Betschmen in Srem



  The following is a summary and partial translation of the village Heimatbuch published in 1984.


  The Military Frontier District was a defensive system the Habsburgs established to hold back any future attacks or invasions by the Turks after the liberation of Hungary.  The first settlement in this territory took place in 1687 in Croatia with the arrival of 284 Slavic families seeking asylum from the Turks and numbered 2,784 persons.


  In 1690 a large portion of the Serbian population under Turkish rule attempted to flee.  It was a well organized flight.  The Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Arsenje Carnojevic was at the head of the escape network.  The Orthodox clergy had been the bulwark against conversion to Islam and the preservation of Serbian culture, identity and language.  Smaller groups also numbering several thousand had led the way and crossed the Drava River to the Austrian side in 1686 and 1687.  A fair estimate of the number of Serbs who undertook this escape from the Turks is 350,000.  Most of them settled in the Batschka, the Banat and Srem.  Vienna assumed this was a temporary move on the part of the Serbs and many of the Serb refugees were of the same opinion.


  The Emperor Leopold assured them that when Serbia was liberated they were free to return home.  The depopulated and “orphaned” estates in Slavonia and Srem as well as the Batschka and the County of Arad were settled with Serbs.  They were citizen-soldiers, farmer-militiamen, Eastern Europe’s version of the Minute Men.  They were responsible to the military and independent of County officials and had the free use of the land they farmed, the forests and freedom of religion.


  The Military Frontier District began at the Adriatic, went across Croatia, then along the Sava River and the Danube to the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania.  It was a military “corridor”.  A watch tower stood every three kilometres along the border (half an hour apart from one another).  In 1702 the Sava River frontier had 1,500 sentries and 950 cavalrymen plus 3,200 infantry.


  The first Germans in the District were veterans from the War of Liberation in Hungary and arrived in 1766.  They were looked upon with favour because of their agricultural ability and skills.  There were 1,280 men, 1,105 wives and 1,011 children.  In 1769 an additional one hundred German families arrived to the settle in the Military Frontier District.  The settlers in the District were known as the Grenzers (people on the border) and included Serbs, Croats, Germans, Hungarians, Gypsies, Romanians, Albanians, Jews, Italians and Greeks.  In 1776 there were 62,000 troops and their families defending their homes and the frontier.  The cost of their upkeep was less than a third of that of the regular army.  Their villages were small, compact and isolated and located on the basis of a defensive strategy.  There were brigands, robbers and deserters on the prowl in the area.  School and church life were at a minimal level due to the lack of clergy and teachers.


  Near the end of 1790 large numbers of families from Alsace and Lorraine, Baden and Württemberg, Basel and Hessen Nassau arrived.  This was the result of the Emperor Joseph II’s new immigration polices in terms of permitting Protestants to participate.  In 1784 the first Protestants settled in the Batschka.  After 1789 a large scale immigration from the Pfalz (Rhine Palatinate) got underway as invading French armies advanced on the Palatinate.  Three convoys of settlers arrived in the Military Frontier District.


  Shortly before the Military Frontier District was disbanded in 1872 the vast majority of the Grenzers were Serbs and Croats (650,000 Orthodox Serbs) (520,000 Roman Catholic Croats) and 35,000 others.  They included Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed and Jews.  At that time 80% of the land was under cultivation.


  All of the cities and towns of Srem were originally Roman settlements with the one  exception of Ruma.  Today’s Mitrowitz is on the site of the largest city (200,000) between Rome and Constantinople.  The Romans drained the swamps and cleared the forests and began agricultural cultivation in the area while the local Celts herded cattle.  The canal system that exists to this day was built by them.  It was also the Romans who introduced vineyards and fruit orchards.  It was part of the Byzantine Empire and had to fight off the invasions of the Huns and the Bulgars in Srem as well as the Germanic tribes which followed after them:  Goths, Vandals, Lombards.


  The first German settlement was established by Franconians.  They arrived at the time of the Crusades to protect the borders of Hungary.  The Germans settled in the towns of  Semlin and Vukovár.  In 1210 they were populated by Germans, Saxons, Hungarians and Slavs.


  In 1526 Srem became a Turkish province.  In the next two centuries most of the region was left in ruins.  Those who did not flee the Turks or were killed in the war or became victims of the plague were sold into slavery.  Most villages simply “disappeared”.  Weed infested prairies and swamps dotted the landscape.  The region between Peterwardein and Semlin-Belgrade was totally devastated.


  By 1686/1687 there were 11,000 Serbs in the eastern part of Srem.  In 1690/1691 some 36,000 Serbian families crossed the Sava River into Srem.  Following the Peace of Passarowitz (1717) much of Srem was sold or awarded to nobles by the Habsburgs.  For example an Italian Prince Odescalchi was awarded Fruschka Gora; Semlin and the surrounding villages were granted to the Franconian Count Schӧnborn.


  The German settler families in the Batschka were very large and land soon became unavailable for further division and distribution and they began to buy land in neighbouring communities only to soon face the same problem all over again and the next generation had to move on.  As a result of the Revolution of 1848 and the break up of the landed estates along with the Protestant Patent of 1859 it became possible for Lutheran and Reformed families to settle in Croatia and to add to the existing populations and villages.  Most of the land was not under cultivation which drove down the price immeasurably.  A Joch (1.4 acres) in Croatia sold for 100 Gulden compared to 1,000 in the Batschka.  They sold their land in the Batshcka and headed to Srem and Croatia.


  The original settlers in Betschmen were Serbs and by 1766 there were 63 houses but by 1795 the village consisted of only thirteen families.  In 1867 the first German settler arrived.  He was Karl Sarg who was a bricklayer by trade and came from the Batschka.  All of the five original families that came from Torschau, Kucura and Neusiwatz were Reformed.  As the village grew the Reformed were joined by German Lutherans from the Batschka but the Reformed were the majority and accounted for 75% of the German population.  The Lutheran minority formed a congregation and were served by the pastor in Surtschin and built a prayer house while the Reformed built a church and school.  The Reformed refused to allow the Lutheran children to attend their school forcing them to go to the “public” school and were taught only in Serbo-Croatian.  The Lutheran families had been willing to pay to have their children attend the Reformed private school and be taught in German.  After being turned down, two of the Lutheran men, Johann Bauer Sr. and Peter Kinkel Sr. provided several hours a week of German instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic.  They were simple farmers and not professional teachers but left a lasting impression on their young pupils and helped them maintain their German identity.


   During the First World War, Betschmen’s location which was only 8 miles from the Sava River frontier that separated Serbia and Austria-Hungary placed it in a precarious position.  In August 1914 the Serbian Army occupied all of eastern Srem and a twenty kilometre strip of land along the Sava River became a battle zone.  Austria-Hungary called upon its Serbian population to support their war effort but most sympathized with the enemy.  The German population in Serbian occupied territory were faced with very difficult choices.  Flight became the only option.  A planned flight got under way in Betschmen early one morning as the villagers left by horse and wagon.  As soon as the column of wagons got under way a barrage of artillery fire from the nearby Gibowatz Woods bombarded the village.  In the midst of the panic that ensued the wagon trek hurriedly continued towards Dobanovci and then Neu Passua.  They were able to remain there overnight.  The next day the refugees proceeded on to Peterwardein.  There the  streets were jammed with Austro-Hungarian troops on their way to the front lines.  They had to wait for the army to pass through and then they headed towards Torschau, Kucura and Sekitsch where many stayed with their relatives.


  After a few weeks they were able to return home because the Austro-Hungarian Army had driven the Serbs out of the area and it was now declared safe for them to return. On returning home they discovered that the Germans who had remained and not fled with them had suffered a great deal at the hands of the local Serbs (none of whom had fled) and the Serbian military forces.  They learned that German hostages from other villages had been taken to Serbia by their retreating army.  During the Serbian occupation all of the Germans homes had been plundered and looted and their livestock were driven off.  The troops were joined in this by the local Serbs.  Some of the Serbs later returned furniture and clothing, claiming they had saved them for their German neighbours.  There were few who believed them and were simply relieved to have something of their own returned to them.


  All of the Serbs in the village, whether guilty or innocent, had to report to the Hungarian “battle” police.  They punished those who had welcomed the Serbian armed forces to the village as “liberators” as well as those who participated in the looting of the German homes and plundering their property.  Some of the innocent had to suffer along with those who were guilty.  The Serbs were ordered to surrender everything they had stolen and deliver everything to the town hall.  The Serbs arrived with wagons loaded down with goods and furniture.  It looked like market day.  The Germans came and picked out their belongings.  All of this led to a lessening of the tensions between the two groups.


  The war went on in Serbia as the Austro-Hungarian advanced into the interior.  At Crni Vrh they were stopped and forced to retreat because of heavy losses on both sides.  The situation became very dangerous as the Austro-Hungarians pulled back to the Sava and expected an invasion of their own territory.  The whole debacle was blamed on General Potiorek and the Austrian High Command.  It rained for several weeks that Fall of 1915 which prevented an orderly retreat and ended in  catastrophe.  There was a shortage of pontoon bridges to cross the Sava which was in flood and as a result there was a heavy loss of life and material.  All of the villages along the Sava were jammed with infantry, artillery and cavalry units.  The German population of Betschmen and the neighbouring villages prepared to flee again when reinforcements arrived and halted the retreat.


  The billeting and care of the troops in Betschmen was a major problem. The number of troops to be quartered in each house was set by the military.  Most families were confined to one room of their houses and the soldiers took over the rest.  The barns and stables were requisitioned for the artillery and cavalry units and their horses.  It lasted for only a month but they had to give up their grain and hay for the horses.  All of the fence posts and picket fences were used for camp fires.  Many orchards fell victim to this need as well.  Many of the troops were Germans from Srem and Romania who were then shortly transferred to the Russian front.  After they left for the first time German units passed through who were part of General Mackensen’s German Wehrmacht to join forces with the Austro-Hungarians and proceeded to invade Serbia again.


  The local Serbs, consisting mostly of women and children were interned  at Vukovár along with others living within 20 kilometres of the Sava River.  The men were taken prisoner and taken to Peterwardein and jailed in the fortress prison.  The women and children lived with Serbian families.  This would last for two years before they would be allowed to return home.  This resulted in repercussions for the German population after the war on the part of both the local Serbs and the government itself until things settled down in the early 1920s.


  In 1941 Betschmen had a population of 1,137 of which 800 were Germans, 237 Serbs, 3 Slovaks, 43 Gypsies and 54 others.


  With the invasion of Yugoslavia by the Third Reich in April 1941 the region of Srem became part of the Independent State of Croatia under Pavelič and the Ustasčhi (Croat Fascists).  In response to the Croat atrocities committed against the Serbian civilian  population many of younger men and women joined Tito’s Partisans and carried out attacks on the local German population as well as German and Hungarian military units and their installations.  Things deteriorated so badly in Slavonia that the entire German population was evacuated in 1941/1943.  It never dawned on the Betschmen Germans that the same might happen to them.  And that when it did, it would last forever.  After the First World War the local Serbs had often taunted the German population, “If you’re not happy here go back to Kurcura or wherever you came from…”


  By the end of 1943 as things became worse on the Eastern Front these taunts seemed about to be fulfilled but it would be taken a step farther and it would take them back to the homeland of their ancestors.


  At the beginning of October 1944, the German occupation forces began to withdraw.  With little time to think about it the German population of Betschmen had to chose between flight or living under Serbian oppression.  With Partisans in the area and the Red Army on its way there was really no choice but to flee to Germany.  The retreating German forces unofficially encouraged them to join in their retreat and evacuation.  “Whoever can save himself must do so.  Farmers who have horses and tractors pack some food, hay and feed for your horses.  Take bedding and clothing on your wagons. Join the trek leaving Semlin shortly…”


  The Serbian villages all around Betschmen were already occupied by Partisans.  The Betschmen trek had to avoid them and detoured around Semlin.  The trek went through Indija and Ruma towards Esseg.  The roads were dangerous to travel on and were open to Partisan attacks for which they could offer little resistance lacking both weapons and men as mostly women and children and the elderly were in the convoy.  From Esseg they were escorted by German troops and then headed for Hungary and went across it for Austria.  Some had to abandon the trek and make their way to safety by train.


  Only a few families remained behind in Betschmen.  After brutal treatment by the Partisans and the confiscation of all of their property and possessions they were interned and some managed to make it to Germany after the war.  One woman remained behind with her sick mother unable to join the trek.  She was brutally murdered by the Partisans soon after they arrived.  Her husband and children were with the trek and eventually emigrated to the United States.  The Reformed Church was torn down by the Partisans shortly after they occupied Betschmen.


  There were eight families in Austria who sought to return home to Yugoslavia when the war ended.  They were unsuccessful and were robbed and half starved by the Partisans before being release and they managed to return to Austria.


  The evacuation took place on October 5, 1944 following a hurried order from the German military.  The area around Betschmen was teeming with Partisans and there were daily attacks.  The hatred between the Serbian and German populations was so great that remaining in Betschmen did not appear to be an option.  Only two families were prepared to remain but some Serbs joined the evacuation for reasons of their own.


  Those who remained behind were the Kinkel and Hoffmann families and Elisabeth Sarg and her mother.  The two women were put to death and the others suffered greatly and became victims of Tito’s extermination programme. 

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