Archive for November 8th, 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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