Donauschwaben in den USA

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Human Misery

Life In A Death Camp

By Hans Kopp




The Camps as We See and Group Them Correctly


To get a better understanding of the political development after WWI or prior to WWII which ultimately led to the tragic ending of the Donauschwaben you may page down to the synopses and a brief history toward the end of this article and read them first. Then allow me to turn your attention to the camps after WWII.


The names for the death camps which existed in post war Yugoslavia 1944-1948 are downplayed not only by Tito’s Partisan’s and Serbia but also by many other nations, since no one who has not experienced them understands what went on behind them. The atrocities committed in these camps can also be described as Genocide or better yet human misery at their worst. What you will read here is a candid description of life in Gakowa one of many death camps; I was incarcerated in for 25 months. It is certainly not for the faint at heart and makes one wonder why no one cared what happened to the population of German descent or why it was tolerated or even encouraged by some of the Allied Nations such as Great Britain as we learned from history later.


What you will read may seam to be too graphic; however for us survivors of the death camps, it is not graphic enough. The most graphic stories were never told and died with the victims; their misery can never be illustrated graphically enough. The stories are plentiful, in fact perhaps more then 100,000.


Many refer to the camps; we were taken too, as interment camps or concentration camps. Let us define these types of camps we also found in the USA and Canada as POW camps for German Soldiers. The solders were confined behind fences; they were housed in relative clean barracks and relatively comfortably bedded. They received three meals and had the necessary hygienic facilities to sustain a relative acceptable life behind a fence. For most of them it was better then being at the Russian front. We also have to include the many camps for undesired nationalities in the USA during WWII such as the Japanese, the Germans, and the Italians among others.


The Russian POW camps in contrast for German soldiers and the slave labor camps, in which 73,000 Donauschwaben men and women in their prime were deported too to perform hard labor for the Russians, cannot be compared to the interment camps or concentration camps as seen in the USA and Canada. The camps lacked all comfort and personal hygiene and the shortages of food contributed too many serious illnesses resulting in the death of many; hence we need to call those camps slave labor camps.


The Incarceration to Slave Labor Camps in Yugoslavia


The slave labor camps were everywhere in Yugoslavia . I really do not know how many exactly, since there were small ones with only 20 people, as well as larger slave labor camps of several hundred people, like the one for the people who had to build the railroad between Belgrad and Brod in Slavonia.


My uncle told me after we arrived in Austria , that Franz Burghardt; a 61-year-old man from Batschsentiwan was buried alive in Ivankovic. During the laying of the railroad ties, Franz Burghardt was one of the slave laborers on that detail which had to carry railroad ties. This had to be done in double time most of the time and when Franz collapsed under the heavy load he was beaten and thrown into a mass grave. Orders were given to pile dirt on top of him. Franz struggled desperately with his arms and legs to stay above the dirt, but his effort was in vain. A teen-age youngster from Gakowa, an eyewitness and one of the few survivors of the camp working with Franz, told my uncle of Franz’s fate.

My Grandfather (Öffler) who served in the Hungarian army from day one during WWI, only weeks after my mother was born. He was one of the first captured and take to Uzbekistan were he was held for seven years. My Grandmother and Great-Grandfather (Öffler) managed to support the three of them but in the process had to sell off farm land they could not handle by themselves and needed money to live on.


In February of 1945 my grandfather was taken from his home and was a captive in slave labor camps for 11 years and never seen his wife again. He was released from Yugoslavia only days before we left for the United States in June of 1956 and had to live by himself the rest of his life in Schifferstadt , Germany . It is very unfortunately that he passed away to early to have him brought to the USA and that we did not have time to talk to him and learn of his days in the slave labor camps.


 During my research for my book, I had the opportunity to interview several relatives who were on labor details on the slave labor force of Tito; one of them was my aunts Katharina Stefan. Katharina was about 40 years old when one night in February of 1945, Partisans came at midnight, woke her up and told her to take a shovel and come with them. She had no opportunity to take any food or any other clothes except the clothes she was able to put on in the rush. Katharina saw soon that she was not the only one but many other people from our town were taken from their homes that night and had assembled with shovels in their hands.


The people were marched all night and all day till they reached Bezdan where they were placed into a hanger overnight. The hanger was so small that they had to stand all night and could not rest; my aunt told me. The next morning they were taken to the Danube and taken across by ferries. Afterward they had to walk for some 40 miles till they reached an area where they had to dig fortifications for the Red Army. During the entire time they were poorly feed. They were given quotas of how much they had to dig and if they did not accomplish the quotas they were severely punished. Several days later they were housed in a town nearby vacated by people who were able to flee from the Russians. The orders the Partisans received came from the Red Army which made the Partisans their ram rods.

The Partisan commander was very liberal with his statements and said to his men: “if you return only half the people that are here, it will still be enough”. He also remarked “there are no sick people, only healthy people or dead people”. They were exposed to the elements during their work, deprived of proper food, and personal hygiene. There was no doctor or medicine available and if you became ill you were left to die. When done with the fortifications the survivors of the work details were taken to other locations such as farms and factories. My aunt recalls having to remove hemp from a river were it had been placed the year before for curing. Now the hemp was almost completely decayed. The work was not only extremely difficult and strenuous for men, but totally unfit for women. God must have been watching over her family, because later that same year, my aunt was moved to Gakowa where she was reunited with her children in September of 1946.

My aunt was able to escape with her children and live in Biberach , Germany to a ripe age of 102. I had the opportunity to see her several months before she passed away. She was indeed a remarkable woman. It was kind of sad and yet refreshing that during my visit she was thinking I was my father and she talked to me in her believes about their experiences. It was very interesting for me to act as my father as I learned of their experience of times past when they were young.



The Death Camps


By official definition of Tito; the camps to which the young and old Donauschwaben were taken too, was “camps with special status”. What does “special status” mean for you the reader and what did it mean for us the survivors? One can interpret this status in many different ways, however for the Donauschwaben they were camps were people were taken to be starved to death in a very cruel inhumane way by not giving them the necessary food to sustain their lives and when they contracted diseases as a result of being undernourished, they were denied treatment and the necessary medication to recover from their illnesses. We need to call them rightfully “Death Camps”. These camps also lacked all simple comfort; instead the people had to sleep on straw in overcrowded rooms they had to share with between 15 to 20 different people who had no means for privacy or personnel hygiene.


  There were seven such death camps or “camps of special status” which have to be classified as such. According to the percentage of survivors the worst such camp was Syrmisch Mitrowitz/Sremska Mitrovica were less than 20% of its inmates survived. As for children who received special treatments we need to mention; Jarek/Backi Jarek, the death camp were more than 5,000 children were put to death by poisoning them in houses specially set aside for them for that purpose and later by killing them with ground up glass mixed into their food when there was no poison left to give the children.





Sustenance and Survival


At this point I would like to take the opportunity to site several examples of my personal experiences and observations as a ten year old child of that time, true human misery which existed in the death camps everywhere to a more or less degree which claimed 1/3rd of our population subjected to death camps.


When we arrived in Gakowa we received food tickets we had to show to receive food. But it would not take long before the food we received did become less and the quality worse. By the winter of 1945/46 the bread was made of corn which was hard as a brick and had to be soaked in water and a sort of polenta made out of it without any type of shortening, salt or any other type of seasoning, at least that is what my aunt Katharina (Kopp) made for us so we could eat it.


We also received cow beats which tasted good at first but later when they were frost bitten and partially decayed they would not stay down and did more harm than good. The people, who survived, relied on creativity and ingenuity such as collecting herbs from nature, volunteering for work details to get out of town and go to beg for food. During the winter we focused our attention to catching sparrows and other birds.




Personal Hygiene


Shortly after our arrival personal hygiene diminished and was practically none existing. There was a water shortage all the time, so that water which became more and more contaminated had to be boiled to be used for drinking so washing clothes became more and more difficult. The untreated human waist went into the ground water table during the rains and snow which made the water foul and no longer safe.


When you have between 25,000 to 28,000 people in a village which was build for a population 2,500, their waist was difficult to handle. Men had to dig 3 feet wide, by 8 to 10 feet long and 4 to 5 feet deep holes mostly in the back courts away from the living quarters. Some of them were provided with a beam to sit on. We called this beam thunder beam, since it did not take long and all people contracted diarrhea and since we all were plagued with the disease you simply had to rush to the thunder beam in the back court.

Justin Bäsl, the owner of our first house we occupied, had one such moment and was rushing as fast as she could, but it was too late and she soiled her skirt from top to bottom. Diarrhea would create dangerous problems for many people which took their lives. Repeated urges to go even if there was nothing left in their intestines was part of the problem, because it forced their rectum through the opening of the anus and would protrude to the outside. It was a blessing that none of our family members ever had such a problem.


Fleas, Lice, Rats and Typhus


Existing in rooms crammed with 15 to 20 people sleeping on straw, flee became the first pests. They were extremely difficult to catch and get read off. Soon lice would follow infecting people with stomach and head typhus resulting in an epidemic along with many other diseases like Malaria. Many of you have seen monkeys groom each other and plug flee from each others body. This was the general picture of a daily routine to clean each others head of the pests. One of the measures was to shear everyone bald, which for the women was quite embarrassing. Much later in 1946 we received treatments against lice with DDT, a well-known poison.

My brother, Franz, became one of the first victims of typhus and began to hallucinate. While I was sitting on our strew pile we had to sleep on busy catching lice, he said: “Hans, look, the Partisans are robbing us of our winter coats.” I had to get up, show him that he was just seeing things and that our coats were still hanging there. When I told my Grandmother (Öffler) about my brother, she took him to the provisional hospital, better known to us as the “House of Death”. It was located on Main Street leading to the cemetery. The hospital was actually nothing more than a house set up to quarantine people infected with typhus from people who were not infected. There was no real help for them there. Although, there was Dr. Jakob Stefan, my grandmother’s cousin and several women working as nurses in the camp who made extreme efforts to give help wherever they could. Their efforts even without medicine must be commended, since they endangered their own lives. In general, we were denied of all medical care and medications. Most people died shortly after being brought there, especially the old that had no one to care for them.

My grandmother insisted on staying with my brother. I am certain her decision saved his life. I went to visit my brother and grandmother the next day. When I came to the house where people stricken with typhus were housed, a strange uncomfortable feeling came over me. I did not know in which room my brother was in, so I entered the room closest to me carefully with anxiety and fear. The room was terrifying, dark, damp and cold with the strong odor of death all around. A bone-chilling shiver went down my spine. I felt as though the Grim Reaper was standing behind me waiting to cut down any one of the unfortunate souls brought here. I shrugged off the feeling and rushed out of the room to catch a breath of fresh air. Once outside I turned toward the sun to catch the last warming rays of the day. The sun began to set behind a tall tree, its last rays that warmed me also lit up this “house of death” in a deceiving golden glitter. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I had ever seen and will never forget. The life-giving rays of the sun and its spectacular setting would never be enjoyed, or seen again by many of the unfortunate poor souls brought to this house.

I was confronted with the awful decision of whether or not to go back inside and keep looking for my brother and grandmother. My decision was clear; I had to see them and courageously entered another room. After my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw the seemingly lifeless bodies and the appalling conditions that existed. This is where the ill had to live the last days of their lives. Were these people still alive or were they dead? I could not tell, but what I could tell was that they did not deserve to die in conditions undignified for human beings. They were forgotten and left to die.

While I went through the rooms looking for my brother and grandmother I noticed something else; Rats. The rats became a menace and once they took over the houses we had to guard ourselves from their continued relentless attacks. We in our room did not have too many problems with them, but the places were the older and the sick people, as well as the children without relatives were housed and who could not help themselves, became helpless victims of their attacks. The rats would be chewing on people still living and I have seen a boy who lost an ear lope to the pests.

A young teenage woman appeared one day from nowhere. No one knew who she was, where she came from, or if she had any living relatives. Unable to care for herself, her appearance was shocking. Her skin was full of sores and scars left by lice. No one wanted to associate themselves with her, either because of her condition or because everyone had to cope with their own problems. Head lice have a very adverse effect on peoples mental state and it seamed she was somewhat disturbed as a result of her condition. It did not take a long time for the children to make fun of her with the exception of one; me.

Because of my tolerance, she was drawn to me and I became her friend perhaps the only friend she now had. She usually sat down next to me in the corridor and watched me work on one thing or another while freely talking to me and I wish I could remember what she was telling me. With my marble playing skills I had won several Hungarian 20 Filér copper coins, which had a hole in the center and with which I patiently hammered several rings I gave all away except one, the one I had kept for me. When she saw my ring, she asked if I could make one for her too. Unfortunately, I had no more coins left, so I gave her my ring. This made her happy in her own way and I began to help her with her lice. However, when I examined her head I found a crusted spot which was about an inch or inch and a half in diameter and it seemed to be alive. When I lifted the crusted part gently up, I was shocked seeing the lice crawling underneath in the pas. I became helpless. I did not know what I should do and if I could hurt her if I would remove the crust, the pas and the lice. I gently placed the crust back on her head and even today I blame myself for not having been able to help her clean up her head.




Begging for Food to Survive,

Brought Death to Others


More and more often, we found it necessary to sneak out of Gakowa and walk to the neighboring towns to beg for food. I remember the first time I went begging in Svetozar Miletic with my Grandmother (Kopp) and two other women from camp. At one of the Serbian homes a lady promised us lunch if I cleaned her chicken and rabbit stalls while the women went begging. At noon the women returned and as promised, the lady had a meal of chicken paprikash prepared for us. She served the chicken paprikash on top of an upright sitting large barrel standing in the outside corridor of the house. I did not eat. My pride did not allow me to eat although I was hungry. The humiliation of begging and doing the dirty work of the people who drove us from our homes, the people who made beggars and thieves out of us, was too much for me to cope. Surely, this kind woman had nothing to do with all of this and did her best to help us. Was there room for such pride in this world of despair? It was amazing how much I matured in such a short time. I was ten now and there was no birthday celebration, no cake with candles, just hunger and starvation. I was proud, but this was the only time I would not eat because of my pride. Surviving was more important and I understood this.


It was about two weeks before Christmas of 1945 my Grandmother (Öffler) went begging to one of her usual places. She wanted to beg for food so we would have something special to fill our bellies with for the holidays. On her way back to Gakowa she was captured, her food taken away and jailed in the cellar prison. The next morning an announcement was made that the people caught during the night would be executed. After we learned that my grandmother was among them, my brother and I ran to the prison to see if there was any truth to this horrible news.

I don’t remember how long we waited there along with others whose relatives were to be executed, to find out if the rumor was true. We wondered if we could see our grandmother for a last time. The gate finally opened, it was very late in the afternoon and a horse drawn wagon came out with six or seven people loaded on it, among them my grandmother. We ran toward the wagon. She shouted at us as the wagon went by, but we couldn’t understand what she was trying to tell us. As we kept running alongside the wagon, she ripped off her coat and her skirt and threw them off the wagon. My brother picked up the clothes. Again, we ran behind the wagon until the Partisans stopped us at the end of Main Street , as the wagon moved on toward the mass grave site we stood in silence. I don’t know how long it took before gunshots broke the silence. We stared in the direction from where the gunshots came. Quietly with tears in my eyes, knowing my grandmother was dead my brother and I turned away in a daze helpless and walked back to the house.

However, instead the Partisans did not execute them but drove them to Kruschiwl. There she was mistreated in the worst way we learned later from a man who shared her fait. The Partisans must have continually beaten her face with a rifle but and broke her facial bones and left her to die. However, she recovered from unconsciousness and set on foot to return to Gakowa with rags on her feet and hardly any clothes on her body in the cold winter night with snow on the ground. One can only imagine what ordeal it must have been for her to walk from Kruschiwl to Gakowa in her condition.

My grandmother’s love for us, her desire and will power to be with us on Christmas Eve, overcame all the hardship and pain she must have suffered from the severe and inhumane mistreatment she had to endure during her captivity and the conditions she must have faced on her way. Late on Christmas Eve December 24th, the door to our room swung open. In the doorframe stood a dark ghost like silhouette, offset by the light from our lard lamp, staring at us. We held our breath and gazed at the dark figure and finally recognized it was my grandmother.

Where did she come from? No! It could not be her! She was executed at the cemetery. We rushed to greet her as we recognized her now. We were though shocked at first but now ecstatic, because we did not expect to see her ever again. Was part of our prayers answered? We hugged each other with great passion only to be shocked again when she collapsed onto straw bed. We had no idea what had happened to her at that time nor did we know what she had been through. She could not speak and after taking a closer look by the light of a lard lamp we become aware of how awful she looked and how severely she was mistreated and injured.

What we saw now was horrifying. Her face was swollen and discolored. Her facial bones were shattered so that she could not open her jaws. Her feet were wrapped in rags so she could hardly stand and yet she walked to be with us all the way from Kruschiwl. As my grandmother (Kopp) removed the rags from her feet we saw that both of her feet were raw and frostbitten from walking in the cold and snow without proper footwear and clothing. Since she could not speak, she was unable to tell us what had happened to her.

It was God’s mercy and her will to live after she regained her consciousness that led her back to us on Christmas Eve, long enough so we could comfort her during her final hours. My aunt and Grandmother (Kopp) made a valiant effort to make her comfortable. They dressed her feet and wrapped her face in linen. There was no doctor to treat her or give her medication. We knew there was no hope; she would have to die soon. I think she knew that too. She could not open her mouth to eat. Yet, I made a desperate effort to feed her soup through her teeth for I did not want her to die. The soup that I attempted to trifle into her mouth between her teeth did not help. Her jaw was so badly smashed she could not swallow; consequently, it just ran out on the sides of her mouth. I felt so helpless, so helpless, and it was so terribly hopeless! I knelt beside her, not wanting to give up. I thought if I just could get her to eat, she would not have to die.

All we could do, however, was to make her as comfortable as possible and hope that the Lord would let her die mercifully. Her suffering was anything but easy, her pain must have been excruciating. It was horrible to see her that way. Her face was nothing more than a living death mask, and the flesh on her legs was decaying from the frostbite. We went to bed on the gruesome night of December 26th 1945. A small lard lamp was placed near her so that we could observe her during the night. I could not fall asleep and stared at the flickering of the flame for a long, long time before I finally closed my eyes. But sleep I could not.

In fall, before the grape harvest and wine making time, my father and grandfather would clean the wine barrels and prepare them for the new wine. They would bring the barrels up from the cellar place sulfur sticks in them and light the sticks. When the sulfur sticks were burned up they would put water into the barrels and roll them back and forth and back and forth. “Rum-rum, rum-rum” was the sound the barrels made while they were being cleaned. As I lay on my bunk with my eyes closed I heard that noise “rum-rum, rum-rum.” Was I dreaming? Was I at home in Batschsentiwan? Was that noise coming from barrels outside? Who would wash wine barrels in the middle of the night? I was not dreaming a nightmare took its course. I knew that the noise was not coming from any wine barrels outside. The noise was coming from my grandmother as she lay in pain fighting for her life. She must have gone to hell and back during her ordeal. My Grandmother (Kopp) and my aunt got up several times during the night to comfort her, but there was nothing that could be done to quiet her. I was petrified. I prayed silently for the sound to stop and for her to fall asleep. As dawn broke on December 27th, silence finally filled our room. Did she finally fall asleep? We listened to the silence. A few minutes passed before my Grandmother (Kopp) went to check on her while my aunt lit another lard lamp. We all went over to the side were she had bedded down to take a final look at her pain-ridden face. She was at peace. Her suffering had ended (she was only 54 years old!) The Lord had answered my prayers and taken her to Him. We fell to our knees and prayed for her. Our Father, Who art in heaven…..



Hunger: Starving to Death


There is quite a difference between hunger and starving to death. You often hear when your children come home; “Mom I am starving”. Your child is not actually starving but may be hungry. Starving is when you do not get anything of nutritional value to eat today, then tomorrow and after tomorrow and next week and the week after and next month throughout the year. You are hungry all the time over a period of months and it does not take long for the pain to sets in, you get sick, get Diarrhea, malaria or typhus and on top of it you are plagued with lice, flee and rats who may eat you alive. Dying of starvation is an excruciating painful ordeal you only experience if you live under the conditions as described above.


Dr. Jakob Stefan my grandmothers’ cousin not only was the Doctor without medication attempting to help thousands, but was less then successful. He also did keep records of the death at the former morgue near the cemetery till he was taken out of the camp to serve the Tito regime as Doctor, where? I do not know as we lost contact with him nor is it known where the record book went. Did it exist? Yes, because I saw it when my uncle showed it to me in March of 1946 and it had nearly 6,000 entries in it. While he was showing the record book to me, perhaps I am the only eye witness left alive who saw it, he pointed out how many dead could not be documented by name and how many deceased where placed into the mass graves without him knowing. This fact leaves me belief that the death toll in Gakowa was by far higher as records want to have it.  The records state that there were 8,500 documented deaths but what about the undocumented how many were there?


During my research I was determined to find people who were infants during our time in the death camps, but could only locate two women, which in itself was remarkable given the fact that infants had the highest mortality rate.

We shared our room with a family from Miletitsch. It was a young woman with her 8 month old baby that was still nursing and her mother. Nursing an infant was a very difficult task if you were undernourished as the mother milk suffered and placed mother and child in jeopardy. Can you imagine that the only food for the baby was her mother’s milk and if there was nothing left in her breasts it was a certain death sentence for the baby?

This was the case with our Miletitsch women and child and so it came to pass that the young woman from Miletitsch that roomed with us died during one long gruesome night. We were awakened by the scream of the mother who had bedded down next to her daughter. While she was reaching for her daughter she felt her cold hand. She could not understand why she did not become aware of her daughters passing during the night. She blamed herself for allowing her daughter to die while she was asleep next to her. If she would have become aware she could have certainly, so she believed helped her daughter, or if nothing else she could have comforted her during her last hour or say a prayer and good-bye. Several days later she lost her baby grandchild. The old woman had now lost everyone. Why could it not have been her, instead of them? In her grief and pain she repeated this question over and over. “Why could it not have been me? Why could it not have been me, instead of them?

The tragedy continued one morning when I stepped outside of our room. As I opened the door I was confronted with a horrible site. My good friend I had given my ring too had found her peace. Her eyes were open and still staring out of her narrow fleshless face into a distant nowhere. Her mouth was wide open as if she wanted to call for help. Her knees were pulled to her chest with her arms clutched around them, searching for warmth during her last moment of the cold winter night. She died alone, with no one to comfort her. Her death was not a peaceful one. Starving to death is a very slow and extremely painful death. Her once beautiful face was distorted from her excruciating suffering she had to endure. I have seen many people die during those days including my grandmother, but none seamed to effect me more than her death. I fell to my knees to mourn and to pray for her, as she had no one to mourn her death. I lost a very dear friend. I will never forget the image of her dead body as it lay there in front of me and I still can see her face when I close my eyes. Her death will always remind me of the misery and suffering everyone in the death camps had to endure. She too was forgotten and left to die.

Among the dead was a school friend, then another and yet again another. The horrible winter had passed but the tragedy continued. Josef Klein a school friend just two months older than I would leave a lasting impression on me as well.

My Aunt Käthe (Drescher) learned that my school friend was brought to the house next door to were she lived (Mühlgasse 39) just days before. It was the house of the (Rohatsch family Mühlgasse 35) where a children’s hospital was set up. The name children hospital is very deceiving since in reality it was a house where children were taken to die. After my aunt had told me of his stay there I went on my way to visit him. As I came closer to the house, I saw a woman carrying what appeared to be an infant in her arms she had taken for a walk. I stopped and asked if she knew Josef and where I could find him. She told me the child she was holding in her arms was Josef. He did not recognize me nor did I recognize him. He was nothing but a bundle of bones wrapped in skin. His head seemed twice as large as his body. Big broken eyes were staring forlorn out of two large holes in his face. For months he was carried around because he was too weak to stand or walk and was finally brought here after all his relatives had passed away. His heart must have been really strong to keep his small body alive for so long. I started to talk to him but at first there was no response. I don’t remember what I told him, but he recognized me now I could tell, because his eyes lit up and a weak smile graced his face. Perhaps it was the last smile to grace his face for he passed away shortly thereafter at the end of July 1946, a couple of days after my 11th birthday. Those eyes and that smile! Who can ever forget those eyes and that smile?




Our Heroes of the Death Camps


During our fight for survival, the women, the grandmothers in particular, became heroine’s day in and day out. They had the responsibility of looking after the children, begging in near-by towns, finding food in the fields, collecting herbs, berries and nuts. They made clothes from old pleated skirts taken apart and reworked them for better uses. They had to be cooks, bakers, nurses, caretakers, healers, and supporters both morally and spiritually. In short, they carried the entire burden, while our fathers and mothers were in Russia as slave laborers.

If it had not been for our grandmothers, who fought so courageously for the survival of their grandchildren, many of us would not be here today. Only they knew how painful it was to see their grandchildren starve day in and day out and watch them die and could not help nor avoid it. They were the ones who gave the last piece of bread to their grandchildren and sacrificed their own lives to save the lives of their children’s children. The extreme hardship, the worries, the agony and the despair these women endured so admirably, can be considered one of the greatest achievements on earth. I was there to witness their monumental, heroic, and unselfish deeds. We might well erect a monument to honor the greatest grandmothers of all: “The Grandmothers of the Death Camps”.

I became inspired by my own words of erecting a monument for our grandmother and women of the death camps at Lenau Park and proceeded to design a plaque. However without success till I presented the idea to Dr. Alexander Lermer, who bought into my idea and asked me to give him my design and proceeded to have it made with his own expenses and presented it to our memorial Park to be mounted. I am very grateful to Dr. Lermer as he understood the contributions and the sacrifices our women made during our misery in the death camps.

We also need to mention our teens who shuttled between the camps and the places they managed to work outside of the slave labor camps to which they had been able to escape. The willpower and commitment of these teens, our young men and young women alike, which did everything humanly possible to save their families, cannot be praised often enough. It is because of them, that many more people helpless during those days are alive today. The heroics of these young men and young women were monumental in the struggle for the survival of the Donauschwaben in Yugoslavia .

Within time the teens established themselves well organized and became in many cases the sole providers of their families, since they were able to be hired on by farmers and thus had more access to food which they transported on foot to the camps. Naturally there was always that danger of being caught by the Partisans, but with their attitude that they had nothing to lose, they overcame the burdens and saved their families.


When my father returned from Russia after 9 months in captivity, he was released to Yugoslavia which was extremely fortunate for us, as later return transports were released to Germany . He teamed up with two 16 year olds from Batschsentiwan, the nephew of my Aunt Katharina, Josef Wahl and his friend Josef Mack and together they created a team which organized food deliveries unheard of to Gakowa. My father managed to put meat on our bones and organized our escape on April 12th on my mother birthday, to escape with our families to Hungary thus ending our misery in the death camp of Gakowa.


There is a lot to be said about my childhood impressions I collected and preserving them. For this reason I swore never to return to my home town or Gakowa, as I never want those impressions ever disturbed and ruined.



The Death Camps


Among the worst death camps we need to mention was Rudolfsgnad were officially 11,000 lives were lost. But according to witnesses a lot more people starved to death or were executed there. You may read more about this death camp in the book “A People on the Danube ” written by Nenad Stefanovic, a Serbian author who interviewed several survivors of the camp.


Our survivors, the escapees from the death camps, for them escaping would not be the end of their demise. Many had contracted illnesses and sustained injuries in the camps which marked them for life. To mention are the people who had to work anywhere from 3 to 5 years in coal mines without protections or breathing apparatuses after the closing of the camps. One of our neighbors’ in Gakowa, who did not flee from the death camp was forced to work in a coal mine for several years and went to his early grave with the black lung decease. I visited him and his wife, our neighbor Katharina Gassmann from our home in Batschsentiwan. He no longer could sit and had to lean over the couch while we were sitting during our conversation. For him dying was a blessing.


All the children who lost at least 3 years of school and the children who lost as many as 6 years and could no longer get the education they needed to learn the trade of their choice and as a result had to take low paying jobs to bring food on the table for their families, how does one evaluate these losses. I lost three years of school and when I went to school again in Austria , I had to go to school with children who were 3 years younger.


The largest death camp was Rudolfsgnad/Knicanin, in the south of the Banat , the casualties there between October 1945 und March 1948 were --- 11,000. In Gakowa/Gakovo, in the north of the Batschka the casualties; between March of 1945 January of 1948 were --- 8,500. In Jarek/Backi Jarek, in the south of the Batschka the casualties there between December 1944 und April 1946 were --- 7,000. In Kruschiwl/Krusevlje in the north of the Batschka the casualties; between March of 1945 January of 1948 were ---3,000. In Molidorf/Molin in the north of the Banat the casualties there between September 1945 und April 1947 were --- 3,000. The casualties of Syrmisch Mitrowitz/Sremska Mitrovica were --- 2,000. In Kerndia/Krndija, Slavonia the casualties there during the winter of 1945/46 were --- 1,500. In Walpach/Valpovo, Slavonia the casualties there during the winter of 1945/46 were --- 1,500. Those are the official casualties that could be documented; however actual casualties certainly must be estimated as much higher.

The dramatic and tragic fate of the Donauschwaben was sealed at a conference on November 21. 1944 in Jajce, Bosnia when a tribunal of “Tito’s Communist Partisan Rebels” which by now calls itself „Antifasiticko Vece Narodnog Oslobodjenja Jugoslavije“ „Antifascist Tribunal for the Liberation of Yugoslavia“ in short AVNOJ, decided that all Germans in Yugoslavia must be eliminated. Their decision stated: “All persons of German descent living in Yugoslavia will automatically lose their citizenship. They will lose all their rights and all their possessions and property will become property of the State. Persons of German descent will not have any rights or privileges for protection under any law. They have no rights to use any institutions, such as postal services and public transportation. They may not accept gifts”. The President of this organization was Dr. Ivan Ribar and its vice president was Moša Pijade, who masterminded the death camps and from a humane standpoint must be looked at as war criminal.


As we know now from history the demise of the Donauschwaben was tolerated by the Allied Forces but not only that it was also encouraged as everybody of German descent was considered a National Socialist although according to my experience of my home town perhaps less then 10% of our population were followers of National Socialisms while 90% were followers of Adam Berenz. As prove of this fact we can site that only 130 Families from our town volunteered to flee with the retreating German Army which is about 400 people from a population of 6,300 which is less then 10%.






When the Germans settled in Hungary after Turkish war, they came by invitation of the Hungarian Landlords to resettle their land. To interest the German farmers to settle in Hungary they were given certain rights, such as to speak German and to permit them to teach their children German in their school. During the same time period there was a flight of Germans to America and in order to curtail the flight of Germans across the sea, the Empress of the German Nation Maria Theresia requested that 50,000 more Germans should be allowed to settle in Hungary , These settlers primarily settled in the Batschka and the Banat . The Empress also settled about 50,000 Serbian refugees in the region which is known today as Vojvodina. Was this a mistake by the Empress? Since the Serbs would occupy this part of Hungary after WWI and never return it to Hungary .


As second consideration we have to look at the Germans in Hungary , Romania and Yugoslavia and their political rights. The Germans called Donauschwaben, as a minority now; after WWI had no political right in the countries they resided in. This may be disputed by these countries since their constitution did include rights for the minorities groups in their countries, which, however, was a mere myth at best. Their rights they had inherited at their settlements from the Hungarian government at the time they came and settle in Hungary where up in smoke now. The Germans had no say in their self determination in none of the countries. The question to whom should they turn too for protection became more and more important.


What we saw in all three countries were many injustices. Here we would like to concentrate on the former Hungarian regions now part of Serbia , Croatia and Slovenia which would become part of the new state of Yugoslavia . From now on their first names had to be written in the Serbia-Croatian language. All court proceeding were held in the Serbia-Croatian language and if you did not speak the language you had to hire an interpreter and pay for him. Generally a German had no real change to get justice and win a court case.


All schools were there was less then 30 students in a class were closed and the children even though they could not speak the Serbia-Croatian language were thought in that language. As a result student desiring higher levels of educations had no alternative to either learn the language well enough which in the short time they could not or had go and be educated in Austria or Germany . Many students now exposed to National Socialism in Germany upon their return brought new ideas home which became a real issue during the following years. As these younger people educated in Germany went to seek help and protection from the Third Reich.


The most damaging for the Germans in Yugoslavia was without any question the “Agrarian Reform” of King Alexander which saw the wealthy German farmer being disowned and their land and be given to the poor, but not to the poor Germans only to the poor Serbian population. In addition where farmers purchased land in neighboring Serbian townships those fields were returned to the Serbians who sold the fields in the first place. These Farmers were now forced to lease their own land from the new owners. It was not unheard off, that the Serbs leased the land to more then one farmers. These farmers now had to share this land and the crops they harvested and yet still pay the share to the Serbian landowners. Such injustices too turned many to the “Third Reich” rightfully, for help and support.


When the National Socialist came to power and the propaganda machine began to work with Hitler in power in Germany not only did the war preparations escalate but also the indoctrination of the Germans living on foreign soil. His ideology made him believe that he could also lead the “Volksdeutschen” (Volks Germans) in other parts of Europe severed from the former German and Austrian-Hungarian Empires. In 1936, he directed SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler to politically influence the German populations in those countries and win them for his political movements. Himmler formed a central department of Germans affairs (VOMI) for that purpose. As a priority, he began to identify such leaders among the German Volks groups with National Socialistic orientation, as loyal followers of that movement.


The Donauschwaben now grouped as Volksdeutsche became pawn of the “Third Reich” as all other Germans living on foreign soil. During the occupation of Yugoslavia the result was as follows; Croatia became independent, the Batschka was returned to Hungary but Western Banat became an autonomous state. As such the Banater’s were allowed to draft a military unit to protect their interest. This unit became known as the Prinz Eugen Division in which they still had no say in the ranks and were deployed to Bosnia by order of the Reich against Tito’s terrorist Partisans, which was not the legal Government of Yugoslavia at the time which was the Royal Yugoslavia under King Peter.


During these events, the tribunal decided secretly on November 29th 1943, to oust Peter, the King of Yugoslavia. On July 31st 1946, by action of this tribunal decision made on November 2nd 1944 the former Yugoslavian citizens of German descent, became law. One questions the sanity of such a law, a law against humanity that Tito would execute to the tee. One also questions as to why this law has not been abolished in today’s Government of Yugoslavia or today’s Serbia . One also questions; “why was such mass extinction of citizens of German descent tolerated by the allied nations?” There is also evidence which surfaced in recent years, that not only was it tolerated but encouraged. More then 11,000,000 innocent civilian German people of the East and South East lost their lives as a result, which makes us survivors wonder.


The propaganda by the NS-movement for the “New German view”, created a strong opposition among the Catholics, especially the farmers, in the “spirit of Catholic actions”. Father Adam Berenz writes in his weekly newspaper “Die Donau” articles against the National Socialistic-movement up to 1944. This was absolutely courageous. He was convinced one could be a good German without having to be a follower of Hitler or a National Socialist.

At the end of the war the Donauschwaben and all other German Volksgruppen in Yugoslavia were now accused by the Allied Nations under “Collectively Guilty” of war crimes and became political footballs. This was totally unfair as the majority of the Donauschwaben did not have anything to do with the war in which they were drawn into by the “Third Reich”.


The result of this ignorance by the Allied Nations and their toleration of the destruction of the Germans on foreign soil left the Donauschwaben vulnerable as they received the full brunt of the hate of the Tito Partisans. Not even the so called “Reichsdeutschen”, the Germans born on German soil where exposed to such cruelties and misery as placed upon the Donauschwaben.


Many of our young reader are often confused by the following facts which they relate to the USA . While everyone born on US soil is automatically an America citizen. This is not necessarily the case in Europe, Africa or Asia where the nationalities of the people are still dominant and still create many difficulties among various different governments, despite the fact that their multi-racial populations does get along peacefully or have been living in peace side by side for centuries and many generations and people have been indoctrinated by the political movements of corrupt governments who pursue selfish interests and there is a lot of blame to go around even today.



A Brief History

For a Better Understanding of the Germans

The Donauschwaben Settlers in Hungary


Before we can speak about the demise of the Donauschwaben we need to understand part of the history of Hungary and the German Nation. Hungary the only country in Europe ruled by a minority, the Magyars depended on good relation with the German Nation since its existence when in 996, after their King Waiks (Vajk) married Gisela, the sister of the Bavarian Duke, He was baptized as Stephan (Patron name of Passau) in Aachen, Germany. In 1001 Pope Sylvester II crowned him as Stephan I of Hungary .


In 1141-1162, after the continued raids by nomadic tribes from the east, the Hungarian King Geza II prompted to hire German mercenary soldiers from Saxony . He settled them with their families along with Saxon farmers from the west of the Rhine in particular from the Mosel River Valley , areas around Aachen and Luxemburg. Some of these Germans settled in the Mountains of Transylvania the so-called Nösnerland. They settled in the regions of the Bistritz (Bistrita) and Sajo River valleys. Others settled between the Rivers Maros and Alt, the regions of the Kokel River , and into the Zibin, Harbach and Alt valleys with its center of Hermannstadt ( Sibiu ), named after their leader. These settlers became known as the Transylvanian Saxons.


The Turks, under the leadership of Murad I, defeated the Serbs on June 28 1389 near Kosovo Polje in the Balkan. The Serbs presented the strongest resistance in the region at that time. By 1459-1479 the Turks controlled the regions of today’s Romania . Following their victorious battle at Mohács on August 29 1526 under the leadership of Sultan Süleyman II, during which the Hungarian King Ludwig II (Louis II) lost his life, the Ottoman Empire now controlled the Danube regions and with it Hungary. The Turks establish their capital in Paschalik, near Buda and presented a serious and continued threat for the Christian civilization especially for the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation (referred to from here on as German Nation) and Poland . Since the Hungarian King Ludwig II had no heirs, the noblemen awarded the Hungarian crown to his brother in law Ferdinand, Emperor of the German Nation.


It was in the year 1683 that Sultan Mehmed IV recognized, what he thought was an opportunity to conquer the Christian civilization. At the time French troops had invaded the German regions of Lorraine and Alsace to the west of the Rhine and had taken Strasbourg in 1681, thus weakening the Emperors forces in the east.


Sultan Mehmed IV concentrated his armies near Belgrade and Osijek . On March 31st he began to move his forces of nearly 200,000 troops of multi nationality and racial character, to the cities of Györ (Raab) and Komarom (Komorn) and sent a declaration of war to Emperor Leopold I.


Rüdiger von Starhemberg heroically defended the city of Vienna with 10,000 men. The defensive walls around Vienna were extremely well built during previous centuries. The Turkish troops could not come in range to attack with their cannons, since the superior weapons of the defenders outdistanced them.


The valiant defensive struggle around Vienna lasted 62 days, until the arrival of the allied Entsatz (rescue) troops. For those interested in statistics, the strength of the Armies as estimated by Austrian historians was as follows: The total Christian forces had 75,000 troops and 150 to 170 cannons. The Turks had 30,000 men in the trenches around Vienna and 107,000 troops and 300 cannons to oppose the Christian armies. The Christian forces included Duke Karl V of Lorraine (von Lothringen) with 8,000 men on foot, 12,000 men on horseback and 70 cannons. The Saxons under the command of Duke Johann George III brought 7,000 men on foot, 2,000 on horseback and 1,400 men with 16 cannons. The Bavarian Count Max Emanuel came with 7,500 men on foot, 3,000 on horseback and 26 cannons. The Franken and Swabian troops under Count Georg Friedrich contributed 7,000 men on foot 2,500 on horseback and 28 cannons and finally King Jan Sobieski III of Poland brought a force of 10,200 men on foot, 14,000 on horseback and 28 cannons.


Duke Karl V of Lorraine laid out the plans of attack, while the overall command was given to Jan Sobieski III the King of Poland as pre arranged. He accepted the plans, which also reserved him the rights to capture the tent and the loot of the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, as prior agreed. By two o’clock in the afternoon the Polish troops, who had the more difficult approach, had reached their positions and the battle commenced. The fierce battle was decided in less than two hours, according Austrian historians when the Turkish forces began to flee.


Duke Karl V went on to gain victories at Gran (near the South Bend of the Danube ) in 1685 and Ofen (Buda) in 1686. This returned the Germans to the cities of Ofen and Pest , which were settled under the Hungarian King Bela IV more than four hundred years earlier. These cities were under Turkish occupation for more then 150 years.


It was not until the combined Imperial forces of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation, under their leaders Karl V, Max Emanuel von Bayern and Ludwig Wilhelm I von Baden, defeated the Turks at Harsany (Harschan) near Mohács in 1686-1687, that the Islamic threat to the Christian Civilization came to a halt. These victories followed by the victories of General Dünewald and Count Leslie in the regions of Slavonia-Syrmia, secured the land west of the Danube . Max Emanuel of Bavaria took Belgrade on September 5th 1688 and the Imperial troops advanced deep into Serbia .


In 1697, prior to the battle of Zenta, Prince Eugene von Savoy was given the high command of the allied imperial troops. Following the battle, a 25-year piece treaty was signed in Karlowitz between the Republic of Venice , Emperor Leopold I and the Turks on January 26 1699 at 11:45PM, a time the Turks had selected because of the alignment of the stars. The peace treaty did not include the eastern part of Syrmia and the Banat .


The Turks left behind a devastated, barren, and scarcely populated countryside of low swampland along the Danube River . A report from a local clerk of Budapest gives us a good description of the conditions of the towns and urban areas, during the reign of the Turks. The year 1687 saw the Turks leaving the Batschka. During their retreat they plundered and destroyed almost all the existing communities in the region and took the inhabitants into slavery. During a site inspection in 1698 it was found that no less than 153 sites of former communities were completely destroyed and deserted. To put in perspective, statistics show that the total destruction of the area by the Turks left only 2 to 3 persons per square Kilometers living in the region at that time.


It was the Hungarian counts who recognized the need to resettle the vast lying rural areas of their land. The reasoning was quite clear there was no one to plow and till the land. The Hungarian Kingdom, which practically did not exist as we know it today during the occupation of the Turks and whose population was decimated by the Turkish occupation of the land, needed farmers. The landlords urged the Emperor, Leopold I, to allow the settlement of German farmers in Hungary . Therefore it must be understood that the settlement of the Germans in Hungary was not the result of an act of occupation by the German Nation, but by explicit invitation of the Hungarian landlords, in a peaceful way giving an extending hand to a neighbor in need. They also urged the Emperor to allow certain privileges and rights to the farmers to make settling in Hungary easier and attractive enough for them. Following these requests Cardinal Peter Kollonitsch was commissioned to oversee the details of the colonization plans. Upon his recommendations the first order to resettle the vast lands vacated by the Turks was released by the German Nation in 1689 with the Impopulationspatent. Despite this order it would take many years until the mass solicitation for settlers in many German regions was underway. In 1722-1723 at their congress in Pressburg (today’s Bratislava ), the Hungarian landlords set their position and demands, which they had requested, from the Emperor of the German Nation, into law.


The demise of the Donauschwaben began when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28 1914 this led to First World War on July 28 1914. This act of aggression by the Serbs is difficult to understand, since history has shown that Austria had been a friend of the Slavic people. For centuries they had giving them sanctuary and protection from the Turks, as well as, given them the opportunity to build new homes during the settlement periods after the Turkish war, in what is today’s Vojvodina (formally Batschka, the Yugoslavian Banat and Syrmia) and Slavonia.


After the cease fire agreement in November of 1918 Serbian troops marched into the regions of southern Hungary, namely the Batschka, Baranja, and western regions of the Banat to occupy them although they had no right to do so and were to respect the borders in existence prior to in 1914. At the peace treaty of Trianon on June 4, 1920, the occupied regions were sanctioned. On December 1st 1918 Alexander Karadjordjevic proclaimed the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, which was recognized on December 5th 1919 with the amendment of a “Minority Rights Agreement”.


However, Alexander had no intention to allow the minority to partake in the process of the legislation passed on June 28 1918, prompting President Wilson to state in his Address to the Nation on February 12 1918 that it violated the rights of the Hungarians, Germans and other minorities in that country. In a later proclamation by the now reigning King Alexander, he disowned the rich farmers and gave the land to the poor farmer, thus disowning many industrious Donauschwaben and Hungarian farmers, who had earned the right to the land through their hard labor and effort by purchasing it legally.


On February 27 1918, 216,644 families profited from this “Agrarian Reform” of the new state and were settled on that ground. None of them were Germans, although there were many deserving poor among the Donauschwaben. Many of the effected had to work for someone else or leave the country to find work. Many of them came to America .


After the peace treaties in Trianon, the territories of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, with its population of 54 million people, were dismantled, the territory truncated and the population with its land geographically separated by the allied nations. With this geographic separation of land, the settlement regions of the “Ungarländischen Deutschen”, with a population of 1.5 million people, now divided, leaving 650,000 people in the remaining territory Hungary, 350,000 in the annexed part of Romania, and 550,000 the newly formed nation of the Serbs, Croatians and Slovenians. This division also forced 3,000,000 Hungarians to live in foreign countries and gave the German region of the Hauerland and Zips to Czechoslovakia . This was done in the interest of peace, but not for the German population living in territories of the formally German- and Austria-Hungarian Monarchies. Several unrest followed in the new state prompted King Alexander to give the state of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, the name Yugoslavia , by royal proclamation.

The “Ungarländischen Deutschen” became subjects of Yugoslavia , Romania , and Hungary . As a minority in each country, they had to fight for their inherited rights and freedom but without success. As citizens of these countries they served their new countries loyally, including serving in their armed forces. The German citizen of these countries, now in minority and in unfriendly countries, became political footballs without the protection of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Their rights of self-determination and their struggle to maintain their language and culture, which had been a continuous effort throughout the centuries, were now drastically curtailed by these political decisions. Although the constitution of their countries had reserved them the rights to vote it was merely a myth, they actually had no voice to determine their own future.


The demise of the Donauschwaben continued when the National Socialist Party came to power in Germany in 1933. The emphasis of the “Third Reich” shifted although it still promoted culture and economic prosperity, but the emphasis shifted and became directed to politics and power.



 Here rest our Danube Swabian brothers and sisters, they shall always be in our hearts. 

With the dedication of this cross we shall honor and remember them always.

The Danube Swabians are descendants of the colonists,

 settled by the Habsburg Monarchy in the Hungarian lowland during the 18th Century. 

The camp in Gakowa was in operation from March 1945 until January of 1948.

  The Danube Swabians            Gakowa 2004  



    Gedenkstätte für die Hinterbliebenen des Todeslagers Gakowa. Wir können verzeihen jedoch nicht vergessen. Möge dieses Symbol des Glaubens und Friedens in unsere Herzen wohnen, denn nur von Innen kommt die Stärke unsere Schmerzen zu ertragen. Mögen diese Blumen ihre unschuldigen Seelen entzücken. Diese Blätter und Blumen sind vom Friedhof aus Gakowa.

    A monument for our beloved, left behind in the death camp of Gakovo. We can forgive, but cannot forget. May this symbol of faith and peace dwell in our hearts; only from the innermost of our hearts we will find the strength, to bear our pain. May these leaves and flowers delight their souls. These leaves and flowers originate from the cemetery of Gakowa


All Pictures Courtesy Hans Kopp


The Sunic Journal

Interview with Hans Kopp



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