Roots Remain Along Danube

by Paula Schleis
Beacon Journal staff writer / Permission to Reprint from Akron Beacon Journal - Posted on Sun, Jan. 12, 2003 

Anna and Frank Paitz's neighbors probably know them as the friendly couple next door, with the well-kept yard and the old-world German accents.

It's a safe bet they know nothing of how the Cuyahoga Falls couple, now in their 90s, went from being carefree children of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to a people without a country.

History books usually overlook the story of the Donauschwaben, a small group of German pioneers who settled in southeastern Europe in the 1700s and evolved into a unique culture with their own dialect and customs.

And yet it's a heritage shared by tens of thousands of area residents, many of whom have lost all knowledge of their colorful roots.

Some of the Donauschwaben came to the United States a hundred years ago, taking jobs at Summit County factories, working on farms in Medina County, becoming business owners in Stark.

Others sought refuge in America after World War II, when what remained of the Donauschwaben fled or were evicted from their homes and scattered to places such as South America and South Africa.

But nearly three centuries after leaving their ancestral land, and six decades since they last shared a common geographic location, the = [100.0]Donauschwaben community survives.

Through clubs such as the German Family Society in Brimfield Township, they pass their traditions on to their children.

At a national Donauschwaben Day rotated among major cities in the Midwest, they gather to celebrate their culture.

On the Internet, they archive recipes and songs at risk of being forgotten. Through an international e-mail group, they help each other with genealogies.

And in "heimatbuchs'' that record detailed histories of their hometowns, they memorialize places that no longer welcome them.

In a country known for being a melting pot, it's natural to wonder how long a culture can survive after being removed from the time and place that created it.

It's a question even the Donauschwaben have begun to ask themselves.

Passing down traditions

At the German Family Society, a group of women worked shoulder to shoulder in the kitchen recently, breading schnitzel for an upcoming event. They were speaking English, but 20 years ago, the friendly banter would have been in Schwobisch.

As the torch is handed off to second- and third-generation Americans, many things are changing.

There was a time when these same women would have worn ethnic dress to club gatherings, said Mary Rickert, who has been involved with the club since its start in the 1950s. Her late husband, Joseph Rickert, was the club's president for 25 years.

These days, only performers wear the crisply starched skirts, decorative aprons and hand-beaded vests.

As some elements of Donauschwaben society begin to slip away, other features persist.

The club still operates a German-music radio program on Sunday afternoons. It sponsors a traveling soccer club. And dozens of children and young adults perform ethnic dances at events such as Oktoberfest, the Grape Dance and Donauschwaben Day.

On a recent Sunday night, the dance floor at the German Family Society vibrated with the heavy, rhythmic steps of a group of teens as they practiced.

In a small adjoining room, a group of 10- to 14-year-olds were learning to speak German.

"Guten Tag. Guten Morgen. Guten Abend. Guten Nacht,'' eight children read in unison from a handout from teacher Martha Guld.

The language class was a popular activity for the children of World War II immigrants, but interest faded by the time grandchildren came into the picture. The class was dropped.

Then a couple of years ago, some of Guld's former students asked her to give their children basic German-language skills. Guld wasn't all that surprised.

"As you get older, you come to appreciate your heritage,'' Guld said.

She teachers her students the common "high German.''  There is little reason to pass on the dialect used by the Donauschwaben; those who still speak it may be the last to do so.

Although the children clearly enjoy their activities, their reasons are their own.

Kara Rickert represented most of her peers when the 13-year-old Tallmadge girl said: "It's just fun, and I like being with my friends.''

A new culture is born

But keeping a culture alive -- even if their children don't fully appreciate why -- is a priority for those Donauschwaben old enough to know where they came from. It's a collective memory that stretches back 200 years.

Like their peers, Anna and Frank Paitz grew up in a former wilderness that had been tamed by their great-great-grandparents.

Similar to America's own pioneers of the west, 18th century residents of Swabia in southwestern Germany had sailed down the Danube to new frontiers in the east. They honored their ties to the river with the name Donauschwaben: Swabians of the Danube.

The settlers turned swamps into farmland, built schools and churches and opened businesses.

And as they mingled with native populations of Serbians, Croats, Hungarians and Slovaks, their language, customs and traditions took on a unique flavor. After a few generations, their language was no longer readily understood in Germany. Their dialect became known as "schwobisch.''

Still, the various ethnic groups remained distinctly separate from each other, said Don Heinrich Tolzmann, director of German American Studies at the University of Cincinnati.

"For the most part, everyone got along,'' he said, "and there were some intermarriages.''

But 200 years later, even though they were citizens of the same country, the Serbs were still Serb, the Croats were still Croat and the Germans were still German.

Anna Paitz said many of the region's residents learned to speak all the languages. "I worked in my father's store, and whatever the customer spoke, that's what I spoke,'' she said.

It was a diversity that turned dangerous at the end of World War I, when the Treaty of Versailles broke up the empire.

Anna Paitz's birth certificate gives her hometown as Kereny, Austro-Hungary. Her daughter was born in Krnjaja, Yugoslavia. It's the same place. [publisher's note: Kernei is the German variant]

The treaty that created Yugoslavia also formed the countries of Hungary and Romania. Most of the towns were renamed.

Under less tolerant governments, ethnic Germans lost cultural rights such as being able to operate their own schools. In Yugoslavia, in particular, the minority Donauschwaben were getting their first taste of ethnic intimidation.

By the time of World War II, the frustrated Donauschwaben listened as Adolf Hitler railed against the 1919 treaty. When Germany occupied parts of southeastern Europe, the Donauschwaben began thinking they might finally regain the voice they had lost.

But supporting German occupation was a bad gamble. And when German troops were forced to withdraw, revenge on the sympathetic Donauschwaben was swift and vicious.

Aftermath of war

Sitting at his kitchen table, Frank Bohnert flipped through the pages of an old, dusty composition book in which he began writing in 1948. Nearby is a stack of pocket calendars in which he kept track of other memories -- appointments, events, the day's weather.

He uses them as guides to revisit a time when the Bohnerts -- like the Paitzes -- had to look for a new country.

Eleven-year-old Katie Bohnert listened intently as her grandfather told a story she said she had never heard before. "I didn't know he was in a concentration camp,'' she said later.

Katie admitted she didn't even know what a Donauschwaben is, so she can't even begin to understand what life must have been like in Tschonopel, Yugoslavia.

Frank Bohnert's hometown was mostly made up of Germans, Hungarians and Slovaks. His youth was spent concentrating on school and doing chores on the family farm. His parents raised cattle, pigs and chickens and grew corn, oats and sunflowers.

"It was a happy life,'' he said.

That's why he could barely believe it when his town began to disintegrate.

As the tide of World War II changed and German troops retreated from the region, most Donauschwaben families heeded warnings. They fled for their lives as other ethnic groups and Soviet troops gained the upper hand. By train or horse-drawn wagon or on foot, they left their country with what few possessions they could carry.

But many others, including the Bohnerts, stayed. Some were too old to leave. Some were too sick. Some simply refused to give up land that had been in their family for generations.

"They say, `We didn't do anything wrong. We gonna stay,' '' explained Frank Bohnert. They decided to weather the storm with the hope that one day their lives would return to normal.

Normal never came. Ethnic Germans who didn't leave were rounded up and placed in labor camps.

In 1944, the able-bodied men -- including Bohnert's father -- were taken to the Soviet Union to help rebuild that country. Many never returned. Anna Paitz's father was shot by the Soviets when he became too weak to work.

At 14, young Frank was placed in a camp for children and the elderly, where his job was to remove the dead.

"People died there so fast,'' he said. Some starved. Some were killed. Some, they say, died of a broken spirit.

After a month, he sneaked into a camp where his mother and grandmother were imprisoned and joined them working in the fields. Bohnert's father was returned to them a couple of years later, but by then few ethnic Germans remained.

The day after Christmas 1948, the four Bohnerts decided there was nothing left to hold on to. They slipped out of the camp and left Yugoslavia forever.

In the years that followed, Donauschwaben families languished in German and Austrian refugee camps. They faced hunger and homelessness in countries that had been torn apart by bombs.

And they were foreigners in a foreign land.

"These were ethnic Germans who had been outside of Germany for 200 years. They didn't necessarily feel at home or comfortable. They were outsiders,'' Tolzmann said.

A network of German organizations, churches and relatives who had moved to western countries a half-century earlier reached out to the displaced families. Before long, they were learning to speak Portuguese in Brazil, Italian in Italy and English in Australia.

Tens of thousands of them ended up in the American Midwest, with large pockets in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee.

St. Bernard Catholic Church brought several hundred to Akron, where many former Donauschwaben were already established.

Yet even as they walked into their new lives, they kept glancing back. The bonds had been stretched, but many were determined that those bonds would never be broken.

Changing expectations

The number of Donauschwaben who cling to their heritage is diminishing, but professor Tolzmann predicts they'll hang on for many years.

Their tenacity has been extraordinary, he said, and in some ways, it has been contagious.

"When they came to this country, they brought a strong sense of ethnic identity and pride, and they shared it with other Germans,'' he said. "They will survive as an ethnic group because of the stress they place on customs and traditions and activities.''

Perhaps that's why -- after five other German clubs in Akron disbanded -- the Brimfield group lives on, with a membership of more than 300.

Maria Rickert takes heart in knowing that some of her grandchildren are involved in the club. Her oldest granddaughter took such an interest in the family history that she wrote a book about their odyssey in Bajmok, Yugoslavia.

But what happens after this generation is anyone's guess.

Anna Paitz pointed out one inescapable truth: "We're in America now. The children have different interests. And that's OK. It's a different world.''

Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or pschleis@thebeaconjournal.com

[Published at www.dvhh.org, 17 Dec 2004]



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Keeping the Danube Swabian legacy alive