A Journey to Freedom
1850-1954

By Eve Sklena Brown, 2007

Part 2: 1944-1954 The Family of Johann Sklena & Eva Dautermann
Obresch to Camp Haid to America

1944 - The Flight

     In October of 1944 it became obvious to Johann that things were not looking good for anyone of German descent who was living in Yugoslavia.  The Russians and Partisans had burned most of Obresch. Even my Dautermann grandparents had left almost everything behind except what they could pack into a wagon, and the money my grandmother had sewn into her skirt. They killed their pigs and poured the grease over the meat to help preserve it for the coming journey.  My father helped move them to Voganj just outside of Ruma and they later took the train from there to Austria. 

     Eva's brother Jakob (only 15 and not old enough to be in the military) stayed behind with his Godfather Jakob Gleich (a man that always called everyone ‘Herzche’) then drove out of Yugoslavia in a horse drawn wagon filled with all that was left of his parent’s possessions and the food they had preserved.  They were in a long caravan of wagons, similar to the trek out west in the early days of the United States.  For Eva to leave, it took quite a bit of arguing, but finally Johann was able to put her on a military truck headed for Esseg/Osijek where she would board a train with others to go to Austria.  She didn’t want to leave her home; she had soup on the stove and chickens to feed; she was also about five months pregnant with her third child, and Resi was two and a half at the time.   It never occurred to my mother that it would be the last time she would see her home.  When Eva left home she was only able to carry with her quilts made by her mother, stuffed with goose feathers from Obresch, and a few clothes for her and Resi, wrapped in a bundle.

     During the First World War Eva's mother and siblings had left Obresch and when it was over, they returned to their home and continued on as if nothing had changed.  This time was different, as she would soon realize.  Her sister Christine stayed behind in Yugoslavia because she was married to a Hungarian man.  Christine went back to Eva and Johann's house to retrieve some of their possessions in hopes of returning them to her someday.  But meanwhile the Partisan and Russian soldiers had already searched for anything of value, the house had been vandalized, and all the livestock killed or stolen.  Christine was able to save a few things, pictures for the most part, which she returned to Eva when they were reunited, many years later. 

     Traveling with Eva and Resi were Johann's mother, Maria and his sister Kati, who was nineteen at the time.  They were worried that Kati would be noticed by the soldiers, and stuck her in the ‘koffer’ (trunk) and covered her up.  Many of the young girls were being raped and they wanted to protect her from this horrible fate. 

     When the military truck arrived in Esseg/Osijek they boarded a train that would travel through Hungary for several days and nights.  It stopped at least one time and the people were allowed to get off the train for a while, some went to the local village looking for food, others just went to the nearby farm fields and dug up potatoes.  A small fire was made to cook the potatoes and help keep people warm.  A local woman in Hungary gave milk to my mother because she was pregnant and had a small child with her.  It was a kind and generous act compared to many of the selfish things my mother had witnessed. Eva and Resi shared the railroad boxcar with six other people, a couple from Neu Pasua, Johann's mother and sister Kati and his aunt and uncle Wenzler from Indija. I think there were many more people in this boxcar since most of these accounts refer to standing room only, but this is how my mother remembers it. 

     There were many boxcars joined together with thousands of people fleeing their former homeland.  I am not sure how many days it took for them to arrive in Vienna but when they arrived bombs dropped on both sides of them from the American Air Force.  When people heard the bombs, they got off the train and ran in all different directions, sometimes right into the path of the explosions.  Eva stayed on the train and huddled with Resi in her lap and prayed, even though my grandmother thought they should run, too. 

     Johann was concerned about how he was going to get away from the Partisans and the Russians. He had witnessed many atrocities; people being skinned alive and other forms of torture.  People didn’t know who to trust; someone who was your friend last week might report something you said, to pay for their own protection.  He and his fellow servicemen were told to flee to the hills of Austria. 

     Johann and the other former soldiers worked for a woman who hid them.  After almost a year he was able to get word back to Eva as to his whereabouts.  Eva had given up hope of Johann ever returning to his family and figured him among the many who had died.  Those who didn’t make it out of Yugoslavia before that fateful day in October of 1944 did not fair so well.  Eva's nephews were left behind, orphaned when their mother, my aunt Katharina, had died a month earlier.  Their step father was tortured, and they drained his blood and made the boys drink it.  They had to survive in an area to be cleansed of all ethnic Germans, so they changed their surname to blend in and escape genocide. 

Vienna to Unterhaid, Kr. Kaplitz in Bohemia (Czechoslovakia)

     Eva stayed in Vienna just a short time and then went to Unterhaid, Kr. Kaplitz in Bohemia (Czechoslovakia), about 1 km. from the Austrian border.  There, she stayed and worked for an elderly lady around her home.  Because she left her name and location information with the American Red Cross; her brother, Jakob was able to find her in Unterhaid and brought her to Grieskirchen where he was living with his Godfather.  The men were both full of lice and Eva had to help get them cleaned up.  Shortly after, they received word through the Red Cross about their parents, and Jakob brought them to Grieskirchen.  Eva and Resi later moved to nearby Sankt Georgen and had an apartment within the City Hall.  While there, my sister Leni was born, but still no word from my father. 

     Eva's parents were very concerned for their daughter; she was working very hard, trying to make sure her daughters were well fed and had a warm place to sleep.  In July of 1945, a woman who actually knew the whereabouts of Johann told Eva he was dead, having been stabbed eighteen times. Hearing this, my mother collapsed and was taken to the hospital; they said she had a nervous breakdown.  Later my grandmother warned my mother while she was in the hospital, not to sign anything, for fear they would try to take her children away from her.  No one understood why this woman would tell such a story; my father later said she wasn’t a very nice person. 

     After being released from the hospital, but still very weak, Eva's father wanted her to go see a fortune teller, a palm reader that was in the area.  Eva thought it was silly and a waste of money, but her father insisted and gave her the money to do this.  The fortune teller told her she would get a letter that was being passed from hand to hand from her husband; Eva laughed at this and didn’t believe her. She returned home and Johann’s cousin Juli Speer told her that her mother had something for her; it was a letter from Johann that had been passed to her; he was alive. 

     She then left the children with Juli and took a train to Matrei by the Großglockner Mountains.  Upon arriving she was told a car would be coming later in the day that could take her up the mountain where Johann was staying.  She wasn’t willing to wait, so she walked about seven* miles up the mountain. Just as Eva reached her destination she saw the car was there getting ready to go back down the mountain.  She didn’t notice that Johann was about to board it to go to her.  Johann had received a telegram saying that Eva was coming for him, and wanted to be at the train station when she arrived. 

     Fortunately for Johann, he happened to look in her direction before he got into the car; there was something familiar about her, and he went and threw his arms around her.  My father went back with my mother to the place she had been calling home; Leni was seven months old and had never seen her ‘Tati’ (daddy).

Grossglockner Mountains
Image provided by
G. McCracken

 

1946 - Lager Haid

    In September of 1946, my family with an addition of a two month old daughter Kati, boarded a train to seek housing and employment in Germany, the homeland of their ancestors, a place they had never seen.  My uncle Anton Bachi and aunt Mary "Tante Mari" and their children traveled with them.  When they arrived at the German border they were turned away; it was closed to all refugees, as Germany was already over crowded.

     Finally after three weeks of sleeping on straw pallets they found refuge in Baracke #86 at Lager Haid, a refugee camp by Ansfelden, Austria.  Once a Jewish prison camp, Lager Haid was surrounded in barbed wire, and although they were free to come and go, the fencing made them feel uncomfortable. In the barrack style quarters they lived in one small room, which had about an inch thick mud coating on the wood floor.  Their beds were made of wire frames but they put their feather bedding on for comfort. The wood was full of ‘die Wanzen’ (bed bugs), and they couldn’t sleep from being bitten all night long.  My mother worked hard to scrape the mud from the floors and get rid of the bug infestation.  A big truck would come by every day and pick up those working at local farms.  Johann eventually found cement work in Linz and Eva worked at local farms before finding a job in a clothing factory; where she worked for about six months. 

     While at Lager Haid, Johann and Eva's youngest daughter Kati became very ill and had to be hospitalized.  Eva wasn’t allowed to see Kati because they thought she might be contagious. Whatever it was, it took her life.  Many stories regarding her illness were told but the most consistent one was that she died of milk poisoning.  Kati was only a year old and I felt that this took a tremendous toll on my mother.  

     A couple of years later, Resi had the opportunity to attend a special school in Belgium.  This was being offered to the refugee children who tested higher than average.  She left a little blonde eight year old and returned six months later with very dark hair. My mother didn’t recognize her own little girl, or understand her, since she was no longer speaking German; Resi felt rejected.

1947 – Family portrait in Lager Haid

by Photographer Johann Behr
who also lived at the camp.

 

     Most of our extended family was now at Lager Haid, but still looking for a place to call home. They were people without a home or a country.  In 1949 Johann and Eva applied to go to the United States, but Eva didn’t pass the initial health tests because a spot was found on her lung.  Johann was told he could go to the US with the girls and send for Eva later, but he refused, saying he wouldn’t be separated from her again.

1951 - Journey to America 

     In 1950, Johann and Eva were notified that they had sponsors to America, a family in Omaha, Nebraska with a farm who needed workers.  By 1951, they received the papers to immigrate, they sold everything they owned (bikes, a sewing machine etc.) for the needed cash and supplies.  They were given ten days to get to the ship. Johann ordered two trunks to be made for the trip from a local 'Tischler' (carpenter).  Packed in those trunks were the feather quilts from Eva's mother, along with six pillows, four plates, forks, spoons and knives, cookware, clothing, shoes and pictures of the family they were leaving behind.  My parents never saw their parents again.  At the end of October, they left Lager Haid for Salzburg before going to Bremerhafen to board the General M.L. Hersey headed for the United States; however, the ship was held up for repairs another week.  Finally on November 13, 1951 they left the port. 

     Johann, excited about the trip, thought he'd just play cards all the way across the ocean and eat whenever he felt like it.  The boat supplied all their meals and they were looking forward to their very first American Thanksgiving that they had heard so much about, since they would still be on the ship at the time of this holiday.  While on the ship the men were separated from the women and children; Johann would only see his family when they were on the top deck together.  The trip didn’t go as he had planned; he was sick the entire time.  It seemed as if everyone on the ship was sick except Leni, who went around from person to person offering a bag to those who were nauseated.

     There was a really bad storm during the trip and Johann got even worse and went up to the top deck to get fresh air.  No one really knew he was up there as he sat huddled and shivering in a corner. One man just happened to notice him going to the top deck and mentioned it to mom; she found him and brought him back inside.  He could have been washed overboard and no one would have known.

     As they arrived at the New York harbor, an announcement was made to view the Statue of Liberty, then a prayer was said.   My parents were finally here, where they would make a home for their family, but again things did not turn out as they had planned.  Because of the week delay in the Bremerhafen harbor, the Omaha farmer had taken in other workers and no longer needed my parents.  The thought of getting back on that boat was out of the question for them.  They were given the option of splitting up the family and going to two separate homes, but this was unacceptable.  They were told they could contact the only person that they knew in the United States, which was Eva's Aunt ‘Resi Tante’ who was married and living in Flint, Michigan. 

     Long before my mother was born, Resi immigrated to the United States on 26 Feb 1906 with her Uncle Adam Klein, his wife Katharina Tauss, and infant daughter Katharina, all from Krcedin/Krtschedin, going to Barberton, Ohio to join Pal Imre.  Adam died shortly after arriving.  It's unknown why Adam's wife and Resi returned to Krtschedin; but afterwards Adam’s wife Katarine remarried in 1908 in Yugoslavia and Resi Tante returned to Barberton, Ohio in 1909, where she met and married Peter.  Eva had never met this aunt and only heard stories about her from the family.  Resi was the sister to my mother's mother and even though she was our great aunt, we called her Grandma. 

     To my parents it seemed like begging for help; they were very proud and didn’t want to owe anyone.  But Uncle Peter and Resi sent word right away to send her niece and family to them, and that they would treat them as their own children.  My parents and their children spent five days in New York on the 12th floor of a hotel, which was a first for all of them.  Once their travel money arrived from their American family they boarded a Greyhound bus for Flint, Michigan where they were picked up by my mother's cousin Elizabeth.  Their first Christmas was celebrated with their new American family at the home of Elizabeth and her husband Joe and children Barbara and Peter.

1951 - First Christmas in the US

My family with Peter and Resi and
their grandchildren

 

     It was important to them to find work as quickly as possible; Johann found a job at a local bowling alley as a pin setter (jumping from alley to alley, resetting the pins) and Eva worked as a housekeeper for several families, including school teachers, administrators, lawyers, and even a judge, all people that she met through church, the International Institute, and by word of mouth.  She learned to speak English quickly with their help, by touching objects and they told her the English name for it, she would write it down. Johann's English was never quite as good as mom's, but then he was forty-one years old and already knew at least five other languages from growing up in such an ethnically diverse community.  The men dad worked with weren't as helpful as mom's employers.  They would make 'Spaß' (jokes) with him by telling him "dirty" words and telling him he should tell his wife these things. Eva would repeat these words to her employers who told her they were bad words being taught to her husband. 

     In March of 1952, Johann and Eva bought their first house in the United States; it was small but it was theirs.  With the help of some wonderful new friends at their new church, my father got a job at General Motors. This is when I came into the picture, “the American baby,"  born in 1954; their hope for a new life in a new land. I had much to learn in the next fifty years about my unusual family, filled with a rich history that I didn’t understand for many years. 

     My father lived a long, productive life, always busy and always worrying about the welfare of all of his family…near and far.   He was one month shy of his 97th birthday when he passed away quietly in April of 2007.   My parents were married for 66 years and this is the longest they have ever been apart. My mother misses him very much but tries to keep busy with her baking and flower beds; and she says Johann talks to her on occasions and they play cards sometimes.  

© Eve Sklena Brown Dec 2007

Journey to Freedom 1850-1943 Part 1: (Family background):
Dautermann's of Obresch & Sklena's of Bohemia & Schwarzwald, Germany, Apfeldorf & Kupinovo

[Published at DVHH.org 12 June 2008]

 

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