Archive for November, 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

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