Category Archives: Romania

Status of Jews in Moldavia, 1934

From The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 3, NYRB Classics, 2014), Kindle pp. 149-151:

These hostile feelings were much more deeply rooted in the north, where the Jewish population had increased from about two thousand families to close on a million in a hundred and thirty years, most of them in flight from the appalling conditions in Poland and the Russian Pale, until in several large Moldavian towns, including Yassy, the Moldavian capital, they now outnumbered the Rumanian inhabitants and monopolized the commerce of the province. Small wonder that this indigestible explosion of people caused dismay, resentment and hostility among the inhabitants; there was nothing comparable here to the harmonious and long established position of the polished and much less numerous Sephardim of the Ottoman world; small wonder, too, that the Jews, denied full citizenship and with nearly every route to advancement or honour denied to them, should expand and excel in the only field that was not barred by prejudice. The remote principality in which they suddenly began to proliferate had no middle class; rural society knew nothing between the mediaeval feudalism of landowners – the great and the lesser boyars, many of whom seldom set foot on their accumulations of acres – and a vast and callously exploited peasantry. There was no urban middle class, and, in Moldavia especially, as the country expanded, the Jewish population became a semi-alien bourgeoisie of middlemen and retailers.

Everyone reluctantly admitted that the Jews were honest in their dealings, however ruthless, and faithful to their agreements. I also noticed that nearly everyone, however ill-disposed in general, had one Jewish friend who ‘was not like the others’, an array of exemptions that must have added up to an imposing total. It was only on later travels in Moldavia and Bukovina that I got to know, talk to and even make friends with Jews not isolated in a Gentile majority. Lack of any need to conform to alien ways had left their way of life absolutely intact: the long black kaftans, broad-brimmed black velvet hats, skullcaps, black, red and blond beards, corkscrew side-whiskers (like those of my host and his son in the woods of the Banat), and a Yiddish largely unalloyed by Rumanian, but embedded with Polish and Russian words as well as the Hebrew studied by the rabbis and divinity students.

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Meeting a Transylvanian Rabbi, 1934

From Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 2, NYRB Classics, 2011), Kindle pp. 210-213:

My interlocutors looked bewildered when I tried to explain my reasons for not staying at home. Why was I travelling? To see the world, to study, to learn languages? I wasn’t quite clear myself. Yes, some of these things, but mostly—I couldn’t think of the word at first—and when I found it—“for fun”—it didn’t sound right and their brows were still puckered. “Also, Sie treiben so herum aus Vergnügen?” The foreman shrugged his shoulders and smiled and said something in Yiddish to the others; they all laughed and I asked what it was. “Es ist a goyim naches!” they said. ‘A goyim naches,’ they explained, is something that the goyim like but which leaves Jews unmoved; any irrational or outlandish craze, a goy’s delight or gentile’s relish. It seemed to hit the nail on the head.

The initial reserve of the other dwellers in these mountains had not lasted long; nor did it here: but the Jews had other grounds for wariness. Their centuries of persecution were not ended; there had been trials for ritual murder late in the last century in Hungary and more recently in the Ukraine, and fierce deeds in Rumania and pogroms in Bessarabia and throughout the Russian Pale. Slanderous myths abounded and the dark rumours of the Elders of Zion had only been set in motion fifteen years earlier. In Germany, meanwhile, terrible omens were gathering, though how terrible none of us knew. They came into the conversation and—it seems utterly incredible now—we talked of Hitler and the Nazis as though they merely represented a dire phase of history, a sort of transitory aberration or a nightmare that might suddenly vanish, like a cloud evaporating or a bad dream. The Jews in England—a happier theme—came next: they knew much more than I, which was not hard; and Palestine. Sighs and fatalistic humour spaced out the conversation.

Everything took a different turn when scripture cropped up. The book in front of the Rabbi was the Torah, or part of it, printed in dense Hebrew black-letter that was irresistible to someone with a passion for alphabets; especially these particular letters, with their aura of magic. Laboriously I could phonetically decipher the sounds of some of the simpler words, without a glimmer of their meanings, of course, and this sign of interest gave pleasure. I showed them some of the words I had copied down in Bratislava from shops and Jewish newspapers in cafés, and the meanings, which I had forgotten, made them laugh; those biblical symbols recommended a stall for repairing umbrellas, or ‘Daniel Kisch, Koscher Würste und Salami.’ How did the Song of Miriam sound in the original, and the Song of Deborah; David’s lament for Absolom; and the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley? The moment it became clear, through my clumsy translations into German, which passage I was trying to convey, the Rabbi at once began to recite, often accompanied by his sons. Our eyes were alight; it was like a marvellous game. Next came the rivers of Babylon, and the harps hanging on the willows: this they uttered in unfaltering unison, and when they came to ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,’ the moment was extremely solemn.

By this time the other-worldly Rabbi and his sons and I were excited. Enthusiasm ran high. These passages, so famous in England, were doubly charged with meaning for them, and their emotion was infectious. They seemed astonished—touched, too—that their tribal poetry enjoyed such glory and affection in the outside world; utterly cut off, I think they had no inkling of this. A feeling of great warmth and delight had sprung up and the Rabbi kept polishing his glasses, not for use, but out of enjoyment and nervous energy, and his brother surveyed us with benevolent amusement. It got dark while we sat at the table, and when he took off the glass chimney to light the paraffin lamp, three pairs of spectacles flashed. If it had been Friday night, the Rabbi said, they would have asked me to light it; he explained about the shabbas goy. This was the Sabbath-gentile whom well-off Jews—“not like us”—employed in their houses to light fires and lamps and tie and untie knots or perform the many tasks the Law forbids on the Seventh Day. I said I was sorry it was only Thursday (the Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday) as I could have made myself useful for a change. We said good-night with laughter.

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Emblematic Attire in Transylvania, 1934

From Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 2, NYRB Classics, 2011), Kindle pp. 156-158:

But all along my itinerary the chief difference between country Hungarians and Rumanians had been the wide-skirted tunic or shirt, caught in by a wide belt, which the Rumanians wore outside their trousers. Both dressed in white homespun linen, but the Hungarians’ shirts always buttoned tightly at the throat; their trousers were unusually wide from the waist down and sometimes pleated, which almost gave them the look of long skirts. Gatya Hosen, István called them; these were often replaced by loose black breeches and shiny knee-boots. But here the peasants, almost to a man, wore narrow white homespun trews like tights stitched together out of felt. Across the Hungarian plain and in Transylvania, the women’s clothes had been varying all the time. Each village and valley enjoined a different assembly of colours and styles: braids, tunics, lace, ribands, goffering, ruffs, sashes, caps, kerchiefs, coifs and plaits free or coiled: a whole array of details announced whether they were betrothed, brides, married, spinsters or widows. Sometimes coifs framed these heads like spathe and spadix; among Saxons, they shot up in stiff scarlet cylinders. There were bodices, flowing or panelled sleeves, embroidery, gold coins at brow or throat or both, aprons front and back, a varying number of petticoats and skirts jutting at the hips like farthingales, and occasionally these were accompanied by coloured Russian boots. This village finery gave all gatherings a festal air, especially as the level of beauty among Hungarian and Rumanian girls was very high. Populations were inclined to remain aloof; but the more they overlapped and mingled—Magyar, Rumanian, Serb, Slovak, Saxon, Swabian and sometimes Armenian and perhaps some Ruthenes in the north—the more striking they looked. Their everyday dress was a sober version of their gala outfits; but these exploded on feast-days and at weddings in ravishing displays. Clothes were still emblematic, and not only among peasants: an expert in Rumanian and Hungarian symbols, looking at the passers-by in a market-place—a couple of soldiers, a captain in the Ros, iori [= Roșiori], an Ursuline prioress, a sister of St. Vincent de Paul, a Poor Clare, an Hasidic rabbi, an Armenian deacon, an Orthodox nun, a Uniat archimandrite, a Calvinist pastor, an Augustinian canon, a Benedictine, a Minorite friar, a Magyar nobleman, an ostrich-feathered coachman, a shrill-voiced Russian cab-driver, a bear-leading Gypsy with his spoon-carving fellow-tribesmen, a wool-carder, a blacksmith, a drover, a chimney-sweep, a woodman or a waggoner, and above all, women from a dozen villages and ploughmen and shepherds from widely scattered valleys and highlands—would have been able to reel off their provenances as swiftly as a herald glancing along the flags and surcoats of a fourteenth-century battle.

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Transylvanian Harvest Season, 1934

From Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 2, NYRB Classics, 2011), Kindle pp. 139-142:

The summer solstice was past, peonies and lilac had both vanished, cuckoos had changed their tune and were making ready to fly. Roast corn-cobs came and trout from the mountains; cherries, then strawberries, apricots and peaches, and, finally, wonderful melons and raspberries. The scarlet blaze of paprika—there were two kinds on the table, one of them fierce as gunpowder—was cooled by cucumber cut thin as muslin and by soda splashed into glasses of wine already afloat with ice; this had been fetched from an igloo-like undercroft among the trees where prudent hands had stacked it six months before, when—it was impossible to imagine it!—snow covered all. Waggons creaked under loads of apricots, yet the trees were still laden; they scattered the dust, wasps tunnelled them and wheels and foot-falls flattened them to a yellow pulp; tall wooden vats bubbled among the dusty sunflowers, filling the yards with the sweet and heady smell of their fermentation; and soon, even at midday, the newly distilled spirit began to bowl the peasants over like a sniper, flinging the harvesters prostrate and prone in every fragment of shadow. They snored among sheaves and hay-cocks and a mantle of flies covered them while the flocks crammed together under every spread of branches, and not a leaf moved.

Behind the thick walls and the closed afternoon shutters of the kastély [manor house], sleep reigned fitfully too, but resurrection came soon. The barley was already in and István was busy with his reapers and the last of the wheat. (In Hungary, the harvest began on the 29th of June, the feast of SS. Peter and Paul, but it was a bit earlier hereabouts.) … After the long weeks of sickles and scythes and whetstones, it was threshing time. Old machines were toiling away and filling the valleys with their throbbing, driven by engines with flapping belts and tall Puffing Billy chimneys expanding in a zigzag at the top. Up in the mountains, horses harnessed to wooden sledges and rollers for shelling the grain trotted round and round on circles of cobble. Winnowing followed, when clouds of skied grain sparkled and fell and then sparkled again as the next wooden shovelful transfigured the afternoon with chaff. The sacks, carried off in ox-carts, were safe in the barns at last. If the waggoners were Rumanians, instead of crying “stânga!” or “dreaptă!” in their native tongue when they wanted their oxen to turn left or right (or “jobb!” or “bal!” in Magyar if they were Hungarians) they would shout “heiss!” [hăis] and “tcha!” [cea].  I had first noticed these arcane cries when buffaloes were being coaxed or goaded along. István thought that the Turks had first brought these animals here, probably from Egypt, though they must originally have come from India. But the words are neither Turkish, Arabic, Romany, Hindi nor Urdu.

July brought a scattering of younger Transylvanians and their relations in search of refuge along the river valley from the heat of Budapest, which summer had turned into one of the great tropical cities of the world. There were parties and picnics and bathing, and tennis at István’s till it was too dark to see the ball, on a court sunk among thick trees like a shady well; and feasting and singing round pianos in those long disintegrating drawing-rooms, and sometimes dancing to a gramophone. A few of the records were only a year or two out of date, many much older: Night and Day, Stormy Weather, Blue Skies, Lazybones, Love for Sale, Saint Louis Blues, Every Little Breeze Seems to Whisper Louise. In case of need, István was revealed as a proficient pianist—“but only for this sort of stuff,” he said, vamping, syncopating, honky-tonking and glissandoing away like mad; then, spinning completely round on the piano-stool, he ended with a lightning thumbnail sweep of the whole keyboard from bass to treble.

The village calendar was starred with feasts and saints’ days and weddings. Gypsies throve, the sound of their instruments was always within earshot and the village squares were suddenly ringed with great circular wreaths of dancers in wonderful clothes with their hands on each others’ shoulders, a couple of hundred or more: and the triple punctuating stamp of the horă and the sârbă, falling all together, would veil all their bravery for a moment in dust-clouds. (I learnt all these dances later on.) It was at night that they impinged most insistently, especially on the eve of a wedding, when the groom and his paranymphs went through the slow stages of a mock abduction. If the rhythms of High Hat, The Continental or Get Along, Little Dogie flagged for a moment among the faded looking-glasses and sconces and portraits in the kastély, staccato cries, high-pitched and muted by distance, as the bride was hoisted aloft, would come sailing up from the village below and through the long windows. “Hai! Hai! Hai! Hai!” The dancing was spurred on late into the night by the new apricot brandy, and the fiddles and zithers and clarinets and double-basses were heckled by the distant yelping of wild rustic epithalamia; then strings, hammers and the shrill reeds would be drowned once more by Dinah, and our own hullabaloo under the chandeliers.

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First Impressions of Romania, 1934

From Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 2, NYRB Classics, 2011), Kindle pp. 87-88:

When the fog lifts, the landscape shows little change from the Great Plain I thought I had left, except for wooded hills in the distance. It was a geometrical interlock of chocolate-coloured ploughland with stripes of barley, wheat, oats, rye and maize with some tobacco and the sudden mustard flare of charlock. Clumps of trees broke it up and every few miles russet and sulphur-coloured belfries rose from shingle roofs. Each village had a rustic baroque church for the Catholics and another for the Uniats, and sometimes, though not so much hereabouts, a third for Calvinists or Lutherans; for though the Counter-Reformation had triumphed in Austria, lively and varied crops survived in Hungary and Transylvania. These churches were outwardly the same, but once indoors, the Stations of the Cross or a roodscreen encrusted with icons or the austerity of the Ten Commandments in Magyar above a Communion table gave their allegiance away at once. There were storks’ nests and sweep-wells and flocks and cattle and Gypsies on the move. I began to like buffaloes the more I saw of them; their great liquid eyes, which seemed to lose the resentment I thought I had discerned on the banks of the Tisza, now looked aswim with pathos. But there was an important difference in the people. After the last weeks of blunt Magyar faces, the features were different—or was it merely imagination and recent reading that lent them a more Latin look? I fell in with a party carrying sickles and scythes and slung babies. Their ample white homespun tunics were caught in with belts as wide as girths and sometimes covered in iron studs, and, except for those who were barefoot, they were shod in the familiar canoe-tipped moccasins and rawhide thongs. Their rank sheepskin jackets were put on smooth side out and their hats—bulbous cones of black or white fleece over a foot high—gave them a wild and rakish look. They could all understand my hard-won fragments of Magyar; but I soon felt that the language they spoke to each other would be much easier to learn. A man was om, a woman, femeie; and ochi, nas, mâna and foaie were eyes, nose, hand and leaf. They were a little puzzled at first by my pointing at everything in sight with gestures of enquiry. Dog? Ox? Cow? Horse? Câine, bou, vaca, cal! It was marvellous: homo, femina, nasus, manus, folium, canis, bos, vacca and caballus thronged through my brain in a delirious troop. Câmp was a field and fag a beech-tree (‘…quatit ungula campum!’…‘sub tegmine fagi…!’). How odd to find this Latin speech marooned so far from its kindred! The Black Sea hemmed it in to the east and Slavonic to north and south, while the west was barred by the Finno-Ugrian dactyls of the Magyars.

By late afternoon, these linguistic exchanges brought us to the little town of Ineu—‘Borosjenö’ on my pre-war map—where a market day was ending. The place was full of lowing, bleating and squealing, carts were being loaded, pens broken up and hurdles stacked. Women and girls were busy with long goads keeping troops of poultry together. Kerchiefs of different colours were knotted under their chins and pleated skirts, with embroidered aprons back and front, sprang from girdles woven in patterns of red and yellow. A few of them had scarlet boots to the knee like figures out of the Russian ballet.

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Switching from Russian to Chinese

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 144-145:

Next morning, the day before I cross to China, I lock myself in my hotel room and prepare to ease into the language that I learnt poorly more than thirty years ago, and have rarely spoken since. My Mandarin notes and textbooks, squashed into my rucksack, spill out like ancient scripts, still covered in my tutor’s red biro, and stained with the rings of coffee cups. Beyond my window, through an opening in the shoreline flat-blocks, a section of the Amur gleams, with Heihe lying beyond under a clouded sky. A Russian patrol boat is crossing the gap.

The only sounds in the room are my own. I return to my makeshift table. It’s a relief to leave behind the complexities of Russian grammar, the dual aspects of verbs, the exacting cases of nouns, the sheer length of words. Chinese, which lacks verbal tenses, genders, even the singular and plural, seems suddenly, radiantly simple. I shift my table to the light of the window and the glint of the Amur, and my exhilaration rises. The vocabulary flows back. Sometimes I have the illusion that I am not remembering, but learning anew. I anticipate the stark thrust of Mandarin replacing Russian wholesale. A change of language feels like a change of person. Sounds and structures dictate emotion. New concepts emerge, while others die. I have the illusion that I become more aggressive in Mandarin, and that my voice descends an octave. Perhaps I will need this. I have no idea what dialects may be coming my way. Yet for a long time I hear Mandarin returning, and imagine all will be well.

But as the hours go on, this happy remembrance stiffens. The unfamiliar structures start to weigh on me. There are words I have clean forgotten. Perhaps it is all too long ago. The blessed existence of Western borrowings (in Russian there are many) is all but absent. Mandarin is a tonal tongue – its words change meaning with their pitch – and the language turns, in my memory, to an echo of discordant gongs. I remember finding it easier to speak than to understand: the reverse of what I wish. Suddenly I miss the pliant beauty of Russian.

By evening a self-induced dementia has set in. When I go down to the hotel restaurant I mistakenly ask for the lavatory in Mandarin, then order a meal in Russian and chat to the bewildered waitress in a deranged mixture of both. Often my poor grasp of either leaves me suspended in mid-speech. I have no idea what is going to come out of my mouth.

I had a similar experience years ago in Beijing in 1988, where I managed to contact an old classmate from my Fulbright year in Romania in 1983-84. She worked for the Romanian broadcast service of Radio Beijing (which has a larger audience now than it used to in those days). I had first learned Romanian (fairly well) while in the U.S. Army at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, so she and I were both in the advanced Romanian language class at the University of Bucharest. Our classmates included her Chinese broadcaster colleague, 4 young East German translators/interpreters, and 2 other American Fulbrighters, and we spoke mostly Romanian to each other during that year. However, when we met again in Beijing, after my wife and I had spent a year in Guangdong teaching English and I had put some effort into learning basic Mandarin, I had a hell of a time keeping my new Chinese phrases out of my once-fluent Romanian when talking with her and her travel-agent husband, who knew Italian and English.

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Turkish Traditions of Hospitality

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 50-51:

Huseyin has disappeared to prepare the meal. He comes back to get me, shows me the bathroom, where, to my great delight, I see that I will be able to take a shower, rinsing off two days’ worth of sweat. Dinner with Huseyin, the schoolteacher, and one of the latter’s colleagues who joined in the meantime, is a joyful event. The younger men display great respect for the old man. When they leave, my host, in spite of all my protests, sets me up in his own room. He will sleep on the sofa in the greeting room.

In the morning, after having groomed, I buckle my pack and knock on his door. He has gone out. He is probably over at last night’s teahouse. I go out, slamming the door closed behind me. But he’s not there. I go back and wait a few moments for him. Then I scribble a word of thanks on a piece of paper and slip it under the door along with a banknote, worth five million liras, in payment for my lodging.

Later that afternoon, a Turk explains to me that in so doing I committed a gross error, that Huseyin will be outraged. What I did was contrary to the traditions of Turkish hospitality. In the Islamic world, to welcome a traveler in one’s home and treat him as best as possible is the believer’s duty. To be hospitable (misafirperver), he explains, means that for you, a good Muslim, it is your duty to treat your guest (misafir), the traveler, with the utmost respect. Your house is his, and you must share your food with him. You will reap the rewards of such kindness in the kingdom of Allah. To bar your door to a traveler is the worst crime a believer can commit. Those of us happily living in the world’s wiser regions would do well, I tell myself, to follow their example.

Among the many words (and place names) that Romanians borrowed from the Turks during centuries of Ottoman rule are musafir ‘guest, visitor’, cafea ‘coffee’, pijama ‘pajamas’, mahala ‘slum’, and habar ‘information, idea’ as in the extremely useful phrase habar n-am ‘I have no idea’.

During our Fulbright year in Romania in 1983-84, we hosted the son of a fellow Fulbright couple who took a brief R&R getaway trip to Istanbul and came back raving about the friendliness and hospitality of the Turks they met, much to the chagrin of normally hospitable Romanians, who during that dark era paid a heavy price for friendship with foreigners. They were required to report any extensive interactions with foreigners to the ubiquitous Securitate, and could be fined a month’s salary or more for providing lodgings to foreigners.

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Who All “Collaborated” with Nazism in Europe?

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 366-368:

The frequently reiterated assertion that the clearance of German populations from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary has in some way prevented the outbreak of World War III is a proposition so obviously false as hardly to deserve rebuttal. What made for peace in Europe was a lengthy occupation of Germany by both superpowers, which in itself offers a complete explanation of why, so long as it continued, no danger was to be apprehended from that quarter. The successful rehabilitation of the German political system, the inculcation of democratic habits and instincts among the people, and the binding together of postwar Germany within a larger European union are nearly as important factors in the transformation that has taken place in the character of European nationstate interactions since 1945. In these circumstances, the continuing presence of significant ethnic German minorities in Italy, Romania, Hungary, and Russia has not threatened the peace of the continent. There is no reason to suppose that if others had remained in their ancestral homelands a greater menace was to be apprehended.

Lastly, the suggestion that the ethnic Germans were, as presumed fifth columnists before the war or eager Nazi collaborators during it, especially if not uniquely deserving of punishment is no easier to sustain. As we have seen, a rule specifying a minority nationality’s unconditional duty of loyalty to a state to which it has been unwillingly attached that can be depended upon to vindicate the Czech or Slovak nation’s stance in 1918 [deserting in great numbers to fight for Russia rather than Austria-Hungary] and to condemn that of the Sudetendeutsche twenty years later is difficult to formulate. As for their wartime record, evidence is scanty that it was any worse than, or different from, that of the German people as a whole. Unquestionably that is quite bad enough, and I should not wish to be interpreted as contending otherwise. But even if all Germans, ethnic or Reich citizens, were equally guilty, not all Germans were equally severely punished. Why the Volksdeutsche, who if the worst that can be said about them is true came late to Nazism, should have been imprisoned, expropriated, and deported when the people of the country that originated Nazism and exported it abroad by the most brutal means suffered none of these things is hard to square with notions of strict and impartial justice.

More to the point, it conveniently elides the wartime record of the majority populations, which itself did not always bear close examination. Many Slovaks, for example, bore little less responsibility for the dissolution of Czechoslovakia after the Munich Conference than did the Sudeten Germans. For most of the Second World War, Slovakia was a German client state; Slovak troops took part in the invasion of Poland alongside their German allies in September 1939, and of the Soviet Union in June 1941. With only a single dissenting voice in the Slovak parliament, the great majority of the country’s Jewish population was expelled to German-controlled territory, from which only a comparative handful returned alive. Yet few Slovaks were punished after the war for these offenses, and none expelled. Besides, at a more mundane level the postwar meaning of “collaboration” was highly variable, with the same actions—or inactions—attracting either official toleration or condign penalties based on one’s ethnicity. During the Great War of 1914–18, J. R. Sanborn points out, some of the inhabitants of central and southeastern Europe “held affinities for one occupying force or another … but most people wisely tried to keep their heads down, to stay out of danger when they could, and, when all else failed, to run away. Nothing got you on the end of a rope faster than taking sides in a fluid war with an uncertain outcome.” In the Second World War also, this inglorious but time-tested formula for survival was the most popular strategy practiced by ethnic Germans, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, and most other peoples who were given the opportunity to do so by their Nazi overlords, or, in eastern Poland between 1939 and 1941, their scarcely less vicious Stalinist counterparts. (Tragically, it was an option denied to Jews, Sinti, and Roma.) For only the Germans, though, was it adjudged a “passive war crime” at the end of the conflict.

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Herding Fractious Volksdeutsche

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 53-55:

At all levels of German society, scruples over profiting from the displaced Poles’ and Jews’ misery were rapidly overcome. Volksdeutsch colonists brought in from outside the Incorporated Territories fought vigorous turf battles with those already there, who pressed the authorities—often successfully—for compensation for their losses at the hands of the Polish state during the interwar years. Both found themselves competing with hundreds of thousands of predatory Reichsdeutsche, the citizens of the “old Reich,” who flooded into the conquered districts with an eye to the main chance. (One of them was Hitler’s favorite tank commander, General Heinz Guderian, who trawled the Warthegau in search of an estate befitting his elevated status. When an aghast Field Marshal von Manstein asked him what had become of the Polish owners of the manor he eventually selected, “Guderian said that he did not know, when he had taken over his estate the Poles had gone and he had no idea what had become of them.”) Tensions among all three groups, and among different ethnicities within the Volksdeutsch “family,” frequently ran high:

Settlement advisers depicted Bessarabian German children fighting local Volksdeutsche children. Native ethnic Germans were portrayed complaining that everything was done for the incoming settlers but nothing for them, and murmuring that if the settlers hadn’t come, they would have got all the confiscated Polish land for themselves. One settlement adviser reported that the local ethnic Germans called the settlers from Bukovina “gypsies.” Bukovina Germans hit back by calling the local ethnic Germans “Poles.” Settlement advisers were also quick to criticize fellow Reich Germans, usually men, for arrogance towards the Volksdeutsche. One told the story of a settler’s wife from Bukovina who forgot to wear the badge showing she was German and was thrown out of the post office, where she was trying to post parcels to her son at the front, by a Reich German man who hit her in the face.

Trying in just a few years to concoct a cohesive Germanic whole from a Volksdeutsch melting pot that constantly threatened to boil over was thus a forlorn hope. For many colonists, the dream of an idyllic life in the Incorporated Territories ended even sooner. The Volksdeutsch holding camps proved irresistibly attractive as reservoirs of available personnel to military recruiters and to businesses struggling to maintain production in the face of Germany’s increasingly acute labor shortage. Inmates, facing an open-ended sojourn in ramshackle facilities whose commandants were prone to imposing upon them “a militarized regimen, separating them by sex and treating the newcomers as children, if not prisoners,” were susceptible to such overtures. Sometimes even Himmler yielded to the temptation, ordering in December 1940 that the Bessarabian Germans, who had not fulfilled his expectations as potential colonists, be conscripted instead into labor battalions. On other occasions it was the Volksdeutsche themselves who threw in the towel. Some colonists from Galicia, disappointed with the farms assigned to them in the Warthegau, abandoned them in the autumn of 1940 and sought readmission to their holding camp in łódź; another group was arrested for rejecting the properties they were offered and holding a demonstration against the authorities. And sometimes the mismatch between colonist and colony was so great that no amount of official intervention could make Germanic silk purses out of sociological sow’s ears. The genteel Estonian and Latvian Volksdeutsche proved a particular disappointment as settlers, looking askance at the notion that they should become agrarian pioneers in the agoraphobia-inducing Polish steppes. “Either they were large landowners, who were not prepared to accept the conditions of peasant settlements (which would be like suggesting to Thomas Jefferson or ‘Turnip’ Townshend that they take on three acres and a cow) or they were urban dwellers…. Soon planning officials were calling on the evacuation staff not to send them any more Balts.”

The sheer diversity among the Volksdeutsche, indeed, was probably the biggest single impediment to the success of the colonization program. Other than their regional accents, some were indistinguishable from their Reichsdeutsch counterparts. Arthur Greiser, born in Poznań province, was himself Volksdeutsch. But the claims of others were far more tenuous, if not completely fictional. Poles and Jews often observed with bemusement that many members of the Selbstschutz [self-defense] militias that sprang up to assist the Germans were, as one woman put it “people from our town, Poles,” who as soon as the Nazis arrived “suddenly heard the call of their German blood! Mostly they were scum: ex-jailbirds, card-sharps, thieves, petty (and not so petty!) crooks.” The ease with which yesterday’s Pole, Ukrainian, or Czech could become today’s German was not lost on the Reichsdeutsche, who began to describe their supposed co-racials as Beutegermane or “booty Germans” who had attached themselves to the Volk solely for the purpose of grabbing as much loot as they could.

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Missing Migration History in Europe

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 1-3:

Immediately after the Second World War, the victorious Allies carried out the largest forced population transfer—and perhaps the greatest single movement of peoples—in human history. With the assistance of the British, Soviet, and U.S. governments, millions of German-speaking civilians living in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the parts of eastern Germany assigned to Poland were driven out of their homes and deposited amid the ruins of the Reich, to fend for themselves as best they could. Millions more, who had fled the advancing Red Army in the final months of the war, were prevented from returning to their places of origin, and became lifelong exiles. Others again were forcibly removed from Yugoslavia and Romania, although the Allies had never sanctioned deportations from those countries. Altogether, the expulsion operation permanently displaced at least 12 million people, and perhaps as many as 14 million. Most of these were women and children under the age of sixteen; the smallest cohort of those affected were adult males. These expulsions were accomplished with and accompanied by great violence. Tens and possibly hundreds of thousands lost their lives through ill-treatment, starvation, and disease while detained in camps before their departure—often, like Auschwitz I, the same concentration camps used by the Germans during the Second World War. Many more perished on expulsion trains, locked in freight wagons without food, water, or heating during journeys to Germany that sometimes took weeks; or died by the roadside while being driven on foot to the borders. The death rate continued to mount in Germany itself, as homeless expellees succumbed to hypothermia, malnutrition, and other effects of their ordeal. Calculating the scale of the mortality remains a source of great controversy today, but estimates of 500,000 deaths at the lower end of the spectrum, and as many as 1.5 million at the higher, are consistent with the evidence as it exists at present. Much more research will have to be carried out before this range can be narrowed to a figure that can be cited with reasonable confidence.

On the most optimistic interpretation, nonetheless, the expulsions were an immense manmade catastrophe, on a scale to put the suffering that occurred as a result of the “ethnic cleansings” in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s in the shade. They took place without any attempt at concealment, under the eyes of tens of thousands of journalists, diplomats, relief workers, and other observers with access to modern communications, in the middle of the world’s most crowded continent. Yet they aroused little attention at the time. Today, outside Germany, they are almost completely unknown. In most English-language histories of the period they are at best a footnote, and usually not even that. The most recent (2009) edition of Mary Fulbrook’s excellent History of Germany 1918–2008 disposes of the episode in a single uninformative paragraph; the antics of the tiny ultraleftist Red Army Faction in the 1970s and 1980s, in comparison, rate four. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany is typical in not according the expulsions even a single mention. What is true of German history textbooks is also the case with those dealing with the history of Europe as a whole, and even of the central European states most directly concerned. Joseph Rothschild and Nancy Wingfield’s fine survey of the region in the postwar era, Return to Diversity—by far the most accessible and reliable one-volume treatment of the subject—takes a cumulative total of less than a page to explain the means by which Poland and Czechoslovakia, until 1939 among the most heterogeneous and multicultural countries in Europe, had just ten years later become ethnic monoliths. It is, then, entirely understandable why so many of my splendid and learned colleagues on the Colgate faculty should have expressed their confusion to me after reading in the newspapers in October 2009 that the president of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, had demanded that the other members of the European Union legally indemnify his country against compensation claims by ethnic German expellees, as the price of his country’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. None had been aware that anything had occurred after the war in respect of which the Czech Republic might require to be indemnified.

It would be incorrect, however, to attribute this pervasive ignorance of the expulsions, their context, and their consequences to any conspiracy of silence. What has occurred in the postwar era is something less calculated in nature, but more insidious in effect: the phenomenon of a historical episode of great significance that is hidden in plain sight. Certainly information, albeit of highly variable quality, on the expulsions is available—for those who possess the requisite language competence and are prepared to go looking for it. A 1989 bibliography lists almost five thousand works dealing with them to some degree in the German language alone. Even today, some sixty-five years later, living expellees are not hard to find; it has been calculated that a quarter of the current German population are expellees or their immediate descendants. What is denied, then, is not the fact of the expulsions but their significance. Relegated in textbooks to a single passing mention in a vaguely phrased sentence referring to the “chaos” existing in Germany in the immediate postwar era, or simply passed over in silence, the impression is effectively conveyed that they occupy a less important place in modern European history than the cultural meanings of football hooliganism or the relevance of the Trabant automobile as a metaphor for East German society.

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Filed under Britain, Czechia, democracy, disease, Germany, Hungary, migration, nationalism, Poland, publishing, Romania, U.S., USSR, war, Yugoslavia