My Trip to Apatin

August 7, 2004

Beth Tolfree

My trip to Apatin really began years ago when I elicited an oral history from my Aunt Helen (Magdalena) and learned the name of Apatin.  It was from here that my maternal grandparents, Simon Potolski (Podolski) and Rosina Seiler, emigrated  in 1910.  She gave me a few pictures of my grandparents, their Austro-Hungarian passports, and related her memories of their voyage to America on the Graf Waldersee.   Until then I’d only known that they were Roman Catholics, that they spoke German and had lived in a small village in Hungary.  I had always longed to know my grandparents and now the door into the past had been opened just a little.   

After we located Apatin on a Yugoslavian map in the late 1980’s, my husband Chuck  and I planned to vacation there and  rent a car to drive to Apatin.  When we had to delay that trip we never dreamed that a protracted disintegration of Yugoslavia, combined with the subsequent conflicts in the region, would delay the trip for years and years.  As time passed, we began to wonder about traveling there on our own because of the after-effects of those upheavals coupled with our inability to speak either German or Serbian. 

Meanwhile I did research through the LDS Family History Center and found the names of my great-grandparents:  Simon Potolski and Maria MilaGeorg Seiler and Magdalena Kurschner in the Apatin church records.  So, in 2003 we planned another trip with a Hungarian guide to drive us from Budapest to Serbia-Montenegro, where Apatin is now located.  But again we had to cancel our trip and  I began to wonder if perhaps we weren’t meant to see Apatin after all. 

In 2004 I went online, discovered the DVHH website and began to learn about the Donauschwaben and their history.  Ron Gretz, the Lookup Volunteer for Apatin, traced my family back to 1740’s there.  I was also making many contacts via the Internet with other Apatiner descendants, some who’d actually visited Apatin. 

Now in 2004 our trip was in the works again.  Our guide visited the Serbian Embassy in Budapest and was told that it was safe to travel in Serbia and that we would not need visas.  However, he was unable to obtain a map of Apatin, so we would make do with an old German map of the town that I would bring with me. 

We flew to Budapest on August 3rd and met Adam Molnar our guide.  He expressed some concern about our excursion to Apatin because Hungarian friends had been warning him not to stay overnight.  They told him his car would be vandalized because of its Hungarian plates.  The Serbs are actively trying to encourage Hungarians to leave Vojvodina (the Serbian province where Apatin is located) and the country.  We’d also been told we ought to bring cigarettes with us in case we encountered unfriendly Serbian border guards or Serbian police.  We knew, too, that the U.S. had bombed a bridge near Apatin in the recent conflict in that area. 

Despite all this and after several days of sightseeing in Budapest, we rendezvoused with Adam at 7:00 a.m. and set out on our long drive to Apatin.  We packed lunch with us because we didn’t know what would be available along the way.  The drive was through flat country with big fields of sunflowers and paralleled the Danube on part of the drive.  It was a two-lane highway most of the way and the speed limit was fifty-five km.  Fortunately, the road was in good shape and the Saturday traffic was minimal.  We passed through small villages with  people out and about.  We began to see stork nests atop many of the chimneys. 

As we approached the border crossing, just thirty km from Apatin, we remembered being told that getting through border check could take as long as forty-five minutes to an hour.  But we were in luck as there were few cars backed up.  The border guard who looked us over and  scrutinized our passports motioned us through with no more than a grumpy expression.  We breathed sighs of relief and headed the car toward Sombor where we would turn off towards Apatin.  The villages seemed a little less prosperous now, but otherwise the scenery was much the same.  We passed a farm with huge flocks of geese, but there were  few people out and about. 

Five hours after leaving Budapest we drove into Apatin and within a few short blocks reached the main street of Srpskih Vladara (once named Kirchen Gasse).  Here several blocks have been turned into a pedestrian mall with a few outdoor cafes under the chestnut trees.  We retrieved our lunch, knowing how short our time in town would be, and gobbled it down standing by the car. 

We asked someone where the tourist office was and he pointed us in the right direction…just a half a block away.  I’d been communicating by email with Boris Masic, director of the Tourist Organization, and had let him know that we would like to say “Hello” and introduce ourselves if he would be in his office on the 7th.  I had also been corresponding with Hans Illik of the Apatin HOG in Hassfurt, Germany, who had been very eager to help us with our trip to Apatin.

We were pleasantly surprised to find both Boris and Hans, not only waiting for us, but coming out to welcome us on the street.  Hans comes to the Apatin Church festival every year on August 15th, but  he had come a week early to meet us and I was deeply touched.

Inside the tourist office, Boris and Hans pulled out several books and we soon launched into a dizzying four-way translation of German-Serbian-Hungarian-English and back again.  Boris began to show me listings for my family in these books and I pulled out my Potolski and Seiler family trees, pictures, and the German map on which I’d noted the house numbers of relatives. 

Boris, Hans and I became so engrossed in all of this, while managing to communicate haltingly between ourselves, that Chuck and Adam stepped outside.  They discovered a Farmers’ Market at the end of the street and, unbeknownst to us, decided to check it out.

As we poured over the Familienregister and other books, Boris pointed to the word “Sahler” next to my Seiler family listing and told me that this was the town the Seilers came from originally.**  I was trying to take notes and get all my questions answered, but soon realized that our limited time was going by very quickly and we hadn’t even begun to see the town.  Boris closed up the office and we looked for Chuck and Adam out on the street.  When we couldn’t see them, we set off down the main street towards the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.  Boris pointed out old buildings and related their history to me and I began to wish for a tape recorder AND my camera, which Chuck had with him.  As we neared the Church there was trenching in the street where new piping was begin laid.  The Apatin brewery (c.1756) had been sold a few years ago and many inhabitants of the town had received a lot of money for their shares.  The town, too, had been the beneficiary of the sale and now improvements on the town’s infrastructure were underway as well as more in the planning stages.

(**I’ve not been able to find such a place on any map, and now wonder if “Sahler” might be a variation on the spelling of the name “Seiler”.) 

We had to jump over the trench in front
of the Church to enter the churchyard.

Boris obtained the key from the custodian and we entered the sanctuary.   The Church is quite large and has many beautiful frescoes inside, as well as lovely windows.  There is also a black Madonna that was brought from Germany as the protectress of the German community in Apatin.  It was here in this beautiful Church that generations of my family worshipped and celebrated the important occasions of life:  baptism, first communion, marriage and burial.  And, I was beginning to feel a little distressed that I would have NO pictures of the interior when I remembered that I’d put a disposable camera in my bag that morning before we left.  But what a disappointment when the flash wouldn’t work !!

We continued our tour of the Church with Boris translating Hans’ German into halting English.  It is apparent how much the Church is in need of repair as wide cracks were visible on several walls.  We climbed the narrow, curving stairs to the upper floor and Boris proudly showed me the books and music dating from 1700 Germany that the Church has stored in cupboards and shelves.   

Outside again we retraced our steps to the tourist office and found Chuck and Adam waiting on a bench nearby.  We returned again to the Church, but the custodian was now gone and the key was unavailable.  We walked the few steps to the Town Hall, which is also undergoing repair work, and entered.  Upstairs we entered the meeting chamber with its dark wooden seating and a large mural reminiscent of Communist artwork.  Many old photographs of Apatin hung on the walls of the upstairs corridor. 

After this we piled into Hans’ car for the drive to the upper cemetery (Oberer Friedhof).  We passed through the gypsy section of town.  Apatin has about 4,000 gypsies living there now.  Only six hundred ethnic Germans remain in this town of about 20,000. 

A tall column at the entrance to the cemetery had a stork’s nest atop it with  a stork watching our approach. 

The cemetery is well-kept and has many impressive tombstones.  We saw several monuments with surnames that appear in my family tree, but I could not tell if these might be my relatives.  I was eager to see the cemetery where my relatives were probably buried, the older cemetery, the Unt. Friedhof.  I hoped to see where my great-grandparents and even older generations were buried.

It quickly became apparent, as we entered the cemetery gates, that it would be impossible to locate specific tombstones since the cemetery was overgrown with weeds.  Many of the weeds were taller than the grave markers.  And, many of the graves had been vandalized.  The chapel built by the Fernbach family (my g-great-grandmother was Katherina Fernbach) had been completely vandalized.  No doors or windows are left, the walls are bare of any decoration except graffiti, and trash covers the floor. 

I later learned that many of the old graves have been moved and the inscriptions on gravestones ground off;  new names are then engraved and newly deceased buried in the graves.  Boris, who has German and Hungarian heritage, pointed out his family’s memorial monument, which lay toppled over on its side.  He’d just had it repaired for the second time and it has been vandalized again. 

Near the Unt. Friedhof is the unfinished Church of the Sacred Heart.  The building of this church was begun in the 1930’s and never completed because of WWII.  Now it, too, has been vandalized.  The few stained glass windows have either been broken or are boarded up to protect them.  The interior wall are bare, though there is an altar and pews. 

Next door to the Church is the German Cultural Heritage Hall and next door to it we could hear music coming from the backyard of a home where a wedding party was taking place.  Boris is the President of the local German society and he gave us a tour of the Hall where, again, many old books, newspapers and artifacts relating to the German community are stored.  Hans presented me with a gift of the Apatin Taufregister and Sterberegister with which I was thrilled. 

There is talk of trying to create some kind of exhibit of local culture, including Donauschwaben culture, as part of an overall plan to promote tourism.  Besides the nature preserve along the Danube with hunting, fishing and birding available, there is the Junkovic Spa  just outside of town, and there is even talk of offering Danube cruising. 

Hans drove us toward the Danube with Boris directing him using my German map in order to find my grandparents’ old neighborhood.  We succeeded in locating the block they had lived on, but we couldn’t determine the exact house because house numbers have been changed as well as street names.  The houses all look like the typical Donauschwaben long house or “enfraches langhaus”. 

When we arrived at the Danube we could see the nature preserve across the river and the new Serbian Orthodox Church to the south.  It is in this area that the old center of Apatin was inundated with heavy flooding in the late eighteenth century.  That caused the Apatiners to rebuild the town center in its present location a little inland. 

We sat on the terrace of the new csarda and ordered Jelen Pivo, the Apatin brewery’s “Deer Beer”.  It was very good.  There was a television crew from Belgrade there filming a nature travelogue on the attractions of the nature preserve where there over 140 species of birds, as well as game, fish and plants.  The view here is of a gently flowing and curving Danube with a heavily forested shore opposite.  A swimming beach is a little north of the csarda. 

It was time for us to say goodbye and express our heartfelt thanks to our wonderful guides, Boris and Hans.  We would have been wandering the streets with an outdated map unable to enter the church or locate the cemeteries without their help.  We purchased books, new maps and postcards before we left and used the last of the film in our camera.  

Our long drive back to Budapest was uneventful, even at the border, and we arrived home about 10:00 p.m. with a jumble of images all crammed into one brief afternoon. 

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When I first learned of the name Apatin and found it on a map, I envisioned a very small village with a few streets and perhaps only a village church.  It was a surprise to find out through Web research that it is a town of 20,000, plus the populations of the villages of Sonta, Kupusina, Prigrevica and Svilojevo which make up the Apatin “commune”.  Even when my grandparents lived there in the late 1800’s - early 1900’s it was a town of about 10,000.  It was at Apatin that many Donauschwaben disembarked from their boats (the Ulmer Schachtel) that had carried them down the Danube. From Apatin they went inland to the villages they would settle.  Thus it was here that the German settlement of Vojvodina province was based and because of it the town achieved special status as a trading center. 

It is hard for me to believe that after more than twenty years I’d finally made it to Apatin, even for such a short visit.  I am very grateful to both Hans and Boris for making the most of our time there.  Were I to return I would hope to have time to just wander down the streets where various family members had lived through the years; time to stroll through the graveyard --  even finding a family member’s grave; attend a worship service in the Church of the Assumption;  maybe even meet some of the remaining German residents of Apatin and, perhaps, taste fish goulash.

Beth Tolfree

Oct 2004



Apatin Village Coordinators: Beth Tolfree & Boris Masic

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Remembering Our Donauschwaben Ancestors