The Inter-War Years and the Fate of the Danube Swabians in Yugoslavia
by Henry Fischer
Edited by Rose Vetter
The German Minority | The Yugoslavian Experience and Experiment | Meanwhile back among the Danube Swabians | The Invasion |
New Frontiers Again | The Partisan War | Recruitment Into the German Military | Evacuation | When Terror Reigned
It all began at Versailles in 1919. The victorious powers set to work on dismembering the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. The underlying credo of the participants and decision makers was one of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points: The self-determination of minorities, especially as it referred to the Balkans. Waiting in the wings were Serbia and Romania, who were to be the chief territorial beneficiaries as a result of their support of the Allied cause, while on Serbia's part it was a matter of having played the central role in the outbreak of the war itself and wanting its full share of the fruits of victory.
What resulted was an expanded Romania at the expense of Hungary, in terms of the eastern Banat, Transylvania and the Bukovina, at the same time inheriting a large Hungarian minority, the Transylvania Saxons, the Danube Swabians in the industrial mountain region in the eastern Banat, and the Germans in Bukovina. These were three large minorities numbering over 3,000,000 who were never consulted in the process, nor was their approval required or necessary.
On the other hand, the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes--the so-called South Slavs--Yugoslavia was a hodgepodge conglomerate of the former Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Dalmatia, the Batschka, Lower Baranya and the western Banat. These areas included other minority populations in addition to the three acknowledged national groupings: there were the Hungarians, Albanians, Macedonians, Bosnians, Romanians, Czechs, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Bulgars, and the German population, to become known as the Danube Swabians in the 1920’s. Approximately 2,500,000 people were involved, but in the minds of the Serbs, they themselves were more equal than the others, and from the outset there was a power struggle between them and the Croats for hegemony that would have repercussions throughout the rather short-lived duration of this ill-fated Western European-North American solution to a problem that is still beyond their comprehension.
Included in Wilson's Fourteen Points were safeguards to guarantee the rights of those minorities that were not granted a territory of their own—rights which the successor states were obliged to acknowledge and protect, rights which, to a great extent, were simply ignored or modified at best, to suit the policies of the various governments. This would give rise to unrest among the suppressed minorities.
THE GERMAN MINORITY
From the outset, we must recognize that there was no cohesiveness or common outlook on the part of the German population in the successor state of Yugoslavia. They were a result of separate histories spanning a time frame from the early 1700’s in the Banat to the late 1800’s in Bosnia. We need to take a brief look at the various areas of settlement and capture a bit about their history. The earliest German settlements in what would become the future state of Yugoslavia were in the western Banat during what is known as the First Phase of the Habsburg colonization of the territories recently liberated from the Turks, later to become known as the Great Swabian Migration or Schwabenzug.
This first settlement phase initiated by Charles VI took place between 1718-1737 and was relatively unsuccessful in terms of the Banat, because a major portion of the recruited German settlers left the ships along the Danube and settled on the estates of the Hungarian nobles instead. The settlements that were established in the Banat were later overrun and destroyed by the Turks in subsequent wars. The major settlement of the Banat occurred during the reign of the Empress Maria Theresia. It took place between 1741 and 1772 and was an organized government-subsidized and -operated venture, unlike the "land rush" of the previous administration. This would be followed by the final phase under Joseph II from 1782 to 1787, as well as a minor settlement that took place under his successor Leopold. This final phase was primarily focussed on the further development of the Batschka, where large flourishing communities were established, as well as on new ones in the Banat.
The settlers themselves came from various regions in present-day south western Germany and France, along with others from Austria, Bohemia and Moravia. They were joined by other settlers, including Hungarians, Slovaks, French, Spanish, Italians, Romanians, Bulgarians and Ukrainians. The minority patchwork quilt was already taking shape, with people living among a sometimes hostile local Serb or Croat population.
In 1718 the Military Frontier District was established as a buffer zone against any future incursions by the Turks and covered much of what we know as Srem and Slavonia, while the rest of Croatia was re-established as an autonomous province, subject to Vienna and freed from the Hungarian "yoke", under which it believed it had suffered so terribly.
To give some perspective on the situation following the expulsion of the Turks in Slavonia, there were fewer than 14,000 inhabitants, most of them in small towns. Massive German immigration did not take place here during the major phases of the Schwabenzug and there were good reasons for it. Most of the land was forest wilderness and it did not appear that it could be developed agriculturally. No tax concessions were offered. The nobles were not interested in having "free peasants" on their estates--they preferred serfs. Security against robber bands and brigands was non-existent. During the reign of Maria Theresia, a string of villages was established in the vicinity of Essegg, which had a large German urban population. These villages were on the personal estates of the Empress. She initiated the settlement of Srem under royal auspices at Ruma, Sotting and Jarmin; the first Germans came to Ruma in 1746 and by 1784 there were 700 settlers living there. The growth was primarily due to the arrival of newcomers. In 1783 German settlers founded Neu Slankamen and Semlin in 1787; Neu Pasua was established in 1791.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the German settlements in the Batschka and Banat were experiencing a population explosion that could not be sustained because of a lack of land for expansion. Srem and Slavonia became a focal point for migration, not only for them, but also for the overcrowded and land-strapped communities in Swabian Turkey. In 1858 the Imperial government in Vienna set the stage for a new settlement movement, and young Swabian families were on the move into the forest wilderness. To speed up the process, Vienna forced through a decree in 1863 that also allowed Protestants to settle in Croatia, much against the protest of Croat nationalists and their religious authorities. The German settlers in Slavonia would number in the neighbourhood of 175,000, of whom 120,000 were Roman Catholic, 40,000 Lutherans and 15,000 Reformed.
Bosnia, with its Muslim majority population, came under Austrian jurisdiction at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and would be officially annexed in 1908. Economically it was a mess. There was neither agricultural activity per se, nor any cattle rearing. It was a basket case in need of development. Enter the Germans. New settlers came from Germany and established the village of Windhorst in 1869. The next series of villages that were established were settled by Swabians from Franzfeld, Neu Pasua, Tscherwenka, Schowe and other Protestant villages in the Batschka and Srem. They were joined by families from Bukovina and Russia. Isolated in the heart of the wilderness, they endured floods, bad crops and epidemics. By 1904 there were 54 colonies with a population of 9,000 inhabitants.
Many of the experiences of these various German populations in different areas of the country were similar, but each had its own unique history, traditions and various dialects. Although Protestant immigrants were excluded during the reigns of Charles and his daughter Maria Theresia, large numbers of them settled in Swabian Turkey and the Great Plains of Hungary and had established villages in the Banat as early as 1719, however, they were among those wiped out by Turkish raids. During the final phase of the Schwabenzug, Joseph II invited Protestants to settle in the Batschka and the Banat. Large-scale settlements were established by them, and, as was the case with the other German communities, a lack of land to expand led to their migration from their home communities, establishing new villages or purchasing land in other villages and gradually becoming the majority of the population. In some villages a kind of "expansion fund" was collected to buy land in neighbouring communities for young families who would move there and repay their interest-free debts to the home community when they were able.
To a great extent, the Swabians in the Batschka and Banat lived in villages where they were the vast majority or a sizeable minority. That was not the case in Slavonia, where all of the German communities, with the exception of Hrastovac, were mixed communities living among Serbs and Croats, often being the minority, which would have implications for the future.
The prosperity of the Swabian population and the fertility of their land have become legendary. Their Sparsamkeit (thrift) and Fleißigkeit (industriousness) were not easily recognized by their neighbours and detractors. Economic jealousy was a fact of life. That resentment would have an opportunity to express itself in the future. The Swabians in Bosnia knew all about poverty, and those in Slavonia were only a step or two ahead of them. As one villager from Hrastovac reported to the grandson of one of the villagers who was raised in Canada, his grandfather was so rich he even had wooden floors in his house! I think that the "paradise on earth" that some purport to remember of their Yugoslavian homeland needs to be re-visited.
THE YUGOSLAVIAN EXPERIENCE AND EXPERIMENT
The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was officially established on December 20, 1918, to be followed by sham elections and parliamentary chaos in the years that lay ahead. At issue was the Serbs’ determination to centralize authority and the Croats’ insistence for more local authority and autonomy. Both the Croats and the Slovenes formed independent parties such as the Slovenian Republican Peasant Party. Despite their opposition, a unitary monarchy was established and Alexander I was crowned on June 28, 1921. A radical land reform law was debated, as well as universal suffrage and the secret ballot. Because universal suffrage would give the vote to women, it was turned down, as well as the secret ballot, because it was not "feasible" when dealing with a peasant population. Discord and chaos were the order of the day, with the Serb and Croat deputies in parliament at one another's throats. On June 20, 1928 a Serb deputy shot five members of the Croat Peasant Party sitting opposite him in parliament during debate. Two of them died instantly on the floor of parliament, and the leader of their party, Stjepan Radić, was wounded seriously and died a few months later. The opposition parties boycotted the parliament and prevented any crucial legislation. The King finally intervened.
On January 6, 1929 the King abolished the Constitution, prorogued parliament, banned all political parties and organizations, proclaimed a dictatorship and changed the name of the nation to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. One of his most vocal opponents, Ante Pavelić, a deputy of the Croatian Peasants Party, went into exile and promptly began to organize the Ustase to overthrow the government. A new constitution came to birth in 1931 that gave the King the power to appoint half of the members of parliament and ended all talk about the secret ballot. On October 9, 1934, while on a state visit to France, the King was assassinated in Marseille by a Macedonian member of the Ustase.
MEANWHILE BACK AMONG THE DANUBE SWABIANS . . .
They officially made up 3.9% of the population and numbered 513,472 persons. In 1920 they formed the Schwäbisch-Deutscher Kulturbund (Swabian-German Cultural Union) later known simply as the "Bund". The objectives of the organization were promoting art, culture, folklore and preserving their German identity and language. Following the end of the First World War, Hungarian ceased to be the language of instruction in the German schools; Serbian was taught as a subject, and all other courses were taught in German. That soon changed; all other subjects had to be taught in Serbian and the pupils had to use the Cyrillic alphabet and script. On April 20, 1921 all German parochial schools were closed or were taken over by the state; there was no compensation to the parishes or communities. There would be some modifications in the 1930’s, when parents were given the choice of the language of instruction. New Land Reform Laws were put in place, which made the purchase of land by non-Slavs next to impossible in 80% of the communities in Yugoslavia. In 1936 a new law was passed, making it impossible for non-Slavs to inherit land.
The government looked with disfavour on the activities and objectives of the Bund, which they saw as an opposition movement. The Bund was dissolved in 1924, but was allowed to re-organize three years later. The government saw an advantage to having the Bund operating as it did, rather than have the Swabians join forces with the Hungarians and become a greater threat to government policy.
A German political party was formed in 1922 and candidates ran for election, but it was dissolved in 1927 during the Royal Dictatorship, like all of the other parties. The Bund was the only unifying force among the Danube Swabians. There were countless local chapters of the organization and were church-related and apolitical. But on the whole the peasants were not that interested in cultural matters to the degree that the intellectual leadership aspired to on their behalf. The Bund began to grow significantly after 1934 at the time that relations between Yugoslavia and Germany improved with the rise of the National Socialists under Hitler. A major economic treaty was signed between the two nations on May 1, 1934, providing a market for Yugoslavia's agricultural products. With the signing of the treaty there was the tacit understanding that Germany looked upon itself as the "protector" and "defender" of the German minority in Yugoslavia. That was the opening salvo...they had their foot in the door.
Dr. Jakob Awender became the spokesperson for what was to be called the Renewal Movement within the Bund. They represented the younger generation who were no longer willing to take a back seat in the organization or follow the lukewarm policies of the old conservative leadership of Stephan Kraft. The conflict between them and the leadership of the Bund led to their dismissal from its membership. They received financial support from "sources" in Germany to lodge a campaign to take over the leadership of the Bund and integrate the "idealism" of Nazism. They wore brown uniforms with armbands, carried swastika flags and marched in the villages singing German military songs. They were often dealt with by Yugoslavian authorities, and the old conservative leadership was able to continue to be in control of its programmes and objectives for the time being. But it was a lost cause.
Throughout 1938 the "Renewers" increased in power and numbers and by April 1939 the leadership of the Bund resigned. Before all-out war broke out in the membership, the VOMI in Germany, established by Heinrich Himmler to bring the Germans in Eastern Europe under the sway of the Third Reich and its objectives, proposed that one of the "Renewers", one Sepp Janko, be the next chairman of the Bund. The membership dutifully elected Janko in August 1939. All of the regional chapters of the Bund complied, except for those in Croatia led by Brandimir Altgayer, who had the VOMI approval to do so. In March of 1940, Janko changed his title from chairman of the Bund to Führer. He ended all of his letters and pronouncements with "Heil Hitler." The Bund now abandoned all democratic principles and became an authoritarian organization--the Führer Principle was in effect.
Serbian nationalists were affronted by German economic and political successes, and with the Anschluss of Austria they raised a hue and cry against the pro-German policies of the Yugoslavian Prime Minister, who had reached an agreement with Janko and company for German support in the next election, promising them representation and concessions. He won the election, but animosity towards the Swabians increased in political and regional circles. Serbs attacked participants at Bund meetings and police often had to restore order. This was especially true in the Banat. Flyers were circulated that warned that the German population was a Fifth Column not to be trusted. Prince Paul who acted as regent for the teenaged heir to the throne, Peter, signed the Tripartite Pact on March 25, 1941, linking Yugoslavia with the Axis Powers. Demonstrations broke out in Belgrade and the government was overthrown by a military coup, with British support, on March 27th. On that same day the leadership of the Bund were arrested, but were released shortly afterwards with a warning of severe punishment if they were disloyal in the future. The Swabian population was kept uninformed, if not in the dark, as war clouds appeared on the horizon. But there were rumours.
General mobilization of the Germans in Yugoslavia into the armed forces was ordered on March 28th, 1941 by the new Yugoslavian government. Most units, however, were not even in position on April 6, 1941, when the war began and German troops streamed into Yugoslavia. There was total confusion in the military. The Swabians were equally confused. Through the channels of the VOMI, Hitler ordered the Swabians to disobey the mobilization order, but could not get the message through because Janko and company had been placed in "protective custody." The question of how the Swabians responded to the call-up remains a moot point. Yugoslav historians claimed after the war that most went into hiding, or those in the Banat slipped across the border into Romania to avoid reporting for duty.
There is no factual evidence to substantiate the claim. Nor is there any evidence to disclaim it either, except for hundreds of eyewitness reports from various communities that acknowledge that only a small portion of the men reported for duty. Those in the northern Banat, the Batschka and Baranya were simply called up too late, and the German Army swept through the area in a matter of a few days. In many recruitment centres they were turned away because the officers in charge felt they would be unreliable. The vast majority of the Swabian men reported to the military in all other areas of Yugoslavia, which could not be said of the Serbs! According to Bulgarian news sources at the time, 85% of the Serbs, 70% of the Slovenes and only 40% of the Croats answered the call to arms. The Croats were simply loath to participate in the war and felt no sense of loyalty to the Yugoslavian State, which for them meant Serbia.
The same Yugoslavian historians, in hindsight, suggested that the Germans who did report deserted en masse as whole units without a fight and willingly surrendered to the German Army. There were, however, no German units in the Yugoslavian Army. They served in integrated units, as did all the nationalities.
Others who reported for duty were assigned to digging trenches and tank traps, or did sentry duty along the Bulgarian and Albanian borders, far removed from any fighting. There were some who reported to join their units who were sent home, because it was far too late and the Germans were already in the area.
On the day of the outbreak of the war, April 6, 1941, weapons were distributed to the Serbian civilian population by their local officials. Many of those who came for arms were teenaged boys who were assigned to the police and constabulary, terrorizing German communities, shooting wildly and threatening to exterminate the local population, while local officials were passive or powerless to stop them. They arrested hostages, usually the leading men of the community--professionals, rich farmers and leaders of the local Bund, including some women. Surprisingly, however, there were numerous instances when local Serbs and officials intervened on behalf of their Swabian neighbours. In Kovin, 300 Serbs, led by their Orthodox priest, marched to the administrative headquarters to demand the release of the Swabian hostages. That is only one instance of many reported in the Heimatbücher.
As a footnote, I would like to point out that, in a sense, there were two varieties of Serbs in the Swabian settlement areas: those who had lived in the area as long or longer than the Swabians and those who had come after 1919 from the southern reaches of the country to receive free land following the disbanding of the large estates; they did not have a shared history with the Swabian population.
The number of hostages taken at that time cannot be ascertained, but all of them were released at the time of the capitulation of Yugoslavia, which took place on April 17th. The eleven-day war was over and was ironically fought during Holy Week.
With the arrival of the German and Hungarian occupation forces, the only major anxiety experienced by the Swabian population was the fear of re-settlement, as Hitler had espoused in his Reichstag speech on October 22, 1939, of bringing "home" all of the Volksdeutsche within Germany's expanded frontiers. But their Bund leaders assured them that matter was postponed for the duration of the war. They would learn that it was going to be a hard sell for them to leave "paradise".
NEW FRONTIERS AGAIN
With the speedy capitulation and occupation of Yugoslavia, the Danube Swabians found themselves switching frontiers once again even without moving. Those living in the Lower Baranya and the Batschka were once again part of the Kingdom of Hungary and subject to all things Hungarian. The Hungarian occupation forces were not welcome and the pogroms they carried out in 1942 against both the Jews and Serbs created an atmosphere of disrespect and distrust. The splintered Kulturbund in the Batschka was now made part of the Volksbund of Hungary under the leadership of their Führer Franz Basch, who was the official spokesman for the German minority in greater Hungary.
The Banat had also been one of the prizes Admiral Horthy, the Regent of Hungary, had bargained for with Hitler, but for the duration of the war, Hitler had need of it, but promised it would be returned as part of Greater Hungary after the war. The Banat was placed under the jurisdiction of the German military in Belgrade along with Serbia. Sepp Janko's Bund empire was somewhat depleted, but he maintained his position with the VOMI in Germany. The Swabians in the Banat were set on a different course from that of their confreres in the rest of subdivided Yugoslavia.
The Swabians living in Croatia, which included Slavonia and Srem, were now about to become citizens of the Independent State of Croatia. On April 10, 1941 Radio Zagreb announced the independence of Croatia, with the so-called Poglavnik, Ante Pavelić, at its head, commanding his Fascist Ustase who were about to be set loose on the Serbian population. The Swabians had been encouraged by the Bund to be loyal to the Yugoslavian state in order to avoid conflict, but now they were called upon to exchange their loyalty once again. The fact that there were German troops around gave them some semblance of security. But for now, the Swabians were only a minor issue; the great matter before Pavelić was the Serbian population. In what was to follow, the Serbs looked to the German population to protect them from the German military and the Croatian government.
The official "teaching" of the Ustase was that there were no Serbs in Croatia. They were actually Croats, who through the past centuries, when the Turks occupied all of Croatia, Slavonia and Bosnia, had been forced in one way or another to convert to the Greek Orthodox Church. The Serbs had to disappear from Croatia if Croatia was to be for the Croats. The policy to deal with this was three-fold: expel one third, convert one third and exterminate one third. Beginning in the fall of 1941, the three operations were underway and resulted in another almost forgotten genocide and holocaust. While mass expulsions took place in Srem, forced mass conversions were carried out in Slavonia; extermination camps were set up by the Ustase, which were to be used later by the Partisans in dealing with their Swabian problem. How were the Swabians going to react?
In his "Beitrag zur Geschichte der Deutschen in Jugoslawien", Johann Wüscht writes: "It must be said that the Germans attempted to help the Serbs. The massacres in Srem forced many of the Serbs to flee, and leaders of the Bund and prominent Swabian men, such as Bishop Philipp Popp of the Lutheran Church and Dr. Eliker, the governor of Srem, lodged protests with the Croatian government and the German Reich government. The German ambassador forbade such measures in the future." In a pastoral letter to his congregations, Bishop Popp called upon them to assist any Serbs who came to them for help and told his pastors to issue Lutheran baptismal certificates to any Serb requesting one, in order to escape conversion, expulsion or death. Over 1,000 of these certificates were issued.
In Bosnia the situation was much the same, but only worse, and drove the Serbs into the waiting arms of Tito...in his wilderness bastion.
THE PARTISAN WAR
In a real sense, the Partisan War began shortly after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, when Stalin called upon Tito and his Communist Partisans to wage total war. They had been passive during the German invasion on strict orders from Moscow, because of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. Now it was a matter of no-holds-barred. In the Banat it began with random acts of sabotage: the burning down of wheat storage facilities, wrecking threshing machines, blowing up railway lines or driving people away from working in their fields. They murdered Serbian collaborators and officials. This led to the formation of local defence forces in all of the villages, regardless of their nationality. They were variously known but were mostly called the "Black Police" because of the colour of their uniform. The German military was also called upon when necessary. But Partisan activities in the Banat were negligible.
In the Batschka the task of dealing with the Partisans was left to the Hungarian occupying forces. The establishment of concentration camps and the forming of labour battalions were ordered by the Hungarian government, as well as the expulsion of the Slovak population. But their pogrom carried out in 1942, causing the deaths of thousands of Serbs and Jews, provided new recruits for the Partisans.
It was in Croatia where the Danube Swabians experienced the worst of the Partisan War. The attacks on their villages, fields, crops and families made them feel insecure and defenceless. By mid-1943, there were 207 German men, women and children either dead or missing, while their volunteer local defence forces suffered 356 killed or missing. The damage done to property was worth millions. In 1942 the re-settlement of the Swabians in Croatia was set in motion in Berlin, while the re-settlement of the Swabians in Bosnia was already underway. Under the pressure of constant Partisan raids, the population in scattered settlements in western Slavonia were entirely removed and transferred to the less threatened larger settlements in Srem.
In Bosnia, the situation was even more precarious. The Lutheran pastor in Schutzberg describes the dangerous position of the Swabians caught in the conflict between the Croats and the Serbs. The Croats were allies of the Germans, but the Swabians had always been on better terms with the Serbs. Many atrocities were committed and many of the Serbs left to join the Tito Partisans or Chetniks (Royalists). The village was under constant siege and had to protect itself. Refugees of all kinds sought refuge in Swabian villages, assuming there would be protection there by units of the German Army. People could no longer work their land or travel and were always the targets of Partisans. One official plan was evacuation to the Batschka, to provide labour there in a safer place.
RECRUITMENT INTO THE GERMAN MILITARY
Because of the various jurisdictions under which the Swabian groups lived, the issue of military service in the German Army would differ.
In the Banat, Sepp Janko acted on behalf of the VOMI and called for all able-bodied men in various age categories to report for enlistment in the establishment of a division to defend the Banat. It would become known as the Prince Eugene SS Division and would serve in various parts of Yugoslavia in the Partisan War, although the population had been informed beforehand that it was only a defensive force to protect the Banat. In his memoirs written while finding asylum in Argentina, Sepp Janko indicates he opposed the measure himself and only signed the order.
In the Batschka, which was under Hungarian jurisdiction, with the Volksbund under Franz Basch, the recruitment for volunteers to serve in the SS was carried out in 1942 and was less than successful, although the largest contingent of volunteers in Greater Hungary came from the Batschka. A follow-up recruitment was even less successful later that year. In the spring of 1944, following the occupation of Hungary by the German Army, the Volksbund ordered a call-up of all men from the ages of 17 to 55 years. There was no indication of this being voluntary in the slightest. They would end up in the Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS units. In those instances where Swabians were already serving in the Hungarian Army, they were to be released and sent to join the German Army. No Swabian could volunteer to serve in the Hungarian Army, and any who tried would be turned down. Admiral Horthy handed his beloved Swabians into the hands of Hitler.
The Bund in Croatia also carried out recruitment drives to enlist young Swabians who preferred to serve in German units rather than the Croatian Army; they were taken into the Waffen-SS. As the war advanced into their region, all of the men were issued a call-up into the German forces.
In Bosnia it first became obvious to the Swabians that the only option other than extermination was evacuation; in their situation in particular no one was prepared to stay. Their communities were surrounded by Partisans and were under attack and isolated. The evacuations began in the early days of November 1942. They left their horses and wagons behind and went by rail to Lodz in the so-called Warthegau in Poland. There were 16,498 Bosnian Swabians who passed through the camps there and moved on from there for re-settlement, finding themselves among Germans from Besserabia, Volhinya, Galicia, Slovenia, Bukovina and Russia itself.
In Slavonia and Srem there were three organized treks, one setting out from Eastern Srem, the second from Western Srem and finally those from the Essegg area. In terms of the German population in Slavonia, almost the entire population joined the evacuation, although there were some who refused to leave. In Srem it was much the same; they began to leave for Austria and Germany in the early fall of 1943.
In the Banat it was another story. With the capitulation of Romania on August 23, 1944, the quick Red Army advance into the Banat took everyone by surprise. Plans had been made for a possible evacuation by the Bund; local leaders were told to prepare their people to leave, but to await their orders. As the Red Army drew nearer, most communities were packed and prepared to leave, awaiting the order to do so. It never came. Instead, the headlines of the Bund newspaper exclaimed: "Wir Bleiben! We will stay! Anyone who leaves his home is a defeatist and will be shot." The article was signed by none other than Sepp Janko, who later claimed he knew nothing about it.
There has been the suggestion made that there was a secret Führer order forbidding an evacuation; it would upset his Hungarian ally if refugee columns passed through Hungary, and Horthy might cave in and surrender to the Russians. Another theory is that the military did not want the highways to be clogged by refugee treks and get in the way of tanks and armour heading for the front in a counterattack--another fable. When treks out of the Romanian Banat passed through the western Banat, there were some village leaders who took the bull by the horns and ordered an evacuation, and in the process saved the lives of those who fled. But that was not the case for most of the Banat that fell into the hands of the Red Army and the victorious Partisan brigades that followed. By the way, Sepp Janko and the Bund leaders all managed to leave for safety. Is that really a surprise to anyone?
In the Batschka, the evacuations were much more successful, since they had time on their side, and yet large segments of the population refused to leave, or did not have the means to do so. Sekitsch was almost totally surrounded when the trek left, but 3,500 of them were left trapped in the village. In Jarek the entire population fled, in Bulkes only a few. How many were evacuated is left open to question. Yugoslavia for years tried to pretend that almost all of them “left”, in order to explain their absence. I would hazard a guess that at least 40 to 60% of the population from this area and Baranya were able to escape in September and October of 1944.
The final fate of the Danube Swabians of Yugoslavia was decided at the Partisan Congress Tito called at Jajce in November of 1943. In many ways it echoes the declaration made at the Congress of the Chetniks, his wartime rivals, in Montenegro in December of 1942. Their declaration stated: "There can be no national minorities among us...” The Partisans were much more specific in identifying and condemning the German minority, stripping them of their citizenship and placing every man, woman and child outside of the law. We are only too well aware of how this was carried out in the various studies and Heimatbücher that reprise the terror inflicted on the remaining German civilian population. But sometimes we fail to see that it was a systematically organized programme repeated from community to community, with various degrees of brutality. We can identify the steps that were taken.
Upon their arrival, the Partisans established themselves soon after or just before the Russian Army left. Their task would be inaugurated with the mass shooting of prominent men in the community, as well as some women, or brutalizing them locally and then taking them to central prisons, where the executions would take place. There would be systematic round-ups of both men and women to do forced labour, either in the community or vicinity. On Christmas Eve 1944, throughout the Batschka and Banat, all able-bodied men from the ages of 17 to 45, and women from the ages of 18 to 35, had to report to the local authority with enough food and clothing to last them a week or two on a work assignment. These age groups varied from place to place in order to meet the quota set by the Russian Commander in the area. They were sent as slave labourers to the Soviet Union. In all, we can estimate approximately 25,000 to 35,000 were involved; they were predominately women. Their experiences at home had been so harrowing, that a number of them who were in the same camp as women from my father's village in Hungary said that they were glad to be there, rather than face what was going on at home. They described the torture and abuses that had taken place. It was hard for the others to appreciate what they said in light of the horror they were living in themselves.
In preparation for the internment of the village population, one half of the villagers from one end of the village were forced from their homes and housed with the other villagers. All of the able-bodied had to clear the houses of all furniture, appliances and goods, which were loaded on wagons and taken away. When that was completed, all of the villagers were forced out of the houses and driven into the empty houses that would serve as a camp. Their first task was to empty the other houses of all of their goods. Labour groups were set up to work in the fields or vicinity, doing roadwork or what-have-you. In the spring of 1945 the population was divided. Those able to work formed one group; young mothers with small children and all other children and elderly formed the other group. Those able to work were placed in labour camps, or their home community was turned into a labour camp, while the other group was force-marched from the village to what for many was their final destination.
They would end up in extermination camps like Jarek, Rudolfsgnad, Gakowa, Kruschevlje and Molidorf, where tens of thousands died of hunger, disease and brutality. Those who survived the horrendous conditions in the labour camps were later sent to the same extermination camps when they could not longer work.
Apparently this is where the grand design to solve the Swabian Problem ended. Too many of them had managed to survive; it was in their nature. The children who had survived and were orphaned in the camp were taken away and placed in state orphanages, where they would lose their identity as Swabians. Mothers who survived the labour camps in the Soviet Union ended up in Germany and then began the search for their children. The Red Cross was not very helpful, as there was a thaw in relationships between Tito and the West after his break with Stalin. After years of pressure, action was finally taken and some 5,000 of these children were eventually reunited with their parents or families.
With most of the survivors ending up and Gakowa and Kruschevlje, escape into Hungary was always a possibility, as the frontier was only a few kilometres away. It had been a deadly pursuit, yet thousands had risked it. But now, with the closing of all the camps in 1948, people took part in mass escapes, often aided and abetted by guards and camp commanders who were bribed, crossing the frontier into Hungary and making their way to Austria and Germany.
In today's Yugoslavia, we are told there is still a German remnant living there. Perhaps the largest concentration is in Essegg, it is hard to guess how many.
This tragic ending of a people in search of the Promised Land in the Danube lands of the Habsburgs, who were caught up in the maelstrom of history over which they had no control, reminds all of us that we are strangers and pilgrims here on earth in search of the heavenly city, our only true home.
There is one story among all of the stories that especially touched my heart in my research and studies, that captures some of the spirit of the Danube Swabians and what makes us tick.
When a worker with the Red Cross came to a school and orphanage in the vicinity of Sombor in search of some of the lost children of the Danube Swabians, she was allowed to enter a classroom where the children were about eleven years old and would have been six or seven when they were taken out of the camp in Gakowa. The teacher had instructed the pupils beforehand not to respond to any of her questions. The Red Cross worker spoke fluent Serbo-Croatian and asked if any of the children knew they were of German background. They all looked down. She changed her strategy and decided to speak to them in German. All of the children simply looked puzzled or disinterested. For no apparent reason, she approached one blue-eyed blonde boy who warily glanced in the direction of the teacher and winced.
"Was ist dein Name?" she asked in German. - "What is your name?"
Tears rushed into the boy’s eyes and he mumbled, "Ich heiss Hansi Richter und ich komme aus Bulkes." - "My name is Johnny Richter and I come from Bulkes."
The teacher scowled and the boy shuddered, sitting at his desk.
The Red Cross worker asked him a series of questions in German and he simply shook his head. He shrugged his shoulders, because he had no idea what she was saying. Then to her surprise, he said: “Vater unser, der du bist in Himmel..." and then stopped.
He was saying the Lord's Prayer.
Later the Red Cross worker learned from him that an older lady in the camp at Gakowa, a friend of Hansi’s grandmother, who had looked after him after she died, had told him before he was taken away, that every night he needed to say the Lord's Prayer that he had learned from his grandmother, and repeat to himself who he was and where he came from, so that some day his mother and father could find him. The Red Cross worker learned from him that two girls and another boy in the class were also from Bulkes. Hansi Richter went to Germany, but he never met his mother again. She had died in a labour camp in Russia, but his father, who had been a prisoner of war in Russia, had survived and had been searching for him.
[Published at DVHH.org 15 Jun 2014 by Jody McKim Pharr]