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Compulsory Relocation to the Baragan
From the book "Grossjetscha im Banat"

by Franz Josef Beisser
Translated by Diana Lambing  

The compulsory relocation to the Baragan was planned and prepared in secret long before June 18th 1951. On Whit Monday, 18th June 1951, things were ready. Before this date, events in the village and neighboring communities unfolded thick and fast. On June 16th, a train with 30 wagons pulled into Billed railway station. In every third wagon there were militia men or soldiers. To begin with, what they saw triggered off a huge guessing game amongst the villagers. The following day around midday an announcement was made to drum beats: ‘Nobody is to leave the village; maneuvers are taking place.’ At the same time, the whole area was already surrounded by the afore-mentioned militia. The news hit everyone like a bolt of lightning and made the coming night one of despair and helplessness. Behind drawn curtains and rolled-down blinds and with the lights switched off, people peeped through cracks onto the streets into the dark night, full of fear of what was about to happen. At 9 or 10 p.m. already, military boots clattered up and down the streets and the dogs began to bark loudly. Torches lit up the houses. They were looking for particular house numbers. Before dawn (4 a.m.), rifle butts pushed against many doors, lights were switched on and ‘Deschideti!’ was shouted out, which means ‘open up!’ in English. Cocked rifles were aimed at the residents of the house. In each case, a civilian (security service officer), a militia man and a soldier entered. The officer curtly demanded identity cards from the whole family, compared them to his list and stuck them in. Now he read from a sheet of white paper, ‘In accordance with a Ministry decree, you no longer have any right to live in this house. You must pack and leave the house within two hours (this was later extended to six or more hours). Wagons will take your belongings to the station.’ An admonition was added: ‘Anyone trying to escape will be shot without warning.’ People felt paralyzed at this announcement, couldn’t take it in. Our good, honest, law-abiding Swabians just could not believe this shocking threat. What crime had they committed? But the soldier, who was now standing guard in front of the house, showed, and was proof enough, that they were serious. No-one was allowed to leave their house any more before evacuation took place and no villager was allowed out on the street, so they could not see what was about to happen.
 
Any information about what was allowed to be taken with them, i.e. to be packed, was varied and inadequate and was given only very briefly: furniture, clothes, bedding, household items, food. All in all, just what could be loaded onto two wagons. A feeling of helplessness and panic now came over all concerned. One was simply lost over the choice; what should they take, what would be of most use or of most importance and where was it all going anyway? No-one could, would or dared to say.
 
Soon after packing their belongings it became clear that there was a certain intention behind the list of things they were allowed to take; then everything that was left behind, and even listed on an inventory, was sold for peanuts and for many people not even that. Anyone who had no wagon of their own was given two carts to load their possessions onto.
 
Around midday (Monday 18th June 1951), the first people and families regarded as unworthy and inconvenient, began to leave their houses and homes with their wagons laden with their few possessions and made their way to Billed railway station. There was indescribable grief, misery and countless tears on saying goodbye to parents, children, grandchildren, relatives, neighbors and acquaintances as they left their yards and took to the road. ‘Auf wiedersehen’, they called to each other... but was there actually going to be a ‘wiedersehen’?
 
Away they went, into the unknown.
 
The cleared houses were then sealed up. On the way to Billed railway station only the children, old people and the sick were allowed to have a seat on the wagons; everyone else had to walk alongside the column of wagons and carts (accompanied by the armed guards who had earlier stood in front of the houses). These wagons and carts and their accompanying owners formed a column one kilometre (half a mile) long. It gave the impression of a traveling prison or of people fleeing the ever-nearing enemy.
 
It was only on the way to the station, or upon arrival, that people saw who and which families had been affected by this merciless and inhumane treatment. They were mostly Germans but also some Bessarabians and Buchenlanders.
 
Amongst the people concerned were one-time farmers (large, medium and small), traders, intellectuals such as doctors, apothecaries, teachers, officials etc. and also amongst them were those who had served in the German armed forces and after their discharge from captivity in prisoner of war camps had returned to their country of birth, as well as families of those who, after their discharge as German prisoners of war, had not yet returned to their country of birth, and also those marked politically. They all belonged to the so-called ‘inconvenient and unreliable’.
 
The choice of people who were to be forcibly relocated was a despotic act without the slightest trace of humanity.
 
Six widows who were completely alone - Katharina Reiter (house number 11), Katharina Gimpel (18), Katharina Ebner (19), Margarethe Puljer (352), Margarethe Dohr (372) and Angela Birkenheuer (390) - were deported to the Baragan. Also, the two orphans Josef Stemper (15 years old) and Katharina Stemper (13 years old and now with the married name of Trendler) from house number 141, whose mother had died in the Russian labour camps and whose father had not returned after the war, had to go to the Baragan with their grandparents.
 
Arriving at Billed railway station the wagons were unloaded into the trenches along the tracks; this is where the goods were stored. Consequently, there was an unholy, indescribable muddle and chaos: old people, children, toddlers, babies, livestock, groceries, animal feed, furniture, household equipment - everyone’s  possessions lay strewn around on the ground. Quite a few more household items could have been brought with them if they had been properly advised, so many people called out to their relatives who had followed them to the station from afar, to go and fetch more things if possible. And so in this way some people were able to get some sort of inventory made.
 
The storage of people’s possessions in the trenches was for them the most degrading aspect of this immoral act. Here, waiting for the deportation transport which would take them away, they had to spend their first night in the open.
 
The allocation of people and their belongings into the railway goods wagons was made as follows: families with children got a whole wagon; small families were put preferably two to a wagon. The livestock: Right from the start the horses, cattle and pigs were to be transported in the same goods wagons as their owners. On hearing this, many people quickly sold their horses and carts; for two horses and a cart they got 15,000 Lei. After that, there was room for the large livestock to be put into a separate wagon, but for many it was already too late (their horse and cart had already left).
 
The families had to share their wagons with the smaller animals (goats and chickens). There were also individual cases where a family with a small child would make room for their cow in their wagon because of the milk. And so the deportee Grossjetscha families, as with all the other villages, were divided into several transport carriages and were coupled with families from other villages.
 
On 19th June 1951, the first Grossjetscha families were ready in their goods wagons and the first transport began. On 22nd June 1951, the last transport rain left Billed railway station with families from Grossjetscha.
 
Every transport was heavily guarded from the West to the East. Fear of the unknown grew more and more. The train would often stop for hours at stations to replenish with water and coal and to let the passage of public trains run freely. The deportees were also allowed to get out and fetch water for themselves and their livestock when the trains stopped. During these stops, people secretly communicated with passing travelers, unnoticed by the strict guards. But no-one could tell them what was happening or where they were going. The travelers were quite astonished and could not grasp or understand what was happening; no-one knew anything about this action further inland.
 
In some railway stations Red Cross sisters came and handed out milk or tea. If anyone tried to run to a letterbox in a station to post a card, it would be confiscated by the strict and watchful escorts and the person concerned would be given a threatening admonition. In the evening, the people in the wagons were checked and counted and then locked up for the night in the dark wagons with little air. Only at the light of day were the wagons re-opened when a halt was made at a station, and the people were checked and counted again. At least they could breathe some fresh air again.
 
During this unknown journey there were also moving scenes of humanity and pity. The train drivers (Romanians) knew, of course, about the existence of both large and small livestock in some of the wagons on their trains and also that the necessary animal feed was getting very low. So they stopped alongside open spaces next to the fields of maize. The owners of the livestock used the opportunity to jump out and cut as much green maize foliage as quickly as possible. Livestock that had perished was also disposed of at this opportunity. Then there would be a short whistle and the train would carry on with increasing speed to make up for the time they had lost.
 
Even when they reached Bucharest, no-one knew yet where they were heading for. Would they not be going to Russia? The growing uncertainty gnawed away at people.
 
They passed Bucharest and headed on the main line towards Konstanza into the Baragan Steppes. Alongside the tracks they saw only withered grass; no trees, no knee-high fields of wheat, just a miserable region with no villages to be seen anywhere. When they reached Dalga they were faced with a picture of utter desolation. At Dalga railway station (100 km / 60 miles from Bucharest) they saw to their left side, about a mile in the distance, an unholy muddle. People, horses, cattle, furniture etc. lay around the open wheat and barley fields. The people were trying to cut the half-grown wheat and barley which had ripened in the drought in order to make bundles of stalks to protect themselves against the unfamiliar searing heat of these treeless steppes. Seeing this scene brought panic and fear to every face and now gave the deportees some idea of what fate awaited them.
 
So they weren’t bound for another lesson in the land of Socialism after all, which most of them had feared they would be. It was their own country. A tender plea went up: Just let us get away from here and see some trees and green fields again.
 
A transport train with families from Grossjetscha, Billed, Kleinbetschkerek and Neubeschenowa had also stopped at this station in Dalga. After their rest stop, the other trains carried on further down the line to Ciulnita station. A train with families from Grossjetscha and other Banat villages stopped at this station, too. From there they went on further until all the families from the German villages were scattered around and their original communities were torn apart. That seemed to be the plan.
 
It took three to four days for the deportees to reach their final destination.
 
At every pre-arranged station there were already small farm carts and the occasional truck awaiting the deportees. Every family had to load their possessions onto these carts, causing much turmoil and commotion. The many strange, dubious faces of the drivers  (mostly gypsies) were frightening enough. Because their carts were so small, people’s possessions had to be divided amongst five or six carts. In their desperate situation they couldn’t have enough eyes and ears to keep track of who had loaded what onto which cart. Only later did people realize that, added to all this bitter misery, many of the necessary items amongst their already meager belongings had been lost. If anyone asked a driver ‘where are we going to, is it far from here?’, it was all in vain for they were given no reply. It was as though they hadn’t even heard the question. The drivers had had strict instructions not to speak to any of the deportees or make any kind of contact with them, for these were all dangerous, bloodthirsty Titoists!  We only heard about all this later from the locals.
 
The distance from the railway stations to the pre-destined unloading areas was between two and ten kilometers (1 - 5 miles) and sometimes further.
 
The way from the station led through the Steppes and prairie until they stopped at the fields planted with wheat, barley, cotton or prairie grass. Here, plots for each family had already been marked out by small holes in the ground and mounds of earth, some of them with 20 cm (8”) high posts, each with a small board with a number, or even the name of the allocated family, written on it. Every family had to unload their possessions between two of these mounds of earth, or posts, and this was now their future home, beneath the stars, no trees to be seen anywhere. Added to this, the searing heat of the Baragan Steppes, no wells, only wind, dust and drought.
 
This was the inferno, the real beginning of the great tragedy of all deportees which drove everyone, both young and old, to despair.
 
Desperate need of shelter forced everyone to build some sort of cover against the sun and wind out of the few pieces of furniture brought with them and to cover them with any available doors or tarpaulins right on the first day and for their first night under the stars. After that, the food, which had been hastily packed before the long journey into the unknown, was unpacked. Any stoves or cookers which had been taken along were then set up, or else a fire was built in a hastily dug hole in the ground so that a hot meal could be prepared and eaten.
 
Any surviving livestock which had been brought along was also looked after and the chickens which had survived the journey were let loose. From all the fear experienced so far, everyone was exhausted and soon fell into a deep sleep under the Baragan sky.. Later, awakened by the early morning sun and still half asleep, no-one could really understand what had happened, where they were - above us the blue sky and around us everything dreary and desolate. Only now did it dawn on people that this was to be their new home, built out of absolutely nothing.
 
The main worry here, being almost like a desert, was the need to find drinking water. It was collected from far a field in buckets and barrels on the carts, but in insufficient quantities and not always in completely hygienic conditions. This water also had to suffice for washing, but unfortunately one could usually only manage to wipe down with a damp cloth because water was so scarce. Because there was not a single source of water available on the new settlement plots, people began to work together digging wells right from the start, at least one well in each marked out street. Only a few of the new settlements were lucky enough to find water not far from the surface; in most cases water was only found around 10 meters (30’) and often 20 - 30 meters (60 - 90’) deep. The water in these wells was in most cases unpalatable because of the high salt content, but could be used for building the houses and for the livestock. So, many people had to get their drinking water from far a field.
 
As already mentioned, the first thing that was done was to build the necessary shelter against the wind and searing heat out of furniture covered with all sorts of towels, covers, tarpaulins, and then this was covered with bundles of wheat or barley. This shelter, however, was insufficient. Now, many families began to dig themselves into the ground and to build earthen dugouts. These measured, according to need, 6m long, 2.5m wide and 1.80m deep (20’ x 8’ x 6’). These were covered with all sorts of twigs or brushwood and then smeared over with a mixture of clay and chopped up withered grass. This accommodation could not withstand the rain which caught everyone unawares a few days after arriving. As soon as the straw covering, which had been laid over the towels etc., became saturated, the rain came through the roof. Now people started looking for shelter under an umbrella or a table top and the children even found shelter in cupboards and wardrobes, as did some adults, too. Those in the earthen dugouts didn’t fare much better. They were protected above, but the rainwater poured into the dugouts around the sides and they were soon knee-high in water. For better accommodation every family had to begin at once to build a house out of mud. A new village would be built here, a new Heimat. Two types of houses were planned: A small one measuring 7m long, 4.80m wide and 2.4m high (23’ x 15’ x 8’) with one room and a kitchen; for larger families one measuring 11m x 5.5m x 2.4m (36’ x 18’ x 8’) with two rooms and a kitchen. Doors, windows and building timber, as well as planks and slats, were distributed to every family. Materials for the roof, however, had to be found by the people themselves.
 
As well as the job of building their own houses, every family was obligated to work for a certain number of hours, unpaid, building the public buildings such as the town hall, police station, school, dispensary, shops etc. At the end of October 1951, three or four months after their arrival, almost all the buildings were ready to be inhabited. Moving into the houses they had built so laboriously for themselves was at least a small feeling of relief to all the deportees, to not have to sleep out in the open any more, or in the earthen dugouts.
 
The deportees had no rights and only got their identity cards back in the summer of 1953, with the remark ‘Zwangsaufenthalt’ (Compulsory / forced  stay) stamped on them. They were not allowed to leave their village and were heavily guarded at work, too. In December 1955 the deportees received new identity cards without the previous remark stamped on them and at the same time they also received permission to return to their old homes. Indescribable joy for everyone. Many were not allowed, or could not leave until the spring of 1956 and a few had to stay on doing hard labor. They were the families of Adam Gilde (house number 61), Adam Tix (165) and the widow Magdalena Dohr (411).
 
157 families from Grossjetscha were affected by this destiny and the number of people in the Baragan totaled 452.

 


[Published at DVHH.org 2003 to 2006 by Jody McKim Pharr]


 

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