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Journey to Johannisfeld: And So We Meet

By Sue Clarkson

© copyright 1995 by Frank Schmidt of Heimat Publishers; all rights reserved

In the courtyard of his home in Ulmbach, Romania, old Herr Beierle told me that his ancestors came from Alsace, near the Black Forest, and he recited this verse about the early German settlers in Hungary: 

"Die Ersten fanden den Tod,
Die Zweiten litten Not,
Erst die Dritten hatten Brot!"

I knew that my grandmother's ancestors, the Bayerles, had also come from this region, and from my genealogical research, I was certain of my common ancestry with the old man, both of us stemming from the Bayerle family of Johannisfeld. From reading about the German settlers, now called the Danube Swabians, I was familiar with the verse and its story of the hardships endured by the three waves of German immigrants who settled the villages of Southern Hungary:

"The first met with death,
The second suffered from want,
Only the third had bread!

Hearing this man recite the verse was one of countless times I was able to experience first-hand the vestiges of Swabian culture which linger in Romania despite the massive emigration of German-Romanians to other countries. I had traveled to Romania in the hope of discovering the culture of my ancestors - and was richly rewarded. Not only was I able to see the German village where my grandparents were born; but I was also able to meet relatives from my grandmother's family; and to witness the present-day resettlement of the German villages by Moldavians being transferred there by the Romanian government.

Until 1987, I had never heard of the ethnic group called Danube Swabians. It was only a short time before that when I learned that the village of Johannisfeld was located in the country of Romania. Like many American immigrants, my grandparents were eager to assimilate, and they didn't talk much of the "old country." When my uncle, Peter Quitter, died in 1986, we found my grandparents' baptismal certificates among his papers, with Romanian certifying stamps in the left corner. In the library at Central Michigan University, I was able to find Johannisfeld on an atlas-map of Romania. I was also able to find several books about the history of Romania, many of which had a chapter on "the minorities" where I found brief reference to the German settlements located in a region called the Banat.

I had often discussed my interest with several family members. The discovery of the Danube Swabians came when my aunt, Blanche Quitter, gave me a copy of the Donauschwaben Kalender printed in West Germany, which she had obtained from a friend born in Romania. Although I could not read German, I found the address of the Danube Swabian Society of the USA in the back of the book and wrote to the President. The group's bibliographer, Eve Eckert Koehler, introduced me to the English-language literature on the subject, and to sources of genealogical information, which enabled me to research my family history.

I arrived in Temeschburg (Timisoara) in October, 1988. The following day I hired a guide to take me to the village of Johannisfeld, which is where my grandparents were born. The guide spoke English, Romanian, standard German, and the dialectical German spoken in the villages. With his assistance, I was able to communicate with relatives in Johannisfeld and Ulmbach, and to explore the old city center of Temeschburg.

The contrast between the city and the villages was quite remarkable. Temeschburg is a modern, industrial city of 200,000 people. Its sidewalks are busy with people going about their business, and the streets are congested with autos, trucks, busses and street-cars. The older section of the city still has Viennese-style baroque architecture; but the new sections have tall, concrete high-rise apartment buildings, complete with television antennas, which would look at home in many American cities. The villages, on the other hand, are quiet places where the people still live in the traditional manner. Although all houses have electricity, the lack of indoor plumbing requires that water be carried from shafts on the street; and outhouses are still in use. My rental car was the only auto I saw in Johannisfeld. While it is common to see diesel-powered tractors in the farm fields, it is just as common to see horse-drawn carts carrying farm workers and their produce.

Johannisfeld is a small village with only two main streets and a few side streets. When we arrived there, I decided to go to the post office, thinking that the postmaster would probably know all of the names of the villagers. The postmaster was a woman about thirty-five years old. First, I asked her about the Quitter family. She replied that they were all dead, that the last one had died when she was still a child. She had never heard of the Muth family, so apparently they have not lived in the village for quite a long time. She told me that the Achs and Pold families had moved to Germany. When I asked about the Bayerle family, she told me that only "the old man" was left, and that he lived in Ulmbach.

On her lunch-hour, she took me to meet her mother-in-law. The elder Mrs. Tisch was delighted to have visitors, and quickly set about serving us delicious coffee and cookies which she had received in a gift package from relatives in Germany. I asked her some questions about families from Johannisfeld, but she really didn't know much about them. Suddenly, she hurried off into another room, and came back with a booklet, which she later gave me to keep. It was a copy of the 100-year history book of Johannisfeld, and from this booklet I learned that my ancestors from the Quitter, Muth, and Achs families were among the German settlers who founded the village in 1806. The book gives an outline of the history of the village, and, in the final pages, a listing of property owners in the jubilee year of 1906. I found the name of my grandfather, Peter Quitter, on the list, and alongside his name, an added notation that he had left the village for America!

These were among my discoveries when I visited my grandparents' village in the fall of 1988. In Romania, I learned how important it is to record the history of my Danube Swabian ancestors, because the culture is now in descendance. Due to the many waves of migration in the twentieth century, the German influence in the Banat is vanishing. In 1988, Father Schuh, the priest at the Catholic church in Johannisfeld had been there for thirty-three years. He said that when he first arrived there were over 2,000 Germans in the parish; in 1988 only 140 remained. Those who stayed behind are generally the older generations, the young people having left to seek a better life elsewhere, primarily in West Germany. By 1991, after the revolution which began in Timisoara and fall of Ceaucescu, only 34 Germans were left in Johannisfeld. While it is natural for the passage of time to bring change, it is sad to see a culture come to an end.

And So We Meet ...
copyright 1996, Frank Schmidt, Heimat Publishers, all rights reserved

What do you say to your fellow Donauschwaben when you meet for the first time? Why, "Gruess Gott," of course! That is how I was greeted by relatives and strangers alike when I traveled to Germany in the spring of 1990. I went there to research my family history, and to meet relatives with whom I had been corresponding, but never met. I trace my roots to a German village in the Banat: the Quitter and Beierle families from Johannisfeld. Early in this century, my grandparents emigrated to America to seek a better life, which they eventually found.

The relatives they left behind did not fare as well. After World War I, the Hapsburg empire collapsed and my relatives found themselves to be citizens of Romania rather than Hungary. After World War II, the villages of the Banat were devastated by the cruel acts of communist rulers who gained control of the region. Because of the turmoil after World War II and the deaths of my grandparents, no contact with my European relatives had taken place since early in the 1950's. I had no idea where my relatives were.

When I started doing genealogical research a few years earlier, I learned that the Donauschwaben have their own genealogical society, the Arbeitskreis donauschwaebischer Familienforscher (AkdFf). I began writing letters to people in the United States and Germany who were active in the society. One thing led to another, and I soon found myself completely intrigued with learning more about my family history. I traveled to Johannisfeld in 1988, and with the help of a translator, was able to make contact with some family members there. From these relatives, I was also able to find others who had gone to Germany, and I began corresponding with them. In the spring of 1990, I decided to visit these relatives, and do some sight-seeing in Germany and Switzerland.

I flew non-stop from Chicago to Zurich and the following day, rented a car and drove to Sindlefingen, Germany. The next day, May 1, was Labor Day and May Day, a national holiday in Germany, so there were bands playing in the "Marktplatz" all day, and a May Pole was raised in the square. Food and beer were sold from booths surrounding the square, andthe atmosphere was very festive.

The next day, I went to the Haus der Donauschwaben, the museum, historical archive and genealogical library dedicated to preserving the cultural history of the Danube Swabians. As I walked up the steps, an elderly couple greeted me by saying, Gruess Gott!," a phrase I recognized as traditional Donauschwaben greeting. I made me feel good to greeted so warmly by someone I had never seen before. 

I walked through the museum, beginning with a room that was filled with large maps and pictures that had captions relating the history of the Danube Swabians in Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania. Another room was furnished to look like a typical parlor in Banat village house. Another held glass showcases filled with mannequins dressed in "Trachten" from various villages. Later, Herr Josef Eder took me into the library and helped me do some research. Herr Eder spoke virtually no English, and at that time I knew only a few "useful traveler's phrases" in German, but somehow we managed to communicate!

The following day, I drove to Karlsruhe. Soon after arriving, I telephoned by cousin, Hermine and spent the evening with her and her husband, Diethard. Hermine was born in Tschakowa and Diethard in Grabatz. They met while studying at the University in Temeschburg (Timisoara). Diethard left Romania for Germany in 1984. His parents also live in Karlsruhe, and his father is president of the Donauschwaben club there. Hermine joined Diethard after their marriage in 1986. They showed me videotapes of their wedding in Tschakowa and of a "Trachtenfest" in Timisoara. Communication was no problem at all, because Diethard has learned quite a bit of English from watching American television programs and listening to American rock music.

The next day, I took a day trip to Gundelfingen, a small city in the Black Forest regions near Freiburg im Breisgau. I went to visit my cousin Franz, and his wife, Helene, both teachers, although Franz is now retired. He is president of the Donauschwaben club in Freiburg. Franz was born in Temeschburg and Helene was also born in the Banat. They left Romania in 1973. Communication was a little more difficult, because Franz had picked up only a little English from American soldiers when he was a prisoner of war during World War II. Helene's mother was born in Johannisfeld, and I showed her the book I had been given, a centennial history of the village that had been written in 1906. I showed her where my grandfather's name was listed as having gone to America, and she showed me her grandfather's name, he was one of the authors of the book!

I spent the following day back in Karlsruhe with Hermine and Diethard walking through the Zoo, then to their apartment for lunch, then to Karlsruhe's most well-known edifice, the Schloss of Markgraf Karl-Wilhelm, which was rebuilt after being damaged in World War II. We only saw the Schloss from the outside, because we were so busy talking that the interior was closed by the time we got around to thinking about going in!

The next day, we drove to Wiesenbach, near Heidelberg to visit Hans, Hermine's uncle, and, of course, my cousin! Hans was born in Ivanda and his wife, Erika, was born in Johannisfeld. Their two children, Lolita and Guenther, were born in Temeschburg. Hans left Romania in 1979 to take Lolita to Germany for a heart operation. Something went wrong during surgery, and Lolita's legs were paralyzed. Hearing of this, Erika left Guenther with relatives and crossed the border illegally, hidden in hay wagon with three men who were also leaving Romania without travel passes. 

They were caught in Jugoslavia, and sent to jail there for two weeks. During that time, they were not allowed to notify anyone, and no one in the family knew if Erika was dead or alive! Finally, they were released to the Austrian embassy, and Erika made her way to Germany. Later, they got Guenther out of Romania, and settled in Wiesenbach, where Hans is a teacher in a Realschule. I visited with the family in their home, the we drove to Heidelberg to see the remains of a famous old castle on the Neckar River. Once again, we talked so much that by the time we thought about taking a tour inside the castle, it was closed!

After Karlsruhe, I drove to Homburg, in the Saarland to visit Helmut, who is not a relative, but a genealogist who helped with my research. Helmut fled from Lazarfeld, Yugoslavia in 1944, following behind German soldiers as they retreated from the advance of Josip Tito's Partisan forces. Helmut spoke no English, but he and I both speak French, so we communicated quite well. He drove me to an archive at the university in Saarbruecken and showed me documents about the Reeb family of Hangard, Germany, where some ancestors lived before going to Hungary. 

The village of Hangard was close by, so we decided to go there to see if anyone from the Reeb family still lived there. Hangard is a very small village and the residents were not accustomed to seeing outsiders, so when we stopped a woman on the street to ask some questions, people came out of their houses to stare at us! When we asked if she knew anyone named Reeb, she directed us to a house up the street, the home of a man who said was "a farmer who drinks too much.!" We didn't ask him if he drank too much, but he told us he had a brother in the village, but they didn't speak to each other. We found the brother at home, and both men were astonished to know that they had American relatives. Because of Helmut's research, he knew more about the family history than they did, even though they lived in the original village of their ancestors.

Next I drove to Ingelheim am Rhein, a small city in Rheinland-Pfalz. There I visited Anton, another genealogist who has been very helpful to me. Anton spoke a little English, also learned when he was a prisoner of War. He was born in Ulmbach, and his wife, Eva, in Periamosch, and emigrated to Germany right after the war. Anton took us on an afternoon tour of the region, starting with the remains of an ancient wall which once surrounded Charlemagne's castle in Ingelheim. We crossed the Rhein on a car ferry and visited Ruedesheim am Rhein, where we saw the statute called Germania, a tribute to the defeat of France and the unification of Germany in 1871.

We continued driving along the Rhein, and saw many of the castles that appear so frequently in tourist photos of Germany. We saw the place of the Lorely, where a golden-haired maiden's captivating song is said to have distracted sailors so that their ships would sink after crashing into the dangerous rocks nearby. Men going up the river today will not hear an enchanting song, but they might be distracted by the bronze statue of a maiden with enormous breasts that now sits on a tiny island in the middle of the Rhein!

I left Ingelheim and drove south along the Rhein and through the Black Forest to Basel, Switzerland. From there, I drove east through the low Alps, often literally through the mountains via an Alpine tunnel, on the way back to Zurich.

My trip was rewarding in many ways. Since I spent most of the time with relatives, and took most of my meals with them, I had the opportunity to see their homes, and see how people really lived. I learned a lot from my relatives about their experiences in leaving their homeland and resettling in Germany. With the exception of Hermine and her uncles, Hans, none of the people I visited knew each other, but I was struck by the similarities among them. I was amused to see that each of them had a file folder where they kept all the letters I had sent them. Such German orderliness! (But then, I had a file folder for each of them, so what am I talking about?) 

All had gardens and grew the same fruit-bearing plants that grow in the German villages of their old homeland, where each house had a kitchen garden. I had taken photos of my family along, and each time I showed them, I was asked the same thing, "Are all of your brothers and sisters still living?" All of them had lost family members due to the war, the camps after the war, or poor health conditions in communist Romania. Oh, what we take for granted!

I definitely will go back to Germany, as more relatives from Romania have moved there since 1990. After I returned from my trip, I received a surprise telephone call from Germany. It was another "lost" relative from Johannisfeld, my mother's first cousin, who had been wondering about her American cousins ever since the family stopped receiving letters from my grandmother back in the 1950's. The letters stopped coming because that is when my grandmother died, but now they will start anew. So, after many years of silence, our families have met again!