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Castle Güssing (in the Austrian Province of Burgenland),
 and Camps Lehen and Sitzenheim, in Salzburg

The Beginning In Austria 

By Hans Kopp

Hans Kopp

Our escape to Hungary

     We were on our way to Hungary with Gakowa hours behind us. My father took us along endless fields, meadows and forests, toward the Hungarian border. At three or four o’clock in the morning we saw the border from the distance. After we crossed it we walked briskly to get the border as far behind us as possible. We did it! We were free! Or were we?

     The sun had come up and my father gave us a well-deserved break and something to eat. We stopped at a small rise near a roadway that gave us some cover. Just as we sat down and started to eat, we saw people coming around the bend and suddenly we were surrounded by Hungarian soldiers. One of them talked to my uncle, who spoke Hungarian. My uncle translated that we had to go with them.

     The soldiers took us to a camp near Gara encircled with barbed wire, gave us food and made us wait. The food we received was actually very good as compared to the food in Gakowa and I kept thinking if we had to stay here it would not be so bad. The big question loomed over our heads, “what will happen to us now?” Nightfall came and so did the soldiers with machine guns and rifles. They ordered us up and marched us out of the camp. There were thirty to forty people who were taken at gunpoint back to the Yugoslavian border. At about ten o’clock that evening, the Hungarian soldiers ordered us to cross the border back into Yugoslavia. I understood now that we had to return to Gakowa. As we left the border further and further behind, a terrifying thought went through my mind. We had come all this way for nothing and all our efforts were in vain! The thought of having to return to Gakowa was most depressing. One cannot begin to describe the demoralizing feelings and thoughts which went through my mind at that time. I was sure that I would have rather died than go back. My legs began to feel like lead as we stumbled through the night.

     We had walked half a mile or so and were out of the sight of the border guards when my father asked us to sit down. The other people went their own way and my father told us to wait here and get some sleep, while he and my uncle scouted the area. I made myself comfortable on my backpack between the deep furrows of a freshly plowed field but fear and anxiety kept sleep at bay. I gazed at the stars for a long, long time as a light mist surrounded us and drifted playfully about. It was so peaceful and so quiet, yet, I felt insecure and worried because my father and uncle had left. What would happen if the Partisans saw them? What if we were discovered? I was afraid of the darkness and every shadow presented potential danger to us. Unable to sleep and terrified of the night, I feared the worst - that father would not return safely.

     I must have fallen asleep, because my grandmother woke me and said it was time to go. My father and uncle had returned and shortly after midnight we were on our way to Hungary again. As we neared the border, we saw the guards from a distance. We waited until they disappeared in the darkness. My father gave a sign and we walked quickly behind him across the border again. We walked until daybreak and reached the outskirts of the city of Bácsalmás. We hid in a thicket near the roadside, while my father and uncle went to scout the town. Exhausted from our journey, I immediately fell asleep.

Our life in Hungary

     When my father and uncle returned late in the afternoon from Bácsalmás they brought good news. A wine grower outside of town hired our family as caretakers for his vineyard. They had a wagon to load our belongings for our trip to the house, which looked run down, but was a big step up from Gakowa. The house had several rooms, giving our family a little privacy, but no longer sleeping in the same room at first felt strange. Our new start was all but easy and everyone had to work. My brother and cousin Käthe worked with the adults in the vineyard. After a few days my uncle found a job for me. My work was tending to a cow for a nearby farmer every day on his grazing pasture several miles away from his home, while my younger cousin, Hans, tended the three little pigs we had to raise for our landlord.

My work was not particularly difficult. I occupied myself by making chains and wreaths of wild flowers and watching the ox drawn wagons go by. The oxen had a mind of their own, especially when it was hot after a rain and there were water puddles on the road. When the oxen reached the puddles, they stopped to lie in them.

     The situation in Hungary was not the best at the time. Communists displayed slogans for the upcoming elections everywhere and our future was getting worse rather than better. After four or five weeks my uncle learned that our landlord refused to pay the promised wages, telling him he would pay him next month. We had to share the food I received from the farmer from my job. Our diet consisted of bacon or ham with beans potatoes or cabbage and other produce we raised on the premises. If we had to make purchases, we used the money my father had earned and brought with him from Yugoslavia.

     It was well into the summer now and I had just turned 12 years old. Cow herding became such a routine for me that I did not pay much attention to two young fellows who came my way one afternoon. One of them spoke German and was probably of German descent. He asked if I was a Communist and I replied that I was German and not a Communist. The other fellow approached me with a whip and hit me. I had nothing with which to defend myself and had to endure what he dished out. Before they left me alone in pain, they told me they punished me because I was a German and not a Communist and warned me they would return tomorrow. I untied the cow and ran home. I told my father and my uncle what happened and my uncle went to see the farmer to tell him about the incident. The farmer was certain who the boys were, swung onto his bike and went to see the boys’ parents. I never saw the boys again.

     Several days later, my uncle went to town to see our landlord about payment for our work. This time, my uncle was threatened and practically thrown out of the house. The situation had become intolerable. My father went to Csikeria, a neighboring town, where he had made the acquaintance of a butcher of German descent. He asked the butcher if he was interested in purchasing the three pigs we raised for our landlord. He agreed and came the next day with his wagon to pick them up and the money we received for the pigs bought our train tickets to freedom.

On our way to Austria

     We left Bácsalmás on August 15, 1947 by train and crossed over the Danube at Baja. From there, we took the train again via Dombovar and Gyékénjes, to Nagykanizsa, where we stayed overnight. The next day we traveled by bus via Sombathely to Körmend, where we crossed the border into Austria without a problem. In Austria, we were greeted by Austrian border guards and taken to the Castle Güssing. We were told we were welcome, but had to remain in the Russian Zone. Unhappy with the prospects of staying in the Russian Zone, my father found someone with a truck to take us to the English Zone border. Here, we crossed the rapidly flowing waters of the Feistritz River on foot.

After crossing the river, we were on our way to Graz by means of a truck we hired in the next small town. At the train station in Graz, we boarded an open freight train that took us to Klagenfurt and via Villach to Salzburg. From there we intended to go on to Germany, but as we had no money to pay for tickets, we became stowaways on the freight train. As we were waiting patiently for the train to depart, I feared the worst when an Austrian train worker spotted us and peeked over the side of the planks into the compartment. We paid him with cigarettes, but the worker told his friends and one by one they came to be paid off.

     In Villach, we transferred to another train. It was past midnight before we were on our way to Salzburg and when we entered the Tauern Tunnel a big surprise awaited us. A coal burning locomotive pulled the train so all the smoke and soot was carried to the back of the train inside the tunnel, filling our compartment. The air was terrible to breathe and when we finally emerged from the tunnel, we looked like chimney sweeps. When the sun rose at daybreak, the most beautiful mountains surrounded us. How huge, majestic and peaceful they looked to me; I had never seen mountains before. For the first time, I felt free and it was a wonderful feeling. I fell in love with the mountains and this love has not faded to this day. Upon our arrival in Salzburg, we had to register at the refugee camp near the train station. We did not stay there long because Josef Sigl from Obertrum (near Salzburg) hired my father, uncle and other family members who were capable of working to help on his farm estate.

     In Obertrum my father visited the school principle to inquire whether we could go to school here and we were admitted but our absence of three years presented some problems for my cousin Hans, my brother Franz and me. When the graded essay paper was returned it was dripping with red ink. There was no question in my mind that I had a lot of catching up to do, but was I up to the challenge. It took many devoted hours to catch up so I became a bookworm, so to speak. My desire to learn and later, to teach various sports to children and young adults, led me to become a sports educator.

     My first Christmas in freedom in 1947 was an unforgettable experience. The American soldiers invited all the school children in Obertrum to celebrate Christmas in the ballroom of the Hotel-Gasthaus Sigl. We sat at big tables and were served a scrumptious turkey meal by the soldiers. For a boy who spent two years in hell, this was literally heaven and I could not wait to eat more of the wonderful meal. A soldier poured me more hot chocolate, which I had never had before and I was sure it was the best thing I had ever tasted. Santa Claus brought each of us fruit, nuts, a Hershey bar and a roll of Life Savers. I cherished and savored the chocolate and Life Savers for weeks. On alternate days, I ate a small piece of chocolate and then a Life Saver. When I had only a few pieces left, I skipped days so I could enjoy my prized possessions a little longer.

     During the first several weeks we were exposed to the ridicule of the children in school, for our clothing was old and mended a thousand times. However the teachers were friendly, understanding and explained the hardship we had lived through. Soon we were accepted and made many friends. As winter came many of the children went skiing and when I was asked by some of my new friends to join them, I sadly had to tell them that I had never been skiing and would love to go, but had no skis. One my newfound friends found a ski in his parents’ attic and several others went home to search their own with success! Soon, I had two skis of uneven length and make but it did not matter as I was able to go out with them to ski. Now I also knew that they had closed me into their hearts. I would ski; play soccer-football, table tennis and Völkerball with them until I left Austria.

Spring skiing in Obertrum, Austria L/R Otto, Hans, Toni and Rudi.

     I also knew that I would return someday to ski with them again, which I actually did in 2003. What a wonderful reunion it was, although some of the areas we skied had changed so drastically that I hardly recognized them.

 

The joy of being free

     On the farm we lived in farm hands’ and maids’ quarters on top of the horse and cow stables. There were three rooms and there were four refugee families; my Uncle Michael’s, Aunt Katharina’s, ours and a family from Silesia. Our room was the smallest but the most cheerful of them all. Every evening several refugees who worked on other farms in the area visited us and made our room into an entertainment center. There was Josef Straky from the Banat who worked for the butcher in the town and several others like the blond giant, a boxing champion from Prussia and the great storyteller (from where, I do not remember). Interesting that hardly anyone talked about his or her sad experiences of the war although there were plenty of stories to tell, but people wanted to forget and not be reminded. One of the storyteller’s favorite stories was when he worked for a farmer and acted as though he could not speak German so he would get away without having to get up for work on a rainy day. He would point at the sky and say, “too much rain.”  It was great entertainment at the time and cheered us up so we would not think about our families still not being completely reunited. It was tragic enough that my mother was still thought as dead and Jakob Hartusch still was not reunited with his wife and children and the storyteller still had no idea where his family was while those from Romanian Banat who served in the German military had no word about their families at all.

     Toward the end of 1947, coal mine workers in Antratsit, and other Russian slave labor camps were allowed to send post cards with a limit of twenty-five words to their relatives. One sunny winter day in January or February 1948 the mailman brought a post card for my father, and told him he had good news. After my father read the card he ran to look for us. Completely out of breath from his excitement, he was screaming from the top of his lungs as he entered our room; “Die Motter lebt, die Motter lebt, do is a Kart vun ihr” (Mother is alive, mother is alive here is a card from her). In amazement we looked at the card to read the 25 words she wrote, over and over again. Hurriedly, my father wrote in turn on the reverse side of the postcard, provided for a return message, and gave it back to the mailman to be returned to my mother as quickly as possible. It still took six months before we were reunited with our mother. Jacob Hartusch brought his family to Obertrum and our storyteller left to see his family in Germany. For some of them there was never a reunion.

The Kopp family re-united . . .
L/R Hans, Katharina, Franz and Johann

 

     After several months my uncle who, had contracted severe health issues after the war in the labor camps, decided he had to quit his work on the farm and move to the Sitzenheimer barracks refugee camp with his family. It was not an easy thing, however he was lucky to find space in a small room with his family there. My aunt, Katharina Drescher, had followed us from Vienna with her daughter Käthe and granddaughter Maria to Obertrum where they also worked on the farm. Later my aunt took her daughter and granddaughter to the Lehener barracks refugee camp where they had found a room with other people. The food in the Sitzenheimer and Lehener lager may have not been as good as on the farm in Obertrum, but it was a like heaven as compared to the death camp in Gakowa. 

My first shoes in the refugee camp in Austria

     Clothing, and especially shoes, was at a premium during these years and many depended on the charitable donations from the USA. But there was a problem that should not have happened. Both my brother and I needed shoes desperately as we still were in the shoes we had from Gakowa. Pants could be mended and our grandmother knitted a vest for each of us in Donauschwaben style. With shoes it was a different story and my Uncle Michael told us to come to Lehener refugee camp so we could go to the Lutheran Charity for shoes. The charity operated in the barracks where my Aunt Katharina now lived. The overseer was a person from Neu-Satz and he asked us if we were Lutheran. Since we were Catholics he could not give us anything. I am certain today that the Lutheran charities did make a distinction between Lutherans and Catholics but according to this man we were not eligible to receive anything.

     My uncle and the man argued for a while and then my uncle reached for his wallet and gave him money so now it was OK to try out some shoes. My brother and I walked out in our new shoes but we were not allowed to make a selection from the pile of clothing in the room. Is that what it took to get anything from this man who was to help the refugees? It surely was not right and it makes me still wonder how many of the supervisors of these programs lined their own pockets and exploited us refugees. I did meet the man, years later, in Cleveland, since he too had immigrated here, but he did not recognize me as I was grown up. I did not bring up the subject since he was well known among the Donauschwaben here.

Our first wedding in the refugee camp

Refugee Camp Wedding
The wedding of Josef Straky to Katharina Drescher at the Lehener refugee camp in Salzburg, Austria.

 

 

     Käthe, the daughter of my Aunt Katharina fell in love with Josef Straky, although he was 10 years older than she. My father helped my aunt to try and talk her out of the marriage. She shed a lot of tears when they moved to the Lehener refugee camp in Salzburg and Josef had no choice but to travel by bus to Salzburg on the weekends to see her and plan what would become the first wedding of our family. My father who learned wheeling and dealing in Russia, went to seek out a farmer who raised sheep. Sheep meat for a wedding was unheard of among the Donauschwaben but nothing else was available at the time.

     My father slaughtered the sheep placed it in a suitcase, gave me money for the bus fair to Salzburg and sent me off. When I arrived at the train station in Salzburg, which also served as bus station, I had about a three Km walk to the Lehener barracks. When I took the suitcase out of the bus I did not realize it was so heavy as my father had put it on the bus in Obertrum. The suitcase became heavier and heavier as I walked along my way and had to stop more and more often to switch hands and hoped that there was no policemen coming my way as it was illegal to be in possession of so much meat. My father told me that it was for that reason he asked me to be the carrier. Before I moved on I looked, but did not see the policeman coming my way who asked if he could help me. I had tried to act innocently, but had to stop almost every 15-20 feet.  Having been in Gakowa and being afraid of everyone in uniform, I did not know how to reply. Then he asked me where I was going and I told him to the Lehener barracks. He picked up the suitcase and did not even ask what I had inside, as I am sure he knew. The good man carried the suitcase all the way to the Lehener Bridge and now I had only a few hundred feet left to carry my sheep to the barrack of my Aunt Katharina Drescher.

     My aunt was already waiting for me and had made me a nice dinner with my favorite soup and salad. I told her of my story coming here and she was very pleased and proud for doing this and had the policeman to help me. After I ate I was on my way home again while she and her sister (my grandmother) who had come to help a few days earlier went on to take care of the lamb.

     The next day we went to Salzburg taking the first bus and arrived in Lehen in time to meet the bride and groom and jointly walk to the Mirabel Gardens where the Standesamt (Civil Marriage Court) was located. After the brief wedding ceremony we walked to the nearby church for the church wedding and it was back to the Lehener barracks for the wedding dinner. The room had no table and chairs but my uncle and father managed to bring in some wooden planks, placed them on some wooden boxes and covered them with clothes. Somehow we all fit around it and began our scrumptious wedding dinner of lamb and kuchen afterward. My father also produced two bottles of wine for the feast. After that we went outside to take the customary family wedding picture in front of the Lehener barracks.

Helping Hands in Austria

     Austria became a harbor for the refugees. This was true especially in Salzburg, located in the American Zone, which became a center for the German refugees from the East and Southeast of Europe.

     By 1951 there were 235,000 refugees living in the American Zone. The Donauschwaben were extremely grateful to the helping hands in Salzburg, which included Archbishop Dr. Andreas Rohrbacher, the governor of Salzburg, Dr. Josef Klaus and Dipl. Ing. Dr. Hans Lechner, as well as, Major KR. Alfred Bäck of the US Army.

     Two men became especially instrumental in aiding the refugees. They were Pater Josef Stefan and Dr. Hans Schreckeis, as the President of the Donauschwaben in Salzburg. These men worked relentlessly to ease the burden and pain of the refugees and assisted them with their social and cultural realignment. It was Pater (Father) Stefan, head of the "Katholischen Flüchtlings und Fürsorgestelle" (Catholic Refugees Aid Station) and his counterpart the "Christliche Hilfswerk der Evangelischen und Reformierten Kirche" (The Christian Help Organization for the Lutheran and Reformed Church). They helped thousands of their countrymen solve the difficult problems they confronted during those hopeless years.

     Governor of Salzburg Dr. Josef Klaus, a dear friend of the refugees, set aside land for the refugees for 3 Schilling a square meter and later provided an area for the Lutheran Transylvanian Saxons to build their own community, "Sachsenhausen" near Elixhausen 10 km outside of Salzburg.

[Published at DVHH.org 17 Jun 2008