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They came from places called Sekitsch and Feketitsch, Werbass and Torscha—villages, towns, and cities in the Batschka and Banat. If you ask them in what country they were born some will reply Yugoslavia, while others will say Hungary. In some cases it is both, the boundaries moved, kingdoms and nation states changed, but their homes hadn’t—homes and communities that had been for generations. Many of them learned the Serbian or Croatian language of their neighbors, while their parents had studied the Hungarian tongue that the rulers had encouraged them to learn; but the language they spoke, that they speak, that is still spoken literally today, is German. They are the Donauschwaben, or Danube Swabians.
Four years ago I had never heard of them, apparently missed that lesson in world history, didn’t know their story. But on a glorious All Saints Day afternoon with the sun shining and the trees just beginning to betray their true autumnal colors I gathered with almost fifty Donauschwaben at the Linden Hill Cemetery in Ridgewood, Queens. There with a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline off in the distance we came together to remember, to honor, and to commemorate those whose lives were lost—lost not simply to the tragedy and horrors of war, but specifically as the memorial stone imparts “Opfer der Entrechtung, Vernichtung, Verschleppung, Vertreibung” or in English, “victims of expulsion, deprivation of rights, extermination, and deportation.”
History can sometimes seem like it was so long ago. And yet, it is often more present and real than we realize. There’s a lot of history here, and I’m not attempting to be a history teacher, but perhaps a little Cliff Notes version may be helpful. In 1683, the Battle of Vienna becomes a turning point in history where the Ottoman Empire is pushed back by the Holy Roman Empire and the Hapsburgs of Austria rise to prominence. The fertile plains surrounding the Danube River thus become “depopulated” by Ottoman subjects, and the subsequent Austrian/Hungarian rulers wish to resettle it with farmers who can develop the land. Many of the colonizers will be from the west, particularly German speaking, many from Swabia, and so they are called the Danube Swabians. While it is true that these westerners who were transported to Central Europe were indeed good farmers and brought agricultural development, it should also be noted that the Hapsburgs and the Kingdom of Hungary especially wanted to make sure there was a Christian buffer between them and the Muslim Ottoman Empire. These German speaking enclaves thus get established in the late 17th century, expand in the 18th century, and grow into the 20th century. Then, with the rise of Nazi Germany during World War II particular complications arise regarding the relationship of the Donauschwaben and the resulting nations in which they reside, especially Yugoslavia. Suffice it to say, those complications eventually lead to drastic and horrible measures including concentration camps comprising of both forced labor and starvation against these cultural Germans.
Consequently, the memorial monument in the Linden Hill Cemetery speaks of the “victims of expulsion, deprivation of rights, extermination, and deportation.” The majority of the almost fifty some folks gathered there to commemorate this community on All Saints Day are there because they are survivors. They experienced these horrors firsthand and many of them lost their loved ones.
Thus they have gathered to remember, to honor, and to commemorate on this All Saints Day like they have on All Saints Day for the last 50 plus years. There are speeches and poems, hymns and songs and prayers. They used to recite the names of those who were lost. They don’t do that any longer. Their numbers were once much larger, but time takes its toll. Once the Donauschwaben were deported from Yugoslavia and Hungary, many of them ended up temporarily in Germany and Austria and eventually emigrated to other countries, many coming to the US and Canada. Due to a variety of factors many ended up in my neighborhood—Ridgewood, Queens and Bushwick, Brooklyn—joining communities of other German-speaking immigrants who had come in the century and decades before them. Many of them ended up at the church I now serve, having traditionally been for the last 158 years a German congregation. Approximately a third of those gathered at the memorial are from my church. Probably a fourth of those gathered do not “have” a church, but when the time comes when they “need” a pastor, I will be the one they call. They have asked me, their pastor, to conclude the occasion with some words and a prayer.
This is my third observance and each year I feel evermore connected; not that I can relate to their story—I can’t. But they have become, well, as hokey as it may sound, my people. And because they are my people, their story has become mine. I try to relate their story, my story, with the story of faith. I read the words for the day:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”… For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:9-10,15-17)
I apologize that it was in English. (My German is not so good.) They smile it off. We close in prayer and the benediction—that I am able to say in their tongue! Die Gnade unseres Herrn Jesu Christus, und die Liebe Gottes, und die Gemeinschaft des Heiligen Geistes, sei mit uns Allen! Then we go back to the German Hungarian soccer clubhouse and have coffee and strudel.
The grace of Jesus Christ! It’s an awesome task to share in that, as the RCA Liturgy say, “to be pastors and teachers, sharing people’s joys and sorrows, encouraging the faithful, recalling those who fall away, helping the sick and the dying.” (Order for Ordination to the Office of Minister of Word and Sacrament)