Hey everyone! For the past few months, I have been in a radio and podcast class, and this is the product: a podcast about my grandfather’s history, and our family’s connections to Nazi Germany. Below, I have included some photos of my grandfather’s life, photos of my grandfather’s stamp collection, and some photos that I took at the National Archives.
Here's the podcast:
Photos of my grandfather
I found a bunch of photos that show parts of my grandfather's life. Unfortunately, I couldn't find photos of his childhood
My fascination with all things old did not originate this year, but as a little tyke. I can remember being overjoyed to go to Virginia City, MT, a ghost town we visited every year due to its proximity to our home in Big Sky. The candy shop, old buildings, and rotting jail fascinated me, and still does. Every time I go to a ghost town, I get a mind picture: vigilantes running wild with their stallions and steely faces. I can hear the saloon door slam. The sound of children screaming in back porches. Women cowering from the “Wild West” of it all inside their parlors.
This year, we traveled further afield, exploring other ghost towns around Montana. First, we visited Bannack, MT, a town in the southwest corner of Montana that was the capital of the territory from 1862 to 1864. We visited during “Bannack Days”, a celebration with period clothes, activities, events (think shoot out), and food.
Tema (my friend) and my feet 🙂
Named after the Bannock Indians, the town was a gold-mining town (different towns have different rocks containing various metals and stones). The town included a hotel, saloons, surveyors, barber shops, doctor, stores, homes, jail, etc.
The Hotel Meade
Globe in the Masonic Temple
Old sewing machine
Different signals that miners had to know in the mines
Famous vigilante Henry Plummer (who was hung in Virginia City) was the sheriff on Bannack for a time, until he was caught and hung.
Elkhorn and Marysville
A few weeks later, we drove up to Helena, the current capital of Montana, and spent the night. During our time there, we saw two ghost towns: Elkhorn and Marysville, both of which I consider to be half-ghost towns because they are still inhabited today.
Broken down car in the center of Elkhorn town
One of the mines on the road to Elkhorn
Current day home in Elkhorn
In the 1880s, $14 million dollars of silver was found in Elkhorn. As it is still inhabited, we could only go into two buildings: the Elkhorn fraternity hall and the saloon.
Outside of Fraternity hall in Elkhorn
Inside of saloon in Elkhorn
Inside upstairs of Fraternity hall in Elkhorn
Driving down the dusty town roads, we made our way up to the cemetery, which had a lot of children’s graves from a diphtheria epidemic in 1889. The graveyard was fascinating, as it still had a lot of wooden graves as well as graves as new as 2015.
Children’s grave stone (sisters)
Old wooden preserved grave
Marysville was a bust. From looking at pictures, I can tell that there has been a lot of new development since 1974, which takes away from the ghost-yness of the town. At it’s height, 4,000 people lived in the town.
While it’s not a ghost town, I’ve driven past the old Montana State Orphanage for years, and finally, the gates were open this year (it’s being sold)! Walking on the premises, I could feel the eeriness of it.
Old basketball hoop with the farm that children worked at behind
Old window of the main house
Open between 1894 and 1975, many of the children living at the orphanage were not full orphans, but only had one parent who was unable to support them.
Just now, I was reading about town women, Emma Ingalls and Maggie Hathaway, who were the first two women elected to the Montana legislature in 1917 (the same year Montana sent Jeanette Rankin to the United States House as the first woman in Congress ever). These two women were champions of the disenfranchised and created pensions for mothers, so that they could support their children alone (and so that the children wouldn’t have to go to the orphanage).
For me, the fascinating part of ghost towns is that they can come alive. The land is still living. People still crave shininess. In each of these towns, I could see how the town’s had held living, breathing things. History is still alive even if ghosts roam.
Enter Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic. With the city walls surrounding the city, it truly feels like an medieval town and a perfect end to this trip. Around the walls sits St. Benedict, the patron saint of the city, who holds the city in one hand and a book in the other hand.
Over our time here, we have visited the Jewish synagogue in town, which is not in use as only 45 Jews live in Dubrovnik. There are 1,700 Jews in Croatia, and before World War II, there were 20,000.
The major attraction for Dubrovnik is also Game of Thrones, which was filmed here. The whole city feels and breaths King’s Landing. I walked the same route of Cersei Lannister on her “Walk of Shame” and saw the same bay where the battle of Blackwater was filmed.
Today, Lissa and I went to Lokrum, an island that is a ten-minute boat ride from Dubrovnik. There, we saw peacocks and rabbits running around, as well as tons of flora and fauna. The island was used as a Benedictine Monastery until 1808, but legend has it that the monks cursed the island for anyone who tries to take it for themselves. Over the years, the island has been in the hands of kings, archdukes, crusaders, and used for dowries.
Goodbye, May Project and Croatia. It’s been quite the run.
Arriving on the shores of Korcula, I felt slightly like Odysseus, who had spent seven years on the island, according to myth. All our guides and even my guidebook said this like it was a fact, which it so clearly is not.
Just like other Croatian towns, the town was situated on winding streets with stone homes all around. It, too, had been in the hands of the Ottomans, Italians, Austro-Hungarians, French, and Croatians. It had the same story of siege and battle like every island.
One clear difference s Marco Polo, who was born on the island, and started his travels from Korcula to Venice. His father was actually the man to sail to China first, but Marco wrote about it, so we know his name. Before his first voyage to China, Marco had a relationship with a noblewoman in Venice and was set to be hung, but his father helped him escape and took him to China. We now know all about Marco’s adventures by his writings. In fact, his last words were about how he only told half of what he saw because everyone wouldn’t believe the full story.
Next, we traveled to the small island of Mljet, where the Mljet National Park is. Again, the island is famed for its connection to Odysseus and is said to have been another island where he spent a lot of time.
The same story of being conquered by tons of rulers and countries applies to Mljet. Today, the National Park seems to sustain the island. Here are some photos from the beautiful lakes:
Tomorrow, we go to Dubrovnik for the end of this adventure.
Split! Split! Split! No, I don’t mean gymnastics, I mean the city. Situated along the Croatian coast, Split was made for a sort of retirement home for Diocletian, emperor of the Roman empire from 284 to 305.
Diocletian, born in Salona, Croatia in 244, disowned his parents, who were former slaves, and said he wanted to be emperor. He killed his way to the top of the Roman military, and eventually became emperor. He ruled for 20 years, and decided that he would be the only Roman emperor to retire from being emperor. So, he decided to build a palace for himself right where he was born: in Split. He built the palace with military barracks, temples, and palaces.
Starting in the basement of the palace, we saw the throne room, which was also used as Daenerys Targaryen’s throne room in Game of Thrones, where Diocletian would greet people who came to see him. The rooms are unfinished, as the sea water came into the rooms and destroyed much of the walls and decorations. After Diocletian’s demise, families used the rooms as a septic tank, and for thousands of years, they put their “toilet waste” in Diocletian’s palace. What a way to preserve history.
Diocletian did not believe in Christianity. So much so, that he murdered 6,000 people, many of who were Christians. Both his wife and daughter became Christians, and he murdered them privately in his palace. The “special” people got murdered in the palace. All the rest got murdered out in the Roman amphitheater. All in all, I’m pretty glad I didn’t live in Diocletian’s vicinity.
We docked in Hvar, a beautiful seaside town and had calamari and prawns for dinner. Tomorrow, another adventure.
As I write, I’m leaving the port of Zadar, which is the most important port geographically and economically in the Adriatic Sea. Therefore historically, whoever controls the port of Zadar, controlled the whole Adriatic. For hundreds of years, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans, Byzantines, Franks, Croatians, and Austro-Hungarians have fought over the port.
During World War II, Zadar was under Fascist Italian control, and therefore had Italian architecture. After the war, the Communists destroyed much of the architecture and parts of the city: they never wanted the Italians to come back.
Gate to Zadar
Now, the city is speckled with ruins from all the different time periods. A Roman forum here. A temple to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, for the gods Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, there. Communist block buildings. Italian gothic architecture and the winged lion of Venice. Cisterns and basilicas from Byzantium. A gryphon, which the Croatian pagan tribes used to pray to, at the top of a column later used for torture. The same column was used for punishing women. Trees from China, Japan, Persia: all because the trade/ military ships entered the port. There is a cosmopolitan-sense to the city, it’s clearly a place where people from every which way of the world came.
I asked the guide, “Who exactly are the Croatians?” The Croatians are people that came from Persia to Poland, and then veered south and came to Croatia. It’s a mixture of what we consider to be Islamic and Slavic, Slavic and Austro-Hungarian. Their language also contains Turkish, Italian, and Arabic words. Their food is an amalgamation of all the different cultures.
Krka National Park
I don’t think that words will do Krka National Park justice, so enjoy these photos.
I’ve only had a taste of Sibenik, but the town’s beautiful two UNESCO amaze me.
It seems that every little town in Croatia has the relics of a Saint. It’s the same story: they stole the Saint from this town and then the Saint traveled around in 1200 and now it’s in a tiny Croatian town.
St. Stephen’s Basilica in Siebnik
Navy boat and swans
Tomorrow, we’re going back to Roman roots with the town of Split, that was built as Diocletian’s palace in the 4th century. I’m beyond excited.
Cruising on the Adriatic Queen, the ship rocked more than I would like this morning. Nonetheless, it got us where we wanted to go: Mali Lošinj.
In Mali Lošinj, we started on a walking tour with a non-English speaking guide who was a rookie, so some of us broke off to walk around on our own. Walking around the small streets, we found an antique jewelry shop with beautiful glass, pearl, and coral jewelry. While peering around the shop, I noticed something that I’ve seen many times on this trip: negrobilia, which are collectibles that show the objectification of black people in a stereotypical way. I’ve seen negrobilia in everywhere from hotels in Venice to churches to random souvenir stands. It’s interesting to me that I see almost the same amount of negrobilia here that I do in the United States.
But, there are very few people of color in Croatia. In the past three days, I’ve seen one black man. I’ve seen racist, stereotypical jugs, salt shakers, cups, paintings, and jewelry in restaurants, museums, and antique stores in the United States. No matter the country, it makes me just as disgusted. Even after I wrote this, I was walking around our new port, and I saw a pair of shoes with black, African, stereotypical women on them.
Mosaic bench in Mali Lošinj
Mali Lošinj grafiti
Tito shirt in Mali Lošinj
Fish market in Mali Lošinj
We read two pieces for today’s discussion, “Thank you for Not Sharing,” which is ten reasons why to be a Croatian writer. The piece is extremely sarcastic and sardonic and was written by a Croatian dissident, who was exiled after she started to warn Croatians about the dangers of nationalism. She was called a “witch.” In a way, her writing and warnings are dealing with the same things that I see throughout all these countries in Europe: intense nationalism for everyone’s individual country. We also read “Chasing a Croatian Girl,” which was written by an American who followed his Croatian wife to Croatia.
The Swimming Incident
Me in the water!
The captain decided to stop and allow us to swim off the boat. I jumped in first, and the Adriatic felt amazing. Checking out the current, I could feel it was strong and stayed close to the rope they threw out. A few people didn’t realize the strength of the current, and were swept out into the ocean. After seeing the situation wasn’t going to resolve itself, I told a crew member, who said she would go jump in the water. First, our tour director jumped in the water. Then, the maid jumped in the water. Then, the chef, who as he jumped, another sailor told me, “He’s Serbian. He likes the water. The rest of us are from Dalmatia, and we grew up swimming. We only swim once a year. Trust me, he likes it.” Then, he was in the drink. They were quite a way out, without any way to pull themselves back in, as none of the crew held on to a rope. It was like one going off a dock and another and another. Then, like a miracle, a man in a speedboat came along and dragged the whole group back to the boat. I had the same experience in Greece with my father, who didn’t realize the current and was brought closer and closer and closer to the rocks below Poseidon’s temple. They had to bring out a speedboat, which didn’t work at first. Regardless, this situation was total déjà vu.
We stepped on to the tiny island of Olib after our swimming adventure. The island looked empty from the boat, and even emptier from the shore. It only had 120 residents during last winter, but they think it was more like 80 residents. Walking down the main street, a Croatian man who had lived in New York talked to us and joked around. We went inside a building only to find a group of Croatian men, who spoke perfect English, playing the Italian card game of briscola, which I now know from research. I sat down next to one of the men, who started to joke with me, “You’re going to peak.”
“What?” I said.
“You’re going to peak,” he said, very matter-of-factly.
“What?” I repeated, his heavy Croatian accent was stopping me from understanding.
“Do you speak English?” He asked, cracking a smile.
“Yes, yes. Of course,” I laughed.
Finally, he mimed me looking at his cards. Here’s my face when I realized what he was saying:
After the card game, we went to the opposite of a casino: a church. Walking in, we were greeted by a nun, who was waiting for our group. A group of around 10 old women started to gather in the pews of the church, which could fit a few hundred people. The town has totally been drained, before World War II, there were 2,000 people. There was a fish factory, an olive oil factory, and some other factories. During communism, the town was drained.
I exited the church, but when I was outside, my mom was given a card with the picture of Aloysius Stepinac on it. In a book I’ve been reading about the Balkan States, I learned about Aloysius Stepinac. He was the Archbishop of Zagreb in Croatia during World War II. Educated in the Vatican, he was staunch on his Catholicism. During the Ustaše regime, which was the Italian fascist and Nazi-backed puppet regime, Stepinac initially allowed race laws against Jews to be enacted, mass baptisms of Serbian Orthodox people before they were murdered, and did not stop concentration camps, but asked for them to be enacted “humanely.” The Serbians and Croatians argue about how many people were killed by the Ustaše regime: 70,000 or 700,000, and what percentage of that number was Jewish, Serbian, and Roma. Everyone argues and hates each other for it. Upon seeing a small card of Archbishop Stepinac in the church, my mom said to our guide, “He’s the bad guy, right?” Our guide said, “No, be very careful about saying anything like that around here. He saved a lot of Jews.” It’s true that by the end of the war he was trying to save Jews, but he was complicit in supporting race laws and not stopping concentration camps. By the end of the war, the Ustaše regime tried to get the archbishop removed from his position, but the Vatican didn’t recognize the fascists and did not comply. Stepinac was declared a martyr by Pope John Paul II. In my eyes, he isn’t a Saint, he’s merely a bystander who also murdered. Yet, all of the old women in this church revered him as a Catholic hero.
Leaving the canals of Venice, I traveled to Croatian coast along the Adriatic Sea to catch a boat which I will call home for the next 7 days. Over the next week, I am traveling up the Croatian coastline along with a group of 30 people from Chicago– a fundraising literary tour that my mom organized.
As our port of call, Porec was the first Croatian land I truly saw. An old Roman town, the modern-day town is built on the same grid, with a Roman forum as one of its main streets. The town also houses a UNESCO World Heritage Euphrasian Basilica, which is renowned for its mosaics, which are compared to the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna. I have seen the Ravenna mosaics, and these were extremely comparable and empty of tourists. The church was built in the sixth century, but it also has old remains of another church from it and remains from when Christians were persecuted in the Roman empire. It’s a church on a church one a church. I guess history repeats itself.
Mosaics from the Euphrasian Basilica
Remains of the old church
Starting the day in the small city of Rovinj, we walked up the hill to the Church of St. Euphemia. There lies relics of St. Euphemia that were said to have washed up in a sarcophagus on the shores of Rovinj. She died as a martyr during Diocletian’s time in the 4th century. I’m already struck by how Croatians love the myth– that Saint Euphemia was so pure that lions would not kill her.
Next, we traveled to the Island of Brijuni, which was the summer home of Joseph Broz Tito who was the leader of the former Yugoslavia from 1947-1980, and is considered an authoritarian leader. The island has some palaces, a “safari” zoo, Roman ruins, and some hotels. Over time, the island has been controlled by Romans, Italians, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Yugoslavians, and Croatians. While the borders have changed, it seems that the people remain the same for the most part.
Animals remaining in the safari
Tito with Qaddafi
View of the water
First, I’ll start with the zoo, which was beyond depressing to see. Many different world leaders gifted Tito various animals. Indira Gandhi gifted Tito two elephants, and one of them is still alive in the zoo, 46 years later. The zoo now has cows, zebras, horses, and goats all living together, as well as some ostriches. I hate seeing animals in zoos, and this just seemed like the remnants of Communism and a corrupt society.
Driving in a little tram car, we saw the remnants of a Roman villa, which archeologists think was the home of an emperor or emperor’s family.
Walking into a tiny house museum, our guide told us that, “All the animals died naturally.” Inside, I immediately saw a case with snakeskin shoes and purses, to which I joked, “Yes, they died naturally…” The guide tried to cover up, but I was right. The next galleries showed diorama after diorama of animals from Africa, Asia, and Europe: giraffes that had died from salmonella, baby orangutans, tiny bears. Again, it was beyond depressing. Upstairs, we saw hundreds of pictures of Tito with everyone from Sophia Loren to Muammar Qaddafi. The one thing fascinating that happened on Brijuni was the signing of the Brijuni Non-Allignment Treaty by Nasser, Nehru, and Tito in 1956. I had no idea such an important group, the Non-Aligned Countries, started on a tiny island in Croatia.
The guide did not say about anything bad about Tito, in fact, she spoke about him almost gloatingly. She seemed to admire him. What I take away is that either Croatians see Tito in a good light or as a state tour guide, our tour guide had to feed us the propaganda of the government.
We then docked in Pula, which has one of the best preserved Roman amphitheaters (like the Roman Coliseum). This amphitheater still has a perfect outer wall. Pula was an important town for the Romans, but it only had 5,000 people in the town. The amphitheater could fit around 23,000 people, and scholars think that the number of people farming in the area was quite large and big enough to fill the structure.
We also saw a gate with Hercules and Hercules’ club on it, as well as an old temple from around 54 BC. Next to the temple was the town hall in a Venetian Gothic style, as Venice held control of Pula for a few centuries. Next to that, there is an Austro-Hungarian building from when the Hapsburgs ruled Croatia, and then there was an Italian fascist-style building from when the Italians had control of Pula. All in one square, we saw the architecture of the town’s history.
Olive grove dinner
By bus, we went to the town of Medium to have dinner in an olive grove. Our host, Goran, let us taste olive oil and showed us how he (and his partner) make balsamic vinegar. He is a physicist by training, who focuses mainly on lasers, but he decided to take over his grandmother’s land because he missed working and being with people. All the food we ate during the night was from their groves or the farmer’s market. His partner also read us beautiful poetry by Antun Branko Simic (“Warning”) and Ivan Goran Kovacic (“The Pit”). Here is “Warning”:
“Man, be careful
not to walk small
under the stars.
May your whole body
be filled with
the dim light of the stars!
To have no regrets
when with the last glances
you part with the stars!
In your final hour
instead of dust
pass whole to the stars.”
Here are some photos of the grove and dinner:
Chairs in the grove
Olive oil tasting
Lissa and I under grape vines
Setting sail early in the morning, tomorrow will be another day of visiting tiny Croatian island, with more Roman ruins to see.
Does the chicken come before the egg or does the egg come before the chicken? With identity, it’s not always easy to tell how identities rank. I know for myself, I strongly identify as culturally Jewish, but not as the nationalities of my Jewish ancestors.
While walking around Dorsoduro, a district of Venice, our guide and I got into a discussion about identities. He was remarking that he can be Venetian first and then Italian, like the Russian nesting dolls. I disagreed and said that you could feel more strongly about the country you live in, rather than the city.
“Do you like tiramisu?” he said.
“No, I like panna cotta,” I said.
“Do you like spaghetti? Wait, no, which is your favorite pasta?” he said.
“I like tagliatelle,” I said.
“Well, you can’t have both all of the time, and you don’t want both all of the time. You want one sometimes, and the other sometimes. You could have both for a meal, but you won’t have them for every meal,” he remarked.
I think I take this as a sort of explanation for the fluidity of identity. I hadn’t really thought of it this way, but it makes sense. When I am in Romania or at a Donauschwaben ball, I feel more German, more Donauschwaben. Similarly, when I’m at synagogue, I feel more in-sync with being Jewish. I do think that I feel more connected to being American and being Jewish than anything else, but it’s interesting to think of the “scales” to which I feel my identities.
Starting out by the Doge’s Palace, we learned about the architecture of Venice. When it was started to be built in the 7th century, wooden pilings were put in the marsh mud and stones were placed on top and buildings on top of the stones. Because of this, Venice sinks 1 mm per a year. In lighter information, here are some of the architectural styles seen in Venice:
Venice’s relationship with the Jewish community is unique because it was one of the few European cities that allowed Jewish people to come and live within the city walls. The Jewish Ghetto was established in 1516, and with Napoleon’s conquering of Venice, the Jews could live anywhere in Venice in 1797. It is the world’s oldest ghetto.
Of course, the Jews were not allowed out of the Jewish Ghetto after dark, but they could leave during the day. Merchants and doctors worked outside the ghetto, but pawn shops had to be inside the Ghetto. These seem to be the three jobs that Jews did.
Within the ghetto, the Jews from every country established their own synagogue, so there is a German Ashkenazi synagogue, a Spanish synagogue, an Italian synagogue, and so on and so forth. We were told that intermarriage did not happen between nationalities, but I doubt that.
While in Budapest and Timisoara, I saw numerous other churches and synagogues with stained glass. Here is a collection of stained glass that I thought look extremely similar:
Budapest, Hungary synaogue
Timisoara, Romania synaogue
Venice German Ashkenazi synaogue
Cathedral in Admont, Austria
Venice German Ashkenazi synaogue
Cathedral in Admont, Austria
Timisoara, Romania synaogue
I love street art, and in every city, I’ve been in so far, there’s clearly been a community of dedicated artists that are making street art consciously and beautifully.
I don’t know about you, but I see food (seafood) and I eat it. Today, I came to the city of fresh fish and canals. The city, which began in the 7th century, is built on pilings of wood and stone in a marsh-like lagoon. Overall, it’s not the most lasting of conditions for a world-renowned city to be built on.
For me, Venice is a city that is meant to be wandered on foot. The alleyways and courtyards invite travelers to take a peek into what Venice life looked like in the past. It’s all very Venetian.
Prison art cooperative
We stumbled upon a shop that sells handmade bags and soaps (conditioners, shampoos) that are handmade by prisoners in Venice. The organization, Rio Terà dei Pensieri, works with prisoners to train them in different handicrafts. After hearing about it, American artist Mark Bradford, is now working with the prisoners as a part of the Venice Architecture Biennial. Interestingly, it is also a collaboration with the U.S. State Department. The American prison system needs to take notes on how prisoners are being trained here in Venice.
Like the tortellini soup I had early, I feel like I’ve had just a taste of Bologna. It’s a college town, but it seems more like a small town with people who say “hi” to each other on the street. It’s a mixture of cosmopolitan and friendly: it’s the friendly cosmopolitan.
Florence is no doubt one of the busiest places I’ve visited yet. People are everywhere: tourists and locals. That being said, the city still feels like the place that the Medici family ruled and Michaelangelo roamed. Here are some of the pictures I’ve taken as I’m almost at a loss on how to describe Florence with words.
Today, we made our way to Assisi, the hometown and pilgrimage site of St. Francis, the patron saint of nature and animals.
View from Assisi
Guards outside of one cathedral in Assisi
While in Assisi, a shopkeeper told us that Angela Merkel was in Assisi. It turned out that she was receiving an award from the monks and she gave a speech about peace in Europe. I don’t think it’s a complete coincidence that she was in the same city we visited. We did miss St. Francis’ major cathedral in Assisi, but it was worth it for Chancellor Merkel to give a speech about peace.
The other fact that struck me today occurred in a Roman villa. The sign talked about how the Romans had to integrate the Latin and Italic people into the empire. Today, European countries still deal with the same issues of integrating people who are “different.” Yet when we think of Italy today we think of a unified country and not a lot of trips just “getting along.” will it just take a bit of time for all of us to think of ourselves as one?
Earlier in the day, we visited a Roman villa in Spello, which was called Hispellum by the Romans. The town only became a true Roman town when Augustus gave it the title of a colonial town. Often times, we think of the Roman Empire as automatically being all of Italy, but it isn’t all of Italy. It’s all more complicated.
View in Spoleto
Car in Assisi
Poppies in Spello
Hand in Assisi
Two men who smiled for the camera!
In both Assisi and Spoleto, which we visited second, we saw two places where the Romans were entertained: a coliseum and an amphitheater. The Coliseum, in Assisi, is now homes with apartments, dogs, and fountains all around. It goes to show how people can turn the old into new. In Spoleto, the Teatro Romano was “found” in 1800, and is used to this day for performances. Both of the old entertaining structures are used today, for modern life.
On either side of the car, the Austrian alps opened up. Traveling through the greenery and the foothills of the alps, we arrived at the doors of the Admont Abbey in Admont, Austria. There, Oma’s friend, Baerbl, met us at the door. They went to school together 60 years ago in 1948.
Oma and Baebrl at in front of the church at the school
Oma pointing to her room at the school
We entered what is called one of the 8 wonders of the world, the Admont Abbey Library. With over 200,000 books, the Abbey’s oldest book is from 808 AD and is an dictionary, it was found in a random box last year. It’s the largest monastic library in the world. The style is a mish-mosh of neoclassical, rococo, baroque design. Frankly, it was kind of ugly in a beautiful way. While standing in the library, I was talking about the Dead Sea scrolls to my mom, when about five old Austrian women loudly shushed me with angry faces. My mom remembers some old Austrian woman telling her to “shut me up” when I was about 3 in Vienna. I guess I’m a little too Talia, a little too loud for Austria.
Getting on the train in Vienna, Oma, her brothers, and her mother set out for Essling bei Altenmarkt, Austria. They traveled to the end of the Russian zone, the border between the Russian and British zone. None of the family had papers, and they stopped at a truck stop right by the border. Oma’s mother convinced a truck driver to take them to Altenmarkt, and the truck driver’s said that he would say they were “his family” if they got caught. This was a huge risk for them. In big trucks, they arrived and Oma doesn’t remember how they got to Essling. Once in Essling, they found the schoolhouse where her father was a teacher, but he wasn’t there. He was eating lunch at a guesthouse up on the hill. Some neighbor ran up and they had their over four-year reunion. Once they were there for a little while, her 3 year-old brother, Harold, asked Oma if “they could talk now,” because on their whole escape, they had been continuously told to be quiet or they would all be caught. I can’t imagine the whole experience.
Pictures of the family right in front of where their house once stood
Oma was placed in the 4th/5th grades with her father as her teacher for two years. Up to age 9, she had only very basic schooling and WWII stunted the schooling that was offered to her. The next year, she tested into a high school (what Americans consider middle school) in Admont, a nearby town. She attended for one year, but then the family immigrated to America because her father was going to be moved to a more rural town as the teacher.
We walked through Admont town, and saw the building where Oma and Baerbl went to school. Oma even pointed out the room where she studied. That’s where she learned Greek, Austrian, British history. She credits it as a place of learning and where she learned to appreciate the life of the mind.
The mountains closed in one the road, and the river appeared beside us. “There it is, it’s by the curve,” Oma said. The river, a crystal blue color, curves. Between 1949 and now, the river was made wider by a dam and her home, the old schoolhouse, was destroyed. We pulled into a road by a power plant, and walked on the road, which Oma thought was her road. On our left, tons of ruins of trees. I even saw a piece of wooden board. A black snake peaked out at me and hissed at me. The river was absolutely beautiful, like something out of a fairytale. It’s easy for me to imagine the whole family here. Driving up the hill, a meadow opened up in front of us and we saw the guesthouse where Oma’s father always ate. We walked the same route as him, almost in his footsteps.
This is the end of our journey with Oma, the end of the road for her escape. What we did in 7 days, she did in 11 days, all those miles and trains and people and borders. Guess what? It’s pretty much the same today, time goes on, and people continue the same patterns. If anything, I think I leave this leg of the trip with more questions about my own identity and how others identify.
We started at a train station in Budapest. Traveling at some 50 mph, we sped across the Austro-Hungarian border into Austria.
In 1947, before she got on a train, Oma remembers sleeping in a train station in Budapest for a few nights. Oma traveled in a train for German soldiers returning to Germany after the war.
The train from Budapest stopped in a town near the Hungarian border. The whole group of 17 refugees got off the train because they did not have papers to travel. At the border, the Austrians and the Hungarians started shooting at the group, and half of the group got stuck on the Austrian border and the other half got stuck on the Hungarian border. Oma and her family were at the Austrian border, where they were thrown in a basement to sleep on straw. The next morning, they stood before an Austrian commander where my great-grandmother explained that they were to meet her husband in the Alps. They told them to depart but never tell anyone that the Austrian soldiers let them leave.
They took a train to Vienna, where they searched for cousins. Some nice people let them into their apartment and they slept on Persian rugs. Oma cites it as the time she first saw true opulence. The next day they found the cousin, who was a barber, in Vienna. I have beautiful pictures from the day that they met.
Today, our train pulled into the rainy Austrian capital. And tomorrow, we continue Oma’s route to Austria.
The outside of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna at night
A carnival happening in front of St. Stephens Cathedral
The lit-up inside of St. Stephen’s Cathedral at night. Organ music was also playing.
The city is so beautiful. But, much like the plaster facades of the neoclassical, historical, art nouveau, brutalist, and baroque-style buildings, Hungary seems fragile politically and culturally. This contradiction creates a strange feeling when I walk around the streets and wonder what is behind all the closed doors. Here’s a collection of the pictures of the facade of Budapest.
Hungary has a 900-year-old history of plundering, stealing, and being controlled by invaders. From the Romans to the Ottomans, different groups have controlled Hungary. The three periods that moved me the most were the 1940s, the Communist era, and today’s era.
Hungary was very accepting of Jewish people in the 1800s and even gave them full citizenship and a place in the Hungarian state, which was uncommon for the time. In 1940, Miklós Horthy was Regent of Hungary and signed on to be one of Hitler’s Axis Powers. While current history in Hungary has been rewritten to say Horthy did not let the Nazis kill Jewish people until 1944 (when the Arrow Cross Party, the equivalent of the SSa Nazi Party, took over). In fact, deportations of Jews outside of Budapest started in 1940. He needed the educated Jewish population in Budapest to keep the city running. Seventy five percent of the doctors were Jewish at the time and 90% of the businesses were owned by Jews.
Today, there are many Nazi poets and heroes that have statues up in Budapest. They were erected by Viktor Orban, the current prime minister of Hungary after his 2010 election. Further than that, the Turul, a mythic bird symbol that the Nazi party used, still sits next to the Royal Palace. In terms of a Holocaust memorial, he has put up a few, but denies that the Hungarian people or government had anything to do with the Nazis until 1944. That’s a lie.
Today, we visited a Holocaust memorial that the government put up. Archangel Gabriel underneath the Nazi eagle, basically saying that the Hungarians were “taken” by the Nazis during WWII. That was not the case, as Hungary was one of the first countries to ally with Hitler and cooperate in sending Jewish people to concentration camps. Upon further research, I learned that the monument was put up in the middle of the night (https://budapestbeacon.com/german-occupation-memorial-completed-under-cover-of-darkness/). In front of the memorial, protestors have put up their own barbed wire memorial with true accounts of how the Hungarian government was involved from 1940 onward, not from 1944 onward like the current-day propaganda says.
From 1949-1989, Hungary was a Communist state controlled by the former Soviet Union. There was a horrible secret police force that controlled free speech and murdered dissidents. Hungary also served as the place where America and Russia would exchange their money and negotiate. Hungary was the middleman.
The Nationalistic Nutcase
Today, Viktor Orban heads the country. Dangerously.
He hates Muslims and has run on a platform saying that Hungary will turn into a Muslim country if they allow refugees in.
He is anti-Semitic and denies Hungary’s role in the Holocaust.
He has consolidated his own power, so that the Judicial and Legislative branches of the country are beneath him. There are no more checks and balances in Hungary.
He has gerrymandered, so that he can control the state.
He has moved into the mansion where the Horthy (Hitler’s willing collaborator) lived instead of living in the traditional prime minister’s mansion.
He was the first world leader to congratulate President Trump on his win.
He is a part of the nationalistic rise in Europe, and the “blueprint” by which other leaders on the far right are gaining power in Europe.
Hungary is no longer stated as a democracy, but as a totalitarian kleptocracy. That is because of Orban.
Our guide, a Hungarian professor who had grown up in Romania, talked about how dangerous the current mentality is in Hungary. Free speech is no longer allowed. The way I see it, when free speech is taken, everything else goes with it. If I can predict Hungary’s future, they don’t have that much longer in the EU or as a respectable country.
In both Romania and Hungary, I have witnessed people who are intensely loyal to their “own” ethnic group. In Romania, I heard people say they had lived in the country for 40 years, but were from Hungary. Again, this mentality seems to create an “us vs. them” situation that creates the perfect environment for nationalism to take hold. Our guide commented that this nationalism takes the same hold as religion, and can be just as controlling. Emotions take over and people are willing to die over their “tribe” or their religion– as history has shown us time and again.
As I was doing my own research, I learned that the Budapest Beacon closed this April 13, 2018, because it felt that it could not cover the news of Hungary anymore. As someone who has been very involved with journalism and cares deeply about the facts, this is appalling to me. In the United States, President Trump may call CNN and the New York Times “fake news,” but he has not shut them down. They have grown stronger. In Hungary, the news is leaving and when the news leaves, so does the truth. Here’s the exit interview from the newspaper, it’s worth a look through: https://budapestbeacon.com/german-occupation-memorial-completed-under-cover-of-darkness/
Tomorrow, we set out for Vienna and travel the same train route that Oma did in 1947 when she was escaping between Hungary and Austria.
Arriving the back way, Budapest came into view with lemon-yellow, sunset-orange, and white marble buildings all with their own details of gargoyles, cherubs, grapes, workers, women, food, flowers, cornucopias, and more. Walking outside of our hotel, the city opened up like a sheath of silk. The streets are wide, the greenery is plentiful, and the buildings have just the right amount of tear to look lived-in AND exquisite.
Sitting at a cafe and drinking a strawberry-basil lemonade, a bird flew on to my dress and attached itself to me. Having no idea what was happening, I jumped up and starting dancing around the place and screaming. Very traumatizing. He released and Lissa helped him fly. From having a bird poop on me in Timisoara to a baby bird attach itself to my dress, I’m beginning to think the birds have something to tell me. I plan to find out what.
Tomorrow, we tour Budapest and learn about the Communist era, the Belle Epoque period, and post-Modernism. Get ready for some propaganda and the “beautiful era.”
Leaving Timisoara early in the morning, Oma and I traveled in one car with a driver and my parents in another. We drove to the Hungarian-Romanian border, where the topic of refugees came up. The driver started telling us that there’s a huge problem with refugees in Hungary, just like Mexicans with the United States and tried to “confirm” with us that Mexicans were bad, to which I immediately said no, and explained the Mexicans are welcome, and do tons for America. He also tried to confirm that Donald Trump is a good president, and Oma and I protested.
This was pure xenophobia, and while he didn’t use intense rhetoric, he understatedly said what he thought: refugees are bad and shouldn’t be in HIS country. He tried to get us agree, which I, as someone who knows that this sly rhetoric leads to bad things, argued.
We got over the border, and Oma asked about the standard of living in Hungary vs. Romania. He said that Hungary was better because of the politics and economics, but I’m well aware that Hungarian politics currently have xenophobic and fascist undertones. The Hungarian government is xenophobic and the prime minister, Viktor Orban, does not believe Muslim people should in his country. Further, he believes that the country should be an “illiberal democracy,” which is where people vote, but they don’t know what the government does. To me, this seems like a disaster and a complete invasion of civil liberties. To many, I assume, it may seem fine. His xenophobia is how genocide begins, it’s how leaders create an “us vs. them” mentality. In recent years, many European countries have seen a rise to their nationalist parties, which are far-right and anti-immigration. These parties are echoing the same rhetoric of WWII, and that’s how WWII will be repeated.
On August 17, 1947, my Oma was 9 years old. She and her brothers were at their grandmother’s house outside of Timisoara when two Russian soldiers (who lived in their house in Sinandrei) arrived at their door and asked everyone to come with them. At the time, Romania was in the Russia zone. She knew the soldiers and recognized them, so all of the children and their grandmother went to Sinandrei. There, they were told that Oma, her brothers, and her mother would be going to Austria to be with their father. Essentially, they were escaping. They took a few photos with their grandmothers and were packed into a truck with 17 other people and a guide. They brought two suitcases: a wicker suitcase and a wood suitcase. When they got to the border, the guide said they would have to run between the border guards. They hid in a cornfield until nightfall and dropped the wicker suitcase, as Oma’s mother had to carry one of her younger brothers who was sick. They ran over the border and were taken to a farmhouse. They slept in the barn that night, Oma remembers sleeping on the straw. The next morning they sneaked through the streets of Szeged, Hungary and took a train to Budapest. Oma thinks the train was a train for German soldiers, who were still trying to get back to Germany two years after WWII had ended. Then, they got to Budapest.
Before her father went into the army during World War II, Oma lived in two different towns: Traunau and Wisenheid, where he was the school teacher. Both towns have Romanian names now, not the Donauschwaben names that they had when Oma was a child. In fact, the Romanians don’t even know the old names.
The first of the two towns that we visited was Traunau, and all we found there was the church and the schoolhouse, whose windows I matched with a picture I had showing broken windows and broken bricks surrounding the schoolhouse. The living quarters had been broken off and destroyed. It was not a place to spend much time.
In Wisenheid, Oma started talking to a young Romanian woman, who had learned English from television, movies, and games. She cleaned the school, and let us inside. This year, the school only has two classrooms and next year it will have one. There aren’t enough children to fill the school. The actual school rooms did not have many learning tools in them and they did not seem to have enough materials.
The classrooms of the Wisenheid schoolshouse
The outside of the Wisenheid schoolhouse.
The woman lamented that there aren’t opportunities for young people in Wisenheid, as she could not go to college and did not have job opportunities in the village. It seems to me that Romania is a country devoid of many opportunities both for young people and older people. Young people are leaving for economic opportunity in other countries.
After the Iron Curtain lifted in 1989, it seems that there have been many improvements, but at this point, it seems like they have reached a plateau. In the area, there are a lot of commercial farms owned by Italians, Germans and other European countries. The Romanian people themselves seem to be left behind– with small farms and herders tending their sheep and cattle.
For lunch, we traveled to Hanz’s, house in Sinandrei, Romania. He was born there in 1968, and lived there as a Donauschwaben, an ethnic German, for 20 years. Then, he went to Germany to study and went back to Romania to start a business.
When asked why he opened his logistics business for transporting car parts from Romania around the world, he told us how he could make more money in Romania. He even married a Romanian woman. He did say that he doesn’t know of any German women marry ing Romanian men, which I see as telling. I think it’s interesting that it’s only one-sided.
His daughter, who is now 20, went to German schools, as there is more job opportunity if a person knows English and German. Again, the fact that the school’s were not integrated in terms of language struck me.
We also asked about ethnic communities, and he said that they stick to themselves: Italians with Italians, Serbians with Serbians, Germans with Germans (belonging to German business clubs as well), Romanians with Romanians, Croatians with Croatians. I think that there is something lacking in a national identity.
Hans identifies as a German-Romanian, which is the first I’ve heard of a Donauschwaben identifying as both. I like that. I’m currently in a place of deciding: what am I? Am I Romanian-Donauschwaben? Am I German? Am I nothing? Am I merely a human?
Winding around large agricultural, commercial farms our Volkswagen flew by poppies in bloom, trains carrying Ford cars, and colorful villages each with their own steeple. As “our” steeple came into view, Oma started going, “Take a picture! Take a picture!” This was her homecoming, her homegoing. After 43 years of not visiting, she was finally back.
Born in Sinandrei, Romania, Septemeber 3, 1937, Oma (born Annerose Welsch, and now Annerose Goerge), lived in the same house during her years there. She also lived in the villages of Wisenheid and Traunau, as her father, Matthias Welsch was a schoolteacher and got jobs at different German-speaking, Donauschwaben schools. In 1947, Oma, her mother, and her two brothers escaped Romania in search of their father in Austria.
First, we went to Sinandrei and started at the church, where we were unexpectedly met by a childhood friend of Oma’s who happened to be visiting her family’s grave stones and the church. They had not seen each other since 1946. I even had a picture of them on their first communion day! She remembers Oma falling in the mud with her skirt flared out and sitting in the mud pile. Hard to imagin Oma in the mud. Seppi, another Donauschwaben who takes care of some of the old sites, was also there to take us around the village.
Two different pictures of Oma’s church, then and now.
A picture of my great-grandparents on their wedding day in front of the church they got married in.
Going inside the church, Oma was struck. “This was the place where I got my religion,” she said. The place where she had her first communion. The place where her parents were born. The place where her father was the organist.
She told us how her father would make them say prayers every night and he was the person that she credits with giving her religion.
It was funny for me to see her so connected to something that I know so little about. I respect her faith and I am in awe of it most times, but my father, her son, is an atheist. Catholicism, Christianity was lost on him and on me. Across the street was the school, where she attended for her first 2 years of schooling, and where her father taught. In all three towns we visited, the school and the church were right next doors to one and other, and those were the places where Oma lived and her father taught. No separation between learning and Church. Furthermore, all of the churches were still churches, and the schools were still schools, and the houses were still houses. Not much had changed in 70 years except the facades and the roofs.
After visiting the center of town, Oma chose to walk the same route she used to walk to school from her house. Walking along the sides, she remembered little pieces of land and Seppi would interject with stories about the families who lived in the houses. Now only 12 Germans remain and the houses are inhabited by Romanians.
For a minute in the now, they were living in the past. Stopping at the community center, we saw the same place where Oma stood on the day of her first communion.
Making our way to the house, we got many stares from normal, Romanian people who now live in Sinandrei, cooing pigeons, and quite a few barks from dogs. At Oma’s old the house, Seppi started banging on the gate, and the Romanian woman who lived there opened it for us. She didn’t speak a lick of English, but let us inside.
Inside, the gate, the garden was pretty much in the same state it had been 70 years ago. The pump was still there.
We walked through, admiring her flowers and vegetables. Seppi went on about how she wasn’t planting the “right” vegetables and plants, but the way I see, it’s her land and her right. We got to the back of the yard, and Oma talked to me about how during World War II, the Russians used their house as the headquarters and the next door house as the hospital. When a Russian man died, his body was buried in the back of the yard. Who knows how many bones are back there? My mom questioned if the families of the Russian men even knew. It’s crazy to think that there’s some family in Russian wondering where their soldier’s bones are.
My grandmother walked inside the side of the house and looked at the ceiling, which had been repaired. She recounted that there had been nights when she, her brothers, and her grandmother had stayed with her mother in one bed because a Russian soldier wanted to rape her mother. There used to be bullet holes in the ceiling from when the Russian officer got upset and shot in the ceiling.
Invited inside the house, the stove was the same stove as 70 years ago. Boy, that’s a lot of grease! Walking inside the basement or the “keller,” as my grandmother calls it, the use was the same as her childhood: canning and preserving fruit and vegetables in the cool musty air. The house seemed to both make Oma happy and sad: happy that people were using it and sad for nostalgia of the past.
My father, now, kneeling in Sinandrei house’s garden.
My father, in 1975, feeding a cat in the house’s garden.
We left the home and went to the overgrown, weedy cemetery. Most of the graves have noone to pay for them and have fallen into serious disrepair.
My great-great grandmother and great aunt stand by my great-great grandfather’s grave and my great-great grandmother’s future grave.
My family stands by the same grave.
My great-great-great grandparents are buried there, side-by-side. Their gravesite is the only gravesite to have a metal fence around it, as my great-great-great grandfather, Johannes Sieber, was a blacksmith- and the metalwork was truly beautiful. For Oma, there was an importance in honoring and praying for the dead.
Tomorrow, we set off on the true “escape route,” starting in Timishoara and making our way to Budapest. Crossing the border, Oma share her stories of walking in corn fields, carrying heavy suitcases as a 10-year old, and running across the border, so that the boarder guards would not see them.
A day of schools and religious sites. Driving into Timisoara, I was struck by the strange mix of dilapidated, ornate neo-classical buildings and Soviet “style” apartment blocks. It’s easy to imagine Communist Romania just 28 years ago!
We expected a day on our own exploring Timisoara. But, surprise! Both my third cousin-in-law and the head of my grandmother’s village association, Seppi, showed up at our hotel within minutes of our arrival. We were well greeted to say the least!!
With a mix of translating Romanian, German, and English in trying to decide where to go, we made out our way to the site of my great grandmother’s school, which was bombed during World War II. We were told by Seppi that the school is now a Serbian College, for only Serbian students. That was the start of our observations of ethnic segregation. Even now, there are Hungarian, Romanian, and German schools, which all teach their own languages and culture. At first glance, it seems there is a lack of crossover or mixing among different ethnicities, and it is, in fact, ethnic segregation: both in 1930 to the present day. This makes me sad for the world that we live in.
After walking through the dust-filled streets, we went to the Piața Unirii, where my Oma and her Grandmother sold vegetables in 1946. For some time, my Oma and her brothers lived outside of Timisoara and they were at her house when Russian soldiers showed up to take them to escape (more on that later).
Sitting down to lunch, Seppi and Oma (my Grandmother) started to discuss the status of the church and graveyard in their hometown, Sin Andrei, which was a primarily German town in Romania. They talked about how the church was falling apart, how the Romanian government had no care for their history, and how they felt ignored and forgotten. Both identify as German, Yet, they do not identify as Romanian. It took my grandmother a few years after immigrating to see herself as an American, but even after 9 generations of living in Romania, and living the first 10 years of her life there, she doesn’t see herself as Romanian. She is German and Donauschwaben, first and foremost. Those identifiers are what matter.
I disagree with the “us vs. them” language and mentality that my grandmother and Seppi were using. “The Germans cultivated the land.” “The Germans had their history here.” It’s all about the Germans, and not about everyone coming together or trying to coexist and marry into different ethnicities. My family is very proud that they stayed within the Donauschwaben for 9 generations.
We then went to my great grandfather’s school, a teacher’s college. The college had been built by Donauschwaben for Donauschwaben to educate their own. It was not for the Serbians, Croatians, or any other ethnicities. Different people from different countries did not learn together. Seppi told us that even the engineering college had separate classes in the same college for Germans, Romanians, and Hungarians. They learned with their “own” people. I can see how this would create some type of homogenous group-think, which I see as very dangerous and inflammatory.
Of course, there were beautiful things that the teacher’s college created for my great grandfather. He became an avid gardener and bird lover, and he was taught to love nature by his teachers and by being in a nature society. As I was hearing about the nature society, a bird pooped on my back. I took this as a sign.
Tomorrow, we are heading to Sin Andrei, one of the villages that my Oma grew up in. I’m excited to see the church where my great grandparents were married, the streets where Oma played as a child, and the home where they all lived.
In the 12th century, the Donauschwaben, an ethnic German group from the Alsace-Lorraine region, came to various eastern European countries. During the Hapsburg Empire in the 17th century, immigration increased among the Donauschwaben who came to the Banat region of Romania. In 1740, Maria Theresa of Austria became the Queen of Hungary, and told various groups to colonize the Romanian region. Throghout history, the Donauschwaben have been given land grants. When I imagine colonizers, I imagine Britain and India or the Congo and Brussels. I have never thought about my family as colonizers, but they were.
Since I was around 12, I have been fascinated by family history and identity. Both of my father’s parents are immigrants, and my grandmother, Oma, was once a refugee who ultimately made it to America. She came to America from Austria when she was 13, after escaping from a German colony in Romania in 1947 when she was 9. She traveled with her mother and two younger brothers through Romania, Hungary, and ended up in Austria, where her father was teaching in a school. She was one of the last groups to flee out of Romania before the Iron Curtain fell. For my May Project, Oma, my parents, and I will be traveling to Romania, through Hungary, and west to Austria— following her route out. I have heard Oma tell the story of “the Great Escape” time and time again. It is something that she has always taken pride in and is proud of where she came from. Now, I am going to see the places where she lived, grew up, and have the amazing opportunity make the journey with her.