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.
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
the local cultural centre
with ethnic Germans primarily from Palatine.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
by Karl Kreutzer’s daughter Valerie in 1999
so the children’s children may remember the
goodness and blessing of their roots.