Semlak in Banat, Arad County

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Semlak (German)
Semlak (Josephinische)
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Mezősomlyó (Hungarian)
Szemlakháza (Hungarian)
Semlac, RO (Official)

Trip to Semlak 2002

Three Cousins - Great Grandchildren of
Andreas Bartolf & Magdalena Maasz

Reunion in Semlak

Rose Mary, Susi and Johann

by Rose Mary Keller Hughes

Read an extensive version of this trip in German (PDF format)

October 2002 

We are back from our outstanding trip of discovery.  Arrived  in Germany to the wide smiles of my second cousin who I had met through the Internet.  We knew one another immediately and there was an instant rapport.  They couldn’t speak English and my husband, Bob, couldn’t speak German but we all managed to get along despite that.  I was surprised that I could remember the German words I’d learned as a child–and I was able to understand everything that was said.  Thank goodness my grandpa insisted that I learn German. 

Our second day in Kandel, Germany I met all the relatives that a short while ago I didn’t even know existed.  They are a pretty remarkable group–three of the women had been taken to Russia as slave labor in the coal mines, some had left Romania in 1971 without any assets, only the clothes on their backs and others had left in the 90s with the help of the family that had settled in Germany.  What a strange twist of fate–to return to Germany after several generations to seek a better life–the very reason why they originally left Germany! They continue to cook in the Semlak style and all are incredible pastry cooks.  They continue the practice of eating the main meal at noon with a light supper at night.  Each day at about 4:00 or 4:30 we were treated to coffee/tea and wonderful pastries.  All kinds of wonderful kuchens and fancy torts.  They also continue to garden in small plots that are rented on a yearly basis.  You’ll find all sorts of vegetables, fruits, and flowers in their gardens – all grown from seed from previous year’s plants.  They continue to be the hard-working and clean descendants of our ancestors. 

Going to Semlak was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream . . . and we couldn’t have done it as well if we had ventured there on our own.  My cousin and his wife drove us on a two-day trip to the village I’d so often heard of from grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles.

When the Semlak outskirts came into view and I saw the sign on the road, I wept because my dream had come true.  I wept as well because my grandparents and my Mom weren’t with me.  They had always wanted to see the village one more time; my father had no desire to do so.


We entered via a dirt road with fields on both sides, fields in which people were doing their farm work.  At the end of the road we came upon the Evangelische (Lutheran) Cemetery and we stopped so we could wander around looking at the headstones.  I’d been warned that I might not find family stones as there has been theft of gravestones and some have been knocked down and destroyed in the process.  Imagine my surprise when I found my great grandparents on my grandpa’s side!  The stone was in good repair.  We also looked at my cousin’s grandfather’s grave–the brother of my grandmother.  I could have stayed there for hours but our hosts were waiting for us. 

The village has paved streets on those going from east to west–the cross streets are dirt and some of them had pretty deep ruts.  There are few cars–you see lots of horse-drawn wagons used not only to transport farm produce but people as well.  Many people have bicycles and it’s not uncommon to see an elderly woman (such as my cousin who is 82) riding along on her bicycle with headscarf in place. 

It is definitely poor–there is no middle class.  There are a few “wealthy” people who own more than one house and have farm equipment; the rest, for the most part, are really scrabbling for their existence.   

The houses were in a varied state of repair or disrepair.  Some looked very nice while others were sorely in need of paint or repair.  They are still in the old style of the house right up to the sidewalk and a large gate (most often metal) that defines the property.  All houses have an inner courtyard–those who are so inclined have a garden in this area as well as their animals. 

It’s really interesting to see the geese, ducks, turkeys and chickens let out of their yards to eat along the road–they know which house to return to at the end of the day!


On both sides of the road is a grassy area with trees with their whitewashed trunks.  Between the trees and the houses is either a path or a sidewalk. 

At one time the trees were Acacia trees.  The bees would make honey from the flowers.  These trees were chosen because they grew fast and could be cut down for wood.  Later the residents replaced the trees with plum trees for schnapps.

Triple row of Plum Trees in front of each Home


The original houses had three rooms–the front room which served as a bedroom for the family, an eating room, and a visiting the room.  The middle room had the entrance and had a clay stove in it with openings to heat the two other rooms.  The back room, or gute stube, was only used for special events and had a bed, chair and tables, and prized possessions on display.  There would usually be an overhanging roof along the three rooms with pillars.  A stall would be at the very end for the livestock.  The heat from the animals would heat the back room along with the heat from the stove in the kitchen.  Today it is rare to see such a home as additions have been made to accommodate a different style of living.  There are still a good number of homes that continue to rely on outhouse bathroom facilities.  

In Semlak, even after generations of living together, they still refer to the residents as German, Romanian, or Gypsy.  They seem to live in harmony.  In fact, my 82-year-old cousin cans extra food to sell to the gypsies.  Her pantry looks like a store with the many shelves filled with hundreds of jars of fruit and vegetables and there’s many smoked sausages hanging from the ceiling.  She makes her own schnapps and sells that as well.  She was a cook and then a caterer for over 22 years and is known for her outstanding pastries–she still bakes daily and will trade her baked goods for other necessities.  This cousin was also a slave laborer in the Russian coalmines–they were worked there for five years in unbelievably awful conditions. 

The Burning of the Schnapps
Johann, the Burning Proprietor, and Dr. Toma

The people are really quite remarkable in their attitude considering how poor they are.  The most obvious evidence of their need is in the poor condition of their teeth.  In fact, so many of them have either lost most of their teeth or have rotted teeth.  Our hostess, a lovely woman in her forties has half of her bottom teeth missing.  It was such a surprise to discover why she would always cover her mouth when she laughed. 

They tend to layer their clothing.  You will see women with skirts layered over pants.  They still wear the headscarves (Kopf Tuch) and the backless slippers I remember seeing my grandma wear.  When entering a house they will slip off their shoes.  The men wear either billed caps (not the baseball style, though, occasionally you’ll see one) or black fedoras. 

I was fortunate to get into both the churches of my heritage.  Both are in need of repair and walls are cracking.  The congregations are very small because so many of the German community left.  It’s quite sad to hear them talk about only 8 people being in church the Sunday before.  There is a sadness among those who remained in the village–they say they are alone now and there are very few with whom to speak German. 


Reformierte (Calvinist) Church Interior


Church has a table rather than an altar- 
Name on clothing behind table is that
of my paternal ancestors!


Reformierte (Calvinist) School
School Attended by my Father
- Next to Church


Evangelische Church Hymn Sing

Pfarrer Sinn playing organ while Johann sings
in German and Rose Mary sings in English


Our host and hostess were just too wonderful to describe.  Their home is better than most in the village and we were lucky to have indoor plumbing.  They went out of their way to make our stay an enjoyable one.   Toma is one of the two village doctors.

Toma & Lisi Blånitå -- Our Heart Relatives

He had called my cousin and it came up in their conversation that it was becoming very difficult for his patients to get medicine.  He cited a case of a young gypsy woman who brought in her baby for care–the child was very sick.  Our friend wrote a prescription and the mother said that it was worthless because she didn’t have the money to pay for it.  As our friend put it, “what was I to do?  Let the baby die?  So I gave her the money for the prescription.”  My cousin approached his doctor in Germany and asked if he had any samples that he might contribute to the Semlak doctor.  The German doctor packed up three large boxes of sample medicine.  We were concerned we might not make it through the border but they didn’t even look in our suitcases.  Our Semlak doctor host was thrilled–especially since we discovered that his and his wife’s combined take-home pay is under $200!  And, he’s a doctor!  Imagine what it is like for the average person in Semlak!  Yet, our people continue to be generous with whatever they have and they continue to smile and laugh and joke with one another.  They are a remarkable people. 

We went one day to Arad (the county seat) and were surprised at the size of the city as well as its cosmopolitan character.  There are lots of things available–just not enough money to buy what’s being offered.  There’s a brand-new hotel–the Continental and it’s pretty posh.  Food is inexpensive (for the tourist’s pocketbook) and quite good. 

What are my most memorable experiences? 

  • Seeing the spires of the churches as we neared Semlak

  • Visiting the churches where my ancestors worshipped

  • Finding my Bartolf great grandfather’s grave along with some of his children

  • Having the priest of the Evangelische church play the two organs and urging us to sing along with him

  • Meeting my second cousin who still lives in Semlak and tasting her delicious food

  • Going to a schnapps burning

  • Sitting and visiting over cakes and coffee with some pretty incredible people

  • Walking the streets that my ancestors walked

  • Gaining access to the home of my grandmother and grandfather

  • Identifying and photographing the family homes

Home of Adam Wagner and Elisabeth geb. Bartolf

Side Yard of My Maternal Grandparents' Home
  • Listening to the church bells peal

  • Going to the Tuesday market

Market Day in Semlak

Garlic and Other Goodies

  • Eating the good foods of my heritage

  • Weeping with my relatives as we said our goodbyes – some are of an age that we may never see one another again

  • Crying as we drove away from the land of my dreams not knowing if I would ever return

The Beautiful Marosch

The River Runs on the Southern Border of Semlak

Semlak Train Station
A Train Comes Through Twice a Day

Semlak Village Coordinator: Rose Mary Keller Hughes, New York, USA
© 2006-2013 Rose Mary Keller Hughes unless otherwise noted.
Last updated: 07 Jul 2013


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