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The Russian Army, the Partisans,
freight cars, Gakowa, concentration camps, slave labor camps, starvation, mass graves, begging trips, typhoid, escape to freedom
, a proud American soldier and a citizen of the United States.

A Gakowa Survival Story
by Paul Hoenisch

Published at dvhh.org 31 Dec, 2020
by Jody McKim Pharr




Paul Hoenisch in 2019 at the yearly Donauschwaben Pilgrimage and Mass in Honor of all our Deceased Relatives and Friends who Died in the Concentration Camps.  He carries the Gakowa Cross in their Honor, and says it reminds him of his time there.



          My name is Paul Hoenisch. I was born on November 4, 1933 in a house located on Ratzengasse, Filipovo, Batschka, Yugoslavia. My father Valentin Hoenisch was born January 6, 1906. My mother Theresia (born Reder) was born on February 27, 1902. The house I was born in was very large - housing three families. It also housed my grandfather and fatherís barrel making shop. They were barrel makers by trade. My father worked part-time in the town flour mill. In the summer months the whole family worked on the farm outside of town, harvesting wheat, corn and hemp. In school the boys and girls were in separate classes. German was the main language, but we had to learn Hungarian and Serbian a couple of hours a week - (Whenever Filipovo belonged to these countries.)

          In 1939, Filipovo belonged to Hungary and had a population of around 5,000. The German army came through Yugoslavia and Filipovo in the early 1940ís on their way to the Russian front. In Serbia they were fighting Titoís Partisans. In 1944, there was a lot of fighting in the Balkan region. The German army was not gaining any ground and the Russian army was coming from the east. The Germans had a small airport outside Hodschag and the kids from Filipovo went there to see the small planes. As the war went on, we could see high in the sky, American bombers flying over Filipovo though they never bombed Filipovo. Sometimes they dropped leaflets and writing pens. We were told not to pick them up because they would explode when you started writing with them. One bomber made a crash landing a few miles outside of town. Most of the kids from town went to see this huge plane. There was no sign of the crew and nobody knew what happened to them.

          Later in 1944, the German army started to retreat toward Hungary and Austria. They promised protection for those people who wanted to go along in wagons. Some families packed their wagons with food and whatever they could take with them. They joined many other wagons from other towns trying to flee the oncoming Russian army. My father and many other men were drafted into the German army to fight the Russians. The German army started to make a last stand in Hungary. That is where my father received his short training. My mother and grandfather said, ďWe didnít do anything wrong, so why should we leave our home. No one will harm us and everything will be back to normal soonĒ. A few weeks later, the Russian army marched into Filipovo. There was no fighting around Filipovo and only a few soldiers stayed in town. They didnít bother us, they only took jewels and watches from some people. Some women were raped if they refused to cooperate.

          Things started to change late October when the Russians left and turned control over to the Partisans. The Partisans were not organized and their uniforms consisted of anything they could find. The same was true about their weapons. Nobody seemed to be in control. The remaining townspeople were afraid and scared. There was no school for the children. On November 25, 1944, all the remaining young and older men of the town were rounded up and locked into the church. During the night they marched them about 4 miles out of town - to almost the exact spot the Germans had their airport. They were forced to dig their own mass graves and then killed. For many years, no one knew what happened to these 212 men. Some were as young as 16 years old.

          A short time later, the young women of the town were rounded up, taken to the train station, put in freight cars and shipped to Russia - into slave labor camps. Many died there and the others who survived were not freed until 1949 and 1950. Things worsened for the remaining towns people. The remaining able-bodied working women were taken to labor camps in Yugoslavia. My mother was also taken away. There were only children and old people left in Filipovo. My four year old sister, myself and other cousins were left in the care of my Hoenisch grandfather and grandmother. We also had to take in two Serbian families into our house. Rumors went around that we would have to leave our houses for a while. I helped my grandfather bury silverware, clothing and some food in the corner of the pigs stall. He said they will never look there and we will have something when we get back.

          On March 31, 1945, the morning of Good Friday, the lives of the remaining towns people were changed forever. Our house was located on the lower end of town. We could hear the Partisans walking in the streets, making noises and shooting their guns in the air. We were told to take whatever we could carry and be on the street in an hour. There was much confusion as to what to take because nobody knew where we were going and for how long. I was eleven years old and my sister four. We could not carry much, The Partisans marched us to the upper end of town where the soccer field was. As more people came out of their houses, there was more confusion and the Partisans grew angrier. They started to push and kick some people. Once we were outside of town, they started to separate us into groups. Some families were separated and you could hear children crying. Later in the day, our group was marched to the train station and loaded into freight cars. My guess is there were between 30 and 40 people in each car. The cars were locked so nobody could escape. There was a lot of confusion and the grandparents had a hard time keeping the children quiet. The train took us to the town of Gakowa. 

          Gakowa was made into a concentration camp for the old and young. We were unloaded and marched into houses. The size of the house determined how many lived there. Each day more and more ethnic Germans were brought to Gakowa. In the room we stayed, maybe 10 people slept side by side on the floor with just straw on the bottom and our clothes on. In the beginning we received some potato soup and cornbread. As time went on, we received less food and people started to get sick. Guards were patrolling outside of town to prevent escapes. Some risked going out through the gardens to trade for food with the farmers outside of town. They killed some of them on the way back and put their bodies in front of the church for everybody to see. I remember sneaking out one day to go begging for food. The children were not harmed as much as the older grown ups were. We came to a farm and asked for some food. He said there were many people before us and he has no more to give. He said a small pig died the day before and he had no chance to bury it. We were welcome to take it along. We made it back safe into the camp and my grandmother prepared many meals for the family. As things got worse, more people starved and the hunger drove us further away from camp looking for food.

          On one of those begging trips, we saw some women working in the field. Three of us boys approached them and asked questions. They came from Kulut -a labor camp for women about eight miles from Gakowa. Some of the women were from Filipovo and they said my mother was working in another field. The guards for the labor camps were not as strict and allowed us to go back with them. My mother was back already and when she saw me, she opened her arms and we both cried. We were allowed to stay a day. My mother gave us all the food we could carry to take back. As we made our trip back, to Gakowa we could see a big dust cloud behind us. We tried to run and hide in the field but all the fields were plowed. We could see horses and a coach with soldiers coming. When they saw us they started shooting over our heads and waved us to come to the coach. On the coach were three Partisans and one high officers. They put us on the coach and we drove into Gakowa. People were standing outside the street wondering what was going to happen to the three of us. The coach stopped at the town hall and two guards took us in the courtyard. They took away our food and started questioning us. They wanted to know where we sneaked out. I was the most scared, so one of the Partisans put me on the back of his bicycle to show him the place where we went out. As we approached the path around the marsh, we walked about 100 feet where the path was narrow. I told him this was the place. He took his pistol out and asked if I knew what happens to people who get caught. I started crying and he told me to lay on the ground, cover my eyes and he was going to shoot me. He said it will be over in a few seconds. I heard three shots and a moment later, he pulled me up from the ground. I could see the holes just above where my head was. He took me back to the courtyard where the two others waited. They released us and told us to go home. The hunger was so great and the family had little to eat because the food was taken from us. A few days later the three of us snuck out again begging for food and we used our secret path again - the one I showed the Partisan was on the other end of town.

          As the months passed, more and more young children and older people died. Sometimes you woke up in the morning and the person sleeping next to you, died in his sleep. In November, 1945, an epidemic of typhoid fever broke out. Many of my cousins, aunts, Reder grandmother and Hoenisch grandmother died or starved because there was no medicine or doctor. I remember seeing my dead Hoenisch grandmother lying outside on the cold porch with just her head covered with a cloth. We couldnít take her out to the cemetery because there was a shortage of wheel barrels. At the height of the epidemic, between 75 to 100 people died or starved everyday. In every street, you could see people wheeling out their dead relatives to be buried in mass graves. The bodies were put into rows covered with ground and then another row was started. People started to eat the dogs, cats, pigeons and whatever they could find. In the surrounding labor camps, the epidemic also spread. The sick people were transferred to Gakowa. My mother came to Gakowa before Christmas and stayed in our house. We were not spared from the epidemic, but somehow managed to survive.

          In the meantime, my father and his brother, John, were captured by the Russians near Budapest, Hungary. They were declared prisoners of war and put in the camp. He told me this story many times. It was very boring for them just sitting around the camp. One day the Russian guards came around asking for volunteers to load freight cars at the train station. The two brothers and some other men volunteered for the day. When they came back that night, the camp was empty. The ones that stayed behind were shipped to Siberia. Many of these men died there and the others were not released until 1949-1950. My father and the remaining men were released a week later. They started the long journey back to Filipovo on foot not knowing what happened to us. When they came close to the Yugoslavian border, they found out what was going on in Gakowa. They both hired themselves out as farm labors in Gara - which was about 20 miles from Gakowa. Beginning in 1946 some people managed to escape from Gakowa and stopped on the farm where they worked. They told him that some of us were alive. Some men risked their lives sneaking into Gakowa by night and the next night took their families out with them to Hungary. One day my mother received a letter from my father telling us that he was alive in Hungary and in a short time will come and try to get us out. We were very happy and everybody cried. The winter days were very long and the waiting for our escape kept us alive. Many more relatives died and my grandfatherís health worsened. He could barely walk. My cousin Melchior and his sister Eva Hoenisch were taken away from Gakowa. There was nobody left to take care of them, after their mother died. They were taken to Serbia to be raised by strange people. On a raw February day when we almost gave up hope, my father knocked at the door during the night. The joy and happiness of being reunited again as a family is hard to describe. My father and his brother had to hide in the attic all day because the guards came looking in the houses for the men. We were told to carry as little as possible because of the long walk to reach the Hungarian border. Around 8:00 at night we said good bye to my grandfather and the remaining relatives. My grandfather begged my father not to leave him behind. We knew that he would not survive long. As our journey to freedom started, we left behind in mass graves two grandmothers, three aunts, eight cousins and many friends.

Map provided Paul Hoenisch

          February 13, 1946 was a cold, clear night, with few clouds and almost a full moon - not the best night for an escape from Gakowa. If we got caught, the older people would be killed and the children returned to the camp. The first part of the escape from Gakowa was through the gardens where there were no guards. We were told by the guide my father hired, not to talk and keep walking no matter what. We walked for many hours across frozen fields. Sometimes laying on the ground for short breaks. My cousin Frank was only 2 Ĺ years old and my sister was 5. They had to be carried sometimes. As we came close to the border, we were told by the leader to walk behind each other and fall to the ground whenever he did. The closer we came to the border without being detected by the guards, the better our chances were. On our hands and knees, we crept within a few hundred yards of the border for our dash across to freedom. We could see the guards coming together and talking to each other. The guide told us that it takes so long for the guards to cover their distance. When he thinks they are farthest apart, he will give the signal for our run to freedom. As we were waiting for that moment, there were very few clouds and a bright moon. Many people froze to death because they couldnít make that final dash across the border. We waited maybe half an hour for a cloud to cover the moon. The guide gave us the signal to start running. We ran as hard as we could. The border was roughly a six feet wide by two feet wide deep ditch. After we crossed the ditch we ran another few hundred yards. We were safe and everybody fell exhausted to the ground to rest.

          After resting we walked another few miles to a farm house. My father had arranged for us to stop there. The next day the farmer drove all of us with horse and wagon to the farm where my father and his brother worked. We celebrated our first day of freedom resting and finally having a good meal. While my father and his brother worked, we recuperated and played games. On the next farm, were Russian soldiers and we visited them often - riding their ponies. They treated us like their own children. A few weeks later, my cousin Victoria died on the farm. She could not enjoy her freedom long. We also received word that my grandfather died a heartbroken, lonely man in Gakowa. At the end of March, the lady who owned the farm told us that Hungary was going to be a communist country and it would be best to leave the country as soon as we could. She told us that ethnic Germans from Hungary were being deported to Austria and Germany. We could join a transport around Budapest. The train fare from Gara to Budapest was one million pengo. She gave my father one dozen eggs and said on the black market they should get us to Budapest.

          The beginning of May started our journey to a unknown future. We came to Budapest, a city in ruin from the war with bridges destroyed across the Danube River. German and Russian tanks burned out, trucks and artillery pieces laying all over. They took us to a camp where we received some identification papers. A few days later, we were taken outside Budapest where we joined a transport. We were crowded in freight cars again for another destination. The train went across the flatlands of Hungary into Austria. The long train with two locomotives in front and one in the back went through the Austrian Alps very slow. Many times the train was pushed on a side track to let other freight trains to go by. These trains were loaded with machinery from German and Austrian factories on their way to Russia. Our train stopped on the Austrian border town of Bitigheim. All the people had to get off and we were sprayed with a powder for lice. There I saw my first colored person in my life - an American soldier.

          The train made its way through southern Germany, stopping in Ulm where we stayed in a camp for ten days. The people from the transport were divided into groups to be taken into different sections of Germany. The next train took us to Waiblingen, south of Stuttgart. There we stayed for two weeks in a camp receiving medical checkups and then officially declared displaced persons of the war. On the morning of June 6, 1946, a group of about eight families were put on a truck and taken to Endersbach about three miles from Waiblingen. The two Hoenisch families were unloaded at the town hall. The rest of the people went to different towns in the region.

          We were told to wait in the street until someone picks us up. After about an hour, a short elderly man came with a small hay wagon and asked for the Valentin Hoenisch family. He introduced himself as Paul Pfander and told us that he has been selected by the town council to give us housing and work for my father. He asked us where are luggage was. My mother said all we have we can carry. Our new home was on top of a factory that Mr. Pfander owned. Some of the rooms were used to house French and other prisoner of wars who had to work for the war effort. The attic room we slept in was not large and the whole family slept in one room. I remember sleeping on an army cot as long as we stayed in Endersbach. We had to go two stories down to the kitchen, shower and toilet.

          In 1946 the times in Germany were bad. We received ration cards. Mr. Pfander gave my mother many sacks of potatoes for cooking. I remember my mother asking us how should she prepare the potatoes today. Sometimes we had potatoes three times a day. After missing school for about two years, I started school again in September. It was very hard because of the long delay. The times started to get better in 1947. I joined the youth soccer club and played on a very good team. Some of our relatives made Endersbach their first stop after being released from different prison camps and concentration camps.

          The American Red Cross and the Catholic Relief Service became very active bringing families and relatives back together. Later in the year my motherís sisters in America obtained our address through the Red Cross. We started to receive care packages from the United States. The coffee and cigarettes were used for trade on the black market. My father went by train to Bavaria using these things to trade for bacon, flour, sugar and other materials. I finished sixth grade in June 1948 and started working in a small handweaving shop in Grumbach about four miles from Endersbach. We also received some care package from my fatherís uncle, Jacob Lee. In one letter he asked my father if the family would be interested in immigrating to America. The uncle had a large farm and winery in Bordentown, New Jersey. My father was a barrel maker by trade, so he would be very helpful there. After many days of discussions, we all said ok. The process of immigrating to the United States started in late 1948. We had to travel to Stuttgart a couple of times to receive our clearance from the American council. They told us only American citizens were the first ones to immigrate. After many months of waiting, we received our notice of departure date and we said goodbye to all our relatives and friends. On December 6, 1949 we left Endersbach by train for Hamburg and our departure by ship to the United States. We stayed in a camp on the Elbe River for five days - going through all kinds of medical tests. I could not believe my eyes when we saw the SS Washington steam by the camp on her way to the port of Hamburg.

          December 11, on my sisterís ninth birthday, we boarded the ship. We left Hamburg at night and in the morning the ship sailed into the North Sea. The first stop was Southampton, England. After two days in the Atlantic, we made a short stop outside the port of Cork in Ireland. The ship left Ireland for the rough five day trip across the Atlantic to New York. The men and women were in separate cabin. The men cabins were on the lower deck - sleeping 6 to a cabin. I slept on the top of a bunk bed. In the middle of the Atlantic we encountered a heavy storm. Most of the passengers became seasick. The fortunate, who didnít get sick, could enjoy the good food. The one way fare was $300 each person. Late at night on the 18th of December, we could see the first lights in the distance. The next morning the ship sailed into New York harbor, past the Statute of Liberty. Most of the passengers were on deck - some cheering and others crying. I didnít know at the time what the statute stood for. As I looked back to the morning, as millions of other immigrants before me probably do, she opened her arms and welcomed this 16 year old displaced person to a new beginning and a better future. After we embarked, about ten relatives greeted us. They were my motherís sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins. We started the final leg of our journey in a 1948 Plymouth car. Looking out the window, seeing all the tall buildings of New York was something I never saw before. When we drove through the Holland tunnel, my fatherís uncle said ďThis morning the ship you came on passed over the tunnel.Ē My head was spinning with excitement and I was wondering --what comes next. We drove on US-130 for about two hours to the farm outside Bordentown, New Jersey. For the first time in my life, that night I had my own room and my own bed to sleep in. The next morning my fatherís aunt asked if I wanted eggs for breakfast. The last eggs I had was in Filipovo. I almost ate a dozen and the aunt said ďDidnít this boy get anything to eat in Europe?Ē We celebrated our first Christmas in America on the farm and a couple days later, the son drove us to Philadelphia where my motherís sisters lived. For the first time I met all my cousins that I never knew I had. On New Years Eve all the cousins came together and we walked on Germantown Avenue around Lehigh Avenue and later went to the Carmen Theatre for a New Years Show.

          After we came back to the farm, the son said ďPaul and Rosie, Iím going to take you to school tomorrow.Ē We drove about five miles to Columbus, New Jersey in Mansfield Township. He took us into the principalís office to be registered. I was told to start the sixth grade. There were about 25 young boys and girls in the class. Not one teacher or student in the whole school could speak German and I could not speak a word of English. The teacher sat me in the last row and showed me with sign language what to do. The first couple weeks I was on my own, writing from books, doing arithmetic and reading. The son bought me a very good German English dictionary to check the words. Every morning we said the Pledge of Allegiance and each day a different student had to read a page from the Bible. One morning the teacher called me up front to read the Bible. I was shaking and my accent was terrible. But God gave me the strength and courage to finish his words. When I was finished, the teacher and the classmates gave me a big cheer. From that day on, I was one of the class. My sister and I studied long hours every night and listening to the radio to practice our English. My parents worked hard and long hours in the fields in the winery and in the gardens. In the evenings I helped bottle wine for sale. My father received $15 a week and the rest was for room and food.

          Sunday afternoons the whole family sat on the front porch counting all the cars that drove by on Route 130. At that time, Route 130 was the main north and south road in New Jersey. In June 1950, I graduated from sixth grade and my English started to improve. During the summer I helped on the farm and before school started, I was allowed to visit my cousins in Clementon, New Jersey for a week. I remember the uncle gave me $5 spending money to use for the park and whatever I needed. When school started in September, I was determined to learn as much as possible. By Christmas I made enough progress to be transferred to the eighth grade. Mrs. Richardson my eighth grade teacher encouraged me to study and learn as much as I could. She was a very kind and patient person. At the graduation ceremony, a certificate was awarded to me for the 94% average I made in all the subjects. The principal said this young man came to her office a year and a half ago, not knowing one word of English and today he graduated as the second highest in the class. My parents were very proud of me but I was unable to continue my education because of the family financial situation. Mrs. Richardson went with me to find my first job in America.

          I started working for Kennedy Lumberyard on State Street in Trenton, New Jersey for $.75 an hour. My father and the son had some working disagreements later in the year. He started looking for a job in Philadelphia. I saved some money for a car and purchased a 1941 Chevy for $300. We were able to visit our relatives in Philadelphia and my father found a job in Dietz and Watson butcher shop. Beginning 1952, we left the farm and moved to Philadelphia. We all found jobs and rented a three story house on 1209 Mascher Street for $35 a month. We worked hard and saved as much as we could. Many new immigrants came in the early 50ís and settled around Girard Avenue. On March 16, 1954, I was drafted in the United States Army. My sixteen week basic training was taken in Fort Dix, New Jersey. After basic training we were taken by bus to Staten Island, New Jersey - put on the US Navy Transport Ship Darby and sailed for an unknown destination. After nine days at sea, I recognized the white cliffs of Dover in England in the distance. Two days later the ship landed in Bremenhafen, Germany. We traveled by train to Wuerzburg and after two weeks, I was permanently stationed in Aschaffenburg for the rest of my stay in Germany. My outfit company 18th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division took part in many maneuvers and exercises all over Germany and along the Iron Curtain. I was able to visit most of my relatives and on a 14 day pass I was able to see the sites of Paris and Rome. One of my saddest visits was to the grave of my cousin Melchior. His father was able through the Red Cross to locate him and his sister in Yugoslavia. They were united in 1953 as total strangers. Melchior was unable to adjust to his new life and family. He committed suicide at the age of 14.

          On March 30, 1955 one day short of ten years without a country, I became an American citizen in Frankfurt, Germany. In June while on a three-day pass, I went back to Endersbach. As I stood on the same spot where the truck left us on June 5, 1946, I was proud to be an American citizen. I looked up in the sky and said thank you and cried. In October, the 1st Division was transferred back to Fort Riley, Kansas in the United States. We left Bremerhaven on the US Navy Transport Ship General Langston. On my third trip across the Atlantic, I was sure where the ship was taking me. After ten days at sea, the Statute of Liberty looked beautiful. This time she did not open her arms to me as a displaced person without a country, instead she greeted back a proud American soldier and a citizen of the United States.

Paul Hoenisch, November 15, 2001



Last Updated: 19 Nov 2020

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