“Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world.
In fact, it is the only thing that ever has." ~Margaret Mead



Remembering Our Danube Swabian Ancestors

 Mover & Shaker


Henry Fischer

by Rose Mary Keller Hughes, DVHH Correspondent, 07 Sep 2006

“—Gott ist Getreu.  God is faithful.
Our lives and history are a testimony to that."

First we were entranced with Children of the Danube, a story of the Lutherans and Reformed who came to Hungary to seek their fortune.  Just recently another book joined Children of the Danube on the bookshelf.  This time it was Remember to Tell the Children, A Trilogy Book One: The Pioneers.  

Hello Henry . . . All of us on the DVHH List know of your great skills at translating and have appreciated your efforts in helping us understand the history of our forefathers as they became members of the Banat and the Batschka communities; some of us have read your books, but a good number of us do not know much more about you past that.  So, here is our opportunity to meet and get to know another one of our “Canadian Cousins.”  First of all, where were you born?

I was born in Kitchener, Ontario where I began my career growing up Canadian in little Swabian Hungary better known as 23 Oak Street.  I attended various public schools and high school in Kitchener and following high school I began a career in bookkeeping because the idea of going to college and university was beyond my family’s means; at that time they were operating an underground railway into Canada at their new home at 122 Breithaupt Street through which some 75 people passed through as refugees after the Second World War.  I then later took the plunge and went back to school and attended Waterloo College and the University of Western Ontario.

That’s interesting!  But, I thought you were a Lutheran minister!

I had two conflicting dreams:  journalism and theology.  Theology won and I became a Lutheran pastor but continued with my writing interests.  I was trained to be a youth worker and ended up—up to my neck in senior citizens.  After serving a large church in Waterloo, I was sent as a “missionary” to the city of Oshawa, east of Toronto, to attempt to establish a new congregation.  The church sent the wrong man, to the wrong place at the wrong time—with a combination like that the Lord can’t miss and He didn’t.  I did establish a new congregation after worshipping and meeting in temporary facilities for 18 years.  The kids in the congregation thought that the basketball hoop over my head in the gymnasium of the Grandview School, from where I preached, was actually a halo.  Instead of building a “church” we constructed a 12-story high-rise senior citizen’s complex in downtown Oshawa with 186 apartments and special units for physically challenged adults living alone.  There was also a daycare center for 60 children including infants, commercial space, and a community center on the first floor that was called Augustana Hall where the congregation gathered to worship and where the church office was located.   

Was your ministry always in Canada?

I also spent time and served in Bethel just outside of Bielefeld, Germany where I worked with the Nazareth Brothers and became one of the deacons of the Lutheran Church of Wesphalia and also studied at their seminary there.  You studied theology and doctrine in the morning and emptied bedpans or diapered epileptic children and led Bible studies for developmentally delayed adults who were referred to as being “relationally advanced” in the afternoon.  Evenings were spent at the different group homes where I was assigned as the Brother in charge.  It was these brothers and sisters I met there that taught me how to love.  When my brother-in-law sought treatment for his cancer in Athens, Greece some years later I accompanied him for six weeks during which time I began preaching in the lobby of the Perli Hotel and people from all over the world who were seeking the same treatment gathered each Sunday afternoon.  I could go on forever, but that should give you a taste of my life.   

Are you still a practicing pastor?

I retired from the pastorate in March of 1996 and became the executive director of InterChurch Health Ministries, an organization I co-founded with two nurses and introduced Parish Nursing Ministry to Canada.  For the next ten years I traveled, preached, taught, mentored and administered this growing ministry that has now spread across the country among eighteen different denominations.  I am now retired.  The focus of my life now is my four grandchildren and my writing, researching and genealogy as well as watching my old classic movie videos.   When I retired the second time, our grandson Evan asked me what I was going to do now that I was retired.  I told him I was going to do whatever I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it as long as his grandmother said it was all right.  His only comment was, “Well it’s always been like that Ota.”  That’s our family version of Opa. 

Tell us a bit about your family, Henry. 

I met my wife Jean in public school; only she has little memory of that.  We went to the same church and “officially” met at Luther League, the youth group we were both part of.  She lived next door to my parent’s best friends and she was one of the Vogt triplets.  Other guys went on double dates, but I had to arrange triple ones.  When I officially became part of the family at their Wilker family reunion, they asked me to do some research on their family history because they heard I had an interest in that kind of thing.  When I had finished the work I discovered that they came from Grebenau in Hesse in Germany in 1868 and that village was about twenty kilometers away from where almost all of my ancestors who went to Hungary came from.  Small world isn’t it?  We were blessed with two sons, Stephen who is a High School teacher in Stratford, majoring in English literature and history, and has two sons, John and Luke, and a wonderful wife, Sonya, who is of German descent.  David, our second son is an allergist and lives in Barrie with his wife Krista, who is also a physician, and our grandchildren Julianna and Evan.  Both of our sons speak German as I always have.  Even though I was born in Canada, it was my first language that I had to learn to clean up when I studied German in university.  My sons accompanied me on a trip “home” to Hungary after my mother’s death because that was her last wish that the “boys would one day go home and know where they came from.”  It was a memorable occasion for all three of us and a special bonding time for them as adults.  Jean and I live in Oshawa, which means we are about an hour away from David and his family and two hours away from Stephen. 

What got you started in doing genealogical research?

Ever since I can remember I wanted to find out where I belonged.  Growing up in little Swabian Turkey in Kitchener, Ontario during the Second World War was a rather traumatic experience and my brother and I were the Krauts on Oak Street—we had to run the gauntlet home from school on many occasions.  I always listened in on adult conversation and was fascinated in hearing about home, this place where I was supposed to be and had never been.  Up until the spring of 1941, my parents were still sending money to my grandparents in Hungary to buy more land.  The stable had just been built and construction of our house was to begin when Hungary entered the war, which meant my parents had to start out all over again, and we realized we were going to stay in Canada after all, much to our relief.  My older brother John and I continued to go to German school on Saturday mornings and spoke German in the house, but we would never answer our parents in German if we were in public.  The trauma of not knowing who I was in what was an “alien” society for my parents, resulted in my stuttering because when I started school in September of 1939, I could not speak a word of English.  I learned fast but was always afraid people would find out I was not “one” of them.  I stuttered so badly that by the time I got to Grade Three I was incomprehensible when I spoke English.  I was in special speech classes and the British lady who taught me would always begin by asking me, “And what did we have for dinner last evening?”  I didn’t remember her eating with us, nor did I know any equivalent English words to describe chicken paprikasch and the other culinary delights my mother made. So I had to make menus in my head and they were hardly balanced meals as I remember back now.   

As a former teacher, I shudder at the way you were treated in the school system.

A big change came into my life in Grade Three when I met a teacher who forever changed my life and helped me understand that I could be who I was and did not have to pretend to be someone else, that I could be proud to be a Swabian.  She even visited in our home.  Then I had a teacher the following year who assured me that, if I changed the spelling of my name, I could become a real Canadian.  All of these childhood experiences have determined who I have become and were the incentive in finding the answer to the questions my parents did not have answers for.  Why were we in Hungary if we were Germans?  How did we get there?  Why would they have ever gone there?  When did they go there?  And so on.  On the 50th anniversary of my parents wedding, I made a short presentation on our family and its origins on the basis of what I knew and had been told at the time; when the dinner was over, my mother took me aside and said, “Promise me that you will remember to tell the children.” [Ah, the inspiration for your book title.]  From that point on I was determined to find out the answers to the questions I had always asked but I discovered so much more:  my own identity; my spiritual roots; my place among the Children of the Danube and what that could mean in my life as a Canadian. 

Was there a special moment when you came to realize you would start genealogical research?

Strangely enough my first venture into genealogy took place in 1948 when my father took me with him when we went to the immigration office to begin the process of bringing my grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends to Canada.  I was about 13 at the time and I had to draw up charts to prove that all of these people were related to us, even though most of them were not.  At the end of the war, when we first heard what had happened to our people, my mother discovered that every girl she had gone to confirmation class with had been taken to slave labour in Russia and my father’s friends and classmates were POWs in Russia as well.  They committed themselves to anyone who called on them to help them—as a result they brought numerous families to Canada or assisted them in getting to Australia or the US. 

But the real turning point in my research was when I was put in contact with Johann Muller who lived in Bietigheim-Bissingen in Germany.  He came from the same village as my mother in Hungary; when he discovered who I was, he flooded me with information and sources, and most importantly, shared his personal transcriptions from the church records in over forty villages in Tolna, Somogy and Baranya Counties, most of which I still have in my possession.  He also told me that his earliest childhood memory was the day when he joined the villagers, led by the village band that escorted my mother to the railway station outside the village, sending her off to Canada to marry my father.  He wondered why all of the people were crying at the time and he wondered why on earth my mother would ever want to leave Bonnya.  From there I was later introduced to the internet and, by accident one night, I found my way to Rootsweb and noticed a message about the Bitz family, my paternal grandmother’s family name and got in contact with Susan Cole in Oklahoma who then got me in contact with the Hrastovac Group—my life has never been the same since.  Then I became part of the Gyorkony and Bikacs site and I was introduced to the List.  It was through the encouragement of many of four fantastic people I "met" in the Hrastovac Group that I proceeded with the publication of my first book Children of the Danube. 

How has your research gone?

I have been able to trace back the origins of three of my grandparent’s families back to villages in Hesse, Germany.  Ironically the only one that eludes me is the Fischer family.  But I made all kinds of other interesting discoveries.  One of my families originated in Switzerland prior to migrating to the Odenwald in Hesse.  I have Waldensian and Hugenot ancestors who fled to Hesse to escape persecution in France and Savoy and their descendants later moved on in the Swabian Migration into Hungary.  But I also found that my mother’s family is connected to the Heidebauern who were the descendants of Bavarian and Franconian settlers brought to western Hungary to help defend the eastern frontiers of Charlemagne’s Empire in 970 or so.  They were later joined by Lutheran refugees from various parts of Austria and Upper Swabia from around Ravensburg during the Counter Reformation.  So you see there is a real crazy patchwork quilt and mosaic in my family history including a special Slovak connection as well. 

Who of all your ancestors has made the biggest impression on you, Henry?  Why?

Probably my grandmother, the former Elisabeth Defner (Tefner) who was the storyteller in her family; she passed the skill on to my mother who then passed it on to me.  So in a sense it is Konrad Tefner who I wrote about in my first book and also my new one.  There was also a George Mossberger, one of my Heidebauern ancestors, who was the emergency teacher in Pusztavam in Feher County who left quite a spiritual legacy to our family.  But what made the greatest impression upon me was the spirit of adventure I discovered among all of them and their willingness to take risks while continuing to maintain their identity, character, heritage and traditions in the face of all kinds of pressures despite the odds against their survival, and above all, their faith that sustained them through it all.   

What has been your most remarkable find in your roots research? Have you had an opportunity to visit your Donauschwaben Village? 

I was amazed that the oral history I was told was more accurate than I had supposed would be possible.  In addition to that I was overwhelmed by the historical documentation I found and researched this “footnote” to history as I once put it.  I continue to be amazed that so many people are in search of themselves.  They come in all ages and sizes.  And there are resources and people out there who are willing to help you and support you in what you are doing.  I have visited Hungary four times and I have been to every village associated with my family in Tolna, Somogy and Baranya Counties.  I remember the first time, when I drove into Bonnya where my mother was waiting for me.  She was visiting her youngest sister at the time.  When I got out of the car, she said, “I always told you that some day I would bring you home.”  Later I went and climbed the “Spitze Kippel” of her childhood and as I stood there and looked out into the horizon for the first time in my life, I knew what it meant to be at “home” and “belong” even though all of the rest of our families had been expelled from Hungary in 1948, except for my one aunt.  I took my sons up the hill, too, in 2001; when they were there they knew they were in touch with something.  Hopefully in 2008 I will be taking my grandchildren there with me to stand on that spot where so many of my ancestors stood as they looked into their past and looked forward to what the future offered them—because long ago our forbears had boarded rafts, barges and boats at Regensburg and headed out into the unknown down the Danube River.  For that reason, it became the inspiration for the cover of my latest book.  

Do you have a motto you live by?  Will you share it with us?

Our family motto is:  Gott ist Getreu.  God is faithful.  Our lives and history are a testimony to that. 

If you were confined to only one tip you might give a fellow researcher, what would it be?

Find a mentor and be a mentor to others. 

A good number of us are familiar with the books you have written.  What motivated you to use this format to write your family history?

The advice of my son Stephen and the realization that all history is a story.  Flesh and blood people and their stories is the best vehicle to tell the history.  All history is a reflection on our personal experience.   

Thank you, Henry, for this marvelous insight into the fine man who has written beautiful stories about his family who lived, loved, and labored in the land he called “home.”


Henry & the DVHH ...

Henry served as a member of the former DVHH Administration Team, which focused on decision making and planning for the DVHH project.  He currently serves on the DVHH Editorial Committee and is the Swabian Turkey Regional Coordinator.

See: Henry's contributions

Thank you Henry for your contributions to the DS community and the DVHH Project!

[Published at DVHH.org - 07 Sep 2006]
Movers & Shakers Correspondent: Rose Mary Keller Hughes - date: 07 Sep 2006


           


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