Bukovina-German Women in Social Perspective

Sophie A. Welisch, PhD

Published in the Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans From Russia,
Vol. 13, No. 4 – Winter 1990, pp. 20-24

Posted with permission of the AHSGR and of the author, April 3, 1996
Revised April 22, 1996

References to Bukovina’s women are few and scattered. Erich Beck’s bibliographical guides on the literature published about Bukovina from earliest times to 1975, with a total of 12,202 titles (7,371 in volume 1 and 4,831 in volume 2), include all of five references to German women printed between 1923 – 1954.1 Moreover, since most appeared in newspapers, their length is limited to only a few columns of print.

In the absence of available printed materials on early twentieth century Bukovina German women, this essay is based on information gleaned from works devoted intrinsically to other issues as well as on interviews, observations, and personal insights. In order to put the female role in historic and comparative perspective, it was necessary occasionally to work outside this chronological and cultural framework.

It is to a Roman that we owe our first observations of German women, namely to the classical historian Tacitus. In his De Germania published in 98 A.D., he noted that when the Germans went to battle and their lines were “wavering and giving way, [they were] rallied by women who, with earnest entreaties … vividly represented the horrors of captivity, which the Germans fear with such extreme dread on behalf of their women.” He goes on to say that among the Germans, women have “a certain sanctity and prescience, and they do not despise their counsels, or make light of their answers.”2 If we can believe Tacitus, German male-female relations at the dawn of their recorded history got off to a good start. What impressions await us as we travel forward in time and arrive in Austria’s easternmost crown land of Bukovina at the turn of this century will now be explored.

The socialization of children begins in infancy. In Bukovina’s conservative agrarian community, there was a clear distinction between the roles and responsibilities of men and those of women, with little common ground. From childhood through adolescence the female was acculturated into and prepared for her future position as wife and mother and expected to dedicate herself to Kinder, Kirche, Küche (children, church, kitchen), a phrase that later found currency in Hitler’s Third Reich.

Social mobility for both men and women was extremely difficult, but especially so for women. While the son might have the opportunity to attend a vocational trade school, an academic high school (Gymnasium), or a university — the costs of which the family paid privately — education beyond six grades of elementary school (Volkschule) was often not possible for the daughter. Given a limited income, the family invested in the son in preference to the daughter, since the son would become a breadwinner and had to provide for a family of his own while the daughter would marry and be supported by her husband. Simply stated, a formal education beyond elementary school was wasted on a girl.

Once the couple was married, all the institutions of the community were brought to bear on keeping them together. These included the family, the church, and the state, with the latter two maintaining the sanctity and inviolability of marriage by forbidding divorce. Also legally outlawed in the Hapsburg era were prostitution and abortion, but as history has amply demonstrated throughout the ages, these censures were difficult to enforce. Moreover, both civil and canon law permitted wife beating so that in Austria, where Catholicism was the state religion, domestic violence short of murder was not redressed in the courts.

The unmarried female was often viewed as a liability to her family. Since children were expected to take care of their parents in their old age, the unmarried and/or childless woman was economically at risk as she reached her senior years and had to rely on the charity of family or community if she lacked independent means.

But while the single female was deemed a failure as a woman, the unwed mother was an outright family disaster. We all recall Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great classic, The Scarlet Letter in which Hester Prynne is condemned to wear the letter “A” (for “adulteress”) on her garment and to live isolated and secluded on the periphery of the village. While public branding was never in vogue in Bukovina, the social stigma attached to bringing an illegitimate child into the world often resulted in subtle social rejection and dogged the woman for as long as she lived. Unless she later married the father of her child, her chances of finding a husband remained slim.

While marriages were not directly arranged, parents sometimes brought considerable pressure to bear on their children in making what they considered the proper choice. After all, marriage was too important to be left entirely to the young. Marrying within one’s faith and social position were high on the list of desired attributes in a mate. Usually girls were wedded by their mid to late teens; still to be single at about age twenty-three or twenty-four foreshadowed spinsterhood. Men were not expected to take a wife before they had completed their compulsory three-year military training at age twenty-four, since in the days of the Hapsburgs the state paid nothing for dependent families of inductees.

The very nature of agrarian economic life made group living, i.e. the family, a necessity. Three-generational families worked side by side as a single economic unit, often only to eke out a frugal existence. Elisabeth Gabriel-Berezow tells us that when the Germans first settled in Bukovina, the women labored side by side with their men in clearing the forests, plowing the fields, and building the houses. And if they had no horses or oxen, women took their place next to their husbands in pulling wagons and plows.3
It was the woman who made the house a home with its flower beds and flowerpots on the windowsills. She did the spinning, weaving, washing; she made her own bread, soap, candles, and garments including stockings. To the German-Bohemian men in Bukovina villages such as Bori, Fürstenthal, Pojana Mikuli, and Althütte fell the task of whittling shoes. These were called Holzpantoffel and, similar to what we know as “clogs” today, were made of wood.

The expression, die Frau gehört ins Haus, (the woman belongs in the house), epitomized the prevalent turn-of-the-century societal view of the woman’s place. A household has been compared with a state in which its female manager wields considerable power and wears many hats including that of minister of finance; minister of health, education, and welfare; minister of culture; economics minister; and when dealing with the neighborhood, minister for foreign affairs.4 Seen in this light, it would appear that Bukovina’s women indeed played a prominent role in society.

But let us not deceive ourselves; it was a man’s world. In that the husband was usually older, had more job skills, was taller and stronger than his wife, it followed that he enjoyed the dominant position in the family. As master of his home, he was, in ideal circumstances, a friend and companion to his wife, a guide and role model for his children, and the provider of hearth and home. Involved in his vocation and in activities in the outer world, the husband was freer to express his individuality. He enjoyed the benefit of the double standard in that within the limits of decency and propriety he could be seen in public places anywhere and at any time, smoke and drink to his heart’s content, and associate with whomever he pleased without fear of malicious gossip or a tarnished reputation. Moreover, his career options, although limited by modern standards, were infinitely broader than for a woman.

That woman won admiration of whom it could be said she ran an orderly household which included among other visible manifestations, the rational use of time in the completion of tasks, regularity in the preparation of meals, and responsible, well-behaved children. Next to orderliness, we find that ambition, cleanliness, and thrift ranked high on the list of valued feminine attributes. Many are the proverbs that support this contention.

The axiom Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund (morning hour has gold in its mouth) must have been formulated with wives in mind. Expected to arise before other members of the family, the wife had to prepare breakfast and see that everyone got out on time.

Since many of the women’s tasks were long and tedious, they often sought to ameliorate their boredom by working in groups, usually during the evening hours. Such a gathering for work, entertainment, or contests, in Romanian called a claca5 and in English a “bee,” was organized when shelling corn, pitting plums, removing the stems from feathers for pillows and comforters, and spinning. Brigitte Kulhanek of Luisental, in a conversation with Claus Stephani in 1967, recounts what transpired during one of these spinning sessions at the turn of the century:

Girls went to the spinning room [Spinnstube] where some eight to ten assembled to spin. Then the boys came with a harmonica; they played a little and sang a little. In anticipation of such an evening, we had already completed our spinning days in advance in order to be able to dance, and sing, and laugh, and play games. This left no time for spinning. At that time there were some three or four spinning rooms in the village, since many Zipser girls lived there.6

In the absence of electronic media to transmit local news and gossip, the claca often proved to be a reliable source of village happenings.

Once married, a woman was not expected to work outside the home. For her to do so made it seem that her husband had failed in his role as family provider. Moreover, the job opportunities for women in early twentieth-century Bukovina were limited and among the most menial; we find Bukovina women working as seamstresses, domestics, teachers, and cooks. Some took in washing which they did by hand at the edge of the stream. Others waited on tables in hotels and pubs, labored over looms to weave rugs and tapestries, or worked side by side with men in barber shops.

One of the more prestigious occupations for women was midwifery. In Bukovina a midwife was licensed and paid by the state. In the event of a difficult or prolonged birth it was not unusual for her to stay overnight. After the delivery the midwife then checked mother and child daily for about one week and rendered any needed assistance. In addition to the state fee, the midwife customarily received something from the family for her services, which might have been as little as a dozen eggs.7

Those employed in the knitting mills in the mid-1930s earned about 300-400 lei per month.8 (One hundred lei in the mid-1930s was equivalent to 1 United States dollar.9) A certain number of factory jobs existed in the cities where industrialization was just beginning, but the conditions of employment were exploitative. There were no unions, minimum wage laws, or what we could call “fringe benefits.” The very nature of these jobs must lead one to conclude that they were ill-paid and low in social prestige — typical of occupations in which women predominate. Nor could they hope to redress their grievances through the ballot box. It was not until 1946 that women in Romania received the franchise for national elections.

It says a lot that in both German and English the word for “girl” is synonymous with the word for “servant.” You’ve probably not thought of it in those terms before, but according to The American College Dictionary “maid” is defined as “a girt,” as well as “a female servant,” while “maiden” is equivalent to “a maid; girl; young unmarried woman.” The New Cassell’s German Dictionary tells us that in German the words Magd, Mädchen, and Dirne can be used interchangeably for “young woman” and “servant,” with the latter also meaning “prostitute.” It could be worse: in Chinese the word for woman is the same as the word for slave!

Poor working conditions also existed for men. Those employed in Bukovina’s mines, forests, and glassworks labored under dangerous conditions for long hours and little pay. It was not that our grandfathers oppressed our grandmothers but rather that they lived under an institutionalized economic system and class structure passed down from generation to generation which permitted little flexibility, mobility, or change. It is not difficult to see why many of Bukovina’s men and women chose to immigrate to the New World or transfer to Germany en masse when the possibility presented itself in 1940.

From our American experience we see that the road to social mobility was facilitated by the country’s great economic resources, in particular land, and, since World War II, by the availability and accessibility of higher education. Both these factors were severely restricted in the Bukovina of our forebears. Education, and in particular the education of women, had an especially late start.

Bukovina had separate secondary education for boys and girls. In the 1872-1873 academic year a woman’s teacher training institute opened in Czernowitz with twenty-one students, ten of whom were German. By 1912-1913 there were German-language academic high schools (Gymnasium) for girls in Czernowitz, Radautz, Gurahumora, and Suczawa with a total of 1,226 registrants. In addition, Czernowitz also had two private girls’ secondary schools (Privatrealgymnasium, which offered a nonclassical education and whose graduates did not qualify for university admission), plus a public girls’ Gymnasium with parallel classes in German, Ukrainian, and Romanian.10 Aside from the cost of tuition, if a girl lived outside these high school towns, it meant the added expense of room and board. Graduation from the Gymnasium opened the route to the university.

In the 1880s tile University of Czernowitz, Bukovina’s only institution of higher learning, began to accept female auditors in its school of philosophy. By 1897-1898 the number of women had steadily increased so that by the 1903-1904 academic year they constituted one-third of the students enrolled in the school of philosophy (the university had three schools: philosophy, theology, and law). When the first woman received her degree, the president of the university commented:

I can only wish on this occasion that Miss Klementine von Hankiewicz, on whom we have conferred the degree of doctor of philosophy, will find many imitators among our female high school youth and that the admission of women to our university studies will bear good fruit.11

In the winter semester of 1905-1906 59 out of a total of 698 students were female while one year later the figure had increased to 78 out of 799,12 in each instance less than 10 percent. The faculty remained almost exclusively male: the only woman to whom I could find reference — there may have been others — was Dr. Johanna Ott-Allacz, lecturer in English during the Romanian era.

In the interwar period, when German institutions and traditions were threatened by Romanization, it was the women who were relied upon as transmitters of tradition, language, and folklore. Their role in cultural affairs took on an added dimension in multinational Bukovina where, in particular during the post-World War I era, German was no longer the official language and the Germans had become an endangered species. It was Bukovina’s German women who kept alive the nursery rhymes, folk songs, proverbs, knowledge of herbal medicine, and oral histories in a sea of foreign peoples. If the German communities in Bukovina seemed to be little linguistic enclaves, this was largely the achievement of their women. They were seldom bilingual, which was not the case with the men who had daily contact with the larger community through the world of work, the market place, and the pub.13

It was not uncommon in Bukovina to find carriers of Slavic and Romanian surnames identifying themselves as Germans, in all probability because of a German mother. Spending more time with the children than the father, the mother’s influence in shaping the values of her children was the critical one. Recognizing this role for the German mother in interwar Romania, an article in the Czernowitzer Deutsche Tagespost of December 12, 1929, notes:

Precisely because the German woman in Romania belongs to a group struggling to maintain its ethnic identity, her role differs from that of the German woman in Germany or the Romanian woman in Romania….To the German mother falls the work of preserving our German culture, a fundamental [and] most important task. The woman is the soul of the family. It is she who teaches the child his first words, who molds his spirit, his first thoughts, and his very being.14

The nationalistic decade of the 1930s witnessed a movement to organize the German girls of Bukovina on a local group basis. In order to develop what we would call today ethnic awareness, the Mädelgruppen (girls’ groups) met to study their history, heroes, and traditions in order to better prepare themselves for the political and social tasks ahead in both community and family.15

Of the numerous women’s organizations, mention might be made here of the Vereinigung deutscher Frauen (Union of German Women), founded in Czernowitz in September 1921 and dedicated to charitable, social, and educational work. Under the leadership of urban, middle class women, it included among its tasks the education of village women through conferences and lectures on child rearing and care of the elderly and sought to foster female solidarity by minimizing distinctions of class and religion.16

Those familiar with Western history in general or women’s history in particular may well note that the status of Bukovina’s women in the first decades of the twentieth century does not differ measurably in kind or degree from that of their counterparts in other agrarian, pre-industrial societies. The woman, as nurturer, enjoyed the security of a well-defined role in the home and a strong support system in the extended family. Neither alone nor isolated, she had a recognized and respected place in society, living in dignity and confidently fulfilling her family duties is she perceived them.

Lest we wax nostalgic about the lives and times of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, let us conclude by drawing a picture in bold strokes of the feminine mystique surrounding early twentieth-century Bukovina women. Ideally, she was married by her mid-teens — sixteen to eighteen — and by the end of her child bearing age may have given birth to eight, ten, twelve, or perhaps as many as eighteen or nineteen children. The Bukovina woman had limited household appliances, certainly nothing that would require electricity. Before she cooked the family meals, she had to make a fire, the chopping of wood being the responsibility of males. Since there was no indoor plumbing, all water had to be drawn from a well. In some cases the well was not on her property, so water had to be fetched from a communal well or from a neighbor. She washed the clothes she herself had spun and woven in the local stream with soap she made. On the average women aged more rapidly than do their contemporary counterparts. A study of old photographs will confirm this; among other things their mouth area is often depressed, owing to the absence of teeth. And by sixty both she and her spouse were probably toothless or close to it, with no artificial replacements. Perhaps that is why they never smiled in turn-of-the-century photographs! Moreover, health care, especially in the villages, was at best primitive. While Bukovina had a limited number of doctors and dentists, many people depended on folk healers, home remedies including herbal concoctions and potions, and occasionally, on charms and incantations. The practice of folk medicine, much of which had originated in medieval times if not earlier, was yet another sphere of female activity.

Sports, games, and entertainments for women outside the home and church were virtually unheard of. While dances were organized for singles, usually for the purpose of helping them socialize and find a mate, these were seldom attended by married couples. Men could seek diversion at the local pub but this was taboo for the respectable woman. And unless she lived in one of the larger towns (Czernowitz, Radautz), she had no opportunity ever to attend a theater and probably seldom if ever read a newspaper. She lacked skills that would have made her employable in all but domestic service and the most menial jobs; yet even if she had skills, there was limited opportunity to use them.

Were Bukovina’s women unhappier than their liberated sisters of today? Probably not. Socialized into their role at a young age, most no doubt accepted their status since the concept of radical change existed neither in their level of awareness nor within their perception of the possible.

Bukovina’s German women, today dispersed in East and West Germany, Austria, and the New World,17 now enjoy the benefits and opportunities afforded by a modern industrialized society. Accordingly we find them and their female descendants in the liberal professions, in public service, or working as writers, technicians, chemists, and accountants. A woman, Dr. Paula Tiefenthaler, currently serves as president of the Landsmannschaft der Buchenlanddeutschen (Association of Bukovina Germans), the first woman to head one of Germany’s twenty regional associations of expellees and refugees from Eastern Europe; another, Frau Irma Bornemann presides over the Kaindl Gesellschaft (Kaindi Society), an institution dedicated to scholarly pursuits in the research of Bukovina history, genealogy, and culture. Given the potential for greater self-expression, intellectual development, and creative endeavor, Bukovina’s women have risen to the occasion. As the Virginia Slims’ commercial so aptly put it: “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

[Photo unavailable]
Marie Brandl was born in Bori (Bukovina) in 1872. This picture was taken in about 1925. She is wearing the typical dress of the German settlers in Bukovina whose ancestral origins had been in Bohemia. Marie participated in the mass evacuation of the Germans in 1940 and later died in the Protectorate of Bohemia/Moravia in 1944.


1Erich Beck, Bibliographie zur Landskunde der Bukowina: Literatur bis zum Jahre 1965 (Munich: Verlag des Südostdeutschen Kulturwerkes, 1966); Bibliographie zur Kultur und Landskunde der Bukowina: Literatur aus den zum Jahren 1965-1975 (Dortmund: Forschungsstelle Ostmitteleuropa, 1985).

2Tacitus, “De Germania” in Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World, ed. (Donald S. Gochberg, vol. 1, 4th ed., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1988), p 421.

3Elisabeth Gabriel-Berezow, “Die deutsche Frau des Buchenlandes,” Neuland (Freilassing), July 31, 1954, p 3.

4Marie Susanne Kübler, Das Hauswesen (Stuttgart: Verlag von J. Engelhorn, 1899), p 5.

5The Romanian word claca, (spelled Klaka using German phonetics) means “compulsory service,” and referred to the unpaid labor required of the serfs under the feudal system. After the emancipation of the peasantry from this seigniorial obligation, people continued the habit of working in groups, and indeed took pleasure in it. In Das Brauchtum von Bayrischen, deutsch-böhmischen Buchenländern (Essen: by the author, 1989), pp 69-78, Sigfried Mirwald describes the various activities for which Klakas were organized and the social activities which accompanied them.

6Claus Stephani, Erfragte Wege: Zipser Texte aus der Südbukowina, Kreis Suceava (Bucharest: Kriterion Verlag, 1975). p 142.

7Conversation with Theresia Wagner, Valley Cottage, NY, June 12, 1990. Mrs. Wagner’s grandmother, Theresia Tomaschewski, served for some three decades as the midwife for the Christians of Gurahumora. With its sizable Jewish population, Gurahumora also had a Jewish midwife.

8J. Z., “Die deutsche Frau der Bukowina,” Der Auslandsdeutsche, 16 (1933) p 534.

9Following the post-World War I inflation, the currency was stabilized in 1929 at one leu = 0.598 U.S. cent: in 1936, after the reduction of the gold content, one leu was equivalent to 1.0127 U.S. cents and reestablished in 1947 at 0.66 U.S. cent (Henry L. Roberts, Rumania: Political Problems of an Agrarian State [Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1969], p xii).

10Erich Prokopopowitsch, “Die Entwicklung des Schulwesens in der Bukowina,” in Buchenland: 150 Jahre Deutschtum in der Bukowina, ed. Franz Lang (Munich: Verlag des Südostdeutschen Kulturwerks, 1961) pp 307-308, 312.

11Emanuel Turczynski, “Die Universität Cernowitz,” ibid, pp 345-346.

12Ibid., p 346, also Erich Prokopowitsch, “Grundung, Entwicklung und Ende der Franz-Josephs-Universität” in Cernowitz (Bukowina-Buchenland), vol. 1 of Schriften zur Geschichte des Deutschtums in der Bukowina (Buchenland), ed. Herbert Mayer (Clausthal-Zellerfeld: Ed. Piepersche Buchdruckerei und Verlagsanstalt, 1955), p 40.

13Gabriel-Berezow, p 3.

14Bruno Skrehunetz, “Welt der Frau: Die Bukowiner deutsche Frau,” Czernowitzer Deutsche Tagespost, 12 Dec. 1929, pp 3-4.

15Else Göry, “Deutsche Mädchenarbeit im Buchenland,” Deutscher Kalendar für die Bukowina (Czernowitz: 1935), pp 41-42.

61M.B., “Ein Jahr deutscher Frauenarbeit,” Bukowiner Bote 7 (Czernowitz: 1923), pp 5-6.

17Following the Soviet seizure of northern Bukovina on June 28, 1940, the Third Reich initiated an en masse transfer of some 95,000 Germans from both north and south Bukovina to its territories. For a discussion of the details of this action see: Dirk Jachomowski, Die Umsiedlung der Bessarabien-, Bukowina- und Dobrudschadeutschen, vol. 32 of Buchreihe der Südostdeutschen Historischen Kommission (Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1984).