Memories from Gakowa
by Katherine Hoeger-Flotz

Hello, my name is Katherine Flotz and these are my memories from Gakowa in Batschka.

Preface

This autobiography was written in 1954, when I was 18 years old and had just graduated from High School.  I had been in the USA only five years.  During that time, I learned English and wanted to write down my experiences during the 1944-1949 years in Europe.

The text is not perfect and could be improved upon now. However, I wanted to leave it as I wrote it at that time.

It is meant to be a factual accounting of my life during that period of time.  It is meant for my children, my grandchildren, family and friends.  Anyone else who finds it interesting is welcome to read it.

I am married now and have three children and five grandchildren.  It is for them that this story is preserved.

 

TRADITION AND BACKGROUND OF THE SCHWABEN

Gakowa, a small farming town on the Hungarian border, brings back terrifying experiences of a concentration camp where almost twenty thousand people were thrown together like herds of animals for reasons nobody knew.

Nearly two hundred years ago, people from the Black Forest region of Germany settled in the northern part of what is now called Yugoslavia.  These people's ingenuity found an outlet and they cleared the land, which then was mostly wilderness, and created a soil that was to be the pride of the "Batschka."  Most everyone was a farmer, except for a few carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, doctors, etc. who took care of the other needs of the people.  Of course, there was no use for electricians, plumbers, repair men, etc., since luxuries of a modern world did not exist in this area.
The "Donauschwaben" were a people who had customs and music, traditions and adages, that set them apart from others.  In the twentieth century, some modern trends crept in and commodities like electricity and later telephones were used; although there are approximately only five telephones in the whole town.

The building of a new house was like the gathering of a family clan.  The few professionals were multiplied with helping hands of relatives, neighbors and friends.  Snake-like forms wound from the brick pile to the spot where the brick was needed.  In such a line were produced and retold funny sayings, legends and gossip, and the folk songs rang out to the delight of all.  When the scent of hot bread and "goulash" reached the nostrils of those happy helpers, however, the half-built walls were soon left behind and Grandmother's round table resembled a wreath of eager, hungry heads.  The food, of course, whet a thirst for that red Danube wine, which was the harvest of Grandfather's vineyard.

Everyone is proud of their birthplace.  If one isn't, one ought to be.  No matter how much better another country is, the natural instinct demands love for your homeland.  The place where your crib once stood, and your ancestors left marks of prosperity; where the eye sees only beauty in the fields and farms that are yours.  You see the fruitful labor in the tall, proud corn acres as well as security at the sight of a waltzing wheat field.  You experience the tragedy of a poor harvest, only because it belongs to you.  The fruitful years that follow give you more courage and ambition, pride and love for your land, your town and your country.

My pride and home was Gakowa.  It was, in my opinion, the nicest little town in the Batschka.  It could, of course, not compare with big cities like Chicago or New York, but was like a pearl in a chest of treasure - a perfect haven of happiness.

A beautiful church graced the main street in honor of St. Martin, helper of the poor.  At the north end of the town stood a chapel to St. Anthony.  I can still remember as we knelt at numerous devotions in the twilight of a summer day.  In back of the chapel widened a prairie, which the soccer ball players used to play our national sport.

The beautifully decorated cemetery rested at the south edge of town.  On main street, huge homes followed one another.  Trees of all sorts towered like watchdogs over the sidewalks.  Another factor that added to the beauty of the landscape was the cleanliness.  On Saturday afternoons, everyone was out to sweep the sidewalks.  The yards, sizeable enough to build a second house, presented a picture of restfulness as everything was put in its proper place.

The places where "Gemuetlichkeit" - (jolly atmosphere) reigned, were found in the nearest "Gasthaus" (tavern).  Food was usually not served since most of the customers were natives.  Red-checkered tablecloths covered the huge tables, where the art of playing cards was perfected.  As a matter of fact, it resembled a restaurant in America, -- large, friendly rooms with colorful decorations - but only liquor was on the menu.  Dance music, which to me is the most delightful, charmed young and old on Sunday nights.  Hot chestnuts and homemade pretzels fed the onlookers, who watched the dancers.  Of course, there is nothing anywhere like our Danube wine, which flowed in quantity and inspired many a stunt that enriched our legends.

Weddings  were the most elaborate of ceremonies.  A week before the matrimonial event, the relatives gathered to make preparations.  That, in itself, could be called a feast.  Of course, the many kinds of pastry, cake and other goodies were sampled in advance.  The wedding wine could not be put on the table without the consent of the samplers, who tested the alcohol beverage beforehand.  Gaiety and laughter reigned in the house of the bride, when late into the night friends came helping.

On the wedding day, things got under way early.  The couple, joined by the flower girls and ring bearer, followed the brass band leading to church.  All the guests were close behind.  After Mass and the exchange of vows, the celebration started.  The dinner was preceded with the recitation of an appropriate verse, the drinking of a toast, and the breaking of the glasses.

In the early afternoon, the dance band started to play and the first dance honored the couple and immediate family.  From then on the fun began and joyful singing and dancing filled the enormous hall.

By evening, another dinner was prepared and once again we indulged in luscious food.  The festivities continued all night into the next day.  About midnight, some of the boys and girls disguised themselves in old clothes and painted their faces.  It was anybody's guess as to who their dancing partner was.

The next day, the guests came to the house of the bride and celebrated more.  A favorite custom among the boys was "bride stealing".  If the groom failed to hold on to his bride, she was stolen by one of the guests and had to be "bought back".  Sometimes, the couple's way was blocked with barriers.  For each amount of money the groom threw out, one barrier would be removed.  Thus, the new husband had quite a few expenses, even before his married life had actually begun.   Each town had its own customs, which made it interesting to listen to the old people, who had been invited to many out of town weddings.

In Gakowa, birthdays were remembered only by coincidence.  The main celebration of individuals was their Namesday.  Saints like St. Katherine, St. Barbara, St. Nickolaus, St. Michael etc. were honored duly because many people were so named.  On some occasions the brass band even came to serenade.

The dish, which was considered best of all on feasts, was fish soup.  It might sound dull and unappetizing, but believe me, it is one of superb flavor and is among our national dishes.  Fish is cut into cubes and cooked among lots of diced onions, colored with paprika, spiced with vinegar and wine.  Afterwards, homemade noodles and hot bread added solidity to the liquid preparation and was ready to be a sure delight of all.

During the winter months, another opportunity for pleasant expectation was the "Schlachtfest" (slaughtering of a pig).  Again neighbors came helping to put the animal permanently to sleep and draw from it the year's supply of food.  Sides of bacon cut up and fried resulted in a vast amount of fat.  Hams and sausages hung temptingly in the pantry, and dinner that day was one of the best of the whole year, for fresh meat in itself was a delicacy to us.

I believe, because of the love and helpfulness with which everything was done, the Batschka and Gakowa reaped the harvest of harmony.

An annual religious, as well as recreational custom, was "Kirchweih" (the anniversary of the dedication of our church).  Solemn High Mass and Devotions marked the religious activities, and for amusement, the carnival was a yearly attraction.  The dance hall was usually filled at night and the  brassy tunes of the band lured young and old until the early dawn.

The carnival was something unusual for us, since only once a year at "Kirchweih" we could try out the different rides and eat candy and popcorn.  Relatives from neighboring villages often came to visit at that time to share in the celebration.  A thorough cleaning of the house, stables and yard,  as well as the front site of the house, which usually was painted white,  took place in anticipation of the event.  Foods were prepared and many cakes and pastry awaited any visitors that happened to drop in to sample the Kirchweih wine.

Underground cellars served as the refrigerators and also as a storage for the wine.  Almost everyone kept a barrel in stock; some, who had vineyards, made the wine themselves; others, bought it from "Batina", a village cradled close to the Danube.

In the Fall, we eagerly awaited "Weinlese" (harvesting of the grapes), which was also an annual affair.  My Grandfather, Nikolaus Brandt, had a sizeable vineyard not far from Gakova.  When the time for "Weinlese" came, he called all of us to help.  For us kids it only meant fun and play.  The only work we did was eat - grapes and more grapes.  The older folks each had a container and a knife and proceeded to cut off the clusters of pearls from their beds on the grapevine.  As soon as the container was filled to the brim, it was emptied into large barrels and delivered to the house on a horse-drawn wagon.  There, Grandmother, Julianna, cooked a big meal, and we all sat around the large table and received our reward for the help.

A truly rewarding picture to see is the sunny slopes striped with tall vines jeweled by clusters of bursting grapes - ripe with sweetness.  The care and attention a vineyard needs, keeps one quite busy during most  of the year.  The rain and wind tear down vines, which have to be bound up again.  About three times a year, the vines had to be sprayed to prevent  destruction from harmful insects.

In small towns, the second Commandment, love of God and neighbor, is practiced to a fuller extend because nature brings a closeness to God, and common tragedies and mishaps tie a bond of friendship between neighbors.  Our dependence on God and our neighbors knit us closely together and provided immediate help when tragedies of nature occurred.  Wherever fate will take us, the warmest feeling will always welcome a friend from "home."

In fires or storms, ready neighbors stood by in strength and advice and occasions occurred when one could pay the other back.  Not only tragedy but also joy was shared when good fortune crossed the door step of a neighbor.

We celebrated feasts like Corpus Christi, Epiphany, numerous feasts of Mary and the Saints, which people here don't even remember, with a fitting and honorable reverence.  Processions graced the main street and wound along to the place of honor.  Then after harvest time, thanks and petitions rose from the farmers into the heavens above.

A nation and its people, no matter how acute in space or small in population, are in itself worthy of a place in God's world  This is true because we were designated by our Creator to live our lives in the best way and return to Him for our eternal reward.  When, however, men of sound reason, sign away the lives of that nation, they are overstepping not only a moral principal, but a law which God, Himself, gave us in His Commandments -- "Thou shalt not kill."

The fate of our country, as well as our lives, lay totally in the hands of a few men, who first of all couldn't know the value of the Batschka, in its soil and its people who tilled it.  The fact that we  were part of an unknown country, and thus had little to do with world affairs, cannot prove our inadaptability as Human Beings.  Maybe our methods of farming were not as up to date as in some countries where agricultural schools aided the new farmer, but our people used the teachings and experience of their fore-fathers, which bore fruit as a whole and famed the Batschka for the richest soil far and wide.

Then the Batschka was to be extinguished, just plain erased from the map.  Well, they have succeeded.  Gakowa consists only of a few houses and walls of broken down homes -- in other words, total destruction.  The only things worthy of seeing there now is our little cemetery in which lie our loves ones, who died in the arms of helpless people.  They will guard the ruins and be a lasting landmark of an existing town and it's people.

THE LIQUIDATION OF THE SCHWABEN BEGINS
 

From left, Katharina, Erna, Katherine and Wendel Hoeger (1944)

The fatal year of 1944 was the springboard to four years of the most unpublicized concentration camp in Southern Europe - namely, Gakowa.

In the early morning of November 25, 1944, the towncrier announced that within a few hours we were all to assemble in the "City Hall."  Due to much confusion and fear in the country at that time,  we were terrified of what was to become of us.  The families gathered together and discussed our future existence.

At that time, Gakowa was flooded with Russian soldiers; also some "partisans" (soldiers of Tito).  As it was, we only expected to be held that day, and took no food, nor any more clothing than covered our bodies.  We had the surprise of our lives.  After taking our money and valuables, such as wedding rings, watches, etc., they put us up for the night in the homes of the surrounding area of the "City Hall."  The men and women were separated, leaving each to worry about the other.

At that time, my father had been drafted into the German army just a couple of months before.  My mother and sister, Erna, were with me in one of those crowded rooms, which served as our night's stay.

Meanwhile, the cows, pigs, horses and the fowl were hungry and let themselves be heard.  A few of the men were allowed to feed all the livestock, and came back with the news that our homes had been robbed and vandalized.  While we were kept locked up and watched very closely, the partisans and their families had a party, helping themselves to anything they desired.  Clothing and furniture, food that was stored for winter, was taken and the things they did not want, were burned or torn so as to be useless to us.

Having heard of this, there was great despair.  Nobody knew why we were forced out of our homes to an assembly and never allowed to go back.  Why our hard earned belongings were taken by force.   Our prison sentence lasted one week.  Food supplies came from the houses we left filled with winter stock.  No one, however, seemed to be hungry for it is bad enough in a prison when you are worthily punished, but much worse, when your crime is unknown and your future in dark danger.  The uncertainty of what might happen next, drove one to deep despair .

Then, one day we were ordered to line up outside.  A few were picked out for work in the service of the soldiers; -- bakers, cooks and nurses.  My mother, sister and I were assigned  to the so-called "hospital" to care for the sick.  Actually a hospital was set up at our doctor's house.  Everyone else that could walk, was taken to the closest town about five miles away called "Kruschiwl."  With the exception of the soldiers and a few of the workers, Gakowa was now a ghost town.

Most of my relatives were taken to "Kruschiwl" and according to them, many died of worry or lack of medicines, others contracted severe colds and life-long diseases.

On or about December 15, 1944 we were released to go back into our homes.  The ones taken to "Kruschiwl," also returned.  We thought the nightmare was over and agreed that things could have been worse.

Then on December 28, 1944, a never-to-be-forgotten day, men and women from the ages of 17 to 35 were supposedly taken for labor purposes in the surrounding cities.  A few days later, however, we found out that they were transported into Russian labor camps.  Our family was touched too.  My cousin, Tobias Brandt, who was just seventeen, was among those taken away.  A young boy, needing good food and education to help his physical and mental growth received instead very scarce food, no clothing, no medical care and no education.  His only education was "how to survive."  The only important thing was to work for the government - now and always.  Salt and coal mines, railway building and heavy work in forests, enslaved the under-nourished juveniles and made men out of them.  This information came only with the return of a 70 pound, 21 year old boy, or should I say "man."  While there, no mail or word came from Russia informing families of the whereabouts of their loved ones.

Gakowa was to be the most dreaded camp in Yugoslavia.  In the early months of 1945, Donauschwaben from the Batschka and Banat, which is another German-speaking region in Yugoslavia, were driven out of their homes with belongings only their backs could carry.  The old and the sick came with the healthy.  Some did not make it, because they had to walk -- and walk fast.  Once they arrived in Gakowa, they were divided into groups and placed into homes.  As days passed, each house became more and more filled.

On April 24, 1945, my mother and I came down with the first case of typhoid fever.  No doctor nor medicine was available.  So our bodies fought with nature in the struggle between life and death.  Shortly after the attack of the fever, I became unconscious and remained so for 21 days, at which time the patient either survives or dies.    Evidently my resistance was stronger than my mother's, because she died while I am still here to tell about it.  My mother's burial had very few mourners because  only a few relatives were allowed to attend the funeral.  Luckily we could bury her in a coffin, which was later impossible.  The corpses outnumbered the graves and  burial was done in "mass graves".

My father was far away and the death of his wife was unknown to him.  My little sister, Erna, age 3 at the time, did not know whom they were burying.  She later asked for her mother time and time again.  I, myself half dead, missed the opportunity of the last right to accompany the greatest person to her resting place; -- one's mother.  She had an iron will to live.  Her love was not only for her family, but surpassed the worldly beings to honor our Blessed Mother.  A consoling thought has always kept me happy; - that our Blessed Mother, too, loved her so much that she ended her suffering and took her to heaven, where she is waiting and watching for us all.

As the months passed, I became well again, and our evacuated house filled rapidly.  Since typhoid fever is very contagious, no one was allowed to live there during our illness.  Both my sister and I went to live with our maternal aunt, Barbara Findeis and Anton Findeis.  Nine people slept in our room which was considered lucky, because usually 15 to 20 people occupied one.  Beds were made of straw and housed fleas and lice.  Food came from large kitchens, set up in each block.  Huge kettles were used to prepare soups and porridge.  Boiled cabbage leaves or potatoes mixed with hot water served as soup; corn and wheat were the ingredients of the porridge.  Bread was made from corn and water, sometimes without salt.  Meals without salt had even less taste and strength.  Due to under-nourishment and worry, death rates rose to a peak.

From the 20,000 people living in Gakowa (a town of 2500 inhabitants) at that time, approximately 75 to 100 died each day.  That was when the problems of burial arose.  Our small cemetery could not hold any more, so it was enlarged on the back.  Huges mass graves were dug, about half a block long, six feet deep and six feet wide.  Each morning the corpses were wrapped in sheets and laid in the yard.  A horse-dawn wagon came around and made the "pick-ups".

The ceremony was very short.  Once close to the grave, the wagon was turned to one side and the corpses buried themselves.  Several men stood at the bottom in order to file the bundles close together to make more room.  As each layer was filled, about one foot of ground covered it, and the next layer was started.  No one knew where their relatives or friends rested, only that they were "somewhere in that hole".  Gravestones or flowers were prohibited, only the grey, cold earth blanketed the poor unfortunate ones, whose epitaph might be: " Death came through hunger and sickness".

In 1945 the church and cemetery were closed.  The opportunity to honor the dead and attend church was cut off.  The spiritual side of life was urged to be forgotten.  Suicides became evident.  Women attempted  to jump into the 25 feet deep wells, which supplied each house with drinking, cooking and cleansing water.  This reduced the already low water supply.

The winter of 1945 to 1946 was one of the hardest in the Schwabenland history.  Malaria broke out supplemented with lice, who spread it.  A case of such a harmful insect, is the one that cost my Grandfather Nickolaus' life.  An old man, who was willing to give his last warm coat for food, tried to bargain with my Grandfather.  As he tried it on, two lice transferred on his body.  These two did a lot of harm.  He became ill, suffered much and died on January 6, 1946.  A few days later, I brought my few belongings and came to live with Grandmother Julianna.

A few days later, surprise struck us again, and we both were driven out with what covered our bodies and one blanket.  What I remember most about that day was that I forgot my only pair of shoes.  I wore a pair of knit slippers in the house, and the sudden request to leave was a great shock.  Later I found that the shoes were left behind, but permission to return was not granted and thus I walked all winter long in knit slippers.  I could not go outside.

The reason for the evacuation of that area was that all malaria cases came into that section.  The disease spread so rapidly that nearly everyone became infected.  The "Commandant" (commander in charge) reached the decision that they must be exiled.  Without care and attention, nor doctors and medicine, the death wagon made many trips to that area.

Meanwhile, my Grandmother Julianna and I came to live with my aunt again.  A couple of weeks later, the latter part of January, the towncrier once more announced that everyone was to be divided into areas according to age.  The children, workers and old people were to live separately, each in a different block.  Once again I packed up my bag and prepared to leave with my sister.  In Yugoslavia, the winters are hard and snow falls often and stays on the ground.  That day, I would say, was among the coldest.  The partisans seemed to time it that way, for it was so much fun to see us freeze and suffer.

Everyone was ordered to stay inside and be ready to go anytime a soldier came to escort you to your designated area.  A man, who was trying to look after his daughter, was seen on the street by a partisan and shot down in cold blood.  After a few people were moved, the commandant ordered "halt" and everyone was allowed to return to their original places.  Fortunately, I was among those who were not yet moved and didn't freeze as much as some of those poor people with whom they played "cat and mouse".  That just goes to show the works of an insane and barbaric mind.  The great turmoil,  fear and worry that was caused by such an announcement, played a big part in running down one's resistance, and achieved their plan  to harass us.  They never really meant to separate us, but only wanted to sharpen our nerves and extinguish the flame of the little strength that was left.

In fact, we had regular assemblies about once or twice a month, sometimes even more often.  Everybody, sick and healthy, lame or blind, was forced to assemble in the designated spot.  The healthiest looking men and women were picked out and sent to labor camps.  Sometimes they only called the assemblies to frighten us even more.

I'll never forget that winter at my maternal aunt's house.  Due to limited housing, too many of us were forced to sleep in one room.  Rats and mice were so abundant, that we could not get rid of them.  They inhabited the whole wall, and when we closed up one hole, the next one would open up.  We slept on the floor, and I hate to think of those terrible nights, when those miserable rodents played "catch" with each other.  Sometimes in dressing yourself in the morning, you would find a mouse in your shoe.  I am still plagued with nighmares of these nights and am terrified of mice.

Another episode in our fearful life was the fact that orphans were to be turned over to the government and brought up according to the ideals of Communism.  Being orphans, my sister and I lived in constant fear of that realization.  One time it was so bad, we had to hide for a week in a storage room and when things became so dangerous, we hid in an old icebox in tavern which my Grandmother's sister - Barbara Zorn, owned.  Due to two generous aunts and uncles, our chances of being taken away became slim because they cared for us and said we were their children.

The poor children who were taken to orphanages to parts of Serbia, lost their German heritage, their language, and knowledge of  parents and God.  The upbringing consisted of hammering into their minds that there was no God.  Stalin and Tito were their Gods and would take care of them.

The fact that Gakowa was only about seven or eight miles from the Hungarian border, provided a slim opportunity to escape to freedom.  Many tried, some made it, others were either captured and brought back or shot right away.  The runaways, who were brought back, found a cellar for a prison.  Each house had a cellar in order to keep food from spoiling.  It was usually dark, damp, and underground.  The two biggest ones were chosen as the prison.  Both men and women were thrown in those ugly housings after their capture.  It was very dark and you could not see how many and who was there.  Facilities for lavoratories were impossible, and the smell made it even more nauseating.

A case of severe brutality befell a family from Gakowa, who tried to escape.  After their capture, the mother was sent home, and the father and daughter thrown into one of the cellars.  During the day, the man was frequently beaten with a pitchfork.  The girl suffered not physically but mentally, hearing the beastly cries of her father.  One morning they were found hanged and their wrists slashed.  The story was one of suicide.  We all failed to believe this.  For how could one cut his own wrists and then hang himself,  It points to cold blooded murder.

Not only those who tried to escape landed in prison, but also people who stole out of town at night to beg for food.  They went into the neighboring villages, inhabited by the natives, hoping to get some food for the hungry children.

Gakowa was completely surrounded by soldiers.  And yet, some people got through.  It is amazing how a hungry child or a hungry parent will drive you to do the almost impossible.  Whenever there was one way out - we found it.

Growing children, who need wholesome food, had a hard struggle to keep physically normal.  Their heads and stomachs were too big in proportion to the bony arms and legs.  Two large bones resembled a pair of wings growing out of the meager backs and did not help their posture.  Each scrap of food the mother was able to get her hands on went to her children.  Just like a bird goes out to seek food for  her young and meets unexpected danger on her way, so the mother of the waiting children often did not  return from her dangerous journey; and like the orphaned feathered friends fall prey to more powerful fiends of nature, the motherless children lost their nest to the eagles of men == the partisans.

The young and innocent children, whom our Lord loved so much, had to suffer the most.  Too many were orphaned and lost the priceless possession of parents.  All suffered hunger, and thus failed to grow up normally.  Another normal thing for the young is school.  There was no school in the concentration camp.  In a classroom, children are taught the fundamentals of social living and the difference between right and wrong.  In the camp, idle hours and hungry stomachs naturally were workshops of many mischievous deeds.  A place where reverence of God and love of your neighbor is the key to heaven, is of course the church, which was locked up and prohibited anyone to enter it.  Again, an important stone in a child's life was thrown into abyss.

The future, when looked into by the eyes of those young people, failed to show any signs of prosperity and peace.  Despair drove many to grow careless in habits of prayer, faith and trust in the word of their fellow man.  Our future, we thought, could only bring a lasting bondage with a destructive concentration camp.  A place where we would have to remain until death relieved our unending sentence of slavery under a communist regime.

Every normal phase of a child's life, which is taken so much for granted, was something in the past, for those young people certainly grew up in bad conditions.  There were a few teachers in the camp who felt it their obligation to teach some of the growing children the principles of our religion, as the few priests present in Gakowa were very closely watched.  At that time, the church was not yet closed completely, although no Masses could be celebrated.  So in the Spring of 1946, I attended a secret class of First Communicants, where preparation for the event was made.  On May 19, 1946, I received Our Lord in my First Communion.  The partisans surely failed to see what it meant to us, or they would have refused to let us proceed.  Shortly  thereafter, our church and cemetery were closed to the public and guards posted around the premises.  We couldn't even visit the dead anymore.  What could be gained from that, -- but to exercise purely selfish motives.  That refusal made us even more bitter, as we all had deceased members of our family.

In the Spring of 1946, one of my uncles (Michael Brandt) was ordered to go home from the work he was doing, pack a few things and be back in an hour.  To ascertain his speedy return, a partisan followed him home.  They thought it unnecessary to give reasons for their actions, so we knew nothing until he was gone.  We heard that he was taken to a village, inhabited only by natives, where he, among others, had to make bricks.  Almost every town had a place where bricks and shingles were made to build houses.  It is hard work.  First of all, the substance, dirt and water, has to be prepared, then the heavy mud carried to the designated place where others formed the bricks.  Molds were used in order to assure unity in size and circumference.  The formations were baked in a giant oven.  After their return from the oven, the bricks were ready to be used.

My uncle worked there during the hot summer months of 1946.  During his absence, my aunt (Justina Brandt) feared being alone and asked me to come and live with her.  So I left my grandmother Julianna and maternal aunt and moved to the lonesome aunt.  At that time, my aunt's house was changed from a house full of people to a place packed with furniture.  All the furniture had been confiscated from their owners and was stored in these rooms.  All but one room was filled to capacity.

In those summer months of 1946, a daily threat was assembly.  We knew what would happen, as each time some of the people were taken away, -- mostly the ones that were still able to work.  Once, my aunt and another family hid in one of the rooms packed with furniture.  Since it was my aunt's house, she had a spare key to get in the room.  For one bitter afternoon, we sat in agony.  The partisans went from house to house looking for people just like us, who failed to congregate with the rest of the people.  About the middle afternoon a partisan entered our yard, looking in the windows, searching for captives.  We snuggled in the corners beside dressers and tables so as not to show any signs of life.  He knocked fiercely on our door and called out, but the only movement we showed was our hearts beating louder and faster by the minute.  If he would have found us, heaven only knows where they would have taken us to endure punishment for disobedience to the rulers.  After the congregation was dissolved and we heard our own people again, our hearts became lighter and our nerves relaxed.  We all came out and once again a crisis had passed.

The reason for this fear of assembly increased each time because the thought that next time it might be you, bothered us constantly.  We knew all too well some of the horrible things that befell those unfortunate men and women.

One of my uncles (Anton Findeis) took part in such a merciless trial.  The best men had been picked out to work in the forests.  My uncle was among them.  He was strong, but a man can take only so much.  They lived in shacks crowded together like new born kittens, but huddled like that was the only way to keep warm.  Most of the warm clothes were taken from us in the beginning and the rest that was left naturally was not made of iron and became worn out.

One of the policies of the merciless partisans was that anyone too sick or weak to work was useless to the government, so they killed him.  Before the poor man died, however, he suffered unbearable pain.  For to die with a bullet in the back might have relieved his illness and anymore suffering.  Those partisans knew that and took advantage of it.  One morning all the men were ordered to come out in the nearby field.  The sick man had to dig a hole, which was to be his grave.  All the others had to stand and watch.  Evidently, it was to be the lesson of the day.  The death sweat ran down the haggard face of one, who knew he was digging his own grave.  The spectators held their breath wishing they would not have to watch, and praying this cold-blooded murder would not  befall them.  After having dug his grave, he was told to lie in it.  The on-lookers were then ordered to shovel the ground on him that he just finished throwing up.  Burying someone alive must be a terrible nightmare for the men.  The cries that arose from the grave were all one last plea:  "Tell my wife and children good-by and give them my love . . ."  Even when the grave was filled with dirt, cries emerged from a man who was buried alive.

I think something like that is the cruelest form of torture to witness and to endure.  Days and weeks later, the atmosphere was still haunted with the ghostly memories.  With things like that in mind, no wonder we were so frightened when the time came to assemble.

When we were disowned and imprisoned, one and only one goal was to be reached by our enemies and that was to extinguish the Donauschwaben in the Batschka and all other German regions in Yugoslavia.  The success of that plan became more evident as our days in camp progressed.  Population decreased rapidly with the help of hunger and disease.  A medical opinion tells us that a will to live and get well in the patient's mind sometimes proves more effective than drugs and a doctor's care.  Having nobody and nothing to live for, the resistance of our people could not survive and therefore, the body was completely in the hands of death.  If those victims are all saints, which they certainly should be, the eternal home welcomed an army of defenseless and guiltless "Schwaben".

In our three years of imprisonment, not one piece of clothing or for that matter, any article was bought.  The thought of it produces a vague impossibility.  Every day needs, like combs, toothpaste, soap, etc. were as scarce as stars on a cloudy night.  How we managed to get on for three years without once going "shopping", even for necessities, seems now almost impossible.

Children could not be taught the three "R's because of the lack of books and supplies.  One pair of shoes, if you had one, served as footwear on all occasions.  Clothes closets would have been superfluous inasmuch as you wore most of your belongings.  The only way that anyone received a piece of clothing was through the death of a relative, just like the heirs to a fortune.

The approaching winter of 1946, presented a severe problem of heating materials.  There were no stores or warehouses where you could buy or trade supplies.  So the only thing left to keep from freezing was to tear down stables and after those were gone the destruction of houses began.  Trees became scarce, because wood was essential.  So we can say that the self-destruction of Gakowa began.  The winter was cold and many died as a result of lack of food, clothing and warm shelter.  How many winters could we stand . . . when was this massacre going to end . . . who was going to stop all this???

As people wondered, no answer could be found, so they decided to take a chance and try to escape.  During that winter, many escaped and many died trying so that a decreasing amount of Schwaben became evident.  The partisans didn't care how they got rid of us.  As long as we were no longer in Yugoslavia.

Another winter had passed and time to sow the fields was here.  Everyone who could work was forced to go out and help in the care of the year's harvest.  The soil, which had no proper rotation and lack of fertilizer,  produced less and less each year, and there was a decreasing food supply for the camp.  The Spring and Summer of 1947, was much like the years before.  Assemblies, deaths, births.  The monotony of every day camp life presented a problem to the adults and even more to the children, who were growing up uneducated.  They lacked the responsibility that normal school children have and the devil played on their  idle minds and promoted mischief.

Another year was in the passing and once more the poor harvest was brought in to feed the people during the coming Fall and Winter.  We saw no relief in sight from this camp of ever vanishing Schwaben.  The thought of leaving our home, or should I say, what was left of it, came deeper and deeper into our minds and encouraged us day by day to try to escape.  Should we wait to die here, or shall we encounter a perilous journey during  which we might perish.  A decision of such a nature was neither easy nor hastily made.

FLIGHT ON THE WINGS OF FEAR

In the late summer of 1947, the great decision was made.  My uncle and aunt (Michael and Justina Brandt) decided to leave our family still living, our home and our country and escape into a better world.  Another decision resulted in my part of the journey.  They agreed to take me along and provide for and guide me as long as necessary.   We left with very little to call our own, only what our backs could carry.  For the last time, we looked around the house, built with love and hard work; the family, living and dead; the neighbors and friends with whom we went through a great deal and Gakowa itself, which was built by people just like us, driven from homes by persecution.  Would we be able to build another Gakowa? I doubt it, for we are sown all over the world, while too many gave their lives in the fight to preserve our Gakowa.

Knowing only too well that we wouldn't find "honey and roses" in Germany made it difficult to decide to leave the birthplace.  There is something clinging to the place you call "home".  Even though it looked like a herd of bulls went over it, you can still call it "home".  But to go into far away countries would mean making ourselves refugees and belonging to no country.

It was hard, too, to leave the last things that were kept from destruction because we hid them from the partisans.  The hope of finding my cousin, Tobias Brandt, who was still in Russia, we thought, made it a driving ambition and washed away some of the reluctance to leave.

Prisoners from the USSR came into Germany every week, sick and half-starved.  That was the reason they were allowed to leave Russia.  The state had no more profit from them.

One night in August, 1947, a group of people gathered in one of the houses on the edge of town, with bundles of their last possessions on their backs.  We were among those that night.

The parting was difficult and heartbreaking because we could only tell our immediate family for fear of being exposed.  As I took leave of my little sister, who was only six years old at the time, the thought crossed my mind that I might never see her again.  She was to stay with our other aunt and uncle, Anton and Barbara Findeis.  She understood very little of what was going on.  The realization of seeing everything for the last time comes only after being away for awhile.

Sitting in the dark that night, -- waiting and watching  for the right moment to make our escape, I was very sad.  It meant never coming back to our homes and our town.

There were approximately one hundred people and two guides to lead us into freedom.  At 1:00 A.M> August 20th, 1947, at the precise time of the changing of the guards at the border, we made our way through fields of corn towards the heavily guarded border.  Like a human caravan, winding forward, we went through the night, daring not to talk, nor to think of the heavy load on our backs.

The fields of corn, with the cobs fighting us as we wound down its lanes, were our protection of being seen.  Then there were untilled acres that made our way hard, due to weeds and rocks.  People began to tire from overloaded bundles and proceeded to lighten their burden by discarding some of their last possessions.  As we came closer to the border, knees started to shake and nerves became tense.  What if they should catch us?? The Lord only knows the consequences.

The signal of silence warned us that we were on the border.  The first twenty people crossed, then a rifle shot stopped our heartbeats and turned the blood to ice.  We were still in enemy territory and now prisoners of the border patrol.  That shot had brought out a number of guards and prevented any measures of bargaining or bribery.  Shortly after our capture, dawn began to break and gave birth to a hot and stiffling summer day.  A little reluctant but helpless, we marched toward the patrol headquarters and were ordered to find a place among the large group already captured that night.  While the dew produced a little cool air, our bundles got a thorough examination and we were lightened of any valuables.  The first thing those partisans always did was to take -- just take and never give.

As the sun grew hotter, and no move was made to transport us back to camp, we began to feel a little easier.  Then a partisan came and gave us a lecture.  He explained that they were going to let us go across the border the following night but he urged us to be sure and go into the "Russian Zone", because that's the place where we will be rich and happy.  After that ridiculous statement, most of us laughed on the inside and showed much interest on the outside.  We spent the entire day in the treeless yard, victims of a blistering hot August sun.  Toward the evening, we bundled up, again to start our journey into new horizons.  We still don't know why the partisans let us go that day.  Maybe they just wanted to get rid of us.

Once safely across the border, we found ourselves in Hungary.  The rest of the night we spent in a farmer's haystack just resting.  Most of the people broke away from the group and each went their own way.  Four families including ourselves, all natives of Gakowa, decided to travel together.   It was Stefan and Appolonia Brandt (my grandfather's brother) Stefan and Barbara Hirn, Theresia Sehn and her granddaughter Julianna and us.

As soon as day broke again, we exchanged some clothes for services from the farmer.  He agreed to load our possessions and the older people and children into his wagon and show us on our way.  My uncle became quite ill; he suffered from stomach ulcers.  Walking made matters only worse.

We traveled from one Hungarian town to another, always fearing the enemy behind us.  The fact that thousands of refugees roamed the roads of Hungary, made it almost impossible to get any form of transportation vehicles.  So we waited and prayed in a strange country far from home.  Finally the news came to prepare for the continuing journey.  A truck took us to a railroad station, where we took a train, all the while with no passport or any papers.  When we arrived at the third town before the Austrian border, everyone without a passport had to get out.  Here we were again without any knowledge of which way to go and no transportation.  Then we heard that there was a station for refugees, where we would be properly directed.  Waiting for our turn, each person was called into a private room.  Again our bundles were thoroughly checked and lightened when some articles appealed to the inspector.  All our money was confiscated.  Of course, by that time we had learned to outwit the inspectors and carefully hid part of our valuables.  In return for the currency, horse-drawn wagons were provided for our journey up to the Austrian border.  Once again, baggage, old folks and children had the privilege of riding on the wagon, while all the others walked.  We arrived at the border in darkness and to our surprise the Austrian border patrol was waiting for us with trucks.  After sunshine comes the rain and what was to come, was a cloudburst.

The trucks took us to a large camp where thousands of people like us, housed while waiting for dismissal to go freely into Austria.  We, however, did not plan on staying, as we intended to go to Germany.  After registration, permission to carry on our journey was received joyfully by all of us.  Again, we hired a wagon to make our way more swift.

The highways and by-ways were filled with people and often looked like a market place.  The possibility for speedy transit and comfortable facilities were scarce.  Native farmers gained considerable wealth through hungry passers-by, who were ready to trade their best for food and a night's stay.

The most desired and sought-after men, were the guides who lead the stranger through the dangerous spots.  These places refer to the border, which divided Austria into Russian and American Zones.  We occupied the Russian zone at the crossing from Hungary and desired to leave it as soon as possible.  To do this in a reasonably safe way, we engaged such a guide.  The roads leading to the border region lead us through fields and forests, along rivers and lakes.  The scenery  was beautiful.  The Danube ebbs its waters through the most part of Austria and guests on the outskirts of Vienna.  Towering forests are the pride of the Tiroler woodchoppers.

In time of peace, such an excursion as ours would have proved expensive as well as improbable.  Now that the country was infested by Communism and the enemy's troops presented entry into the American zone, the chances of our enjoying scenic beauty were very slim.  The seed of nature, which Gad sowed on that land, enriching its soil with beauty and fertility, was forced to make room for the weeds of Communism.  It marred not only nature, itself, but led the minds of men away from the finer things and destroyed the flame of burning pride.  Communists themselves are only so in name and word, as they do not practice what they preach.  One of their most often used promises is: "Share everything -- and share alike."  Were it true, another Golden Rule would have been born.  A rule, that would be a moral, social and policital asset.  They call sharing -- "taking the biggest part for themselves. "  The poor worker shares a small dividend of the profits, while the boss lives in luxury.

As I recall, in the streets of Austria, we hired a truck which brought us to Vienna.  Vienna, the City of music and romance was a sad disappointment to our expectations.  Bombs had destroyed its edifices and ruined transportation facilities.  The opera house, where once the great masters  performed, lacked performers and audiences.  People found time for nothing else but to make a meager living and to rebuild a once magnificent city.

Our way from there became more hazardous because, due to the nearness of the border, Russian soldiers were found in many transportation vehicles.  As refugees, we were the easiest thing to recognize, inasmuch as baggage as well as frightened looks cast suspicion upon us.  That was the reason for our fear, when we rode a public bus, and two Russian soldiers were on it.  For once luck prevailed and the soldiers left the bus one station ahead of us.  That bus took us very close to the border, so close that we could hear the voices of the patrol.  We had to leave the bus at the end station and camp outside an old shack for the night.  Knowing full well that daylight would reveal our presence, several men posted themselves on the main road in order to ask any passing vehicle for a ride.  Luckily we got one in time as the rooster began to announce a new day.

A pine forest was our destination in which our day was spent in the companionship of a drizzling rain.  I remember that night as our hardest struggle in the battle for freedom.

The fallen pine needles stuck to us when the rain came down and our baggage became wet and heavy.  Our feet became soaked and chilled, while our bodies hungered for hot food.  Knowing no other way out, we tore a bed sheet to pieces and wrapped it around our feet.  We could hardly afford to eat and sleep and we did not want to get sick from this miserable weather.

As we waited for darkness to come, the only visitor was the rain, a constant companion, maybe a friend who stayed by our side.  Being cloudy and overcast, the day was shortened earlier than usual.  We knew now was the time to be strong and fearless as we followed the guide in silent desperation.  The roads that we used were muddy and swayed along the forest.

Whoever fixed the boundary zones knew what they were doing for the surrounding area was very hilly.  We never knew exactly where the patrol kept their watch because they changed their positions regularly.  We would struggle up a sizable hill, groping in the darkness to find our way, when the signal was given to retreat.  Back down we slid sometimes on our stomach if it helped matters any, not caring how dirty and filthy we looked.  This happened repeatedly all night long, sharpening the nerves as each time we almost reached our ultimate goal, but were prevented to attain it by the approaching patrol.  Finally, after many tries, we decided to take the most dangerous road.  First it took us up a steep hill which was as slippery from the fallen rain as a bar of wet soap.  We tried to hold ourselves on the grass and weeds, but most of us had our hands full of baggage.  If you were lucky enough to get a few feet up the menacing barrier, a slip of either hand or foot would result in a ride back down on your stomach.  We knew just one thing, though, we had to get up that hill and fast.

As if Lady Luck had not frowned upon us enough, our troubles never seemed to end.  As we finally reached the top, a fence of barbed wire dared us to pass.  The men, therefore, forced a considerable loop through which our bodies as well as the bags would pass.  Our clothes were torn while we hurried and our skin ruptured from the fence.

As we slipped through the fence, a broad road lay before us which we had to cross to reach the opposite side.  The flaw in that mission was the fact that a mill was nearby, flooding its lights upon the street.  The whole area was bright and our shadows would be seen.  Again, when there is no other way out, a strong determination keeps you going.  Situations like those helped you to make up your mind fast and do it for everyone's good.

We stalled no longer and moves swiftly, like a herd of deer running from the hunter.  After all of us had crossed the lighted area, the crisis was over.  Our guides took us to a nearby farmhouse that had a large barn where we could all stay and rest through the night.

Once again, a mission was accomplished.  We had succeeded triumphantly in the hardest of trials, the most dangerous border.  Three times had we become frightened and nervous, in fact, just plain scared, and we came out successful.  Now, there was one more barrier to overcome, the border which separated Austria and Germany.  How complicated and dangerous it was, we did not know but we hoped for the best.  For all we knew, we might have trodden on the same path that our ancestors followed in search for a new home.  They must have endured the hardships and disappointments that met us on the way.  They must have wondered where their new home would be and how they would find it.

Their fate had spun a century of prosperity and peace, then the thread of harmony was cut by our enemies.  We were on the same road to find what we lost, -- a home, a country, a right to be free.

The following morning our alarm clock -- the sun-- signaled our departure.  As so many times before, we hung the knapsacks on our backs and again marched on.  Just being in the American zone, though, steadied our nerves and we felt a sense of protection.

In Linz, Austria, we could finally continue our journey by train.  Our destination was Ludwigsburg, Germany, where some relatives lived.

In Salzburg, which stands lofty and proud among its castles, we again left the train to start our last crossing by foot.  Salzburg lies in the northwestern part of Austria.  It is named after the river "Salzach", which gracefully ebbs its way through the city and is a landmark pointing the way to Germany.  This time we had no guide to lead the right way - only the Salzach.  We followed its banks through the woods.  We were cautioned to beware of tree houses which the border patrol used to trap the illegal travelers.

In the woods, steep hills confronted us making it impossible for my uncle and another lady, who were both ill, to climb any higher.  We had to find another way.  It was daylight.  Our way in the dark could only have lead us to confusion and finally loss of our sense of direction.

It was decided to continue to follow the Salzach which would bring us into Germany.  The thought of wading to the other side, which was part of Germany, lingered only for a while, because the strong current of the river would have become master with the sick and the children.  So we walked along the murmuring waters of our new found friend.  A milestone, resting on the edge of the forest, marked the border.  At that point, we crossed the last of the barriers and were free.

As the afternoon sun sank behind the hills, the tall trees which had protected us, whispered a friendly welcome.  Trees had been our protection during the days and nights from our enemy as well as from the foes of nature.  The fact that our ancestors came from Alsace/Lottringen in the Black Forest, a region covered mostly with tall pines and evergreens, might account for the mutual fondness.  A walk through the woods on a fall day should be a requirement for every living being.

We began to breathe easier and felt as though we just conquered an army.  Our chances of a safe crossing were shadowed by an approaching traveler riding a bicycle.  We soon found ourselves in the company of a private detective, who questioned our coming and going.  As soon as we told him of our Yugoslavian background, we were free to go.  The reason for this was that citizens of Hungary were prohibited in Germany, thus detectives roamed the border area,

A bridge that crossed over the Salzach lead us into a small village where we managed to get transportation to Berchtesgarden.  We arrived there in the late evening and found shelter on the hard floors of a camp surrounding  the railroad station.

The August nights in the mountain villages become quite chilly and we were cold on the wooden floors of the barracks.  Rest had not come to us since we left home and our bodies ached for cleanliness, hot food and some rest.  We still worried about our future in this new country.

The morning fog hung like a curtain before  the sun and dulled the oncoming day.  Restlessness and a determination to move on urged us into the waiting room of the railroad station.  The train that we boarded took us to Munich.  On the trip, which stretched about 100 miles, we experienced the fact that we were strangers; not so much in appearance and language, but in our rights.

During that time, ration cards enabled the Germans to buy food and that was the only way.  We, of course, possessed no such privileges, - yet.  All we had was an old loaf of bread, dried and unappetizing and some cheese in the same condition.  When we saw others eat fresh fruits and vegetables, our left-overs didn't seem edible.  Those ration cards did not suffice in the least as far as meat, sugar and bread was concerned, but Germany has a tremendous amount of fruit trees as well as home grown vegetables, which helped fill our empty stomachs.

About noon on August 31, 1947, our train arrived in Munich where we had to transfer to reach our destination.  Half of our group left us and stayed in the famous beer city; another family and ourselves boarded a later train headed for Ludwigsburg.

A sad farewell and a rain of good wishes parted us.  We would certainly never break that bond which held us together in our struggles.  Mutual memories of the perilous journey gave us a strong relationship and if we ever all meet again, it will provide tears and happiness as we won our "battle of the borders."

While we covered miles of railroad tracks, in the fields around us, farmers yielded fruits of their labor -- it was harvest time.  Glorious memories filled us with homesickness as we recalled our own fields once a  petal of the blooming rose - the Batschka; now lay-wasted under the barbaric hand of communism.  When the sceptre of justice and truth strikes, led by strong and God-fearing men, the ship of tyranny shall be sunk.

Moving  closer to our destination, we also saw an increasing amount of industry, which was already rebuilt after the terrible bombings of a few years back.  Coming from farm country and seeing little of big city life naturally resulted in our amazement.  Smoking chimneys crowned the numerous factories coming into sight, and revealed to us that we were arriving in Stuttgart.  Changing into a local train, the last ten miles brought  us to Ludwigsburg, - our final destination.

Our goal was achieved but now we had to earn our right to stay in Germany.  Thus another camp was our home for nearly two months.

A few days after our arrival in Ludwigsburg, a miracle happened that proved that not even the hardest battles are fought in vain.  An acquaintance who happened to be in Ulm, a camp where refugees from everywhere had to go through, saw my cousin who had returned from the Russian labor camp.  Joyfully she announced the almost unbelieveable news.  We decided to go to Ulm immediately to find him.

I say it was a miracle because too many people failed to return just like my father, whose whereabouts are still unknown.  Never since the Fall of 1944 have we had any word from him.  He will always haunt my conscience and there is always hope of his possible return.  Did he give his life in battle and now lies in a strange country; his grave bare without honor and sympathy from his family.  If so, he undoubtedly is with my mother in their eternally found home - watching over their children and praying for our joyful reunion.

The reunion with my cousin was indeed a long awaited day, and when it came, the joy and gratefulness of our safe "wiedersehn" became greater than what either of us had suffered and endured.  From now on we were going to face the future as a family -- together.

After two years of meager living in the scenic Ludwigsburg, our dreams of coming to America, became a reality.

Again in the Fall of 1949, we packed our bags to go once more in search of a better world.  We certainly found it here, where anybody, even an insignificant refugee, can say and do what he pleases; where I was able to pen my memories of a happy childhood, and five years of horror and hardships; where my family and I took the oath of an American citizen, which made us again a part of a country; and where our hopes and ambitions for a brighter future for our coming generation were reborn.

Now that our hard times have ended, we cannot forget some of our friends, the Donauschwaben, who were not as fortunate in coming here, and the many who stayed on in the cemeteries of their homeland.

Let us hope that this country's prosperity remains and continues immigration in order to help more refugees just like us who were allowed to find a new home in America.

Katherine Hoeger-Flotz

Anyone who wishes to continue the discussion with me or has any questions/answers can e-mail me at: kflotz@comcast.net.

 

My published book "A Pebble in my Shoe" is similar to the Memories but much more detailed, etc.  It also contains the story of my husband, George, who is from Bezdan and whose family left their town in Oct. 1944 before the camps started.  His story is just as interesting as mine. 

Hardcover is $25.00 Paperback is $15.00
plus postage/handling.

Contact me at:

Katherine Hoeger-Flotz
PO Box 1124
Crown Point, In 46308-1124
Telephone: 219-662-2544
eMail: kflotz@comcast.net

 

 

Katherine and George Flotz, present day. We actively speak at libraries, schools, bookstores, etc., familiarizing the American public with our
ethnic cleansing during the 1940's.


 
 

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