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Remembrances of My Time in Austria
(Erinnerungen an Österreich)
Part One | Part Two | Part Three

by Adam Martini

From the Jan-Mar 2008 issue of the Trentoner Donauschwaben Nachrichten
 English translation by
Hans Martini
Published at dvhh.org 12 Mar 2008 by Jody McKim Pharr

     The expression "you only live once" is one that always seems to cause a great deal of reflection.  These particular reminiscences are from my time in “Upper Austria” in an area known as "Innviertel."  Our regional capital was "Braunau" and I lived in a hamlet known as "Pfaffing" that was part of a place called "Haigermoos."  Haigermoos was a sleepy little community in 1947 when we arrived as refugees, with just a few hamlets surrounded by farmland.  The whole scene seemed more like something out of the Middle Ages than from the present. 

     The farming families here had worked the land for many generations and were proud of their heritage and traditions.  To insure the farms stayed completely intact, the oldest sons were sole heirs who took the job of passing down the whole farm to their oldest sons quite seriously.  This tradition still goes on today to varying degrees. 

     I found this all most interesting.  While we refugees weren’t exactly greeted with open arms by the locals, one had to hand it to these good and straightforward folks:  They gave us shelter and food, educated our children and welcomed us in their churches where we would join them for mass on Sundays. 

     Every farm had a small house in addition to the main house where everything seemed to happen.  The main house was always one of four that formed a square with a yard in the middle.  The farmer, his wife and children lived there as did any farm hands and caretakers.  The small house stood usually next to the main house.   Here the retired farmer and his wife (the parents of the current farmer/owner) lived when they could no longer work the farm. This is the way it was for generation upon generation.

     So, into this carefully choreographed culture, so rich in tradition, marched refugees like myself.  We were moved right into the small houses by the government and the old-timers had to move back into the main houses with their son’s family.  We took up residence anywhere an empty room could be found.  Naturally there was quite a bit of resentment on their part, but who can really blame them? 

     On the other hand, we Donauschwaben provided a cheap and very effective workforce.  Indeed, it caused an economic upturn in the area that was plain for all to see.  Since there was no industry, there was little for our people to do but work the farms.  So undeveloped was the area that the only paved road was only as long as the tiny hamlet itself. 

     And so it was that in the fall of 1947 my family came to this place called Haigermoos. It was here that my mom, grandmother, sister and I found a place to stay and a place to put the few things that comprised our worldly possessions.  I was a “thin as a bean stalk” ten year old and my sister, Maria, was just four.  We were happy to have escaped with our lives from Tito’s death camps and wanted very much to put that unpleasant memory behind us.  My mother, always the strongest of our family, knew how to get along and was able to always make the best of things.  My grandmother, on the other hand, was as stubborn as they come, with strong views that she was quick to share no matter what the circumstance.  It fell to me to try and keep her as quiet and as inoffensive to others as possible.  Alas, the very first comment she made was within earshot of the locals, saying in a heavy Donauschwaben dialect "how come these folks don’t speak proper German?"  Our new life in Haigermoos was off to a roaring start!

     These days it’s different, of course.  Those small houses I mentioned above have now become something like villas.  All the roads and even the walkways are nicely paved.  The nearby pond called "Hoellerer See" (which no one but the locals knew about back then) has now become something of a tourist destination.  Farmers have changed too.  They manage to do almost all of the work by themselves, it seems.  Modern equipment has revolutionized the farming industry and no longer are horses, oxen and throngs of farmhands necessary.  Milking machines take care of the cows whose output is optimized by highly trained veterinarians for heaven’s sake! 

     Over the years, many of the Donauschwaben moved away from the area.  Some went to the larger towns in search of work while others sought their fortune across the Atlantic Ocean.  Still others got married to native Austrians and became citizens of that country.  A few would even stay and build their own homes in Haigermoos. 

     This is just a taste of what the situation was like for us refugees in Austria after the war.  Hopefully, you have some sense of the area and the folks we encountered.  I've surely forgotten many of the details over all these years, but my impressions of that beautiful land and its people will stay with me forever.

 Part 2

     In my last essay, I tried to describe the town of my youth - “Haigermoos” - as well as a bit about the farmers and citizens in that area.  We actually ended up there because of the brother of my grandmother, der Tonivetter.  Known more formally as Anton Helmlinger, he was the oldest of eighteen siblings in this particular Helmlinger family. 18 siblings!  Of these, however, just 13 survived past early childhood.  This high rate of infant mortality was not uncommon in those days. 

     Tonivetter was a pretty successful fellow back in his Donauschwaben hometown of Lowas in Srem. He was an upstanding citizen and did pretty well for himself as the owner of a grain-milling company.  Now however, “shipwrecked” as a refugee in a place far from home, things were quite different.  He was old, tired and had few resources at his disposal.  His three daughters and their families fully occupied the few rooms and a run down bungalow that were available so my granduncle could do little to help us no matter how much he wanted to.  So, my mother, sister, grandmother and I were right in the midst of many of our relatives, but had nowhere to stay!  Every single apartment and spare room  in the area was occupied by refugee Donauschwaben just like ourselves.  The situation did not look good.

     My super religious grandmother kept repeating:  “God will help us, God will look after us.”  And as it happened so often before to us, help did indeed come.  This time from a man named Franz Neissl, a big time farmer from the nearby village of Pfaffing.  Franz had a lot of living space at his disposal… but every square meter was packed, and mostly with our own relatives.  There was, however, a small building nearby that was until now assumed to be uninhabitable.  He promised to let us stay in this place as long as my grandmother and I helped gather hay during the harvest and assist with the feeding of his herd of forty cows.  He also promised milk and potatoes throughout the year. 

     The building was something like a storage shed with an overhanging roof.  It was here that flax was processed and dried some time before. While it was probably okay for flax, it was by no means a home for a family of four.  No matter how sad the place looked however, my mom wanted us to get the storage shed in the worst way.  She saw an opportunity where no other existed and jumped at the chance.  Remodeling the place had to be done quickly as the onset of winter was close at hand.  There was much to do:  a good floor had to be built along with a stove to both heat the place and cook food.  Our relatives threw themselves into the task and completed the work just as Father Winter came knocking at the door.  We had a home at last!

     Every single day, every SINGLE day, I had to roam the woods looking for fuel for that stove.  I came to loath this endless task. Another never-ending job was getting drinking water.  The distance was some 300 meters to the source but it seemed like 3000 meters when the temperatures plunged. 

     Somebody gave us two old mattresses, one for my mom and sister, the other for my grandmother.  I got to know the comforts of sleeping on a straw-bunk.  In fact, our very roughly made dinner table was jammed up against my “bed” to prevent me from tumbling off at nights!  Of course, there was no electricity or plumbing so we aren’t talking about modern conveniences as we know them today.  In fact, it took the best efforts of a relative named Hans to construct an outhouse outside the back part of the building. 

     In late fall we moved into our “chalet” and quickly came to terms with our new living arrangements. No more dealing with overcrowded farmhouses, stuffed full with noisy and nosey relatives and countrymen.  Admittedly, it was a bit lonesome during snowy winters. It was also quite a hassle when you had to go the bathroom or get water when freezing was the only way to describe conditions outside.  Still, it was a place of our own.  We were living large!

     You know, I often think back on those days.  I remember how ashamed I was of our primitive living conditions. So embarrassed was I that I never brought my school friends home with me.  But now I also recall the many good things that came with living in that little hut.  It was a time of total freedom and self-discovery.  My living so close to nature gave me an opportunity to experience things I had never experienced before.  It was a wonderfully liberating time, one I will never forget.

Part 3

The long, cold winter that served as a quiet “down” time for local farmers was now at an end.  In 1948, I was eleven years old and enrolled in the Haigermoos (Austria) primary school.  Since my formal education had stopped during my captivity in Yugoslavia, I was definitely too old to be attending the second grade.  It turns out that the many hours of practicing my reading with my Grossmutter during my “stay” in the camps paid off however and I was in very good shape to move ahead.  So with the help of my teacher, Mr. Egon Kreuzbauer, and his colleagues, I was able to skip through the second, third and fourth classes all in just one year. 

In any case, reading now became my salvation in the long weeks and months spent in that little hut of ours.  I fondly remember the books written by Karl May whose novels were set in the American West - cowboys and Indians!  These were popular in every German speaking area of Europe.  I read these page-turners with a voracious appetite.  Indeed, the endless Austrian winter was ideal for such a welcome distraction. 

My grandmother put up with my reading habit at first, but as spring approached her patience waned.  She had other plans for my free time.  We had to build a pigpen and a vegetable garden. She also wanted to construct a chicken enclosure since we had some extra space.  She said she needed no less than ten hens and a rooster for this new undertaking. 

Our farmer/landlord, Herr Neissl, wasn’t really pleased with this news and he warned of the foxes and hawks that preyed on such creatures.  Grossmutter had her own ideas about such predators and said that should they endanger our chickens they would be in for a big surprise.  It slowly occurred to me that my grandmother could not be scared by the well intentioned farmer into believing this plan of hers wasn’t a good idea.  One morning I heard the voices of my Grossmutter and the farmer having a heated discussion.  Finally, Herr Neissl said in an exasperated manner, “Go ahead, Susi (my Oma’s name was Susanna), do what you want so I can have some peace and quiet.  No more than ten hens and one rooster however.”

This of course meant that I would be very busy constructing the chicken enclosure, further reducing my already precious free time.  The plan was carried out rather quickly and soon we had a fenced in area with nest-beds for egg laying.  The idea was to keep them inside at night and let them loose in a fenced-in section of the yard during the day.

Of course my grandmother had more than ten hens!  She reasoned that some might die or that there might be more than one rooster so the number of hens had to keep pace.  The poor farmer looked on in dismay but said nothing. 

Slowly the months passed and our chickens grew in size.  Some spent the night in the trees while others stayed inside the stall.  Our small home became livelier and livelier.  The pigs, chickens and rooster gave our tiny patch of land a unique and interesting quality all its own.  Things were happening and none of our relatives had anything comparable.  They lived too close to the farm so it just wasn’t possible for them to do what we did. 

And so my grandmother’s goal was realized and we now had our own little enterprise.  We had valuable fresh eggs and we had two pigs, one for us and one to be sold to a relative in nearby Salzburg. Things were looking up!

My uncle Toni Mack and a bunch of other relatives helped butcher the pig late in the year.  Uncle Toni knew all the ins and outs of sausage making and meat cutting.  He set the tone and everyone in the group followed his instructions.  Even my sister and I were expected to help along.  It was a real Donauschwaben undertaking:  there was drinking of fruit wine, occasional swearing in Croatian or Hungarian, and later, when the men had a enough wine (called Most), there was the singing of melodious Croatian songs.  It was just like at home in Bukin, Yugoslavia, and I loved it. 

It was, however, quite different from what the local farmers in Austria did.  They didn’t spend nearly as much time doing the work and the event was far less festive.  For instance, when our farmer/landlord Mr. Neissl slaughtered a pig he sent for Mr. Pfaffinger from the village of Haigermoos.  Mr. Pfaffinger was the village barber, the church administrator, the priest’s assistant and acolyte, as well as a small-scale farmer.  He also had a store that served as a gathering place for the entire area. 

Anyway, Mr. Pffafinger had his own system when it came to slaughtering pigs.  Unlike the Donauschwaben, no sausages or head cheese (Schwartenmagen) would be produced.  Even the killing of the pig was done differently.  The Austrian would first stun the pig with a heavy hammer blow before “bleeding” the animal with a knife and killing it.  Uncle Toni, on the other hand, would simply use a sharp knife to take the life of the hapless pig, bleeding it at the same time.  This difference in dispatching the animal and a few other disparities in handling the meat convinced both my grandmother and uncle Toni that the Donauschwaben way was a far better way.  Naturally opinions varied but my Grossmutter told everyone the Austrians didn’t know what they were doing.  It sure didn’t make her many friends among our hosts!

As the excitement of the Schlachtfest subsided, winter was once again upon us.   Falling snow signaled the beginning of a period of rest for the farmers.  Card games would be played and we would all listen to radio broadcasts in the farmer’s parlor.  It was a time of relaxation ahead of the busy spring season just a few months away. 

To be continued......
Adam Martini, published at dvhh.org 12 Mar 2008.
Our dear Adam Martini passed away February 4, 2020 at age 82.


Last Updated: 04 Feb 2020

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