This brief study deals with the fate of some 20,000 Danube Swabian children from the Yugoslavian Banat. A similar fate awaited the children in the Batschka which is a story all its own. Their fathers had been taken to fight a war that was already lost and their mothers were dragged off to slave labour in the Soviet Union. The children languished in extermination camps and many died of hunger along with their grandparents. The orphans who survived and were still young enough were placed in so-called State “children’s homes” to be raised as “comrade citizens” of the new People’s Republic of Yugoslavia in the hope of turning them into Janisaries.
Janisaries were annual quotas of Christian boys levied by the Turks in the Balkans who were taken from their families and raised as fanatic Moslems to do the bidding of the Sultan often against their own people that they no longer remembered.
The 20,000 Danube Swabian children were placed in some 40 State homes throughout Yugoslavia where they were brainwashed into the state ideology of Yugoslavia. They would no longer “remember” or be conscious of their Danube Swabian identity and heritage.
To all intents and purposes the Second World War had bypassed the Banat. Where could danger or a threat to the Banat come from? The non Danube Swabian populations in their villages with whom they lived in peace for generations bore them no animosity or hostility. There were no Partisans in the Banat unlike the other regions of Yugoslavia. There was only a token force of the German occupying army in the Banat.
But as the war took a turn in favour of the Allied Powers armies focus was shifted to the campaign in central Europe. There were those who encouraged the Danube Swabians to flee to Germany for safety. This would later become “official” policy when it was too late for many. It was only the Danube Swabians in Slavonia and Syrmien who fled en masse under the leadership and protection of the German Army but only because they were ordered to do so. In the Batschka only a minority of the population joined the refugee treks. In the Banat, by and large, the Swabians simply stayed put. (Translator’s
note: This is a very biased account and disregards the Führer Order that the Danube Swabians were not to be evacuated or allowed to leave. Those who left would be branded traitors and defeatists. Those who actually left were mostly the local Danube Swabian Nazi leaders and party functionaries who had also escaped going into the military.)
The Danube Swabian farmer had learned patience and how to live with catastrophe; occupation by a foreign army was just one more thing to come their way and they would be able to survive it. They knew there would be political consequences just as there had been after the First World War. But like always, the Banaters would be loyal to their ethnic and cultural heritage and loyal to the State in which they lived as they always had. No wonder the Banat had developed into the most prosperous region in Yugoslavia and the Danube Swabians had the respect of the other nationalities around them.
In less than a week, in fact a matter of three days, the Banat was overrun by the Red Army following the capitulation of Romania in August of 1944 and faced only token resistance on the part of the few German occupying forces. Other Germans were rushed in at the last minute, but it was too late. By September 16th the Soviet Army had reached the banks of the Tisza River and the city of Temesvar had been taken. The Germans tried to hold the front here on the river line but by October 18th Belgrade fell and all of the Batschka was in danger and hastily organized treks attempted to escape as the Germans and Hungarians retreated to
Lake Balaton and the siege of Budapest soon began.
The Banat was in the hands of the Soviets. The occupation had been so swift that little uproar or destruction was created. There was no real resistance. The occupation was basically what the Danube Swabian population had anticipated. People simply played the game of ostriches and accepted the “results” of the occupation. But then several weeks after the beginning of the occupation in this Soviet “liberated” area where 500,000 Danube Swabians lived the military administration of the region was handed over to the Partisans and their leadership.
This was not an organized army in which order and discipline could be expected. These were armed bands from Serbia and Bosnia in search of plunder in the prosperous Banat. Belgrade was interested in the wealthy landholdings of the Danube Swabians in the Banat and Wojwodina (Batschka) some 1,800,000 joch (1.6 acres a joch) of land and 80,000 houses. But what would they do with the Danube Swabians who were in the way? Could they be trusted not to become an opposition to their planned takeover? There was no need to fear that because all of the able bodied men were in the army or were already prisoners of war. They would have a free hand with
the Danube Swabian population. Should they expel them from the country as others did and would in future. That would create an international incident wherever they arrived. There was only one alternative: the 200,000 Danube Swabians who had remained must be liquidated. For that purpose Belgrade set up the process and plan for the “final solution” to the Danube Swabian problem.
The decrees and laws of the national anti-fascist assembly on November 21, 1944 had three points directed against the Danube Swabian civilian populaton. (1) All persons living in Yugoslavia of German origin were stripped of their citizenship and all rights of a person before the law automatically on the basis of their race. (2) All goods and property of the Danube Swabians were confiscated by the State. (3) They had no rights under the law to protect the above matters in the courts. The Danube Swabian population were declared to be outlaws…outside the law.
They were placed into the hands of the military administration of the Partisans wherever they happened to live. Plundering, murder, rape, torture, beatings and mass shootings took place throughout the Banat. Local Serbs followed the lead of the Partisans. The Danube Swabians regardless of age, gender or status were guilty of the crime of being German. A systematic plan of liquidation was set into motion.
Moscow was only too glad to assist Yugoslavia in carrying out the extermination. Tito would have the gratitude of the Soviets and would get rid of the younger Danube Swabians. Although the Partisans had little to do with the actual “liberation” they sought to control the Banat and for this privilege they were willing to pay but not with money that they did not have but with able bodied workers to rebuild the wrecked Soviet economy. The question was: Where could they find the necessary workers? Just about any Danube Swabian village or enclave would do.
How many were taken? In Apatin alone 2,400 women were deported to the labour camps in Russia. In all, it is estimated that 40,000 Danube Swabian women from Yugoslavia were taken to the Soviet Union and this figure does not include those from Romania and Hungary and also excludes the Transylvania Saxons who all shared the same fate. Few women and older teenaged girls able to work were left in the Banat. Men from eighteen to forty, women from eighteen to thirty years were taken but those age groups differed in various villages according to the quota that had been established. This mass deportation occurred around Christmas 1944. But
because so many of the men had gone off to war a second roundup followed at the beginning of 1945 and this time nursing mothers and pregnant women were not excluded and the age for women was raised to thirty-five and lowered to sixteen in some places to meet the quota.
Packed in cattle cars they set out for Russia in the midst of a bitterly cold winter and their families had no idea of where they were or what had become of them. Only one out of three of these women would ever return home from the coal mines at Stalino in Ukraine. Those who were released three years later were sent to East Germany and from there they began to search for their husbands, children and families.
But what had their children endured? They had seen their mothers being taken away, torn right from their arms. It was something neither the mothers nor children would ever forget if they were among those who survived. The children were simply left behind as if abandoned. Is there any way to describe that horrendous experience and trauma for the young children? Some of the smaller children were left in the care of an older brother or sister; some were left with grandparents, relatives, neighbours and some were left alone. One old grandfather in Fillipowa in the Batschka was left to care for over twenty of his grandchildren. The strong
sense of community among the Danube Swabians often led to an organized care of all the “orphaned” children but the Partisans often interfered in their efforts.
The confiscation of houses and property of the Danube Swabians was carried out quickly and the displaced population were housed in internment camps. The original plan was the total liquidation of all those in the camps by 1947. A whole string of labour camps were set up in the Banat for those still able to work. The rest of the population, the elderly and children were placed in large internment camps. Karlsdorf that became Rankovicev was a camp for the elderly and infirm and better known as “the old folk’s home.” Most of the Roman Catholic priests serving in the Banat were also placed there. There were other camps in Rudolfsgnad
(Knicanin), Gakowa, Kruschevlje, Stefansfeld, Molidorf, Brestowatz and Kathreinfeld. All of them were former Danube Swabian villages.
The first camp that was established was in Werschetz on November 18, 1944. This was six days before the law passed by the so-called National Assembly which would become known as the AVNOJ. Ten days later the people of Palanka, Neusatz and other parts of the Batschka were driven from their homes and into the camps. The last village that was purged of its Danube Swabian inhabitants was Stanischitisch which had a Serbian majority that protected its local German population for as long as possible up until August of 1945. By September no Danube Swabian man, woman or child was free in all of Yugoslavia.
When the surviving children were taken out of the extermination camps for the purpose of “rehabilitation,” all of their possessions, especially pictures, documents and papers were taken away from them. Brothers and sisters were separated and all of the children were strangers to one another. Their names were never to be used again and if the children did they were punished. Each child was given a Croatian or Serbian name. They were also made to forget their origins, their place and date of birth. They were told that
they were orphans. They had no living parents. One of the youngsters fought for his identity in the years that followed by repeating his name, “Michael Heider” until he fell asleep each night. If any of the children spoke German they were disciplined.
The fathers of these children were released from prisoner of war camps and made their way to the Western Zone of Germany and Austria. At the same time the mothers who had survived the labour camps in the Soviet Union were “dumped” in the Russian Zone of Germany and made their way illegally into the Western Zones. The parents sought to be reunited with one another and then began the search for their children if they had any indication they could have survived the death camp at Rudolfsgnad or Gakowa. But they were haunted by the question that if they located their children could they ever be a family again. They undertook the campaign to
locate their children using all of their energies and resources.
Organizations were established by their fellow countrymen in Germany and Austria. Key individuals began the investigations and research including Professor Gauss and Anton Rumpf. The original investigation centred on targeting the location of the “children’s homes”. They were unable to have much clout so they appealed to the International Red Cross at Geneva and provided them with the first list of names of the “kidnapped” children.