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The Danube River Was Our Salvation
A cartographic reflection of the flight in October 1944
 

by Gerhard Banzhaf

Translation by Annette Schwindt

     A locomotive with two passenger cars pulled out of the train station at India on the afternoon of October 6, 1944.  It was headed towards Ruma, but the passenger cars were left on a sidetrack somewhere between the two towns.  This was a dangerous situation due to the presence of the Partisans in the region.  It was not until the morning of October 8 that another locomotive arrived to complete the trip to Ruma, where the cars were added to a longer train. The platform at Ruma was packed with people and their belongings, all waiting to board the train.
 
     The journey on this train promised to take us to freedom.  This is why I called it "The Freedom Train."  So what is the price of freedom?  Freedom has no price tag.  The evacuation, or perhaps more accurately, the mass exodus, had begun.  It happened with horse and wagon, on the trains of the German Reich, and it happened on foot.
 
     Unlike the adults, the young boys, including myself, took this journey into the unknown in stride.  For us, this was "a week in the coal wagon."  We traveled to Vinkovci, but there was an air raid alert just as we arrived, so the train continued on to Esseg, where it could pull into the station under the cover of darkness.  After a short layover, the train ventured into the night towards Hungary, where by morning there was straw provided for the passengers to lie down on.
 
     We arrived in Pecs (Fünfkirchen) on October 9.  Many passengers disembarked hurriedly because of an urgent need to use the restrooms.  The last remaining porcelain chamber pot had fallen from the train onto the tracks.  “Shards bring luck,” as the saying goes.  There was a large crowd by the pot of lard, since everyone was hungry.  We rested again on beds of straw since no one had slept well the previous nights.  A tarpaulin was stretched over one end of the coal car to protect us from the impending rainstorm.  The autumn sun raised our spirits after the rainfall and we, the boys from India and the teenagers from our neighborhood sat on the lard cans looking out at the wonderful view of the Alpine foothills.  We knew that the border of German territory could not be much further.  We crossed Slovenia and at "Slowenska Bistrica," after a sharp curve, we saw the sign "Marburg."  It was already dark when we reached the Slovenian-Austrian border.  The night wind became ice-cold as we passed through Kärnten and without blankets everyone in the open car had to endure a very chilly night.

     When the train came to the next stop, I boarded the passenger car where my parents were.  It was much warmer inside and I discovered that the Danube Swabian artist Oskar Sommerfeld and his family were among the people in the car.  As luck would have it, they lived in our neighborhood in Grieskirchen during the post-war years, prior to our emigration to the USA.

     As we passed through a village on the southern outskirts of Vienna, another air raid siren wailed.  The train came to a halt in a shunting yard and everyone ran towards the air raid shelters.  A friend and I sought shelter between the wheels of a rail car.  The air was filled with the piercing sound of the siren and the thunder of anti-aircraft fire.  A sentry soldier spied us hiding under the train and yelled to us, "Get out! Get out of there!  You’re not safe here.  The train on the next track is loaded with enough munitions to blow up the entire yard!"  We ran to join the others in the air raid shelter. The bombers had targeted another nearby rail yard and we were safe to continue our journey.

Gerhard 1949 bei sommerel

     The afternoon was grey.  It was as if ashes hung in the air, mingling with the fog.  The coupling of rail cars was in full swing and trash was hurriedly removed from the trains.  It reminded me of the propaganda poster at the train station which read, "The wheels of victory must keep rolling."  Do you remember it?  But where were OUR wheels taking us?  Not one of us knew the answer to this question.
 
     Our train passed through the outskirts of Vienna and almost as far as Linz along the Danube River. This mighty European river was the obstacle that the Red Army faced in the southeast at this juncture of history and afforded the refugees the chance to survive their flight.  I often wonder, in my adopted language, "What if?"  What would have happened to us if we had stayed in India?  The words that come to mind in German would translate as "banishment and tyranny," but the true word would be "genocide."

     The train took us ever closer to our destination.  At one point in time it was called "Kreis Oberdonau," and it was where the train stopped overnight because Linz was being heavily bombed.
 
     A week after leaving India, the final destination was Grieskirchen.  It was October 13, 1944.  The train station was empty and there was no indication that a war was taking place.  We were the first refugees to arrive.  The German Red Cross was in place and a school was there; vacant and ready to accommodate the children of the displaced people.

Austria was now my new homeland.  It remained such until 1951 when I made the USA my new homeland.

Photo: My voyage to the United States in 1951.

On my way to the USA 1951

   

This passport photo "Foto Tomic Indjija," had been saved in Holstein during the war. It shows me as a pupil on September 1, 1939 (just when the war started) attending school in Stara Pazova, a neighbouring town of India, together with other children from India. 

More than 60 years later, you can see me and my dear wife Christel. We are now living in North Olmsted, Ohio, USA. 

60 years later, with my wife Christel

I send warm greetings to all my "Indjemer Landsleit" (compatriots from India) all over the world.

Attending school in Stara Pazova, Sept 1, 1939

 

[Submission coordinated by Eve Brown. Published at DVHH.org 14 May 2008 by Jody McKim Pharr]

 Last Updated: 17 May 2018

Keeping the Danube Swabian legacy alive

 

 


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