Just a disclaimer, I wrote this before the election. Obviously, I am beyond thrilled with the *legitimate* election results that Joe Biden is the president-elect.
Being a progressive and Democrat is a major part of my identity, whether I agree with the actions taken by the party or not. And, because of that, this election has been one of the most stressful moments of my life. I cannot think of a time when I have felt that there is so much riding on one singular electoral event. For me, both Biden and Trump represent different borders. Trump quite literally spouts the benefits of closed borders. Biden, while not perfect, is not as closed off in my opinion and will protect the rights of millions of people. I do not believe that work stops at an election, pushing and protest needs to happen, too. As I have been driving around, I cannot count the number of times I saw a Trump sign at one house and a Biden sign at the next. A Black Lives Matter sign and a pro-Police flag. These borders are so visible in communities, with people on both extremes of the political spectrum living right next to one and other.
These photos are brightly colored, I try to bring color into everything I do, and this election has been no different. Of course, anxiety comes through in these photos, but so does persistence. They are full of pain for me, and for others, I know they lack an ounce of hope.
The last few weeks I have been working on a project for one of my classes, Visualizing Borderlands, that challenged us to think about how to visually represent a border. Along with my group-mates, Claudia Ojeda and Naren Roy, we decided to use barbed wire (or what the Native Americans call “Devils Rope”) to show “the control, entrapment and genocide of both Buffalo and Native Americans in the US West, focusing specifically on the Lakota people given their connection to the animal.” To do this, we 3D printed skulls of bison, humans, fences; bought fake barbed wire; and laser cut a map of the land-loss for the Lakota Tribe and bison. Take a look at the photos below, and I’ve included background information and sources at the bottom:
Barbed Wire as a historical, genocidal object
Barbed wire has long been used as a symbol of division and has aided in many instances the oppression of people, animals, land, and more.
Barbed wire was used during the US expansion into the the West in the 1800s
Used as a tactic to trap cattle (usually cows or buffalo/American bison).
This restricted the animals and eventually harmed the Native American populations that depended on them.
Barbed wire caused “The Cowboy Wars”.
Farmers were expanding into the West and used barbed wire to fence up their territories and their cattle, clashing with the cowboys, who would cut up the fences with wire cutters as protest.
It was ideal for the West because of the vast prairies and open land.
Trapping cattle would ensure they didn’t destroy crops.
The barbed wire trapped the Bison, as well as Native American tribes in the West, since it forced them Westward, and for centuries since it would restrict the land they had access to.
History of the Lakota People and Bison
Bison hunters in the West become prominent in the 1870s
Legend of Buffalo Bill (which I know everyone heard growing up…)
The animals lose their ability to openly graze the land, and they also become more susceptible to being hunted for sport.
They were physically injured by the barbed wire too, with many often getting stuck and dying in it.
This alters Native American tribes too, since not only do they lose land, but they lost a sacred and essential animal for their way of life.
The Lakota people were one of the populations most affected by this, as they considered buffalo a sacred animal given to them by the Great Spirit Wakan Tanka
They use every part of the animal
Buffalo were integral for commerce
Hair, fur, and skins used in goods
Central part of all Spiritual rituals; there are usually Buffalo heads or symbols present
Main source of meat for the Lakota people
As barbed wire and settlers entrapped Buffalo and Native Americans, they were also systematically destroying the way of life for both populations.
1871: the Indian Appropriations Act: President Grant’s “Peace Policy” that said Plains Natives should be treated as wards of the state instead of as autonomous nations
1873: barbed wire becomes a patented design by a man named Joseph Glidden.
Patented: Since its creation in the late nineteenth century (specifically 1874), barbed wire became very influential in the political landscape of control, particularly in the ways it delineates space and borders.
1829-1870: Westward Expansion: Farmers were expanding into the West and they needed a way to fence off their private territory, so they used barbed wire. This ended up causing a “war” among cowboys in the West, but there were terrible long term effects on buffalo populations and Native Americans.
1873: That very same year, then-President of the U.S. Grant decides to veto a piece of legislation that could have had the potential to prevent the mass killing of Buffalo
1879: United States Geological Survey helps to institutionalize and Facilitate this Westward expansion (classified public lands and mines, focused on $$)
Hey y’all! In a lot of states, voter registration has not ended even though we are 22 days from the election. If you have questions about your state, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org! Please! Let’s not make this an election we regret.
Because I’m in the great state of Pennsylvania, I created this graphic to help people easily access their voter registration/check their mail-in ballot applications:
Here’s a hand-dandy graphic for dates to register to vote by:
From Business Insider, note that states highlighted in blue have in-person registration on Election Day!
My mom taught me to be a truth-teller. To ask questions, even when they are hard to ask. Even when you don’t want to know the answer. My Jewish faith did the same. Ask questions when they are hard to ask, think critically about the answers and ask those questions again. We never stop asking questions, and that’s a beautiful thing. I don’t accept answers that feel like they are missing something and that is a good thing.
Recently, I’ve been living off-campus from Haverford and when I drive around, I see tons of Trump campaign signs, “Drain the Swamp,” “Vote the Lockdown Liberals Out,” “Pray to End Abortion.” It’s these signs that I question, and I wish the owners of the signs would question them, too. What about Donald Trump’s lack of tax payments isn’t the “swamp”? What about Republican governors who had lockdowns like Mike Dewine of Ohio or Charlie Baker of Massachusetts? How exactly will just thinking and praying on an issue change anything when we know that it has to do with legislation and who’s on the Supreme Court? These are just a few of my questions.
Right now, I’m in a class on Nationalism. Donald Trump’s blind patriotism is nationalism. Holding up the American flag without thinking about why you’re holding it up and the decades of pain and turmoil behind the flag is nationalism. His support of white nationalism and QAnon and all of the men who tried to kill Gretchen Whitmer (I’m boiling with anger just thinking about it) is evil. Today, I opened The NY Times on my phone and I read: “QAnon Is Thriving in Germany. The Extreme Right Is Delighted.” That should terrify you. Germany is one of the few countries that dealt with its history of genocide, and it should be the last place where far-right fringe groups are thriving. It terrifies me. When QAnon is anti-Semitic (they rail on the Rothschild family) and compare Angela Merkel to a “‘Zionist Jew,’” you know something is very wrong.
I beg all of you to consider how our world is changing and becoming scarier and scarier. Here’s what you can do: go to a phonebook. It’s easy, I promise. Here’s a link to sign-up: https://joebiden.com/call/. If you can’t phonebank, email a local campaign and ask to deliver yard signs or literature (all socially-distanced), email me at email@example.com and I will help you. And, the smallest ask of them all, make sure the people in your life vote on November 3. Make a plan for yourself and ask THREE, just three, people to make a plan with you.
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.
As today is 40 days after Easter, it is the Day of Ascension, where Jesus ascended into Heaven. Everything is closed and everyone is outside enjoying the weather. Luckily, museums weren’t closed.
Vienna street art
Vienna bunny art
We wandered around the streets of Vienna (despite all the shops being closed) and went to the Belvedere Palace and the Albertina Museum.
The Belvedere Palace was the summer palace for Prince Eugene of Savoy, who was a French prince who “transferred” his loyalty on to the Hapsburg Empire. He fought in different wars as the military commander for Maria Theresa, and even “got back” land in Romania, where my ancestors, the Donauschwaben, farmed and lived on. To “my people,” he’s a hero, but I have a feeling that to a girl my age living in Turkey, he is the opposite. His palace was beautiful, and he had over 200,000 books, but only 4 bookshelves at his summer residence, I guess he did all his reading in the winter.
I didn’t get shushed today, but in the Albertina I got a very steely look in the Keith Haring exhibit. Dealing with mass hysteria, fundamentalism, and the AIDs crisis, it’s amazing how relevant Keith Haring’s work is today. He would be 60 if he were alive today. In the Albertina, we saw art from Monet to Michangelo to Picasso to Chagall to Haring. Everyone who was someone (i.e. a man) was there.
On to Italy tomorrow, the land of good pasta and tons of churches.
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.
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.