Danube Swabian History
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A Vrbas, Backa Story

By Karl Kreutzer
Translated by Valerie Kreutzer


Some three hundred years ago, various peoples in southern Germany embarked on rickety boats and floated down the Danube River in search of a new homeland. Austria’s Emperor Carl IV, his daughter Empress Maria Theresia and her son Josef II had invited the settlers to serve their empire as buffers against the Turks in the areas just recently freed form the Ottoman Empire: Banat, Backa and the Swabian Turkey. Backa, nestled between the Danube and Tisa (Theiss) Rivers belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary, while Banat, east of the Tisa and north of the Danube, belonged directly to the Habsburg’s Emperor. Both of them were divided after WWI and parts of it were absorbed by the new Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

 

By the sweat of their brows the first settlers had converted the marshy lands into wheat and maize fields that brought record crops. Novi Sad in the south became the capital of the Backa, Subotica was a larger city in the north, and in the middle of a 100 km radius was Vrbas, the local cultural centre with ethnic Germans primarily from Palatine.

 

Under Hungarian domination they were supposed to become Hungarians – a possibility for the educated elite among them. However, when in 1918 Serbs became the rulers, everyone objected to the prospect of assimilation. An ethnic German minority party was formed and its delegates sat in the Belgrade assembly. The ethnic Germans minority of half a million felt strong and important and forgot that it was, in fact, a minority. The more they drew on Berlin’s political clout and insisted on their political rights in the midst of a Slavic community, the more hatred they engendered.

 

The all-consuming war soon absorbed eligible men into the SS, by forcefully making them to ‘volunteer’. By 1944 it was evident that Nazi Germany would lose the war and the ethnic Germans would be made scapegoats. Many farmers loaded up their wagons and marched toward the west, just ahead of the menace of the Soviet Red Army. The steady stream of the encroaching partisans did not bode well. Left behind were the old, primarily Danube Swabians, who decided to take care of house and home, ‘until it’s all over and the young people will come back’ as they said.

 

Among them was Michael Schumacher and his wife the formal widow Petri. The couple thought that they had no need to fear the new rulers. A few years earlier, he had handed over his lumber business to the younger generation and was now, in his mid-seventies, looking forward to retirement. In their comfortable little house, the Schumacher lived a life of quiet contentment. They still kept a cow since they enjoyed fresh milk products, and they had plenty of everything else they needed for their simple life.

 

The upheaval of the political events, however, gave them some sleepless nights. More and more ethnic Germans among Vrbas’ population of eleven thousand deserted the town, and there was a growing premonition that the partisans would not treat them kindly. Overnight, these unshaven and shabbily clad warriors settled into the well-furnished homes with full pantry and closets, greedily exchanging the poverty they knew in Montenegro and Bosnia with the comforts the fleeing Danube Swabians had left behind.

 

One morning a call went out: ”All old people assemble!” Each was to bring his or her necessities. And so also Michael Schumacher and his wife packed a cart with their most cherished possessions and pushed it to the train station. The road there led through a narrow alley, wide enough for two persons to pass. In that passage they were ‘freed’ of their possessions without ceremony. Power was now in the hands of thieves.

 

When they assembled at the train station with their fellow-sufferers, they knew they were in for a difficult journey. In cattle carts the exodus traveled over Novi Sad to the village of Jarek, not far from the Danube and the Fruska Gora mountain chain. Upon arrival, several families were shoved into a single room and made to bed down on the bare floor. Jarek was cordoned off, no one could get out and no one was allowed in. A new concentration camp had been established. A woman was in charge and kept an iron rule. Unlike other concentration camps, this one had no burning ovens, but a slow death had been designed for these hated ethnic Germans.

 

The watery soup was full of vermin, and the crumbs of rationed bread gave them painful stomach cramps. The diabolical kitchen staff was mixing plaster and glass splinters into the bread. They who had lived a life of abundance became slender and frail. Dysentery entered the houses; death seized its first victims among those with least resistance. In the cemetery bodies filled ever-longer rows. No bell tolled for their farewell. Would there be no word of comfort in the midst of this misery? Should they be buried like dogs? Would they leave nothing but tears and desperate question: “Why does God remain silent in the face of such injustice?”

 

That’s when Michael Schumacher came forward. He knew the bible like a companion; as a lay minister he had often preached its good news. He had no difficulty now to recite from memory God’s word, he said a prayer and closed with a blessing. Now no one worried about the proper denomination. In this valley of sorrow Protestants and Catholics suffered alike. There was no longer a difference between master and servant; this distinction, so important in the old days, disappeared at this time of vexation. The former lumber merchant was now the priest who invited a ray of the eternal light to shine upon the mass burials.

 

The people in the concentration camp secretly gathered around their adopted priest so he could interpret from his perspective of faith how to make sense of their incredible sorrow. Since these gatherings were strictly forbidden, they had to assemble carefully. Christianity was back in the catacombs as it was in the beginning. But they found their way to the good news and sang quietly hymns they knew well, even without hymnals. They used to sing the words glibly, now they understood their heavy meaning. There was no escape from the present cruelty. The skeletal figures mirrored for each other the frailty of the body.

 

Michael Schumacher was also taken ill. Would he let his roommates in the crowded quarters watch the spectacle of his final moments? No! He demanded to be taken to the empty stable in deference to the others. His wife wanted to object, but he insisted and remained firm. 

So they carried the dying man to the place where horses used to neigh and cattle used to feed. There he knelt down once more despite physical strain to commit his loved ones, his camp mates and his soul to God. He breathed his last in the certainty of acceptance.

 

Those left behind felt bereft and lost. A disciple of his Master had gone from them. In this miserable life he had been able to cast a bridge to the other world, a world full of peace and beauty, ruled by justice.

 

Now his wife prayed at the graves, pointing to the Lord who is greater than our sorrow and death. Until she too had fulfilled her life’s work. Both had served among the many unknown soldiers of Christ, unrecorded in the annals of church history.

 

Today there is no cemetery in the village of Jarek, there is no trace of the stranded ethnic Germans who were tragically bedded there. The plough has levelled the hill and new crops spring from the fertile ground, according to the Creator’s command: Die and Rise Again!

 

Written in 1951. Translated by Karl Kreutzer’s daughter Valerie in 1999 so the children’s children may remember the goodness and blessing of their roots.

 

[Published at DVHH.org by Jody McKim Pharr]

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