Henry A. Fischer
The Turks at the Congress of Vienna ceded the territory known as Bosnia-Hercegovnia to the Habsburg Monarchy in 1878. The land itself has a beauty of its own with rugged wastelands often inundated by floods but also arid in many places; dense forests; deep valleys and high mountain ranges.
This varied landscape affected the types of people who settled there. They were mountain farmers, shepherds to a great degree and other farmers who worked their land in the deep valleys who lived in close compact units and communities. The towns that in most cases were usually only large villages had public officials, artisans and small industries. The population of 2,000,000 was 43% Greek-Orthodox, 21% Roman Catholic and 36% Muslim. There were also a Jewish population who were descended from refugees from the Inquisition in Spain in 1492. Racially the population was Serbo-Croatian and Turkish. They were identified and separated by race, language and religion and always on the brink of community warfare on the basis of one or all of these factors. Feuds lasted for centuries. The one thing they all had in common as a result of the Turkish occupation from 1463 to 1878 was the belief in Kismet (fate) whether Jew, Christian or Muslim. Don’t bother to plan. Never be in haste. Take it easy. Hurrying is the work of the devil. Progress was not a recognized ideal. Tradition was. Their farming methods and implements were backward and 80% of the population was illiterate when Austro-Hungarian rule began.
Austrian policy to upgrade an area agriculturally and culturally was always the same: settlements of German farmers and artisans. Afterwards the locals insisted they had forced their way in. In the past this had worked wonders in Poland, Russia, Galicia and southern Hungary. So Vienna issued the invitation, which would be the last for German colonists to demonstrate their ability to establish new agricultural communities in Eastern Europe.
By 1879 there were some 2,000 Germans from the Rhineland Pfalz, Hanover, Baden and Dutch settlers from Holland who settled at Windthorst. Other settlements without state support also emerged in the period from 1881 to 1905. But in these settlements the colonists did not come from Germany but from Galicia, Bukovina, southern Hungary, Croatia and Russia. Those from Russia did so to escape conversation to the Orthodox Church while the others were land starved younger sons living in the older settlements.
The colonists needed a stake of 1,200 Krona and to be able to demonstrate they were competent farmers and artisans. The recruits would get 12 Hectares of land and timber to build homesteads, were freed from paying taxes for three years and a minimal tax for the next three years as well as citizenship rights after ten years.
The settlements would be small and far apart. These compact and isolated communities would be free to develop their own German character preserving their language, culture and faith. Among the Protestant settlers the foundation of their life together was the German Bible and hymnbook. The Protestant settlers into Eastern Europe always carried these two books in their knapsacks.
Three hundred Germans who were almost destitute were settled in the virgin forest in a swamp along the Ukrina Creek. They battled the swamps. The timber they cut was used as railway ties, for construction and for sale in the town and excess wood was burned. Temporary shelters were erected which were often earthen huts. The settlers had invested all of their money, credit was unavailable and food was scarce. The climate and primitive living conditions led to various illness especially malaria. In one month 91 persons in the settlement perished. The survivors began to look elsewhere. Things got better as harvest approached but the roaming herds of cattle of their neighbours damaged much of it because they were unable to fence their land.
Despite the difficulties of settlement a school was established and a Not Lehrer (emergency teacher) taught reading, writing and arithmetic during the winter months. It was only in the 1902 term that the state sent an official teacher, Joseph Zorn who was still a student at the time. He began to work there and became a blessing to the community.
Almost all of the settlers were Lutheran. The history of this community is always church history. No one bothered with the settlements in Germany except the church. Sixty kilometres away in Banja Luka there was a Lutheran parish and pastor, Armin Valent who came and held the first service and established the congregation there. After his death in 1897 Pastor Zwernemann who was followed by Pastor Geissler in 1901 succeeded him. The congregation was officially organized on December 12, 1897 under Geissler’s leadership and became a daughter congregation of Banja Luka, which paid part of his salary and for that the pastor would visit the congregation four times a year. The teacher held lay services on Sundays and festivals. He baptized infants and conducted funerals. The pastor’s care of souls within the mother church and the daughter congregations was done on a regular basis and he was picked up by wagon and taken home from place to place. He was the source of news and began to act officially for people on government and personal business, on behalf of the school, the state and the village itself. He became the spokesman for the settlers.
The settlement had a constant problem with flooding and had no financial resources to build dams and a water control system. The only recourse was resettlement on higher ground, which would require government assistance. The settlers voted 77 to 3 to make the move to Glogovac (Dornenberg). This was none too soon as a great flood wrecked the settlement on the Day of Pentecost in 1902.
They began all over again on the new site in the same primitive conditions and the pastor joined them as much as he could but his main responsibility was Banja Luka. In the first winter 38 children died after the l06 families had moved there. By 1905 there were 696 persons in the community. Things improved. Better homes were built. After World War I many new homes were erected. Most of them were plastered loam resembling those in southern Hungary while others were brick. The whole homestead looked like a typical residence in Swabian Turkey. The settlement chose the name Schutzberg in 1903 following a sermon by Pastor Geissler based on Psalm 9:10.
By 1925 there were 150 houses with a village population of one thousand.
From among the original families, 24 of them came from Swabian Turkey, 39 from Slavonia, 20 from Bukovina, 29 from Galicia, 29 from Russia, 6 from the Batschka, 7 from the Banat, 8 from Syrmien and one family from Wuerttemberg in Germany and another from the Burgenland and Croatia.
These “Swabians” as they were called were independent and often rather stubborn when they dealt with church and village issues and often failed to see beyond their own village. But their personal piety was a reality and the Stark Gebetbuch was a constant companion and spiritual guide.
Some of the more familiar family names from Swabian Turkey were well represented in Schutzberg and included: Wajandt, Prescher, Hecker, Stickl, Schneicker, Maerz, Lehr, Tikel, Mahler, Fischer, Grosch, Muth, Scherer and Ellenberger.
With the abdication of King Peter, the local situation worsened as the local Serbian population became more and more menacing towards the local Germans. Serbian officials were non-committal and the German population lived in fear as rumours of war with Germany spread far and wide. In Schutzberg alone 118 of the men were called up to serve in the Yugoslavian Army and report by April 3, 1941. At 5:00 pm on April 2nd a service was held for the conscripts in which the whole congregation participated. It was terrifying to realize one was caught between two opposing forces both claiming one’s loyalty and leaving one’s family behind as hostages. The people did not know which way to turn. Women wept and the entire congregation fell to their knees when they prayed the Lord’s Prayer. The draftees and their families received Holy Communion and somehow the “peace that passes all understanding” was there.
Over one thousand Germans from the District were assembled at the town hall. The Serb officials were totally inept in their organization of inducting the recruits. The pastor said a personal farewell to each of his parishioners and then mixed with the Serbs to indicate their good intentions towards the state. The Serbian priest was rather standoffish when it came to assuring that there would be no reprisals against the German villagers.
Next day Serbian troops passed through the village shouting anti-German slogans and threats. A Turk from a nearby town sent word the Serbs would attack at night. A night watch was set up and people packed and slept in their clothes. If attack came women and children would seek refuge in the church. The men would set up barricades and others would attempt to lead groups into safety in the forest. The congregation prayed. Nothing happened.
The day after was Palm Sunday and the celebration of Confirmation. As the bells rang and the organ played the pastor and the confirmands entered the church and the women filled all of the pews because the remaining men stood guard in the village streets. He shortened the service as a precaution. The local tradition was that only the confirmands received Holy Communion at this service but he was moved to invite everyone. The congregation had not participated in the confession earlier and so he suggested that they do so privately if they felt called to receive communion. A holy disturbance broke out as women rose from the pews and went to their friends and neighbours and made acts of reconciliation and forgiveness. They hugged and kissed as the communion hymn began. “Gott ist gegenwartig, lasset uns anbeten,” (God Himself is present, let us now adore Him.) They needed to be reconciled with God and with one another in this fateful hour.
The war was short and the state of Yugoslavia was dismembered and despite the presence of the German Army in the area apprehension continued in the German communities in Bosnia and elsewhere.
In the Heimatbuch of Schutzberg the pastor details the precarious position of the Germans caught in the conflict between the Serbs and Croats. The Croats were the allies of the Nazis but the Swabians had always been on far better terms with the Serbs. That might have had something to do with the fact that the Orthodox priest and the pastor were friends. Many atrocities were committed against the Serbs throughout the district and because of that many of them joined Tito and his communist partisans or the underground Serb Royalist forces.
As a result the village was under a constant state of siege and had to protect itself. Refugees of all kinds sought refuge in the German villages assuming German Army protection would be forthcoming. Forced conversion to Roman Catholicism was the fate of the local Serbian population at the hands of the Ustaschi (Croat Fascists) and the Orthodox priest and his family were taken away and never heard of again. People could no longer work their land or travel because they were always a target for partisans. Evacuation to the Batschka was one official plan to provide protection in a safer area. They planned for the evacuation and even took the bells named: Work and Prayer from the church tower, along with the clock and packed away the communion vessels and parish records and awaited the order.
In 1942 it became obvious that evacuation was the only option because extermination was the only other alternative. The Monarchy had assumed the isolated German enclaves would gradually disappear as they assimilated with their neighbours. Their Lutheran faith to a great deal prevented that from happening in Schutzberg as well as their self-consciousness as Danube-Swabians. In a sense they were already homeless in Yugoslavia and lived a twilight existence where they could no longer plant any permanent roots. No one was prepared to stay. Germans in both Bosnia and Croatia were re-settled. In Bosnia it involved the district around Windthorst with a population of 1,435, Rudolfstal with 562, Troselji and its 120 Germans and the small enclave of Brcko. They were surrounded by partisans and under attack as well as isolated other German hamlets and families. All of them had the right to be resettled. They could take everything except cattle, machines and furniture. The resettlement was under the direction of the SS in Slavonian Brod where they had huge barracks and facilities including a medical clinic and personnel.
The evacuees from Schutzberg left their horses and wagons behind and travelled by train to Litzmannstadt (Lodz) in Poland. They received bedding and food along the way and were well treated and each person had their own registration papers. Partisan units on the way attacked some of the trains. In the camps at Lodz the people felt that the SS treated them like they were “Croats”. They were insulted and humiliated and made to feel like vagrants and an imposition on the German war effort. Food was stolen and the people suffered hunger but officials claimed they were just complainers. The Bosnians had taken more food with them than the others and were able to survive better. There was little space and room in terms of housing, crowded and crammed together. Many of their belongings began to disappear and many became destitute. Their only hope was a quick transition to settlement and that was all that kept them going.
Two hundred SS personnel set up an office for resettlement. They lived in the town and worked in the camp. They came and went by bus every day. Families were processed in about two hours each and assigned a destination. Two of the destinations were for settlement in the east and one for work assignments in the “old” Reich, which sounded ominous to many. There were many mixed families that had married Croats and families that were no longer able to speak German. Of the 16,498 Bosnian Germans who passed through the camps at Lodz, 12,461 of them were registered to be resettled in the east. The percentage of children under the age of fourteen was high approximately 35%. Of those marked for resettlement 41% of them was Lutheran, 7,077 persons. They were all made citizens of the Reich in the process. The resettlement of the German Roman Catholics was very difficult as they had been totally assimilated and spoke no German. In fact it had been the Roman Catholic Church in Croatia that had played a vital role in that happening.
The people were now ready to be resettled. Still they were forced to wait. The children were enrolled in the Hitler Youth both boys and girls and the teenage boys were mustered into the Waffen SS. No one, however, could be drafted into the German Wehrmacht but were sent to labour battalions instead to work in the “new territories” which was a euphemism for western Poland and also as guards in concentration camps, labour camps, official government and Gestapo facilities. They felt like they were in prison themselves and being punished rather than being resettled. Some appealed directly to Hitler to return to Bosnia where they were prepared to take their chances with the Partisans instead of having to live like this. The Bosnian Germans were then assigned to Zomosc south of Lublin an area known for growing fruit and vegetables.
By May 15, 1943 there were still 14,000 Bosnian Germans in the camps. Some had escaped and recklessly returned home only to die horribly at the hands of the partisans. In their camps German evacuees from Bessarabia, Volhinya, Galicia and Russia as well as some Slovenes joined them.
They soon discovered the cause for the delay of their resettlement when units of men were assigned to the SS to dispossess and drive off the local Polish population in neighbouring villages to make room for the new settlers. This cut deeply because of their own experiences in Bosnia and many were uncooperative and felt terrible about what was happening to the local population and believed that such actions could only lead to terrible retribution in the future. They protested. But more and more prospective settlers were brought to the camp and the Polish population was cruelly dispersed. At the end of June in 1943 the girls in the camp were also mustered for the labour battalions. People became more and more upset.
By September 1943 there were still 7,800 Bosnian Germans in the camps. The others were in labour groups, in the army, Waffen SS or had police jobs.
In the spring of 1944 areas in the west were open for settlers in France, Alsace, Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg. Many of the Bosnian Germans ended up in Alsace. They were scattered about as single-family units in an entirely new environment with another new language to learn and identified with their neighbour’s oppressor. In spite of that they were accepted for the simple farmers that they were; pawns like their neighbours in the gigantic Nazi machine. They sent word back to the camps and the Bosnians wanted to move en masse to the western sector. Meanwhile news from home was spread around in the camp, “Come back all is well.” Those in the east thought seriously about returning.
In these times of stress the Lutheran Swabians reasserted their need for a sense of community as a people of faith. To the surprise of the new settlers there was no place for the church in the Warthegau in eastern Poland or in the camps. They were terrified by what their children were being taught in the camp schools and the attacks made on the Christian faith and all of the churches. Their Nazi teachers tried to show how all of these things in the past had separated the German people but it had its opposite effect. It was because of their homesickness and the uncertainty they faced that made them call upon their spiritual resources and turned to the ministry of the church. There were many Lutheran settlements around Lodz where services were held regularly and the settlers flocked to them in spite of the distances. For the Roman Catholics it was more difficult as only one functioning church remained in the whole area.
At Christmas the Bosnians in one of the larger camps asked for permission to hold a Lutheran service and were allowed a small room that accommodated less than a quarter of the worshippers. Nazi officials conducted funerals but often the mourners would begin singing hymns when the official funeral was over and someone would offer public prayer. Although they attended churches outside of the camp they wanted their own with their own familiar liturgy and worship forms and the need to experience a sense of community with one another. They applied for permission but it was denied because it could result in “confessional conflict with the Roman Catholics.” They also mentioned that there was a full programme already in place for the camp inmates and there was lack of facilities and rooms. By the beginning of 1943 the decision to ban the church in the new territories had already been made by Himmler and the Lutheran Churches of Germany were unable to obtain permission to minister to the Lutherans in the proposed Warthegau settlements.
Like all groups in the east the Bosnian Germans fled west in the face of the advancing Red Army. None stayed behind. Those in the west had less difficulty; those ending up in the Sudentenland and Austria had a more difficult time. Families were separated. Children were lost. When they arrived in Germany they were seen as “strange” folk, extremely backward and to be exploited for labour. In some areas officials attempted to send them back to Yugoslavia. They were suspicious of all former “camp” people and saw them as terrorists and criminals. But Bosnian Germans found the Wuerttembergers and Westerwalders receptive and kind but not the Bavarians.
It was as if a tornado had stuck the Bosnian Germans and they were scattered and separated from one another. No one knew where anyone was. There was no way to locate people. They lived hand to mouth. Women spun flax into wool to feed whole families. With the resumption of mailing services people began to attempt to locate one another and those who were missing.