A Journey to Freedom
1850-1954

By Eve Sklena Brown, 2007

Part 1: Dautermann's of Obresch &
Sklena's of Bohemia & Schwarzwald, Germany, Apfeldorf & Kupinovo

     When I was very young I spoke fluent German.  Adults thought I was adorable with my German words and how I mixed my English in when I felt it was necessary.  That lasted until I started school in 1959.  There it became a source of ridicule, and I did what any child would do -- I buried my language, along with my heritage.  

     How do I tell the story of my parents journey to America – from the eyes of a naïve child, or as the grown fifty year old that finally has figured it out?  I heard stories of leaving a place where they were surrounded by so much family, parents, grandparents, siblings and many uncles, aunts and cousins--all that they loved dearly; well, most of them anyway.   

     My parents often spoke of their old homeland when I was growing up.  A place far away, that to them was this side of Heaven; it never seemed real to me.  I certainly couldn’t understand why my parents lived in a country called Yugoslavia but they considered themselves German and spoke that language most of the time.  My father's sister still lived in Yugoslavia and when I didn’t like the food that was cooked for dinner, I would be told that I should be grateful because I had cousins that weren’t as fortunate as I (– of course my smart aleck response was they could have my share, to which I would get a sharp smack to the head).  Boxes of clothing I had outgrown were packed up often to be sent to my cousins I had never met.  My mother made everything I wore, right down to my socks made out of the latest in yarns – mohair.  The kids called me hairy legs (– didn’t like those socks; let’s put them in the box to the cousins).  When my mother went back for a visit one time she found out that the items she had sent were sold on the black market.  She was kind of hurt by that, but she wasn’t thinking about food in the stomach being more important than clothes on ones back.

Dautermann
Obresch

My Mother's Family

     My mother, Eva Dautermann, grew up in a small village called Obresch, in the Syrmien region of the then newly formed country of Yugoslavia, which was west of Belgrade and close to the Sava River. Her parent’s marriage was arranged by her mother’s father, Friedrich Federmann and her father’s mother, Christina Steigele.  Eva was one of eighteen children (only seven survived), including four sets of twins. One set of twins was born in the field as her mother worked (she simply lay in the field to give birth). They were both stillborn, so they were buried there where she was working.   

The youth of Obresch gather for a picture in the 1930s – mom is on the far right, front row. (click image to enlarge)
 

     Along with farming, Eva's family also had a vineyard.  Her father Philipp Dautermann learned wine making from his father-in-law, Friedrich Federmann.  Philipp also made schnapps from the mash that was leftover after making the wine.  Given to the ‘right’ people, this wine could be used to barter protection for the family during times of civil unrest in the area.  My mother's maternal Oma and Opa (Friedrich & Magdalena Federmann) lived in Krtschedin, a town very close to the southern side of the lower Danube River at the northeastern border of the Syrmien region.  Krtschedin had a larger German population, compared to my mother's hometown of Obresch, which was a more diverse community with Serbs and Hungarians as well as the Germans.  

     Because of the distance between Obresch and Krtschedin, visiting was a trip planned for more than a days visit.  When Eva was growing up, those trips didn’t come often enough for her.  She enjoyed her visits with her Federmann cousins in Krtschedin and playing along the Danube River.  Her uncles were always nearby keeping a watchful eye over them.    

     Due to a problem with his eyesight called trachoma, Eva's father Philipp wasn’t able to do regular military duty during WWI, so he served in the Austro-Hungarian Army as a transporter, using his horses and wagon to transfer the injured to hospitals.  On one of his trips he evacuated his pregnant wife Magdalena and children, Philipp, Katharina and Elisabeth from Obresch to Krtschedin to be with her parents.  While staying in Krtschedin, my grandmother Magdalena gave birth to my aunt Christine.    

     Eva's namesake and godmother, aunt Eva, became ill in 1924.  Eva was convinced it was because she had hurt her back while cleaning out the chicken coop and blamed her aunt’s husband, Mathais Barth for making her do this chore.  Since they also lived in Obresch, every day Eva would go to her aunt’s home to rub her back for her, wanting her to feel better.  She later learned it was actually a lung infection (TB), the kind that took many lives in those days, and also took the life of her aunt Eva. The family’s children were not allowed to walk in the funeral procession so Eva and her cousins watched as the coffin was carried past their home on the way to the cemetery.  Eva used to play with her Aunt Eva’s two children, Jakob and Philip, but shortly after her aunt died, her uncle remarried a nice lady, who they called ‘Hermina Tante’ and they moved to a far away place called "Canada." 

     One day when Eva was about seven years old, the 'trommler' (town crier) actually came to their home instead of giving the usual city wide announcement.  He was there to tell her father a message had come to the city hall stating his wife had died in a hospital in Belgrade where she had been for close to a year, suffering with typhoid.  Her father was in the fields working at the time; the message was received by the woman that was staying with them to care for the children and do the cooking and cleaning.  When her father came home and was told the message, his response was that the children need not worry because he would simply marry this woman that was staying with them.  This upset Eva a great deal, and later she told the woman to leave … that she wasn’t needed any longer.  Then Eva took it upon herself to do all the cooking and cleaning so her father wouldn’t bring this woman in, to replace her mother.  As it was, her mother had not died after all but had gone into a coma.  A couple of weeks later, her mother began to recover and was able to return home.  While my grandmother recuperated in bed, she taught mom how to make bread.  (It was always important to mom to please her father and I got the impression she never felt she was capable of doing so.)   

     Eva's father was blessed with only two sons to help him with the farming: the eldest Philipp, and the youngest Jakob, who wasn’t born until ten years after my mom was born.  Her father had all this farm land to cultivate and lacked the help he wanted in his offspring.  Like most of the other farms and houses in the area, the farm land was outside of the village, not surrounding their home, which was on the ‘Hauptgasse’ (Main Street); this made working the fields much more difficult. So when they went to work in the field they had to walk quite a ways outside of town, carrying with them all their farming tools.  Because of the distance between their home and the field, her father had a shed built at the edge of the field so he could have a place to rest in the middle of the day and maybe eat a small lunch. It's possible that the shed was used for storage also but this was never told to me, it almost seemed like it was a small, one room cottage. 

     I never heard my mother say a disrespectful thing about either of her parents, but I felt that her father must have been a very hard and cold man.  Mom talked with resentment at times about the fact that her older sisters were sent away from home to live with others.  The practice of farming children out to other families for added income happened quite frequently in those days, even in this country. From my mother’s point of view, this was very cruel and unfair treatment since it only happened with the girls in her family.  Even though this happened in many homes it didn’t take away from her feelings of rejection and self worth.  Her sister Katharina was given up for "adoption" when she was six years old, to be raised by her Aunt Katharina who was married to Christian; they lived in Beschka.  The explanation given for this was her parents felt sorry for this aunt since she had no children of her own.  The Uncle treated Katharina like a slave, not a daughter, and didn’t allow her to go to school.  A couple of years later this couple had a son of their own and a few years after that they also had a daughter.  Katharina was no longer wanted; they returned her to her parents.  Her other sisters Elisabeth and Christina were also sent to live with families in Semlin, where they were live-in maids.  Eva was concerned she, too, would be sent away and not wanted; and when she was sixteen years old, her father found a family for her to work for in Kupinovo.

     In 1928, Eva’s sister Elisabeth, who was only fifteen at the time, was invited to sing in Belgrade, Yugoslavia for the son of King Alexander I, Prince Peter II.  Eva went with her mother to see Elisabeth sing; they took the bus from Obresch to Semlin/Zemun, and from there they took the train to Belgrade.  Elisabeth had a very lovely voice and beautiful thick hair that my mother always thought was so pretty.  Eva was six years younger and adored this sister; she would visit her whenever she was allowed and they had photographs done of them together on one of those visits.  Eva cherishes those photos to this day.  Unfortunately, this same sister was raped when she was sixteen years old and had a child that she gave up for adoption.  When Elisabeth was seventeen she came to her father to ask permission to marry a Serbian man.  Her father refused and when he found out she was pregnant again he beat her for disgracing the family.  Her life was very tragic and she died in 1936 at the young age of twenty-three. 

     My mother’s other grandfather was Jakob Dautermann; he was born in Tscherwenka in the Batschka region of Austria – Hungary.  He married Christina Steigele from the same village, after her family moved to Krtschedin in 1877.  Christina’s parents were one of the first colonists in Krtschedin.  Jakob and Christina didn’t live there very long before they migrated further south into the Syrmien region to Obresch in 1882.  (My mother had always believed that when her grandfather came to Obresch, that he had come there from Germany.) She never knew this grandmother since Christina had died before my mother was born.  Eva's father had a brother Heinrich who also lived in Obresch.  Her grandfather Jakob lived with Heinrich most of the time and had given Heinrich the biggest portion of Jakob’s property because he was living with Heinrich.  He also was given possession of the family ‘Dreschmaschine’ (threshing machine).  Heinrich lived across the street from the school and had a machine that made ‘krachl’ (soda pop).  This was very popular with the youngsters in Obresch.  My mother seemed to have the impression that Heinrich was a man that never grew up, and that his father sometimes was disappointed in him.  There also seemed to be some jealousy of Heinrich’s possession of the coveted threshing machine. 

     When Jakob was almost eighty years old he wanted to go to Semlin/Zemun to take care of some property business at the court house; he requested a ride to the city from his son Philipp (Eva's father). Philipp was busy with his farm and had work to do; he told him when the work was done he would take him with the wagon.  Jakob being ‘hartkopfig’ (stubborn – I think it runs in the family) wouldn’t wait and decided to walk there, the distance being close to thirty kilometers.* My grandmother packed sandwiches which he put in his pockets to eat on his journey. My mother washed his feet before he left.  He never made it to the city; he was found lying up against a tree by the side of the road near the town of Prõgar.  Someone came and told Philipp as he was out working in the field, and he took his wagon and collected his father’s body and brought it back to Obresch for burial.  Phillip wouldn’t let any of the children see their grandfather Jakob in the wagon because the animals had gotten to him.  It is recorded in the church records that he died of frailness and old age, but since it was July it probably was heat stroke.

     As a young woman Eva loved to go dancing and talked of this often.  She and her cousin Christine Federmann would walk the few blocks with her brothers and Federmann cousins trailing behind them, to the dance hall.  She would get her father to give her money for these dances by waiting until he had “taste tested” the schnapps.  After being told to give what was left of the money back to her father when she returned, she quickly learned to use it all.  She would hire musicians to play for her all the way back to her home, her father would hear the music and know she was coming home without a penny remaining.

 

Sklena
 Bohemia & Schwarzwald, Germany to Apfeldorf and Kupinovo

My Father's Family

     My father, Johann Sklena, grew up in Kupinovo; a larger town on the southern Syrmien border along the Sava River not far from mom’s village of Obresch.  Johann’s mother was Hungarian but his father’s Sklena ancestors came from Bohemia (Czechoslovakia) and Schwarzwald, Germany.  Johann’s father Leopold was born in the Banat region of Austria - Hungary, just northeast of Belgrade in a town the Germans called Apfeldorf, also known as Jabuka.

 

Johann has his hand on the face of the little girl, his niece Vera, in Kupinovo (click image to enlarge)

     Johann’s grandfather Franz was considered a wealthy man and left the town of Apfeldorf for Obresch with his wife, Theresia Ketterer and children.  Franz became a good friend of my mother’s grandfather Jakob Dautermann.  In later years, Jakob’s son, Philipp and Franz’s sons Leopold, Anton and Joska Sklena would also become good friends.  Dad was told that his father Leopold also had a sister Nunche who died before my dad was born.  Apparently a match had tried to be made between the men of the two families for Philipp to marry Nunche; however, Philipp’s mother strongly disagreed with the match because Franz’s family was Catholic.  Nunche died a short time later; she was trying to cut a large round loaf of bread and accidentally cut open her stomach.  At home by herself at the time, she bled to death before anyone found her.  Shortly after her death the house in Obresch was given to Franz’ son Anton and his wife, and Franz purchased two other homes in Kupinovo and gave them to his other sons.  Joska didn’t stay in Kupinovo though; he became a sheriff in the town of Ilidza which was just outside of Sarajevo. (My father claimed that this uncle was very fond of many women and tended to be a ladies man.) 

     Leopold Sklena, Johann’s father, was in the Austro-Hungarian army during WWI.  The conflict was triggered, after years of mounting tension, when the Austrian heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by a young Serbian terrorist in 1914 in Sarajevo, which was at that time part of the Habsburg Empire.  Johann’s uncle, Anton Sklena was missing in action and presumed dead during WWI as he never returned home to his wife and two daughters.  The initial hostilities in Serbia were very close to Kupinovo.  My dad Johann talked of how he was always pulled from school whenever some kind of war conflict broke out because of the soldiers crossing the bridge very near his home and the civil unrest in the area; it wasn’t very safe for a child.  When WWI ended in November of 1918, new boundaries were drawn up and Kupinovo became part of the new country of Yugoslavia.  During those times of unrest, dad would go to Prõgar and stay with his mother’s parents and favorite Uncle Imre Horvath where dad would work beside his cousins in the family mill.  Imre was his mother’s brother; sometime during the 1920s Imre left Yugoslavia with his wife and eleven children to live in Brazil.  Dad received letters from Imre and his family during the passing years, but after Imre’s death, contact was lost; we still believe his descendants to be in Brazil. 

     Dad, Johann, was eighteen years old and at his father Leopold’s side when he died.  Leopold was a well known building contractor in Kupinovo; while working on either a home or school for the elder priest of the Serbian church, a large beam crashed down on his chest, breaking his ribs and collapsing his lungs.   He died eight days later after asking dad, since he was the eldest, to take care of the family, a job my father took very seriously all of his life.   Dad only started talking about his growing up years and the civil wars in his homeland after Tito died.  He predicted that another war would break out among the different ethnic groups that were living there, and it did in 1991.

The Family of Johann Sklena & Eva Dautermann
Obresch

By Eve Sklena Brown, 2007

1925 Children Playing in Obresch

     My parents Johann and Eva met when my mother was just a child; while playing outside of her home.  Eva and her younger sister Mari used to make mud pies that they would spit in and then throw them down on the ground to see whose could make the best splat.  Johann was in Obresch visiting my mother's oldest brother Philipp when he spotted her playing this game.  He thought mom was so ‘lustig’ (funny) and full of life as she played, he would say ‘Sie macht so viel Spaß’ (She has so much fun). 

     When Eva was sixteen years old Johann asked her to marry him, but she refused because she wanted to remain a child longer and not take on grown up responsibilities.  Since my father was from an an Orthodox Catholic family and my mother being Evangelical Lutheran, I think she was afraid of her father’s disapproval.

1941 - Wedding in Nikinci

     When Eva was twenty-one Johann asked her if she was still too young to marry and this time she agreed.  They rode by wagon through the woods to a Catholic Church in a town west of Obresch called Nikinci.  Because Eva was not Catholic they had to be married off to the side, not in front of the altar. The only witnesses to their marriage were Johann's brother Anton and Eva's sister Mari; who had also just married each other.  Upon returning to Eva's parents home, a meal was prepared and her parents appeared happy with the union.  This was in February of 1941 and the area was already immersed in another World War.  Ten days after they were married Johann received notice from the Yugoslav army to report for duty.  He knew he was going to be called but didn’t tell Eva for fear she wouldn't marry him.  It had never occurred to her that he would have to go into the military again since he had already served his required time when he was twenty years old. 

     Johann was in Belgrade when the Germans bombed the city in April 1941, his friend and fellow soldier was killed in the attack, but he escaped along the Sava River and sought help from his sister Marija and her husband Milan who lived in Prõgar.  Eva had heard of this attack; she believed she was a widow and was preparing to move back home to her parents when Johann's sister came and told her that he was safe at their home. Nine months after they were reunited, their first child was born, Resi. 

1942 - Kupinovo to Indija

     In April of 1942 Johann was conscripted into the German army when Hitler decided to enlist all the ethnic Germans, any male with any German blood; even those that lived outside of the Reich had to defend the ‘Vaterland’ (Fatherland).  His roll in the German army was railroad protection where he would check the tracks and watch for signs of sabotage.  Since he was allowed to stay in the homeland to do this he was able to see my mother on different occasions.  It never occurred to my father to turn his back on his country when called to serve, even though the call to arms was from different governments each time. I was a child of the 60s when the conflict in Vietnam was sending many of the young men home in boxes, an era of draft dodgers and the burning of draft cards, with men rejecting participation in this controversial conflict. Dad’s comment on this was “Dey vood like how ve have da draft in da old country, dey come to da door vit a gun – and you in da army now.”   

     Johann and Eva moved from Kupinovo to Indija in the fall of 1942, as Kupinovo was again not a safe place because of the on going war. (Indija, a village in Syrmia, not the country of India, something I didn’t understand for the longest time).  My father built a small home and purchased fifteen joche of farm land outside of the village.  (A joche was a measurement for the amount of land that could be plowed in one day).  Since Johann was still enlisted in the military, Eva worked the fields on her own while taking care of their daughter.  She grew sunflowers, corn, and wheat, along with a few other things.  When Resi was just old enough to speak they had taken in a stray dog and Resi named him “Tito,” a name I’m sure she had heard often.  My parents were concerned about how this would be perceived by Tito’s ‘Partisaners’ (Partisans) and decided that the dog had to go because they couldn’t get Resi to stop calling him that.  They had heard many stories about people disappearing because they had gone against Tito.  In January of 1944 their first and only son, Johann, named after his father, was born.  My father wasn’t able to take leave from the military to be with Eva at that time; unfortunately their baby Johann died thirteen days later.   

     The Germans were losing the war. The Russians were advancing in the area and supporting Tito’s Partisans, who had wanted the Germans out of Yugoslavia for years and saw this as their opportunity to get rid of them, once and for all.  Eva’s parents had already been forced out of their home in Obresch; being told they should leave on their own or if they stayed they would be killed in their home.  At first all of the German people were gathered in one place in the village to live together.  About this time Eva made a very dangerous trip from Indija to Obresch to get her family’s ‘Hechlmaschin’ (flax-combing machine).  She drove the wagon, and Johann’s sister Marija went with her.  All went well until the return trip back to Indija when the wheel broke on the wagon.  Some Partisans saw them and stopped and asked Eva her name; she lied and gave them a Serbian name and they fixed the wheel for her and sent them on their way.  They were both very scared and my mother had no idea how she came up with the Serbian name she so quickly gave.  When she repeated this story one could still see the fear on her face.

© Eve Sklena Brown Dec 2007

Journey to Freedom 1944-1954 Part 2: Obresch to Camp Haid to America

Author’s notes:

*These distances were the ones told to me by my parents, I am not sure how accurate they are. 

**My heartfelt thanks to Alice for all of her help and editing advice and to Jody who encouraged me to get this story written down.  I also can’t say enough about all the wonderful people on the DVHH list who supplied me with many words that were swimming in my head but needed help in being expressed.

Villages mentioned: Obresch | Krtschedin | Beschka | Semlin | Tscherwenka (Batschka) | Prõgar

[Published at DVHH.org 12 June 2008]

 

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