SWABIANS

Frau Emma Bader from Gottlob

Gottlob has a special place among the villages of Banat. It is more famous than its neighbouring villages, and not without reason. It has earned its place in the hearts of the people of Timișoara, who know that the sweetest watermelons in the west of the country grow in the surroundings of the settlement. That’s what everyone says, and so say the peasants in the markets, as they serve you the striped, red and juicy slices, cut with craftsmen’s hands. If you ask around, people tell you that Gottlob has a cinema and a film festival, and they say it with pride, even if they’re not local. How else? A Banat village with a cinema? How many others do? We’ll tell you. It’s the only one in the country. It’s renovated with European and local funds, and it’s a sign of the dedication of the people of Gottlob.

Gottlob was founded, like most of the villages in the Banat region, at the end of the 18th century by settlers from Luxembourg, Lotringia, Alsace, Mainz, Trier and Franconia. The settlement was built quickly, with documents of the time recording that the 203 houses were erected in less than 10 months, from April 1772 to February 1773. By 1880 it was illuminated by oil lamps, and in 1912 it had street electricity. In 1936, Gottlob had a tile factory, a mill, an agricultural union, three brass bands, a choir and a firemen’s association.

In translation, the name of the settlement carries with it a legend – on their way to the allotted plots, the settlers were accompanied by a torrential downpour that stopped abruptly just as they reached their future home. Overjoyed, the men raised their hands in the air and exclaimed “Gottlob!”, meaning “Thank God!” 

However, times and history have not been kind to the people of Gottlob. War, deportations to Russia and the Bărăgan, and then communism have all taken their toll on the village’s inhabitants. Now there are less than 100 of them left, not even 10% of their former number.

Frau Emma Bader is a local. She was born in Gottlob and has lived there most of her life. For a long time, she has been looking after the village cemetery, where she walks along the paths with the help of an adjustable frame. Every Sunday she carefully walks among the gravestones, stopping at the graves of relatives and friends who are no longer with her, but for whom she has the same love. 

Her greatest passion, which has accompanied her all her life, is music. She loves the German songs she learned as a child, and the romances she danced to in her youth, which, she says, best express her love of life. Music helped her get through the deportations she witnessed. In 1945, the Russians came and arrested nearly 200 Germans, including her father, and sent them away to the coal mines in Russia. Then, as no trouble comes alone, 10 years later, another 300 Germans were taken to the Bărăgan.

Then she started singing, because she could no longer bear the gloomy atmosphere in the family, nor the sadness of her mother. She went to Kirchweih, where she loved to dance and sing with other young people. She was praised by musicians for the enthusiasm with which she performed traditional songs, the only way she could ease the drama her family was going through.

She tells us, “I was crazy about music, I loved singing. The neighbor across the street would open the window and call me – Geh me singen! – Let’s sing! I’ll sing and you, Emma, help me with the auditions. Come on, sing for me. And I was singing. I was urging her too, but she liked to listen to me.”

She never left Gottlob, although her family is in Germany. We asked her why, and she answered with the candour of a woman who has experienced life, with good and bad, a message full of melancholy and emotion: “This is my home, I belong here, like the wind and the sea, and parting would break my heart.”

For three centuries, the Gottlobans have taken strong roots in the land they have settled, dug and buried themselves in. Few were those who left willingly. Some were snatched from their families and thrown into the Russian frost or the Bărăgan heat. A few returned, but hardship chased them wherever they went.

Those who remained remember the past times and cherish them as testimonies of the tumultuous life and the tangled destiny that accompanies the village of Banat. And, despite all the vicissitudes, they love life and the role they have been given, and they have not forgotten that the first Gottlobans shouted “Glory to God!” when they arrived on these shores, a sign that they belong here, in the quaint village with a history of three centuries, whether gentle or troubled, serene or sorrowful, which today has a cinema, a film festival and the best watermelons in the west of the country. 

Ioan Fodor and Mrs. Maria from Recaș

As soon as you leave Timișoara and pass Remetea Mare, you have a little further to go to Recaș. It’s only 19 kilometres of smooth road, and the entrance to the town is right there where the Banat meadow begins to undulate smoothly towards the hills of Lugoj. The first record of Recaș was more than seven hundred years ago, in 1318. Its name comes from the Slavic word “rika”, meaning stream.

Over the centuries, settlers from all over the Balkans and Central Europe settled in Recaș in successive waves. In 1359 several families from Moldavia arrived, apparently joining a nucleus of Bulgarian families which were already there. In 1650 Serbs arrived from the Bacica area. As a result, three settlements are formed in the town: the Wallachian Recaș, the Recaș of the Serbs and the Bulgarian Recaș. Then, a century later, the Habsburg governor displaced a large number of the Sabians to the area, who settled and built houses. Finally, after the Banat came under Austro-Hungarian administration, Hungarian settlers appeared towards the end of the 19th century. The chroniclers record that at that time there was a brick factory in Recaș, a weekly German newspaper, and later, in the interwar period, a primary school, a denominational school, a casino, a firemen’s association, a German agricultural club and a sports club. Since 2004, it has become a town.

Recaș has its own archaeology of multiculturalism specific to Banat. For a long time, Romanians, Serbs, Hungarians, Germans, Croats, Bulgarians and Roma have lived together, respected each other and borrowed each other’s music, recipes, traditions and even language, and their numbers have been relatively balanced. As in many other settlements in the area, since the 1970s the number of non-Romanians has decreased dramatically. In 1900, out of a total population of about 12,000, Germans, Hungarians and Serbs accounted for more than 50%, but today they make up only 10% of the total population.

The older people of Recaș remember how, from 1945 until 1949, some of the Recaș Swabians, together with a large number (about 75 000) of ethnic Germans from Banat and Transylvania (Saxons), were deported to Russia and interned in forced labour camps in the Donbas mining region and in the forests of the Ural Mountains, where they were subjected to a regime of extermination.

Ms. Maria is 91 years old and a survivor of such a labour camp. In 1945, when she was under 18, she was arrested and forcibly taken to Russia, along with other women from villages in the region. For four years she worked in the mines in Donbas and then in Kadevka. She told us how every day she would descend 500 metres underground and dig for coal. When she came out, she was as black-skinned as a piece of coal. In those years she forgot what bread looked like, she never saw a church or heard a mass, but she prayed a lot. In ˈ49 she was released and returned to Recaș. When she arrived home, her grandmother, who came to open the gate for her, did not recognize her. Only the little dog knew her, and jumped up to greet her.

Since then she has lived a quiet life, although the aftermath of those days still haunts her to this day. She speaks movingly about her life and about times we can hardly understand today. We asked her to tell us a story, one whose meaning is uniquely linked to her troubled life. She answered simply: “From war, you will see nothing good!” 

Also from Recaș is Mr. Ion Fodor, accordionist at the Geraman Democratic Forum and cantor at the church in Recaș. Although he is Hungarian, he has adopted the traditions of the Swabians and remembers all the Germans who went to Germany, about whom he still tells stories when he goes to the forum or to Kirchweih. He told us about the Swabian Kirchweih, about the ˈ70s – when the Germans started to leave, and especially about music, his greatest passion, which he picked up from the Swabians in town.

He is sad that he didn’t learn German when he was younger, before the Swabians left. He tells us about his youth, when in Recaș the Hungarians played football with the Germans, the Germans with the Croats, round-robin matches and championships. Those times are gone, he says. When he came back from the army, it was like nothing was the same. The Germans had begun to thin out.

“I understand they’re doing very well over there, but they’re not at home. The best decision of my life was that I didn’t leave. And they’re happy when they see a local. You can’t see it from here, but it’s different there, you can see it when you go home. The place, the values, the feelings, everything you can pick up from here, they left them and went away, it’s like giving up in a war. They left to live better, but some didn’t adapt, especially the old people. I’d try it myself, but it didn’t work for me.”

About the kirchweih in Slavonia, he tells us that it was closed, only Germans could participate, and in Recaș it lasted a long time, 3 weeks. The Germans dressed up in folk costumes, and when they passed through the streets they were admired by everyone. They sang only polkas and waltzes, and the music resounded throughout the town.

Mr Fodor is in love with the music of the Bavarians. Very few people in Recaș still know it and sing it. It is lost in libraries and dusty collections, on hundreds of scores that the Hungarian searches for and learns. When he’s not an archaeologist of music, Mr Fodor composes: “Music gets me out every day, I can’t sleep at night, so I take my accordion and play. Just as the smoker lights a cigarette, so I go to my accordion and write down my notes. Thanks to the Shabbos, I am indebted to those who taught me, indebted to those who sold me. When, especially here in the Banat, for any community, just put my notes in front of me.”

Recaș and the people of Recaș have a special place on the map of Banat. Although they were not spared the changes that all ethnic groups went through after the Second World War, those who remained have tried their best to preserve the memory of those who are no more and the traditions that gave Banat the multicultural and multi-confessional identity we are proud of today. In the end, in the typical way of those who live here, the people of the region borrowed and gave to each other, regardless of ethnicity, all that they held most precious, be it memories, stories or, as in Mr. Fodor’s case, music – perhaps the most important element of local ethnic identity.

Edith Barta from Biled

Biled is old. Documents attest its existence since 1462, but everyone knows that there was a Slavic fortress on the current site of the commune, built around 1100 and later abandoned. Its name, Belu-Liod, meaning White Ice, also dates back to then. But it’s even older. From the moist soil of Apele Mari, the lazy stream that crosses a meadow dotted with clusters of oak, elm, and ash trees, the Austrians unearthed Roman coins made of gold, bronze, and silver, minted during the time of Constantine the Great.

Between 1765 and 1775, Germans settled in the Biled area, part of the second migration of Swabians (zweiter Schabenzug). History records this moment as the “Theresian colonization,” a migration that brought nearly 8,000 families to Banat. Some remained in the present-day village and built it in the German style, with straight streets like a chessboard. By the end of the century, archives recorded 252 houses, a church (built in 1786), and a school, a sign that people were doing well, and work was favorable. Shortly afterward, the commune gained urban status and became part of the Zagreb Diocese.

Time passed, and Biled’s history changed. Starting in the 1950s, Germans began returning to Germany. Few remained in the village, around 200, a handful of people whose home is still the land where their ancestors settled nearly three centuries ago. They are extremely active and understand the cultural impact they had on Banat’s history, to which they still choose to contribute: they have festivals, meetings, folk music ensembles, exhibitions, and conferences.

Frau Edith Barta is a member of this community. She weaves Swabian folk costumes for the folk ensemble “Banater Rosmarein” – a group founded in 1992 with the aim of carrying on the traditions of the Banat Germans. From her hands emerge shawls, vests, skirts, and aprons, all sewn using the same techniques from centuries ago. The work is meticulous, especially because the costume must be made by a single person. Frau Barta is an artist, part of a guild of craftsmen, a handful of them in all of Banat, who maintain and perpetuate the most important element of belonging to a community.

The traditional costume is perhaps the most authentic expression of a community; it represents the individuality and continuity of an ethnicity, even a displaced one, an uninterrupted connection to the past, traditions, founding myths, the symbolism of the cyclical nature of seasons and life. Every people has its own, specific and unique, and its official quality (as national attire) demonstrates its importance in the consciousness of identity.

We spoke with Frau Barta about folk costumes and the process of making them. Her response was prompt: “tradition must be continued, passed on as it is. The materials must be identical to those used in the past, and the costume must be crafted alone because only then can you appreciate its complexity, and afterward, the aspect and pride of wearing it are greater.”

Married women have a simpler Tracht (as the attire is called), usually dark blue. Unmarried girls wear a white and beautifully adorned costume. They wear a shawl – Schal, and over it, a vest – Weste. The skirt, composed of 3 or 4 petticoats – Unterröcke, is “assembled” from a main skirt – Rock and an apron – Schürze. They also wear another apron, which goes on the back, called Flitsche. The flowers on the clothes are painted manually, meticulously, and each pleat is made with a stick, all manually, just like in the past. The richness and complexity of the costume require the girls who wear it to seek help when dressing.

Unmarried boys wear hats, each with a specific pattern from their locality. The decorations are made from various wires, from which diamonds or leaf shapes are made, enriched with colored threads. In addition to these, flowers cut from materials, foil beads, glitter sticks, and mirrors are glued, covering the entire edge of the hat. Otherwise, the boys wear pants – Hosen, a shirt – Hemd, and a vest – Weste.

Folk costume tells a story beyond the ways it is tailored, woven, and adorned. It represents a continuity effort in the 21st century. Behind the patterns and adornments lies a hidden palette of feelings, experiences, and aspirations, messages that reflect common, social, and moral values specific to the communities that produce them. Through the time and effort put into its creation, Frau Barta represents the artisan of a world striving to adapt to modernity and seeking, at the same time, according to already established principles, its well-deserved place not only in the memory of old Banat but also in the identity of today.