Fifty Years After

 By George Kaiser, Düsseldorf 

  On August 23rd in 1944, Romania broke its military pact with Germany and stood on the side of the Soviets.  In just a few short weeks the Soviet Army overran all the territory that Romania controlled.  This was done in spite of the fierce resistance of the few remaining German troops as the frontlines approached the western frontier of Romania by the beginning of September.


  The Front was already in the vicinity of Arad when the German soldiers appeared in Semlak to facilitate in the organization of the flight of the German inhabitants to the German Reich.


  Word was spread abroad that the Russians would exterminate any Germans that fell into their hands.  While at the same time, a few Romanian Communists as well as some Germans went about the village beating their drums proclaiming the exact opposite.  They reported that the Russians were decent people and would not do any harm to us.  The new Romanian government also announced the same thing.


  My father, George Kaiser was the assistant mayor of Semlak, having taking office in October 1943.  The German military officials ordered him to secure horses for those German families who did not have any of their own.  He was to commandeer them from the local Romanians.  He neither wanted to do this nor could he do so because he had lost his position as a result of the capitulation of Romania to the Russians on August 23rd.  My father was ordered to place himself at the head of the column of horses and wagons to lead the flight from Semlak.  If he refused to obey this order, he was threatened with being shot.


  Out of fear, our family, along with Peter Friedrich and Christoph Müller’s families fled secretly at night for Nadlak where some Slovak friends of ours hid all of us.


  On September 15th, the column of refugees with their horses and wagons set out from Semlak in the direction of Pereg towards Hungary.  During the night, Peter Friedrich and I went to Semlak by way of the fields and back roads from Nadak.  Our journey took us across the Cucu Puszta to the road that leads to Pereg.  There we hid under the remains of a roof of an abandoned hut and waited there during the night.  We wanted to sneak into the village under the cover of darkness and obtain some food and find out what we could about the present situation there.  We trembled at every sound we heard.  Suddenly we heard the clatter of horses’ hoofs and wagon wheels turning.  We looked through the holes of the roof and saw the column of the fleeing population of Semlak pass by on the Pereg Road.


  Under the cover of darkness we broke into the house of the Friedrich family, which lay across the street from our house, and we decided to rest there until morning.  Because things remained still and quiet, I went to our house and took a smoked ham and a loaf of bread back with me.   In the evening we made our way back to Nadlak.


  We reported that peace prevailed back in Semlak.  As a result all three families harnessed and hitched their horses to their wagons and drove towards Scheiding to a Romanian named Trasu, a friend of my father.  We sent him on to Semlak to see if things were still quiet there.  He reported there was no danger and we risked going back home.


  About half of the German population of Semlak had fled.  Their houses were empty, but their livestock were out in the yards or stables along with the stored grain crops, all of which was a welcome feast for many of the Romanians.  All of the houses had been plundered in short order.  Each man took what he wanted and them occupied the house of his choice.


  A few days after the people had fled, the Russians were quick to arrive in the village.  On a Sunday morning, I heard a great deal of noise and racket out on the street.  As we opened our windows, we looked out across the street and saw a large group of Russian soldiers gathered at the Brezan blacksmith shop where their horses were being shoed.


  It didn’t take long before a wagonload of Russians stood in our yard.  They screamed, “We want wine!”  They rolled the wine barrel out of the cellar, shot a hole in it and let it pour into some pails and drank from them.  Because they realized we were Germans they forced us to drink with them.  They wanted to assure themselves that the wine had not been poisoned.


  My father knew a bit of broken Russian.  A Russian prisoner of war had worked for his parents during the First World War and he had learned from him.  The Russians told him, “Hitler is kaput and has had it,” and that they were now marching on to Berlin.  With the wine barrel on their wagon they noisily passed out of our yard.  This was to be my first of many encounters with the Russians.


  A munitions depot was set up in the house of Michael Rück’s family.  Munitions were delivered from here to the frontlines, which by now stretched into Hungary.  Only two wagonloads were sent out at a time because of the fear of bombardment by aircraft.


  My father too had to hitch up his team along with Kajtor Gabor, who I called bacsi  (uncle) and they drove munitions to Hungary escorted by several Russian soldiers.


  When they arrived close to the front my father asked his escort to let him get away.  He left him with his horses and wagon, his food supplies and two litres of Raki.  The solider then said to him in Russian, “Get going you Romanian devil.”


  A few days later I was ordered to report to the community center with my identity papers and a backpack with food.  The cows that belonged to those who had fled, as well as those of others still in Semlak were all brought to the community center and were to be driven on foot to the train station in Petschka.  They told me, that I had to accompany them and see to their feeding until we reached the Russian border.


  I was to be accompanied by three Soviet soldiers.  I had the foresight to bring along two bottles of Raki from home.  As we approached the main highway, they set aside some time to sit down, rest and eat while the cattle pastured in a nearby cornfield.


  The two older soldiers sat down beside each other on a pile of cornstalks and the younger one sat next to me.  He spoke Romanian but I learned that he was from Bessarabia.  After I asked him to let me go free, he asked me if I still had parents.  He said his own were dead and had been murdered by the Germans.  I offered him the schnapps and the food I had and he later let me get away.


  I came home in the midst of darkness once more.  Once again I had to go into hiding for several days.


  One day my father was ordered to report at the community center.  He was informed that the Russians had lost five cows along the way, and had sold five others in Petschka.  Because I had disappeared my father was threatened with having to pay for the ten cows and would be brought to court to face his crime.


  We waited for the punishment to be carried out every day, but nothing happened.  Instead the two of us were taken prisoner on January 14, 1945 along with countless others who were to be dragged off and deported to Russia.


  We had avoided the flight to Germany, but there was no way for us to escape going to Russia.


  We knew what was gong to happen that night.  Idata, who was the Chief of Police stationed in Semlak had tipped my father off.  We pondered and planned all night long without any positive result.  We had no idea of what to do and could not commit ourselves to any form of action.  My father looked at his watch, it was four o’clock on the morning of January 14, 1945.  It almost appeared as if nothing was going to happen this night after all.  It was snowing outside and it was bitterly cold.  Peering out from under the curtains of the window facing the street, we became quiet as mice as we heard the sound of marching boots crunching through the snow.  The sounds of marching men out on the street paused at our window.  Only the crunching sounds of boots in the snow could be heard.  We simply waited for what would happen next and suddenly there was a loud knocking at one window, and a voice spoke in Romanian, “George, my dear friend.  Open up.  We simply want to check your papers!”  It was the familiar voice of a friend of my father who happened to be the richest Romanian farmer in the village, and a friend of the Germans right up to August 23rd.


  My father opened the door and let men inside and went for his papers that one of the soldiers verified and then stuffed the document up under his coat.  It was then when we realized we were prisoners.  The soldier ordered us to obey him without question.  He said any attempt at escape was futile, because the village was surrounded and the troops were ordered to shoot to kill any who attempted to get away.  We were led to the community center and were among the first to arrive there.  In the next half hour they brought more and more people, almost all of them Germans, young and old, men and women.  It was reported that men between the ages of 17 to 45, as well as women from 18 to 30 years were all being assembled to work elsewhere.  We soon recognized that there more and more exceptions to the regulations, because they brought much younger people like myself and Paul Jani and Götz Evi and Kernleitner Maria or older men like my father and Paul Jani’s.  Approaching noon fewer and fewer people were arriving.


  We had been ordered to bring food and laundry with us from our homes to last for at least two weeks.  This made us believe we were being taken away somewhere to work for two weeks.  In the afternoon at 3 o’clock we had to stand in columns of four abreast with the men and women in separate groups.  We formed a total column of about 130 persons and were under guard by about twenty-five soldiers.  Our luggage was packed on sleighs drawn by teams of horses.  Then an official gave a short speech and informed us of our orders.  Those who attempted to escape would be shot on the spot.  The doors of the community center were thrust open.  There was a short curt order and the sound of crackling gunfire followed as the signal for us to start out.  With the very first steps we began to take, the bells in the church bell towers began to toll.  Weeping and crying broke out among the people, everyone, young and old, men and women, even some of the Romanians who had come to watch and a young armed guard or two.


  We set out walking along the main street of the village in the direction of the highway between the two cemeteries.  I thought of escape, hoping there would be an opportunity to hide in the cemetery.  At the end of the cemetery stood an old Semlak Communist.  Whenever he had the chance he would kick or beat us and shouted:  “Heil Hitler!”  He was fat old Dasu, who every resident of Semlak knew only too well.


  It had snowed a great deal that winter and in places the snow was a metre and a half deep.  Our column moved slower and slower through the deep snow.  It came obvious to us that it would be dark before we reached Petschka our next destination.  Around 5 o’clock we reached the highway from Nadlak towards Arad.  We had to huddle closer to one another so that the column became smaller.  Then there was another shot fired into the air, the signal for us to go on.


  To the right and the left of the roadway there were large parcels of cornfields that had not been harvested.  The military activities in the autumn, the flight of a portion of our people had all resulted in less than a normal harvest.  Our hearts were beating faster, as we saw the encroaching darkness beginning to cover the cornfields.  Would it be possible to hide in there?  The columns we formed became broader and longer.  Was this our chance?  At the crossroads that led to Palota in Hungary, I suddenly heard a loud rustling sound over in the cornfields as a large group of people broke away from the column, and began running for their lives as more and more shots were being fired after them.  The escapees were being chased by the soldiers, who ran in and out, among the rows and rows of cornstalks in search of them.  A small group was being led out of the cornfield surrounded by soldiers with their bayonets pointing at them.  Among them were my uncle Martin Kaiser and his wife Susan.  All of the others had managed to escape.  My uncle and aunt each received a blow to the head from the butt of an officer’s rifle, which was something they would never forget.  The Commander was awfully angry and gave short strict orders and swore to the best of his ability in this particular Romanian art form.  The captured escapees numbered about twenty persons and were now relocated and placed at the front of the column and were heavily guarded.  There would be no future opportunities for escape for them.


  I remained very much in the background, guarded by much younger soldiers, who showed very little interest in us.  But they did talk to us even though it was strictly forbidden for them to do so.  All kinds of schemes and plans whirled around in my head:  Flight.  Escape.  These were my prime objectives, but how and when?  I received a nudge in the ribs from my neighbour beside me and he asked, “Are you dreaming?”  In turn, I replied, “I’m getting out of here!”


  A group of people from Scheiding, coming from the railway station in Petschker passed by our column in the darkness.  Some of them jumped across the ditch alongside of the roadway and I listened to what they had to say.  They were all Romanians.  My young guards laughed and said, “Run Fritz or else old Ivan will get you!” (Ivan was an euphemism for Russian).  We exchanged only a few words, the last of which I remembers was, “This is an injustice!”  Once we were safely removed from the column they told me to hide in the cornfield and I could be betrayed or punished.  They told me to wait until it was night before I tried to return to Semlak and I was also aware of the fact that the village had been surrounded.  It was already dark when I heard dogs howling from the direction of Petschka in pursuit of the last of those attempting to escape.


  All kinds of dumb and stupid things went through my mind.  I was afraid of being caught or freezing to death because it was terribly cold.  Thoughts of whether my father had managed to escape also made me almost crazy because I knew he had been among those who had been most heavily guarded.  I couldn’t hear a thing and the silence only increased my fear.  I forced myself to get up and stand on my two feet.  I was now determined to reach my destination and make my way across the fields to Semlak and home.  But I had to be very careful because the cornstalks and leaves were frozen and brushing by them created loud rustling sounds, snaps and cracks.


  Slowly, I made my way through the deep snow.  When I heard dogs howling again later, I became more courageous, because I had obviously not lost my way and I was getting nearer to the village.  I had no idea of what time it was, and I must have lost my watch.  But by my reckoning it had to be quite late or very early in the morning, because dogs sleep at night.  There was no light to be seen and I could just barely recognize the contours of the first houses at the edge of the village.  It stood there quietly and did not even dare to breathe.  I lingered like this in the darkness for some time and tried to see what I could.  I could not hear anything out the ordinary.  Shortly, I decided to act and slipped into the clay pits and ditches and the deep holes that had been dug for securing earth in order to build houses.  There were many of them behind the gardens of the last houses on the outskirts of the village.  Cautiously I crawled through all of them on all fours until I was close to our street.  My heart was pounding in my throat.  Only one hundred more steps would take me to the corner where our house was located.  It was still very cold and the snow crunched loudly beneath my feet as if determined to give me away.  But I no longer felt the cold, not now, the opposite took effect, and sweat ran down my whole body.


  With one large leap I made it over the wall around our garden.  As soon as the dogs recognized me, all of my attempts to quiet them were useless.  They yelped, howled and jumped up all over me.  I finally calmed them down, but they insisted on accompanying me to the kitchen door.  When I had leapt over the wall, I thought I had seen a faint light in the house, but now all was dark and quiet.  I called out in a whisper, “Mami!” but there was no response.  After what seemed like an awfully long time, my mother slowly opened the door and was quietly weeping.  I saw immediately that she was not alone.  Our neighbours were with her and shared our fate with us.


  They immediately asked me where my father and their family members were.  How on earth could I tell them, since I had left them all to meet their own fate.  They wanted to know so much from me, but before I could even begin to respond to their questions the dogs were once again making a racket outside.  The light was quickly put out and not a further word was spoken.  We were afraid it was our tormenters again who were beginning a second roundup of victims.  The sounds of footsteps drew nearer and we were trembling in fear when we heard the knock.  I immediately recognized my father’s voice and opened the door as quickly as I could.  He stood there frozen at the door with small icicles in his beard.  He too had fled under the cover of darkness.  He could not tell us much about the fate of the others.  He was of the opinion that only a few of them ever arrived at the school at the railway station in Petschka.  The Hungarians in Petschka are to be thanked for what they did and provided help and assistance to the escapees as they stole through the town in the darkness.


  A portion of the prisoners had been under heavy guard and about 37 of them did not find a chance to escape.  These unfortunate people were under the direct supervision of the Commander of the troop escort.


  On January 15th the rage of the superior authorities over the disastrous first deportation effort knew no bounds.  They hunted us down like wild animals.  My family and I hid out with some Romanians.  But after two days we had to abandon our hiding place.  Someone had betrayed us.  We had to leave during the second night.  We went to stay in the cellar of Josif Tocaci a day labourer who had worked for my father.  They hid us in the cellar under a pile of cornstalks.  These people also provided us with food.  They heated up stone bricks and brought them down to the cellar to keep us from freezing to death.  Wrapped in our covers we dried our wet shoes and warmed our cold feet.  We could not use the oven because the smoke would have given us away.


  The next evening our befriender came home and was shaking like a leaf and begged us to leave his house as soon as possible.  He had learned that those who hid the Germans would be taken away as hostages.  He came down to the cellar to us and told us he was sorry but he had to think of his wife and six children first.  Around eleven at night we sneaked out of his house and made for the earth and clay pits.  Everyone was afraid to take us in.  It was cold and it was snowing as much as heaven could spare.  That was to our good fortune, because the footprints and signs we left behind us, could no longer be seen the next day.  Our former host had twinge of conscience.  With a faintly lit lantern he led us out to a pile of cornstalks at the edge of village.  Several bundles were stacked together to form a kind of lean-to and shelter for us.  Within our shelter there were bundles of tobacco leaves that were stacked together around us up against the cornstalks and packed snow all around us while storms raged outside.  The lantern was left with us as a gift.  We stood on our feet during the night and stomped our feet on the ground to avoid getting frostbite or freezing:  it was a Dance in Hell.


  We were unable to survive like this much longer, it was as if Judgement Day had already come.  My father set out to find a way for us to save ourselves and proved to be successful in his efforts.  Even though the German haters were everywhere and in charge of everything, he managed to find us some guardian angels.  It was the Denes Bacsi, our butcher and his wife Mileva, who were both Serbs through and through.   He came and got us from our hiding place with a gypsy caravan and brought us to his home.  No one ever thought about the possibility of Germans hiding in the house of a Serb.  We warmed up ourselves and had good warm food.  The time passed by so quickly and I was feeling great spending time with the two daughters of the household, Tinca and Marioara and became very close friends with them.


  Somehow we were betrayed.  The Police Chief informed our host and postponed a house search until the next day.  One at a time, each of us left the house dressed like an old woman late that night.  No one was any longer prepared to provide for the Germans.


  We were afraid to go home and so we attempted to find refuge with some relatives and friends.  We were unable to find help at Maria Kernleitner’s, who lived at the corner house close to the steam driven mill.  She and her mother were terrified to remain in their house alone.  We found them at Rosalia Schubkegel.  They cried because they had had to leave their hiding place and had no idea of where to go next.  In response, my father simply said, “Then come with us.”  Hearing footsteps outside, everyone headed in a different direction in order to escape.  But it was Andreas Schubkegel and he said, “They caught me, but I got away and now I’m running for it.”


  Encouraged by Rosalia’s father, Heinrich Schubkegel who promised to help us hide out, we sneaked away to our house.


  In my parent’s house there was one room without windows, the door of which could be hidden by a tall cupboard.  During the First and Second World Wars, clothes and food supplies would be hidden there when the requisitioners from the army came for supplies.  This now became our narrow small hiding place.  It was a very tight fit for seven persons.  My grandmother Kaiser, who lived only three streets away, was to cook for all of us and my younger brother Joseph, who was just twelve years old, was to bring us our meal once a day along with any news.  The food became better and better and the news got worse.  Our tormenters increased in numbers as did the promises made to them and for that reason they became very active.


When no food arrived one day, we knew there was something wrong.  They apprehended my little brother and brought him to the police station.  There were people there in Russian and Romanian uniforms who were armed with machine pistols.  They threw Joseph in a police cell along with five other children and seven old women.  They had been arrested as hostages in place of their relatives and their teeth chattered from the cold and from fear.  Eventually the door opened and two armed Russians pushed the hostages out into the yard and placed them in single file.  They were ordered to reveal the hiding places of their family members.  They all remained silent.  Then they were called upon one by one and had to step forward, but none of them spoke.  One of the uniformed soldiers raised his gun and fired a series of bullets and one of the old women fell unconscious to the ground.  In response the soldier screamed, “Whoever refuses to answer our questions will be shot just like this old woman.”  This threat did not fail to achieve its objective.  Some were too old, others too young not be believe the threat.  Frightened and terrified each in turn promised to show the way to their family member’s hiding place.


  My brother Joseph came home escorted by two soldiers.  We could already hear him crying from inside of our hiding place.  He kept pleading, “I did not want to betray you, but they shot an old woman.”  With our hands raised each of us had to leave our hiding place one at a time.  Each of us was searched and afterwards led away.


  Romanian farmers from Semlak had to drive us on their horse drawn sleighs to Klein St. Nikolaus and the Romanian-Soviet Commission there.  We numbered twelve prisoners with six armed soldier guards who had shoot to kill orders.  On our way to the Commission we had to pass by the assembly camp.  There the soldiers handed us over to the others.  The Commander of the camp and his assistant were both Jewish.  Our guards, however, had been ordered specifically to hand us over to the Commission.


  After our papers were authorized, Michael Paul and my father George Kaiser were declared too old, while Maria Kernleitner, Eva Götz, Johann Paul and I were too young and were all set free.  But the Camp Commander was not in agreement with our being set at liberty.  In spite of that we were sent home with papers and certificates to that effect.


  On January 25, 1945 in spite of our papers we were again taken prisoner and along with many others were locked up in the Semlak, House of Culture.  This time we were guarded by Soviet troops.  At our apprehension and arrest we were promised that the Romanian-Soviet Commission would judge our cases on the basis the regulations.  Men between 17 and 45 and women between 18 and 30 were to be deported.


  Day after day, always more Semlak Germans were brought to the House of Culture and locked up with us.  On the morning of January 29th a convoy of Russian trucks filled with armed soldiers arrived.  We were driven into the trucks and they were covered over with canvas.  A portion of the soldiers held their weapons trained on us and the others did the same to those who had gathered there and were weeping because of what was taking place.  We were not allowed to say our farewells or speak to one another.  We were brought to the barracks in Arad where we were allowed to eat and wash once more.


  With the breaking of dawn, the prisoners were driven into the cattle cars.  I, along with most of the others from Semlak was driven into cattle car number 52 at one o’clock, on January 30, 1945 on my seventeenth birthday.  We numbered 82 persons.  The doors were locked, the guards took their places inside and then there was the long whistling sound of the locomotive, the signal for our departure.  Huffing and rolling along, the train filled with its human cargo set out.


  The journey into the unknown lasted from January 30th to March 7th, 1945.

 (I wrote these reminiscences 50 years later on January 30, 1995 in Düsseldorf on my 67th Birthday…GK)

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