Lazarfeld in the Banat (1800-1950)
This article deals with the latter portion of the Lazarfeld Heimatbuch published in 1972 and has been translated by Henry Fischer.
Lazarfeld was located in the District of Grossbetscherek in the County of Torontal all of which later became part of Yugoslavia. It’s neighbouring communities also included: Sartscha (1805), Klek (1818), Kathreinfeld (1793), Stephansfeld (1795), Ernsthausen (1822) and Sigmundfeld (1809).
The settlement and founding of Lazarfeld took place in 1800 although the houses had been built in the previous year. There was a very high death rate among the children in the first years because the houses were very damp. To a great extent the settlers came from St. Hubert, Soltur and Scharlewil (Charleville). These French names are typical in the northern Banat. This would also remain true of the character of the settlements in the area which were secondary settlements as a result of population pressures in the already existing villages and their search for new and more land. By 1821 there were 1,382 residents in the village. It’s continued growth was steady so that by 1900 there was a population of 1,909. On October 1, 1944 the population was officially set at 2,210.
In 1848 a longing for freedom emerged in many lands resulting in unrest and revolution. Beginning in France the unrest spread to the German states. It was met with a welcome response in Hungary on the part of the Magyars who sought national independence. The Emperor Ferdinand I refused to give in to the aspirations of the Hungarians. They turned to the use of revolutionary means in order to meet their objectives and declared their independence. They were led by Louis Kossuth the champion of the nationalist cause. The national minorities in Hungary who consisted of more than half of the population did not support them in their aims. They looked to the Emperor to support them in safeguarding their future and saw that as his responsibility to them. The Danubian lands and territories freed from the Turks were once again the scene of warfare. The Hungarians battled the Imperial and Royal Habsburg Army. The Serbs, Croats, Slovaks and later also the Romanians rose up against the Hungarians.
At the beginning of April in 1848 the Serbs who were centred in Neusatz (Novi Sad) asked the new Hungarian government in Pressburg for their own national freedom and independence. The government denied their request. In response on April 24th the Serbs in Kikinda raised their own flag on the town hall and began to partition the state land holdings and drove off the Hungarian hussars who were stationed in the town and then plundered the town. Ernst Kiss, the nobleman and landlord of Elemer and Itebe, suppressed the rebel Serbs in the city and hung their leaders. In retaliation 300 to 400 Serbs gathered in Betschkerek and burned the church records which were all written in Hungarian. The “National Congress of Serbs” met in Karlovitz on May 13, 1848 and appointed the Archbishop of Karlovitz, Josef Rajastisch (German version of a Serbian name) as the Patriarch of all Serbs in the Monarchy and the Serbian Wojwod and elected Stephan Schuplikatz (ditto) as the titular head of the nation and Stratimirowitsch (ditto) their military leader began the campaign of liberation and freedom from the Hungarians. The Military Frontier District had been Austrian territory until May 1848 when it was returned to Hungary and placed under their military jurisdiction. Both Slavic populations and the resident Austrian military personnel resented this transfer.
Approximately ten thousand resisters assembled in the local barracks and district army camps and were reinforced by Serbs from the Kingdom of Serbia who were chiefly engaged in theft and murder when they were set loose on the countryside. At the outset the Serb forces were 20,000 in number who faced. 10,000 well armed members of the Hungarian Honvéd (National Citizens Army) under the command of Bechthold and Kiss. The first battle took place on July 15, 1848. On July 23, the Serbs under the command of Stratimirowitsch occupied Pantschowa and established his headquarters there. Minor battles and skirmishes began at Neusin on August 3rd and five days later they burned Ernsthausen and a section of the village of Sartscha. There were more skirmishes on August 28th at Etschka, the 29th at Stephansfeld and October 8th they were at Siegmundfeld. The steward in charge of Stephansfeld, Matthias Herf was beheaded by the Serbs at Tomaschwatz and his head was placed on a lance on the bridge of the town.
The Magyars were soon in a position to retaliate and faced the rebels at Perlas which they put to the torch. Kiss established a military hospital at Siegmundfeld. The Swabians in the various communities were in a constant state of anxiety and fear that their villages could be destroyed overnight. Their wagons were loaded with necessities and their teams of horses were kept in harness. They also set up their own sentries to patrol their villages especially in terms of the direction from which they assumed the attacks would come. Kiss had his headquarters in Betscherek and that discouraged incursions in the vicinity and he also put a stop to attacks at Jarkowatz, Tomaschwatz, Botosch and Siegmundfeld. The robber captain, Sandor Rozsa, and his brigand band of two hundred, kept the Serbs at bay and he and his mean were ensconced in Lazarfeld and Klek. At the end of August they left for Werschetz in the pay of the Hungarians but they were now more interested in plunder and murder. Only with Russians assistance was Austria able to put down the revolution and with that Austria’s policy had to change in terms of the diverse nationalities in the Habsburg holdings.
On January 5, 1849 the Austrians occupied Budapest under Duke Windischgratz. With the withdrawal of Hungarian troops out of southern Hungary, the Serbs were able to occupy all of it without meeting any opposition. The Banat and Batschka were now an Austrian province with Temesvár as the capital. Following that the Swabian population were given rights and freedoms in terms of their language.
On July 28, 1914 shots rang out in Sarajevo that ended the Empire of 43,000,000 inhabitants, divided into seventeen nationalities. The people of Lazarfeld were caught between the Austrians and the Serbs asked: “Will there be war? If so what will ever become of us?” The men left to go off to war heading south and the cannonade of the siege of Belgrade could be heard in Lazarfeld. The casualties mounted as the men from Lazarfeld served in Galicia and the Carpathians and on the Russian front. The women and grandfathers and older teenaged boys cultivated the land and took care of the livestock. Later the first Russian prisoners of war appeared in Lazarfeld and were more than happy to be agricultural workers. In 1915 the grey uniformed troops of the German Reich were quartered in Lazarfeld. It was their first contact with Reichs Deustche (Germans from the German Reich). They were received warmly by the community.
The second year of the war brought with it some food shortages. Only a small portion of the crops could be retained by the farmers everything else had to be delivered to the military. But the war claimed more and more victims and the casualty lists got longer and longer. At the end of November 1916, the Emperor Francis Joseph died and so did the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. His successor Karl I, died in exile in April of 1922 on the island of Madiera. The Empire was no more.
As a result of the Treaty of Trianon the Batschka, western Banat, Srem, Slavonia (with a total of 600,000 Germans) were annexed by the new successor state of Yugoslavia. The eastern Banat and Temesvár, Szatmar and a small triangle (Keres-Maros) with 750,000 Germans was awarded to Romania. The other areas of settlement of the Swabians remained in Hungary (480,000). As a result of Trianon Hungary lost two thirds of land mass and seven tenths of its population.
In June 1920 the organization of the local chapter of the “Swabian-German Cultural Association” in Lazarfeld took place. It was an utterly new phenomenon. It had no political intentions…at the outset.
In 1927 some fifteen families from within this entirely Roman Catholic village left the Roman Catholic Church and formed a Lutheran congregation. Among them were the local physician and other intellectuals who found Roman Catholicism too rigid and controlling and repressive in terms of allowing people to do their own personal thinking about their spirituality and their relationship with God.
The Second World War
On March 27, 1941, two days after the conclusion of the Pact between Germany and Yugoslavia in Vienna, the Serbs took to the streets to demonstrate against it. “Better a war than this Pact!” Worry-filled days followed for the Swabian population. Many men received their call up for military service. The big question was: “Will it be war?” The first bombs fell on Belgrade in the grey morning of Palm Sunday, April 6, 1941. Without a declaration of war Germany began hostilities against Yugoslavia. The Swabians bore the brunt of the hostilities simply because they were German. There were hostages taken in every German village by the Yugoslavian police forces. Seven women and eleven men from Lazarfeld were taken as hostages and accompanied by an armed escort. “All Germans are guilty,” became a byword. They were first taken to Gross Betscherek and then later to Peterwardein. The hostages were the teachers, notaries, mayors and their family members. Throughout Yugoslavia the Swabians endured a week of fear and uncertainty. Both the Germans and Serbs knew that German and Romanian troops were massed on the border. Those who lived close to the border sought safety by crossing the frontier clandestinely. But the hostages in Peterwardein had no idea of what lay ahead for them.
The Yugoslavian Army began to withdraw from the border areas. It was only a matter of time until the German troops marched in. The women sewed flags to welcome the German Army. On the afternoon of Easter Monday, April 14th motorized German units from Romania began to enter from Temesvár, Modosch and Stefansfeld. They headed for Gross Betscherek. The columns of German troops passing through Lazarfeld took most of the next day. They were welcomed by the Swabians with a sight of relief after the uncertainty of the last weeks. The hostages were released and returned back home. The plan had been to blow up the prison with the hostages in it but an unknown Serbian Orthodox priest had revealed the information to the German Army authorities. In a week’s time normalization set it. Although Serbia was occupied by German troops the Banat was a separate area of occupation distinct from it. At its head was a German Vice-Governor in Grossbetscherek.
During the period of time between the entry of the German troops and the beginning of the invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, the Swabians had no sense of being in the middle of a war. The quartering of German troops was more like entertaining visiting guests. In late summer with the active support of the local Volksgruppe (Translator’s Note: the former cultural association had been taken over by pro-Nazis) a commission from the Third Reich came to Lazarfeld in an attempt to recruit volunteers to serve in the Waffen-SS. There were eight volunteers in all.
There were massive and destructive floods in the first quarter of 1942 because of heavy rainfall. Much of Grossbetscherek was flooded but most of Lazarfeld was spared due to the canal system.
Berlin government officials (Translator’s Note: Heinrich Himmler head of the SS) and the Volksgruppe leaders in the Banat worked jointly to organize a “voluntary” SS-Division to be called: “Prinz Eugen”. (Translator’s Note: Eugen of Savoy the Liberator of Hungary from the Turks) This division was to consist of 26,000 men. The recruitment began in May and would last for four months. The men to be recruited were born between 1892-1926. This would lead to the charge levelled against the Swabians in the Banat at the end of the war to be used to justify their extermination and punishment. In fact they were brutally enlisted in the SS against their will. Their preference would have been to serve in the regular German Army.
It was left to the women and older men to carry on the economic life of the community and yet 1942 would produce a bountiful harvest. In the fall of 1942 the Prince Eugen Division went into action against the Partisans in Serbia and Bosnia. This was a fatal political mistake. It deepened the hatred of the Serbs towards the Swabians.
Evacuation and Catastrophe
On August 23, 1944 King Michael of Romania declared an armistice with the Soviet Union. As a result the Banat was in danger of becoming a battle ground or to be overrun by the Red Army. In light of that the Volksgruppe ordered the population to prepare for a possible evacuation. All of the Swabians in German occupied areas of Yugoslavia began to pack. The wagons were enlarged and canvas tops were prepared. The refugee treks were to follow a well regulated route and plan. Those who had no vehicles would travel with someone who had space and room for them and their necessary luggage and food; the Lazarfeld population had been prepared for some time. They simply waited for the order to leave.
Then on September 18th, the Volksgruppe press reported: “We will stay here!” The people breathed a sigh of collective relief. But soon they would pay bitterly for the false hopes they had been informed about. It only dawned on them when the first treks from the Romanian Banat from Hatzfeld, Ostern and Tschakowa quartered in Lazarfeld…the Russians were coming and they would overrun the Banat.
As the situation worsened they were told the Russians were being held at the Carpathian Mountain passes and only a few stragglers and deserters had made it into the Banat. As a result the “Deutsche Mannschaft” (Translator’s Note: a local civil defence force) including some men from Lazarfeld were sent to Romania to contain them. There they soon discovered they were faced by massive Russian armies, not Partisans or stragglers.
On Thursday, September 28th, the leadership of the Volksgruppe in Grossbetscherek ordered the evacuation of the Banat. They did so on their own without authorization by the German Army and then relented afraid of some action that the German authorities might take against them. The evacuation was held back due to political considerations. If massive numbers of Swabiansd refugees fled through Hungary it would drive the Hungarians right into the arms of the Russians in order to save themselves. At least that is what German officials feared. So they were prepared to offer 100,000 victims if that would stabilize the resolve of an unreliable ally like Hungary for at least a few weeks. These very short sighted political considerations of the Nazis does not however excuse the Volksgruppe leaders and their Führer, Sepp Janko, from the guilt and responsibility for what was about to happen. Had they taken the responsibility to order the evacuation it would have perhaps meant their own deaths for treason but would have prevented the extermination of thousands upon thousands of innocent women, children and elderly.
It was at mid-night on Sunday, October 1, 1944 that the Volksgruppe leaders finally received permission to evacuate the German population of the Banat. But for Lazarfeld and its neighbouring villages the order came too late. So began the tragedy of our people and the end of the history of Lazarfeld.
(Translator’s Note: Sepp Janko and his inner circle in the Volksgruppe had already left for Germany by train.)
On Saturday, the 30th of September 1944, twenty to twenty-five Russians troops and their officer entered Lazarfeld after having established their headquarters in Stephansfeld. They allowed the villagers of Stephansfeld to drive them to Lazarfeld on their wagons. They first went to the town hall and then the post office. There they tore down the telephone wires. In the town hall they looked for someone who could speak Russian. A Russian prisoner of war from the First World War had never returned home to Russia acted as their interpreter. The officer asked him about German forces in the village or area. When told that there were none all of the public buildings were searched. Some girls and women fled during the night to Klek which had not yet been occupied.
On Sunday, October 1st, at daybreak the Russians returned to Stephansfeld. A new day began, a day which the people of Lazarfeld will never forget. At eight o’clock the beating of drums announced, “All men 16 years of age and over are to report at the town hall with guns and ammunition to march to Sartscha and make a stand and push back the Partisans.” Many of the men simply ignored the order. At nine o’clock a crony of the local Volksgruppe leaders handed out leaflets. They announced, “Whoever flees without the permission of the Volksgruppe leaders will be excluded from our racial community.” This leaflet and its authors and distributors determined the destiny of the people of Lazarfeld. The whole community was packed and ready to leave. The wagons were loaded. The horses were harnessed. But no one left. They stood in the streets, unsure, uncertain as what to do. Time ran out. With each hour there was less hope of escape before the Russians entered the village en masse. But the Volksgruppe leaders’ lives were far more precious than the thousands who would perish.
As the last toll of twelve o’clock was sounding from the church tower–the bells would never toll again–the Red Army crossed the Sartscha bridge and came into Lazarfeld. At that same moment a few families left attempting to escape. Countless troops entered the village, disciplined and well warmed. Every household provided quarters for twenty to thirty men.
Almost simultaneously German troops had been flown into Grossbetscherek and were stationed at Klek and Alexandrowo. German artillery fire was directed at Lazarfeld. The first hit was the rectory and the second hit and destroyed the church tower. The battle raged all night. Around eleven o’clock the German infantry entered the northern part of the village and threw the Russians back half way through the village. The villagers were caught in the middle, hiding out with the Russian troops in their homes. Two families are known to have safely fled during the night.
Early morning, October 2nd the Russians were reinforced and drove the German troops back to Grossbetscherek. The battle for the airport and the Tisza Canal began.
Now the Russian troops began to plunder. They broke into homes and took watches, jewellery and money. The members of the Deutsche Mannschaft were beaten and bloodied. Now everything under the sun was unleashed upon the population. Rape was the order of the day. Women as old as fifty years jumped into wells to drown to escape the horror that was taking place all around them. The next day more troops arrived to be quartered and the plundering and raping went on. Pigs and calves were slaughtered and the women had to cook and bake day and night. They took the horses and the fodder. Everything was taken and Partisans and Serbs from Scharen came and joined in the thievery and plundering.
Right after the entry of the Russians the Partisans followed and took command. They put the German population to forced labour. The following day to the beating of drums in the streets of the village they announced, “All men must report to the town hall.” They were ordered to gather and bury the battle casualties. They buried twenty-five Russians and fifteen German soldiers in the cornfields. In the following days everyone had to report at the town hall. The Partisans guarded them on the way to the fields as they gathered in the harvest.
Then came October 20th…The men stood outside the town hall again awaiting orders from Tito’s Partisans. Names were read: 42 members of the Deutsche Mannschaft who were not allowed to return home and spent an uncertain night in the town hall. They were forced on wagons to carry animals and were taken to the camp at Grossbetscherek. (This would be the last stop in the life of most of them.)
One Lazarfeld survivor writes: “On October 5th the Partisans imprisoned all of the Germans in Grossbetscherek in the camp. Later, German men from the surrounding area were brought there to hire them out for slave labour. The men were beaten, tortured and terribly abused. Our day of misery began at four in the morning. Breakfast consisted of watery soup. We had to work hard all day. After working fourteen hours at six o’clock we had watery soup again. Even the healthiest among us became wrecks and those who tried to forage or beg for good from the Serbian population faced torture or execution if they were caught. Those put to the wall to facing firing squads were those who had better clothes, were physically strong or were weakened through hunger or sickness. Guilt or innocence had no meaning or significance at all. The shooting range outside the city became the execution grounds for the Swabians.”
Among the prisoners were Swabians from Romania who had no quarrel with the Serbs. The estimate of how many were shot in Grossbetscherek Camp is 1,200 to 1,500 men. This reign of terror in the camp lasted until May 1945. The shootings finally ended on the intervention of the Russians. From then on the men worked in the fields. Shooting was reserved solely for men caught attempting to escape.
At Christmas 1944 a Russian Commission came to Lazarfeld. The population had to assemble on the main street. Everyone had “to dance” at the dance hall, which meant to register if you were a woman eighteen to thirty-five years old and men up to fifty.
On Christmas Day, a total of 99 residents of Lazarfeld, 13 men and 86 women and teenaged girls were marched through the village escorted by Partisans. Heart rendering scenes took place. Children clung to the skirts of their mothers and sobbed, “Momma don’t go away. Take us along. Don’t leave us alone!” They drove the poor children away with their rifle butts. Several mothers who were not among the selected age groups went along voluntarily to be with their teenaged daughters. Those who remained caught a glimpse of what was in store for them. When they reached Grossbeterscherk they were loaded in cattle cars in groups of 35 to 40 people in each car and sent to Russia to the coal mines of Stalino. The journey lasted twenty days; they never saw the sky; received no food and were driven into primitive huts and worked in primitive and dangerous anthracite coal mines. They worked side by side with German prisoners of war and other Swabians and Transylvania Saxons. They worked, starved, grew ill and died or managed to survive. They were at slave labour for five years before they were released. Release came too late for 3 women, 3 teenaged girls and 1 of the men buried in unmarked graves somewhere in Russia.
At the end of March 1945, the sick and weak among the prisoners in Grossbetscherek were transferred to Kathreinfeld Camp. All of them died there.
On April 18, 1945 the people of Lazarfeld had to leave their homes for mass quartering in public buildings; the school, the inns, the bank and larger homes. Twenty to thirty people were packed into each room. They slept on straw with one thin blanket. The clothes they wore were their only belongings. They worked under the watchful eyes of Partisan guards. The houses they had left stood open…a ghost town…and the living dead were just down the street.
The planned extermination continued. At the end of April it was the turn of the 16, 17 and 18 year old girls and also those born in 1927, 1928 and 1929. Horrible scenes took place as people engaged in a possible final farewell. Again there were mothers who went with their daughters voluntarily. Under armed Partisan guard they were taken to Grossbetscherek, were assigned to cattle cars and transported to the internment camp in Mitrowitz (Mitrovica). There were over one thousand inmates packed into the former silk spinning factory. The work was hard, conditions were bade and food was scarce. The girls faces were wrinkled and grey. In the winter of 1945-1946 a typhus epidemic broke out in the camp in which 25% died a terrible death. Their bodies were thrown into mass graves. The survivors were too weak to do any more work. The only place for them were the extermination camps. Russia, the labour camps and the extermination camps decimated the youth of the Swabian population.
Extermination Camp: Rudolfsgnad
In mid October of 1945 mothers and infants, toddlers and orphans, the elderly, the sick and those unfit for work were no longer to be spared from their Golgotha. Rudolfsgnad was the name of the concentration camp where many would make their final stop in life. The village situated in the Danube-Tisza-Triangle had 3,200 inhabitants at one time but by the end of November 1945 over 20,000 Swabians from the Banat had been driven there. According to room size, twenty to thirty persons were packed in it. They lay on the floor on bits of straw. They had no blanks or covers. The straw was never changed. There was no possibility of washing and no one had a change of clothes. They were under surveillance day and night. Food was ban and scarce. Cats and dogs soon disappeared.
It was only in May of 1946 that there was any increase in rations. But along with hunger there was cold. They burned whatever they could find. Sickness spread and so did death. Each day eighty to ninety people died and sometimes more. But worse was yet come. In late fall of 1945 a epidemic hit the camp. Mass deaths took place mostly the younger children and the elderly. By February 1946 the epidemics reached their high point. Mass graves of up to 9,000 contain 269 of Lazarfeld’s population. Among them 39 children from 1 to 13 years.
Adults could cope with hunger but not children. Mothers and grandparents no longer wanted to see their children starve. At nights they sneaked out of the closely guarded camps and stole into nearby Serbian villages begging food or resorting to stealing. They knew they could pay for this with their lives if they were caught and shot on the spot.
As the villages and market towns of the Swabians were re-settled by Bosnian immigrants the Swabian populations were dragged off to Rudolfsgnad. Children whose mothers had been deported to Russia were left with their grandparents, neighbours or friends. If they died the children were placed in the State Children’s Homes. Bad treatment and under-nourishment led them to become living skeletons. Some of them reverted to walking on all fours. They were transferred to Slovenia and Macedonia. Years later a reluctant International Red Cross was cajoled into work to re-unite the children with their families in Germany and Austria. They only spoke Serbo-Croatian and no longer knew their German names having been given a new identity.
At the beginning of 1948 a rumour spread in Rudolfsgnad, “The camps are being closed.” A few days later a commission arrived. All persons were identified and questions about family members were asked.
March 1, 1948 Rudolfsgnad ceased to be a camp. In February 1948 the Lazarfeld surviving population were re-settled around Pantschowa. They had to work on agricultural estates of the government. It took them three years to recuperate from their Rudolfsgnad experience. Those unable to work and the old people were placed in a barrack camp in Karlsdorf which was called an old people’s home.
No one thought of a return “home” because Bosnians were now in possession of their homes and land. They now longed to leave this now strange unfamiliar and hated land and return to the land of their forebears of 250 years ago with the same hope they had once brought with them. There were two possibilities to achieve this: flight or legal emigration. The first option was dangerous and the second was costly (12,000 Denar per person) and even then it would take a long time and painfully slow.
In the fall of 1946 those families still together undertook flight. The way was across the Romanian frontier through Hungary to Austria. Or when families were reunited in the camp at Gakowa close to the Hungarian frontier and escaped from there.
The survivors from Lazarfeld found sanctuary:
Bundes Repblic of Germany 1,238
East Germany 9
Losses suffered by the families of Lazarfeld:
Killed, Missing in Action 211
Died in Tito’s camps 382
Shootings and executions 42
Deportees died in Russia 7