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Tug Of War Over Tesla's Ashes

  • Gordana Knezevic

World-renowned scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was an ethnic Serb who was born and raised in Croatia. He emigrated to the United States in 1884.

World-renowned scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was an ethnic Serb who was born and raised in Croatia. He emigrated to the United States in 1884.

The dispute over the final resting place of the remains of Nikola Tesla, the scientist and inventor, has flared up again. The debate has been raging since 2006, and pits the Serbian government and the Orthodox Church against sections of the public and the scientific community.

The inventor's ashes have been on display in an elegant gold-plated urn at the Tesla Museum in the Serbian capital Belgrade since 1957.

However, in a recent meeting between Patriarch Irinej, the primate of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and President Tomislav Nikolic, the idea of relocating Tesla's ashes to the temple of St. Sava -- originally proposed a few years ago -- has been resurrected.

The urn is supposed to be placed in the portico of St. Sava's church and a monument to Tesla is planned for the area between the church and the library.

Belgrade-based science reporter Slobodan Bubnjevic considers the initiative to move Tesla's ashes to the church of St. Sava as objectionable now as it was before.

"The urn belongs to the Nikola Tesla Museum," he said. "That had been [Tesla's own] wish, and the wish of his heirs, those appointed by Tesla to take care of his remains. It would be a cultural travesty on the part of the Orthodox Church [to have the ashes moved]."

'The Son Of A Priest'

Meanwhile, the editor of the Orthodox Church magazine Ljubomir Rankovic, in conversation with RFE/RL in Belgrade, insisted that St. Sava's church would be the ideal repository for Tesla's remains.

"Vracar Hill holds symbolic meaning for all Serbs as the location of the monument to one of the most important Serbs of all time," he said. (St. Sava was the first archbishop and founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Next to the church is a monument to Karadjordje, the leader of the First Serbian Uprising against Ottoman rule.) "Bearing in mind that Tesla was the son of a priest, and grew up in a priestly family, I see no reason why the urn of such a great scientist should not be placed on that hill. Not that the hill would in some way enhance Tesla's greatness, but because of the light that such a move would bring to all Serbs."

Light, of course, has already been given not just to Serbs but to the world, partly thanks to Tesla, who was instrumental in the development of electric power.

Belgrade's Nikola Tesla Museum is an important location in its own right, and has received more than 1 million visitors since its opening in 1952. In 2014, a protest against the removal of Tesla's ashes attracted thousands of citizens of Belgrade. A Facebook campaign, "Leave Tesla Alone," started almost immediately after the announcement, and gathered tens of thousands of supporters on social media.

WATCH: Belgrade's Nikola Tesla Museum

I feel strongly that Tesla's ashes should stay in the museum. The museum is Tesla's temple, and its door is open to people of all ages, genders, religions, nationalities, and races.

The museum must respect Tesla's wishes and those of his family, according to the museum's director Vladimir Jelenkovic.

"Dr. Milica Trbojevic and Sava Kosanovic, Tesla's niece and nephew, made the decision to transfer the urn from New York [where he died] to Belgrade in 1957, and to have it exhibited in the Nikola Tesla Museum," he said. "That was also the desire of Tesla's sister's great-grandchild, William Terbo, the only surviving relative of Tesla."

The church meanwhile wants to emphasize Tesla's Orthodox connection, highlighting the fact that his father was a priest.

Ethnic Dimension

There is also an ethnic dimension. Tesla's identity has been the subject of a long-running dispute between Serbs and Croats. (Tesla was an ethnic Serb from Croatia.) It appears that the Orthodox Church wants to put an end to this by placing the famous scientist's remains under the roof of the most important church in Serbia.

But Tesla himself provided the best answer to the question of his identity. In response to a message from Croatian politician Vlatko Macek, in 1936, Tesla sent a telegram that read: "Thank you very much for your greatly appreciated congratulations. I am equally proud of my Serbian origin and my Croatian fatherland."

Tesla was born into an ethnic Serb family in Smiljan, a small town in what was then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and now Croatia. He became a U.S. citizen in 1891.

One among a number of recent tweets regarding the proposed move captured the feelings of many in Belgrade: "Tesla belongs to the world, not a decoration in a church."

The dispute could take another turn with the approach of the July 10 anniversary, when the scientific community will mark 160 years since Tesla's birth. It will be another test for Belgrade civil society.

The church hierarchy seems intent on enlisting the famous scientist's legacy in its ongoing efforts to stoke Serbian nationalism. Bearing in mind the power and political influence of the Orthodox Church in Serbia, it will be an uneven fight.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.