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Thinking often on Vrbas in the Backa

By Valerie Kreutzer
Published at DVHH.org by Jody McKim Pharr

My grandmother stood on the brick path that leads from the main house to the kitchen. “Do you want some grapes?” she asked. I was four and didn’t really know what grapes were –they didn’t grow up north where we lived.  But yes, I wanted some, and she cut a cluster and then dunked them in a pale of water. She held out blue berries bursting with summer and dripping with grandmotherly affection.


My grandmother lived in Yugoslavia. Her ancestors had come some 300 years ago from various parts of southern Germany, where wars had ravaged the land and decimated prospects for the future. The poor peasants had floated down the Danube on rickety boats, invited by Austria’s emperors who wanted the German settlers to serve the empire as buffers against the Turks.


One of the new settlers’ territories, the Backa, was nestled between the Danube and the Tisa Rivers. It belonged to Hungary, until the new Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes absorbed it after World War I.


Before World War I, the Backa ethnic Germans were supposed to become Hungarians, and some of them did. However, when in 1918 Serbs became the rulers, everyone objected to the possibility of assimilation.


My mother was born in Vrbas, the cultural centre of the Backa. She spoke German at home and at church. At school she became first fluent in Hungarian and later also learned Serbo-Croatian.


She was fourteen and in confirmation class when she met my father, her teacher and ten years her senior. He scolded her for being late and promptly fell in love with her. He was an Austrian and from Vienna, on an internship for the Methodist ministry. They married when she was 20 and served their first congregation in Budapest, Hungary, where my oldest sister was born.


I was born in Berlin, Germany, the youngest of four daughters. By the time I came along, there was an established ritual of summer vacations in the Backa, the virtual paradise of our childhood.


As Nazi Germany continued to declare wars on all fronts, resources became scarce up north. We relished the abundance of foods in the Backa, the stuffed peppers and corn, the goulash and chicken paprikash, peaches and grapes, and the rich desserts. We crowded into our cousins’ beds, and we played endlessly on the premises of the family business, a lumber mill next to the Danube Canal.


My mother organized the children to put on plays in my grandparents’ courtyard. We charged a little admission to keep us flush with dinars for the ice-cream man. During one memorable performance of Hansel and Gretel my sister Heidi, who played Gretel, threatened to quit, unless my older sister Beate, cast as the witch, stopped knocking her about beyond the requirements of the script.


We knew the outbursts of sibling rivalry but were oblivious to the encroaching hostility that threatened the good life in the Backa.


The ethnic German party there, formed in 1918, with delegates sitting in the Belgrade assembly, had demanded greater control over ethnic German minority affairs. When Hitler’s National Socialism a few decades later excited especially the young, the ethnic German minority of half a million felt strong and important and forgot that I was, in fact, a minority. The more they drew on Berlin’s political clout and insisted on their political rights in the midst of a Slavic community, the more hatred they engendered.


When the war’s debacle became apparent and more and more of Tito’s partisans appeared in their backyards, the ethnic German farmers and entrepreneurs packed their bags, hitched their wagons and started to walk towards the lands from which their ancestors had migrated. My relatives were among the endless trek of refugees. The old people, including my grandparents, refused to leave, thinking that the turmoil would soon pass.


We learned about their bitter end in the summer of 1945. We were sitting amidst the rubble of Berlin when my mother received the news of her parents’ death in a Tito’s starvation camp.


According to reports, the new Communist rulers in Yugoslavia had rounded up the remaining ethnic Germans and transported them by train in cattle cars to the village of Jarek, south of Novi Sad. Several families were shoved into a room and made to bed down on the bare floor. The village was cordoned off, no one was allowed in or out.


The camp cooks mixed plaster and vermin into the bread and watery soup. Soon people died of starvation and dysentery. My grandfather, a lay minister, said prayers over the mass graves. After he died, my grandmother continued the prayers, until she, too, died.


There are no tombstones marking the cruel end of these stranded ethnic Germans. Ploughs have leveled the land.



Last Updated: 04 Feb 2020

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