HER EXPERIENCES AS A REFUGEE FROM YUGOSLAVIA IN WORLD WAR TWO
An interview by her granddaughter
Heidi Marie Schwarzpech-Baiden
When one thinks of World War Two, the first things that come to mind are images of soldiers in battlefields or victims in Concentration Camps. However, there is a much more human side of the war that is often forgotten; civilians whose lives were greatly changed by the war, but who had no idea why the events that were happening actually did.
The person that I have chosen to interview and whose experience I have chosen to document is my Oma (German for “grandmother”), Elizabeth Schwarzpech (nee Mueller). She was a ethnic German farmer living with her family in a small village in Yugoslavia. She and her family were forced to abandon their homes and walk to Austria to seek refuge in Austria from the hatred between the Croats, the Partisans (made up largely of Serbians), and the German Army. During the war, she was in her late teens, and neither she nor her family knew much about why the Danube Swabians were so despised. All that they knew was that it was some kind of political war and that they had to leave in order to save their lives.
A short background on how my family, and many other ethnic German families, ended up in Yugoslavia is necessary to understand why leaving was so traumatic. Elizabeth’s great great grandparents immigrated to greater Hungary in the late 1700s, or the early 1800s at a time in which the borders were opened to encourage German settlers to move there and develop the land. Here, Elizabeth’s grandfather, Martin Paul was born in 1855. When he was eighteen or nineteen years old he left for Slavonia, then in southern part of greater Hungary in search of an even better life. (These dates have been found or estimated from Martin Paul’s bible.) Elizabeth has no possessions from this far back in the past except for this bible in which Martin Paul recorded important events in the family’s lives).
There were several towns in which people settled, the one that Martin Paul settled in was called Hrastovac. He found work as a horseman for a teacher by the name of Hass. He fell in love with and later married the Hass family nanny, a girl named Eva. Eventually, with the help of Hass, he cleared some land nearby and built a stamped clay and straw home in approximately 1880. It is here that Elizabeth’s mother, Eva Mueller was born in 1896. Eva eventually married in 1917, and lived with her husband, Heinrich Mueller and their immediate family until they were able to build a house of their own in 1921. (*Slavonia became part of newly formed Yugoslavia in 1918 after the partition of Austro-Hungary.)
This house was very simple, again made of stamped clay bricks, but was refined over the years. In 1934-1935 a barn was attached that becomes very relevant in the war years. Here Elizabeth was born, grew up, and had a relatively happy childhood although she and her family worked very hard in the fields to make a good life for themselves. Hrastovac was filled with mostly Danube Swabian families, with the exception of three. However, early in Elizabeth’s childhood, everyone there got along with the Danube Swabians reasonably well. There was even a term for a Serbian or Croatian friend of a Danube Swabian, a “bragateler”. (This is a local word that came out in the interview but that I have been unable to find in other books. This leads me to think that it was perhaps a coined or slang term, and therefore the spelling of the word is estimated.) The hatred in her town started shortly after the German Army overran Yugoslavia in April 1941, (Bailey, 1978, p.92). Or, as Elizabeth puts it, they came in and tried to “Germanize” everyone.
The problem of Yugoslavia, then, was…a more basic problem. That was simply the difficulty of bringing together people of similar cultural and racial roots but who had come to differ profoundly over a long historical time. In fact, many of them had become irreconcilably hostile to each other. Many even came to prefer the alien rule of Italy or Germany rather than that of the dominant Serbs in Yugoslavia, (Littlefield, 1988, p.x). This quote also brings up the civil issue that was relevant in Yugoslavia at the time, namely, the internal conflict between the Serbs and Croats. Unfortunately, this is an issue that perhaps with the war in 1992 has been resolved.
Also, given all this, Yugoslavia was faced with Nazi occupation, (Littlefield, 1988, p.xi). This was a problem for the Serbs because after occupying Yugoslavia, Hitler deported 200,000 prisoners of war, all of them Serbs, (Bailey, 1978, p.75). This is not to say that everyone hated each other, because as Elizabeth pointed out, the Danube Swabians were friends with people of other nationalities around them before the war, but the tension that did exist in this country of so many different peoples who had gone through their own historical and cultural evolution (Littlefield, 1988, p.i), became very difficult to overcome as a whole.
In 1941, Elizabeth’s older brother Heinrich was drafted into the war. A German drummer came to town and gathered up all the young men. He selected seven of the tallest and strongest men to join the army. Officially, this process was considered to be volunteer, but it really was not. Elizabeth said that they had no choice, if a man was selected he had to leave, no questions asked. Two years later, in the spring of 1943, this happened again and Elizabeth’s other brother Andreas was forced to go to war. This time the Germans weren’t as fussy and took every man who was the correct age with them. Andreas left behind a pregnant wife who he never saw again. He didn’t ever get a chance to see his child either. Andreas was killed in December of 1944. Heinrich was killed at some time in 1943, leaving his wife a widow as well.
The deaths of all these young ethnic German men certainly put a damper on the spirits of the people living in Hrastovac, but they were also put through another kind of hell and heartache. During the daytime, life went on as usual. However, at night some nasty things began to happen. Elizabeth said that the German Army and some Croatians resided at one end of the town, while the Partisans, made up largely of Serbs, resided at another end of the town, in the bush. You could tell at night who was coming by the direction the barking of dogs came from. If it came from the Army side, the people weren’t as scared as if it came from the side of the Partisans. They would come out and knock on the houses one by one to get supplies. Tito even told the rural partisans that “if you need something, go out on the road and get it from the Donauschwaben,” (Bailey, 1978, p.92). If they said that they really needed your horse, you were obliged to allow them to take it. If you said “no”, then they would probably just take all of your horses. Elizabeth’s family had their best heifer taken from them, as well as many other things. It started out on a small scale, but then as the war progressed, they took everyone’s young horses and even came into houses to take things like sheets to use for bandages.
On a night where the raids occurred, a system was employed to warn other families. As soon as the first family heard something or someone come to their house or a house nearby, they would run to their neighbour’s home to warn them ahead of time. Then these neighbours would run to warn the next ones and so on. This became particularly important when fears arose concerning the kidnapping of young German girls. In neighbouring towns it was said that some Partisans took the girls, used and raped them, and then killed them. To protect against this, as Elizabeth’s family had two girls – herself and her older sister Eva, her family built bunkers in the side of the barn. A wall was removed and there was a hiding spot built behind it. Her parents would remove the boards, then nail the wall back on and leave the children in there until the Partisans had passed. Elizabeth recalls one time when they received notice too late that the Partisans were on their way and there was no time to hide in the bunkers. They were forced to hide in a muddy ditch behind the house until the Partisans passed. In Hrastovac, thankfully no children were ever taken, but no one knew what the Partisans were coming to get at any given time, so the people lived in constant fear and wondering.
…Partisans earned themselves a ghastly record…among land forces, the worst examples of excessive damage and massacre are laid. Partisans were too frequently forces of moral destruction, their style of operation provoking aberrations that were the negation of humanity, (Macksey,1975, p.256).
Finally, things came to a halt on August 24, 1944. The German Army came to town and said that all ethnic German families had to get out of Yugoslavia that very night. This was not uncommon or unexpected, really, because people had been forced to move around throughout the war.
It is many centuries, however, since the world has witnessed population movements comparable to those set in motion by the present war…Whole towns and districts have been cleared of their inhabitants to give the fighting forces complete freedom of movement or to safeguard the civilian population against bombing, (Kulischer, 1943, p.i).
They were to gather up their things and meet at a train station called Poliyana. They were allowed to bring their wagon and whatever they could fit on it. They had to leave behind their homes and much of their livestock, though. However, that night the Partisans got wind of the fact that everyone was packing up their belongings and raided the town. A fight ensued and three German soldiers were killed. When Elizabeth’s family was leaving for the station, a soldier was dying in their yard. The soldiers had been hidden all over town to protect the people (some had been hiding in the ditch that Elizabeth had hidden in earlier), and that is why they became involved in the raid. All of the civilians made it safely to the station, though. Elizabeth was only seventeen years old at this time.
They remained at the station for two weeks before they actually left. During this time Elizabeth and her father would walk back to Hrastovac to feed their animals thinking that something might happen and they wouldn’t have to leave. At this time, Elizabeth’s family consisted of her parents and her younger brother Martin. Her sister Eva had since married and was living with her husband. This travel back and forth from the station and the town was very dangerous. The Partisans had murdered all three or four families that fought back and refused to leave Hrastovac. The German Army had wanted to get the Danube Swabians out of Yugoslavia because of this very hatred. The church that Elizabeth’s family had belonged to had been stripped and used as a grain barn. Much of the town was destroyed and the culture of the town was gone.
The ultimate aim of this wagon train was to settle these ethnic Germans along the Danube River. Their journey by foot began. They walked for approximately one month living in their wagons. At night people in Hungary were instructed to open their homes to the wagon people, but they thought of them as gypsies, and had little sympathy for them. Some people allowed them to sleep in their stables, but very often, the horses stayed in the stables to get some much-needed rest while the refugees stayed under the wagons to keep warm and protect their things.
As the people traveled, other problems aside from the obvious, like comfort and cleanliness arose. There were some very real dangers to be faced. One day, when they were near the Platten See (Lake Balaton), the Russians shot at them from the air. They had done a mass fly-by and sent down a shower of bullets. Luckily, no one was killed, but what makes this so interesting is the fact that the refugees seemed to have no friends. The night they left Hrastovac, shooting was coming from all directions, and in all honestly, no one knew who was being aimed at. This is worth noting because tensions between the different groups of people, namely the Serbs and the Croats, had escalated to a very high degree. The Army was largely made up of Croats, and in some cases Croat and Serb units fought each other rather than the German Army, (Littlefield, 1988, p. 135). Elizabeth and the Danube Swabians of Hrastovac were caught in this crossfire. Then, in the refugees’ travels, people in Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Austria, countries that were supposed to be their friends, treated them as second-class citizens because they were dirty from traveling, and as was earlier stated, they were thought of as gypsies. The only people that the refugees seemed able to count on were other people from their wagon train…
The place where Elizabeth and her wagon train stayed was a town called Kertschaden, just north of Osijek, in the province of Slavonia, (Schuttack, 1960, p.184). They stayed here for two weeks, but as the Russians came closer, a meeting was called and all the refugees had to leave again. This time however, they were only allowed to bring food for their horses for one week and very few personal supplies. The oats for the horses were piled on the top of the wagon because they were light and it was used as bedding at night. Another problem was that the refugees were living in houses, but they were living in the houses of Serbians, while the original homeowners were hiding out in the bush. This would have undoubtedly led to future problems. Therefore, the refugees resumed their travels.
This time they were determined to make it to Austria and they arrived there in the beginning of October 1944. The trip had made the horses so weary that only one person was allowed to ride on the wagon while the others walked. Originally Elizabeth’s family had two bicycles with them, but these were sold off as supplies became scarce or were discarded as they broke down and could no longer be repaired. When they finally got to Austria, they slept on hay and blankets in an empty school. Volunteers were recruited to work in a hotel to make meals for the refugees and Elizabeth was one of them. After one week of working like this, a man came up to Elizabeth and asked her how she liked the work. She said that it was all right, and that she had to do it to help her family. It turned out that this man was the owner of the hotel and he offered her a permanent job there. Elizabeth accepted it and her family stayed in Austria. Actually, it ended up being good that she did accept the job because the entire wagon train wound up staying in Austria as the people and the horses were too weary to make it the rest of the way to Germany. Also, it was inadvisable to travel alone, and staying with the people from the wagon train was considered to be the smartest thing to do because there was a certain amount of safety in numbers. The decision to stay in Austria had been made in secret by the wagon train leaders and town officials. Elizabeth’s family was considered lucky, too, as they had nicer accommodations than most because the hotel owner allowed them to live in one of the hotel rooms. The people from the wagon train were happy to at least have made it this far, as many people hadn’t been so fortunate. One refugee actually said:
” To march across borders illegally, stateless, and homeless, without documentation, and then to come at last to a place where one meets a friendly reception……..is something only a refugee can fully appreciate.” ( Botting, 1983, p.96)
At the end of the war, the estimated total Yugoslavian losses reached 1.7 million (Chodorow, 1969, p.882). Elizabeth’s sister Eva and her family had almost been forced back to Yugoslavia and into a concentration camp. Eva was living in Czechoslovakia at this time.
Elizabeth and her family lived in Austria until the beginning of 1945. At that time they found out from the former wagon train leader that Elizabeth was going to be drafted into the German Army to work for the Luftwaffe as a helper with the airplanes. This was obviously very dangerous, so they had to find a way to keep her from going. A job was secured for her in Bavaria, and that very same night Elizabeth planned to leave Austria. She couldn’t go to apply for a border pass to cross because she knew it wouldn’t be granted since she was on the list to be drafted. (At this point she hadn’t been officially told that she was to go, though.) Since border passes did not have names listed on them, a family that was going to go took her along with them. Their son was originally supposed to be going to Bavaria with them but he became very ill and couldn’t leave, so she used his pass. This was one of those uncanny strokes of luck that very possibly saved Elizabeth’s life.
She arrived in Bavaria and worked for another hotel where she sowed oats and worked the nearby land in a village called Scheuerfeld, about 3km away from Couburg. While she was in Bavaria the war ended. In June of 1945, the US Army came and took all of the refugees living in Bavaria to a camp in Kronach. They left them there alone for two weeks and the people thought they had been forgotten. They had only the personal belongings they brought with them and were not allowed to leave the camp. They wound up building tunnels under the fences and stealing potatoes from nearby farms. They cooked the potatoes on the metal remnants of tanks that they found scattered around the camp in order to survive. After two weeks the U.S. Army returned with food trucks and also allowed the refugees out of camp boundaries to beg for food from the farmers. Some people sympathized with them and gave them handouts whereas others just said “no”. Elizabeth recounted a story of a farm they visited whose family said that they had no food at all to spare even though their farm fields was full of potatoes. Elizabeth was with a friend and said that they would have been thrilled with just one potato each, so they wound up sneaking onto the farm fields and stuffing their pockets with stolen potatoes to bring back to the camp. (The Army had brought the food trucks in, but that food obviously did not last forever, which is why Elizabeth was forced to resort to theft).
In the beginning of September, a friend of the family arrived looking for his own family. He took Elizabeth back to Austria with him to find her family. Although some trains were working they ended up walking most of the way from Bavaria to Austria. Here they were reunited with the families that they had been forced to leave behind.
Elizabeth stayed in Austria with her family until 1950. She also married my Opa, Karl Schwarzpech at this time who was originally a ethnic German from Romania that she met at a wedding. They had no citizenship in Austria, however, and were looking for a permanent home, so they were sponsored and immigrated to Canada. Their choices had been Canada, Australia, and Venezuela, but one of Elizabeth’s sisters lived in Dayton, Ohio and her father had been to Canada in 1928, so that is where they decided to go.
They originally lived in Harrow, Ontario, working in the fields of a farm for fifty cents an hour. When they immigrated to Canada from Yugoslavia after the war, they still had very few material possessions, as Europe was pretty much still drained economically. The U.S. had actually, with the help of Secretary of State George C. Marshall, been helping various countries in Europe get back on their feet by instituting the Marshall Plan which included aid like food and fertilizer shipments (Botting, 1983, p. 154). Then, in 1954 they started a company called “Harrow Sausage”. My own father Karl Jr. was born here and lived with his older brother Bruno who had actually been born in Austria after the war. In 1955 Elizabeth’s mother moved to Dayton to live with some other family members that went there after the war. In 1967, Elizabeth and her family moved to Windsor, and then in 1975, just after I was born they moved to North Bay to start another deli called Bavarian Meat Products. About two years ago they sold this very successful company and moved back down to Southern Ontario and are living in a beautiful home in Amherstburg.
Since I have known my grandparents (that is to say, my entire life), they have always been very successful, honest, hard-working, and quite wealthy people. It was truly a shock to find out how much sweat and bloodshed had occurred to bring them to Canada so that my father could meet my mother and that I could be born.
I asked my Oma, (from here I would prefer to call Elizabeth “Oma” since this part is a little more personal and that is how I refer to her in real life), how she felt about the war and what her feelings were as the war was raging. Any knowledge I had of the war beforehand always made out the Germans to be bloodthirsty and evil people and that description just does not fit my Oma or Opa. I even remember myself being in Grade Three when one day a student in my class told everybody to hate me because my family (by rights of knowing only that my last name was obviously German, not through any knowledge of my family history) had bombed Americans.
My Oma said that living on a farm in Hrastovac, they had no idea about what was going on. They had no access to newspapers or radio and heard only rumors about what was happening outside of their town. Her two brothers went to war for the German Army, although not by choice. They had no information on why they were fighting and didn’t live to come home and tell their families what it was all about. My Oma felt that it was largely a political war and that the real people living in German countries were just trying to make decent lives for themselves. All that she and her family knew when they traveled from Hrastovac to Austria (and then to Bavaria, in my Oma’s case ), was that they were hated because of the fact that they were ethnic German and that regardless of what kind of people they were, they had to leave in order to save their lives.
In conclusion, the war ended up changing my Oma’s life forever. She showed me pictures of her house in Hrastovac as it stands today (minus the barn but still inhabited by a Yugoslavian family) and seemed very wistful when talking about it. I saw pictures of Heinrich and Andreas at their weddings before the war, as well as pictures taken after the war of their graves. My Oma has a very good life now and is quite happy, but I know that she will never forget what she went through to get where she is today. In all honesty, after talking to her about it, and thinking about the petty problems that I have that always seem so major, but dim considerably in comparison, I know that my family history is a story that I will never forget, either.