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This story published 11/10/97


The following essay was written by Frank M. Lutsch and is based on his mother's war-time experiences. It is backed by data from books written by German historian, Dr.Anton Tafferner, and Eck & Hagel, two residents from his mother's hometown who gathered information. Note: Keep in mind that the purpose of this paper was to analyze the stages of victimization and contains explicit content which some may find unpleasant.


The Long Journey to Freedom

by

Frank M. Lutsch


Ursula's History Web

Introduction

The following case study is based on events that occurred to Elisabeth Lutsch during the years 1944-47. At the age of 17, Elisabeth became what Bassiouni would term, a "collective victim". She was one of approx. 600,000 Danube Swabians who lived in Yugoslavia prior to WWII.

In the fall of 1944, under the Jajce Decree, the Danube Swabians, because of their German ethnicity and support for their ancestral homeland, were deprived of all rights and property. Their homes, farms and livestock were distributed among Tito's followers, the Partisans. Most of the women, children and elderly were driven into 14 internment camps where some 200,000 perished due to starvation and other causes in the years 1945-47 (Tafferner, p. 20). Others such as Elisabeth were taken to Russian labour camps. Her remarkable story begins in her hometown of Sartscha, Serbia.


Circumstances That Led to the Victimization

What circumstances led to Elisabeth's eventual victimization? As mentioned, Elisabeth grew up in the town of Sartscha (present day Sutjeska), in Serbia. Although a distinct minority (4% of the population), the Danube Swabians were permitted to maintain their customs and religious beliefs. At school, instruction was in both German and Serbian. During German occupation in WWII, the emergence of German nationalism began to strain relations with the Serbs. The townspeople openly supported their ancestral German homeland.

In April of 1941, German and Italian forces invaded the region and in a matter of days it was under their command. The townspeople of Sartscha never had any direct contact with the invading forces since the major battles were distant from their town. In the initial phases of the German occupation 15 young Sartscha men voluntarily signed up to enlist in the German army but only 8 of them were recruited. However, from March 1942 onwards, military enlistment for all able-bodied men was compulsory. No one refused conscription because of the possible consequences. Serbian Partisans, on the other hand, believed that all Danube Swabians enlisted voluntarily, and it was this misconception which became a major driving force for the Serbs subsequent motives for revenge.

Due to the lack of manpower which resulted from conscription, young Serbian men were forced to work on the fields of those Danube Swabians who required assistance. Elisabeth's family, for a short period, employed one of these men from a nearby Serbian village. He received food and lodging and, like the others, was paid for his services. There was never any known mistreatment of these workers but some did run away, only to be returned again by the police.


Initial Victimization and Subsequent Events

October 1944 was the beginning of the end of a way of life for the 915 Danube Swabians of Sartscha who had been unaffected by the ravages of war. For decades they had lived in relative peace and harmony with the town's 185 Serbian and Hungarian residents. With the collapse of the eastern front, advancing Russian troops entered the town on October 2. Elisabeth recalls the event; "I'll never forget that day. A messenger told the people that the Russians were not far away. He said the church bells will ring to warn us when they are here. After hearing this all of us went into our homes. Nobody wanted to leave town. Not much later I heard the church bells ring. I remember it raining and it didn't stop for days. Many said heaven was crying for us".

On the eve of the 3rd of October, the Russian commander, in collaboration with the Partisans, took 19 townspeople from their homes; among them the school teacher, Edmund Geist, the doctor's wife, Anna Massong, and her 15 year old son. All were locked up in a small room in the town hall that evening, interrogated and executed in the early morning hours. Eight of the townspeople were assigned the task of burying the dead at daybreak. (Eck & Hagel p. 135).

Ten days passed until the Russian forces pulled out. One of the commanders, however, stayed behind to continue the interrogations. In the days ahead the townspeople lived in constant fear for their lives, not knowing if they would be the next ones to be taken from their homes. In the evenings, the Partisans would bring young women to the commander to rape; one father, Nikolaus Siller, who refused to give his daughter away, was shot to death. Before his reign of terror was over, 16 more Sartscha residents had been executed, 3 of them by the commander himself.

To add to Elisabeth's shock and disbelief at the atrocities committed towards decent people she had known all her life, she received word that her father, a military policeman stationed near Belgrade, was reported missing behind enemy lines.

On the mourning of Dec. 27, 1944, an armed Partisan entered Elisabeth's home. After discovering that Elisabeth was 17 years old, she was told to join a gathering of women in front of the town hall. There they were informed that they would be taken to the nearby village of Modosch for 2 weeks, to work in the cornfields. Provisions for 2 days were to be packed; those who were unable to work or had children were allowed to stay behind. At 10.00 a.m., Elisabeth and 26 other Sartscha women between the ages of 17 and 30, were loaded onto wagons and taken to Modosch, 16 km. away. There they were joined by more incoming Danube Swabian women from nearby settlements.

Their journey, however, was not over as was thought, it was just beginning. Towards evening the women were ordered onto the wagons and traveled until dawn to the city of Betschkerek (Becej), some 40 km. away. Tired, cold and hungry, the all night journey ended at a fenced- in army compound that housed German POW's. Outside in the bitter cold they had to remain standing all day, the day’s food rations consisted of 2 servings of pea soup. Their night was spent sleeping side by side on the barracks floor with the constant sound of gunshots in the background. Miraculously, one of the Sartscha women escaped that evening and made it safely back home.

On Dec. 29, 1944, the women were marched in rows of four to the Betschkerek train station where they were loaded onto cattle wagons, 30-35 women per wagon. The train departed that afternoon making a stopover in Modosch. Mothers from the surrounding area received word of the train’s temporary stop and anxiously made the journey to Modosch in order to bring extra supplies to their daughters. Elisabeth's mother brought along extra food, warmer clothing, and a prayer book for the unknown journey ahead. Three of the Sartscha girls escaped, but were recaptured and brought back that same evening. It was then that the train made its slow journey eastward and it was the last time that Elisabeth would see her mother until 1953.

On Jan. 18, 1945, the train finally reached its destination- the heavily bombarded Russian city of Krivoy Rog. Upon arrival, the women were first showered and fed in an old hotel. Immediately afterwards, in the bitter cold and deep snow, they were marched to a barracks which was encircled by a barbed wire fence. Here the women were separated into their new sleeping quarters that contained only rusty steel beds with no mattresses.

For the next 2 years, Elisabeth would work 10 hours a day, 7 days a week with no time off. A typical day’s food supply, which was served in the barracks kitchen, would include sauerkraut with carrot soup, porridge, bread and sardines. Some of the Sartscha women worked in a brick manufacturing plant while others were responsible for clearing out the rubble of destroyed buildings. Elisabeth worked as a brick labourer on construction sites. Often she would have to carry bricks and mortar up to the 3rd or 4th floors. Shoveling cement powder out of railway cars is one task that still stands out in Elisabeth's mind since it caused her a great deal of breathing discomfort. In the spring and summer Elisabeth and 20-40 women, half of them Russian, would work on a Kolkhoz, planting and harvesting wheat, potatoes and tomatoes.

In the spring of 1946, a convoy of trucks arrived in the camp. The women had high hopes of being taken back home but instead they journeyed 100 miles to another camp near the city of Dnepropetrovsk. This camp, which housed some 1300 men and women, had much improved living conditions. The beds now had straw filled mattresses with bed sheets; firewood was also readily available to warm the barracks. For those who required medical attention, there was a separate barracks in which a doctor was on duty.

On Dec. 26, 1946, Elisabeth's health took a turn for the worse. She and her friend had contracted the symptoms of dysentery, which had been the major cause of death in the camp. After informing their work supervisor of their conditions, they were taken to the hospital, which was a 2-hour journey, by wagon in bitter cold weather. Upon arrival the patients were bathed and their heads shaven in order to prevent the spread of lice.

During the first 5 days of her stay, Elisabeth had no appetite, the smell of food itself she had found repulsive. To gain her appetite she exchanged her bread rations for garlic with one of the hospital staff. Gradually her appetite increased. Elisabeth's friend, however, was less fortunate; on New Year's Eve, with Elisabeth at her bedside, her agonizing struggle with dysentery came to an end.

By the middle of March, 1947, Elisabeth's condition had improved considerably but was still weak from recurring bouts of fever. Finally by April she had regained enough strength to leave her hospital bed, despite the fact that she only weighed 72 pounds.

Because of Elisabeth's weakened state, she and most of the other men and women in the camp were no longer required to work. In early June, 1947, the Russian commander announced the news that Elisabeth and the others had waited to hear for so long- they were going home. But where was home? Certainly not Yugoslavia. They were to be taken somewhere in Russian occupied eastern Germany.

After a weeks journey by train Elisabeth arrived in the city of Chemnitz. Through the coordination of the Red Cross she was taken in by an elderly couple as a boarder. Living conditions here were not significantly better than in Russia. Food was rationed through the issuing of food stamps. Elisabeth recalls being caught stealing beets by a farmer in his field because her allotted food stamps had been used up. She and her friends were taken to the police station but the officer understood their plight and gave then just a stern warning.

In November, 1947, Elisabeth and several of her friends attempted to cross into the more prosperous western sector of Germany from the city of Plauen, but were unsuccessful. In the months ahead, Elisabeth's aspirations of fleeing to the west did not diminish. A neighbourhood couple, who smuggled goods across the border, agreed, at Elisabeth's request, to take her with them. Their journey began by train from Hohenstein-Ernsthal to the border town of Wernigerode. It was not until the evening hours that they departed by foot towards the border. By daybreak their goal had been reached- a shallow riverbed crossing. It was here , past the unsuspecting guards, that Elisabeth's 1900-mile journey to freedom finally came to an end. It was August, 1948.


What Type of Crime was Committed?

Defining the crime that was committed against Elisabeth presents somewhat of a problem since the victimization occurred during war. Elisabeth's fate, and that of some 16 million ethnic Germans was decided at Potsdam and Jajce. At Jajce, in Bosnia, in the fall of 1944, Tito and his Anti Fascist Council passed a resolution which stated that those of German nationality are to be dispossessed and deprived of all human rights. At the Potsdam Conference in August 1945, the Allied Control council decided that " the transfer to Germany of German populations , or elements thereof, remaining in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary will have to be undertaken".

At the end of WWII three categories of war crimes were classified according to international law:

  • 1) crimes against peace
  • 2) conventional war crimes - "violations of the customs of war such as murder, deportation to slave labour; plunder of public or private property..."
  • 3) crimes against humanity - "murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population...".

Clearly, the resolutions passed at Potsdam and Jajce may be legally defined as war crimes. If this is indeed the case, then Elisabeth has been the victim of a gross injustice that has not been recognized as such to this very day.


Factors Affecting the Impact of the Victimization

How did Elisabeth survive this ordeal in which she was physically and emotionally subjected to the most extreme human conditions? To answer this question one must take into account subjective and objective factors which were present before the actual victimization occurred, since they greatly affected Elisabeth's coping ability.

During her youth Elisabeth was no stranger to physically demanding labour. She played an active role in the planting and harvesting of the wheat, corn and sunflower crops on the family's 10-acre plot of land, which was situated a few kilometres from town. Her workload increased considerably however, in the latter part of the war years when her father and all other men between the ages of 17-50 had to enlist in the German army. This type of lifestyle, which forced the women into carrying out male dominated tasks, no doubt had a direct impact on their abilities to withstand the physical strain they were to encounter in the Russian labour camps. Elisabeth still recalls jokingly her attempt at plowing the fields with a stubborn team of horses.

Elisabeth's emotional state of mind throughout the victimization period was influenced to a large extent by her socialization. She had been raised in a family environment dominated by feelings of warmth and togetherness. She was therefore very attached to her family and quite reluctant to be away from them for lengthy periods. In the summers she often visited her cousins in the city of Betschkerek for 2 weeks at a time. Elisabeth remembers being teased by her cousin because she would get so homesick that she had to write letters to her family. One can imagine then, the negative effect that a 9-year separation from her loved ones would have.

What was it then that kept Elisabeth alive spiritually? This again can be traced back to her youth and specifically within her cultural environment. In Sartscha, and most Danube Swabian communities, the church was the focal point of town life. Elisabeth's family, who were devout Catholics, actively participated in the functions of the church. The teachings of the church therefore had a profound influence on Elisabeth's way of thinking in personal times of crises. Having faith in God enabled her to accept more willingly the tragic events that surrounded her and gave her renewed hope that someday she would be reunited with her family.


The Short Term Effects- The Impact Stage

Elisabeth's victimization period, which spanned some 21/2 years, had varying levels of impact which were determined by how she perceived the threat to her Self. This perceived threat during the Russian and Partisan occupation of her town differed vastly from her period of deportation and forced labour.

From Oct. 2 - Dec. 26 , 1944, Elisabeth's greatest concern was the constant fear of becoming a primary victim at the hands of her oppressors. This fear increased when it was discovered that the young Serbian man who had previously worked for her, was among the band of Partisans who had taken control of the town. She was reduced to a complete state of helplessness and dependency. There were many sleepless nights listening to the footsteps outside. Because of the reports of young women being raped, Elisabeth would wear a kerchief and dress to make herself appear much older. The only comfort to be found during this turmoil was the presence of friends gathered in constant prayer.

During the deportation period (Dec. 27 - Jan. 18, 1945), Elisabeth experienced feelings analogous to those experienced by a victim of human violence. There was an immediate loss of personal worth and identity. She had lost all her rights as a Yugoslavian citizen and had been reduced to an exchange commodity. By using the desensitizing techniques of devaluation, denigration and derogation, the Partisans were able to justify their actions against the Danube Swabians.

In the Russian labour camps (Jan. 18, - 1945, - June, 1947), Elisabeth's treatment by her Russian captors was quite different. She found them to be very sympathetic and understanding. This form of sympathetic introspection was possible due to the fact that Russian women themselves had suffered similar tragedies.

Much of Elizabeth's inspirational support came from her Sartscha friends; often they would spend the evenings together singing, talking about their childhood or exchanging cooking recipes. All this behaviour seems quite odd to Elisabeth now, but at the time it served as a temporary escape from reality.

While Elisabeth's thoughts at this time were focused on sheer survival, thoughts of her father's whereabouts troubled her. Was he still alive? In her dreams he would appear to her and apologize for not letting her know that he was safe. These dreams served to reinforce her belief that her father was indeed still alive.


Recoil Stage

This stage in Elisabeth's life, which began sometime after her release from the labour camp in June, 1947, was highlighted by periods of emotional highs and lows. Upon arrival in eastern Germany, Elisabeth had difficulty believing that she was actually free to come and go as she pleased. Amidst these feelings of jubilation however, were moments of depression which were triggered by certain sounds that reminded her of those fateful nights during her town’s occupation. The sounds of footsteps in the night or the barking of dogs vividly brought back those nights of the abductions and killings. The ringing of church bells reminded her of the church back home and how they rang for the last time prior to the arrival of her victimizers.

To add to this waxing and waning of emotions, Elisabeth received a letter from her mother in January of 1948 informing her that her father had been among a group of German prisoners who had been shot to death. This news , more than anything else , contributed to the delay of the healing process.


Reorganization Stage

With the passage of time Elisabeth gradually accepted the past events and thought less of her own victimization. This process was facilitated when she began working for the Pelikan ink-pen factory in Hannover, western Germany in Nov. 1948. There she became good friends with a girl who had also been in Russia. For the first time in years Elisabeth was enjoying life; she now had a steady job, a social life and enough food to survive. All these factors combined to help redirect her thoughts elsewhere.

With the millions of refugees streaming into western Germany, acute housing shortages developed. This resulted in pockets of anti-refugee sentiment among the native Germans. Elisabeth was once again blamed for belonging to an ethnic group which had created the problems. These temporary feelings of self-guilt that Elisabeth experienced were overshadowed by thoughts of a more promising future in her new homeland. In June of 1950, Elizabeth moved to Stuttgart where she married Frank whom she had known since youth. In October of 1953, Elisabeth was reunited with her mother, sister and brother who were finally allowed to immigrate to Germany. This happy reunion however, was short-lived for in August of 1955 Elisabeth and her new family moved to Canada.


Long Term Effects

Elisabeth's victimization will always be a part of her, both physically and mentally. Due to undernourishment, all her teeth had to eventually be removed. This is her only lasting physical scar. The psychological effects, on the other hand, have had a more profound impact on her life. Like a victim of human violence, Elisabeth has not, and does not intend to go back to the initial victimization scene. The mere mention of this thought is emotionally upsetting to her. She wishes to distance herself as much as possible from this period in her life. Some of the 65,000 Danube Swabians in Canada annually gather in traditional costumes to celebrate the songs and dances of their old homeland. Elisabeth would prefer not to attend these gatherings since she often meets friends who openly speak of events she would rather forget.

Perhaps the greatest impact on Elisabeth has been the deep sense of loss she feels for those innocent people who need not of died after the war. Most of these victims would be classified by Schaefer as "biologically weak". Of the 915 Danube Swabians in Sartscha, 35 were executed by Russian troops or Partisans, 22 were killed in action in the German army, 21 were reported missing, and 185 starved to death in the internment camps in Sremska Mitrovica and Rudolfsgnad. ( Eck and Hagel p. 172-181 ).


Concluding Remarks

Has Elisabeth's victimization caused any changes in her attitude towards life, which otherwise would not have occurred? In Judith Viorst's book, "Necessary Losses", she states that all of us have to give up a lot of expectations about life in order to grow. This is something that Elisabeth can relate to since she has personally experienced it. She leaves us with this message: " We don't know how much a person can go through unless it happens to you. But when you are young, your whole life is before you. I knew that crying would not solve anything. You have to have the will to live. We always said, if we come out of this camp alive, we'll always appreciate more the important things in life, like food, freedom, family and home. You have to try to put this all behind you and forgive and start a new life. I'm so thankful now that I have a good family and that we are all together because I know how it feels to be apart from them".



References

Eck, Josef, Hagel, Susanne, 140 Jahre Deutsch- Sartscha, 1978 Tafferner, Dr. Anton, The Danube Swabians in the Pannonian Basin, Hoppman Printing,1982 (English translation)




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