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 Mila; Georg 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.
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
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
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.
* * * * * *
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.