A Bukovina German tells his Story*
Published in the Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans From Russia,
Vol. 12, No. 2 – Summer 1989, pp. 29 – 39
Posted by the Bukovina Society of the Americas,
with permission of the AHSGR, Jakob Welisch, and Sophie A. Welisch, PhD, June 10, 1996
*Written in Sondergay, Federal Republic of Germany, in 1985, this article was translated from the German and edited by Sophie A. Welisch, Ph.D., Professor of History at Dominican College, Orangeburg, NY, who shares with the author a common descent from the Bori colonist, Sebastian Wöllisch.
Bukovina, nestled in the Carpathian Mountains in southeastern Europe, was until 1918 the easternmost crownland of the Austrian Empire. It was here — where rivers, untracked forests, and mineral wealth abounded — that the Welisch (Wöllisch/Wellisch) put down roots in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. To develop the potential of its untapped resources, the Habsburgs sponsored emigration from the Bohemian Forest, an area at that time rife with unemployment, to Bukovina.
After Austria’s annexation of the territory by virtue of the Treaty of Constantinople (1775), emigrants from many lands converged on Bukovina. In a short time, the province assumed a multi-national character. One cannot readily enumerate all these people, but merchants and craftsmen from the Balkans, Austria, and other areas soon provided the goods and services essential for a developed economy.
The village of Bori, settled by German-Bohemian lumberers in 1835, dates from the Hapsburg period. Among these pioneers were my great-grandparents, Sebastian Wöllisch and his wife, Barbara Rückl, who, along with twenty-nine other families, carved out a new existence for themselves in Bukovina’s virgin forest. The variations in the spelling of the name, “Welisch” arose in my generation. According to extant documents, my great-grandfather Sebastian’s surname was “Wöllisch.” Other members of the family now use “Wellisch.” How and when this name was changed to the spelling on my baptismal certificate has not been clarified to date.
According to my father, Peter Welisch, my grandfather Johann made great economic progress. He relocated to neighboring Gurahumora, enlarged his farm, had eleven children with his wife Katharina Schaffhauser, and even enjoyed forest rights. In Gurahumora Johann supposedly served as a notary public and, to supplement his income, did carpentry work on the side. As his bride my father chose Maria Welisch of Bori, a distant relative and great-great-granddaughter of the colonist, Sebastian Wöllisch.
Life for us German-Bohemians was not easy. Whence the term, “German Bohemian”? Although this expression was replaced in the inter-war period by “Sudeten German” to encompass the German-speaking inhabitants of Bohemia/Moravia in Czechoslovakia, we in Bukovina continued to call ourselves German Bohemians and do so to this very day. Our dialect is similar to the vernacular spoken in Bavaria and Lower Austria.
Before his death my grandfather Johann divided his estate equally among his children. Through the drawing of lots which Johann had placed in a pot, my father Peter inherited the plot at the far end of the property. With much labor and ambition, all of my grandfather’s children who chose to do so succeeded in building homes on their land. Those who moved elsewhere rented their portion to their siblings. Lumberers finished the outside of the houses with mortar. It is worth noting that these homes were constructed so as to retain heat easily during Bukovina’s long, cold winters.
I was born in Gurahumora on July 25, 1931, on the church feast day of St. Jacobus (i.e. James). My parents decide to have me baptised “Jakob” after the midwife pointed out that I had brought my own name into the world. Of my preschool childhood I have only the sketchiest recollections, but with a little concentration I can well remember numerous experiences from my early school years.
In those days in Romania, children started school at age seven. I had a long walk to school, some two kilometers, which took me through Gurahumora. We had no book bags as children have today. My mother took some scraps of linen and sewed them together to make a kind of shoulder bag to contain the few notebooks I needed. Going to school presented certain problems for me from the beginning, not because of learning difficulties but because there were no available rest rooms along the way. Stores, churches, and cafes lined my route through Gurahumora which, as I think back upon it today, seemed to me like a small city (population in 1930: 5,977 of whom 2,441 were German).
Although I was a Romanian citizen, I attended a German-language school. I knew no Romanian at all since we spoke only our German-Bohemian dialect at home. But at school we were graded in the Romanian fashion: 10 was the best mark and 5 the worst. (During the Austrian era the grading ranged from 1 [excellent] to 5 [unsatisfactory].) I attended public school in Gurahumora for two years, i.e. until the resettlement of the German population to the Third Reich in 1940. But more about that later.
Some memories of my childhood in Bukovina still loom large in my mind. Our home was situated next to a rather large millstream with sawmills some 200 meters to the right and left, one of which was a small factory. From there lumber was transported by rail, much of it for export. My father Peter was often en route with horse and wagon, earning a little extra to supplement his farm income. As his father before him, he used his carpentry skills as a source of additional wages since we had only three hectares (1 hectare equals 2.471 acres) of farm and meadowland.
And I amused myself as did all the other children of my village. I spent many hours at the streams in my vicinity, preoccupied primarily with fishing. Of these times I still recall wading up to my knees in crystal-clear water with stones dotting the stream bed. We children would stand very quietly until curious trout approached. The waiting was never long, however, since fish were so plentiful. First the trout would observe our legs in the water; then they would slip under a rock and remain motionless. With a rapid movement of both hands, it was possible to catch them. We competed with each other to see who could catch the most fish. For me it was easier to catch fish in this manner than to use a pole. If fishing licenses were required at that time as they are today I cannot say, but I tend to doubt it, since otherwise we would not have been permitted to fish in the streams.
Johann and Katharina Welisch (Jakob’s grandparents) with their children in their backyard in Gurahumora (1901). From left to right: Marie, Margarete, Katharina (mother), Peter (on lap of his mother), Wenzel, Johann, Josef, Johann (father), Sebastian, Theresia, and Emil. One daughter, Regina, had already died, and one son, Paulus, was born in 1902.
Sebastian and Wenzel were the only ones to immigrate to the New World. Emil became a Roman Catholic priest and died in Glatz (now Klodzko, Poland) in 1954. Josef, Johann, and Theresia, although close to the Bavarian border, were overtaken in flight by the Russians and repatriated to Bukovina in 1945. Margarete, Peter, and Paulus escaped to the West and as of this writing are living in Bavaria. Maria and her father, Johann, died in Gurahumora before the 1940 resettlement.
Not far from us flowed the Moldova River which could become treacherous when the melting mountain snows caused flooding. On its banks, in an attractive, permanently established location, the town of Gurahumora sponsored daily concerts in the summer which lasted well into the night. We heard and saw these festivities constantly, since we lived only a few hundred meters away, but after a while they lost their fascination. Today these would be termed “summer evening festivals.”
In the summer, Gurahumora, a resort town on the Moldova, attracted affluent vacationers who were willing to pay handsomely for accommodations. Since we were well situated to satisfy their needs, my father often rented the entire house to tourists, retaining only a small room which we used for cooking. Nights we slept on the hay in the barn, which I did not particularly enjoy.
House in Gurahumora in which Jakob spent the first nine years of his life (1931-1940).
And now from the delightful summer to the long Bukovina winter as I remember it. Above all, the weather was cold with a lot of snow. In contrast to today, salt was never sprayed on the streets. And Christmas! This holiday season was very special for me, in particular the visit of the Christ child and the angels.1 Today I know these to have been our neighbors Titus Hellinger and his sisters. Oh, what a sense of wonder and awe I felt when the Christ child, accompanied by the angels, stood in front of the gingerbread tree! Although I am getting a bit ahead of myself, it seems appropriate to interject here that my aunt, Frieda Welisch, still decorates her Christmas tree in the Bori fashion. To us who now live in Bavaria, this is still a very special occasion which never fails to evoke happy memories of our youth.
Visits to neighbors by horse-drawn sleigh continued from Christmas to Epiphany (January 6). With small bells attached to the horse’s harness and a lantern on the sleigh, I traveled with my parents to visit relatives in Bori. What would we give today for such an experience which at that time was a daily occurrence! To provide warmth along the way, my mother heated bricks on the stove and placed them in the sleigh. During such a ride by night, we could see the horse’s breath rising like steam over the lantern. Upon arrival at our destination, the horse was taken into the stable, and the bricks, although still warm, were again placed on the stove in preparation for the homeward journey. On the return trip, I usually fell asleep, exhausted from playing with the other children.
I can still recall a particular incident which occurred on one of those winter sleigh rides during the Christmas season as we were on our way to visit my godfather. Although he tried to calm it, my father noticed immediately that the horse feared something. He told my mother that there were probably wolves in the area. What I now state is no exaggeration. During the winter months, wolves posed a great threat to the population. Gathering in packs of ten to fifteen, they attacked whatever lay in their path, drawn to this desperate act by sheer hunger.
On cold winter days, my father kept our dog locked in the barn. As a child I heard tell that this was because wolves came very close to the town in winter. One night my father pointed out from the kitchen window the eyes of a wolf pack flashing in the moonlight. Other than on that occasion, I never saw any wolves.
Life in our town in Bukovina could indeed be very pleasant and, considering the times, no doubt approximated conditions elsewhere. A half century has passed since I left my homeland, and today I live in Bavaria. When I describe our former circumstances to my neighbors, they assure me that their standard of living was not much higher at that time.
The youth of today can hardly envision what we experienced in bygone days. Fortunately, they have been spared our hardships. Yet the present generation, confronted with technology and mechanization, has its own challenges to meet. For us Germans of Bukovina, the fall of 1940 augured in events that forever altered the course of our lives. Little could I then anticipate what lay ahead.
After the Soviet seizure of northern Bukovina in June 1940, the Third Reich reached an agreement with the Soviet Union to evacuate the German population. The Germans of southern Bukovina, including those in my village of Gurahumora, were transferred by the terms of an accord between Germany and Romania. Some 95,000, embracing all but about 7,000 of the Germans living in Bukovina, voluntarily opted for resettlement in the Reich after gaining assurance that they would be compensated for the movable and non-movable property they were leaving behind. Yet it still puzzles me that virtually or entire ethnic group chose to sever it roots and relocate. While there were some among us who were poor, there were also the affluent for whom economic opportunity could not have been the motive.2
This is a topic about which I could write an entire volume, but I will limit myself to the main events. It was on December 12, 1940, that my parents and I left our homeland. Much of our baggage had already been shipped to the railroad station days, possibly weeks before. The December day was raw and cold, with the Christmas season — when everything was cheerful and cozy — only two weeks away. I noticed that my parents were crying. The afternoon had come, and by 7:00 p.m. all who had registered for this particular transport had to be at the railroad station.
It was a frightful experience for me to see the people approaching. Most were crying although supposedly they were leaving of their own accord. German soldiers and officers arranged everything. I can still recall that evening as vividly as if it were yesterday but will cut short my narrative in order not to relive these painful memories. Nonetheless, one further point: before and during the departure of the rather long train drawn by two locomotives, many say, Nun ade mein lieb Heimatland (And Now Good-by My Beloved Homeland). A very long, shrill whistle of both locomotives started the train in motion while the gradually diminishing lights from the Gurahumora station brought home to me the realization that I was leaving the land of my birth, possibly forever. Having reached the age of nine, I could respond emotionally to the events around me, although I could not grasp their deeper significance.
We were en route three nights and three days. Red Cross nurses from Germany took care of us. I can still remember the Budapest (Hungary) and Vienna (Austria) train stations. In Budapest we were able to disembark and ate lunch in a large restaurant. In Vienna we were served coffee and tea while some got out of the train to stretch their stiff legs. Within several hours all on the emigré transport knew what they could expect.
Life in the barracks! There were as many as twenty in a room, without regard as to whether they were laborers or professionals. Many now experienced bitterness and regret about what they had done, made all the more poignant by the approach of Christmas. At home our hearths were cold and abandoned, and here we slept in bunk beds. In our camp in Styria near Leoben we lived under conditions none of us had known before. To make matters worse, no one could leave the camp for the first two weeks. Now the full realization dawned on us that we had been promised the skies but were in fact in the grips of a powerful dictatorship.
Camp Traboch, near Leoben in Styria (May 1941). Camps such as these served as temporary quarters for Germans from the East before permanent settlements for them could be arranged. The building with the three towers contained the laundry room and showers. Most of the men had already been inducted into the Wehrmacht or were out of the camp on work details. Arrow points to Jacob, standing in the rear at the left.
My education in Styria proceeded along normal channels. There was much repetition to assure that we students would not forget anything. We attended a type of barracks’ school and had no contact with the local population.
Within about three months, all the young men were conscripted to fight for their new fatherland, which also gained them German citizenship. In the summer of 1941, my parents and I were also naturalized as German citizens in a procedure entailing long lines and a tattoo of one’s blood type on the upper left forearm. For many men this mark reaped bitter consequences as the war drew to it conclusion, since they were mistaken for the similarly tattooed members of the SS.
My father was also eventually drafted into the Wehrmacht and sent to Yugoslavia, but remarkably, he and others returned after just two weeks and were put on a waiting list for resettlement on a farm. In the fall of 1941, those designated for agriculture, including us, traveled by rail to Upper Silesia. Our destination was Ratibor on the outskirts of which stood a sports complex where we were to find temporary accommodations. Although also serving as a camp, it was an improvement over the one in Leoben, since here we could exercise a modicum of autonomy. The camp director pretty much let us do as we pleased, although he naturally maintained surveillance. He was rewarded by having less work to do and by winning the goodwill of the residents.
For us emigré children, the school years in Ratibor were sheer torment. We attended school together with the local children. But since we did poorly in our studies, we were beaten daily. Naturally mere repetition had not advanced our knowledge. One day I had an especially bad experience. Fearing what would happen to me in school, I concealed a notebook in my trousers. My teacher, who did not especially care for us emigré children, noticed my ruse with the first blow of his cane. What then followed I will decline to elaborate.
The adults faced much anxiety and uneasiness as well. After Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union (June 1941), news reached us of young Bukovina Germans killed in the war. The winter of 1941-42, one of the coldest in the past century, brought much suffering to the men at the front, some of whom developed frostbite or actually froze to death. Bukovina Germans, whom I personally knew, openly expressed their disillusion with the state which had promised more than it could deliver.
The spring of 1942 brought a significant event for my father and our family. At the invitation of the Treuhandgesellschaft, the governmental agency which had assumed responsibility for compensating the emigrés for property abandoned in Bukovina, my father and others had to travel to the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia to look at farms.3 They were to assume ownership of these properties in the shortest possible time. I no longer recall precisely, but it was sometime during cherry season (May or June) that we arrived in Jungbunzlau, 50 kilometers northeast of the capital city of Prague. For me this was a fantasyland: on the trip to our destination the streets on both right and left were lined with cherry trees laden with ripe fruit. In my wildest dreams I could not even have imagined such a sight.
Shortly after our arrival, we noticed what had transpired here a few days earlier. The owners had been dispossessed because of their anti-German sentiments. The lady who had owned this farm of about 20 hectares, which we were now to acquire, even had to scrub the floor in our presence. My parents shuddered with horror but could do nothing. On an individual basis we might have gotten along very well with these people, but considering the political climate, even the most peace-loving among us could do little unless they were also willing to put their own lives on the line.
We lived in Jungbunzlau for less than three years. My father pursued his agrarian tasks and I applied for and was accepted in high school Hauptschule. This is equivalent to today’s Realschule (a vocational high school not leading to the university). My endeavors in this regard were successful, and I learned much during this period of my life. I also joined the Hitler Youth, a matter about which I had no choice. On Sunday mornings, when my parents attended church services, I had to participate in the activities of the German Jungvolk (Young People). Scheduling meeting on Sunday morning represented a deliberate ploy on the part of the state to wean the children away from organized religion. Moreover, there were no excused absences other than illness. Our activities included paramilitary training and survival tactics such as none of us had ever undergone before. If one of us lacked in enthusiasm, he was soon brought to heel. I was only twelve years old at the time but already sorely tried.
I could tell you much more about these years, but they include happenings I would just as soon forget. When I discuss them today, people only smile. Today’s youth finds these episodes incomprehensible, yet I can hardly blame the present generation for failing to relate to our past.
In early April 1945, we got an order to prepare for immediate evacuation. This entailed putting appropriate covering on the wagon, shodding the horses, and packing provisions for at least four weeks. The Czechs smiled as they watched us but dared give no outward indication of their feelings since many in these last days had thrown caution to the winds and paid for their impropriety with their lives. Finally, the morning of our departure from the village arrived. Our group included the three Bukovina families of Tante Reti (Margarete), her husband, Josef Hellinger, and my bedridden grandmother Katharina; Felix Seidl from Bori; and my father, Peter Welisch. As we assembled at our designated meeting place, the Czechs observed us from a distance but said nothing.
At this point in my narrative I am again overwhelmed with impressions and observations. There is so much I could relate about what it was we packed and what we left, about our great disappointments, and about the fact that after leaving Bukovina we could find no place to call home. But the moment demanded action, not contemplation.
About seventy had gathered at the meeting place, all with covered wagons. Our route lay squarely across Czechoslovakia in the direction of the Bohemian Forest, since this was closest to the German western front, and no one wanted to go anywhere near the eastern front. The long trek, as these refugee wagon trains were called, moved slowly southward, passing Prague and, after the first few days, traveled only in the darkness of night. Air attacks from hostile planes shot up countless treks that they spotted from the air. Today I believe these pilots could not distinguish between civilian refugees and the military.
Because of congestion on the roads and the long delays, our trek advanced very slowly, covering only 25 to 30 kilometers each night. During the day we had to take cover in the forest in order not to be detected from the air. Moreover, the entire night could not be used for travel since by daybreak we already had to have reached the next forest enclosure.
These were indeed wretched times. In order to conserve our supplies, we ate only enough to keep us going. Since we were fleeing through foreign, i.e. Czech territory, we could expect nothing from the local inhabitants. A shortage of water plagued both man and beast. We combed the forests for streams and springs, drinking the water only after it had been boiled. This we did by placing an aluminum pot across two tree stumps and then heating it from underneath. The cries of small children and the groans and complaints of the elderly became commonplace.
Our wagon sheltered seven persons. Whence this number? My aunt Emilie (maternal side) together with her children and mother (and my grandmother) Rosalia, had already fled from Upper Silesia in the winter of 1944-45 and had taken refuge with us. Now, for the second time, they were forced to sustain the rigors of flight and all the hardships it entailed.
If at this point my narrative seems to be coming into sharper focus, it is because the events that follow are so indelibly imprinted on my mind. What stands out very distinctly is the air attack on the village of Milin.
One morning we had not been able to reach a forested area and had to find refuge in an open village. Some camped out on the edge of the main thoroughfare, others on the side roads. No sooner had the horses been fed than we spotted a solitary plane. All hoped that the pilot had not noticed anything suspicious. But within a half hour we had our answer: four American fighter planes appeared in the sky, circled the village, and then started strafing us. For the entire day we had no respite from the air attacks. In all there were four raids, some of which seemed to last an eternity. We were defenseless against them. Had we sought out the open ground, we would have been even easier targets. During one of the assaults the roof of the village church, where we were crouching for protection, flew past me. A stray bullet grazed my father who had been standing near the horses.
What took place that day in Milin deep in the heart of Czechoslovakia, only military personnel and those who survived urban air attacks can fully appreciate. With approaching twilight all became quiet. Barns were aflame, dead animals littered the streets, wagons of the refugees had burned with only the metal parts still visible along with the charred remains of their baggage. If people died that day, I, a youth of thirteen at that time, could not ascertain. One thing I did note, however, was that of the approximately seventy refugee wagons, only fifteen to twenty departed the village under covered darkness that evening. The horse had become very timid from the noise, the smoke, and the sight of their dead fellow creatures.
Our small band hid in the forest for two days, not daring to leave. Moreover, the wagons needed repairs. The covering of our wagon had been riddled with bullet holes, leading my father to observe that we would probably find many bullets in our baggage. Time proved him right in that we later discovered bullets in our bedding and elsewhere. They were longer than a finger and twice as thick. I fed both our horses with the twigs of young evergreen trees, which indeed they consumed. But we could not provision ourselves that easily. Our ever-diminishing food supply caused my father great anxiety.
The last days of the war found us in a forest near a road. We had just eaten breakfast and were washing up in a nearby stream. The date: May 8, 1945. When we saw autos passing by with young people waving red flags, our elderly family members immediately suspected the worst. Some passersby approached us in the forest and, calling to us in broken German, told us to return home, the war was over. Germany had ceased to exist.
The members of our group in the forest that day, all from Bukovina, looked at each other in consternation. How could we return home? Where was “home”? I believe that since throwing in their lot with Germany in 1940, they themselves did not know what land to call their Heimat (homeland). But since we did not want to fall into the hands of the Russians, there was never any serious discussion as to our destination. After ridding ourselves of all symbols, insignia, and memorabilia which smacked of Hitler, we headed for the Bohemian Forest. En route we encountered Czech patrols who questioned us closely about having Czech goods. They were right: the horses and wagon had been Czech property.
In the Sudetenland, that area of Bohemia inhabited by a German-speaking population, another catastrophe awaited our pathetic little group. We had just traversed a steep mountain and were approaching the heights outside Bergreichenstein, when we found the way blocked by tanks. Czechs approached us, demanding we return through the valley to the village from which we had just come. Unarmed and defenseless, we complied with their orders. But halfway on our return to the village, German soldiers called out to us, telling us to turn around and proceed on our intended course. They would engage the Czechs until the arrival of the Americans and had already alerted local Sudeten Germans to assist us.
The confusion and the terror we all felt are indescribable; nonetheless, we turned our wagons around and again proceeded up the mountain. Here I personally saw a German soldier, who, although the war had already ended, gave his life to save others. Shot by the Czechs, he fell in the fields, and I saw him raise up his arms one last time. Minutes later countless American tanks reached the scene. They yielded the street to us and with great clamor, passed us in the nearby ditch. Some waved and, indicating we had nothing more to fear, directed us on to Bergreichenstein. Later we learned that we had been in a buffer zone between the Americans and the Russians.
The Americans accepted the surrender of a German lieutenant while the others, who had just been waiting for this moment, came forward on their own accord. The next day, with the permission of the Americans, the refugees and the German soldiers attended the funeral services for their fallen comrade in Bergreichenstein. If I seem to be dwelling too long on this episode, it is because these were unforgettable experiences and because I was especially moved by the heroic death of this unknown soldier.
At this very time some Bukovina Germans, my relatives among them, were overtaken by the Russians. After a circuitous route, they were repatriated to Romania.4 Seewiesen, in the Bohemian Forest, the village of my forebears, is one such place to which people from Gurahumora had fled only to be returned to Romania. Among them were members of the Welisch and Hellinger families.
And how did we reach Bavaria? We could not stay in the Sudetenland. From Americans, some of whom spoke German well, we learned they would soon be withdrawing from the area. That left us no alternative but to keep moving despite the emaciated condition of our horses. Sudeten-German farmers helped us where possible and gave us fodder for our draft animals.
Here I have to mention a particular place: Stadeln, a village on a mountain slope from which we could not proceed farther. An American tank had broken through the bridge and was half submerged in the stream. Two soldiers had supposedly been killed in this accident. In Stadeln we were able to sleep in a bed for the first time since we had left Jungbunzlau. Little could the local population then suspect that within a very short time they would be expelled from their homeland and share our fate as destitute refugees.5
On the following day nothing could delay our departure any longer. After finding a passable area in the stream, we were on our way. How long it took us to get to Stubenbach on the Bavarian border, I can no longer recall, but before we reached it, the Czechs again stopped us. Our party, with wagons poised in a circular formation in the fields, spent almost a week here. They even kept us under surveillance at night so we could not escape under cover of darkness. And only 1 kilometer from the Bavarian frontier!
The Americans negotiated with the Czechs on our behalf about the horses and wagons. My father, who with other refugees had to be present at these talks, related that a high-ranking American officer promised the Czechs that if they allowed us to cross the border, they could then pick up the horses and wagons. They apparently went along with this arrangement, since we were permitted to depart. The border remained open only for a few short hours. Advising us not to stop but to continue in order to put some distance between ourselves and the frontier, the Americans then prevented the Czechs from crossing into Bavaria. This we learned from the last refugees permitted to exit. I felt a debt of gratitude to the Americans even though a few weeks earlier they had tried to kill us and had seemed eager to dispatch us to eternity with their air attacks.
Now we were in Bavaria. And our physical appearance! We were indeed in sad shape after so many weeks on the road: the people ragged and dirty, the horses down to skeletons, and the wagons on the verge of disintegration. We were now free to go wherever we pleased, but where? For better or for worse, it was off to the lowlands to find work.
Zwiesel was the first Bavarian town we reached, since we had been following forest paths up to this point. The native Bavarians showed considerable reservation in their relations with us, not really grasping the full significance of what had happened. In Bernzell, not far from Zwiesel, we sought a place to spend the night and, above all, water. A farmer received us most graciously, gave us food and drink, and actually tied the horses to the haystacks. The next day my father expressed his gratitude, but the farmer passed it off, noting he was not looking for thanks and had aided us for the sake of his son, who had not yet returned from the war.
But at other stops along the way, we often heard a different story: “Why didn’t you stay home? We didn’t flee.” Yes, I still ask myself how German people could treat fellow Germans that way. Wherever Germans settle, they are hard-working and ambitious; and ironically, prosperous one day and penniless the next. It is relevant here to interject that the Sudeten Germans as well as the Germans from Bukovina have arisen as a phoenix out of the ashes by not only successfully establishing themselves on a sound economic basis but by striking deep roots in their new homeland as well.
Back to my account of our travels to the lowlands of Bavaria. We had heard from people in the Bavarian Forest, who were themselves by no means affluent, that well-to-do farmers in the lowlands were looking for field hands. At Deggendorf we finally reached Lower Bavaria, the so-called “breadbasket of Germany.” Our small group of compatriots from Bori and Gurahumora stayed in Wallersdorf, a village sorely in need of farm labor. Wallersdorf has special meaning for us Bukovina Germans since it is here that many found employment. The tombstones in the Wallersdorf cemetery, which also indicate the origin of the deceased, bear witness that many refugees from Bori/Gurahumora found not only a new homeland in this Lower Bavarian village but also their final resting place.
My memoirs would not be complete if I did not mention my grandmothers, to both of whom I was very close and with whom I spent much of my time. My paternal grandmother, Katharina, whose eleven children had all been born in Bukovina, shared in the experience described above. Her daughter, Margarete (Reti), and Reti’s husband, Josef Hellinger, deserve a special debt of gratitude from the family for their devotion to my grandmother during our most trying period. By the time of our flight from Jungbunzlau to Wallersdorf, Katharina was no longer able to walk or even to stand. Uncle Josef covered the entire distance by foot, walking next to and guiding the oxen, so that my grandmother would have room in the wagon. Today both have found eternal rest and are interred in a common grave in Wallersdorf. The same and more can be said of maternal grandmother Rosalia who, in addition, had to sustain the rigors of the flight from Upper Silesia.
While others were more successful, my father could not find work in Wallersdorf or the surrounding area. The reason was obvious: of the seven people in our wagon, only three could work; the others included children and my grandmother Rosalia. After much searching and some rather unusual overnight accommodations, we finally came to Sondergay through the efforts of the local church. Here we found work and shelter with a prosperous farmer who needed someone to milk the cows. By June of 1945 I was already on the job as a cowherd.
After about a year had passed, my father began to see the futility of our situation and urged me to learn a trade. To pursue an academic education in Sondergay was out of the question. Moreover, our employer was most annoyed when I began my apprenticeship as a mechanic, since he was losing my services on the farm. Considering my past difficulties in school, I did not find the courses of study difficult; on the contrary it gave me great pleasure to work in the shop. For an entire year I walked a round-trip distance of 6 kilometers to my place of apprenticeship until I had earned enough to buy a bicycle.
In the third year of my apprenticeship, I sustained a severe injury at the shop when a driving-belt caught my right leg, dragging me into the belt pulley. Through the skill of the doctors, my leg was saved, but I was hospitalized for an entire year. This old injury still causes me considerable discomfort. Nonetheless, I was able to finish my course of study with a final grade of “good.”
At about this same time, i.e. in 1950, my father had the opportunity to acquire his own farm. The Land Commission had bought the property of a larger farmer in Sondergay and made it available on easy credit terms to refugees formerly engaged in agriculture. Once again we stood at a crossroads. I had learned a trade and was well on the road to recovery with every prospect of finding a position as a mechanic. My parents, on the other hand, whose farm was by now in full operation, needed assistance. After seriously deliberating the pros and cons of turning to agriculture, I yielded to my father’s wishes and, as the saying goes, put my trade on ice. My brother Johann was only five years old at the time. With the 1951 fall harvest, I began to work on my parents farm on a full-time basis.
I must confess, I often regretted taking this step because of the hard work and long hours, but I saw that my parents could not manage their 10-hectare farm alone. Moreover, my father, having risen from field hand to commercial farmer virtually overnight, was deluged by debts. But through enormous effort and sacrifice, we, as well as other refugees who had acquired land, managed to make a success of our enterprise. Starting from scratch, we again became self-sufficient by the sheer sweat of our brow. What a tough lot, those German Bohemians! Harried and driven through almost all Europe through no fault of their own, they again struck roots like dandelion seeds.
Six years later (1957) I found a mate. My wife Mathilde, a Bavarian, loved the Bukovian German, Jakob. Ours was a modest wedding since we lacked the financial means for anything elaborate. But we were happy, which is, after all, what life is all about.
Jakob and Mathilde Welisch, Sondergay, Bavaria, on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary (1982).
My father managed the farm until 1965, at which time he retired and turned it over to us. Mathilde and I then almost single-handedly ran it since my parents could no longer perform physical labor. To escape the isolation of Sondergay, they eventually moved to the larger town of Leiblfing.
In time our children, Monika and Reinhard, assisted us with day-to-day operations. Monika took commercial courses at school and Reinhard, a dyed-in-the-wool farmer, completed all academic requirements to earn a high school diploma in agriculture. Since he did not wish to continue his education beyond this point, we allowed him to operate the farm under our supervision.
No longer needed on a full-time basis at home, I took outside employment as a groundsman at a tennis club. Surprisingly, a difficult period of my life was about to begin, although few took notice. The tennis club had thirteen courts marked with red brickdust plus additional grounds and facilities which had to be tended. Moreover, I now had to develop public relations’ skills.
The club attracted an elite clientele: dentists, bankers, professors. It was I who had to direct them to the courts, that is, I had continuous contact with them. When the club sponsored tournaments, people came from far and wide. Please pardon my tone if it now seems self-laudatory, but with my forty-five years of life experience, I was able to rise to the occasion and perform my job well. Nonetheless, it was not easy to put in a seven-day week, from 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., be it Sunday, Easter, or Pentecost, and to be among the tennis players daily. I dare say I was liked by all, although I cannot rightly say why.
It has been a number of years since I worked at the tennis club, but when I encounter someone I met there, he invariably comes over to talk to me. I was there for ten years. In that time I even developed a machine that would automatically eject the tennis balls. This device functions in all kinds of weather and under all circumstances when other, more modern ones, fail.
What more shall I tell you of my life? Both our children have married, and we have become proud grandparents. Now and then our aches and pains remind us that we are aging. I took an early retirement, perhaps because of the hard work I had to perform all my life. But if we are needed, we are always ready to lend a hand.
Since this change in lifestyle I have had more time for reading and reflection. During one especially pensive mood came the motivation to commit my memoirs to writing not only that my children and grandchildren might gain a better understanding of their heritage but that all who are interested might learn that in far-off Bukovina, there once lived Germans from the Bohemian Forest who pioneered in its virgin forests and prospered; that caught up as pawns in international politics, they abandoned their villages after more that four generations; that no sooner had they resettled on the outposts of the German Reich, than they were again uprooted and forced to flee; and that through effort and determination they eventually became fully integrated into West German society as productive and loyal citizens.
My life was in no way unique; what I experienced was shared by tens of thousands of others, many not as fortunate as I. Some 20 percent of our Bukovina Germans died on the battlefields, in the bombing raids, at the hands of the partisans, on the flight to the West, in Soviet labor camps, and from such war-related causes as malnutrition and lack of medical attention.6 Decimated and bereft of our immediate and ancestral homelands in Bukovina and the Bohemian Forest, we, the survivors, nonetheless continue to honor the traditions of our fathers and the altars of our God.
1The religious figure bringing gifts to the children in German-speaking lands is the Christ child, portrayed by either a male or female dressed in white with a veiled face. The American Santa Claus, the jolly, bearded fellow in a red suit, originated as a character drawn by the German-born Thomas Nast, a cartoonist working for Harper’s Weekly (1862-1886). Albert Bigelow Paine, Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1967), p. 4.
2With the seizure of northern Bukovina by the Soviet Union on June 28, 1940, fear gripped the population. An eyewitness in Czernowitz noted that “people stormed trains and buses leaving for the south. Head over heels they fled their homeland with only the barest necessities” (Erwin Massier, Josef Talsky and B. C. Grigorowicz [eds.], Bukowina: Heimat von Gestern [Karlsruhe: Selbsverlag “Arbeitskreis Bukowina Heimatbuch,” 1956], p. 267.). Arbitrary arrests and deportations, the plundering of homes and shops, and the confiscation of all private enterprises led to panic and chaos throughout northern Bukovina. According to Christian Armbrüster, the decision of the southern Bukovinans to emigrate resulted from “the uncomfortably close frontier, reports of refugees, the confusion created by the withdrawal of the Romanian armed forces, continuous requisitions, military maneuvers, quartering of troops, and the suspicion that this only augured worse to come” (Deutsch-Satulmare: Geschichte eines buchenländischen Pfälzerdorfes [Karlsruhe: Verlag Otto Nees, 1962], p. 182. About 15,000 non-Germans managed to get by the German-Soviet commission for resettlement in the Reich. Some had German spouses while others were able to document at least one German grandparent.
3After the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia by the terms of the Munich Accord (1938) and the creation of an independent Slovakia (March 1939) from rump-Czechoslovakia, Hitler reorganized the remaining Czech-inhabited lands in Bohemia and Moravia as a protectorate of the Reich. This move had earlier been ratified under considerable pressure by Czech President Emil Hacha, who had traveled to Berlin to discuss the future economic status of these territories. A discussion of the events leading to the establishment of the protectorate may be found in Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (New York: Bantam Books, Harper and Brothers, 1961), pp. 427-33.
4After the unconditional surrender of the Reich on May 8, 1945, some 40,000 Germans, many of whom had found themselves on Czechoslovak territory, were forcibly repatriated to southern Bukovina. Packed into cattle cars leaving from Prague, Troppau, Pilsen, and Brünn, they were subjected to plunder, privation, and physical violence until weeks or even months later the trains reached their final destination. About 1000 northern Bukovinians, whose German citizenship was not acknowledged by the Soviet Union despite its consent in 1940 to allow them to emigrate, were deported to labor camps in Stalinabad in the Tadzhik Soviet Socialist Republic (Rudolf Wagner, “Die Umsiedlung der Deutschen in der Bukowina,” in Buchenland: 150 Jahre Deutschtum in der Bukowina, ed. Franz Lang [Munich: Verlag des Südostdeutschen Kulturwerks, 1961], p.522).
5Alfred Bohmann (Das Sudetendeutschtum in Zahlen [Munich: Sudetendeutscher Rat, 1959], p. 252) calculates that 3,054,000 Sudeten Germans were expelled from their ancestral homelands after the end of the war while an additional 241,000 perished in acts related to the expulsions. The forced exodus of the Sudeten Germans and the atrocities perpetrated against them are well documented in Wilhelm Turnwald, ed., Dokumente zur Austreibung der Sudetendeutschen (Munich: Arbeitsgemeinschaft zur Wahrung Sudeten-deutscher Interessen, 1951), 586 pp. An abridged English edition of this work is available under the title: The Expulsion of the Sudeten Germans (Munich: Arbeitsgemeinschaft zur Wahrung Sudeten-deutscher Interessen, 1953), 308 pp.
6Although some 95,000 left Bukovina for resettlement in the Reich between September and December 1940, only about 80,000 were German. Of these, Hugo Weczerka (Die Deutschen im Buchenland [Würzburg/Main: Holzner-Verlag, n.d.], p. 41) estimates that 16,000, or 20 percent became war casualties.