Roots Remain Along
by Paula Schleis
Beacon Journal staff writer
/ Permission to Reprint from Akron
Beacon Journal -
Posted on Sun, Jan. 12, 2003
Anna and Frank Paitz's neighbors probably know them
as the friendly couple next door, with the well-kept
yard and the old-world German accents.
a safe bet they know nothing of how the Cuyahoga
Falls couple, now in their 90s, went from being
carefree children of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to
a people without a country.
History books usually overlook the story of the
Donauschwaben, a small group of German pioneers who
settled in southeastern Europe in the 1700s and
evolved into a unique culture with their own dialect
yet it's a heritage shared by tens of thousands of
area residents, many of whom have lost all knowledge
of their colorful roots.
of the Donauschwaben came to the United States a
hundred years ago, taking jobs at Summit County
factories, working on farms in Medina County,
becoming business owners in Stark.
Others sought refuge in America after World War II,
when what remained of the Donauschwaben fled or were
evicted from their homes and scattered to places
such as South America and South Africa.
nearly three centuries after leaving their ancestral
land, and six decades since they last shared a
common geographic location, the =
[100.0]Donauschwaben community survives.
Through clubs such as the German Family Society in
Brimfield Township, they pass their traditions on to
national Donauschwaben Day rotated among major
cities in the Midwest, they gather to celebrate
the Internet, they archive recipes and songs at risk
of being forgotten. Through an international e-mail
group, they help each other with genealogies.
in "heimatbuchs'' that record detailed histories of
their hometowns, they memorialize places that no
longer welcome them.
country known for being a melting pot, it's natural
to wonder how long a culture can survive after being
removed from the time and place that created it.
a question even the Donauschwaben have begun to ask
Passing down traditions
the German Family Society, a group of women worked
shoulder to shoulder in the kitchen recently,
breading schnitzel for an upcoming event. They were
speaking English, but 20 years ago, the friendly
banter would have been in Schwobisch.
the torch is handed off to second- and
third-generation Americans, many things are
was a time when these same women would have worn
ethnic dress to club gatherings, said Mary Rickert,
who has been involved with the club since its start
in the 1950s. Her late husband, Joseph Rickert, was
the club's president for 25 years.
days, only performers wear the crisply starched
skirts, decorative aprons and hand-beaded vests.
some elements of Donauschwaben society begin to slip
away, other features persist.
club still operates a German-music radio program on
Sunday afternoons. It sponsors a traveling soccer
club. And dozens of children and young adults
perform ethnic dances at events such as Oktoberfest,
the Grape Dance and Donauschwaben Day.
recent Sunday night, the dance floor at the German
Family Society vibrated with the heavy, rhythmic
steps of a group of teens as they practiced.
small adjoining room, a group of 10- to 14-year-olds
were learning to speak German.
Tag. Guten Morgen. Guten Abend. Guten Nacht,'' eight
children read in unison from a handout from teacher
language class was a popular activity for the
children of World War II immigrants, but interest
faded by the time grandchildren came into the
picture. The class was dropped.
a couple of years ago, some of Guld's former
students asked her to give their children basic
German-language skills. Guld wasn't all that
you get older, you come to appreciate your
heritage,'' Guld said.
teachers her students the common "high German.''
There is little reason to pass on the dialect used
by the Donauschwaben; those who still speak it may
be the last to do so.
Although the children clearly enjoy their
activities, their reasons are their own.
Rickert represented most of her peers when the
13-year-old Tallmadge girl said: "It's just fun,
and I like being with my friends.''
A new culture is born
keeping a culture alive -- even if their children
don't fully appreciate why -- is a priority for
those Donauschwaben old enough to know where they
came from. It's a collective memory that stretches
back 200 years.
their peers, Anna and Frank Paitz grew up in a
former wilderness that had been tamed by their
Similar to America's own pioneers of the west, 18th
century residents of Swabia in southwestern Germany
had sailed down the Danube to new frontiers in the
east. They honored their ties to the river with the
name Donauschwaben: Swabians of the Danube.
settlers turned swamps into farmland, built schools
and churches and opened businesses.
as they mingled with native populations of Serbians,
Croats, Hungarians and Slovaks, their language,
customs and traditions took on a unique flavor.
After a few generations, their language was no
longer readily understood in Germany. Their dialect
became known as "schwobisch.''
Still, the various ethnic groups remained distinctly
separate from each other, said Don Heinrich Tolzmann,
director of German American Studies at the
University of Cincinnati.
the most part, everyone got along,'' he said, "and
there were some intermarriages.''
200 years later, even though they were citizens of
the same country, the Serbs were still Serb, the
Croats were still Croat and the Germans were still
Paitz said many of the region's residents learned to
speak all the languages. "I worked in my father's
store, and whatever the customer spoke, that's what
I spoke,'' she said.
was a diversity that turned dangerous at the end of
World War I, when the Treaty of Versailles broke up
Paitz's birth certificate gives her hometown as
Kereny, Austro-Hungary. Her daughter was born in
Krnjaja, Yugoslavia. It's the same place.
[publisher's note: Kernei
is the German variant]
treaty that created Yugoslavia also formed the
countries of Hungary and Romania. Most of the towns
less tolerant governments, ethnic Germans lost
cultural rights such as being able to operate their
own schools. In Yugoslavia, in particular, the
minority Donauschwaben were getting their first
taste of ethnic intimidation.
the time of World War II, the frustrated
Donauschwaben listened as Adolf Hitler railed
against the 1919 treaty. When Germany occupied parts
of southeastern Europe, the Donauschwaben began
thinking they might finally regain the voice they
supporting German occupation was a bad gamble. And
when German troops were forced to withdraw, revenge
on the sympathetic Donauschwaben was swift and
Aftermath of war
Sitting at his kitchen table, Frank Bohnert flipped
through the pages of an old, dusty composition book
in which he began writing in 1948. Nearby is a stack
of pocket calendars in which he kept track of other
memories -- appointments, events, the day's weather.
uses them as guides to revisit a time when the
Bohnerts -- like the Paitzes -- had to look for a
Eleven-year-old Katie Bohnert listened intently as
her grandfather told a story she said she had never
heard before. "I didn't know he was in a
concentration camp,'' she said later.
admitted she didn't even know what a Donauschwaben
is, so she can't even begin to understand what life
must have been like in Tschonopel, Yugoslavia.
Bohnert's hometown was mostly made up of Germans,
Hungarians and Slovaks. His youth was spent
concentrating on school and doing chores on the
family farm. His parents raised cattle, pigs and
chickens and grew corn, oats and sunflowers.
was a happy life,'' he said.
That's why he could barely believe it when his town
began to disintegrate.
the tide of World War II changed and German troops
retreated from the region, most Donauschwaben
families heeded warnings. They fled for their lives
as other ethnic groups and Soviet troops gained the
upper hand. By train or horse-drawn wagon or on
foot, they left their country with what few
possessions they could carry.
many others, including the Bohnerts, stayed. Some
were too old to leave. Some were too sick. Some
simply refused to give up land that had been in
their family for generations.
"They say, `We didn't do anything wrong. We gonna
stay,' '' explained Frank Bohnert. They decided to
weather the storm with the hope that one day their
lives would return to normal.
Normal never came. Ethnic Germans who didn't leave
were rounded up and placed in labor camps.
1944, the able-bodied men -- including Bohnert's
father -- were taken to the Soviet Union to help
rebuild that country. Many never returned. Anna
Paitz's father was shot by the Soviets when he
became too weak to work.
14, young Frank was placed in a camp for children
and the elderly, where his job was to remove the
"People died there so fast,'' he said. Some
starved. Some were killed. Some, they say, died of a
a month, he sneaked into a camp where his mother and
grandmother were imprisoned and joined them working
in the fields. Bohnert's father was returned to them
a couple of years later, but by then few ethnic
day after Christmas 1948, the four Bohnerts decided
there was nothing left to hold on to. They slipped
out of the camp and left Yugoslavia forever.
the years that followed, Donauschwaben families
languished in German and Austrian refugee camps.
They faced hunger and homelessness in countries that
had been torn apart by bombs.
they were foreigners in a foreign land.
"These were ethnic Germans who had been outside of
Germany for 200 years. They didn't necessarily feel
at home or comfortable. They were outsiders,'' Tolzmann said.
network of German organizations, churches and
relatives who had moved to western countries a
half-century earlier reached out to the displaced
families. Before long, they were learning to speak
Portuguese in Brazil, Italian in Italy and English
of thousands of them ended up in the American
Midwest, with large pockets in Cleveland,
Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee.
Bernard Catholic Church brought several hundred to
Akron, where many former Donauschwaben were already
even as they walked into their new lives, they kept
glancing back. The bonds had been stretched, but
many were determined that those bonds would never be
number of Donauschwaben who cling to their heritage
is diminishing, but professor Tolzmann predicts
they'll hang on for many years.
tenacity has been extraordinary, he said, and in
some ways, it has been contagious.
"When they came to this country, they brought a
strong sense of ethnic identity and pride, and they
shared it with other Germans,'' he said. "They will
survive as an ethnic group because of the stress
they place on customs and traditions and
Perhaps that's why -- after five other German clubs
in Akron disbanded -- the Brimfield group lives on,
with a membership of more than 300.
Rickert takes heart in knowing that some of her
grandchildren are involved in the club. Her oldest
granddaughter took such an interest in the family
history that she wrote a book about their odyssey in
what happens after this generation is anyone's
Paitz pointed out one inescapable truth: "We're in
America now. The children have different interests.
And that's OK. It's a different world.''
Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or
[Published at www.dvhh.org,
17 Dec 2004]