A Remembrance of the Past; Building for the Future." ~ Eve Eckert Koehler

Remembering Our Danube Swabian Ancestors

People of the River

Persecuted in aftermath of World War II, Donauschwaben carry on

Interview with Eve Eckert Koehler

By Linda Steiner, Journal Ethnic Reporter
Milwaukee Journal, 1981


     If you lived in Milwaukee for any time, you’ve probably heard the word. You’ve seen the booth at the Holiday Folk Fair and may have overheard people inquiring, “Just where is this land of Donauschwaben?”

     It’s not a place. It’s a people – a proud people with a past they are struggling to forget while never forgetting.

Made swamps bloom

     The Donauschwaben or Danube Swabians are ethnic Germans who were sent in the 1700s by Empress Maria Theresa of Austria to areas along the Danube River in what are now the countries of Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia.

     Matthias Aringer, who was born in the Banat area of Yugoslavia, came to the US in 1965 and is active in the local Donauschwaben community. He pointed to a picture hanging in the Schwabenhof, the Donauschwabens gathering place at 147th and Silver Spring in Menomonee Falls. It shows farmers clearing land with horses and wagons.

     “They came into a no-man land and created all this,” Aringer said.  “I’m proud these pioneers created out of swampland along the Danube some of the richest lands in Europe. They were always hard-working people.”

     They were always loyal, too.

     “We were always true and honest citizens of the countries we lived in,” Aringer said. Wherever they lived, Donauschwaben kept their dialect, songs and dances within their families but learned and spoke the language of their host lands and were productive members of their community.

     The term “Donauschwaben” itself is a fairly recent phenomenon. During the days of the Austrian empire, the Donauschwabens considered themselves Austrians, and later, under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they thought of themselves as Hungarians.

     It was only after the empire was split up and new nations created that they began to refer to themselves as Donauschwaben.

Swabia is the land

     Eve Eckert Koehler, program assistant in classics and Slavic languages at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and the author of one of the only books in English on the Donauschwabens, “Seven Susannahs, Daughters or the Danube,” explained:

     “The word didn’t exist before the 1920’s. It was Austrian.” We were always called Swabians, from the area in Germany the settlers originally came from. So to have some sort of unity, we called ourselves Donauschwaben [Donau is German for Danube].

     I left Hungary when I was 4; I had to learn the background. I didn’t consider myself a Donauschwaben, until recent years.

People of the river know exoduses well

     My mother always called herself Hungarian. I visited [my homeland] in ’73 and found out what happened to my closest relatives.  Then I thought, “How unfair. Will there ever be a time for these ethnic Germans to tell their story?”

     In 1976 she wrote “Seven Susannahs.” An 86 page paperback published by the Danube Swabian Societies of the US and Canada, and the story was told.

     But still very few people know about it.

     Figures may help tell the story.

Decimated during war

     According to data taken from the Sudostdeutsches Archiv in Munich, there were 1.6 million Swabians in 1939 in Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia. In 1950, there were no more than 600,000. Figures from other sources differ. Some give much higher losses, but the story behind the figures is the same.

     It is the story of an ethnic group that was driven from the only home it had known and loved for 200 years, its land seized, and in Yugoslavia, particularly, under Tito, its people systematically liquidated.

     Koehler pointed to the Donauschwabens around her, enjoying a festival at the Schwabenhof.

     “There are silent survivors right here whose stories have never been told,” Koehler said. Every phrase connected with the period during and after World War II – ‘crimes against humanity,’ stateless persons,’ ‘death marches’ all happened to ethnic Germans in southeastern European countries.”

Longtime concern

     Koehler said she had been working for years to get this story out. In 1979, she and her son, John Adam Koehler, translated a book by an Austrian, Karl Springenschmid, “Our Lost Children: Janissaries?”

     It tells of another aspect of the Donauschwaben experience: how thousands of Donauschwaben children who were left behind after their parents were killed or sent to Russia and forced labor were left to starve and later placed in special homes in Yugoslavia and how their names, birth certificates and all remnants of their Swabian heritage were taken from them and they were re-educated in the ways of the new Communist state. The book list dates, places and Red Cross statistics.

     “I challenge anyone to say the Donauschwaben are exaggerating these things. The documentation is there,” Koehler said.

     “Matt worked hard to get these books [‘Seven Susannahs’ and ‘Janissaries’] published, “Koehler said.

Correcting the record

     Above the stage at the festival at the Schwabenhof hands a sign with a motto that may be translated “Always practice loyalty and honesty.”

     “That’s all we want,” Aringer said, “if only an objective truth comes out.”

     Koehler said: The Donauschwaben want people to know the truth  that they suffered because they were German and only because they were German. And most of these people had never been in Germany in their lives.

     “And because so many of them died, they want their people remembered when other war victims are remembered.

     “You know, I envy the Holocaust literature, because the Donauschwabens don’t have that literature, something to chronicle what happened to them so that their children will never forget and the world will never forget.

     “I hate to play the numbers game – the Jews has so many million killed, we had so many million killed, we had so many million killed – but German and Jewish blood is mingled in the soil if eastern Europe. We feel their pain. The ausland [foreign] Germans experienced the same thing. In many cases, we were shipped away in the same cattle cars.”

     Koehler sat back in her chair at a cluttered desk at UWM the next day. She has just listed dates, places, names of death camps, documenting what had been done to the Donauschwabens, particularly things recounted in a German book, “Ein Volk Ausgelöscht [A People Extinguished],” by Leopold Rohrbacher, published in 1949.

     “We were thinking of translating it but decided we can’t. There’s too much brutality, barbarism. We’re not interested in horror stories. We just want people to be sensitive to what happened.

     “Do you know that verse in Ecclesiastes about a time to live, a time to find that time – that season for love and understanding to come?”


[Published at by Jody McKim Pharr, 28 Jun 2014]

Heritage » Collections » Koehler » Society