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A Brief History

Donauschwaben History

Upon the death of the Hungarian King Louis II in 1526, the crown of Hungary was awarded to the next in line of succession, Louis’ brother-in-law, Ferdinand the Archduke of Austria. From this point forward, German involvement in the affairs of the region lasted approximately 400 more years.

A century and a half of fighting had decimated the native population of Hungary, 200,000 of which had been sold into slavery, while others had fled, never to return. To further complicate matters, most of Hungary had never been cultivated, and in the south, rivers had overrun their banks, creating a swampy wilderness.

Since there was no danger of invasion, surviving Hungarian landowners were quick to re-establish themselves on the best land. The rest, which was a vast and unclaimed area, was left to the King. In order to settle this territory, the Imperial Council in Vienna offered colonists land grants, homesteads, establishment credits and tax exemptions.

Among those answering the call of the Imperial Council for settlers were Serbs, Croats, Slovaks, a few Italians, a few Spaniards, and Germans. Often possessing excellent agricultural expertise and technical knowledge, Germans were encouraged by the Imperial Council to consider relocating. Among the reasons many Germans accepted the offer were religious strife, foreign invasions, dynastic quarrels, greedy landlords and recent crop failures. The greatest lure to the German settlers, however, was perhaps the promise from the House of Hapsburg that they would remain free subjects for all time.

Originally, German colonists traveled down the Donau River by barge, departing from Ulm in Schwabia.  The settlers that survived malaria and random Turkish raids founded more than 1,000 farming communities in the former backwater, creating a western-oriented society with cultivated fields, orchards, gardens and vineyards.  These settled communities were located in the Danubian plain that encompassed what became known as Banat and Batschka.

The Donauschwaben lived in harmony with their Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian and Croation neighbors, although there was very little intermarriage. The Donauschwaben built their towns with unusually wide streets, whitewashed houses and Baroque style churches at the center. In less than one century after arriving in the former wasteland, the Donauschwaben had transformed the backwater into what was often called the “breadbasket of Europe”.

Although part of Banat belonged to Romania after WWI, the name Banat was no longer on the maps after WWII.


The Donauschwaben Town of Pardan

The Donauschwaben town of Pardan was located in the Central Banat District of northeastern Serbia in the region of Banat, which is in the autonomous province of Vojvodina on the map below.

Map of Vojvodina-19

Spring and summer were very lush and full of life, but not very humid. As a result, there were fewer bugs than we are used to in many parts of the U.S. Fall was crisp and winter was quite cold and full of snow.

The land in that area is sparsely forested and quite flat. Therefore drainage ditches were dug that were so extensive and had been in use for so long that they often resembled large creeks. These were also quite useful as a water source.

Homes in Pardan were fashioned in one of two main styles: Square with the stable and summer kitchen as separate structures, or “L-shaped” with the stable and summer kitchen attached. Cellars were dug out under the houses and were kept very clean and whitewashed, with many bins and shelves for storage. Cellars and pantries were a source of great pride for the women. Attics were used for storage as well.

Streets were constructed of hard-packed dirt, were very wide and lined with trees.

There were several communal artesian wells located throughout town.

Since Pardan was located very close to the Romanian border, there was always danger of outlaws sneaking into town at night to steal livestock or anything else they could easily transport. Some families had protective dogs that would prowl the yard at night to scare these intruders away.

Pardan held a weekly market every Friday.

As was common in most Donauschwaben towns, a number of colorful Romany gypsies lived in several ramshackle houses on the outskirts of town. The gypsies were known to be tricky and sometimes lazy. This aversion to hard work often left them scheming and trying to sell salves or potions of questionable origin.


A Bit About Anna’s Childhood in Pardan

Although she was born on April 19, 1917—while some of the heaviest fighting of World War I was still raging in France—Anna Mendler loved growing up in Pardan. Born into a family of prosperous farmers, it was truly an idyllic existence for Anna, who was the oldest of Johan and Josephine Mendler’s three children.

Unidentified photo of a typical Donauswaben homestead.

Like most Donauschwaben families, the Mendler’s raised plenty of food—enough to feed several families every year. Whatever they didn’t need was either traded on Friday at the weekly town market, or it was sold to the local dairy, mill or butcher .

Anna started school at a the age of six and it was customary for everyone to receive a 6th grade education. While that might not sound like much by today’s standards, the curriculum at Pardan’s school was quite rigorous.

After school each day, the children would head home to help with whatever was needed. Sometimes it was just sweeping the covered side porch or helping to feed the animals, but Anna also regularly received instruction regarding how to sew, work as a tailor and garden, as well as learned how to make lace and linen, can food and cook—all the skills that would be one day be essential for ahausfrau.

Upon finishing school, boys and girls alike were expected to help their families, but sometimes boys would choose to take an apprenticeship in order to learn a specific trade. Others would decide to work for different farmers as a way to learn new techniques, while girls would often receive advanced instruction from the local seamstress.

Next to her younger brother Josef and younger sister Kati, Anna’s best friends were Lissi Schwarz and Lisa Kerbel. In fact, Lisa’s family lived just across the street from Anna’s, so they would often play together after school.

One of Anna’s chores as a young girl was to milk the cows. To keep herself occupied, Anna began trying to squirt milk from the cow’s udder directly into the mouths of eagerly waiting cats. In time, she became an expert at this game and even continued doing it every now and then as an adult!

For fun, Anna and her friend Lissi would often make dolls out of corn or rags, dressing them in homemade cotton clothes and using braided wool for hair. The girls really had to use their imaginations, carefully selecting buttons and pins to construct the eyes, nose and mouth. The corn husk dolls were made by first peeling the tough outer layers of the husk off, then soaking the remaining part in water until it became soft. Finally, the innermost husks are carefully separated to make the hair.

While corn husk dolls might have been fun, Josephine took nine year old Anna and eight year old Kati on a girls-only trip to Temeschwar—a large, bustling city in the Banat region of Romania—to pick out beautiful porcelain dolls in 1926. Upon returning home, the girls were positively glowing from the adventure and vowed to always keep the precious dolls in their boxes, except for on very special occasions.

Generally speaking, children in Pardan were expected to take good care of their toys and only received one new toy at a time. Jack in the Box, puppets and rag or rubber balls were typical favorites, but games like Ring Around the Rosie, Hide and Go Seek and Duck, Duck, Goose! were also commonly played in the streets and yards of Pardan.

On the day of her first communion Anna received another treasure, this time from her godmother. To commemorate the special occasion, Schmidt Godl presented her with a beautiful ivory prayer book that featured a very ornate clasp. It was an item Anna held dear and consulted regularly over the years, not realizing that it would one day be lost – along with everything else she owned…

One Response to “A Brief History”

  1. Karen Camilovic says:

    Kirsten, this story has significant meaning to my family as well. My husband’s grandmother was forcibly taken as a teenager from her family during that war. She eventually made it to this country with a child that was conceived by force. She was lucky enough to be united with a man that had lost his family and they had another child on the way to this country. That child is my husband’s father. My husband’s grandfather and grandmother could not even speak english when they arrived in this country. His grandfather got a job at the steel mill and taught himself to speak english. They lived a simple life and never asked for a handout or simpathy for what they had endured. My husbands grandmother is now living with her daughter and daughter’s husband because she is in poor health. She never ever complains about anything. I deeply admire the people that have lived their lives in the shadow of that horrible situation.

    I also admire you for sharing your story. Thanks for reminding me that we really do have so much to be thankful for….


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