Sunday, October 2, 2011


Railway tracks north out of Werbass

October 1944.
A message is wired from my grandfather(Opa), a cook for the German Army on the Russian front in Belarus, to my grandmother(Oma) in Werbass:  "The German war effort is collapsing and we are under full scale retreat. The red army will soon be arriving in our hometown. Follow the direction of the Red Cross and evacuate. Take the children to your uncle's house in Germany."

The Red Cross did organize an evacuation shortly after that message was received. Families with children got first priority on the trains. My mother's family had five children aged 6, 5, 3, 2 and an infant.
The train carriages were mostly cattle cars with a couple of passenger cars available. My family started out on the cattle car. Oma wrapped a dry smoked ham leg in a towel and packed a salami in a backpack along with a favorite set of silver ware, a couple litres of water and some clothing items. Her sister in law had two girls aged 7 and 3 and they got on a later train towards Munich, Germany. Eventually the train tracks became so damaged by bombing that the remaining Danube Swabians had to evacuate by foot for the 220 km. journey to Hungary and then onto Austria. 

The destination for my family was in future East Germany and the train route there was through Hungary. After spending 3 days on the trains the passengers were informed that the tracks were bombed out and the train could not continue but if they were to continue across the damaged section on foot the train is still in service on the other side. Oma and the children attempted the walk across the bombed out terrain only to be told that the trains were no longer running on the other side since the tracks were now too damaged further up the line to continue safely. They walked back to their last stop and took a train south ending up back in Werbass after a total travel time of 10 days. The only route still passable was now into Austria and Germany. This voyage took several weeks with stops and food supplied by the Red Cross along the way. The infant, who was later to become my uncle, suffered the worst malnutrition since my Oma could no longer breastfeed and there was no formula available. Some of the Red Cross volunteers attempted a makeshift powdered milk/coffee mixture to give him something in his belly.

Eventually the refugees arrived in a resettlement camp outside of Munich and were placed in the Bavarian mountain village of Unterammergau just beside the village of Oberammergau famous for its Passion Play

Once my Opa finally made it safely back from the front to Munich, the family was again reunited there.
German Army or
Serbian Army?
The German government eventually paid a small restitution to my grandparents for the loss of their home in Werbass after they started a new life in Germany.  
The family was to live in Unterammergau for 12 years before immigrating to Canada.

Cruising back from the Adriatic Sea at 170 KPH along the M3 motorway or "Autoj Bahnic" as I call it, I ruminate about what happened to my family in Werbass.

Who is to blame for their hardship and loss of their home?

My Opa? He was an able bodied young man and was expected to serve in WW2. He was first drafted into the Serbian army and then switched sides to the German army as many of the Danube Swabien men did. These men were not German nationals and could not belong to the regular German army so were enlisted with the notorious Waffen divisions. He drank the Nazi "Kool Aid" like millions of others, chose the team he thought would win and ultimately benefit his family. It is all to easy now to look back in hindsight and criticize his choices. 

The Partisans? One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. These people appeared to be your neighbour and friend by day but fought for their homeland under cloak of night time and secrecy. Serbia has had more than its fair share of invaders since Roman times and these fighters were bravely defending their homeland.

The Red Army? Russia almost single handedly wore down the German war effort so that the allies could drive the final nail in the Nazi coffin. They lost 14 million women and children and 10 million soldiers. Astounding numbers. They were the liberators when they arrived in the east block nations and they wanted revenge on any and all German supporters.Danube Swabians who did not make it out were imprisoned in Siberian slave labour camps or executed immediately. The labour camp residents did not get out until the mid 1950's.
The Soviets treated any and all dissidents badly and wanted revenge for their dead and destroyed cities. I cannot support their methods but I can see why they had no compassion for Germans.

The Allies? Hundreds of thousands of refugees moving about Europe. Western Europe was preoccupied with repairing its war damage, feeding its own and suffering from general war fatigue. UN refugee assistance was fractured by political infighting and the cold war was starting to brew. The general populace of England was not aware of what was happening to the German descent refugees of the Balkans and the few politicians that raised the issue were ignored.

So who do I find culpable? Nobody and everybody.

Of the Danube Swabians that did make a new life in Canada, there is strong anecdotal evidence that this community has a larger percentage of high net worth individuals than the average population. There appears to be a stronger drive and determination that comes from hardship and fight for survival and I see the same in today's new Canadians that come from places such as Serbia, Romania or Poland.
Webass Canal

1 comment:

  1. You start with the personal story, tell it beautifully and draw out the political and moral themes, making it universal. This is excellent writing.