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.
Which may help explain why these accomplished, dynamic, busy women decided to put their everyday lives on hold to visit me in Vojvodina— and to journey into our family’s past. It was not an easy trip for either of them, in any sense. For starters, it’s a long way from Chicago and Phillie to Novi Sad. Lisa’s fabulous husband Mike, perhaps rightly so, worried about security issues enough to get her an international cell phone. Michelle’s adorable and adoring son Leighton and daughter Sabine missed their mom, particularly because she wouldn’t be there to see their Halloween costumes. And then there were the many political, psychological, and emotional issues we all faced, returning to the place that had expelled our family. Sixty five years ago, our families had been forced to surrender our homes and land. Many were placed in detention and forced-labor camps, and some were tortured and killed by people who might still be living in the area. Just what sort of welcome could we expect? And how would the modern-day residents of Lovcenac feel when they found out we wanted to see the houses our fathers were born, the vineyards and farms that they owned, the homeland that they still cherish? In Serbia, the forced expellations of ethnic Germans after World War II has remained a closed topic until the last few years; currently, the issue of war reparations issue further complicates the matter.
Obviously, you’re talking about three women who not only love each other very much and are deeply invested in coming to terms with our complex history, but possess the perseverance and drive (some might say the stubbornness) of our ancestors. In the name of our fathers, we wanted to return to Sekitsch. We wanted to face down the demons from which they had turned their backs, to build a bridge over a sea of dark memories. In the name of our fathers, who had protected us from the past, we sought to reclaim it. In the name of Michelle’s father Helmut, who passed away this May and who would have celebrated his 70th birthday the week of the trip; in the name of my father Phillipp, who died seven years ago this month; in the name of Lisa’s father Ewald, who showed his loving support of us by not showing his worry about our mission.
But Lovcenac isn’t a town where things happen anymore. It’s a depressing village—and I’m not just saying that because of what happened to our families there in the winter of 1944. Lovcenac is roughly the same size as Sekitsch was 65 years ago (about 3,000 residents), though over 120 houses are uninhabited and/or uninhabitable. Storefronts are empty, besides a few casinos, a mini-market, a bakery and the ‘Café Moskva.’ Roads and sidewalks are cracked or unpaved, and graffiti is everywhere—the most prominent message reading “лаку ноћ Lovcenac”, or “Good night Lovcenac”, in the town center. Most tragic is the evidence of the former picture-postcard village of Sekitsch, still visible in design and decoration of the standing “German houses”—and in a few postcards that survived the ravages of war.
Postcards like the one above are a testament to the town pride of Sekitsch, which certainly wasn’t on any tourist track. The descendents of the original settlers from southwestern Germany and Alsace had reason to be proud of their showcase of a town, considering the difficulties that their ancestors had endured to build it. My grandmother used to recite this simple rhyme, said to reflect the three periods of Sekitsch’s history:
Dem ersten der Tod,
Dem Zweiten die Not,
Dem Dritten das Brot.
Though death and need were often encountered in the first hundred years, Sekitsch began to prosper in the 1890s when a European-wide depression ended and the market for agricultural products strengthened. The combination of a good economy, fertile land, and hard work produced a culture that built exquisitely decorated homes, built an extensive pool (the Strand) and sport complex (the Insel Sportplatz), and imported luxury items such as wristwatches, sewing machines, and automobiles (my grandfather used to drive his car proudly up and down the Hauptgasse on Sundays in the 1930s). When the town was evacuated by Tito and repopulated by Monte Negrians in 1944-45, it was at the height of its prosperity—and according to its residents, postcard-worthy.
Today, an assortment of ‘70s-era apartment buildings stands on the site of the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church, which was destroyed by the town’s new residents. The German ancestral cemetery was also demolished, and the land used for the site of a large mill. A former resident of Lovcenac, Ljiljana Pesikan Ljustanovic, told us that the bones of our ancestors had been collected, washed in wine, and buried in the new Monte Negrian cemetery before the land was reused; however, no one knew what had become of the granite headstones. The original Town Hall, depicted on the top right of the postcard (above), was also taken down and replaced. The swimming pool complex was filled in, the vineyards plundered and ruined, the buildings and property markers for the farms removed by the occupying Partisans. And though original “German houses” remain, a former resident of Sekitsch would have to squint and to use his imagination, just to recognize his former home.
Dislocation. It’s a fitting term for what this town represents to us. We had returned to a site of great loss, and we felt that loss keenly in those first few moments, standing together in the Lovcenac town center. I could feel Lisa and Michelle’s shock at the state of affairs there; it came across in their distractedness, their inability to walk steadily, their insecurity about what to think and say. Can you see our dads dressed in Sunday best, chattering as they walked up the Hauptgasse to the Evangelisches Kirche? Or how about the handsome sportsman Ludwig, striding towards the strand to flirt with the love of his life, my Tante Gretchen? I tried to think about how my Oma, who loved to sing, might hum as she made her way to her father’s salas just over the Krivala and beyond the “Hohl.” But I had to squint very hard to imagine any of these scenes, and to hold back the tears.
And yet they were here. Our fathers, and their fathers and mothers before them, had been waiting for us in an old house on the main street, now housing the Registrar’s office. Stanka Kovijanic, the warm and obliging town registrar of Lovcenac, beckoned us to sit down. Opening a large metal file cabinet next to the ‘kibitz fenster’ (the German word for these deep windows is still used in Serbia) she dusted off several oversized volumes with leather bindings and uneven pages. Despite the town’s change in name and political affiliations, the church records of generations of Sekitschers had survived. For the first time, the three of us would see the birth records of our fathers, grandparents, and great-parents. We could obtain our first copies of their birth- and marriage- certificates. These pieces of paper were proof of a history we had nothing to show for, besides a few surviving photographs. We held our breath as Stanka opened the first book.
Smiles broke out around the room when we saw the record of the birth of their grandfather, my Onkel Ludwig, in 1915. “He’s still alive!” I exclaimed to Stanka, forgetting that she didn’t know a word of English. “Really alive!” Lisa rejoined, and we analyzed the slight hand that had written in what we saw as a momentous occasion: the birth of our family patriarch. Born in Austria-Hungary, Ludwig was officially recorded under the Hungarian name Lajos (“lye-oash”). His son Ewald, Lisa’s dad, was also recorded in Hungarian in 1942—and to see the elaborate Hungarian headings and political symbolism was to feel the pressure of those times. During World War II, Vojvodina was divided and occupied by the Axis Powers, and Sekitsch had officially been part of Hungary again. And yet in 1935, my father had been born in Sektisch in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The Cyrillic writing on his birth record served as proof.
I gazed very hard at the Филип Михаел and tried to see my father here. The spelling of his first name, and the existence of a middle name, were new to me. And yet this was my father’s birthday, these were his parents, this the town of his birth. Filip Mihael Karbiener, son of Fulop Karbiener, son of Fulop Karbiener. All of them loved Sekitsch, and not one of them died with his birthright intact or in the family home.
Helmut’s birth was also written out in elegant Serbian Cyrillic in 1939. Хелмут Лудњиг of Sekitsch, Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Helmut’s recently untimely death was very much felt by all of us. Michelle blinked when she looked up from the page. “He would have been 70 this week.”
For Michelle, this trip was well-timed and emotional. She wasn’t just looking for her past; she, like me, was looking for her father. And her dad, like mine and like Lisa’s, was a truly exceptional man. Helmut was 11 when his family managed to emigrate to the US and attempt a new start in New York. He had excelled in his studies, particularly in literature and writing, and had won scholarships to prep school and Cornell University. Despite his literary bent, he went on to become a medical doctor—delivering thousands of healthy babies with care and an ever-ready sense of humor. Both Michelle and I were inspired by his interest in literature and medicine; he had been an attentive godfather and a present, loving dad. Perhaps making up for his own lost childhood, Helmut surrounded Michelle and her brother with affection and support. The well-possessed, confident, warm, and fun-loving cousin I adore, is very much the product of Helmut’s school of parenting. She misses his guidance, his presence—and so has determined to recover/discover him, at ‘home.’
And homeward bound we were, maps in hand, heading for the spot where a marriage of love (not economics, as was so common in Sekitsch) had its first home, and where two brothers spent their first formative years. It was a long walk. We made a left on the old Kula Er Gasse, walking west from the main street down four sizable blocks. Michelle, Lisa, and I were both fascinated and appalled by the remnants of the ethnic German settlement: the beautiful but neglected carvings of grapes on the houses built around the vineyards, the chipped and fading facades that had been refreshed twice yearly in their best days, the garish paint jobs that seemed to mock the quaint architectural details. But we were clearly more interesting to the townfolk than their architecture was to them. We suddenly realized that we were the focus of attention in this dead-end town. ”Why not take MY picture?” yelled a boy (in Serbian) on a bicycle as Lisa snapped photos of the buildings we passed. Another man stopped us and—in German—asked us why we were here.
Perhaps we should have been more nervous. But the walnut trees seemed to protect us with their mellow, yellow leaves, and the air was fresh with the fragrance of quince. ”Good morning,” piped a young boy from across the street—obviously practising his English, since it was four in the afternoon. Walking down this wide street, I felt a sense of peace, of familiarity. Though I’m a city girl (like my Oma) at heart, I understood at that moment the sense of contentment that small town life must have brought to my ancestors.
”There it is!” The house, like Ludwig himself, was a quiet but sure standout. The only building to face the Kula Er Gasse at an angle, it seemed to look at us curiously out of the corner of its eye, over its shoulder. ”Izvolite?”
It was an older Monte Negrian man, actually, who now addressed us. Somehow, in a motley combination of stunted Serbian, botched German, and desperate English words and gestures, we communicated that this house was the birthplace of their dads, that their grandfather had lived here. Well, would we like to go in and see it? He knew the owner. Zlata. Very nice. She’d be pleased to show us the house.
And so the old door opened. Black-haired Zlata in a bright red t-shirt greeted us with unabashed enthusiasm; her assortment of dogs, with more trepidation, maybe because we were eyeing them so closely. I knew what Mich and Lisa were thinking: Helmut and Ewald had a dachshund growing up. Had the dogs remained after their families were expelled? I remembered Inge’s stories of her own little dog, that tried so desperately to follow her as she and her brother were carted off to the camp at Gakowa. One of the Russian officers had kicked the dog to the side.
Who knows? Dogs are survivors too—and one of these little guys did look like he could have a bit of dachshund fierceness and longitude in him. In any case, the apple trees were certainly living descendents. As Michelle and Lisa explored the spacious backyard and fields beyond, Zlata ran inside and brought out what must have been the three biggest fruits of the harvest. For us.
We were then escorted inside the simple stone house,. Michelle and Lisa’s delight and exclamations provoked Zlata to give us a full house tour, and we found the dark hallways opened to bright, warm rooms. In the living room, we caught each other’s eyes as we marked the presence of the old stove. Ljiljana Ljustanovic had told us that when many of the Monte Negrian families had moved into these houses, they didn’t know what to make of the elaborately tiled German stoves. Thinking that these tall objects were perhaps monuments, they destroyed most of them. But here stood the very stove that had warmed the winters of Ludwig, Gretchen, Helmut and Ewald. Now we, too, felt the glowing warmth that they had experienced. And that felt indescribably good.
In the photo below, you’re looking at four women who, in the simple gesture of a group hug, are breaking through formidable and time-honored boundaries. Here you see the Monte Negrian and the Danube-Swabian united by mutual understanding and respect, despite our radically divisive history. You see the realized possibility of reconnecting with the so-called ‘lost’ past or the ‘dead and gone.’ And in this very moment, you see the future of three cousins—one that is all the brighter for the bonds that have grown stronger, the hearts that now beat bigger.
Thank you, Lisa and Michelle for the experience of a lifetime—of many lifetimes.