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This story is one of three actual accounts written in the book Janitscharen?: Die Kinder Tragödie im Banat by Karl Springenschmid (1979). Translated to English: "Our lost children: Janissaries" by Eve E. Koehler and John A Koehler, 1980); who has generously given permission to Jody McKim Pharr to transcribed and published her translation.
Submitted and Published at DVHH.org by Jody McKim Pharr, 11 Jan 2013

Katharina Lettang Searches for Susanne

by Karl Springenschmid

     Her story was repeated 1000 times. One day men came and took her away. She was alone and defenseless. Her husband died in combat three months earlier. All she cared about was our only child, Susanne, then barely 1 1/2 years old. The small one lay sleeping innocently on her little bed. She took the child protectively into her arm wanting to take him along, but that was not permitted. There are other arrangements made for the children. They took the baby from her arm and put it in its bed. Susanne slept so deeply that she was not even awakened during the commotion.

     Katharina Lettang, along with other women from the Banat, was deported to the Ukraine and delivered to the mines of Kriwoj Rog. No more news came from the Heimat. In those lonely hours deep underground she tried to picture herself what might have happened to her child. The image became quite real to her. Little Susanne awakens. She is hungry and calls for her mother, but she is completely alone. No one answers her. She climbs out of her little bed but cannot open the door. So she stays alone in her room, cold and hungry. What did those uniformed men mean by “other arrangements for the children”? Katharina could not get these thoughts out of her head.

     The torturous anxiety concerning her child kept Katharina Lettang alive. She wanted to live, for the sake of the child. This will to live enabled her to endure the horror of her forced labor underground.

     After three years, the deported women were sent to Germany. Katharina was sent to Frankfurt an der Oder (in East Germany). Now what was she to do? Her Heimat in the Banat was in the hands of strangers. She certainly could not go back there. All the inhabitants of the village of Ernsthausen (Banatski Despotovac) were scattered to the four winds. But none of that mattered. For her, there was now only one task on earth: to find her child.

     Katharina journey to Austria. In a newly erected factory near the city of Graz she took a position packaging Christmas tree ornaments. What she was able to save of her meager wages she used exclusively in her search. She wrote to every bureau and office concerned with the problem of lost children. She contacted many philanthropic organizations; she advertised in newspapers whose readers were primarily refugees. She got some good replies here and there and she heard encouraging words but in the final analysis on her efforts yielded no success.

     Katharina did not give up. She realized that in the future she must do everything by herself and for that she needed much more money. Through a female coworker who married a man in Versilberei (silver plating factory), she was able to get a better position there. In a few days she had learned to work. With the help of an air compressor she had to direct the silver plating solution onto the ornamental glass balls. The factory paid according to the number of pieces produced and within a month she became so proficient that she produced 13,000 finished ornaments per day.

     One day she read in the Donauschwaben newspaper that an old neighbor of hers, Barbara Mattheis, lived in Monkebull near Flensberg, Rahlsdorferweg 82, who due to her advanced age had not been deported to the coal mines. In November, when the work season at Katharina's factory came to an end, she went to Munkebull, in Schleswig-Holstein. She was right. The poor old arthritic Barbara had remained a few weeks in Ernsthausen after the other women had been deported, but she did not know a thing about little Susanne. She had heard that the old Lieblmutter (Mother Liebl) as the village midwife was called, had gathered up the abandoned children. If Susanne had been one of these, she could not say. It was hardly likely that she did, for the Lieblmutter, already old and frail, could only take those children who were capable of walking and who would not impede her own flight.

     After she returned to Graz, Katharina began a search for the old midwife. Three months went by before she learned that a certain Anne Liebl had died in Pinkafeld while fleeing to Austria. However, her daughter Franziska Liebl was supposedly living in that town.

     However little the hope was, Katharina immediately took three days’ vacation and traveled to Pinkafeld (in Austria, near Yugoslavian and Hungarian borders). Her co-workers had urged her to give up this hopeless quest. She should begin, finally, to think about herself. After all, she was still a very attractive young woman. She was selling have no trouble finding a husband. Sooner or later she would have children again. And she would not be so obsessed with this search. She only smiled at such talk. Among all men there had only been one whom she could love and whom she still loved. Susanne was the proof of this love. Through her child the love for her husband lived on.

     But her co-workers were right in one thing. In Pinkafeld there is a new disappointment. A few weeks previous to Katharina's arrival, Franziska Liebl married a landsmann (person from same village) a Hatter, Peter Grieschler, and emigrated with him to Brazil.

     It was a time-consuming and painstaking task traveling from consulate to consulate in an attempt to find the emigrants’ address. And when she finally succeeded she wrote to Franziska Grieschler (nee Liebl), Apartado 17, Petotas, Rio Grande do Sul. In a detailed letter she communicated all her hopes. Day after day she waited for an answer. The clues which she had followed so persistently and which had taken so much of her time and effort appeared to be as fragile as the glass ornaments which passed through her hands by the thousands daily; fragile things taken up so passionately are bound to break.

     An answer came, not from Petotas, but from Florianopolis. Yes, it was true.  Franziska’s mother had taken six children with her. Actually there had been seven at first but one had died on the road. Unfortunately, she did not know the names of these children nor what happened to them after the flight.

     That was all. When the letter arrived from Brazil, the factory was in his busiest season. Katharina could not return to Pinkafeld until November. Then she went from house to house asking after old Lieblmutter and the lost children. Everyone certainly remember the great stream of refugees including many small children, but more exact information was unavailable.

     Alas, people did not understand. What is this noisy bustling world know of the heart of a mother? Little Susanne was the reason for existence and gave purpose to her life. She gave you Susanne her undivided love and devotion. Before she left Pinkafeld, she visited the family of a Fracher (a Carter, a Trucker), named Heizmann, where Lieblmutter had lived until her death. The stout Heizmann recall: “Didn’t Kordulek take one of these children with him?”

     August Kordulek was a retired railroad official. He lived in a small neat cottage on the outskirts of town. Katharina hurried to visit him. A slender, delicate little girl of about eight years a open the garden door to Katharina.

     What do you want, lady? Asked the little girl.

     This peculiar accent: that is the way we talked at home!

     “Who are you, little girl?”

     “Maria Kordulek.”

     “Was that always your name?”

     “No, I’m adopted. Before, my name was Wischet.”

     “Of course, now I recognize you. Your Peter Wischet’s little girl from Obesgasse (High Street).”

     “Yes, lady, that is me.”

     August Kordulek, a dignified old gentleman with a long curly white beard, overheard this conversation. He interested his hedge trimming and shouted to Katharina. “We'd rather that our Maria was not reminded of past times.”

     Katharina Lettang turned around and replied: “excuse me sir, but I am looking for my little girl. Maybe Maria could give me more information.”

     She took the blonde and freckled girl and her arm. “Isn't it true that you came from Pinkafeld with Mother Liebl?”

     “Yes, lady, I did.”

     “Don't call me Lady. I am the Bauer Lettang’s Katharina from the Kirchengasse (Church Street) right next to the school, don't you recognize me?”

     The girl shook her head. “Enough!” shouted the old gentleman angrily.

     Just then Frau Kordulek came out of the kitchen. When she found out what the stranger wanted she turned immediately to the little girl.  “Think Maria.  Which children came with you and old Frau Liebl?” The little girl wrinkled her brow and twisted her apron nervously. “There were so many,” she said hesitantly.

     “Well, who do you remember, Maria? You were already four years old then.”

     “Karl Schifmann always grabbed my pigtails.”

     “Yes, Maria. And who else?”

     “Theresa Beers was with us and always helped me when Karl Schifmann wanted to pull my pigtails. But then Karl Schifmann died.”

     “And what about the very small ones, Maria?  The babies?”

     “The smallest one always cried.” Mother Liebl always had to carry it because it couldn't even walk.”

     “And this small one, think Maria, what was its name?”

     She paused to catch her breath. The little girl thought hard. Her mother tried to help. “Wasn't it called ---?” No, she could not say the word – Susanne, because she did not want to put it in the child's head.

     “I don't know what his name was. I don't think it had a real name.”

     “Well then, why did the baby look like?”

     Maria knitted her little brows together. She thought so deeply that a furrow formed on her forehead. “It looked like all babies look.”

     “Yes, we gave it a name. We called in The Little One.  But sometimes we called it other names. Especially when it cried all night. And once Mother Liebl said to us “don't call it the little one, her real name is ---?”

     “Real name?”

     “--- Her real name is Susie!”

     “SUSIE! SUSIE!”  rejoiced Katharina.  “That is my Susanne!”

   There was no other Susanne and Ernsthausen. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “My child!” With grateful emotion she kissed Maria on the cheeks.

     “Wouldn't you like to come inside?” asked Frau Kordulek.

     But the young mother just kneeled before Maria and held her small pale face in her hands. The question that lay upon her heart nearly took her voice away. She was just barely able to break through her emotions and asked: “what happened to Susanne?”

     Frau Kordulek had the answer.  “We adopted Maria at the time when the other children were still living with Frau Liebl.”

     At any rate, Katharina knew at last that her child had come safely across the border into Austria.  Alas, if only little van has some special mark or quality; blond hair and bright eyes said to little or described many children.

     In the following season, Katharina was given a position in the glassblowing department. She was assigned to the R.K. I. (Rosebkranz – Rosary) which used a floral design. Even though she wore a face mask, this type of work was dangerous to her health. The era taking dust resulting from glassmaking was breathed into her lungs. But what did she care, now that her child appeared to be so close, and all that she needed to do was to stretch out her hands to touch her.

     Now, about of all, she had defined those other children who were cared for by Mother Liebl. Maybe one of those children knew of what happened to Susanne after Maria had been adopted.

     As often as possible she would travel to Pinkafeld searching for those children but this turned out to be much more difficult than she had thought. All that's at trucker, Heizmann, could tell her was that one day the children were no longer there. And little Maria just could not remember anything further. Where ever Katharina searched and Mariasdorf in Oberwart in Alhau, she got the same results. No one knew anything.

    Despondent, she returned to her work. Everything appeared to be conspiring against her. Desolate days followed and weeks without consolation or hope. And beyond grief, Katharina fell victim to a severe bronchial ailment. Despite this she wanted to continue her work on the R.K.I Rosaries. But her doctor insisted she enter the hospital.

     As her hope began to sink, so did her will to live. Why bother in a more? Life is not worth living any longer.

     Then on a gray autumn day at telegraph arrived: “SUSANNE FOUND. LETTER FOLLOWS. LEOPOLDINE KORDULEK.”

    She did not believe her eyes. But there it was in black and white. Susanne found. Two words which brought an end to years of search and sorrow.

     She was beside herself with joy. She did not know what to do first. Should she wait for this promise letter? But that could be hours or days. Whatever the case, she must get up now. She was not sick. She had never been sick.

     Even though she was a little unsteady on her feet she walked to the post-office on Petersbergerstrasse.

     The letter was there. Her hands trembled as she tore open the envelope she had to read the letter three times before she could grasp its contents. “Susanne found” -- that was not exactly right. And her zeal, Frau Kordulek had exaggerated her information. In truth, all she learned in Eisenstadt was that in those turbulent times children younger than two years old were generally gathered and transported to an orphanage in St. Peter near Graz.

     For heaven’s sake! That was only 10 minutes distance from her factory! She had passed by this orphanage many times. She is in glass Christmas tree ornaments to the children from the surplus stocks given to the employees of the factory. Was it possible that after searching the whole world for the child, that she could have already seen her on the street or in the orphanage only a few minutes away?

     Everything was spinning; she felt faint. She placed her hands on her upper chest for she felt a deep discomfort in her lungs, which her coworkers called “Stechen mit Blumenmuster” (the sting of the Rosary...thorns of the roses) but she would not give in to this pain. Not now, so near her goal. She gathered herself together and decided to go at once to the orphanage.

     The director, a quiet kindly woman, listened patiently to Katharina as she excitedly and somewhat incoherently related her story and read the letter of Frau Kordulek.

     She gave the director some documents. The director stated that what Frau Kordulek told her in the letter was indeed true. 5 1/2 years ago in those terrible weeks preceding the end of the war, 40 babies, the majority barely one year old, had been taken from the southern part of the Burgenland and brought to Graz.

  “Any from Pinkafeld, Sister?”

     “Oh yes, Frau Lettang. We had eleven babies from Pinkafeld. But unfortunately we had little information about them. The documents either read “parents unknown” or “no parents.” Hardly any of the children could remember their names. There were no documents, no positive tickets. You understand, of course, how things were at that time. The children were just there. They were hungry and had to be fed. They were freezing and had to be clothed. And so we took them in. And we had to give them names to which they have now long been accustomed. They have grown comfortable with us, and thank God, they do not know where they came from, for how would that help them now.”

     “But we are talking about my child, Sister.”

     “I know, Frau Lettang. I want to give you all the help I can. But that will be difficult. Does your child have, perhaps, a distinguishing mark, a scar or birthmark?”

     “No Sister, nothing. But that is not necessary for me. I am her mother, after all. I will immediately recognize my Susanne”

     The director smiled kindly. “Perhaps Sister Clara can remember a few details. She had taken care of these children at the time.”

     She summoned Sister Clara, a tall, stately but he gets somewhat stocky woman of peasant demeanor.

     “Pinkafeld, yes I was there,” she said in her deep almost manlike voice.

     “Did you visit the Heizmann family, Sister? They live right next to the church.”

     “It's possible I did but I do not remember exactly. The town was under heavy attack and we were passing through in an ambulance loaded with 30 children. We picked up a few more from Pinkafeld. There was no time to find out anything more about them. We had to hurry to get the children out of the area.”

     The director paged through our record book once again. “Seven of these girls are still with us.”

     “Can I see these girls, Sister?”

     “Of course, Frau Lettang, but ---?

     “Susanne is among these, Sister.  I just have to see these seven girls to know. I will recognize Susanne.”

     Sister Clara intervenes. “The forty-fivers (as she called these children, referring to the year 1945), are completely familiar to me. Not one of them is called Susanne.”

     “But that has not been established,” the Director added. “As I have explained to Frau Lettang, those children from Pinkafeld had no names.”

     “Yes, and therefore no Susanne.” Sister Clara added loudly.

     “Nevertheless, I will recognize Susanne, Sister, you can be sure of that.”

     “We might as well try it,” the Director exclaimed.

     They left the room.

     Katharina stood up and leaned on the wall as her heart had begun to be violently for fear that she would not survive the next few moments.

     There was no ways in the corridor.

     Sister Clara through open the door and pushed the girls into the conference room. Half frightened, half curious, they gathered in a corner and whispered to one another. Seven girls, all dressed in the same modest uniform, a loose-fitting gray smock, with a simple white collar. Their hairstyles were the same as well. All parted in the middle and woven into too tight braids.

     They could have been seven sisters, so much did they resemble each other. With anxious eyes they stared at the apprehensive stranger.

     “These are the girls from Pinkafeld,” Sister Clara again declared in a commanding voice.

     Katharina heard one of the girls whisper quietly to another: maybe one of us is going to get a Mother, again.” She heard another say: “I think that's the lady who sent us the Christmas tree ornaments and the glass pine cones.”

     Poor Katharina. She had indeed expected too much. She stood there alone and desolate in the bare room. No one had been able to help her. At this moment it seemed to her that Susanne had been taken away a second time. She had to support herself by leaning on the back of the chair. Sister Clara just stood there with her broad peasant face, as if standing guard in front of the girls.

     “Susanne--.” The name came haltingly to her lips. Then again,”Susanne.”  This time from deep within her heart, with even more feeling.

     “Yes, she is the one who makes pretty ornaments.” The girls chattered to one another. “People who make these orders all have those black, rough hands. Isn't that strange?”

     The director tried to help. “Frau Lettang, didn't you say that your daughter had light-colored eyes?” She turned to the girls. “Berta, you can go. You, too, Melitta.”    

     Five girls remained. All had light blue eyes and blond hair.

     Katharina could not understand it. She thought she would be able to easily recognize her daughter, and not necessarily by the eyes alone. Unfortunately, a mother searching for her child cannot see within her heart. Susanne was there, yet she was not there; Susanne stood before her, and did not stand before her. The poor mother thought she could at last grasp her daughter's hand but now she touched only emptiness.

     Suddenly, she didn't know how, she recalled her husband's face, as clearly as if he were their beside her. She saw the particular brightness of his blue eyes, the shape of his face, his smile -- which was hardly a smile at all -- but was rather a little turning off the corners of his mouth . . .

     At the same moment, she felt something strong, secure and confident take hold of her heart; a sure and certain feeling that she could trust. She walked up to the girls, paying hardly any attention at all to those in the foreground but rather decisively drew towards the quiet and withdrawn girl at the back of the group. She was so sure of herself; there could not be any other choice.

     “Susanne,” she said and grasped the hand of a young girl.

     The girl drew back. “My name is Josefina.” She was afraid of the black hands, and looked with our op-ed her own to make sure that these, also, had not turned black.

     “Your name was Susanne. We called you Susi, Klein Susi. Don't you remember?”

     The girl shook her head violently. But it was just exactly the manner in which she shook her head and the way she winkled her brow causing those dear and familiar furrows on the temples, that formed the unique look seen so often in her husband's eyes.

     “Susanne, my child; my dear child.”

     The girl listened attentively to the woman's voice. Then she glanced anxiously at Sister Clara.

     “I was never Susanne”, she declared adamantly. “I've always been Josefina.”

     “That's not true!” the Director interrupted. “You were called Josefina only after you came to us. The Sr. Clara gave you that name. Now think hard my child. What is the very first thing you can remember of when you were very small?”

     “The earliest, the first thing?” Asked the child as she looked intently into the face of the Director. “The first thing, that was…yes, that was a dark, very high thing.  An oven maybe, or something like that. And something stood on top of it. And it always moved kind of like in a circle . . .”

     “Made of paper?” Katharina asked. “What color was it?”

     “Red, it was read,” answered the girl.

     “Our red Ofenradchen (oven wheel):” rejoiced the mother. “That proves everything. Susannah remembered the red oven wheel. Isn't that wonderful Sister?” she cried to the Director.

     With heartfelt emotion the mother drew the child to her. “Now I have found you Susanne, my dear child.”

     Since Katharina Lettang did not want to adopt the girl as the Director had suggested, but rather legally establish the truth of her parentage, the adoption courts required certain biological test, mainly blood tests, and since the father of the child had been killed in the war, these had to be restricted to the alleged mother. The court appointed doctor made it clear to Katharina that the results of these tests could not be guaranteed. Nevertheless, she insisted that the tests be carried out, and after an examination of the blood groups which generally helps to establish the parentage of a child as it shares factors from the blood of both parents, it was established that Katharina and the young girl indeed shared the determining factors. On this basis, Katharina was declared the girls natural mother.

     Little Susanne, for whom all this had been completely unexpected, stared in amazement at the doctor, watching as he took some blood from her vein and then from the lady with the black hands, who was supposed to be her mother. In her childish imagination she saw this as some sort of solemn ceremony which caused her to give up the idea that she should break away and return to Sister Clara. But, in the course of time, the girl realized that she had shared so much of the personality of the mother and Susanne no longer required the memory of this strange ceremony to feel that she belonged completely to her mother.

Source: Janitscharen? Die Kindertragödie im Banat by Karl Springenschmid
Mass kidnapping by Communists of 20,000 children of ethnic Germans from Banat. Published by Eckartschriften Austrian Landsmannschaft, Vienna, Austria, 1978. Translated, with additional notes by John Adam Kohler and Eve Eckert Koehler: Our Lost Children: Janissaries?; Published in 1980, Danube Swabian Association of the U.S.A.


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