From: Menschen zwischen Welten
By Leopold Karl Barwich, 1985
Summarized and Translated
By Henry A. Fischer
Entering the 20th century the term Danube Swabian came into vogue to describe the descendants of the Germans settlers who had responded to the call of the Habsburg Emperors and first established their communities in the early 18th century. During the 20th century the Danube Swabians found themselves living between different worlds. They knew the world of the other nationalities among whom they lived. Observed and adapted what was helpful in their relationships with them as well as met their own goals.
They lived as individuals, families and as village communities as if they were islands surrounded by people of other nationalities, values, language, faith, customs and traditions.
They lived between “East” and “West” if we think in terms of the division of the Church. The Slovenes and Croats belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. The Serbs, Montenegrins and Macedonians belonged to the Orthodox Church of the East and the Protestant minority could not even train its clergy in the territory of Croatian State. There were also Moslems in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There was no ecumenicity. The Croatian clergy along with the help of the Ustaschi would attempt to force the conversion of the Serbs living in their Independent State of Croatia that emerged during the Second World War and committed countless atrocities against them with the support of the clergy and hierarchy.
On the island of Corfu after World War I representatives of Serbia and the recently established “Yugoslavian” Committee met to design an independent state. On July 20, 1917 the Pact of Corfu was concluded. Nikolai Paschitsch represented the Serbian government and Dr. Ante Trumbitsch as leader of the Yugoslavian Committee established a “democratic kingdom” of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes under the dynasty of the Serbian princely Karadjordjewitsch family. This kingdom was to incorporate the State of Serbia, the princedom of Montenegro and all of the South Slavs of the Danubian Monarchy of Austria-Hungary: the Croats, Serbs and Slovenes.
The Croats feared the Serb’s overwhelming power and the Serbian drive for greatness. They would have rather been an independent state of their own but then they would not have succeeded in annexing Dalmatia, Istria and the islands at Italy’s expense. Croatia had been part of the Austro-Hungarian alliance with Germany that had lost the war and Italy was one of the winners. The Prince Regent, Alexander, proclaimed the new Kingdom on December 1, 1918 on behalf of his ailing father, Peter I. The Croatian leaders Dr. Ante Paveltisch and Stefan Raditsch spoke out against “Yugoslavia”.
Elections were held for representatives to sit in the National Assembly that would design a constitution. The German minority living in the new state were not permitted to vote. June 28, 1921 by only a slight majority the Constitution was passed.
Annexation of territory from Austria’s Carinthia Province followed as well as the outlawing of the Communist Party and the persecution of its members began. Attempts at taking over Albania were held in check by the Great Powers. Fiume was controlled jointly with Italy. The Agrarian Reform Laws would remain a thorny issue in the years to come.
The new parliament was uncertain about the place of the national minorities in the new state. They were uncertain whether to grant citizenship to the Germans or make them second-class citizens. Many preferred a “transfer” of the German population to Austria. In 1923 the Germans were given a vote for the first time. But Germans had been conscripted into the Yugoslav Army long before that and sent to the south and stationed in Macedonia. The minority rights guaranteed in the peace treaties with Austria-Hungary were not acceptable to the Yugoslavian Government in 1921 or 1931.
But the Serbs had their greatest difficulties with the Croats. They continued to act up in parliament and opposed the Constitution at every turn. Some were arrested as enemies of the State including Raditsch, and Matschek as well as others. Matschek took over the leadership of the Croatian Farmers’ Party and worked to change the Constitution. He was simply representing the growing rebellion throughout Croatia.
The situation the Germans in Croatia faced was becoming more and more difficult. The Croats asked for their electoral support and they knew this would be seen as an affront to the ruling party. But on the whole the Germans avoided political involvements. When the land reform laws were put into effect they realized that the government was not well disposed towards them. They were patient, although they had anxieties about the future. But envy of the “wealth” of the Germans and railing against it became a national pastime. The goal of the South Slavs was the “Yugoslavianization” of all the population.
This along with a failing economy led to the migration of many of the younger German men to Brazil, Canada and the US. Agricultural prices were falling, so those with trades moved to the towns and cities in search of work.
The land ownership reforms were meant to divide up the large estates, which in fact never happened. The estate owners managed to give up unsuitable land or the land their tenants had cleared (Welimirowatz had 500 acres of such land). The handouts were only small parcels of land to veterans (Serbs only) or Slavs “coming home” from Hungary. The only universal policy in the midst of all the corruption that took place was to freeze out the Hungarians, Romanians and Danube Swabians and prevent them from benefiting from the reform in any way.
The continuing crisis in parliament led to King Alexander’s introduction of a Royal Dictatorship. On January 6, 1929 the Constitution was set aside and royal power was established. The parliament was dismissed and all political parties and organizations were forbidden. On December 3, 1929 the name Yugoslavia was first used officially. The king attempted to divide the Kingdom into nine Bans and the prefecture of Belgrade to neutralize the ethnic divisions of the old historical provinces. In reality in this way the Serbs formed the majority in six of the Bans and for that reason his idea was not acceptable. A new Constitution was promulgated with a cameral system. Along with the elected parliament there would also be a senate. The populace would only elect half of the senators. The king would name the other half. In 1940 two German senators were appointed: Bishop Philip Popp of the Lutheran Church and Dr. Grassl a leading German figure in the nation.
In 1931 there was an uprising in many regions by anti-Serbian Croats who were members of an organization called: Ustasche meaning struggle.
Dr. Matschek established a Croatian self-government programme in 1932 and two months later the Slovenes also demanded self-government. Because of the pressures and tensions of the nationalities’ issues among the brother Slavs, the king and government did not deal with the economic and social issues. Foreign affairs policies had resulted in good relationship with Bulgaria, reached a compromise with Italy, a Balkan Pact with Romania, Greece and Turkey and a small “war pact” with Romania and Czechoslovakia all opposed to any reinstitution of a “Greater Hungary” after the Treaty of Trianon. During a state visit in France in October 1934 the king was assassinated along with the French foreign minister. His under age successor Peter II was controlled by a Regent’s Council headed by his uncle, his father’s brother Paul. According to the census of 1931 Serbs accounted for 44% of the population and the Croats were 34%. The two were not reconciled with one another when Hitler appeared on the scene in Germany. Economic ties between Germany and Yugoslavia were strengthened and Yugoslavia left the orbit of France and sided with Germany on the international scene. The approaching Second World War would be the setting for the Croats gaining the independence that had always eluded them in the past.
In an ironic way the growing and overwhelming nationalism of the Hungarians, Romanians, Serbs and Croats awakened a similar “national” consciousness among the various groups of Danube Swabians.
They had gone about their work for decades whether in agriculture or their trades and were content with their destiny even though preserving their language, faith and customs also proved to be hard work. They were tied together in their village communal life and relationships and built a life of their own experiencing common difficulties together. They assumed they would be able to maintain the use of their mother tongue and never thought for a moment that the State would encroach upon this natural human right of all peoples. German was their language to express intimacy, family life and prayer, community life and song and celebration. It was no wonder that they could not grasp the idea that their children could no longer speak their mother tongue at school and could be won to the concept of total assimilation. When others called for liberty, equality and fraternity for themselves they were not considered to be part of the package. After 1918 equality for the Germans in Hungary meant to become Hungarians while in Yugoslavia it meant giving up their Protestant faith, folk identity and heritage.
In Neusatz the Schwaebische Deutsche Kulturband (Swabian German Cultural Union) was formed in June of 1920. Local groups of the SDKB as it was known were formed in 97 communities throughout Yugoslavia and by 1924 there were 128. This organization was not in opposition to the State in any way. It transcended the confessional differences and sought to preserve and maintain their national identity. Their first concern was the retention of their German schools and the education and preparation of German schoolteachers. The organization was banned in 1924.
When parliament approved the voting rights of the minorities a Partei die Deutschen (German Party) was established in Hatzfeld in December of 1922. They were permitted to campaign in the election of 1923. They supported the basic tenants of the DSKD: language rights, cultural development, German place names to be retained and peace and friendship with their neighbours. They wanted the nation to achieve the equality of which it spoke for the sake of their homeland. Eight of their candidates were elected to the Belgrade parliament in 1923. In 1925 there were five. 1927 had six. 1931 there was only one. 1932 saw the election of two. In 1935 there were two again and in 1938 there were three.
The German school demands were recognized and promises were made but were not kept. In 1927 the SDKB was allowed to resume its work and newly formed groups rose from 29 to 64. With the coming to power of the Royal Dictatorship in 1929 all political parties were banned. This worked to cool off the Danube Swabians who were basically patient and loyal to the State. But in the new Constitution of the King in 1931 the rights of the minorities were not anchored in it.
As the SDKB was allowed to begin operations for the third time in 1931 many of the groups had lost courage and refused to believe that promises would be kept this time either. In 1931 there 13 local groups; in 1936 there were a total of 96; in 1934 there were 129 and in 1941 it had expanded to 3,250 local groups. The membership was 75,000 and consisted primarily of the heads of households. The assassination of the king in 1934 alarmed the Danube Swabians. They too streamed to Belgrade and participated in the national mourning. The Swabians were sad that the king had not been able to carry out his reforms.
In 1934 there was a crisis within the SDKB as the younger generation within its membership bound itself to what they called: the Renewal Movement. They were simply impatient with the older leadership that had sought and fought for so long for what appeared were only minimal gains if any in the language and schools question.
The German minority in Slavonia was not organized until March of 1936 in Esseg. It was named The Cultural and Welfare Union of Germans (KWVD) and was founded by Branimir Altgayer who was elected its head. The Croatisation of the Swabians in Croatia/Slavonia could only be halted by a united effort by the entire German population. They wanted to be “true” and “loyal” to the State but also their national heritage and identity and ethnicity. In a short time 74 local groups were organized and in addition to the joining of younger men some whole villages left the SDKB and joined the KWVD. In 1936 the first German weekly newspaper appeared: Slavonian Peoples News. 1938 saw the reunion of the KWVD and the SDKB.
In the meanwhile domestic politics changed to the advantage of the German minority. The continuing opposition of the Croats to the central government in Belgrade led to the growing division and animosity between the Serbs and Croats. At the same time the economic ties with Germany expanded which led to better relationships between the German minority and the government. All of this set the scene for the coming conflict and the opening salvos of the Second World War.
On Maunday Thursday of 1941 (Gruenen Donnerstag) the reality of the coming war became a fact as all able-bodied men in Welimirowatz had to report in Našice. It was the day of national mobilization. The names of those drafted were read out in public. Most of the men could return home where they were to await further orders. All radios were confiscated and the Swabians were cut off from the rest of the world.
On April 10, 1941 the Independent State of Croatia was proclaimed in Agram. The leader of the Ustasche Movement, Dr. Ante Pavelic formed a government in Agram on April 16, 1941 with himself at its head.
The thousand-year-old dream of the Croats was finally fulfilled. It was a “child” of the war and dependent upon the Axis Powers: Germany and Italy. Because Bosnia and Herzegovinia were annexed to it as well it was even larger than “Greater Croatia” of the Middle Ages. The Ustasche exiles now returned back home and with Pavelic they began a reign of terror. The massive expulsion of the Serbian population that had settled in Croatia after the First World War and the forced conversation of Orthodox Serbs to Roman Catholicism and the extermination camps that were set up all played a role in driving the Serbian population into the arms of Tito’s Communist partisans. The Serbs threatened with genocide and extermination fled to the mountains and forests and joined his forces there. The Slavic brothers battled one another in the forests and mountains.
The Swabians, as the “relatives” of a friendly state were handled carefully and given some special privileges. They were taxed according to Croatian regulations and were to fulfill all of the obligations of citizenship but also received such great liberties that as a “National Group” they were practically a state within the state.
The newly formed Volksgruppe (Group with a common ethnic identity) included all of the Germans throughout Croatia, Slavonia, Syrmien and Bosnia. Of these 180,000 Germans the vast majority were Roman Catholics while some 40,000 were Lutherans and 4,000 were Reformed.
The Germans in Croatia were officially recognized and given judicial and other public rights that were codified in the law. They were equal citizens in the new state. The Fuehrer (leader) of the Volksgruppe was given the equivalency of one of the State Directors. Germans were guaranteed political, economic, social and cultural freedoms and self-government over their own affairs under Croatian Law.
This was more than merely cultural autonomy that the Serbs had in Austria and much more than what the Swabians had vainly demanded in Yugoslavia. All of the attempts at Croatizing the German population by the parliamentary government since 1918 were abandoned. The ethnic German schools, Credit Unions, the Volkstum (local defence forces) in 498 local areas in the land, the equalization of German as one of the languages of government offices were achieved in a unitary state. The issue of military service would blow the whole fabric apart.
In June and December of 1943 and the summer of 1944 Partisans raided Welimirowatz. They surrounded the unprotected village and stormed into the yards and houses and demanded to be waited on by the villagers. They also had to provide for those who stood guard as sentries. During the occupation the housewives were ordered to cook for whole groups of men but always had to taste the food they prepared in the presence of the Partisans to assure them it had not been poisoned. This kind of mistrust was unwarranted. As shots from arriving Croatian and German troops rang out next day they left the village in a hurry.
Women now balked at the idea of remaining alone in their houses and invited others to live with them. Men often hid in manure piles or inside of the chimneys of outdoor bake ovens. Mothers travelled to Esseg and stayed with their children who were at school and did so for extended periods.
On another visit by the Partisans they cut down the telephone poles to Našice and left them there on the road. In December they came after midnight. At the time they were looking for two men on furlough. The father was able to sneak away and the son was hidden in his grandmother’s bed under her heavy feather Teck (comforter). Instead the Partisans took all kinds of booty: bedding, shirts, suits, socks, groceries, a radio and jewellery. They also broke into other houses and the local store and took their booty with them in wagons that they also confiscated.
The mill in Našice was destroyed and the men now had to drive to Esseg with their wheat. On the way home they were relieved of their flour by the Partisans but were allowed to come home. The threshing machines of the neighbouring villages were also destroyed. In 1944 Welimirowatz was one of the few villages able to thresh their crops because a district Defence Force was stationed there.
Although no battles raged, the constant fear and anxiety were unnerving.
It was the rapidly approaching Eastern Front in their direction that put the Danube Swabian population in its path in danger. The orders for leaving came as no surprise. In the hope of returning soon when the fortunes of war shifted to the advantage of the German Army many did not find the leave taking of their homes that difficult. One after another, from east to west across Slavonia, the unending evacuation columns were sent in motion like the first settler treks into the area almost two hundred years earlier. The women checked the harnesses and gear one more time; neighbours brought out their wagon; the local blacksmith repaired one more wheel; a canvas roof was set in place over half of the wagon. Some bedding was bundled; clothing scattered in suitcases and bags; sacks of flour, fried meat in lard in large stone crocks; sausages, large loaves of bread and baking of all kinds. All of it had been set-aside for the day. Two days before the departure they were still working in their fields. The harvest was in; winter wheat was sown; and the land was tilled waiting for next season. Everyone planned on an early return.
As evacuation became more and more obvious, the Croats and Slovaks in the neighbouring villages came to Welimirowatz and wanted to buy cattle, machinery, wheat and corn at give-away-prices.
Many of the men were in the military somewhere far from home unable to support their families in this situation. The oncoming war front, the bombing raids were a go-ahead for all of the ethnic German haters. The plan to exterminate the Swabians unveiled at Jajce in November of 1943 was unknown to the Swabians themselves.
Croats in the vicinity came and offered to look after homes and possessions, cattle and machinery until the owners returned. It never dawned on the Croats that the Swabians would never come “home” again.
Some of the villagers locked the doors of their houses and took the keys with them because they believed they would be coming home soon. There were others sneaking around the village just watching and sizing things up. They were the booty takers.
On October 27, 1944 Našice was under attack by the Partisans and the sound of artillery could be heard all day long. Their wagons that were fully loaded stood in the yards and they were ready to go. Some items were hurriedly unpacked, repacked or replaced. But the order to leave was not given.
The day finally came. A Sunday. October 28, 1944. The wagons had to be ready for departure standing out on the village street by 10:00 am. For those families without wagons or a team of horses the German Army forced some Croats from nearby villages to bring their wagons and joined the column. They were promised that they could return once the column reached Pecs in Hungary. The obvious fear and mistrust of these men was easily understandable on the part of the families they took with them.
Anxiously waiting to hear the order to leave, they first heard the rolling of the drum as the Kleinrichter made his last announcement in the life of the village. With trembling lips he called out: “Liebe Leute wir mussen jetzt unser Heimatverlassen. Vorverts.” (My dear people we now have to leave our home. Let us go forward.) What everyone had awaited but had not wanted to happen was now set into motion.
As all of the wagons and vehicles still stood on the streets or waited on the bridges the Wendel family began to ring the church bells. How sad they sounded. All across the village in the yards and by the houses people stood and wept. The old grandmothers with their brood of grandchildren around them; the ancient grandfather the head of the house, the teenage boys and the women now on their own ventured out into the unknown as wagon followed wagon in a long column with a final: “Im Gottes Jesus Namen.” (In the Name of Jesus) they set their teams and wagons in motion.
One man on furlough was able to accompany and assist his family for the first part of the trek. He eventually had to say farewell. He never returned from the war. The wagon train moved very slowly as it reached the neighbouring district. There was a German checkpoint here. The captain in charge only let men over sixty years of age pass, along with the women and children. Old people and small children were allowed to sit in the wagons while the others had to walk alongside of their wagons. About one dozen men had to stay behind at the checkpoint. They were placed in the Home Guard and were posted in various villages in the neighbourhood. Most of them would never see their families again.
The first night was spent in the Croatian village of Bentisch-Anzi. The German military took care of the horses. The next morning the trek headed across Rakitowitz and Poretsch and then towards Unter Miholtz. Here the refugees spent their second night. But there was no sleep to be had due to the sounds of battle that raged in the area they had just passed through. Before daybreak they left to cross the Drava River into Hungary. The river crossing was difficult and only the drivers could remain in the wagons, the others were taken across by German troops in their barges. Those who had been driven by Croats were left here and their drivers returned home and they would wait for eight days to be evacuated by train. They were sent to Thuringia and Silesia. Some of the wagons were now sent on to the Steiermark in Austria. The largest group ended up in Linz and sent to live with farm families in the area. Their flight ended on November 28th exactly one month after leaving home. Some 150.000 had been evacuated in rain and snow and constant frigid cold.
The Volksgruppe leader Brandimir Altgayer was unlike Sepp Janko and the others who fled to save their own skins but refused to give the order to evacuate in the Banat and Batschka. Despite fierce opposition by the German authorities he managed to get approval for the evacuation. He did not want to see the tragedy that had already taken place in the Banat to be repeated. The Swabians of Slavonia have him to thank they too did not end up in Tito’s extermination camps or face deportation to the USSR. He was surrendered to the Partisans by the British for judgment after the war and was executed.
The terrible war ended on May 8, 1945. In the Russian Zone of Austria, well- intentioned Russian officers were of the opinion that refugees from Yugoslavia were free to go back home and encouraged them to do so. Austria had nothing to offer them. It hardly had enough even for itself. In different parts of the Steiermark, Lower and Upper Austria transports of returning refugees were assembled. Some sixty families from Welimirowatz living in the area of Kirchdorf along with two hundred other families from Yugoslavia were shipped in cattle cars from Linz to Salzburg and finally to the border. Before going through the customs and immigration routine they got into discussions with Serbian royalists that were with them who earnestly warned them not to go any farther. They wanted to go home too but only if there was change in the system as they put it. They had heard of the plundering, shootings and the extermination camps in operation and what awaited any returning Swabian family. After the people pleaded with the English officers in charge the transport did not continue across the border.
Among the families involved were those of Johann Buechler, Johann Brandt, Heinrich Brauchler, Fillip Drumm, Fillip Faerber, Johann Felde, Johann Gehring, Heinrich and Peter Greb, Jakob Hebel, Heinrich and Karl Heil, Elisabeth Heineck, Friedrich and Peter Hoffmann, Adam Huber, Fillip and Peter Benz, Adam and Peter Johler, Martin Kampferseck, George Koerper, Fillip and Johann Klees, Jakob Kolb, Friedrich Lamb, Jakob Lottche, Heinrich Maerz, Heinrich May, Johann, Fillip and Johann Medel, Karl Mueller, Peter Neumann, Heinrich Jakob, Johann and Peter Pister, Christian Poth, Jakob Raff, Andreas Reinhardt, Heinrich Reiss, Stefan Reitenbach, Reter Reitz, Franz Roos, Adam Schell, Peter Schira, Peter Schmidt, Josef Schramm, Alexander and Johann Schuck, Heinrich Stock, Heinrich Tenz, Friedrich and Heinrich Toth, Gerog, Jakob and Karl, Christian and Heinrich Wendel, Adam Zepp.
Some other groups were not as fortunate. Forty-four villagers from Welimirowatz were in a transport involving two thousand people that included the elderly Schlafmanns. They were robbed and plundered several times. Their horses and wagons were taken away from them and then they were force marched on foot by Partisans who jabbed those who slowed down with their bayonets. They came home to empty and plundered houses. A few mornings later they were picked up in lorries to “register” at the town hall. They were arrested and put into an internment camp at Schipowatz by Našice and in July 1945 they were taken to the labour and extermination camp at Valpovo.
In this the largest internment camp in Slavonia set up by the Central Committee the first Swabians and persons with German sounding names were first interned in May 1945. Men, women and children were separated in barracks without windowpanes, no heat and shoddy roofs. Three hundred people were crowded into each barrack. The Commandant was a German hater. There was no water and no sanitation. Every day sixteen to thirty-two people died. They were buried in mass graves. The prisoners were left starving and vulnerable to disease. In the summer of 1945 groups began making escape attempts across Hungary to Austria and Germany. The camp held up to five thousand persons at one time. When it was full to capacity new internees were sent to the labour camps at Welika, Pisanitza, Krndja, Darda, Tenje and many others.
The survivors of Valpovo were sent to the living hell of Rudolfsgnad in the Banat.
Among those who died during the Second World War in addition to the men who were killed in action or are missing, two of the villagers were shot by the Partisans: Jakob Brauchler 24 years of age and Fillip Riegel at the age of 39 years. Both of the men were at home on furlough and were taken by the Partisans and shot after being tortured.
The following villagers died in various camps:
Catharina Benz nee Knittel 49 years of age died in the labour camp at Darda
Peter Buechler 38 years of age at the Valpovo Camp
Friedrich Klees 22 years of age died in a Soviet prisoner of war camp in Russia
Margaret Medel nee Dermer 58 years of age at the Valpovo Camp
Friedrich Medel 63 years of age at the starvation camp in Rudolfsgnad in the Banat
Else Nothdurft 2 years of age perished in the camp at Valpovo
George Pauss 38 years of age died in a Soviet prisoner of war camp in Russia
Anna Maria Schlaffmann nee Reinhardt 57 years of age at the Valpovo Camp
Michael Schlaffmann 74 years of age at the extermination camp in Pettau
Jakob Schramm 42 years of age died at the camp in Valpovo
Karl Schramm 35 years of age died at the camp in Valpovo
Heinrich Tenz 77 years of age died in the labour camp in Darda
Fillip Winterstein 44 years of age in the starvation camp at Rudolfsgnad in the Banat.