Editor's note: Former intern Ryan Schuessler is studying abroad in Spain this semester. Here, he shares his journey through his family history in another part of Europe.
Hello from a field somewhere in northern Serbia.
But this is not where the story begins. Let’s rewind a bit.
It’s 2007. I’m a freshman in high school and my house in Kirkwood, Mo., is out of power for the third day in a row after a massive ice storm. I’m also snowed in for the third day in a row – and I’m bored.
To pass the time, I rummage through my basement. That’s when I find the old box labeled “genealogy.”
It’s full of my grandfather’s research from either before I was born, or when I was too young to remember. I had seen it and taken an interest in it before, but it had been years.
I begin reading in detail – something that young(er) Ryan didn’t do with anything except the “Magic Tree House” series, let alone a history of “his people.”
Things gets complicated
Until that afternoon in the basement, I had always been told that we were German, from a village in Austria, or Hungary. Nobody could ever remember (the elusive town was actually in Austria-Hungary). And that was that.
But then it wasn’t. Reading tends to complicate things in interesting ways, and this was no exception. I read the word “Danube Swabian,” and “German” got a lot more complicated.
That’s when I took up where my grandfather had left off, and I had a powerful new tool he never had: the Internet. But before we get to the good stuff, here’s some historical context.
The Danube Swabians (donauschwaben in German) were a Germanic people who lived in Southeast Europe and primarily settled there in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There, they “conquered the land with the plow, not the sword,” and lived peacefully with their neighbors. After the empire that had resettled them collapsed after World War I, Danube Swabian lands were divided between Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.
Their culture was unique, and their language different from other German dialects (even my untrained ear could tell the difference). Their heritage had deep roots in the region. They had not set foot in “Germany” for centuries.
As I dug deeper, the story took an ugly turn.
After World War II, when the USSR’s influence marched eastward, it became clear that the bloodshed of the era was not over. In the mid 1940s, Eastern Europe’s native Germans, who had uniquely lived separate from Germany in Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Balkans for centuries, were to be deported to the newly partitioned German state, sent to concentration/labor camps as far away as Siberia, or simply murdered.
Some say it was the largest forced migration of any ethnic group of modern history.
These Germans in Eastern Europe were caught up in a game of vengeful “war reparations.” They faced mixed fates. Many – including Danube Swabians – were shipped to Siberia in cattle cars, most never to return. Others died in the “flights” to Germany and Austria, which were done on foot in, frequently in winter.
I read one account from a concentration camp in Yugoslavia, where the guards mixed ground-up glass into the food to feed the children, who were so hungry that they ate it too quickly for them or their mothers to realize the consequences.
All of this, penance for the crimes of a regime they had little to do with, from a country they had not seen or claimed as their own for generations. This showed just how much the civilians of all nationalities suffered during World War II and in its aftermath.
Here’s some perspective in numbers. In Vojvodina, the region in N. Yugoslavia my family hails from, there were more than 300,000 Danube Swabians before World War II. In 1958, after the camps and deportation, the census revealed only 30,000. Today, they are almost non-existent.
The atrocities against the Danube Swabians have been referred to as genocide, but I had never learned about them in school, where the events of the first half of the 1940s dominated the historical conversation.
The realization that my family’s “people” had this awful place in history should have had more of an impact on me at 15, but it didn’t.
Jump forward three years. As a freshman in college, I started digging all this up again. This time, my mission was different: find relatives.
We were always under the impression that all of our family was in St. Louis and the U.S. at large, but I was struck by the sudden urge to find out if that was true. Again, the Internet came to the rescue. I found an organization that helps Danube Swabian families research and find each other (remember, expulsion spread a relatively small community over several continents).
I posted a request for information, and lo and behold, a man in Cape Girardeau (small world, right?) has Schuessler relatives living in Germany.
I was told I was related to them.
Two years later, I was on a plane to Frankfurt.
No, I didn’t just hop on a plane to Germany for a weekend. I’m currently studying abroad in Spain, which makes a two-and-a-half day trip to Heidelberg much more realistic.
I had emailed these relatives ahead of time, and they were waiting for me at the bus station.
You might be wondering: How close are these distant cousins?
My great, great grandfather was named Andreas Schuessler. (He immigrated from Katsch, the village in Yugoslavia, to St. Louis in 1904. My relation to him alone may sound far away, but the early generations had children young. “Pop Schuessler,” as he is known in my family, died only in 1976). My relatives’ grandfather was named George Schüßler. George and Andrew were first cousins.
They’re distant relatives, but we share the same last name and look alike, and that’s enough.
Manfred and Werner, who are brothers, and Werner’s wife, Renate, treated me like family from the moment I met them. They insisted on paying for my meals, showed me around the area and took me to other villages to meet people from Katsch.
The first man we met was older, didn’t know English and spoke best in the Danube Swabian dialect. He, too, greeted me with open arms and led me by hand through a small museum, which had a room dedicated to Katsch.
He had survived the flight from his home as a young boy, and he told me (through Manfred’s translation) that every time he returns to the village, he gets teary-eyed, “because I know I’m home.”
I was told I was related to him.
In this museum in the small village of Offersheim, I saw artifacts from the “motherland,” including a large, wooden cart used by the bergermeister (lord mayor) of Katsch during the flight from Yugoslavia.
Next, we met a married couple. The husband was born in Katsch, and his wife’s parents were from there. Her mother had survived one of the most notorious camps in Yugoslavia, but not without lasting scars.
“I had a mother who never smiled,” she said to me.
These two drove me to a small village called Dilsberg for afternoon soup and coffee, telling me about their visits to Katsch, and memories from their childhood there.
I was told I was related to them.
They made me a full Danube Swabian meal at their home, and (even better) gifted me the Katsch cookbook, among other small things. But most interestingly, they gave me an English/German copy of Mark Twain’s “The Awful German Language.”
Any avid Mark Twain fans might recognize Dilsberg – he had lived there for some time during his life, writing about his experience in the small book I was given.
The woman told me that her father did what many children in Katsch did not – read for fun. Specifically, he read Mark Twain. After the war, her father took a trip to the United States, and sailed down the Mississippi on a riverboat after reading about the river his whole life in Twain’s books.
Here I was, a Missourian, in Dilsberg with a few Danube Swabians (including myself, I suppose), one with a father who had read Mark Twain (also a Missourian), who had traveled to the very village where I was eating lunch.
Oh, the goulash – “paprigaosch,” as it’s called in the Danube Swabian dialect.
It was the main dish in the traditional meal I had in Germany. After having it, I knew I’d have to make it again. The recipe was in the cookbook that I received in Germany, and when my girlfriend was visited me in Spain, we decided to try making it ourselves.
Four onions later, we had ourselves a dinner party.
Thinking I had just re-discovered some lost, ancestral delicacy, I sent a photo to my parents. Paprigaosch doesn’t take very good photos, since it mostly looks like a pot of brown goo, but it does taste good.
My mom responded – and I’m paraphrasing – “paprika goulash? Your grandpa had sworn by that stuff.”
My second post-mortem connection with my grandfather since that cold day in 2007 had happened inadvertently over a simmering pot of soup. And it was some delicious soup.
The mass graves
Suddenly, it was spring break, and I was on a plane to Croatia with my roommate. I had planned a seven-day trip through the Balkans with a stop in Serbia.
We spent one day by the ocean, the next riding a bus through the mountains of Bosnia, hearing the Muslim call to prayer echo around Mostar (an experience so moving it deserves a piece of its own), enjoying a hookah in an attic of a crumbling building in old town Sarajevo, hopping on an overnight bus to Serbia, suddenly waking up in Novi Sad, met by a family friend of another Katscher I had met in Germany, eating a huge homemade breakfast, hopping in a car, and then I was there, standing in a field in the middle of northern Serbia, far away from home, and far away from that snowed-in day in 2007.
I was there in front of the graves of some 9,000 Danube Swabian civilians from the camp at Rudolfsgnad (now the village of Knicanin), mostly women, children and the elderly.
It’s puzzling to stand there and stare at grass, a small monument, and some homemade crosses bearing names you don’t recognize, but at the same time sound familiar.
It’s puzzling to try to place your own family into a tragedy that they largely averted, because they were safe in St. Louis and didn’t even know about it until a year ago.
It’s puzzling to realize that there was a time when someone out there was doing all they could to make sure you and your kind ceased to exist, and that any traces of your culture be wiped away altogether.
I dwelled on that last thought for a bit.
As far as I know, there are no Schüßler’s there. But if meeting people and being told time and time again that I’m related to them taught me anything, it was that it didn’t matter. My blood – my family’s blood – was in that ground, regardless of the name.
After that, I visited another site. Another grave. Another 3,000 people. In about 20 minutes, I had visited the final resting place of 12,000 people who shared a common heritage with me, and for that reason, were condemned to this.
I had often wondered (in the appropriate context) how Jewish families who were out of Europe before the Holocaust placed themselves in the context of that tragedy. I now find myself grappling with that same question.
I feel fortunate my ancestors avoided the atrocities that fell upon their countrymen. But as a descendent of a now largely forgotten group, I suppose I feel it is my duty to make sure the story of the Danube Swabians is not forgotten, even though it was lost from my own family’s narrative.
I enjoy the thought that those people I mentioned earlier, who sought to wipe clean any trace of the Danube Swabians, failed at doing so. We resist them in building monuments, in building museums, in traveling to our ancestral homelands to visit the graves of our ancestors.
I find myself, almost spitefully, hoping that my walking freely through the streets of Katsch makes them roll in their graves.
Crumbling Danube Swabian churches still stand throughout the Balkans, themselves an enduring testament to perseverance through a history of war and violence. Small pieces of the old life continue to exist there, as well.
In Katsch, I saw the bell from the German church, now used by Hungarian Catholics. The marble baptismal basin was found buried in town just a few years ago and is on display in a central building. The Danube Swabians had buried it under their church (which was destroyed in 1947) before being expelled.
It is through these small but meaningful things that we defy the evils of the past. But most importantly, it is through the act of telling that our stories stand the test of time.
Thank you for reading – your doing so has helped. To learn more about the Danube Swabians, please go to dvhh.org.
Thanks to: Andrea Ballreich, the Dobanovacki family, Hans Fix, Larry Hale, the Schön family, and Manfred, Werner and Renate Schüßler.