Life In Our New Homeland
by Helene Schuch
Translated from Ref. [2] by Diana Lambing

On November 28th 1976, shortly after 11 a.m., we stepped onto the ground of our new Heimat at Frankfurt airport. We had already wondered what to expect and now we stood with beating hearts in this great open country. But three sisters from the Red Cross appeared immediately, welcomed us and took us to reception. They escorted us to seats in the airport and said that a bus would take us to the reception centre in Nuremberg.  

Our first surprise was the size of Frankfurt airport - that really opened our eyes! As it was Sunday, we had to wait until one o’clock for the bus so we had time to wander around in amazement at everything. When people passed by, it was like a fashion show and the fashion here was quite different to the one we knew back home. The windows were dressed so beautifully you could stare at them for hours. The use of a lot of steel, aluminium and glass didn’t fail to impress either. We were struck at how easy the explicit directions made everything to find in the huge building. We’d never seen a conveyor belt for suitcases before either. We looked at all the different automatic machines and thought, ‘they’ve got a lot to catch up on where we’ve just come from!’. When each of us received a welcoming sum of 3.5 DM in order to buy something to eat, we guarded the 10.5 DM as though it were a fortune and let lunch pass by.  

Our first stop on the journey boasted an ultra modern church in a beautiful setting. We made rapid progress on the motorway.   At 4 p.m. we arrived at the reception centre in Berta-von-Suttner Strasse in Nuremberg. There we were once again welcomed by sisters from the Red Cross. One of the older ones shouted her instructions in a peremptory tone. She would not let a mother, who hadn’t seen her two small children for two years, see them, but instead ordered her husband to first fill out the forms. She treated us as though we were in the army but no-one dared say anything. Luckily, she was the only one who treated us like this.

The allocation of rooms, handing out of meal parcels and money for meals for the next two days (24 DM for three people) all went smoothly. What we did wonder about was the dark whole meal bread, which we were not used to. Our apartment was fitted out better than the hotel room in Bucharest. We found everything necessary in the room, plus also a fully fitted kitchen. We shared the kitchen and washroom with two other immigrant families, who were put up in the other two rooms for two days.

As it was the season of Advent, there were brightly coloured lights in the town and also tall Christmas trees all lit up. The shop windows glittered in all their splendour. Our neighbours had explained to us how to get to the Christkind market. The first thing we did was spend 4.8 DM on a telegram to Alexanderhausen to say that we had not flown to the USA but were staying in Germany.

The biggest surprise came when we had to fork out 5.4 DM for the return journey on the tram. Had we known this before we wouldn’t have got on the tram even though it was quite a distance to the camp (in the old Heimat public transport was cheap). We had a lot to learn and this was only the beginning.  

On Monday we had to go to twelve various places. All our Banat villages have various names, e.g. Alexanderhausen, Sandorhaza, Sandra. Talk also came around as to how we had actually been given exit visas to the USA. But there was no problem as we had valid entry permits for Germany. For the entry permits we had had to give details going right back to our grandparents, and these details were asked for again, but all our ancestors were German. On the second day there was enough time left for us all to receive some presents. We were thrilled with these. Everyone received a bag with soap, hand towel, toothpaste and toothbrush. Armin also received an anorak, pajamas, underwear and even a little toy car. Hans was given pajamas and I had slippers and a nightshirt. These were our first Christmas presents in Germany. Later I was to find out that even though these lovely little gestures of small presents were taken out of taxes paid by us, many people begrudged them. We were very surprised when we received 515 DM which had to tide us over for two weeks (three people). We just couldn’t believe that the cost of living was so high here as we had always reckoned 13 Lei to one DM, which was wrong for we hadn’t compared the purchasing power.

On Wednesday December 1st at 7 a.m., after handing in our cutlery and hand towels, we were taken to the railway station and off we went to the transitory camp in Rastatt. We were collected at the station and soon arrived at the new place. There, our particulars were registered once again for the State of Baden-Württemberg. We were very satisfied with the accommodation and it was nice that my cousin had just called us at the administration office so we didn’t feel as forlorn any more. On the fourth day in our new Heimat we had to apply for unemployment benefit and two weeks later we received our first benefit money. We liked the town of Rastatt very much.   For the majority of us who came to Baden-Württemberg, this lovely town was to be our new home for a few days.

The following day we went to the town hall and to our luck (the data protection laws were not so strict then), we were willingly given the address of Sepp Kilcher’s family from Alexanderhausen. We hadn’t dared to ask anything about Germany in case it aroused suspicion that we might not be going to America so we only knew that some fellow countrymen lived in Rastatt. We were received very well for which we are eternally grateful. I can still remember that ‘Biene Maya’ (Maya the Bee) was on television and to see this in colour was something quite special for our 12-year old son. The family also gave us several important tips so we began to feel more cheerful already.

We also visited our other fellow countrymen: Thierjung, Racher, Kutschera, Müller and Wittmann and we were amazed at how much they had achieved in their ten years there. Someone thought that the transit camp in Bietigheim-Bissingen (which would have been close to my cousin) would be difficult to get to as it was outside the town and was in bad repair (we imagined like a refugee camp). Considering our jobs, we decided on Karlsruhe and the following week it was agreed to by the commission. But we had to wait for another week until there was room. Meanwhile, my cousin and his wife had already visited us in Rastatt. I only got to know them when I was 39 years old as I was too young to remember them on our visit before the war and he had been evacuated with his high school from Serbia to Germany in 1944.

I will speak my mind here: It would have been better for us if Romania had deported us too; as it is, our fellow countrymen must still fight for their emigration even today (written 1986). We too had had careers for 20 years and now had to start all over again.   As we were used to always working, this felt like a holiday to us. Luckily, there were at least newspapers in the waiting room and we could keep up with the news (to spend one DM on a newspaper seemed very expensive to us).   While we were still in Rastatt we received an invitation and travel tickets for all three of us to go to Stuttgart. This was our first independent journey in our new Heimat.

We had to go to the Home Office. My husband and I were asked what we did in Romania. My interview was soon over and I could go and look at the lovely Christmas market with Armin. For Hans, the questioning went on for a whole day. He was interrogated by two railway experts who had come from Munich about the Temeschburg railway station and the Romanian railways in general. Not that we could have told them anything they didn’t already know, but we were probably being tested. I find this all quite acceptable; unfortunately, too little is checked in general.  

On December 16th 1976 we arrived in Karlsruhe. It was an old transitory residential home (we call it ‘camp’ for short) and was not very clean. The walls could have done with a lick of paint. The first thing I did was to start cleaning and the boys went to fetch coal. We set up two metal framed beds above each other and as our trunks had already arrived I covered the lower bed with curtains so Armin could sleep if the light was still on. I also hung up the net curtains we had brought with us. The third bed served as a sofa at the same time. There were even two cupboards, a table and three chairs and on the floor there was a threadbare carpet. But we were glad that we had anywhere to stay at all. The room was about 4 x 3.5m (13’ x 11’). The previous tenants had left an old fridge and the camp administrator had sold it to us for 5 DM. It was our first, and very important, piece of property in Germany as it symbolized our food store. The apartment had three rooms. In one of them was a single 82-year old German woman from the Serbian Banat and in the other a Romanian woman with a 7-year old child who was almost blind. We arranged the cooking and eating in the kitchen so that none of us would ever disturb each other. We had just enough room for all three of us to sit at the table. We cooked by gas by inserting money into the gas meter. The wash basin and WC were also communal. In the cellar there were 1 - 3 washing machines for each staircase, also metered, and there was a separate cellar with showers.

There were asylum seekers from Asia, Africa and Europe in the same camp too, but I don’t know of any great problems that arose between them and us. But they did tend to quarrel amongst themselves now and then. Those of us who had them as neighbours did have to suffer.  

Now we had to start with all the paperwork. I have to say that the authorities we dealt with were very approachable and also helped us with advice. Unfortunately, we also learned that you had to fight for your rights and had to prove everything, even though this was often impossible. So, for example, I learned from a much younger colleague a lot later, and quite by accident, that my unemployment benefit had been calculated for a technician and not an academically trained engineer (she received a lot more). There was of course no comparison to salaries here. In Rastatt we were given several lectures to make things easier for us to find our war around and not to fall prey to swindlers. As for health care, this was unfortunately not mentioned. I’ll never forget how kind the people at an insurance office were in trying to help me. I had terrible toothache and I was given painkillers and told that I had to get a certificate from the AOK and make an appointment at the dentist, and all this just before Christmas. We had to learn everything. So I caught a tram and then wondered why I couldn’t get off. At the next stop I understood why - you had to press the button to dismount! Many a person has had to pay dearly for their apprenticeship.  

Now our first Christmas was before us. For us newcomers in the camp it was a lovely gesture to be invited for coffee and cake in a festively decorated hall and all the children received a Christmas present. The children also performed something on the stage. We will never forget all the things our quiet helpers did for us.   We were very worried about the future regarding work. The railways had stopped recruiting and I didn’t understand the terms used here in my profession.   People tried to help us in the camp as much as they could. After the Christmas holiday our son had to go to school. So an appointment was arranged at the district education authority. As the school system here was different to that in Romania, we didn’t know which school we should send our son to. The children in the camp, who didn’t come from Romania, had to first learn proper German, but our children came from German schools. We had a very pleasant and informative conversation. The last question, however, stunned me: Where had I learned to speak German so well? (even though I had been announced as a German from Romania!). I didn’t feel it necessary to elaborate further, that this was our mother tongue and many of our parents had only ever spoken this one language during their lifetime. And this was supposed to be a high cultural office! At school, they then realized what the situation was and apart from general adaptation problems there were no difficulties for our son, not even with his fellow pupils, which was not always the case with other immigrant children.  

For our naturalization, a family book was immediately produced and although we had translated our documents ourselves, the registrar found our Christian names straight away. A colleague, also named Helene (Romanian: Elena), had difficulties with this in Aschaffenburg. One would sometimes think that certain people wanted to deny us our German heritage and they did not understand that we had managed to keep this despite Magyarisation (e.g. Foosz instead of Foss) and Romanisation (Ioan instead of Johann).   We also came across some nice people from Alexanderhausen in Karlsruhe (Bewi and Hans Ihm) who told us about some of their experiences. The doctor’s family, Reinert - he had been a high school friend of Hans - also made us feel at home.  

Right at the beginning of the year we were advised to attend German courses so we could use our time in getting to know conditions in Germany, and so we received maintenance instead of unemployment benefit. As our son was only 12 years old and my course was in Frankfurt, Hans could stay at home while I lived part-time in Frankfurt or else travelled to and fro some days.   Our first trip to the old Heimat was during the Easter holidays in 1977. Late in the evening there was a happy reunion and we could tell people something about our new lives.   Hans’s cousin, who had made so many trips to Bucharest in the late 1960s, now saw no chance of getting away as the main way of getting out of the country was through the buying off industry. There was a joke which went something like this: Better to breed Swabians than livestock because you get more money for them! The cost per head had risen from 5,000 DM to 8,000 DM and for university graduates it was about three times as much. Those who had no parents or siblings in Germany saw no prospect - the most you could hope for was to buy a visit to Germany, stay there and then years later buy off the family.   We were given so many pieces of advice, but when it came to it, there was always one piece missing. So I was strongly convinced that I must first complete the course and only then would I apply for a job. No-one had mentioned that I would have to write 30 - 50 job applications so I was very disappointed when the 3 - 5 job applications I made in Karlsruhe didn’t end up in a position being offered. As I hadn’t thought of accepting a post near Stuttgart I didn’t take much notice of the starting salary when discussing jobs. We hadn’t been given any advice in this area either, nor did we know that some companies had additional pension insurance for their employees. All these important points we only learned about much later by coincidence.

As I was feeling disheartened after six unsuccessful job applications, I accepted the job in Stuttgart after all and later learned that my salary was that of a beginner even though I had worked in this field for six years. Also, the State paid a large part of the salary as integration aid, so the personnel department made savings at our cost. Anyway, the working atmosphere was excellent and the top boss turned out to be a Saxon from Siebenbürgen (Transylvania), who had come here already before the war. I must add that, being an immigrant, I was the first female in the department. Only a year later did we get a secretary.

Meanwhile, Hans had begun a business course in Bamberg and our approval for a camp in Stuttgart had to wait. So now our 13-year old son was alone all day long and I travelled from Karlsruhe to Stuttgart and then another 45 minutes to my job, for three months and from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., and then I had to cook etc. Just as well we had a sensible son who didn’t give us any problems. But we were thankful that we had somewhere to stay and that I, at least, had a job.  

Meanwhile, we had been at the camp for a year and now had to move on to another one. As we didn’t know where Hans would find work we were glad to be able to stay in a camp at all. In the Park settlement in the town of Ostfildern/Nellingen we had an even smaller room. One of our trunks fitted in perfectly in front of the window between the beds and could now be used as a chest. We had already learned how to make a fire in the coal burning stove, but it was sad that our son once again had to change schools and lose his friends from Karlsruhe. So many of our compatriots, especially the older ones, had problems integrating. When asked if we were homesick we answered with a straightforward ‘no’.  

We had already applied in Karlsruhe for financial compensation for our losses in the old Heimat and we had already been more or less talked into a savings scheme with a building society and every penny was saved. We had always been used to doing this anyway. A second-hand car, a small television and a tent completed our list of possessions. We didn’t own any chairs at this point - we wouldn’t have had room for any. After 20 months, when Hans had found as soon as he had finished his course, we could move to a State subsidized apartment in Stuttgart.   The hardest thing for us was to re-adapt, for we had come from another world where people helped each other more and where one knew one’s neighbours well, even in the big towns. It was harder for our son as he had to change schools four times in four years until we finally found a proper place to stay, and that was in the town we had first started off in the camp (the world is round!).

The biggest gain for us is the freedom and the possibility to travel. Today we can see more in one year than we could in several years before, let alone the fact that certain destinations didn’t come into question for Germans as it was always assumed that we would never go back.   Now we are approaching retirement and I must say that we have had to save during our whole life, but could always live modestly and contentedly. I would also mention that our ancestors could invest their savings in a new future, but as emigrants we had to leave everything behind and most people accrued large debts in hard currency in order to buy themselves off. Progress is underestimated.   We have described everything in such detail in order for people to be able to comprehend the difficulties which every emigrant had to endure.

Village Coordinator: Nick Tullius

The Banat | Danube Swabian History | Nick Tullius Files | Join the DVHH Mail List

© 2005 Nick Tullius, unless otherwise noted - Report broken links

Last updated: 26 Aug 2020