Excerpts from Deutsche Bauerndörfer in Bulgarien by Arno Mehlan (1941) and
Die zwei deutschen Bauernsiedlungen in Bulgarien by Dr. Otto Constantini (1938)
by Rose Vetter
Towards the end of the 19th century, the living conditions of the Banat Danube Swabians became increasingly difficult because of the growing population and shortage of land in the villages. The resulting hardships and unfavourable living conditions induced a group of German families to look for new opportunities. They had heard that there was cheap land available in Bulgaria, sold all their possessions and travelled down the Danube. Amid grave privations and disputes with the native people, they ultimately managed to acquire land in Bardarski Geran, which at that time consisted of a few squalid huts.
In April 1893, seven Banat Danube Swabian families – from the villages of Detta, Schaag, Gyertianosch, Homolitz, Stamora and Berg – embarked upon their journey, wanting to evade the Magyarization efforts. They travelled along the Danube until they reached Rachovo. Finally, after an arduous journey marked with many privations, they arrived in Bardarski Geran. More families joined them in the next few months until fall; others arrived in the spring of 1894 and in the next few years, until there were 95 families. However, not all of them stayed there. Some of these families ventured further to the neighbouring villages of Gostilya, Asenovo, Gorna Mitropolia, but most of them immigrated to America.
In 1941 there were still 80 German families (300 persons) in Bardarski Geran. The village had a population of 2300, the majority being Bulgarians. Where only sod huts stood just forty years before, there were now clean, whitewashed brick houses along well-kept, wide streets shaded by linden and walnut trees. When Tsar Boris of Bulgaria visited Bardarski Geran in 1933, he called it the most beautiful village in Bulgaria. Every traveller passing through native Bulgarian, Turkish, Greek and Tatar settlements, not far from the city of Pleven, is amazed to suddenly come upon German farmers who have built their houses exactly according to the colonization specifications of the reign of Empress Maria Theresia.
The Germans in Bardarski Geran were steadfast in preserving their heritage and language, and struggled tirelessly to have their own church and school. After initially attending services in the Bulgarian language, together with the Catholic Bulgarians, in the home of the Catholic priest, they were finally able to attend German Sunday Mass in 1924; it wasn’t until 1927 that they received their first German-speaking priest. As the existing prayer hall, which adjoined the convent, was not adequate, the new priest took steps to build a new prayer house in 1929, in which he held services for the Germans. He also founded a German choir to promote church music and German folk songs. He was successful in obtaining a well-situated and roomy building site, on which a Gothic-style church stands today. The building of the church was a community effort for all the German farmers. They produced their own bricks and lime and transported sand and lumber to the building site, while others worked as builders and bricklayers.
In the very beginning, when there was only one Bulgarian school in the village, one of the farmers taught parents and children with the help of self-written textbooks, in order to provide for them practice in the German language in the basic subjects of reading, writing, arithmetic and singing. In 1923, German nuns arrived in Bardarski Geran and established a convent and kindergarten. They further served the community by giving German language courses for German and Bulgarian school children and adults, teaching needlework and nursing the sick. Despite all these efforts, the young generation would have been deprived of their culture, had not their parents kept a tight watch over them at home, as they had to attend Bulgarian elementary school, which lacked an adequate standard. This was to change with the construction of the new school, on which the whole community again worked hand in hand, as they had done with the church. September 1932 saw the opening of the new school with classes up to grade 7, attended in 1933 by 66 children, including 4 Bulgarians and 1 Albanian.
The financial sacrifice of sending their children to the German school, especially the state tax, was a heavy burden for the Bulgarian and German parents during the economic crisis. When they had first arrived in Bardarski Geran, conditions had been relatively favourable. The Bulgarian government had sold them 50 plots for the low price of 50 Levs per 1.5 decars*. On the level fields, the German farmers grew mainly corn and wheat. With their profits, they constantly strove to raise the productivity of their fields and acquired new agricultural machines. Their land holdings of 4 to 45 decars were impressive, compared to average Bulgarian standards, however, the average farmer owned 1 to 2 hectares. Every farmer owned 2 or more horses, which were among the most valuable in the country. They did not own many cows or pigs, but more fowl and bees. Unfortunately, the summer droughts and hailstorms would often cause heavy damage to the crops. After 1930, the prices of the main agricultural products fell to one fifth or one sixth of their value, barely enough to cover the production costs.
Although the Germans were primarily farmers, they had secondary trades as shoemakers, carpenters, cartwrights, saddlers, metal workers and tailors. With these varied skills they were able to manufacture their own tools, besides providing them additional income whenever they were not employed full-time.
*10 decars = 1 hectare