump's choice of a running mate just before the RNC kicked-off in Cleveland was big news last week, but for a number of Clevelanders Trump's choice of a mate in marriage has a special resonance.  The former Melania Knauss  is a native of the former Yugoslavia, as she told the convention, Monday night: “I was born in Slovenia, a small, beautiful, and then Communist country in central Europe.”

That heritage is point of pride in a city that boasts one of the world’s largest Slovenian enclaves.  

Clevelander Ursula Prosen says she was caught in the wave of fashion press attention when Melania Knauss married Donald Trump in a lavish 2005 wedding.  "I do like my pop culture, so I do follow it very well," she admits with a smile.

But, what really made an impression was the fact that the new Mrs. Trump was part of Prosen’s own Slovenian culture.  Prosen says she likes the fact that the former super model is making sure her 10-year-old son, Barron, is learning to speak Slovenian. 

"Family values is something that’s very important with Slovenians," Prosen says,  "and I think she does a good job in demonstrating that."

Slovenia is a tiny, Eastern European country of two-million people.  In territory, it’s about the size of New Jersey.  But, it looms large for Ursula Prosen, who was raised to know her Slovenian heritage while growing up in the suburbs.

"Around here, Slovenia is known, but I’m very confident that there are many places in the United States that you could go and say my family’s from Slovenia, and they’d go, 'Where is that?'"

Cleveland is home to between 80 and 100-thousand people of Slovenian heritage. The local Slovenian Consul-General is the only foreign diplomat in the state of Ohio.  Historian Joe Valencic says the culture is supported locally by a solid infrastructure of churches, meeting halls, bakeries and meat markets. 

"The Cleveland area has always been the largest concentration of Slovenians outside of Europe," he says, "even as early as the World War One era.  

Valencic’s family came to Northeast Ohio in 1909.  He says he’s enjoyed watching a teenaged fashion model from Sevnica, Slovenia become an international celebrity

"I was aware of her as a successful model for Gentleman’s Quarterly and other publications.  And, next thing we know, she’s having the wedding of the century with Donald Trump."

34-year-old Ursula Prosen grew-up as a performer in the sixty-year-old folk dance ensemble, called Kres, and is now teaching a new generation of young dancers.  And, in fact, it was through the dance troupe that she met her husband, Nevio, a Slovenian native.

"I would be proud," he says, "to have the First Lady, that she’s Slovenian, in the White House, you know?"                                   

75-year-old broadcaster Tony Petkovsek has helped connect the Slovenian community with polka music and community announcements since 1961.  His family roots go back to the arrival of his grandparents in 1893.  He says there are similar deep family histories throughout Greater Cleveland.

"And that’s what kept a daily radio show for me going for 50 years --- I had all that support."  

He’s been trying to score an interview with Melania Trump, but so far he hasn’t gotten a response.

"So, who knows?  I won’t give up; you never know.  I really think it’s exciting."

Melania Trump’s been invited to visit the local Slovenian community when she’s in town.  Joe Valencic says Clevelanders would love to give her a taste of the homeland --- maybe a palachinka pastry, a sausage platter and a shot of slovovka to wash it down.

"It would be fun to show her a good time, Slovenian-style, in the Cleveland area, certainly we have many opportunities for that.  I think she would find it fun hanging out with people who speak her language.  

And she should probably bring along her polka shoes.  

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.