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Schwabenlager Groedig

by Franz Bohn

      My story starts when I was four years old, and is sadly similar to that of thousands of other Donauschwaben WW refugee camp stories. Being of German descent, my family was forced out of Yugoslavia during the latter stages of WWII in 1944. On very short notice, overnight, my entire family was forced to flee our home with only the clothes on our backs and some meager belongings. Thus began a long, sad nightmarish journey consisting of running through fields, hiding in fields and woods, eventually stumbling onto a boxcar train that served as ‘home’ for several months while we were transported from here to there, never quite knowing where. The only certainty we had was our uncertainty. After several months of this frightful journey, we arrived at Groedig, Austria, a serene and beautiful town on the outskirts of Salzburg. It’s beauty surreal in the midst of the ugliness of war. It is here that my Camp story begins, and seven long years later, where it ends.

 
 

 

 

     Through the help from some compassionate and equally fearful train officials and some generous farmers along the railway who occasionally helped with food and drink, and mostly through just pure and plain dumb luck in avoiding the railway bombings, we finally arrived at the train station of the little town of Groedig, Austria. This fairy tale-like place is situated on the outskirts of the beautiful birthplace of Mozart, the city of Salzburg. At the foot of the imposing Untersberg was an old abandoned Austrian WWI army camp.  Consisting of six small barracks, fronted by one large ‘Hauptbaracke’ (Headquarters) this ‘Lager’ would become our new ‘home’ for the next seven very trying and very interesting years, and would be known as “Schwabenlager Groedig, bei Salzburg”!

     The six smaller barracks were identical in size and layout, approximately 50 meters long and 12 meters wide. A hallway ran from end to end in the center, and each of the sides was subdivided into three separate rooms, approximately 15 meters long and 5 meters wide. A common toilet facility was located at one end of the barrack, and was initially without running water.  Several families lived in each room, with blankets hung from ropes about 7 ft. off the floor  being the only separation. On average, about 15 people occupied each of the six main rooms, averaging about five to a blanket room. In our case, my grandfather, three uncles, my mother and I lived in one of the “blanket rooms” which was about 5 x 5 meters in size. This space was truly multifunctional, serving as bedroom, living room, kitchen and storage space. Eventually, in 1946 and 1947 my uncles, who were tailors by trade, even operated their tailoring business from that room. Privacy was non-existent! If a person coughed, burped, snored or passed wind in one blanket room, all the inhabitants of the adjacent blanket rooms knew about it instantly! Although we didn’t know it at the time, and with all respects to Al Gore, perhaps we Lager refugees actually had the first, albeit crude, operating version of the internet - way back then. 

     When we first moved in, missing panes of glass in the windows allowed the cold and damp Austrian air to infiltrate freely; there was no heat, no electricity and no running water. The mice, rats and other critters easily outnumbered people. Bedbugs (Wantzen) and lice were a common problem due to the prevailing poor sanitary conditions. Initially, we hauled water for drinking and cooking from a hand pump at the Catholic Pfarrer’s (priest’s) house in Niederalm, a nearby small town. Collected rainwater, and in winter, melted snow was used for personal washing  and doing the laundry. To avoid starving to death, all of us scavenged for food on farmers’ fields. I have vivid memories of digging, after sundown, with my bare hands so that I could feel for potatoes that had escaped the farmer’s daytime harvest. The potato digging was done mainly at night so as not to alienate the local farmers. As long as we scavenged after harvest, our hunger driven activities were tolerated. On many days, cooked potatoes were the only thing that kept us from starvation. At other times, we would scavenge for mushrooms and berries in the forest, and ‘find’ fallen apples, pears and nuts at nearby farmer’s orchards. Again, and this almost became an unwritten rule of survival, the farmers tolerated our scavenging, as long as it was limited to fallen (on the ground) fruit. Nothing angered them more than discovering that produce had been ‘picked off the tree’. That was considered stealing and was not tolerated; it oftentimes led to anger and resentment and occasionally physical confrontations, and the end result always was less cooperation from the farmers. During those interactions, I became multilingual since I quickly learned Austrian curse words, and remembered them well. 

     The ingenuity of the Donauschwaben people quickly became evident soon after we had moved into the camp. Men crafted heating/cooking stoves and metal chimneys from scrap sheet metal, much of it a direct result of war damage. Stovepipes were routed through almost every window of each of the seven barracks. Oh, what an impressive sight we must have been to our Austrian neighbors! Repairs, although crude, were made to leaking roofs and broken doors and windows. Although never completely eradicated, rats and mice populations were reduced through cleverly designed traps and the enlistment of several stray cats.  

     By the end of 1945, electrical service to the barracks was activated. The barracks had the basic electrical wiring provisions, and only the hookup to the incoming power was required. However, this technological advance quickly proved to generate new social problems. Through various means, people acquired radios and cooking plates.  I remember the radios well. Each had a little green eye that was used to tune in stations from around the world. With so many people living in close proximity, radio noise, curfew times for radio playing and differences in listening taste often became the source of friction The cooking plates, however,  presented the biggest problem. Each barrack was electrically fused in series, and when several cooking plates were used simultaneously, the fuses would blow, plunging the entire barrack into darkness and radio silence. It would then take several hours before someone would come and wind a new piece of fuse wire around the glass plug and restore power. Imagine, over 100 people in the dark, in silence and in a foul mood. I learned Donauschwaben curse words very early in my life!  The problem got so bad that the Lagerfuehrer (camp leader) decided to confiscate all heating plates and declare a ban on use of cooking plates, under the guise of ‘public safety’. Of course, that made no one happy and the uproar itself generated new public safety concerns! We went through several cooking plate moratoriums, which were finally eliminated in 1947 when the barracks were rewired to a higher electrical load capacity. The experience, however, gave me a valuable insight into how something as minor as use of cooking plates can impact social behavior, interaction and small childrens’ ability to learn new curse words. 

     In 1947 clean running water was provided to an underground pumping station which was located near the Hauptbaracke and to the toilet rooms in each barrack. We finally could stop hauling the heavy cans of potable water from the Niederalm Pfarrer’s home which had been the cause of much grumbling by us children ‘haulees’, especially during the cold winter months. Instead, we had the luxury of being able to get fresh, clean and very cold water right at the camp’s pumping bunker only about 100 meters from our barrack! What a great improvement. It was also a luxury to be able to flush toilets the way they were designed to be flushed and get away from the outhouse mode of operation. When one has nothing, even a little improvement, no matter how slight, is considered super significant!  

     It was very typical for the men in the camp to smoke. All kinds of vegetative concoctions were mixed, in order to ‘enjoy’ a paper rolled cigarette. The smell was horrible, and barrack ventilation was non-existent, except for the few windows that could be opened. Of course, open windows were not an option during wintertime. I remember well, accompanying my grandfather to walk along the nearby Landstrasse (Highway) towards Salzburg, and look for US army discarded cigarette butts. Pall Malls, Camels, Chesterfields, Phillip Morris…I remember them well. My grandfather called the discarded butts “Zigarette Tschiks” and had no problem with the hygienic implications…the urge for a smoke was just too great! We spent countless hours collecting those Tschiks until we had enough to satisfy my grandfather. Once home in our blanket room, he carefully spread the Tschiks on the table, slowly removed the small amounts of tobacco from the existing wrappers and build a small tobacco ‘pyramid’. He then ever so gently took a small amount of the tobacco from the pile and gently spread the tobacco onto small sheets of extremely thin cigarette papers, rolled them and sealed them with a light swipe of his tongue. All the while, I sat there, head on my hands, admiring his careful attention to detail and his thorough enjoyment of the entire production.   He then put the homemade cigarette into his mouth, and used the flame from the stove for lighting. He inhaled slowly, closed his eyes and had this super satisfied look on his face. Here, among his monumental loss and heartbreak, he had found a tiny speck of enjoyment in a small amount of discarded tobacco. How elementary life can be when one has no choice and when one has nothing! 

A side note: My grandfather used to sing, almost inaudibly, the following song during our Tschik gathering trips:

     Zigarette, Zigarette, Wenn ich nur Eine haette, I taet sie nicht verkaufen, ich taet sie selbs verrauchen…..Zigarretee, Zigarette. He would repeat it again and again throughout the hours. It had a catchy tune that just kept rolling in my mind…sometimes endlessly as we walked along that long stretch of the Landstrasse. It says: Cigarette, Cigarette, if I only had one, I would never sell it, I would smoke it myself, Cigarette, Cigarette… 

     Immediately after the war, after food, clothing became our biggest survival need. We had  brought only a minimum and the harsh Austrian winters necessitated warm clothes. We were fortunate to be aided by the IRO (International Relief Organization) and UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), which provided us used clothes that had been donated from across the world, much of it from Canada and the United States. IRO had a large staff in Groedig which was responsible for aiding many of the western Austrian refugee camps, and we were extremely fortunate to be located so close to them. My mother was very fortunate to have obtained a job with the IRO in Groedig, performing household cleaning, laundry and dishwashing duties. 

     Shoes and socks were the hardest clothing items to come by. I don’t think I wore my first pair of socks until the age of 7. In the summer, mid May signaled the arrival of the ‘barefoot’ season. Ground temperatures were warm enough to allow children to walk barefoot. This season minimized the need for scarce footwear, and also provided us with enjoyment since walking barefoot was taken as a recreational privilege! I remember those barefoot days, especially at this old age when my flat feet problems present mobility challenges.

     So what did we do in the wintertime, without socks and warm shoes? I remember both children and adults using ‘Fuss Fetzen’…foot rags. We would take a square of cloth, a bit larger than a handkerchief, and fold it corner to corner into a triangle. We would then but our foot onto the cloth, with the heel against the doubled edge. Then, we would take the remaining two corners and tie them around our feet… voila…warm footwear! Most of our shoes had holes in the soles, since they were used clothing. We ingeniously cut tire tube sheets or old army tent material into exact sole size pieces and slipped them into our shoes. Sure, if you looked at the outside of the sole you could see the rubber ‘liner’, but…it didn’t matter, it worked for us!    

     During the early years, neither adults nor children lived in a structured or productive environment. Initially, jobs were extremely hard to find, and even educated DP’s sought common labor work. Hunger almost always trumps pride! Anything, to be able to care for families and regain some semblance of self-respect! Some were hired as ditch diggers, farmhands, carpenters and cement workers. Others started to establish in-camp businesses such as tailors (my uncles), barbers, shoemakers, metal smiths (stove building) and yes, later on, even small ‘convenience stores’ where cigarettes and candy were available at extremely high blackmarket  prices. 

     The children had a big challenge: How to manage idleness and grow physically and intellectually in a very constrained and extremely poor environment. In 1947 the camp opened its first in-camp school. We had four grades that were taught at the same time, and I remember clearly, my first year using graphite tablets and chalk, since paper was not available. The teacher, (Frau Goettl, and later on, Herr Loffl) did a great job in teaching such a wide range of ages, and dealt expertly with the various behavioral issues that one would expect in such a situation. Our ‘class’ had about 40 children.  

     After the first year, grades 1 and 2 and 3, 4 were grouped separately, which provided a much better learning environment. School was conducted 5 full days each week, with Saturdays as half days. Looking back, I know that the teachers did not get paid well, but again…at least it was a paying job! Religion was taught by the Niederalm priest (Pfarrer Dick), who would visit the camp two days a week, for one hour instructions each day. This contact also allowed several camp children, including me, to serve as altar boys at the Niederalm Catholic church, alongside Austrian boys. Oh what headaches this would have presented to our American Civil Liberties Union! Pfarrer Dick also performed the First Communion rites to all the eligible camp children in 1949.  

     For entertainment, children became very inventive. We would play with old bicycle rims by guiding their rolling with a wire ‘guide’, and would often walk for many kilometers to see which boy in the group would have his rim topple. At other times, we used a homemade paddle to bounce a 3-inch long, one-inch thick wooden dowel (sharpened at both ends) as we walked around the camp. Again, we did this in groups, always trying to be the last to ‘drop the dowel’. Another game that was extremely popular was Knopf Fussball (Button soccer). We would place coat buttons on a flat wooden surface, about one meter long and 70 centimeters wide, which was marked as a miniature soccer field, complete with goals made out of scavenged Franks Kaffee box ends. A small shirt type button would be the ‘ball’. We would then take turns pressing on a selected large button with the back edge of a horn comb in order to propel the small shirt button into an opponent’s net. The goalies were made of two large buttons glued together and a flat spot being ground on the rim by wiping the set against a concrete surface until the ‘perfect standing edge was achieved. This flat spot allowed for the two-button ‘goalie’ to stand in the goal and make scoring very difficult. It’s amazing how innovative children can be when there’s nothing else to do! 

     Our first love was Fussball (soccer)! During 1946, men of the camp manually leveled a plot of ground in front of the Hauptbaracke, which was large enough for an official-sized soccer field. Soccer goals were made by the camp carpenters, and caustic lime was used for marking the sidelines. Early on, we only had rag balls to play with. Like an orchestrated event, the boys of the camp would meet at the field at a certain time, choose sides and begin to play, sometimes for hours. We did not limit ourselves to eleven a side, and at times, it would be 20 against 20! All ages participated, from 6 and 7 year olds to 14 and 15 year olds. We played until darkness set in and we couldn’t see the goals anymore, only to repeat the process the next day, day after day. Similarly, in 1947 the young men of the camp started to form a more formal soccer team and began to scrimmage the local Austrian town teams. Our camp team quickly became the best in the area, and in the early 1950’s made its presence felt by beating teams from larger towns and even cities like Salzburg and Graz. The members of this Schwabenlager team were our idols! It was an indescribable feeling of joy to have our own Donauschwaben sports heroes to worship, while living with the pain of war-induced poverty and loss of identity in a foreign land. 

Emigration 

     Beginning in 1951, some people in the camp began to emigrate to Canada, Australia and the United States. My mother and I were fortunate to find an immigration sponsor who allowed us to move to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My grandfather had died in that blanket room in the camp in 1950, and my three uncles found jobs and wives and settled their families in Austria, in the immediate vicinity of Schwabenlager Groedig. 

And finally: 

This is not a “woe-me’ story!

     There were thousands of children who fared worse than I did. Many, too many, never survived the hardships of the exodus, and I witnessed several children’s death due to starvation. Why I was spared, I do not know, but I feel extremely fortunate that I did survive, and was able to get a ‘second chance’ at life. This memoir is written to provide my children, my grandchildren and all who follow with a Donauschwaben family history and a legacy that they can fully understand and in which they can take immense pride.

“After all these years, fear has never left me, it is part of me”.

Franz Bohn

Families from Vukovar and Jankovci

[Published at www.dvhh.org, 31 Jan 2008, by Jody McKim Pharr]