I got home this morning via the overnight train from a short trip to Romania. I visited a city called Timişoara, which is close to the village of Becicherecu Mic (which used to be called Kleinbetschkerek) – the village of my grandparents and several of the generations before them. The distance from Vienna to Timisoara is a little over 500 kilometers (or a little over 300 miles.) Since I don’t have a car here in Europe, I took an overnight train to get there and an overnight train to get back. (I had days left on my Rail Pass that were going to expire soon, so going by train was the logical decision.)
(During some internet searching a few weeks ago, I was happy to find this great website on the village, with info on the former German inhabitants. Kleinbetschkerek Home Page. It’s really interesting!)
Okay now, I’ll preface the story of my adventure with a little bit of history….
In the 1700’s, Germans were sent to settle this area by the Habsburg Empire. The borders we see on the current maps of today are vastly different than the borders from centuries ago. (Heck, they’ve changed a bunch even in the last century!) I found a really cool website about the history of the Germans who settled this part of the world. CLICK HERE to read about the history of the area. (It’s actually a really fascinating read!) This particular area is called the Banat, which is now split between Romania, Hungary, and Serbia. However, when the term is used by itself, it primarily refers to the area called Banat Temeswar, located near modern day Timişoara in Romania.
Here’s an interesting map of Austria-Hungary in 1910, showing the ethnic breakdown of it’s inhabitants:
Town records of Kleinbetschkerek show my family’s lineage going all the way back to Josef Anton Graf (1798-1863.) Here’s a link showing the GRAF LINEAGE. Johann and Maria, listed at the bottom of the page, were my grandparents.
Kleinbetschkerek was a small village of German settlers living in the Banat region of modern day Romania. Before WWI, the area was a part of Hungary, and before that, it was considered to be a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The empire had three reasons to entice Germans to settle here: to strengthen the area against invaders, expand farm land, and to expand the Catholic religion further into eastern Europe. Catholics from southern Germany and Austria were given many attractive incentives to relocate and develop into the Banat. The people who settled here became known as the Danube Swabians. (“Donauschwabians” in the German language.)
Many of the small villages like Kleinbetschkerek remained relatively unaffected for two hundred years, isolated enough from much of the nationalistic movements going on in the big cities around them, specifically in Hungary. However, after WWII, the majority of the Swabians had to leave before the arrival of the Soviets. Any people who spoke German or who had German names were in danger. In 1944, there was a huge evacuation from Kleinbetschkerek, which included my grandparents and my two aunts. They lost everything – except what they could carry and load into wagons. They made the long journey by horse and on foot to the northwestern part of Austria near Linz, to a village called Taiskirchen im Innkreis – it’s near Ried. They often traveled by night and hid by day until reaching safety.
While living in Taiskirchen, my grandparents gave birth to my father. My aunts also gave birth there to some of my first cousins. (Back in 2010, I traveled to this village with my cousin Rachel, where we found the actual birthplaces of my dad and her mom. CLICK HERE to read that old blog entry.) My father was born in 1946, and in 1951 my grandparents and Daddy relocated to the United States. My aunts and their families followed shortly thereafter.
Here’s a little map that shows the distance my family traveled when they fled from their home in Kleinbetschkerek to north-western Austria. (Google maps puts the walk at 144 hours. Yikes.)
In prep of my trip, I had a few photos that my mom emailed to me…
Here’s a pic of my great-grandmother, and my grandfather and his brother. (My grandfather is on the right.)
And another photo that my mom found with my family’s things at home:
My Own Journey to Romania…
Because of my location in Vienna, I’m quite central to most of Europe when it comes to traveling. The countries in Europe are quite small, and to an American, it’s no different than going to another state for a visit. Distance-wise, going to Timisoara from Vienna is a shorter distance than heading to Virginia Beach from my hometown in eastern Pennsylvania – really not far at all.
In true “small world” fashion, it just so happened that one of the doctors my mom works with has a girlfriend who is originally from Timişoara. So she got in touch with one of her close childhood friends, whose daughter was able to be in contact with me. The daughter (Miruna) and her boyfriend showed me around Timişoara and drove me out to Becicherecu Mic. The entire family was SO welcoming and made me feel like one of the family. My train arrived super early in the morning at 6:15am. (Romania is in the next time zone, so I had to jump an hour ahead at the border.) They picked me up at the train station and took me to their home for a full traditional Romanian breakfast.
Here’s a peak at breakfast getting set up. We had eggs, bread, salami, ham/bacon meat, veggies, etc… Much of the food was their own, as they have a large garden and lots of chickens and ducks.
After eating, we relaxed for a little, then headed out to see some of Timişoara. The city is known for its colleges and industry. It is also famous for being the first European city to light its streets with electrical streetlights! (Just a little bit of extra trivia for ya!)
Here are some pics from around the city:
After exploring the heart of the city, we traveled to a “living museum.” It was an outdoor area full of buildings from the different areas and eras of this region’s history. They had traditional homes from the 1700’s all the way through the early 1900’s. They highlighted the differences in style between the Germans of the region, the Serbians, the Ukrainians, etc. I’m going to write a whole separate blog post on that! As soon as it’s finished, you’ll be able to CLICK HERE and read all about it. (But it’s not written yet, so you’ll just have to wait a bit longer!)
A little after 1pm, we headed back to the house and had a full Romanian lunch. I started off with two huge bowls of soup, and then it was time for schnitzel! (Also something in common with Austria!) In addition to that, they served a really tasty “salad” of greens that had been soaked in a sweet and tart dill vinegar mixture. It tasted just like pickles! (I LOVE pickles!) I ate way too much for lunch, but it was all so good that it was kind of hard to stop eating! Haha!
Soon after lunch, we left for Becicherecu Mic. There was a woman there who worked at the library, and she was going to show us around a little bit. First, we went into the library to see the display they had which showcased items from the Germans who used to live there. (None of them remain. And because there is no one left, there wasn’t really anyone for us to talk to to be able to ask about my family.)
Here’s a link to the library’s Facebook page: Biblioteca Becicherecu Mic Facebook Page.
Upon leaving the library, we walked over the main road to the other side of the village, and down to a house that she thought might have been the site of one of my relative’s houses. However, the original home had been torn down long ago, and a new house was put up in its place.
Here are some more pics from around the small streets in the village…
My Aunt Margaret remembered being able to see the train tracks from the front of her house, off to the right. So we went to the edge of town about two blocks from the train tracks and took some pics in case that was the area. Unfortunately again, many of the original houses had been torn down. So if my family did live on this road, the house is since gone. Here are some pics though from that section….
One of the interesting architectural styles in this area actually has to do with people’s yards. Almost ALL yards are fenced off completely. So between houses are a series of various fences and gates – you don’t actually see people’s yards. And those fences go from house to house – there is literally not a section of grass between them. This is the predominant style in all the villages in this region. I thought it was rather strange.
Next on the agenda was to head to the Catholic cemetery on the edge of town to look for family names on the tombstones. However, it was relatively big for the amount of time we had to search. There were also many graves that were just illegible and you couldn’t read them. We did find a few things, including a stone that appeared to belong to my grandfather’s brother: Lambert Graf.
Here are some pics from the cemetery:
We finished our adventure with a visit to the Catholic church in town. It dates back to 1811. This is where my grandparents were married.
We briefly spoke with the priest for a little bit. He didn’t speak English, but he did speak German, so we were able to communicate that way. (Instead of him speaking in Romanian and me having to wait for the translations.) He spoke perfect German with no dialect, so it was really easy for me to understand him. He said the church is structurally unsound and the roof is a hazard, so they actually have mass next door in the next building. He is personally responsible for the churches in five local villages, and must conduct mass at all five every single Sunday. He also overseas all church activities in all five villages as well. He also talked about his nephew who lives in Pittsburgh, and we talked about how many people from the region relocated to that part of the USA. He was a kind old man who was happy to chat with us despite his busy schedule.
At this point, it was getting later in the afternoon. Since it was almost 5pm, we decided to head home for dinner. After the huge lunch we had, I wasn’t even slightly hungry, but was eager to try another classic Romanian specialty. They pronounced it Meetch, but when I looked it up, it’s actually spelled Mici. It kind of reminded me of a cross between regular sausage and Croatian/Serbian Cevapi.
We didn’t have a ton of time left before I had to get to the train station, so I just wanted to relax instead of trying to fit more sight-seeing in. I was definitely tired from the overnight train ride to get there, and we had been going all day. My hosts couldn’t have been nicer or more welcoming – it was such a wonderful experience. They even sent me home with a whole bunch of food! And I was given the invitation to please come back and stay a little longer so that I could see more of Romania.
My wonderful kind hosts!…
Overall, it was a fascinating trip and I got to see and accomplish quite a lot. And it was really cool to be standing on some of the same streets that my family had walked on so many years ago – living their normal every day lives in a completely different part of the world. I would encourage everyone and anyone who has the opportunity: explore, learn, and investigate your own personal history. The people that came before us had very complex, interesting, and complicated lives. Walk in their steps. See where they lived. Make a journey of discovery and be all the richer for it!