Donauschwaben in den USA

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The History of the Danube Swabians

By Hans Kopp

from the book “The Last Generation Forgotten and Left to Die” The History of the Danube Swabians”.

All Rights reserved. ISBN No. 0-9701109-0-1  


Chapter 4

The Immigration to the United States of America



          The first Danube Swabians arrived in the United States at the turn of the century. The credit for the initial emigration obviously belongs to the travel agents. These representatives of the steamship companies visited Eastern and Southern Europe with the encouragement of the American government and of private enterprise, recruiting industrious laborers to fill the demands of the rapidly expanding factories, mills and mines in the U.S.A. The influx of Danube Swabians lasted for 60 years; how many thousands came is anybody's guess. But we can distinguish three periods of emigration; each one of them characterized by different circumstances.



Prior to World War I

          For generations only the fittest, the strongest, the most persistent colonists had survived famine, plague and war in the Danube plain. With the achievement of relative prosperity and the improvement of hygiene toward the end of the 19th century, this hardy race, raising six to eight children per family, found itself in a population explosion. Since there was no virgin arable land left to settle on, family property was divided among the children, which led within two generations to tiny holdings and rapid impoverishment. There were no factories in the area to hire the landless; the Hungarian government did not promote industrialization. Therefore the only remedies left were birth control and emigration.


          Fortunately for these disadvantaged people the political and economic situation in Western Europe had stabilized and the lot of the poor in the Anglo-Saxon countries like Germany, England, Ireland, Scandinavia -improved. No longer did they immigrate to America to open up the West and build the factories, they preferred to stay home. It was this socio-political fact that sent the steamship agents into the villages of Austro-Hungary, Russia, Italy in search of new reservoirs of human muscle with promises of one dollar a day wages in America.


          In Hungary emigration was illegal until 1903. But it was simple enough to travel illegally to the ports in Western Europe, there were no passports, and one could sail to America, if one had the money and passed medical inspection. In that year Hungary entered an agreement with the British Cunnard Line and emigrants could now sail from Fiume (Rijeka) on the Adriatic Sea. This was an expensive and arduous journey and most of our people preferred the illegal route to the west. After a few years it became legal to also depart from Germany, Holland, Belgium and France. The ensuing competition between steamship companies lowered the one-way fare in 1908 to $8 -less than two weeks wages for a laborer in the USA that is steerage. They offered one hundred cubic feet space per passenger, including the iron berth with straw mattresses and a life preserver as a pillow. There was no privacy. Salt water was used for washing, the men and women separated from each other, steep narrow ladders lead up to the deck and down from the deck. Up to 1,500 persons were hoarded on a ship. They had guaranteed meals consisting of salt pork, dry peas and beans, gruel, rice, noodles, sauerkraut, potatoes, hardtack, tea or coffee for breakfast and supper during three weeks on an unfriendly, sometimes violent sea amid a vile smell.


          Nevertheless, arriving in America, the immigrants stepped off the boat with high hopes. First they had to pass general inspection: mental and physical. Barred from entry were: idiots, insane, paupers, people suffering from a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease, or a convict of a felony or other crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude, a polygamist, an anarchist, a prostitute, a cripple, deformed or professional beggar. People with goiters, abnormal growths, harelips, cleft palate, trachoma, ringworm, and tuberculosis. Those with mutilated or paralyzed limbs were all sent back to Europe.


          Danube Swabians usually landed in New York, Philadelphia or Baltimore. After they passed inspection and were admitted, they encountered the sweatshops, the robber barons, the loan sharks and cutthroats, the dishonest politicians, a host of natives all ready to pounce on the “greenhorns” and take advantage of them. Not knowing the language, the laws, the mores, the customs of the land, they invariably had to learn how to survive the hard way. That did not discourage them. They were used to hardship and they did not intend to stay.


          Until 1910, 75% of the immigrants were males; none of them thought of going to work on a farm. Their intention was to make money quickly, to live frugally and save as much as possible in the shortest time and then return to the “Heimat”, the tranquil villages of their ancestors. They found work in the cities, in the shops, factories and mills. Single men and women, some not older then 14 years old, who had to be accompanied by an adult stayed longer. Family men worked from 6 in the morning till 7 at night, six days weekly, earning as much as $ 10, and returned home after 2-3 years to buy land with their savings. Many made the trip several times.

By 1913 half of the immigrants were female, women with children coming to join their husbands. How many Danube Swabians came during this period? How many stayed? How many, encouraged by the steamship companies, returned? Legislation was proposed in Washington at the time to halt the stream of the “migrating birds”, those who come to work here and take their earnings out of the country. In one year 50 million US dollars was taken to Hungary by returning emigrants.


          The “Lists of Alien Passengers” for the “Commissioner of Immigration” shows nationality, country of which the immigrant is a subject or citizen, which for Danube Swabians was Hungary. The next entry establishes Race of People, meaning ethnic affiliation. Our people chose either German or Magyar. For us, 80 years later, it is confusing and difficult to evaluate these records. Many German sounding names are followed by the entry “Magyar”. Did these people consider themselves ethnic Hungarians even though the may have been of German descent? There are no US Immigration statistics breaking down the Hungarian immigrants into Magyar, German, Slovak, Romanian, and Hebrew etc. Of the 193,460 Hungarian nationals who came to the U.S.A. in 1907, how many were Danube Swabians and how many of them returned home again, successful or disillusioned, we shall never know.


          The US Census of 1910 is equally indefinite. It solely establishes nativity by place of birth, which for Danube Swabians at the time was either Austro-Hungary or Hungary and the spoken language which most declared to be English at the time of the Census.

The Danube Swabians who stayed in the U.S.A. identified themselves as German-Hungarians. They usually settled closely together in the cities, deriving strength and solace from each other. At that time there was no social security, no unemployment benefits, no welfare, and no health insurance available. Out of necessity the “Greenhorns” joined together in benevolent and relief associations, in societies promoting social life, cultural experiences and physical fitness.



The Critical Time Between the Wars

          The First World War stopped the traffic between Hungary and America both ways. At the peace Conference following the defeat of Austro-Hungary, president Wilson approved, among other measures, the partition of the regions the Danube Swabians settled between Yugoslavia, Romania and Hungary. Apparently in order to insure everlasting peace in Europe. As a result of the huge losses incurred through the war and the chaotic disruption of production and distribution of agricultural goods caused by the drawing of new borders, the economic future for the farmers looked bleak. In addition, the Danube Swabians as a minority in their newly assigned fatherlands had to contend with the antagonistic sentiments of their new masters and their restrictive legislation infringing on their traditional German cultural heritage. This gave impetus to the second wave of emigrants who, feeling alienated in their own homeland, resolved to leave for good.


          Several things had changed in the meantime in the U.S. In 1917, over the veto of President Wilson, the Literacy Test for Immigrants became law in order to exclude undesirable immigrants from certain countries. The Danube Swabians had no problem reading the required “30-80 words in any language”.


          By this time also the quota system was introduced in order to stabilize the racial structure of the U.S. The number of aliens of any nationality admitted into U.S. during any year was limited to 3% of foreign-born persons of that nationality (country of birth) residing in the United States. The guideline for the limited permits issued, was the 1910 census. In the case of the newly defined Romania, Yugoslavia and Hungary, an estimate was made of the number of people to be admitted. In any case the numbers never reached the pre-war figures. The combined total, for instance, for Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary in 1924, counting all ethnic groups, was a mere 1,747. From here on it is impossible to know how many of our people came to America. That information lies buried in the records of Ellis Island, where it would have to be culled from the individual registration forms.


           Those who came after WWI had it easier. They found well-established enclaves of German-Hungarians, Banater, Batschkaer, and Apatiner etc. in many cities, as well as relatives, countrymen and organizations, which helped them, overcome the initial culture shock. Only a small minority returned home during the Great Depression. Most stayed and became citizens, bought property, raised their families and became Americans. Their social life revolved around their clubs and the parishes with German-Language services. They stayed apart from other German-speaking groups and from politics.



The Aftermath of World War II

          Immigration of Germans into the United States after World War II was forbidden. That law also applied to “Volksdeutsche” (ethnic Germans), the designation used by the National Socialists and adopted by the Allies in order to identify people of German descent living outside the borders of the Third Reich included the Danube Swabians. There were millions of German refugees from Soviet occupied lands languishing in the overcrowded barrack compounds scattered throughout British and American occupied Germany and Austria. They were homeless, hungry, without a job, vegetating from day to day, without hope for the future. Many refugees remembered the addresses of relatives and friends overseas and wrote to them.


          The Danube Swabians in America, on their part, also had fallen upon bad times during WW II. Native Americans openly expressed anything German was suspect and sentiment of hatred, fueled by the war propaganda, toward German individuals and associations alike. It took great courage and material sacrifices on the part of the Landsleute in the USA to show concern for and try to alleviate the plight of their brothers in Europe. It is to their credit that they took action. They sent thousands of food packages to the suffering in the camps and they initiated political action in order to have the immigration law amended.


          Due to the persistent expansionistic tendencies of the Soviets Josef Stalin, the thinking in the American congress changed in the late 1940s. Marxism was now perceived as a threat to Western democracies. This was exactly the same reason that motivated Danube Swabians to fight in the war. As a landowning, God-fearing people they had been willing to die before surrendering their land and their churches, the two pillars of their existence, to the communists. The arguments of those who now pleaded before the Senate for the admittance of the Volksdeutsche to the USA found sympathetic minds and in 1950 the immigration law was changed, assigning to the Volksdeutsche 50% of the German and the Austrian immigration quotas.


          The International Refugee Organization (IRO), several religious organizations, American consulates in Salzburg and Hamburg started with the registering, screening and dispatching of ethnic German refugees, the Danube Swabians among them. Every person had to pass a rigid medical examination, get political clearance and have a sponsor in the States guaranteeing lodging and a paying job. Those accepted left on troop transports, on luxury liners or by airplane, glad to escape the hopeless oppressiveness of war ravaged Europe. It is estimated that 40,000 Danube Swabians came, definitely came to stay, to start life anew with nothing but their willingness to work hard, to secure a living for themselves and their families, to learn the language and become proud citizens of this country. Of course, they still found prejudice expressed toward the individual “Nazi”, but in their place of employment, the Danube Swabians earned the respect of the others with their willingness to work, their trustworthiness and their ability to get along with everyone. The war in Korea and the full employment associated with it gave the last immigrants an opportunity to earn sufficient money and lay the foundation for a secure future.


          Once established, the immigrants of the 50s searched for their identity. The experience of the last 30 years had shaped them; they could not readily identify with the old-timers, the German-Hungarians. Neither did they accept the second-class label Volksdeutsch. Rebuffed by the German Germans (Reichsdeutsche) in their regional clubs, they chose to be known as the “Donauschwaben”, the Danube Swabians and as such affirmed their oneness with their brothers and sisters all over the world.

By the early 1960s immigration of Danube Swabians to the US had come to an end. Those Danube Swabians belatedly leaving Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia, even today, due to the economic and social support they receive, prefer to settle in the now prosperous Germany.


          A very few American Danube Swabians also have returned to Germany and Austria, never to Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia, only to come back again to the United States with the realization that they have found here a new homeland for themselves and their descendants.


          The information on “Coming to America” was supplied by Michael Bresser Ed. D., of the Rutgers University Ed. D. Educational Psychology. They are excerpts from his article published in 1987 in the “Festbuch zur 30. Jahrfeier” of the Danube Swabian Association of the U.S.A.



In Conclusion:

 A Tribute To

The Danube Swabians in North America  

          As shown in Michael Bresser’s comments, Danube Swabians have been immigrating to North America, in particular the United States as early as prior the two World Wars. As further stated it is very difficult to identify them or trace them to their place of origin. A classical example is my great-great-uncle Josef Ergh who came Batschsentiwan to the United States in 1905 and his family that followed him here in 1907 as well as his sisters who came here in 1909. They are listed in the ships manifest that took them across the ocean, archived in the records of Ellis Island, as coming from a town in Hungary that is spelled differently three times. If we did not know that they were relatives coming from the same town and did not know that several different spellings of the town’s name existed, we could not have been able to determine that they were indeed members of the same family. Once here in Cleveland, my great-great-uncle opened a barbershop in a Hungarian neighborhood on Buckeye Road. He spoke perfect Hungarian and therefore, one would not know that he was a Danube Swabian except for us, our family. While he remained with his family his sisters returned to Batschsentiwan. One interesting note is, and all of us Danube Swabians should be proud of the fact, that his barbershop was dismantled the day he retired and reassembled in the Cleveland Auto and Aviation Museum where it can be seen today.


          We also learned that the German-Hungarian emigrants arriving from Hungary organized themselves into various interest groups and clubs with names like “Die Deutsch-Ungarn” and “The Banater”. There they were active fostering their culture and traditions as well as language, mostly in songs. Very little is known however, about their businesses and daily lives although we know of many businesses whose founders were of German extraction, and several of them indeed were Danube Swabians, like in Cleveland the Blasius brothers from Obrowatz, Stefan Fischler from Futok and Johann Gerber of Batschsentiwan.


          What brought them together was the strong inherited character, the desire and need of the Danube Swabians to socialize with other fellow Danube Swabians, who experienced the horrors of the Second World War and the expulsion from their homes by the communist governments in their home countries. Homes their ancestors had built during the past 250 years. The Danube Swabians now uprooted by the hundreds of thousands, their homes destroyed, the survivors left homeless and penniless. But not only that, they were also deeply scarred by their ordeal, the suffering from the loss of family members and were often now all alone in a strange new world they have come to, to seek new opportunities, new homes, to seek new lives and live in peace.


          Shortly after their arrival in the United States and Canada, and after they had made new friends and acquaintances, the urge to form new club communities where they could speak their language did grow ever stronger. They organized themselves in many interest groups, however their primary goal was to maintain and foster their inherited culture and customs they brought from their homeland. In most cases, it was the only thing they had left from their home country to hold onto besides their families and friends. First, many of them were organizations to aid other Danube Swabians with social problems, like housing, employment and give them support to build new lives and new homes. One of their foremost concerns was their youth. Bringing them together was accomplished by organizing dance groups, choruses as well as with a variety of sports clubs, mainly soccer (football). These soccer clubs attracted young men who in turn attracted the young women; they became very popular and enjoyed a large following. For the Danube Swabians the Sunday afternoons became a place to socialize and unwind among friends. German language interest groups were organized followed by German language schools to teach the children German as well as German history. The result of the programs required many hours of work, dedication and patience by many volunteers. Their efforts brought rewards. Although the programs originally intended for our children, attracted also their parents and grandparents. It was the parents and grandparents attracted by the activities, who became a viable support group for other functions of the Danube Swabian Societies. It was a win, win situation from the start from which everyone involved benefited and thus, became the springboards and the cornerstones for the Danube Swabian Societies of today in North America.


          The need to establish contacts with groups from other cities and to establish a national Organization developed soon after their arrival. From this need the head organization “The Society of Danube Swabians of North America” was founded in 1957. The sport of soccer was among one of the first inter city contacts bringing young people together for that purpose, and establishing friendships across the states. Society meetings hammered out other types of functions, such dancing, and singing as well as social and political interest groups giving them directions and goals to follow. Many of the Danube Swabians had the desire to meet with relatives in other cities and the need to visit them grew ever stronger. It did not take long before arrangements, in the sixties, were made to hold an annual “Danube Swabian Day”. During such times memorial services were held for the victims of death camps, chorus performances, youth dance performances as well as inter city youth dance competitions, among other functions. But most important, meeting with long lost relatives and friends from their old home towns and the socializing of young adults, who would eventually be asked to carry on the tradition of our culture.


          More than 60 years have passed since our expulsion that brought the end of the Danube Swabians in their home country, as we knew it then. As we look at the accomplishment of the “Last Generation of Danube Swabians” born in their home country. In the free world they live in today, one can only admire them for their never fading in themselves and the persistence to leave the fruits of their labor for the generations to come. How could they achieve the wealth they have achieved in such a short span of time one has to question? The answer lies in the strong inherited character they acquired as survivors. By being used living all their lives on foreign soil, and being exposed to the many political changes and the pressures existing there and from their work ethics handed down from generation to generation. The school systems they created back home, where young women were taught to knit, sew, cook, and bake as well as good housekeeping and childcare from early on in life. While the same time, their oncoming men were taught not only how to hold a hammer and nail, but also the necessities they needed to know how to raise farm animals and farm products and process them. This valuable education continued in the environment of a good home under the supervision of their parents and grandparents.


          The post WW I changes they were exposed to, like the closing of their schools forcing them to go to Austria and Germany to study. The post WW II changes they were exposed to, like the deportation of many to Russia. The expulsion from their homes in Hungary, the expulsion from their homes in Romania and deportation to the Baragan planes. The expulsion from their homes in Yugoslavia and incarceration into death camps as well as forced labor camps. All of these factors helped them to become useful, productive and prosperous citizens in the New World the live in today.


          Is it understandable that the survivors of the Danube Swabians, who were dealt the lowest hand in the stack of cards of politics, who landed at the shores of equal opportunity, would rebound under this environment of their new gained freedom!

We are the last generation, expelled from our homes our forefathers had built and have survived the insurmountable odds placed in our lives. We whose forefathers had amassed a wealth in riches and culture, and who inherited this wealth and riches, came to the United States with only a suitcase, which held all of what was left of our possessions. We came to the United States, a strange land we did not know. We came here with new hopes to establish new roots. Some of us came here deeply depressed for we had lost our homes but also a mother, a father or both. Some had lost a brothers or sisters some came alone after losing every one of their family members.


          We, the last Generation came here to work again with our bare hands and with the sweat of our brows to establish a new life and a new home, as our forefathers did in the land of the Danube Swabians. This however, was by no means an easy task as one might want to believe; it was a difficult uphill struggle for all of us. We had to find housing mostly in poor neighborhoods because of the lack of money. More often then not we were exploited at the work place, because of the language barrier or the lack of education which had suffered greatly, especially by those of us born in the thirties, who lost anywhere from two to six valuable school years. We had now go to evening schools not only to learn to speak English but also take academic classes to further our education. However, it took perhaps not more than five years after our arrival and we were proud owners of a car and even had a house to our name.


          We may not have made a giant industrial impact in this country, but have never the less made a distinct economical impact in the local communities where we live today. Today, we the Danube Swabians not only take working places in this country but also are in a position to give thousands of jobs to the American people in our factories, our construction businesses, our tool shops and farms. Most of our children have obtained higher education and are professionals, doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, and entertainers and as such have much to offer. Thus they have contributed to the common good and welfare of this country, even though our descendants may no longer speak German, the language of their forefathers. They still recognize themselves as Danube Swabians, members of the youngest of the “German Volksgroups”, to foster and maintain the heritage and culture of their ancestors in their community centers, we the “Last generation” have built for them.


          Despite the successful lives, many of the Danube Swabians enjoy today, none of them have forgotten who they are. They have not only been able to establish themselves financially but also as great supporters of the Danube Swabian heritage and culture in North America. It would take pages and pages to write about their unselfish contributions of their many hours of dedication and labors of love. There are thousands of names connected with the many achievements. We need to thank them all what they have accomplished to uphold the traditions and memory of our ancestors by erecting monuments in their names. Pause there and spend a minute in silent prayer in remembrance; they have earned it.



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