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Mandragora Film (2012)
O Podunavskim Svabama / Uber die Donauschwaben /About the Danube Swabians

 

 

Book Review by Joseph Psotka

 

 

Mandragora Film (2012) O Podunavskim Svabama
Uber die Donauschwaben /About the Danube Swabians.
(Translated by Dr. Manfred Prokop and Erika Banski,
with the DVD “Podunavske Svabe” written and directed by Marko Cvejic.


I received this wonderful book last Sunday, Dec. 22, 2012 after much anticipation.   I opened it up and sat by my fireplace in a warm spot with a cup of hot chocolate and read it at a sitting, with the sounds of choral music in the background.  It seemed so fitting to read these 17 different Serbian citizens’ perspectives on the Shwovish internment in Yugoslavia at this time of year, when North America was widely celebrating peace and understanding among mankind.  The snow was settling outside and everything seemed serene as I read these thoughtful expressions of sympathy and effortful striving to come to terms with a harsh reality in the past.

As I read the book, I found these 17 authors, journalists, lawyers, political scientists, historians, artists, film directors, philosophers, dramatists, anthropologists, sociologists, Serbian citizens from many different cultural backgrounds, expressing my thoughts, feeling my emotions, sharing my remembrances as they struggled to understand.  These are people who I would welcome into my living room to share my fire and a warm drink and thoughtful reminiscences.  These clear-eyed warm-minded people reacted to the movie  in many meaningful ways, but it was clearer and clearer as I read that they saw the deeds of the past as horrifying, never to be repeated, as something they would have been ashamed to participate in.   They saw its repression from meaningful national discussion as an obstacle to the development of a modern civil democratic society.

A word about the book itself. It is a beautiful and unusual book, a heavily square slab of paper, with a thick cardboard cover at each end and sturdy square paper in between.  Its gray monochrome image of the Danube on the front and back suggests something serious, and not lighthearted. Inside there are 17 short papers revealing each person’s reaction to the movie. It is helpful to view the movie first and a DVD is provided in a slot on the back cover.  Each person’s position paper is short, usually around 5 pages, and it is translated impeccably into German and English from the original Serbian.  I read all the English versions, a few of the German, and dabbled with the Serbian, so I can only say with certainty that the English is fluid and flawless. Each person’s chapter is headed with a high contrast image of his or her face, with a splash of washed out color, showing basically the outlines, as if to suggest that the chapter too expresses only an outline of their thoughts and there is much more nuanced and detailed cognition under this surface.   A few grayscale images extracted from the DVD remind the reader of its themes and players.  The book is an outward artistic expression of its contents, and very suitable for a gift or coffee table centerpiece.

There are many expressive passages in the book that made me understand the authors better, and appreciate their courage in attending the movie tour and expressing their opinions so forthrightly here.  With another author I too wondered how many threatening communications Marko Cvejic received in this effort, and hoped it was not disconcerting.  Some people called him an “autochauvinist” what we might say, a “neschtferderwer,”someone who dirties his own nest.  My guess is that was a euphemism for something worse.   But he continued seeking the truth and, more than that, trying to promote a better understanding both of these events in the past and of the value of a diverse culture where no one is marginalized.  His focus was on understanding collective guilt.  He was extraordinarily successful in getting a broad reach of thoughtful people to attend the twenty screenings and provide us with their reflections.  He deserves our gratitude. Marko Cvejic talked about a theme that others also picked up:  playing Partisans and Germans with the Germans always losing.  That is so similar to our American early childhood games of cowboys and Indians, with the  Indians always losing.  Everyone wanted to be a cowboy and often had a plastic six shooter to go with his role, while the Indians had to make believe with fake arrows. 
Little did we know about the tragedy of the “Trail of Tears” when the Cherokee were stripped of their rights and forced against their will to walk a deadly thousand miles through harsh weather.   The weekly and sometimes daily Western movies we watched did little to inform us, showing Indians in little more than grownup versions of our early games.  Yet, they served a higher purpose too, for when I finally did learn the bitter truth, those early games brought the shame home and personalized it in a way that very little else could have.  Marko seems to suggest his own form of enlightenment as well for the long ago treatment of the Shwoveh.
 

Given the wide diversity of perspectives in the book, each reader will probably find  one  or another writer of greater interest.  For me that person was Jasminka  Hasanbegovich.   She begins by saying that the reason for this great taboo over the Shwovish internment and expulsions, and the fabrication of a myth of a total German guilt – driven exodus lies in the absence of a Serbian civil democratic state that understands citizenship separately from ethnicity:  to be a Serb still means to have a certain cultural roots that is denied by even something as simple as a name like Hasanbegovich, let alone Hiller or Schmidt.  The relationship between this shortcoming and the Nazi conception of a racial “Volk” that led to the most brutish aspects of Serbia’s conquest makes this failing all the more shortsighted and heartbreaking.   To despise an enemy and yet maintain their worst ideology as central to your cultural heartland may lead you to despise yourself.  By not confronting this worst aspect of a sense of racial superiority and bringing to the forefront of discussion the ethnic cleansing of the Shwoveh, Serbian culture is arrested in its development.  Even Serbian minorities cling to their own national pride and refuse to participate in the development of a national vision of common human rights.  
Instead they have each built up romantic traditions of their past glorified to the exclusion of their natural partners in a civil democratic state.  Her most telling line, and it is something for Shwoveh to consider as well is: “We must accept that the Communists and the Nazis, the Partisans and the Chetniks, the Serbs and the Swabians are in us, that the famous and the infamous, the defeated and undefeated history is in us, that Milosevic is in us, that the province is in us, and many, many other people and things.”  And of course this is literally true for the Shwoveh who have left Serbia and those who are still there.  Our careful genealogical searches show over and over again the influence of all our neighbors, the Szabos, Dworacheks, Matonovics, and Druhars; to name just a few who are part of our gene pool and who helped us survive the starvation camps with their charity.  They are still with us, as we are with them.

I wondered as I read how I would try to deal with the destruction of the American Indians at the end of the last century, or if slavery could only be discussed in self-righteous terms of racist supremacy; or worse still, if I faced a law that made it potentially unlawful to discuss the past, as Orhan Pamuk faced in Turkey when he said in an interview, "Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do."  It takes great courage for civil disobedience, even if only on an abstract intellectual plane.

What more could anyone ask these writers and their attitudes to this sad situation? They were all born after this all happened, or so young at the time that all they can remember is mysteriously losing their playmates and never hearing from them again.  They are no more responsible than many of the Shwoveh who were innocent of any willful actions against Yugoslavia, but suffered because they knew their innocence and stayed to rebuild their country, only to be treated abysmally.  To mistreat them was inhumane, and so it would be to blame this generation of Serbians for the misdeeds of their ancestors.  Just as so many of our children are ignorant of the worst aspects of our American past, we cannot blame them; only do our best to educate the next generation of savages to a higher civil standard; so too can we not blame this generation of Serbians represented so capably in this book.  We must also learn to see in the revenge - seeking still found in many Shwoveh, but seemingly much less in the next generations, the seeds of the same inhumanity that drove our ancestors into the village ghettoes of Yugoslavia.  Those starvation and forced labor ghettoes were no schools for learning ethics, generosity, kindness, and humanity, but time has passed; and reflection and remembrance should provide that schooling.
In this book we become intimate with that process of seeing ourselves in others; of developing generosity, responsibility, and goodwill, in 17 open and endearing Serbians. Perhaps education, with full disclosure on both sides, acceptance, and ultimately forgiveness will make sure that these sorts of atrocities never happen again.

And so as the snow settled peacefully outside, I felt a wonderful balm filling my thoughts, knowing that even if these are only a handful of Serbian citizens who never have much effect on their society, they still exist, they acknowledge the atrocity of the past, and their book opens many possibilities of a developing Serbian civil, democratic society that will open their past to full transparent remembrance and treat my ancestors, their descendants,  and my descendants, with the dignity and respect that recognizes that they are us.

The book is available by ordering it from mandragorafilm@gmail.com using www.Paypal.com  to send the money to Mandragorafilm@gmail.com for $32 US, or 25 Euros (All books are in all 3 languages:  English, German, and Serbian).  The book includes a copy of the original movie DVD "Danube Swabians".  North Americans ordering the book should also specify NTSC format for the DVD.


[Published at DVHH.org 04 Jan 2013 by Jody McKim Pharr. Photos authorized by Marko Cvejic.]


 

 

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