I have spent the last year writing and researching a historical romance novel with some paranormal elements.
It hasn’t been easy. I’ve ran into some hard to digest events.
The ‘history’ element is relevant to half of my ancestral heritage, specifically, my mother’s.
She was proud of me for working on this and was enjoying the findings that came up as I have gone through the process of trying to make the historical bits of my story accurate.
Let me put it to you this way, the people who know me personally are likely sick to death of me going on about it.
In the past twelve months, my mother passed away.
That sucked. It was her birthday this past week. That was a rough day.
My mother was one of twelve children born into a German-Hungarian Catholic family in rural North Dakota during the 1930s. My grandfather was born in and my grandmother’s parents came from mainly German speaking villages in a part of Europe called The Banat.
Today, that is the area surrounding where Hungary, Romania and Serbia’s borders meet. Back in the day, when my ancestors still lived there in the late 1800s / very early 1900s, they referred to it as ‘Hungary’.
To say that times have changed in that part of the world since my family left is an understatement.
If you want more of the history, look up Danube Swabians.
There have been two main challenges to my research.
1) I don’t speak German, Serbian, Romanian or Hungarian. But I do know some nice people who have helped me with non-English sources.
2) Part of my story involves places, people and a culture that have been damaged by Nazis, the war they waged and the aftermath of it.
The First World War divided the Banat (the place my family once called ‘Hungary) into three different countries. The German speaking people in villages that once all came under first Hapsburg, then Hungarian rule found themselves under three different governments.
They were mostly farming folks and craftspeople. They got on with it and left the politics to the big boys. So…they said, ‘Okay, we are Romanian now. Okay, we are Yugoslavian now. Okay, we are Hungarian…I guess. Can I still speak German at home? Yes? Fine then…back to my plough and the grapes in my backyard.’
Apparently there was an attempt to create a ‘Banat Republic’ ,(look that up on Wikipedia if you like too), in 1918 but it didn’t last long. They didn’t have a big voice in the grand scheme of things.
Let’s be quite clear, when Hitler invaded Eastern Europe , the ‘Volksdeutsche’ as the Nazis called them, (ethnic Germans) received preferential treatment over other ethnic groups from the occupying German army. There was Nazi propaganda, youth groups, etc. in the villages. The ‘Volksdeutsche’ were a part of Hitler’s plan. They were to be his ‘fifth column’, particularly instrumental in overcoming the Czechs, Serbs and other Slavic peoples.
Some folks were taken with this and likely hadn’t cared for other ethnicities anyway. Some folks didn’t much care for the Nazi propaganda and interference in their daily lives. Yet if they said something they got their business ruined, were sent to jail, or far worse.
I think at this point it’s important to recall that this is before the day of iphones, computers, social media and television. This is before our convenient contemporary, history class, wiser-in- hindsight, people-were-just-all-horrible-back-then, era. There weren’t many options as far as news sources with different slants or biases were concerned.
There was no #sickofNazis hashtag. The systematic torture and murder of Jewish, homosexual, gypsy, and politically uncooperative people in concentration camps like Auschwitz was not fully understood by your average Josef living in Farmingville, Yugoslavia.
Almost like, the atrocities being carried out in and suffered by folks in places in Syria, aren’t fully appreciated by your average Joe living in Farmingville, Iowa. But Joe has a life and job to get on with. And lucky Joe, he doesn’t have soldiers with guns telling him to look the other way if he doesn’t care for what’s happening.
So, back to Josef in earlier 1940s, Banat. He did not know that one day, people would be reading detailed accounts, watching films and documentaries based on the disenfranchisement, starvation, torture and murder of an estimated six million people, Most of them Jews, also including Gypsies, Slavs, Poles, homosexuals and any who were politically uncooperative with the Nazis.
Josef, being a human being and all would have likely felt the same disgust and repulsion at the actual accounts of genocide. If you can sit and read accounts of ethnic cleansing, the rapes and torture, children being hit in the head with rifle butts for crying for their parents, without feeling sick then there is something wrong with you.
Yet these things continued to happen in Europe AFTER the war. AFTER the Allies got together to decide how to fix the devastated continent. AFTER the Nuremberg Trials intended to bring justice to victims of the Nazi’s abhorrent actions. AFTER the Potsdam Agreement intended to re-organise borders, ethnic communities and nation’s standings.
Josef also didn’t ‘get’ that not many people outside the German speaking world, unless they were distant descendants of his father’s daughter in law, would know about what happened to over three million ethnic Germans after WWII, who had been living in Eastern Europe for generations.
He may or may not have known about the SS Prinz Eugen Regiment, made up of mainly Banat Germans, many of whom after the war were found to have been guilty of atrocities against civilians.
There is no clever one sided way to refer to war crimes. They are what they are. A stain. A shame. A trauma. A scar. A source of rot in our earthly condition.
He may have eventually been forcibly recruited by the German Army despite never having lived in Germany and being a citizen of Yugoslavia. Before all this war business started, Josef just wanted to get on with his farming, baking, cabinet or wine making.
He wanted to feed his family, kiss his wife, go to the pub, go to church, etc. etc. Maybe Josef’s neighbour was a particularly Anti-Semitic, racist jerk who thought all this ‘Aryan’s, aren’t we wonderful? Isn’t our culture superior to all others and aren’t we a perfect example of that?’ business was great.
If Joseph could have tweeted, perhaps he would have said #tellmewhenitsover. #neighborfromhell.
And Josef didn’t know why the Jewish shop keeper down the street had ‘mysteriously disappeared and his bastard of a neighbour now had some of the Jewish man’s possessions. Yet Josef couldn’t tweet. #thatsnotmystuff #Naziassholes
No, Josef couldn’t tweet then. Neither can most folks nowadays, living in warzones, in places occupied by ideological zealots, ever in danger of being ruthlessly bombed by ‘the enemy’.
I’ve read about a lot of Josefs. And Magdalenas. And Elisabeths. And Walters. If Josef lived in Romania perhaps he had the option of joining the Romanian military. As an ethnic German living in Yugoslavia, he likely did have to fight for Hitler’s Reich on the Eastern Front, whether he liked it or not.
Josef probably died doing so.
Or, if he didn’t, maybe he returned home to his home village in the Banat, to be with his family, imagining that life would carry on as normal after the war. The Allies had won, the German soldiers were leaving so all this business wasn’t Josef’s problem anymore.
No, surely… it wasn’t his problem anymore. And why did the fellow who ran the Nazi ‘Volksgruppe’ activities in his village suddenly decide to move to Argentina anyway? #weird
Well, Josef’s village in Yugoslavia was taken over by Russia’s Red Army, and eventually Tito’s communist partisans. Josef, alongside his racist neighbour, and other ethnic German male villagers were forcibly marched to the middle of a field where they all dug a huge ditch. They were told to strip and get in the ditch.
Josef’s story ends there. His wife’s, children’s and parents’ doesn’t though.
Josef’s wife was sent into forced labour, to work in conditions where she would be lucky to survive. Josef’s young children perhaps died of malnutrition in an internment camp alongside their grandparents.
Because, they had to pay for what the Nazis did.
Maybe they got lucky. Maybe they made a break for it, got over the border into Hungary, eventually into Austria where there were overflowing displaced person’s camps. Perhaps even to Germany, where there were also, displaced person’s camps. Germany and Austria were so devastated by the the war, they didn’t have much room or time for Josef’s starving, destitute wife, elderly parents or wailing, traumatised children.
Maybe they eventually were successful in emigrating to America, Canada or Australia, where they could live, work, go to school, eat real food, drink clean water. All whilst not living in a messed up warzone, forced to subscribe to a hateful ideology lest they face violence and hate themselves.
Despite the fact that they never subscribed to the ideology. Or that they were eight. Or eighty and hard of hearing. Or that they were like Josef and thought this whole thing is gonna blow over, and life is going to go back to normal. It’s just another damn war played out by the big boys, I don’t like it but it’s all gonna be okay eventually.
Josef was so sadly wrong.
Life did not go back to normal.
Today, there aren’t many ‘Josefs’ living in what were once, bustling communities in Eastern Europe. There are a few Romanian or Serbian folks there, but his family is long gone.
Graveyards are decaying, unkempt, even vandalised in certain parts of the Banat. Because there are no descendants of the sleeping ones left to keep them up.
Mass graves lay beneath serene fields, some with men guilty of cooperating with German occupying forces. Some filled with Josefs, who didn’t care for the whole thing and expected it all to blow over. Some filled with normal, non-military people, or with children and old people who perished of disease or starvation.
Or they are filled with people who were beaten and tortured to death for being ‘German bastards’ .
It’s difficult, you know…writing a story about a culture which doesn’t properly exist anymore in the place of its origin. Its people are scattered in different parts of the world. The folks who lived there in harmony pre Hitler have since passed on.
It’s hard to piece together the normal, daily lives of these Danube Swabians.
Because some man with delusions of grandeur and ideas of racial supremacy started exploiting and manipulating an economic and political climate.
You’ve been to history class, you’ve watched films and documentaries….you know the evil and vile acts on a mass scale that ensued. And no, to compare the genocide of the Holocaust with that of the ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe is not helpful. Because, as far as numbers go and the systemised organisation of it all, it’s quite ignorant to say that one was on the same scale as the other.
They were connected. The first was a concocted plan of ethnic cleansing, ridding the supposedly glorious German world of what the Nazi’s thought was dirty blood and disloyal people. The second was a result of the acceptance of collective guilt, reparations, and removing ‘enemies of the state’ from countries previously oppressed by Nazi occupiers. Revenge killings and rapes abounded. They both involved large numbers (though not comparably so) of innocent civilians. Children, women and the elderly.
One time, when I searched up the term coined by Nazis, ‘Volksdeutsche’ I found a rather upsetting blog of a person trying to say that the Holocaust wasn’t real, but the genocide of ethnic Germans was.
What a load of vile, unhelpful nonsense.
I’ve read about Germans in the Reich and ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe giving bread to starving Jewish children, unable to accept that this was somehow okay.
I’ve read about Romanian, Hungarian people assisting and aiding the ethnic Germans, after the war. At great personal risk to themselves. Despite many of their fellow citizens insisting on the collective guilt of all Germans.
I’ve read about a German who stepped in to stop the Nazis executing Serbian men in his village.
I’ve read about Russian military officials stepping in to prevent unnecessarily harsh treatment of prisoners by local partisans.
Granted, we need to understand the horrors, much as we need to see that despite so much evil, there is still good in the world….
Perhaps you didn’t know about ‘Josef’. I certainly didn’t until I began this research.
My mother’s Danube Swabian family left Europe to homestead in America in the early 1900s, the story of the Danube Swabians and what happened to them after WWII gets to me in a very personal way.
It has been difficult to portray not only a bygone era, but to picture the world and environment of my characters that existed before WWI. There is a layer of horror in between that era and the one in which I live.
I started out imagining these charming Old World villages in my contemporary, comfy Anglo-American mind. A green, fertile land where love, amongst varying other agricultural goods could grow and blossom. The Banat, the ‘Bread Basket’ of Europe. *
The land where half of my ancestors lived and loved for generations.
Then I had to talk to folks, I had to read, I had to sift through other eras. I had to find out about the mass graves. I haven’t been able, in any good conscience, to gloss over them and pretend they didn’t happen. I haven’t, in my Anglo-American raised conscience been able to think ‘yeah, well they deserved it.’ At no point have I thought ‘oh gee, this sort of thing has ONLY happened to an ethnic group I am connected to…no one else. How unjust.’
No. I’m fully aware that our human history is riddled with atrocities and sickening crimes, in every corner of our world.
I have no tolerance for zealotry in any form. Digesting the knowledge of other people’s nightmares has made me feel sick at times.
But I’m still writing a love story. Love and compassion are forces far more powerful than opportunism, greed, bigotry and cruelty. I shall continue to believe that.
I am lucky. There is no soldier with a gun telling me what to believe, there is no mad man powerful enough to enforce his ideology upon myself and my community. My heart and intellect are free.
There are still many people in the world who are not so fortunate. They live in a place, where love and tolerance, kindness and compassion do not come easy. They live in a place, where to subscribe to a most vile mind-set and course of action is a constant temptation.
If you are interested in learning more about the events in Eastern Europe after World War II involving ethnic Germans, here is a suggested reading list.
Alfred DeZayas’: A Terrible Revenge
Ali Botien-Furrevig: Last Waltz on the Danube the Ethnic German Genocide in History and Memory 1944-1948
Nick Tullius: My Journey from the Banat to Canada
Katherine Hoeger Flotz: A Pebble in My Shoe
Elizabeth B. Walter: Barefoot in the Rubble
Raymond Lohne: The Great Chicago Refugee Rescue
Dr. J. Steigerwald: Reflections of the Danube Swabians in America.
From the Banat to North Dakota: David Dreyer and Josette S. Hatter
Herta Muller: The Hunger Angel
(note: Herta Muller is a Romanian born German, Nobel Prize winning novelist, whose work is criticized by some as representing Danube Swabian communities in a negative light. Personally I think her poetic descriptions of ugliness, starvation and cruelty still have a place in examining life during this time.)
The DVHH website (DanubeSwabian Village Helping Hands site is a page dedicated to the preservation of Danube Swabian history and culture).
*There were large communities of ethnic Germans living in regions of what is today Russia, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Serbia. The ‘Danube Swabians’ lived mainly in what is today Hungary, Romania and Serbia. They had lived there for generations, likely at the time of the Second World War, had no ties to Germany save for a common language (albeit varying dialects), and similarities in culture and ethnicity.
*The territory of the Banat was re-claimed by the Hapsburgs from the Ottoman Turks after years and years of battles and shifting boundaries. It would perhaps fair to say that this was a war torn place when the Danube Swabians arrived, invited by the Hapsburgs from other German speaking regions of Europe.