A Trip to the Land of our Fathers – 2004

By Wilhelm Fries, PhD (Müllheim/Baden, Germany)
Published by the author in the Bukovina Society of the Americas Newsletter,
Vol. 15, No.1, March, 2005

On May 8, 2004 we departed for the trip to southern Bukovina in Romania, where our fathers had spent their childhood and youth until the 1940 resettlement. Our goal was the small village of Corlata (Korlata) in the vicinity of Ilisestie (Illischestie) on the eastern slopes of the Carpathians.

Aside from myself, our travel group consisted of three people: my cousin Sieglinde, my cousin Bernd, and his wife Renate. Since my father had not been especially close to the family of his early-departed brother, I had not seen my cousins since childhood although we grew up in the same small city. We did not meet again until the funeral of my father in 2002. One year later we began planning a trip to Bukovina.

We had only one single photograph from Corlata, which shows our fathers with their parents and a cow in front of their wooden house.

The trip took at total of eight days. For the five days in Romania we had booked in advance with a travel bureau for a small bus with driver, a translator and all overnight accommodations with meals.

We arrived there with our own auto. The route took us along the Danube through Vienna and Budapest. Often our thoughts centered on our forebears, who had traveled almost the same route along the Danube. From their homeland in the Rhineland they first immigrated to the former Austrian crown land of Galicia and then later to Bukovina, a distance of about 1500 kilometers.

After an overnight stay in Hungary, we were greeted at the Romanian border by Dinu, our tour guide and translator, a young Romanian economics student. From the border to Bistrita in Transylvania, a distance of 280 kilometers, Dinu joined us in the car, which was not entirely comfortable.

One of the first impressions in Romania was the wondrous beauty of the landscape. In Cluj (Klausenburg) in Transylvania we interrupted the journey for a brief city tour. The industrious construction activity made it obvious that we were in a land undergoing fundamental change. Above all many monuments from the Austrian period were just being renovated.

On the entire trip the impressions of momentous historic changes in this section of Europe, which also played a role in the fate of our forebears as immigrants and settlers, were mirrored, indeed almost within our grasp.

In the evening in the hotel in Bistrita at the reception with the tour directors, we tried to express our feelings. The Romanians, however, could not understand these sentiments, although at least in Transylvania all could still relate to the word “Saxons” (in Transylvania the German settlers were called “Saxons,” in Bukovina “Swabians,” although these terms did not necessarily have anything to do with their actual origins).

After much discussion about bygone days and the German settlers, I eventually felt I should mention that we were not nationalists yearning for a restoration of the past and a presumed available “greatness” there. But that had not been necessary; the Romanians had not misunderstood.

We parked our car in Bistrita and the next morning drove with a Volkswagen van across the Carpathians to Bukovina. Our travel group now consisted of Dinu (our translator), Viroel (the van driver) and us four visitors. On the trip across the Carpathians we stopped at the obligatory although not historic Hotel Dracula. The road was good up to that point. As it continued, however, it was in noticeably bad condition, so that for several hours we could proceed only very slowly.

In Vatra Dornei (Dorna Watra), a resort on the Moldova River, we came upon a place at noon where I knew for the first time that my father had been. He had told of a pavilion in the park, where the resort had sponsored concerts.

On the evening of our third day we reached Gura Humorului (Gurahumora). For the next three days we had accommodations in a private boarding house, where we lacked for nothing. The rooms had new furnishings (all of wood) and were very cheerful. We were catered to and overwhelmed with typical foods and drinks.

On the fourth day of our trip we departed for Corlata, a distance of yet twenty kilometers, the last of which were traversed on unpaved roads. At last we began to believe that this is how we would actually find the village, which our fathers had abandoned sixty-three years earlier.

And so it was. The typical and still widely-used horse-draw wagons drove up and down and streets. Below the village the farmland and the fields had the same dark, almost black earth about which my father had spoken. On the fields people still worked with horse, plow and ax, just as they had for many generations.

In the village we first came upon the school, one of the few masonry buildings. Although instruction was in progress, they interrupted the session for us. It was a balmy spring day, yet the classrooms were still cold; the school was not heated so that the children had to wear caps.

The students were already used to visitors from Germany, since Mrs. Johanna Jessen from Lohe-Rickelsof in north Germany, who had been born in Corlata, annually comes with her family in order to support the school and improve conditions for the children. More can be learned about Mrs. Jessen’s work for the children of Corlata from her web site: www.diekindervoncorlata.de

There could no longer be a doubt that since the times of our fathers almost nothing had changed. Desks, wooden floors, doors, windows, pictures on the walls looked as though they had been there as long as the school had existed. Our fathers must have seen them exactly as we did now.

After we had distributed our gifts, we proceeded to the center of the village. With the old photograph in hand I sought to identify the house of our forebears. Although we were not successful in recognizing “our” house, we did locate other original wooden houses from the Swabian period.

The gravedigger was available to give us a perspective of the past. He told us that there was still a very elderly resident who perhaps could help us. But he was ill and a visit without the permission of the priest, for whom we then sent, was not possible. In the meantime the gravedigger guided us through the cemetery, showing us the extant gravestones of the settlers.

To our great surprise we suddenly came upon a family gravestone. Up to this time we had not even considered this as a possibility. The inscription on the stone cross read: Here rests Christian Friess/ born 15/9 1848/ died 8/2/ 1920/ Rest in peace

After the trip I found among my research papers that this was our great great uncle, the oldest brother of our great grandfather, Heinrich Fries.

Other names on the gravestones included Adam Schum, Johan Seibert, Anton and Marie Hassel.

Soon the Orthodox priest arrived, a young man who owned the only auto in the village: a thirty-year-old Mercedes. He told us that aside from being the priest, he was also the village’s mayor and medical doctor. Unfortunately we could not visit the old man who might have been able to tell us about the past, since he was too ill.

The priest showed us “his” Orthodox church, a stately new building, and invited us to come to his home. Like the school, the parish house was also of stone from the time of the Swabians. Although furnished simply but comfortably, it had evidently not been restored, since large fissures were visible in the masonry. His wife and three children greeted us and in the house we were served bread, sausage, apple wine and coffee. The priest’s foreign language was French, which we did not know. But thanks to our translator, we understood one another well.

We learned that the winters were very harsh with temperatures under -20°C no rarity. Last winter the village was snowed in for three months and cut off from the outside world. Given the mild spring weather, this was difficult to envision.

At the end of our stay in Corlata with the priest we ascended a hill in back of his house and from there had a fascinating view. Here we gazed from the west over the village, which extended a long distance along a height lined with trees in the midst of a predominantly bare, steppe-like hilly landscape. We were at the last spurs of the Carpathians where a few kilometers further the hilly section ended and the landscape changed to seemingly endless rolling plains. We could recognize the Moldova Valley, where from the east the hills became ever smaller, eventually opening out into plains. Overwhelmed with impressions, we then returned to our boarding house.

The following day our touring program included Carpathians, Moldavian monasteries, egg decoration, and pottery.

On day six the time of our departure had arrived. We still had one last night in Bistrita and a great farewell with our Romanian escorts, who had become our friends in the days we had spent together.

By the evening of day eight we were already at home with our families. The trip in the land of our fathers had transpired without difficulty. Our experiences still captivate us today, months later. One fact remains a certainty: we shall return.