Henry A. Fischer
The following is a summary and translation of portions of Surtschin: Ortsbiografie der deutschen Minderheit eines Dorfes in Syrmien published by the Ortsausschuss der Ortsgemeinschaft Surtschin in 1980.
The first Lutheran settlements in the Military Frontier District were at Neu Pasua in Syrmien in 1790 and Franzfeld in the Banat in 1793 during the short reign of Leopold II. These settlers came chiefly from Wuerttemberg, Baden, Briesgau, Baden-Durlach, Alsace and Lorraine as well as Switzerland. The future colonists in Surtschin traced their origins back to these two original Lutheran settlements.
The settlers at Neu Pasua endured a great deal in establishing their community. In 1790 upon the invitation of what would be known as the Josephinian Settlement a large contingent of German settlers came down the Danube and disembarked at Peterwardein. Of these settlers, 62 families were intended for the eastern portion of the Slavonian-Syrmien Military Frontier District to form the Peterwardein Regiment and 26 families were to go to Semlin, a city outside the jurisdiction of the military. But they were soon to discover that no one had made any preparations for such a settlement. The jealousy between the rich noble landlords in Semlin and the Roman Catholic clergy prevented the settlement of Lutherans in close proximity to the town.
The larger group of 62 families was then settled in Alt Pasua, which had been founded by Slovak Lutherans in 1770 and was served by a pastor who spoke German. A bitterly cold winter, the climate change and the poor quality of the water led to countless deaths due to swamp fever, which in all likelihood was malaria. The authorities did not know what to do with the settlers or where to settle them. Slavonia was out of the question because of the ban against the settlement of Protestants. The only option was the Military Frontier District. In the spring of 1791 the order came for them to establish themselves between Alt Pasua and Batajnica and they took the name Neu Pasua. It was in the middle of swampy meadows where oxen were left to graze.
All of the settlers came from Wuerttemberg. The 26 families who went to Semiln were from Nassau, the Pfalz and Baden. They were being cared for in Semlin until May 15th as most of them had come down with the fever. They were forced to leave the area and found refuge at Neu Pasua. The number of settlers who died was very high. No wonder Hungary was called “the cemetery of the Germans.”
A military watch tower known as Tschadake #7 was erected in the future location of Surtschin in 1745. But for now the area in its vicinity remained unpopulated.
The tradition among the settlers who would become known as the Danube Swabians was one in which the oldest son alone would inherit the family house and land. The other sons were given money or taught a trade at their father’s expense. Land was getting scarcer and more and more expensive. The only alternative was buying land in neighbouring Serbian villages. These new “colonists” lived in mixed communities in terms of both nationality and religion. Soon even that kind of land was no longer available in the Banat and the Batschka. In 1859 the prohibition against Protestants in Syrmien was finally lifted and in 1873 the Military Frontier District was disbanded and massive settlement followed. This region possessed fertile and cheap acreage and lots of it. The authorities planned the settlement and as a result Surtschin became a large Danube Swabian community and had both a Lutheran and a Reformed congregation. In addition to the farmers who settled there were also numerous artisans and tradesmen.
In 1864 there were fifteen German families who had settled in Surtschin; by 1866 three more families had joined them. In 1867 six more arrived and in 1869 ten more. By the outbreak of the Second World War the population included 2,400 Serbs who were Orthodox, 800 Croatians who were Roman Catholic and 1,200 Danube Swabians of whom 1,000 were Lutheran and 200 Reformed.
At the beginning of the 19the century there were less than 2,000 Protestants in Croatia/ Slavonia. By 1895 the government in Agram (Zagreb) reported a population of 35,691 Protestants of whom 25,000 were Lutherans and 10,691 who were Reformed.
The situation and position of the Protestant settlers was rather precarious and the local populations mistrusted them. The greatest difficulty was providing pastoral care and schools. All at once it seemed as if Croatia/Slavonia was being overrun with Protestants whose spiritual needs were being met by only five Reformed and four Lutheran parishes. The Reformed congregations in Agram, later Fiume (Rijeka) and Gross Pisanica took all of the Reformed under their wing. The three Lutheran parishes in Syrmien at Alt Pasua (Slovak), Neu Pasua (German) and Neudorf served their fellow believers in the area. That had to do at first. But that would not do in the long run. Only functions like baptism and marriage could be provided in this way. The question of teaching the children and nurturing the adults with the Gospel could not be done from a distance and they could easily become prey to the many sects that were abounding around them or convert to Roman Catholicism. As a result a new Mother Church was established at Bingula in 1863 halfway between Neudorf and Alt Pasua.
With a continuous stream of settlers into Syrmien after 1873 and the disbanding of the Military Frontier District new congregations were established. In Beschka during the year the Patent went into effect (1859) 24 families representing both confessions arrived there. They became a filial of Neu Pasua and Pastor Weber supported the fledgling church. In 1869 the Reformed withdrew and formed a separate congregation and first became a filial of Neusatz and then in 1878 the Lutherans in the village became an independent congregation.
This freed the Neu Pasua congregation to relate to the new situation in the area around Semlin. The newly formed Lutheran congregations at Boljeuci in 1858, Beschanija in 1865, Surtschin in 1869, Dobanovce in 1875 and Obresch in 1882 had established schools. Neu Pasua provided pastoral services to the Swabians in the area and Alt Pasua served the Slovaks. The teachers acted as Levite Lehrers and the school buildings were used to gather for worship.
By 1879 the new settlements had over 1,000 Lutheran residents and the Mother Churches could not provide the care they needed. As a result in 1879 a missionary parish was established and operated out of Surtschin.
As a result at the end of the 19th century there were twelve Lutheran parishes (excluding Mitrovica) and ten Reformed (excluding Fiume). The Reformed Mother Churches joined the neighbouring Seniorats of the Hungarian Reformed Church. The Lutheran congregations were unable to structure themselves in order to conduct their own affairs for almost one hundred years and remained part of other outside jurisdictions.
It would only be after the First World War and the establishment of the state of Yugoslavia when the Lutherans in the various parts of the new nation came together to form an independent, indigenous and national church. In electing its first bishop, Philip Popp they elected a son of one of the parishes in Croatia/Slavonia. While he was bishop he also served the congregation in Agram and became a senator in parliament during the reign of King Alexander. Following the King’s assassination things began to change radically and the situation of the Danube Swabian became precarious as Hitler came to power in Germany and all that was to follow.
After the incorporation of Austria into the German Reich in 1938 many Jews fled from Austria where they had first arrived after fleeing Germany in 1933 and now sought refuge in Yugoslavia. Through the efforts of Bishop Popp the congregation in Agram provided sanctuary and ministered to their needs. After the proclamation of the Independent State of Croatia by the Ustasche Fascist allies of the German Reich after the capitulation of Yugoslavia following the short war in 1941 horrendous times were ahead for the Orthodox Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia. Many Serbs took to the woods and joined the Partisans in the fight against the genocide of the Serb population unless they converted to Roman Catholicism. The struggle became intensified when the German Army also became involved. Bishop Popp sought to save those who were persecuted regardless of nationality, religious confession or political loyalties. He saw them all as his “persecuted brethren” as he put it
In order to save lives he set no frontiers to the limits of his love. Through secret contacts and bribes he was able to secure transportation to assist Serbs flee to Belgrade. To save other Serbs, he registered them as converts to the Lutheran Church. In this way alone he saved over 400 Serbian families from extermination by the Ustasche. He also assisted imprisoned Partisans and people charged with collaboration with them and condemned to death. He personally intervened with the dictator, Pavelic and was able to save twenty-two of them. Partisan circles considered his humanitarian concerns and commitments so highly that the Partisan High Command twice sent him messages to persuade him to take to the forests and join Tito’s Liberation Army. The last such contact was in 1944. Bishop Popp’s response was, “The shepherd must remain with his flock come what may.” He said the same when the Swedish Consul sent his car to take the bishop to safety as the Red Army approached Agram. Only his wife and son left.
By the end of 1944 about half of the 600,000 Danube Swabians in Yugoslavia had left as refugees or were evacuated and Bishop Popp found comfort in knowing so many had been saved from what he sensed was about to follow. In Agram itself most of the Lutherans remained and he remained behind with them. To a friend he sent one last message: It was John 10:11. “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”
On April 9, 1945 the Second Partisan Army marched into Zagreb. On May 23rd the bishop was arrested and following imprisonment for one month he was put on trial by the Second Army Count Martial under Judge Dr. Brnicic who condemned him to death. On June 28, 1945 the sentence of death was read to him and one day later it was carried out. Before his execution he was blindfolded and shouted, “God stand with my son Edgar!” His oldest son Edgar had also remained behind in Zagreb where he served as a vicar. Even during his time of imprisonment the bishop had the opportunity to escape yet he did not take advantage of that.
During his imprisonment many Serbs, especially those the bishop had saved, attempted to have him freed. Over 1,000 Serbs signed a petition. The Swedish Lutheran Church intervened on his behalf. All of this was futile. They wanted to make an example of him and condemned the church leader to death because he was a Danube Swabian. The only church leader in Zagreb to survive was Archbishop and later Cardinal Stepinac.
His widow and their son Edgar were interned and arrested on July 16th. Through the efforts of some doctors she was sent secretly to a hospital where she remained hidden for a year. The son Edgar was placed in the internment camp for Danube Swabians in Zagreb and then later in Stara Gradischka and released in May of 1946.
There is a memorial tablet for Bishop Popp in the church in Geisenfeld bei Ingolstadt where many of the people from his birthplace in Beschanija were resettled.
Events in the life of Surtschin and its future and the destiny of its people were shaped and formed by the two cataclysms in the 20th century known as the two World Wars.
The First World War was fought in their immediate vicinity. The front lines were only 8 kilometres away along the Sava River, which formed the frontier between Austro-Hungary and Serbia. The war zone was 20 kilometres deep and enveloped the village. All able bodied men had to report for military service and horses and wagons were also taken by the military.
In August 1914 two weak Austro-Hungarian Armies under Field Marshall Potiorek attacked Serbia. Between the 13th and 19th of August they crossed the Drina and Sava Rivers. Schabotz was taken, Ljesnica and Loznica were stormed. From the 9th to the 15th of September the Serbs began an offensive to take Slavonia. After several failures around Progar and Pantschevo they were successful in crossing the Sava and advanced as far as Alt Pasua and Ruma. As a result Surtschin found itself in the middle of a battle and the Swabian population fled to the Batschka and Banat. In great haste, clothes and supplies were thrown on wagons. They fled towards Neu Pasua and were able to stay overnight. The roads were packed with Austro-Hungarian troops on their way to the front. The refugees had to wait until the military had moved on. The Surtschin refugees found refuge with relatives and friends in the Batschka and Banat. But it lasted only for a short while. The Austro-Hungarian offensive began on September 20, 1914 and forced the Serbs to re-cross the Sava in retreat and by December 2nd the Austro-Hungarian Army occupied Belgrade.
From mid to late December the people returned to Surtschin. They found their homes plundered and virtually destroyed. The local Serbian population was ordered to return the looted goods to the schoolhouse but the Swabians lost too much and had a difficult time in surviving.
The Second Austro-Hungarian Army was withdrawn and sent to serve on the Galician front and the Serbs began a counter attack. Potiorek suffered heavy losses and on December 15th he withdrew his forces and left Belgrade to the Serbs as they fled to their defences at the Sava and Drina River line. Here they stood firm and held back the Serbian onslaughts that followed.
As the Russian front in Galicia held, troops were transferred to the Serbian front. On September 6, 1915 in a special treaty with Germany and Bulgaria ten divisions (six of them Austro-Hungarian and four of them Bulgarian) would attack on the Danube and Sava front while other Bulgarian forces would march across the border with Serbia. Because of a Russian breakthrough in Volhinya only two divisions were sent to Syrmien. German Army headquarters rushed in troops from the eastern front, four divisions in all to join the Third Austro-Hungarian Army. By September 16, 1915 they were determined to destroy the Serbian Army and to secure the way from Belgrade to Sofia and Constantinople. This second campaign against Serbia put Surtschin in jeopardy again.
Operation plans indicate that on the broad front against Serbia the assembled Third Austro-Hungarian Army (six divisions) were to cross the Sava and Danube with their strongest drive towards Belgrade and others to the west at the Kupinovo crossing. The German Second Army in the Banat would cross the Danube between Semendria and Ram with their major forces heading towards Weisskirchen. The operation was to begin no later than October 6, 1915. As the battle raged along the rivers the wounded were sent to Surtschin where the school served as a hospital. The Sava River was crossed on October 12th during a thunderstorm. The Austro-Hungarian forces molested the local Serbs and men were taken to the fortress at Peterwardein and women and children were sent to Vukovar to stay with their own countrymen. When they came home their houses and property were a mess. This was due to the quartering of the troops and horses in their homes. But truth be said, some of the Swabians helped themselves at their Serbian neighbour’s expense. In the future Surtschin was no longer in danger.
In October 1918 peace came but the future of the Danube Swabians looked grim. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was no more and Surtschin was now in the Kingdom of the Serbians, Croatians and Slovenes, which became known as Yugoslavia. Many took revenge on the Danube Swabian population. They usually came at night and plundered their homes and beat them, both men and women. Fortunately this did not last too long and life together between the Serbians and Swabians normalized. But the right to vote was not given to the Swabians until 1922.
With the founding of the new state of Yugoslavia the other minorities sought to maintain some rights of their own. This was especially true of the Danube Swabians, Slovaks and Hungarians in particular. The Croat masses were opposed to a “union” with the Serbs, which led to disputes, threats and beatings in parliament itself. The basis of the conflict was the aspirations of Greater Serbia that saw the Serbs at the head of the new state. They used terror against the nationalities that opposed them. The Croats desired an autonomous state of their own. They pointed out that they had more rights and autonomy under the Habsburgs than they did in the new state. The conflict would not be resolved and the other minorities including the 500,000 Danube Swabians awaited the implementation of the minority rights guaranteed at Trianon.
The Danube Swabians were given the option to resettle in Hungary or Austria up until January 22, 1922 and as a result they could not vote until after that date. Only a few did, often intelligentsia who had majored in Hungarian as their language of education or commerce. Political turmoil would follow in the years to come and then Adolph Hitler came upon the scene and the fate of the people of Surtschin was sealed with no one really realizing it at the time.
With the start of the Second World War in September 1939 Germany sought to win Yugoslavia as an ally. Yugoslavia sought to remain neutral and yet maintain its lucrative economic connections with the Nazi state. But the “nationalities” were restless again.
Yugoslavia built up its border defences during the non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. Bulgaria and Romania their neighbours had joined the Axis Powers. As the government sought a re-approachment with Germany and considered an “alliance” the Serb nationalists were vehemently opposed to it. An agreement was reached with the Germans on March 25, 1941 in Vienna. Before the delegation could return to Belgrade the radio reported that Air General Simovic had taken power in a military coup and King Peter and his advisors had fled the county and Yugoslav would ignore the recently signed treaty.
The first order of the new military government was the arming of the Serb civilian population. Extreme nationalist organizations sent out roving bands into the Danube Swabian areas to terrorize the population. A general mobilisation was ordered including the Danube Swabians. Strangely enough the Danube Swabians complied. They did so also in terms of supplies and requisitions of horses and wagons. There were no acts of sabotage on the part of the Danube Swabians.
In Surtschin armed Serbian civilians did sentry duty day and night on the streets where the Germans lived. Curfew was in effect as well as blackouts. Many Swabian women were afraid to sleep at home alone with their men gone off to the army. They stayed with friends or relatives. The old men took turns keeping watch. Pillows were stuffed in the front windows to cushion bullets. More men were taken as hostages including Pastor Lohmann and put in jail. The Lutheran church and schools were closed and the population became more and more afraid of what would happen next. Everyone breathed a sight of relief when the pastor was released on Good Friday and allowed to hold a service to comfort and strengthen his flock for what lay ahead. Another ray of light was that the other hostages remained in the local jail and were not taken to Peterwardein like the Swabians in other districts.
On April 6, 1941 without a declaration of war the Luftwaffe bombed Belgrade. The Yugoslavian forces were in disarray. On Easter Day the German troops passed through Surtschin. It was all over. And so was Yugoslavia. It was dismembered.
The occupation of Yugoslavia by the Third Reich and its Hungarian allies gave the Croatians the opportunity to be free of Serbian control after 22 years. On April 10th the Independent State of Croatia was declared in Agram (Zagreb). The German Army was greeted as liberators as they marched into the city. On April 15th Pavelic returned from Italian exile and was declared “Poglavnik” of the new government, the minister president.
The new state included: Slavonia, Croatia, Syrmien, Bosnia and Hercegovina. Most of Slovenia, Istrien, Dalmatia, Montenegro and southern Bosnia were occupied by Italy. Macedonia was occupied by Bulgaria and Hungary annexed the Batschka. The rest of what remained was a very small Serbia to which the Banat was attached. The new “Serbian” government was under the control of the German military and a military governor.
The Croats began a reign of terror against the Serbian civilian population. The Ustaschi began to torment the Serbs and deported many of them to the new Serbia. They were the fortunate ones. The Serbs saw the Croatians and Germans as their enemy and organized resistance against them. They fled to the forests and mountains and became Partisans. Soon Slavonia and Syrmien were insecure as Partisans raided the villages, blew up train tracks, disrupted communications and shot members of the Ustaschi and members of the occupying German Army. This led to hostage taking of Serbian civilians on the part of the Croats and Germans many of whom were executed in retaliation for Partisan actions. The Partisans responded with rather bestial reprisals. Slavonia became the scene of bitter warfare. This cost the lives of many of the Danube Swabians called up to join the Waffen SS and used in the campaign against the Partisans.
In Surtschin things remained quiet, as the local Serbs were cooperative and responsive to their Swabian neighbours. In 1944 some minor shootings took place but there were no casualties. The older Swabian men who had not been conscripted into the army stood sentry duty at night on each street. They would have been no match for a Partisan attack. Only two men were wounded. That nothing worse occurred must have been due to the Serbian inhabitants of the village. The road to Semlin and Belgrade was open if flight became necessary.
But four men were missing, kidnapped by the Partisans and they were never heard from again. In the neighbourhood random killings became routine and the scattered Swabian population headed for Surtschin and Neu Pasua for refuge.
As the Russian Army advanced on Belgrade in 1944 the Swabians wondered if flight would be necessary for them as it had during the First World War. Many began to bury their valuables just in case. At the beginning of October there was a canon barrage. Flight was necessary but where? The Batschka and the Banat had already been penetrated by Russian troops. On October 5, 1944 the flight began in Surtschin.
With the capitulation of Romania on August 23, 1944 a catastrophe for the Danube Swabians was unleashed. In the Banat only very few were able to escape but more were able to leave the Batschka before the arrival of the Russian Army. In Slavonia and Syrmien the vast majority of the civilian population was evacuated in October 1944.
The leader of the German Folk Group organization, Branimir Altgayer asked for information on an evacuation of the Danube Swabians in Croatia. The Reich ambassador in Agram, Sigfried Kasche spoke against such a move. He felt the Croatians would get upset and would see the flight of the Danube Swabians as a collapse of the southeastern front. Ferdinand Gasteiger was sent to Berlin by Altgayer to ask for clarification of the possibility of an evacuation. He flew from Semlin to Berlin on September 11th. He was able to gain the support of the Reich government for the evacuation. He returned home on September 14th. Planning began for an organized evacuation and orders were distributed to the local organizations to plan to leave with the assurance that they had the consent of the Reich government. This took three weeks. On October 3rd the SS F�hrer Kammerhofer informed the Folk Group leaders that a telegram had been received for them to leave. On October 4th at 8:00 a.m. Gasteiger was in India, at noon in Franztal-Semlin and in the afternoon he was in Belgrade to arrange for trains and locomotives to transport the city dwellers in Semlin who were without transportation.
On October 5th the first column of the wagon trek left Surtschin heading to the west. They passed through Semlin, India, Irig and Ruma and were under constant artillery attack by the Partisans. They headed across the Drava River at Esseg on a pontoon bridge and then crossed Hungary on to Austria.
On their way through Yugoslavia they passed through Partisan infested areas that attacked the columns both day and night. People died every day. Almost miraculously 120,000 of them escaped the coming terror of the Partisans on the Danube Swabians who remained behind or had been unable to join the evacuation.
The people of Surtschin had no knowledge of an evacuation plan being prepared by the Folk Group leadership. They paid attention to both the political and military situation. The frontlines were coming closer and the sounds of artillery were distinct. Then came October 5, 1944, the last day Surtschin was the home of its Danube Swabian population.
Early in the morning between 4:00 and 5:00 am people were awakened by rapping sounds on their windows and told the village had to be evacuated by noon. Each family was to send one person to the Deustche Gasse to get more information. They were told to get wagons ready to head for India or Ruma. There they would be transferred to trains. But no one knew his or her destination. Families with no transportation would be provided with wagons. Jakob Klauser, the mayor, was to be in charge assisted by Andreas Scheuermann. Many Serbs offered their wagons to needy families. People were to take supplies with them but not to overload their wagons. Young boys and girls were to herd pigs, cows and sheep to the railway station in Semlin. People rushed to their houses. Some stopped to find out if some were staying behind. The old people who had survived the flight during the First World War counselled the young people to leave the future battle zone. The fear of retaliation by the Partisans was another incentive to leave.
By noon, 250 loaded wagons assembled on the main street. Several families stayed behind. They just could not leave their homes. The trek started out at 5:00 pm and they headed for Beschanija the birthplace of their bishop. It was damp and cold. Next day they headed towards Neu Pasua. One of the women died on the way.
It was fortunate that almost the entire community left. This was not true of the communities through which they passed on the way who would become victims of the extermination camps of Tito and the Partisans. It was because of Pastor Lohmann that almost the entire Danube Swabian population of Surtschin left. In reality he led the trek column. He was an inspiration to his people and at his urging the local Orthodox priest and his family joined them. Arriving at both India and Ruma there were no trains to take them any further and so they had to go on. Somehow they were able to avoid Partisan raids and entered Hungary. They endured bombing raids and eventually reached Austria in the Linz area. It had taken four weeks. The trek was most difficult for infants and toddlers and their mothers. There were over 50 of them and they had no regular milk supply. Most wagons did not have a covering and rain was constant. Adults and the older children walked to lessen the load the horses had to lug.
Arriving in Austria they were met with hostility on the part of the local population. They were called Gypsies. They were dispersed throughout the area. After the surrender in 1945 the Austrians were even more open in their hostility and displeasure at the presence of refugees. They were not allowed to use buses or trains and in most schools their children were refused enrolment. As a result many began leaving for Germany. Most of them registered as Ungarn Deutsche (German Hungarians) and were allowed to leave Austria.
Those who had remained in Surtschin found the deserted German quarter of the village unnatural and it made them feel awful. The livestock left behind bellowed. Cows had to be milked. Cattle and pigs were in need of pasture and grazing. Abandoned dogs howled in their yards. The remaining Swabians became more fearful day by day. The few men who remained and some German troops patrolled the German streets. Few ever slept. On October 9th six families decided to leave and try to catch up with the trek from Surtschin. They were successful in doing so at India.
Several old women remained at home along with ten families who had no wagon or other kind of transportation. Most of them were picked up a few days later by the German military that took them by lorry to India and Ruma where they boarded trains for Austria. Some of them ended up in the Sudentenland while others were sent to Lower Austria. After the capitulation in May 1945 those in the Sudetenland were forced to leave. They came back to Yugoslavia by train as far as Subotitza where they were thrown into an internment camp. After two weeks of hunger, suffering and fear all of their belongings and other possessions were taken from them and they were herded on foot towards the Hungarian border. The families scattered to different villages along the frontier. In March 1946 they joined the Danube Swabians from that area of Hungary in cattle cars during the expulsion ordered at Potsdam.
The families in Lower Austria were forced to leave following the entry of the Russian Army and were sent to Yugoslavia. They formed a small column of wagons along with some people from Dobanovci and headed for home. They had to report to the Russians in every area they entered. They crossed the border to Yugoslavia at Vilanj and were driven on foot into a camp. As of June 17, 1945 the Yugoslavian border had been closed and no one was allowed to enter. That was their great fortune. They escaped the death camps and managed to save their meagre possessions. On March 12, 1946 they were also deported along with the local Danube Swabians of Hungary to Austria and finally Germany.
All that remained behind in Surtschin were a few older women and two families. The two married couples: the Partisans shot Neumann and Renner. The Renners left five children behind who were sent to an extermination camp and no trace of any of them has ever been found. Of the older women, all of them widows, we only know they were shot at some time: Mrs. Lapp, Spinner, Greilach and Weber. Elisabeth Gayer was also taken to the internment camp in Semlin along with the five Renner children and was able to escape in 1946 to Germany to rejoin her family. She came alone.