Originally published by Hans Kopp
The Camps as We See and Group Them Correctly
To get a better understanding of the political development after WWI or prior to WWII which ultimately led to the tragic ending of the Donauschwaben you may page down to the synopses and a brief history toward the end of this article and read them first. Then allow me to turn your attention to the camps after WWII.
The names for the death camps which existed in post war Yugoslavia 1944-1948 are downplayed not only by Tito’s Partisan’s and Serbia but also by many other nations, since no one who has not experienced them understands what went on behind them. The atrocities committed in these camps can also be described as Genocide or better yet human misery at their worst. What you will read here is a candid description of life in Gakowa one of many death camps; I was incarcerated in for 25 months. It is certainly not for the faint at heart and makes one wonder why no one cared what happened to the population of German descent or why it was tolerated or even encouraged by some of the Allied Nations such as Great Britain as we learned from history later.
What you will read may seam to be too graphic; however for us survivors of the death camps, it is not graphic enough. The most graphic stories were never told and died with the victims; their misery can never be illustrated graphically enough. The stories are plentiful, in fact perhaps more then 100,000.
Many refer to the camps; we were taken too, as interment camps or concentration camps. Let us define these types of camps we also found in the USA and Canada as POW camps for German Soldiers. The solders were confined behind fences; they were housed in relative clean barracks and relatively comfortably bedded. They received three meals and had the necessary hygienic facilities to sustain a relative acceptable life behind a fence. For most of them it was better then being at the Russian front. We also have to include the many camps for undesired nationalities in the USA during WWII such as the Japanese, the Germans, and the Italians among others.
The Russian POW camps in contrast for German soldiers and the slave labor camps, in which 73,000 Donauschwaben men and women in their prime were deported too to perform hard labor for the Russians, cannot be compared to the interment camps or concentration camps as seen in the USA and Canada. The camps lacked all comfort and personal hygiene and the shortages of food contributed too many serious illnesses resulting in the death of many; hence we need to call those camps slave labor camps.
The Incarceration to Slave Labor Camps in Yugoslavia
The slave labor camps were everywhere in Yugoslavia . I really do not know how many exactly, since there were small ones with only 20 people, as well as larger slave labor camps of several hundred people, like the one for the people who had to build the railroad between Belgrad and Brod in Slavonia.
My uncle told me after we arrived in Austria , that Franz Burghardt; a 61-year-old man from Batschsentiwan was buried alive in Ivankovic. During the laying of the railroad ties, Franz Burghardt was one of the slave laborers on that detail which had to carry railroad ties. This had to be done in double time most of the time and when Franz collapsed under the heavy load he was beaten and thrown into a mass grave. Orders were given to pile dirt on top of him. Franz struggled desperately with his arms and legs to stay above the dirt, but his effort was in vain. A teen-age youngster from Gakowa, an eyewitness and one of the few survivors of the camp working with Franz, told my uncle of Franz’s fate.
My Grandfather (Öffler) who served in the Hungarian army from day one during WWI, only weeks after my mother was born. He was one of the first captured and take to Uzbekistan were he was held for seven years. My Grandmother and Great-Grandfather (Öffler) managed to support the three of them but in the process had to sell off farm land they could not handle by themselves and needed money to live on.
In February of 1945 my grandfather was taken from his home and was a captive in slave labor camps for 11 years and never seen his wife again. He was released from Yugoslavia only days before we left for the United States in June of 1956 and had to live by himself the rest of his life in Schifferstadt , Germany . It is very unfortunately that he passed away to early to have him brought to the USA and that we did not have time to talk to him and learn of his days in the slave labor camps.
During my research for my book, I had the opportunity to interview several relatives who were on labor details on the slave labor force of Tito; one of them was my aunts Katharina Stefan. Katharina was about 40 years old when one night in February of 1945, Partisans came at midnight, woke her up and told her to take a shovel and come with them. She had no opportunity to take any food or any other clothes except the clothes she was able to put on in the rush. Katharina saw soon that she was not the only one but many other people from our town were taken from their homes that night and had assembled with shovels in their hands.
The people were marched all night and all day till they reached Bezdan where they were placed into a hanger overnight. The hanger was so small that they had to stand all night and could not rest; my aunt told me. The next morning they were taken to the Danube and taken across by ferries. Afterward they had to walk for some 40 miles till they reached an area where they had to dig fortifications for the Red Army. During the entire time they were poorly feed. They were given quotas of how much they had to dig and if they did not accomplish the quotas they were severely punished. Several days later they were housed in a town nearby vacated by people who were able to flee from the Russians. The orders the Partisans received came from the Red Army which made the Partisans their ram rods.
The Partisan commander was very liberal with his statements and said to his men: “if you return only half the people that are here, it will still be enough”. He also remarked “there are no sick people, only healthy people or dead people”. They were exposed to the elements during their work, deprived of proper food, and personal hygiene. There was no doctor or medicine available and if you became ill you were left to die. When done with the fortifications the survivors of the work details were taken to other locations such as farms and factories. My aunt recalls having to remove hemp from a river were it had been placed the year before for curing. Now the hemp was almost completely decayed. The work was not only extremely difficult and strenuous for men, but totally unfit for women. God must have been watching over her family, because later that same year, my aunt was moved to Gakowa where she was reunited with her children in September of 1946.
My aunt was able to escape with her children and live in Biberach , Germany to a ripe age of 102. I had the opportunity to see her several months before she passed away. She was indeed a remarkable woman. It was kind of sad and yet refreshing that during my visit she was thinking I was my father and she talked to me in her believes about their experiences. It was very interesting for me to act as my father as I learned of their experience of times past when they were young.
The Death Camps
By official definition of Tito; the camps to which the young and old Donauschwaben were taken too, was “camps with special status”. What does “special status” mean for you the reader and what did it mean for us the survivors? One can interpret this status in many different ways, however for the Donauschwaben they were camps were people were taken to be starved to death in a very cruel inhumane way by not giving them the necessary food to sustain their lives and when they contracted diseases as a result of being undernourished, they were denied treatment and the necessary medication to recover from their illnesses. We need to call them rightfully “Death Camps”. These camps also lacked all simple comfort; instead the people had to sleep on straw in overcrowded rooms they had to share with between 15 to 20 different people who had no means for privacy or personnel hygiene.
There were seven such death camps or “camps of special status” which have to be classified as such. According to the percentage of survivors the worst such camp was Syrmisch Mitrowitz/Sremska Mitrovica were less than 20% of its inmates survived. As for children who received special treatments we need to mention; Jarek/Backi Jarek, the death camp were more than 5,000 children were put to death by poisoning them in houses specially set aside for them for that purpose and later by killing them with ground up glass mixed into their food when there was no poison left to give the children.
Sustenance and Survival
At this point I would like to take the opportunity to site several examples of my personal experiences and observations as a ten year old child of that time, true human misery which existed in the death camps everywhere to a more or less degree which claimed 1/3rd of our population subjected to death camps.
When we arrived in Gakowa we received food tickets we had to show to receive food. But it would not take long before the food we received did become less and the quality worse. By the winter of 1945/46 the bread was made of corn which was hard as a brick and had to be soaked in water and a sort of polenta made out of it without any type of shortening, salt or any other type of seasoning, at least that is what my aunt Katharina (Kopp) made for us so we could eat it.
We also received cow beats which tasted good at first but later when they were frost bitten and partially decayed they would not stay down and did more harm than good. The people, who survived, relied on creativity and ingenuity such as collecting herbs from nature, volunteering for work details to get out of town and go to beg for food. During the winter we focused our attention to catching sparrows and other birds.
Shortly after our arrival personal hygiene diminished and was practically none existing. There was a water shortage all the time, so that water which became more and more contaminated had to be boiled to be used for drinking so washing clothes became more and more difficult. The untreated human waist went into the ground water table during the rains and snow which made the water foul and no longer safe.
When you have between 25,000 to 28,000 people in a village which was build for a population 2,500, their waist was difficult to handle. Men had to dig 3 feet wide, by 8 to 10 feet long and 4 to 5 feet deep holes mostly in the back courts away from the living quarters. Some of them were provided with a beam to sit on. We called this beam thunder beam, since it did not take long and all people contracted diarrhea and since we all were plagued with the disease you simply had to rush to the thunder beam in the back court.
Justin Bäsl, the owner of our first house we occupied, had one such moment and was rushing as fast as she could, but it was too late and she soiled her skirt from top to bottom. Diarrhea would create dangerous problems for many people which took their lives. Repeated urges to go even if there was nothing left in their intestines was part of the problem, because it forced their rectum through the opening of the anus and would protrude to the outside. It was a blessing that none of our family members ever had such a problem.
Fleas, Lice, Rats and Typhus
Existing in rooms crammed with 15 to 20 people sleeping on straw, flee became the first pests. They were extremely difficult to catch and get read off. Soon lice would follow infecting people with stomach and head typhus resulting in an epidemic along with many other diseases like Malaria. Many of you have seen monkeys groom each other and plug flee from each others body. This was the general picture of a daily routine to clean each others head of the pests. One of the measures was to shear everyone bald, which for the women was quite embarrassing. Much later in 1946 we received treatments against lice with DDT, a well-known poison.
My brother, Franz, became one of the first victims of typhus and began to hallucinate. While I was sitting on our strew pile we had to sleep on busy catching lice, he said: “Hans, look, the Partisans are robbing us of our winter coats.” I had to get up, show him that he was just seeing things and that our coats were still hanging there. When I told my Grandmother (Öffler) about my brother, she took him to the provisional hospital, better known to us as the “House of Death”. It was located on Main Street leading to the cemetery. The hospital was actually nothing more than a house set up to quarantine people infected with typhus from people who were not infected. There was no real help for them there. Although, there was Dr. Jakob Stefan, my grandmother’s cousin and several women working as nurses in the camp who made extreme efforts to give help wherever they could. Their efforts even without medicine must be commended, since they endangered their own lives. In general, we were denied of all medical care and medications. Most people died shortly after being brought there, especially the old that had no one to care for them.
My grandmother insisted on staying with my brother. I am certain her decision saved his life. I went to visit my brother and grandmother the next day. When I came to the house where people stricken with typhus were housed, a strange uncomfortable feeling came over me. I did not know in which room my brother was in, so I entered the room closest to me carefully with anxiety and fear. The room was terrifying, dark, damp and cold with the strong odor of death all around. A bone-chilling shiver went down my spine. I felt as though the Grim Reaper was standing behind me waiting to cut down any one of the unfortunate souls brought here. I shrugged off the feeling and rushed out of the room to catch a breath of fresh air. Once outside I turned toward the sun to catch the last warming rays of the day. The sun began to set behind a tall tree, its last rays that warmed me also lit up this “house of death” in a deceiving golden glitter. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I had ever seen and will never forget. The life-giving rays of the sun and its spectacular setting would never be enjoyed, or seen again by many of the unfortunate poor souls brought to this house.
I was confronted with the awful decision of whether or not to go back inside and keep looking for my brother and grandmother. My decision was clear; I had to see them and courageously entered another room. After my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw the seemingly lifeless bodies and the appalling conditions that existed. This is where the ill had to live the last days of their lives. Were these people still alive or were they dead? I could not tell, but what I could tell was that they did not deserve to die in conditions undignified for human beings. They were forgotten and left to die.
While I went through the rooms looking for my brother and grandmother I noticed something else; Rats. The rats became a menace and once they took over the houses we had to guard ourselves from their continued relentless attacks. We in our room did not have too many problems with them, but the places were the older and the sick people, as well as the children without relatives were housed and who could not help themselves, became helpless victims of their attacks. The rats would be chewing on people still living and I have seen a boy who lost an ear lope to the pests.
A young teenage woman appeared one day from nowhere. No one knew who she was, where she came from, or if she had any living relatives. Unable to care for herself, her appearance was shocking. Her skin was full of sores and scars left by lice. No one wanted to associate themselves with her, either because of her condition or because everyone had to cope with their own problems. Head lice have a very adverse effect on peoples mental state and it seamed she was somewhat disturbed as a result of her condition. It did not take a long time for the children to make fun of her with the exception of one; me.
Because of my tolerance, she was drawn to me and I became her friend perhaps the only friend she now had. She usually sat down next to me in the corridor and watched me work on one thing or another while freely talking to me and I wish I could remember what she was telling me. With my marble playing skills I had won several Hungarian 20 Filér copper coins, which had a hole in the center and with which I patiently hammered several rings I gave all away except one, the one I had kept for me. When she saw my ring, she asked if I could make one for her too. Unfortunately, I had no more coins left, so I gave her my ring. This made her happy in her own way and I began to help her with her lice. However, when I examined her head I found a crusted spot which was about an inch or inch and a half in diameter and it seemed to be alive. When I lifted the crusted part gently up, I was shocked seeing the lice crawling underneath in the pas. I became helpless. I did not know what I should do and if I could hurt her if I would remove the crust, the pas and the lice. I gently placed the crust back on her head and even today I blame myself for not having been able to help her clean up her head.
Begging for Food to Survive, Brought Death to Others
More and more often, we found it necessary to sneak out of Gakowa and walk to the neighboring towns to beg for food. I remember the first time I went begging in Svetozar Miletic with my Grandmother (Kopp) and two other women from camp. At one of the Serbian homes a lady promised us lunch if I cleaned her chicken and rabbit stalls while the women went begging. At noon the women returned and as promised, the lady had a meal of chicken paprikash prepared for us. She served the chicken paprikash on top of an upright sitting large barrel standing in the outside corridor of the house. I did not eat. My pride did not allow me to eat although I was hungry. The humiliation of begging and doing the dirty work of the people who drove us from our homes, the people who made beggars and thieves out of us, was too much for me to cope. Surely, this kind woman had nothing to do with all of this and did her best to help us. Was there room for such pride in this world of despair? It was amazing how much I matured in such a short time. I was ten now and there was no birthday celebration, no cake with candles, just hunger and starvation. I was proud, but this was the only time I would not eat because of my pride. Surviving was more important and I understood this.
It was about two weeks before Christmas of 1945 my Grandmother (Öffler) went begging to one of her usual places. She wanted to beg for food so we would have something special to fill our bellies with for the holidays. On her way back to Gakowa she was captured, her food taken away and jailed in the cellar prison. The next morning an announcement was made that the people caught during the night would be executed. After we learned that my grandmother was among them, my brother and I ran to the prison to see if there was any truth to this horrible news.
I don’t remember how long we waited there along with others whose relatives were to be executed, to find out if the rumor was true. We wondered if we could see our grandmother for a last time. The gate finally opened, it was very late in the afternoon and a horse drawn wagon came out with six or seven people loaded on it, among them my grandmother. We ran toward the wagon. She shouted at us as the wagon went by, but we couldn’t understand what she was trying to tell us. As we kept running alongside the wagon, she ripped off her coat and her skirt and threw them off the wagon. My brother picked up the clothes. Again, we ran behind the wagon until the Partisans stopped us at the end of Main Street , as the wagon moved on toward the mass grave site we stood in silence. I don’t know how long it took before gunshots broke the silence. We stared in the direction from where the gunshots came. Quietly with tears in my eyes, knowing my grandmother was dead my brother and I turned away in a daze helpless and walked back to the house.
However, instead the Partisans did not execute them but drove them to Kruschiwl. There she was mistreated in the worst way we learned later from a man who shared her fait. The Partisans must have continually beaten her face with a rifle but and broke her facial bones and left her to die. However, she recovered from unconsciousness and set on foot to return to Gakowa with rags on her feet and hardly any clothes on her body in the cold winter night with snow on the ground. One can only imagine what ordeal it must have been for her to walk from Kruschiwl to Gakowa in her condition.
My grandmother’s love for us, her desire and will power to be with us on Christmas Eve, overcame all the hardship and pain she must have suffered from the severe and inhumane mistreatment she had to endure during her captivity and the conditions she must have faced on her way. Late on Christmas Eve December 24th, the door to our room swung open. In the doorframe stood a dark ghost like silhouette, offset by the light from our lard lamp, staring at us. We held our breath and gazed at the dark figure and finally recognized it was my grandmother.
Where did she come from? No! It could not be her! She was executed at the cemetery. We rushed to greet her as we recognized her now. We were though shocked at first but now ecstatic, because we did not expect to see her ever again. Was part of our prayers answered? We hugged each other with great passion only to be shocked again when she collapsed onto straw bed. We had no idea what had happened to her at that time nor did we know what she had been through. She could not speak and after taking a closer look by the light of a lard lamp we become aware of how awful she looked and how severely she was mistreated and injured.
What we saw now was horrifying. Her face was swollen and discolored. Her facial bones were shattered so that she could not open her jaws. Her feet were wrapped in rags so she could hardly stand and yet she walked to be with us all the way from Kruschiwl. As my grandmother (Kopp) removed the rags from her feet we saw that both of her feet were raw and frostbitten from walking in the cold and snow without proper footwear and clothing. Since she could not speak, she was unable to tell us what had happened to her.
It was God’s mercy and her will to live after she regained her consciousness that led her back to us on Christmas Eve, long enough so we could comfort her during her final hours. My aunt and Grandmother (Kopp) made a valiant effort to make her comfortable. They dressed her feet and wrapped her face in linen. There was no doctor to treat her or give her medication. We knew there was no hope; she would have to die soon. I think she knew that too. She could not open her mouth to eat. Yet, I made a desperate effort to feed her soup through her teeth for I did not want her to die. The soup that I attempted to trifle into her mouth between her teeth did not help. Her jaw was so badly smashed she could not swallow; consequently, it just ran out on the sides of her mouth. I felt so helpless, so helpless, and it was so terribly hopeless! I knelt beside her, not wanting to give up. I thought if I just could get her to eat, she would not have to die.
All we could do, however, was to make her as comfortable as possible and hope that the Lord would let her die mercifully. Her suffering was anything but easy, her pain must have been excruciating. It was horrible to see her that way. Her face was nothing more than a living death mask, and the flesh on her legs was decaying from the frostbite. We went to bed on the gruesome night of December 26th 1945. A small lard lamp was placed near her so that we could observe her during the night. I could not fall asleep and stared at the flickering of the flame for a long, long time before I finally closed my eyes. But sleep I could not.
In fall, before the grape harvest and wine making time, my father and grandfather would clean the wine barrels and prepare them for the new wine. They would bring the barrels up from the cellar place sulfur sticks in them and light the sticks. When the sulfur sticks were burned up they would put water into the barrels and roll them back and forth and back and forth. “Rum-rum, rum-rum” was the sound the barrels made while they were being cleaned. As I lay on my bunk with my eyes closed I heard that noise “rum-rum, rum-rum.” Was I dreaming? Was I at home in Batschsentiwan? Was that noise coming from barrels outside? Who would wash wine barrels in the middle of the night? I was not dreaming a nightmare took its course. I knew that the noise was not coming from any wine barrels outside. The noise was coming from my grandmother as she lay in pain fighting for her life. She must have gone to hell and back during her ordeal. My Grandmother (Kopp) and my aunt got up several times during the night to comfort her, but there was nothing that could be done to quiet her. I was petrified. I prayed silently for the sound to stop and for her to fall asleep. As dawn broke on December 27th, silence finally filled our room. Did she finally fall asleep? We listened to the silence. A few minutes passed before my Grandmother (Kopp) went to check on her while my aunt lit another lard lamp. We all went over to the side were she had bedded down to take a final look at her pain-ridden face. She was at peace. Her suffering had ended (she was only 54 years old!) The Lord had answered my prayers and taken her to Him. We fell to our knees and prayed for her. Our Father, Who art in heaven…..
Also check out Tom Sunic’s excellent article: The Destruction of Ethnic Germans and German Prisoners of War in Yugoslavia, 1945-1953