the littlest whitmaniac



Annike Karbiener Pfeiffer

Born on Thanksgiving Day (November 25, 2010)

our little butterball weighed in at seven lbs. five oz.

and she’s simply delicious.

We’re in a state of bliss—

please spread the love!

With warmest thanks for friends and loved ones old and new,

Karen and Douglas


12 2010

Seventh Annual Marathon Reading of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (South Street Seaport, NYC, September 26, 2010)!!!

This year’s annual marathon reading (our SEVENTH!) of Walt Whitman’s great American epic “Song of Myself” was moved from the drizzly deck of the barque Peking to the warm interior of New York’s nineteenth-century ‘world trade center.’  Taking the ferry from his hometown Brooklyn to work (or play) across the East River, Walt passed right by this building on his walk up Fulton Street and into the heart of the city… but he stopped and communed with us this afternoon, under the eaves of historic Schermerhorn Row.  Heartfelt thanks to all participants, for making the poem feel both personally relevant and universally significant– and for helping keep poetry alive and well in Whitman’s beloved Mannahatta!  Won’t you join in the chorus next year?

— a special thanks to Matt Gold, the great Whitmanic facilitator, who helped set up this slideshow and brought his whole family down to the event (even Felix!).


10 2010

Walt Whitman, Sensei

On October 11, 2010, an enthusiastic crowd settled into seats on Walt Whitman’s lawn. They had assembled to take part in the unveiling and dedication of a monumental sculpture of the poet. As envisioned by sculptor John Giannotti, Walt is in his later years– though still hale, hearty, and looking up at the delicate butterfly poised on his finger. The bronze is a gift to the Whitman Birthplace from Daisaku Ikeda, a Buddhist philosopher, world poet laureate, educator, and founder of Soka Gakkai International. Fifty years ago, Ikeda began his travels for peace by coming to New York; today, he commemorated that great beginning by bringing Walt back to his New York homestead.

Walt does indeed look at home in his old front yard, squinting up from under his broad-brimmed hat in the warm autumn sun. It is the only full-body statue of Walt at the Birthplace, and a thoughtful and generous gift on the part of Ikeda and SGI. I hope you’ll come visit Walt at his home, where you can now bask in the presence of the good gray poet in so many ways! Meanwhile, please enjoy the photos of the grand occasion, as well as the congratulatory remarks I delivered that day.

For more information on visiting the Walt Whitman Birthplace, please visit our virtual site first:

    The unveiling of John Giannotti's Whitman bronze at the Whitman Birthplace, West Hills, NY.The unveiling of John Giannotti’s monumental bronze at the Whitman Birthplace, West Hills, NY.

"Starting from fish-shape Paumanok, where I was born": Walt comes home at last!“Starting from fish-shape Paumanok, where I was born”: Walt comes home at last!

SGI members and friends gather to celebrate this historic event.SGI members and friends gather to celebrate this historic event.                                                 "...the future only holds thee, and can hold thee..."

"...the future only holds thee, and can hold thee..."

There was a child went forth every day,

And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or pity or love

or dread, that object he became,

And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day . . . . or

for many years or stretching cycles of years.

(From “There Was a Child Went Forth”, Leaves of Grass 1855)

On May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman was born in this farmhouse built by his father only a few years earlier.  Walt was the second of eight children, the son of a farmer who would soon leave his family legacy to pursue his interest in carpentry in burgeoning Brooklyn.

Walt Whitman spent his first four years at this house, which he held dear in his memory.  His last visit was in 1881— only 11 years before his death, and exactly 100 years before Daisaku Ikeda made his own pilgrimage to this spot.  Whitman describes his impressions of his West Hills birthplace in an opening passage to his autobiographical prose work, Specimen Days:

July 29, 1881.—AFTER more than forty years’ absence, (except a brief visit, to take my father there once more, two years before he died,) went down Long Island on a week’s jaunt to the place where I was born, thirty miles from New York city. Rode around the old familiar spots, viewing and pondering and dwelling long upon them, everything coming back to me. Went to the old Whitman homestead on the upland and took a view eastward, inclining south, over the broad and beautiful farm lands of my grandfather (1780,) and my father. There was the new house (1810,) the big oak a hundred and fifty or two hundred years old; there the well, the sloping kitchen-garden, and a little way off even the well-kept remains of the dwelling of my great-grandfather (1750–’60) still standing, with its mighty timbers and low ceilings. Near by, a stately grove of tall, vigorous black-walnuts, beautiful, Apollo-like, the sons or grandsons, no doubt, of black-walnuts during or before 1776. On the other side of the road spread the famous apple orchard, over twenty acres, the trees planted by hands long mouldering in the grave (my uncle Jesse’s,) but quite many of them evidently capable of throwing out their annual blossoms and fruit yet.

Looking around these grounds, Whitman concluded that his “whole family history, with its succession of links, from the first settlement down to date, told here—three centuries” concentrated in this particular spot.

Now, over a century after his death in 1892, Whitman has come home to West Hills once again.

The person who we may thank for this much-anticipated homecoming is, like Whitman, someone who seems very close and very far away at the same time.  Daisaku Ikeda lives in Tokyo, though he has traveled the world extensively for the last 50 years.  He, like the poet he admires, was one of eight children born to a common farmer.  Like Walt, he fought for peace even while battling poverty and ill health.  Fifty years ago, in 1960, Ikeda succeeded his mentor Josei Toda as president of the Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist society.  And in 1975, Ikeda became the first president of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), now a global network linking over 12 million members in about 190 countries and territories.

The central tenet of Ikeda’s philosophy is the fundamental sanctity of life.  For Ikeda and his fellow Buddhist thinkers and practitioners, the recognition of this basic principle is the key to global peace and true happiness.  Lasting peace will not be brought about by law or society, but relies instead on the self-motivated transformation of the individual.  A passage from Ikeda’s best-known work, The Human Revolution, summarizes this idea: “A great inner revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation and, further, will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.”

We gather today, then, to honor two individuals who exemplify such inner revolutions.  And the butterfly sitting so gently on Walt’s finger reminds us of the possibility of such magnificent transformations in all of us.  Though the process by which change happens may seem difficult or inscrutable, any one can become a beautiful force for good.  As such metamorphoses occur naturally, so can they happen within you.

Whitman first used the symbol of the butterfly in the imagery for his third edition of Leaves of Grass.  On the spine of the book and throughout its pages, he printed an image of a butterfly alight on a hand with index finger pointing in a variety of directions, though always to the right.  What was the meaning of this symbol, which Walt used again in a famous photo of himself, and again in the frontispiece to the seventh edition of the Leaves?

In Greek, ‘psyche’ is the word for both butterfly and soul, and the belief was that butterflies were human souls searching for a new reincarnation.  Celts believed that women became pregnant by swallowing butterfly-souls.  According to Native American legend, if you whisper your desire to a captive butterfly and then release it, it will carry your wish to the Great Spirit.  Some cultures believe that a butterfly landing on you is good luck, or that releasing butterflies is a way to celebrate a great event.

In 1972, the meteorologist and mathematician Dr. Edward Norton Lorenz delivered a paper entitled “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?”  The idea that small changes can cause big changes, that everything is part of everything else— is the basis for Lorenz’s “Butterfly Effect.”  Though the development of this theory postdates Whitman’s time, Walt may have been acquainted with (or perhaps simply had an instinctive understanding of) a related Buddhist idea, “Dependent Origination.”  Whitman teaches this principle throughout Leaves of Grass, as Daisaku Ikeda also shares his philosophy through poetry.  Either of them, perhaps, might have written these lines:

All truths wait in all things,

They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it,

They do not need the obstetric forceps of the surgeon,

The insignificant is as big to me as any,

What is less or more than a touch?

(From “Song of Myself”, Leaves of Grass 1855)

Can a butterfly flapping its wings in West Hills set off dramatic changes around the world?  Walt Whitman and Daisaku Ikeda both believe so, and this magnificent statue will now embody that possibility of personal and universal transformation, for us and for the generations to follow Walt’s footsteps back home.


10 2010

Why Poetry Matters: Connecting Serbian and American Lives Through Literature

Bojana Acamovic, Elma Porobic, and Karen Karbiener in front of the site of International Whitman Week 2010 (Universite de Macerata, Italia)

Bojana Acamovic, Elma Porobic, and Karen Karbiener in front of the site of International Whitman Week 2010 (Universite de Macerata, Italia)

As a Fulbright scholar in Serbia in the fall of 2009, I was afforded the opportunity to work simultaneously on the two topics closest to my heart: my family history in the ex-Yugoslavia, and the global significance of a poet from my very own New York.  As disparate as these pursuits may seem, these passions both led to life-changing, bridge-building adventures during my four months in this beautiful and complicated land.

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09 2010

You’re heartily invited to the Seventh Annual “Song of Myself” Marathon, Sunday September 26 2010!

Dearest friends and Whitman lovers,

I’m hoping to see and hear you at the annual marathon reading of “Song of Myself” on Sunday, September 26!  It’ll be the seventh time we declare Whitman’s all-embracing lines from the deck of the barque Peking and over the East River, sailing them from Mannahattta to his beloved Brooklyn.

You don’t have to read to participate– but if you’d like to, please email or call Christine Modica with your top three sections (using the 1891-1892 edition’s breakdown).  She’ll assign the sections on a first come, first serve basis.

The reading will begin at 3:00 aboard the tall ship Peking, located on Pier 16 at the South Street Seaport.  If you do decide to participate, please arrive no later than 2:30. Check in will be located on Pier 16 near the forward gangway of Peking.  If you need to arrive later, please let Christine know when to expect you.  All readers will be admitted to the event for free, as will Seaport Museum members. Guest admission to the event is $5.

Christine’s email:
and phone: 212-748-8738

Here’s a photo slideshow of last year’s buoyant reading:

Looking forward to celebrating Whitman’s spirit with you!


–If you would understand me go to the heights or water-shore,
The nearest gnat is an explanation, and a drop or motion of waves key,
The maul, the oar, the hand-saw, second my words.


09 2010

Walt in the Balkans: the Novi Sad cinepoems

In the fall of 2009, I taught a graduate seminar entitled “Walt Whitman: The Global Perspective”, as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia. Though the University of Novi Sad had not offered a graduate seminar in poetry—much less Walt Whitman— since anyone could remember, despite the generally felt “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on sexuality and skepticism regarding American propagandistic voices (like our dear Walt’s), I was granted approval to offer a course focusing on the radical, revolutionary poetics of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.  Serbia is just emerging from decades of corrupt dictatorship, violence, and insularity, and proved to be an exciting testing-ground for my personal theories regarding ‘the measure of his song.’ And my small but fierce band of Whitmaniacs did not disappoint me: they participated fully and wholeheartedly, reading avidly in the new “Whitman Collection” I donated to their library (with the help of many generous individuals and corporations, including Barnes & Noble, the Library of America, Recorded Books, the University of Iowa Press and my own NYU), fearlessly discussing Whitman’s boundary-breaking poems and surprising themselves with how gracefully they too could break down long-standing walls. For their final project, I required them to select a “Calamus” poem for close study and translation into Serbian.  As an illustration of how they responded, consider that three of the six chose “Calamus 9”, a subtle and daring self-analysis by any country’s standards, and one of the poems not yet translated into Serbian.

My participation in the NEH-funded “Looking for Whitman” project enabled me to introduce my Serbian students to Whitman as a poet of global reputation and application, and also connected them to other students in Whitman seminars across the US.  Grant funds provided for the introduction of new technologies in our classroom, ensuring that each student would have access to a Flipcam as well as a specially trained assistant (our own beloved Dragan Babic, a senior at the University of Novi Sad).  As a way of encouraging their use of these resources as well as their creativity, I asked each student to design a “cinepoem” that would both verbally and visually represent the translation he or she had composed as part of their final project.  Though all of them worked through frequent internet outages, some were subject to the availability of public computers, and none of them had ever seen a Flipcam before, they each mastered the technology and produced surprisingly professional—and moving—short films.  All of their efforts are viewable on our “Video Map” at

Each of these videos is quite different in style and tone, though they all seem to combine the makers’ deep-rooted love of their country with their new passion for Whitman.  Neda found new freedom of expression in the video mode, as her provocative (even sexy) interpretation of “Calamus 11” demonstrates.  Josip kept the imagery simple and straightforward, preferring to let his translation of “Calamus 6” speak for itself.  Sanja’s visual interpretation of “Calamus 9” invites contemplation, while  Bojana’s setting of the same poem is a Whitmanic celebration of Belgrade, her beloved hometown.  Indira’s translation of “Calamus 22” is recited by a wonderful collective of Serbs young and old (including her toothless grandfather), creating a video montage of overwhelming emotional impact.  And Elma, a resident of beautiful war-torn Sarajevo who commuted seven hours to our class each week, offered a powerful raison d’etre for poetry: it keeps us burning.  Images of Sarajevo’s “eternal flame” segue to Elma’s candlelit reading of “Calamus 9.”

Can poetry matter?  As part of their final project, I asked my students to respond to Dana Gioia’s controversial 1992 essay.  Each of the recent poetry converts gave a well-reasoned and enthusiastic affirmative response, and I found myself happily nodding along with them.  Poetry really does matter, as I witnessed firsthand bringing Walt Whitman to Serbia.  He sounds as true, beautiful, and useful in the Balkans as he does on my own Brooklyn Bridge.  Walt, wherever you are, it must do your heart good to know that we’re all still listening, still learning.

You, where you are!
You daughter or son of England!
You of the mighty Slavic tribes and empires! You Russ in Russia!…
All you continents of Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, indifferent of place!
All you on the numberless islands of the archipelagoes of the sea!
And you of centuries hence, when you listen to me!
And you, each and everywhere, whom I specify not, but include just the same!
Health to you!  Good will to you all—from me and America sent,
For we acknowledge you all and each.

(from “Salut Au Monde!”, 1860)


04 2010

Boduci Pesnići!: Translating the Untranslatable Barbaric Yawp with Dragan Purešić

Though the poet Walt Whitman never learned to speak or write in anything besides English, he loved the sounds of other languages.  He announces himself no ‘dainty dolce affettuoso’; his ‘vivas’ are blown through his ’embouchures’ from ‘Paumanok’ to ‘Mannahatta.’  Though he claims that the United States have veins “full of poetical stuff,” he gave a French titles to one of his most important clusters of the third edition (“Enfans d’Adam”).  Whitman encouraged his readers to think globally by integrating what must have been exotic foreign phrases in nineteenth-century America, from ‘tabounschiks’ to ‘teokalllises.’

Hey Walt! –did you ever consider how fluid and strong and beautiful all of these words would sound… in Serbian?

Sati protiču dugi, mučni i teški,

Sati u suton, kada se povlačim na neko osamljeno i

Pusto mjesto, sjedam, naslanjajući lice na ruke…

That is Elma Porobic’s stunning translation of the first lines of Calamus 9.  Those of you who can read Serbian will not just note her sensitive treatment of Whitman’s language, but her ear for his music.  Elma is one of my six students in “Walt Whitman: The Global Perspective”, and one of three that have chosen to absorb, translate, and interpret Calamus 9 as her final project.  Sanja Stanimirovic offers a different perspective on Whitman’s emotional opening:

Sati teku dugi, bolni i tegobni,

Sati u sumrak, kada se povlačim na neko samotno mesto, retko pohođeno, sedam i zarivam

lice u šake…

And then we have Bojana Acamovic’s nuanced reading:

Sati teku dugi, bolni, nesrećni,

Sati sutona, kada se povlačim na usamljeno i pusto mesto, kada sedam, spuštam lice u šake…

Indira Janic brings another level of meaning to Calamus 22 (later “To a Stranger”) by interpreting him using the Cyrillic alphabet:

Странче у пролазу! Ти не знаш колико те чежљиво гледам…

Neda Kosoric has diligently labored to resolve interesting questions regarding the use of gender in Serbian, in her translation of Calamus 11:

…i njegova ruka lagano prebacena preko mojih grudi,

i te noci ja bio sam srecan.

And Josip brings passion and intensity to Calamus 6 as he continues to try to wrestle down a Serbian word for a distinctively Whitmanic term:

Ne s bilo kim niti sa svima, O adhesiveness! O bȉlo mog života!

Potrebno mi je da postojiš i prikazuješ se, više no u ovim pesmama.

Dragan Purešić,, Karen, Indra, Sanja, Neda, Bojana, and Elma: united we Whitmaniacs stand!

Dragan Purešić,, Karen, Indra, Sanja, Neda, Bojana, and Elma: united we Whitmaniacs stand!

On Saturday 12 December, we were honored to welcome the esteemed translator Dragan Purešić to our classroom at the University of Novi Sad.  In addition to his crucial contributions to the success of the Serbian Book Market Project (see for more info), Dragan has published noteworthy translations of the works of William Blake (Belgrade: Plato, 2007) as well as Walt Whitman (Belgrade: Plato, 2008).  He presented us with a memorable lecture on the art of translation, describing some of the challenges he faced when interpreting Whitman’s words for the Serbian people.  “The poem is an artistic entity,” he reminded us.  “The translator is both an artist and an artisan.”  Quoting freely and fluidly from works as wide-ranging as Lessing’s “Laocoon” and “The Godfather Part III”, he charged us with the significance and the perils of our task at hand.  And he inspired us.  “Blessed be the messengers,” he said.  Whitman sounds really good, really true and beautiful, in Serbian.

Ringed round by Dragans: Whitman's women (don't forget Indira, behind the lens!)

Ringed round by Dragans: Whitman's women (don't forget Indira, behind the lens!)

Ringed round by Dragans: Whitman’s women (don’t forget Indira, behind the lens!)

Dragan then led a translation workshop (which was further enhanced by the contribution of Novi Sad faculty members Vladislava Gordic Petkovic, Ivana Djuric, and Aleksandra Izgarjan).  We pored over Whitman’s language: what’s the connotative difference between being “content” and “happy”, as we see these terms used in Calamus 9 and 11?  What is behind the unusual statement “I am to wait” at the end of Calamus 22, and how can one achieve that feeling in Serbian?  And when Whitman asks, “I wonder if other men ever have the like” (Calamus 9), does the use of  the idea of  ‘mankind’ deny the poem’s true meaning or enhance its applicability?  Dragan offered suggestions and asked thoughtful questions of all of us; all of us responded and questioned our own understandings of Whitman’s words and intentions.

We strolled out of Classroom 37 three hours later, with full hearts and minds.  You see, Dragan knows Walt Whitman.   He ‘gets’ the poet in a fluid and intuitive way, in addition to possessing a finessed scholarly knowledge of  Whitman’s life and work.  And Dragan communicated his love and understanding for Whitman to us with honesty and passion, encouraging and helping shape our responses to these elusive Calamus poems.

In a few weeks, you will be able to listen to my students’ final versions of their Calamus translations on our “video map” (just go to “Video Map” on top of our class website–– and swing the pointer a bit east of Walt’s usual stomping-grounds).  You, too, will be able to enjoy the benefits of Dragan’s sensitive tutelage– as channeled by this outstanding, unforgettable collective of new Serbian Whitmaniacs.

Hvala, Dragan! Vidimo se, Josip, Indira, Elma, Bojana, Sanja, Neda and faithful right-hand man Dragan!

…I ostavlja vama da dokazujete i određujete,

I glavne stvari očekuje od vas.

(the rousing challenge of “Poets to Come”, as delivered by Walt Whitman and Dragan Purešić)


12 2009

Thanksgiving in Serbia: in loving memory of Philipp Karbiener, 1 March 1935 (Sekitsch, Yugoslavia) – 22 November 2002 (Glen Cove, NY, USA)


One of our family's treasures is this rare photo of my father and Inge, taken before the onset of Tito's expulsion campaigns in 1944.

21 November 2009.

All day long I walked around thinking that this was the anniversary of Daddy’s death.  I lit a candle for him in the Serbian Orthodox Church in Zrenanin, and told Aleksandra’s mother (who had made some vanille krenzen for a lavish St. Michael’s Day feast I was treated to today) that these were my father’s favorite cookies, that he would be pleased to see (even more to eat) them.  I just called my friend Jackie Gardy to tell her no, I wouldn’t be able to come to the Novi Sad Jazz Festival tonight, that I wasn’t up to it.  You see, seven years ago, I lost my beloved dad.  His end was sudden and quick, the result of a brain anheurism and, undoubtedly, more than a lifetime of trauma and hard work.  In 2002, November 22 became the most difficult day imaginable.  And every year on this date, I allow myself to be engulfed by floods of memories and emotions.  November 22 marks my counter-celebration of self-pity and grief.

Well, November 22 is tomorrow.

I only realized that when I looked at my calendar a moment ago.  Today’s the twenty-FIRST, not the twenty-SECOND, of November.  So that call to my mom, and the drama of thinking about my father on this heaviest of days, could wait another day.

But it felt like today, like today was connected with that other day in 2002 when I last spoke to my father in person and when I had angry words with a thoughtless, disconnected doctor in Glen Cove Hospital, about disconnecting my father from life support.  Such a strange day.  I was teaching at Colby College at the time, and had flown down from Maine to New York the day before, at my sister’s request.  Dutifully teaching my last pre-Thanksgiving classes and giving my students assignments for the break, I drove to Portland Airport in a daze.  When the fog lifted, I was holding my father’s hand in the hospital and thinking about what I needed to tell him.

I will write the story, Daddy.  I promise.

And then blurriness and hospital smell, and then Tante Inge’s arrival and then waiting.  And then hope and then not.  And then blankness.

My father is the reason that I am writing to you from Serbia.  He, along with my great-grandfather, are my loving courage-teachers, my representatives of what the best of us can aspire to be.  Philipp Karbiener (or, as his birth record reads, Филип Михаел КАРБИНЕР) was the first son born to one of the wealthiest households in Sekitsch, Yugoslavia in 1935.  His grandfather, who had served as the mayor of Sekitsch and had  expanded the family’s properties and wealth, saw more potential in the steady gaze of his grandson (see photo above) than in the boy’s father.  From an early age, my dad had received tutelage on land and agricultural management; by age nine, he was a skilled horseman who could gentle-break the wildest stallion on any of the family’s four farms.

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11 2009

Love. Love will keep us together.

The trio enjoying the fruits of my father's harvest on the threshold of his former house in Sekitsch (now Lovcenac), Vojvodina.

The trio enjoying the fruits of my father's harvest on the threshold of his former house in Sekitsch (now Lovcenac), Vojvodina.

My cousins Lisa and Michelle came to visit me for a few days last week.

–Very nice, you say.  Been there, done that.  Don’t families just do this sort of thing?

What if I told you that they left their families and busy schedules in Chicago and the Philadelphia area, respectively, to visit me here in Serbia?  That they’ve never been here before, and that they don’t know another living soul besides me who lives in this part of the world?  And that  they’re not exactly my cousins in the strict definition of the term?

Michelle and Lisa came here on a mission motivated by love.  Though we’re only distant blood relations (their grandmother and mine were first cousins), we’re bonded by history, our devoted interest in the story of our family, and a time-honored friendship.  Michelle’s father Helmut (godfather to both Lisa and myself), Lisa’s dad Ewald (much-beloved Onkel to Michelle and me), and my father Phillipp (their late ‘Onkel Phil’) were all part of the last generation of Karbieners/Karbiners born in the Vojvodina town of Sekitsch.  The family lines had remained in this small town from 1786 to 1944, when the ethnic German residents of Vojvodina were expelled from their homes.  Homeless and homelandless, our family was torn apart by physical separation, forced labor, disease, starvation, and torture.  Surviving against all odds, these young men and their parents eventually emigrated to America (Helmut and Ewald in 1950, my father in 1955) with little more than a vision of a bright future there.

Though they had lost nearly all of their worldly possessions and now faced a challenging reassessment of their cultural identity, surviving Danube-Swabians quickly tried to re-establish what had always been at the core of their communities: family and the bonds of friendship.  The new American émigrés were only too happy to find each other alive and well, and took comfort in settling within close proximity of each other in the Ridgewood/Glendale/Middle Village straddling Brooklyn and Queens.  Families lived together (my grandparents, for example, lived in the apartment below ours) and worked together at knitting mills and meat-packing plants, like Tru-Fit and Merkel’s in Brooklyn.  And when we firstborns came along, we too developed bonds and friendships while frequenting the German-Hungarian Soccer Club, Niederstein’s, Plattdeutsche Park Restaurant, and of course our own elaborate house parties.  Now that I have been living in Vojvodina for a few months, I see that our parents tried to surround us with the comforts they had known ‘back home,’ particularly the food: cremebitte, bundt cakes, dobosch tortes, and apfel strudel were among the treats served at our birthdays (though all we kids really wanted was a Carvel cake).

As the American-Donauschwaben families grew and prospered, many of us moved out of the ‘old’ neighborhoods.  But though the branches grew upward and outward, the roots remain strong. Every time my mother checks up on the old house (which we now rent), she returns vowing that she’ll move back to Middle Village one day.  Our family patriarch Onkel Ludwig still takes his daily walk on Metropolitan Avenue; he’s even found some comfort in the apple strudel and cute waitresses of the Arby’s that replaced Niederstein’s.  And all those parties and gatherings that we firstborns were obliged to attend, have secured lifelong bonds and precious friendships.  Michelle, Lisa, and I—all bossy older siblings that loved school, hated boys (for a while, anyway), and benefited from the unconditional love and support of fathers–  are bonded by our respect for our shared history and our dedication to family.  And in our own 21st century American way, we carry forth the Danube-Swabian sense of community that held the lot of us together for over 150 years.

My mom and Onkel Ludwig in front of the building I grew up in, in Middle Village, Queens.
My mom and Onkel Ludwig in front of the building I grew up in, in Middle Village, Queens.
My baby cousin Michelle and me at somebody's birthday party.
My baby cousin Michelle and me at somebody’s birthday party.

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11 2009

sunset on the salasch

“Salasch-hund,” my father used to grumble to himself about that lazy co-worker, slacker gas station attendant, and the occasional late-sleeping daughter.

I actually saw what he meant when Aleksandra, Alphild and I took our first look around Salas 137, one of the several Vojvodina “farm-estates” now more devoted to entertaining tourists than harvesting wheat and corn.


Salas 137 attempts to portray a type of existence that my family knew and loved for a century and a half, though it is lost to us now.  My father, along with his parents, grandparents, and everyone else in the Vojvodina village of Sekitsch (now Lovcenac), were expelled from their homes, dispossessed of their properties, and put into death- and work-camps at the end of 1944.   After nearly eight years of suffering, sickness, the experience of watching others tortured, killed, or die of starvation, my father, his sister, and their father were reunited with my grandmother (who had been working in a coal mine in a forced-labor camp in the Ukraine, near Luhansk).  Homeless and homeland-less, my Oma decided for them all: “America is the future.”  On the 17 of December 1955, they caught their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.

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10 2009

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