Our lost Donauschwaben Children
The most tragic chapter of our
Danube Swabian tragedy.
Rosina T. Schmidt
Edited by Cornelia
Our Danube Swabian
ancestors lived for centuries in ethnic German communities surrounded by
other nations, like islands in a sea. They were far away from their
mother country but firmly kept their identity in custom and language and
stayed untouched for centuries by political events of the place of their
original roots. For them their language was their identity.
All that changed as the
hurricane winds of WWII swept over them, and in a matter of days they
lost everything that they had achieved over generations. When they had
to flee the place of their birth where their parents and grandparents
and the grandparents of grandparents were born, they left much poorer
than when they arrived there 250 years earlier. So once again they stood
there with nothing, once again they had to start from scratch.
Those who managed to
flee before the Red Army invaded the Danube Schwabian ancestry lands
were the lucky ones. In Austria and the ravaged Germany they were not
met with open arms, and no one believed their stories of what wealth
they had left behind.
1944 Refugee Convoy - Sketch by
But from all the
hardships and genocide that befall us Danube Swabians, the most cruel
and most shocking tragedy is the fate of our lost children in communist
Today we know that
between 40,000 to 45,000
Donauschwaben children below the age of 14 were sent into Tito’s
starvation camps and at least 6,000 (13%) starved to death. The torture
of children was programmed together with the internment of all ethnic
German civilians. Particularly cruel was the brutal taking of children
from their mothers as almost all young women were shipped as work slaves
It is also documented
that over 20,000 children were taken from those camps and sent to
orphanages spread all over Yugoslavia. Siblings were separated, most
children received Slavic names and they were sent to areas far away from
their ancestral homes in order to be raised with a new ideology in a new
language in order to make out of them true patriots of the Tito’s state.
This re-nationalization process runs against the human rights and
personal dignity as per the UN declaration in 1948.
That was 65 years ago
and there is nothing that we can change now. But it is our duty not to
forget them. Those were our people!
As winds of war took
their turn, our Donauschwaben were advised by wiser folk to leave while
they could and in Slavonia and Syrmien, where the Danube Swabian
villages were closer to war exposure, most of the inhabitants left in
long colons going West, but the Banaters who were familiar with various
natural disaster like hunger, famine, loss of harvest, floods and
upheavals of various kinds decided to stay, as they also knew that one
just had to have patience and better times would come again. Of course
one assumed that there would be political changes after the war was
finally over, but for centuries now they successfully lived with the
motto loyalty to ethnicity and loyalty to the state and
once again they would adjust.
As the Soviets
occupied the Pannonian Plains, where more than ½ million ethnic Germans
lived, they turned over the military administration to the partisans.
Those partisans were not part of a disciplined army, but a roughshod
group of thugs from Bosnian and Serbian mountains, who considered Danube
Swabian assets their rightful war booty and handled as such.
1944 - Partisans - Herwig
Were those partisans
afraid of resistance? Of course not! All the men were on the Front, only
women, children and old men were left at home and had no means of
offering any resistance.
in Belgrade decreed a law on 21st of November 1944, that
All ethnic Germans living in Yugoslavia as of that day automatically
lost their citizenships and citizenship rights.
All the assets of persons of German ethnicity, liquid and real estate
are automatically confiscated by the state as of that day.
With that law those
200,000 of Danube Swabians, who still resided in Yugoslavia as of that
day, became outlaws. Both Moscow and Belgrade wanted to get rid
of the ethnic Germans once and for all.
The leaders of the
Soviet Army insisted to be repaid by the Yugoslavian government for the
costs it took to occupy Yugoslavia, or in their words to ‘free’
Yugoslavia. Belgrade was bankrupt and had no means of doing so. Yet the
Soviets insisted. If Belgrade could not pay in gold, they could pay in
workers, which were desperately needed in the war torn Soviet Union.
Paying with workers?
Now that was easy! There were all those Donauschwaben outlaws one could
do with what one wanted. So they talked of work reparations (Arbeitsverpflichtungen)
and went into Danube Swabian villages to collect the workers. In Banat’s
town of Apatin alone, 2,400 women were deported to the Soviet Union and
in all of Banat not counting the women of the other Danube Swabian
areas, Batschka, Slavonia, Syrmien, Bosnia, more than 40,000 women were
At Christmas 1944 all
men from 18 – 45 and all women from 18 –30, later up to the age of 35
were deported. Seized from their homes and sent by train in unheated
cattle cars up to 17 days through Russian winter to the mines in
Kriwoi Rog and Stalino. And in most cases their children had to be
left behind by themselves.
Stefan Jäger - 1944 Expulsion
What nightmares did
those mothers go through, worrying about their children left all alone?
What nightmares must they have had while toiling deep down in the mines
and had no means of getting in contact with home? Three, and in many
cases five long years, if they ever left Russia at all. Only one out of
three of those women made it home.
Home? There was no
home. They were abandoned in East Germany, broken down, sick and at the
end of their despair. For them a new Leidensweg began: the search for
the husband, children, and relatives.
For the children,
though, who had to be left behind the separation from the mother must
have been an unspeakable horror. That wound would not have healed for
the rest of their lives.
So the children stayed
behind. Life for the children improved somewhat, where there were older
siblings who could look after the little ones, or the grandparents close
by to help overcome this inhumane ordeal. In homes where the children
were left completely by themselves, the kindness of the neighbours
touchingly smoothed the pain. Depended on each other for support the
Donauschwaben had developed a thriving community spirit in those 2
centuries of living in the midst of other nations.
Alas, now the partisans
were the masters, and no one was safe from theirs atrocities. The
Partisans collected all those Danube Swabians who were still there,
those children, and the old people and put them in the concentration
camps. Those who could work ended up in the slave labour camps and the
others in Tito’s most infamous starvation camps. Like Rudolfsgand and
Gakovo starvation camps.
The A.V.N.O.J. –Antifašisticko
Vece Narodnog Oslobodjenja Yugoslavije- planned that in three years
time; by 1947 there would be not one ethnic German left in all of
The number statistics
prove that by 1948 when most of the starvation camps were closed of the
200,000 Donauschwaben imprisoned in them there were only a few ten
thousands people still alive.
The white death
as the hunger was called, was a simple way of Tito’s administration to
deal with the Danube Swabians. Each day a living room size hole was dug
out where the dead were thrown in. The Belgrade’s system functioned
devilishly perfectly. The smallest children were the first ones to die.
Father Wendelin Gruber
of Filipowa/Batschka spent some time in the Gakowa death camp as
prisoner. He visited the children’s homes, which were set up in the
larger farmhouses within the camp. 20-30 children in each room were
lying around on straw and scantily covered. Only skin and bones, sick
and with infected wounds. Nobody cared for them.
Book Cover - Ein Volk
Ausgelöscht - L. Rohrbacher
Survivors talked about an old man in Filipowa, a
grandfather, who collected all of his grandchildren from the homes of
his sons who were drafted and from the homes of his daughters who were
deported. There were 28 of them that ended up in the starvation camps.
Another old man described the abandoned children’s
situation as such: “The children sat around, cried, and if someone threw
them a watermelon peal to eat, they would be happy for the rest of the
By 1947 the rumor about
those starvation camps reached America and Tito’s administration finally
and grudgingly was forced to do something about the camp’s children.
They looked for a ‘humane’ way of dealing with the kids and decided it
would be smarter to raise them in their own communist ideology. The
children of 3 years and younger would not remember their names, or
parents or where they came from, so they were sent to the orphanages
where they were trained to have an aversion for all things German.
Perhaps they might even train the boys to be Tito’s future
Janitscharen, as the Turks did with the Serbian male population
One of those children,
Katharina Sesko, nee Mandel of Sekitsch
wrote about it in her memoire:
“It was in the
summer time that a horse-cart drove through the Gakovo camp and
collected all the children, who no longer had any relatives with them.
We were brought to a house in Gakovo, where already other children were
waiting. A little bit later all of us were taken away. We were brought
to Stara Kanjischa, where already some 350-400 children from
diverse camps were assembled.
The first slice of
bread and milk after such a long time we received in Kanjischa. Seeing
the bread our eyes were popping out. All of us children were grossly
malnourished and starving and quite a few of us were ill. Now we
received medical care and also had enough to eat.
After we recuperated
we were spread on different orphanages together with Serbian children,
just a few ethnic Germans in each orphanage, so we would learn the
Serbian language. I was in the orphanage in Sombor.”
In an open letter the
Salzburger Nachrichten (Salzburg’s News) on January 1950 reported
about the tragedy of the 40,000 Danube Swabian children and their
parents in Yugoslavia, but there was no reaction from Eleanor
Roosevelt who was representing “human rights” at the UN at that
Gauss from Batschka traced in 1950 more than 40 of those orphanages
about which he wrote in Kinder im Schatten (Children in the
Shadow). In his book he claimed that they were raised with the ideology
that the state was their mother and father, to whom they owed absolute
Hirsch Family ca. 1941- Helga
Helga and Erika, two sisters from Velika Greda (Georgshausen)
one was 4 and the other 2 years old when their grandmother Katarina
Hirsch died in 1945 in Rudolfsgnad’s starvation camp in whose care they
were left, as well as their little cousin Petar Bayerle. Their father
was killed on the Front by that time and the mother was deported to the
Soviet Union. They were taken to different orphanages one in Prilep and
the other in Kumanovo, both in Macedonia, where they soon learned
perfect Macedonian and did forget all the German they knew.
Helga remembers that first thing each morning they had to
sing the national anthem and salute to the photographs of comrade Tito
and comrade Stalin. One day there was only the photograph of comrade
Tito with no explanation given. Both of them kept their German names
though and Helga had a nickname ‘macka’ (pussy cat), as she was one of
the youngest there. The word ‘mom or mother’ was never mentioned, as if
such a word or person just did not exist. Helga remembers receiving a
parcel from her uncle in Canada. She had no clue of the meaning of
‘uncle’, nor could she keep any of the parcel’s contents.
The children slept 2-3 in one bed, and each morning they
had to line up in the huge yard to wash their faces in the huge basin
filled with cold water.
Frequently they were surprised by the dreaded call for a
de-lousing session. They partnered-up and sat amongst the ruins in the
huge yard and checked each other’s head for lice. If lice or scalp
sores were found their head was shaved and benzene poured over it.
There was no celebration of Birthdays or Christmas or
Easter, etc. However, when some dignitary came to oversee the situation
at the Orphanage they were assembled, standing in salute while singing
Druze Tito. This is one time when they got a special treat, ‘a slice of
white bread’ …what a treat that was!
Family Schetterer from Schowe,
-Johann Schetterer Archives
from Schowe, the son of same named father and Elisabeth Heinz, nearing
the end of war, came with his mother to Novi Sad’s internment camp at
the age of three. His family was known as Schetris which was the name
that he was registered under. After his mother’s death he was
transported with other children in 1947 to the orphanages in Slovenia.
In 1949 he arrived in the Slivnica orphanage with Adolf Hauer, another
child from his village.
Former Slivnica Orphanage
- Johann Schetterer Archives
It was quite a cruel
childhood. The children’s responsibility beside schoolwork was also to
work on the fields and in the gardens. There were 12 cows and quite a
few of pigs that the children had to take care of. Corporal punishment
was a daily order, and for the slightest misbehavior, food was withheld
for a day.
By 1953 his village friend
Adolf Hauer was reunited with his family in Germany, but because
Johann’s name was registered as Schetris (later spelled as Cetri) and he
did not know any other name, he stayed in different orphanages
eventually finishing high school and learning the trade of car
Johann was all of 21 years old
when he finally discovered his real name by going to the Red Cross
archives in Belgrade. There he was able to trace the address of his
village and his orphanage friend Adolf Hauer in Germany. Adolf’s older
sister knew the real name of Schetris, and was also in contact with
Johann’s extended family members. As luck would have it, Johann received
his father’s address and was thrilled to be reunited with his dad in
1962. His father had been searching for his missing son Johann after
being released from the French prisoner of war camp in 1950. To speed up
the matter, Johann escaped illegally over the border and was reunited
with his father in Austria.
child traced was Christian Heinz, born on 24 March 1940 in Neu
Schowe to Adam Heinz and Philippina Wolf. Philippina died in Jarek’s
starvation camp on 29th of December 1945 and her three sons
Martin, Adam and Christian aged 16, 14, and 5 stayed in the camp.
Christian at 5 was taken to an orphanage and the family to this day is
still desperately searching for any traces of him. Adam and Martin were
smuggled out of the camp and live in Germany.
The book of Professor Gauss’ “Kinder im Schatten”
publication in 1950, which included 53 eyewitness reports, initiated
some movement in the rescue of the children. Under the pressure from
most of the world, particularly the International Red Cross and other
organizations, the Yugoslav government reluctantly established a
‘repatriation delegation office’ in Vienna, where thousands of requests
for missing children poured in. They insisted that the original birth
certificate would be provided, before they would even look at the
One has to understand what kind of impossible fact that
was. The parents were dragged from their homes with minutes of notice
and stripped of everything they had on them. They stayed for years in
the starvation camps or the Soviet Union slave labour mines or were on
the front, before they managed to reach the freedom with only their
Tito’s government even insisted that those requests and
documentation be written in Serbian, sometimes even in the Cyrillic
writing. It was all deception and delaying tactics.
Yet it was hugely important to get in contact with those
children, even if only in writing. They were separated for almost 10
years from their parents. Seldom were the letters as important as in
those times and situations.
After some of the
children finally found out where their mother was deported to, one 9
year old girl, who was at the time of abduction 3 years old, wrote to
‘My dear, good
mother, when I think on that word when I said: “mother do not go away,
and you had to go, it was an unbearable pain for you and me.”
Another heart wrenching
story talks about a boy, hardly three years old: The father went missing
in the war in 1941. The mother was deported to Russia in 1944 and he
ended up with his grandparents in Gakovo’s starvation camp, where he
slept on straw between his grandparents. When he woke up one morning
both of the grandparents were dead. This boy was sent later to one of
the states orphanages in Krsko. His mother after her release from
Ukraine- managed to trace him from where he wrote in Slavic:
“Dear Mother! I was
thrilled to receive your letter. I am so glad to know that there is one
person in the world who loves me. I was with grandfather and grandmother
in the camp but both of them died in the same night. Then I was all
Our Danube Swabian children were highly manipulated in
those orphanages. Specifically the older children were made to believe
that their parents purposely abandoned them. They made those children
believe that their parents were hard-core fascist, while actually most
of them were just farmers. In same cases when some of those children
were reunited with their parents, those manipulated children spat in the
parent’s faces and refused to go with them.
Let’s return briefly to the story of Helga and Erika,
originally from Velika Greda, who we left in two orphanages in
Macedonia. In the meantime their mother was released from Stalin’s slave
labour mine camp in 1947 and brought by train from Russia more dead than
alive to East Germany. She managed to drag herself across the country
and reach West Germany with the last of her strength virtually crawling
across the border to freedom.
Eventually she found a housekeeping job in Bavaria, but
because Bavaria was already overflowing with refugees they did not
accept any families, so the mother found work on a farm in Wuerttemberg.
First of all she got in contact with the Red Cross where she found out
that her brother in Canada did initiate the search for the girls
Today we know that more than 5,000 named children were
reunited with their families. 5,000 reunited and those 6,000 who starved
to death of the 45,000 of Danube Swabian children. And the others?
Letter from the orphanage in
Celje, Slovenia, that their pupil DAVID SANDLES died in 1948 on
tuberculosis. - Family Sandles archives.
If one travels today through Macedonia for instance, one
will be surprised to find blue eyed and blond people surrounded by dark
heads. Those blond people themselves must wonder about their origin. Did
they ever receive their original birth certificates? Do they know their
real names? In former Yugoslavia one still does not talk about those
children, as if it never happened. Dr. Geiger in Zagreb is one of the
brave souls who published a few articles on those lost Donauschwaben
But we must do more.
Katharina Sesko, nee Mandel of Sekitsch
was placed in the Rudolfsgnad camp. She continued in her
memoir: “After the camp was closed my Oma
received permission to return to Sekitsch. I could visit her during the
holidays. My father returned from the concentration camp in 1949 and we
stayed in Sekitsch until 1951. In the meantime my mother came from
Russia’s slave labour camp to Salzburg, Austria. She helped us to join
her that year.”
Erika and Helga where reunited with their mother trough
the Red Cross. It took the uncle in Canada and their mother in Germany
seven years to be reunited with the girls.
Helga described it this way:
During spring 1951
Erika and I were re-united in Kumanovo with the purpose of being
transported to Germany to meet our mother. After the papers were
processed in Belgrade we were put on a train. We were given a coat and
a small suitcase. I don’t know what the contents were in this little
suitcase, and as we recall, it never occurred to us to check it out.
There appeared to be a male escort with us but he did not speak with us
or explain to us where we were going. We were frightened of the
uniformed officer who approached us during a brief stop at some border
crossing. Erika and I never spoke of what is ahead of us; we were
‘strangers’ to each other.
On April 17, 1951 we
arrived at the Refugee Centre in Kornwestheim, Germany where we were
told that our mother would be picking us up. Neither Erika nor I were
overjoyed, excited or anxious. There was only ‘acceptance’ and
suspicion. When mom appeared we were non-emotional and had a feeling
of detachment. She meant nothing to us! I believe that is because of
all those years of not being allowed to question or show emotion. ….
You did what you were told to do without questioning. There was
apprehension about leaving the Orphanage…how could there not have been
as, after all, we felt safe in the confinement of this enclosed camp.”
Erika remembers a specific incident:
The parents were on the podium, while the children waited
for their names to be called. At last only Erika and Helga stood there
holding hands, while on the podium were 2 women. One was extremely
skinny and the other quite the opposite. Nine-year-old Erika prayed
silently that the corpulent one would be the mother, as anyone so well
fed must be surely from America.
It turned out that the mother was the skinny one and the
other lady the farmer who helped their mother pick up the girls with her
horse and buggy. While in the buggy, both girls received each a large
pretzel, something that they have never seen or knew what to do with it.
A lick tasted salty, so Helga whispered to Erika in Macedonian, the only
language that she new “lets throw it away, they
want to poison us”.
However, they soon
discovered that their mom was a very loving, warm and caring person and
learned to love and respect her tremendously.
Helga and Erika with mom Anna
- Helga Wilson Archives.
For us Danube Swabians
those young people still missing are lost forever. They may be lost, but
they will never be forgotten.
Poppies by Elizabeth B. Walter
In her book
BAREFOOT IN THE RUBBLE, the author
Elizabeth B. Walter described her drawing of herself behind the barbed
"The thing I well
remember was a large meadow filled with poppies. It was a sea of red
flowers as far as my eyes could see. The wind danced among them, making
them come alive.
I wanted to be with
the poppies. I wanted to pick them and be just as free as the wind. But
a barbed wire fence imprisoned me within the yard of the concentration
camp. No flowers grew here. Too many people had trampled the ground.
Beneath my bare feet, not even weeds had much of a chance to grow.
I remember mostly
playing in the back of the yard. I stayed away from the Partisaner who
guarded the entrance gate of the camp. Their dark eyes and mustaches
frightened me. Their long bayonets stuck up from behind them, as if they
grew out of their bodies. If they looked my way, I ran further back
into the camp yard. I was afraid they would come and get me as they did
the night when they brought us to this terrible place."
Adelbert K. «Kinder im Schatten», 1950
Vladimir (prir.) “Radni logor Valpovo 1945.-1946. Dokumenti»
Vladimir «Logor Krndija 1945-1946»
Vladimir “O sudbini folksdojčerske djece u logorima komunističke
Wendelin “In den Fängen des Roten Drachen. Zehn Jahre unter der
Herrschaft Titos”, 1989
Haltmayer, Josef “Die verlorenen Schwabenkinder”
Helga and Erika, personal letter to the author.
Laubach, Andreas “Nur
mit meinen Kindern”
Rohrbacher, Leopold “Ein
Rohrbacher, Leopold «Die
Ausrotung des Donauschwabentum in Jugoslawien in den Jahren von 1944 bis
1948”, Salzburg, 1949
Rohrbacher, Leopold “Völkermord der Tito-Partisanen 1944-1948.
personal letter to the author.
Springenschmidt, Karl “Janitscharen? Die Kindertragödie im Banat“, Wien
personal letter to the author.
Geiger: O sudbini folksdojčerske djece u logorima