Die vergessene Heimat / Forgotten Homeland

Sophia Nijnik (left) and friend wearing Trachten

Sophia Nijnik (left) and friend wearing Trachten

Where are you from? Where’s your home town? These are seemingly straightforward questions, but for some of us the answers can be a bit complex. Complete answers can be short history lessons in and of themselves. For instance, Greg was born in Munich, Germany. But he never really lived in Munich, and he’s not really German. His mother was living in a suburb of Linz, a city in Austria, when she met Greg’s dad, an American soldier stationed in Austria after the war. But Greg isn’t any more Austrian than he is German. Greg’s dad was born in West Virginia, but Greg only lived in West Virginia for part of a school year in 1956 and during some fondly-remembered summers with his grandparents in the 1960’s. For someone like Greg, oldest child of a career military man, quintessential Army brat, the question “where is home?” has no particular answer. We once determined that Greg had lived in 21 different places in the first 18 years of his life. So maybe, really, the question has too many answers or no answer at all.

One thread of Greg’s tangled personal history arises directly from his own mother’s narrative. Part of the answer to who he is and where’s he’s from emerges from her short childhood in Romania and subsequent experience as a refugee during WWII. It is a tale of war, expulsion, displacement, and resettlement— an oft-repeated story with deep roots in the long and convoluted past of Eastern Europe, the Diaspora of German-speaking peoples, and the domains of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Greg’s mother is part of a disparate and little-known group called, collectively, the “Donauschwaben” (in English “Danube Swabians”). They were colonists, pioneers if you will, who left their various homelands in Germany and Austria during the 18th and 19th centuries at the invitation of the Austrian crown to settle along the Danube in areas that today comprise Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, and other southeastern European countries.

These lands had been devastated by years of almost incessant warfare and were quite depopulated following the expulsion of the Ottoman Turks in the 18th century. As they floated down the Danube into the Pannonian Basin of the Danube River Valley, the Donauschwaben successfully turned swamps and woods into farmland. They rebuilt the war-ravaged landscape and constructed schools, churches, roads, and canals.  They established new homes, small islands of German-speaking culture in a turbulent sea of Bulgars, Serbs, Romanians, and Hungarians. In this the Donauschwaben were like other German-speaking populations of Eastern Europe such as the Transylvanian Saxons and the Carpathian Germans—although these others had arrived as early as the 12th and 13th centuries. During the ensuing two hundred years these hardy immigrants would hang on to their German language and customs, regardless of the movements of national boundaries and the vagaries of political jurisdiction.

But the lives of the Donauschwaben and other German-speaking groups of Romania and the Balkans were to change dramatically in the 20th century. The events of World War II and the turbulent postwar years, forced many of them to leave their long-time homes in southeastern Europe and scatter to the four corners of the world. They resettled all over, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, as well other areas in South America and South Africa. The story of Greg’s family related below is one small chapter in an epic volume involving millions.

Greg’s mother, although she was born in Giurgiu, Romania, a town situated along the banks of the Danube River, was a descendant of “Banater Schwaben,” a subgroup of the Danube Swabians who settled during the 18th century in Austria’s Banat province, now part of Romania.  Greg’s maternal grandfather, Joseph Paul Zerweiss, was born in 1890 in Nițchidorf, Reșița (in German “Nitzkydorf, Reschitz”). We know little more of his history than that his parents, Paul and Antonia (Weindörfer) Zerweiss were already living in Nițchidorf at the time of his birth and that he had a sister named Maria. Nițchidorf is a small town catapulted involuntarily into fame when Herta Müller, a Banat German born in Nițchidorf, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009 for her depiction of the lives of the German-speaking minorities in Romania.

Greg’s grandfather  (in German “Opa”) Joseph trained as a “Giesser-Meister” (a master metal worker) and moved from Reșița to work at the extensive “Danubiana” sugar factory works in Giurgiu. He was employed to build specialized machinery and craft the sugar molds used at the factory. A few pieces of bronze work that he created remain in the family: a mortar and pestle, a coffee mill, and a marvelous bronze lizard.

Opa settled in Giurgiu with Greg’s grandmother, Sophia Hedwig Nijnik , whom we called “Oma” Zerweiss.  Oma was born in 1894 in Chernivtsi (in German “Czernowitz”), once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire called Bukovina (Buchenland in German). In 1918 it became part of Romania, but today, as a result of WWII is within the Ukraine. She was a German speaker as well, part of the Carpathian German population of the region of Bukovina. Sophia was the daughter of Sabina Nijnik of whom we sadly know very little. Oma never knew her mother and was raised by a Romanian family. We are unsure how Oma and Opa met, but we know that before she was married, Oma had been employed by an official with the Imperial Ministry of Railroads, Dr. Stefan Bachnicki. Perhaps her work took her to Reșița, a renowned metalworking center associated with the railways and locomotive manufacture, where she then met her future husband. Oma was fluent in several languages including Ukrainian, Romanian, Yiddish, and, of course, German. Family legend had it she traveled on the train with Bachnicki to interpret, but this seems unlikely as Bachnicki was himself multilingual.

While living in Giurgiu, five children were born to Greg’s grandparents: Maria (known to the family as Mitzi), Hedwig, Anna, Roza (Greg’s mother), and Joseph. The Zerweiss family lived near the sugar factory in a nice company home with a large backyard.

Joseph and Sophia Zerweiss with daughters Mitzi and Hedwig ca. 1925

Joseph and Sophia Zerweiss with daughters Mitzi and Hedwig ca. 1925

Greg’s mom has many fond memories of these years.  The family lived next door to the Pontet family, owners of the sugar factory cantina where employees would gather to eat and drink. This family’s house, she remembers, had a long fenced-in backyard, and they owned horses and cows. Greg’s mom once told us that her father, obviously a man of many talents, had built a small Ferris wheel that was used during community celebrations to give rides to local children.

Greg’s mom has prepared for us delicious Romanian dishes recalled from her childhood, dishes like mămăligă (polenta) and salată de vinete (eggplant salad). She has also talked about the Romanian custom of preparing colivă, boiled wheat mixed with honey and walnuts that is used to celebrate the dead at funerals. She remembers the dish decorated with small candy silver pearls and being served on a silver platter. Greg remembers this dish from his childhood as well. She has shared with us charming Romanian customs that she remembers such as the custom of Sorcova. At the New Year children will take sticks or branches decorated with flowers of different colors and use them as a kind of “magic wand” to wave while half-chanting / half-singing  Sorcova verses that wish their parents and friends good luck and a long life.

Cheerful sorcova
May you live, may you get old,
Like an apple tree, like a pear tree,
Like a rose stalk,
Hard as iron, speedy as steel,
Hard as a rock, speedy as an arrow,
See you next year and A Happy New Year!

(Translated by Adina Dosan
@ http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/3521/#b)

Roza (Rosi) Zerweiss (left) and two friends in Giurgiu, Romania.

Roza (Rosi) Zerweiss (left) and two friends in Giurgiu, Romania.

While she was still a young girl in Romania, however, Greg’s mom lost her father. In 1937 Opa Zerweiss contracted blood poisoning as a result of his metal working occupation and passed away. Greg’s mother remembers her father’s body laid out in the front room of the family’s home. He was buried in the Smârda Cemetery not far from the sugar factory and within sight of the family’s company home. After Opa’s death Oma Zerweiss and her five children had to move into another much smaller company residence. Greg’s grandmother and, later, her oldest daughter Mitzi, found employment in the sugar factory offices to help make ends meet.

When World War II arrived, like many other Donauschwaben, the Zerweiss family would be uprooted. The lives of its members would be changed forever. Around the year 1941 Oma and her five children left Giurgiu and were sent to a resettlement camp in Gerlachsheim, Germany. Later that same year they were relocated to Linz, Austria and eventually ended up in a refugee camp located in the Hiller Barracks in Ebelsberg, a suburb of Linz. They were there for the remainder of the war and much of its immediate aftermath, until the early years of the 1950s.

It is likely that the family left as a result of the German foreign policy Heim ins Reich that convinced ethnic Germans to leave their homes in Central and Southern Europe. Under this policy the German government help arrange their transport and relocation. There were many motivations for this policy, including dreams of a “Greater Germany,” but one practical result, at least for Greg’s family, was that they avoided the effects of anti-German sentiment in Romania after the war, including the deportation of Romanian German speakers to Soviet gulags.

Once World War II ended, the operation of the refugee camp that the Zerweiss family lived in was taken over by the United States military. Greg’s dad, “Dick” Shreve, who had served in the US Army in Germany during World War II, was assigned administrative duties in Linz. As Greg’s mom recalls it, they met in the PX (Post Exchange) through a mutual friend. Dick soon befriended the whole family and was to gain three sisters in law, a brother-in-law, and a good friend and fishing buddy, Hedwig’s husband Rudolph (“Rudy”) Domanski, another Bukovina German. Greg’s parents were finally married in Linz in 1948; in 1950 Greg was born. In the years after Greg’s parents were married, all of the Zerweiss family members emigrated to the United States except Mitzi, who had married a German army officer during the war and stayed in Europe, passing away in 1952.

Although they had been relocated to Austria, Austria was not really the Zerweiss home. This quintessential Donauschwaben family and its ancestors had lived in what is today Romania for possibly over two hundred years. They and their ancestors had been born, gone to school, fallen in love, gotten married, become fathers and mothers, and died in a homeland that has now all but vanished. As its inhabitants were resettled or forcibly expelled, a cherished homeland becomes more and more only a place in a shrinking collective memory. As the Donauschwaben and their descendants age and pass away, so, too, will the memory of their forgotten homeland—die vergessene Heimat.

Since 1942 no member of the Zerweiss family, or their descendants, has set foot in Romania: a forgotten homeland indeed. At least that was true until September of 2014, when Joan and Greg finally “went home” to meet with Greg’s past and his mother’s heritage in Giurgiu. But that’s another story. And that’s another answer to the question, “where are you from?” And that’s another blog.


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