What Does “Slavonija” Mean to Them?
An essay by Croatian columnist Slobodan Šnajder, translated by Branka Grundy.
The biggest nightmare for those who sailed on the Danube downstream from Ulm in the 18th century was known as the Duppsteiner rocks; at that time it was two days’ travel from Engelhartzelle. Had such a thing as an insurance premium existed, it would have been enormous: in fact it would have been unlikely that a single insurance company would have agreed to insure any passengers or property on a raft rushing towards rocks. Nevertheless people had to set sail as they had no other choice.
A source from that time stated:”The crew would pull the oars in tight and demand that the passengers say the Lord’s Prayer in their respective languages.” The panicking prayers would sound like the chanting of a sect before some terrible sacrifice took place. It was as if the raft was being drawn by a dark whirlpool towards the fortress of some ancient river Gods, and the dark brown rocks which were threatening in their own way. The passengers’ Paternoster seemed like simultaneous translation. Our Father listened. Or sometimes He did not...
The captain’s rationale was the following: through so many different vernaculars, perhaps one of the tongues would create a channel to Him: God would hear and understand! Such a Babylonian confusion of tongues was no disadvantage, as the passengers were not talking to each other, but directly to God. Even if had encouraged this mixture of languages, that wouldn’t be a problem because God is a polyglot.
Besides they were mainly big rafts which were difficult to steer even in normal conditions. And there was no arrogance on the raft, of the kind which those who were spying by order from Heaven at the foothill of the tower Babel denounced to Father God.
On the contrary, there grew on the raft an atmosphere of utter repentance, as everybody had to think of their ultimate fate. Each passenger, not to mention the crew members, knew full well the risks involved. Of course, the shipping agents from Ulm tried to calm the passengers, but they all knew that every other raft broke to pieces trying to cross the Duppsteiner rocks and many aboard were never heard of again. The Captain would perhaps discover that some Jewish merchant was among the passengers and he thought that a psalm said in Hebrew in some way increased the chances of a successful crossing. It wasn’t very probable, but the possibility can’t be excluded that some Mohammedan happened to be there as well. The Baroque wars had just driven back the Turks deeper into Balkans, but cultures and civilisations which wage wars frequently indulge in incidental trade as well.
It was improbable that when facing such a grave situation the captain would have thrown the follower of the crescent-moon into the Danube. It is almost certain that he would have asked him to lay out his prayer-mat and recommended that he prayed to his own God for the crew and all passengers. So it was a truly multicultural company that sailed either to abyss or salvation. From that moment, the rapids and raging torrents took over and the raft could no longer be steered. Things were now, as they say, completely in the hands of the gods.
So the passengers clung firmly to whatever resembled a rail and tried to guess how many more seconds remained until the final impact: until the moment when the raft would spin around in a whirlpool and then perhaps smash against a rocky ledge. Each one was praying to his heavenly Father in the manner to which he was accustomed. Slavonic languages were mixed with German, mainly southern German dialects, a Hasid with a long beard sang his own psalm, women embraced their children who also prayed, a Muslim prostrated himself as best as he could on his prayer-mat … And the raft sailed through.
The raft sailed through, because if it had been dashed to pieces I could never have been born. With my existence I, one of heirs and genetic guardians of the passengers’ legacy, prove that the raft sailed through. It’s not clear which of the prayers worked. Perhaps the level of the Danube was high enough to spare the raft after the thaw of the spring snow; or perhaps it was too low, and the whirlpool had calmed down. I don’t really believe that God Above had any special interest in my eventual birth: after all, he is Father to so many.
But many rafts didn’t sail through. Many passengers were left on the river bottom, some dragged down away by the Danube maidens, many devoured by sturgeon and pike. From the river bottom they now look up at those who were luckier. So many hopes drowned by the Duppsteiner rocks. God, who at the given moment has offered a myriad of tongues, did not find any that was intelligible on that fateful day. Or perhaps the whirlpool was simply too powerful. The shipping agents in Ulm would try to encourage prospective passengers and clients to take the trip and to assuage their fears, but the risks were generally well known.
The captain also accepted the possible risk involved in having on board some sinner who in God’s view couldn’t be saved.
The captain, who was also an entrepreneur and the patron of the raft, had in front of him a varied multitude of poor people who had sold everything they possessed just to be able to board it; or more accurately to be able to take the risks. And they carried with them any item of property that remained: what they didn’t manage to sell and what they could carry.
Basically those were families, who were capable of producing an offspring. But often there was a youngster among them, an apprentice who had behind him several years of apprenticeship and was in search of those to whom he could sell his trade.
Mercenaries travelled as well, and they also searched for somebody to whom they could sell their services, or were coming back from such commission, as often as not wounded. One can suppose that there were women there too who didn’t make the raft substantially heavier because they anyway were considered to be “easy goods”. So those were the clients, together with the preacher who decided to escort his small retinue as they undertook the journey.
The clerks of what had not yet become the Austro-Hungarian Empire selected some other less risky mode of travel. The year in question was 1769, the year in which we follow a dramatic, and as it turned out a successful crossing of the raft on the Danube near the Duppsteiner rocks. It was the same year in which James Watt first exhibited his steam engine as a result of which the Industrial revolution was destined to develop in England rather than Germany.
But at that time the locomotive engine was still not invented, so people travelled across Europe using horses. The clerks, the upper classes and the aristocrats would not travel on the Danube by barge, regardless of the tongue in which they said the Lord’s Prayer. A Lutheran aristocrat would not travel to those regions under the sceptre and the skirt of the powerful Empress. The Habsburgs and the Catholic aristocracy had no need to travel unless to go to war.
No traveller of means in the 18th century would have risked an encounter with the Duppsteiner rocks.
So the captain had in front of him people who were running away from one form of poverty, possibly into another. Marx has not yet proposed the notion of “the kingdom of necessity”. He even hadn’t been born yet. The majority of those who were running from poverty and hopelessness were from the southern German regions. On the raft which sailed towards its destiny, mainly German was spoken, although possibly Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians and Russians were also present. The presence of a Serbian merchant, an Orthodox Christian who later appeared in Seobe / Migrations / one of the novels of Milosh Crnjanski wasn’t improbable either. Altogether it was some sort of German-Slavonic medley, a multicultural litany, with Hebrew the basso continuo and, as such, the source of suspicion and envy. The Napoleonic reforms, which anyway were ultimately never fully accepted south of the river Rhein, were still far away.
In the early 1990s a letter arrived written in a strange language, a mixture of Croatian intertwined with the peculiarities of the Slavonian dialect and combined with remnants of German grammar (for example, the nouns were written with capital letters) from a village near Passau addressed to my father. It was signed by a man who bore the same surname as me, although mine is the Croatian version. His name was Johannes, and he introduced himself as the brother of my father’s father, my great-uncle. I didn’t even know that he existed until I received this letter. In the letter, he said that he regretted the fact that “...we had to leave Slavonia because of the war.” And he expressed his worries about “us”, because we were again at war. Johannes asked if we needed anything.
This part of the family “had to leave Slavonia” in 1944, before the ethnic Germans were ultimately exiled, because by then the less than loved fuehrer had ordered that particular ethnic group to withdraw to the by then diminishing frontiers of the Reich. For those of that ethnic group who bore my surname, the destination was Passau.
In 1769 their ancestors had come to Slavonia exactly from those regions to which they returned in 1944. The only form of transport they could afford was a raft downstream from Ulm, with the unavoidable passage, or non passage, through the Duppsteiner rocks. In 1769 there was famine in Germany. In relative terms, perhaps, they were not dying in enormous numbers; that year 10 million people died from famine in Bengal. However, it was the biggest natural catastrophe of all time. In order not to die, one had to run away from Germany. The migratory direction triggered by the famine was exactly the opposite one to the direction from which hundreds of thousands of “Gastarbeiter” set off towards Germany in the 1960s from countries which were colonised by the German settlers during the reforms of the Empress Maria Theresa. It would not be advisable for me as a fourth generation migrant to join these “Gastarbeiter” now, due to the global recession. In the late 18th century, the reason for migration was simply the famine. And famine acts like some kind of windmill, only it turns around over centuries rather than daily: sirocco, bora, mistral…sporadically nevera, the sudden storm.
My great-uncle had already signed the letter, when all of a sudden, in what must have been a moment of peculiar inspiration, perhaps going back in time and recalling stories of the Duppsteiner rocks, he decided to enclose in his letter a precious piece of information written on a scrap of tradesman’s paper:
“OUR FAMILY CAME TO NUSTAR WITH THE COUNTS DURING THE REIGN OF MARIA THERESA”
With such thoughts in mind, people when heading towards those rocks on poorly keeled timber rafts which were impossible to steer when the critical moment came. Perhaps some important note had been written to one’s descendants, or to one’s dearest, before the ultimate happened: like the passenger who desperately scribbles something on a slip of paper in a Boeing which is about to crash.
The descendents were born, as my existence proves, and a message reached me through time and through torrents between the rocks: “OUR FAMILY CAME TO NUSTAR …” On wrapping paper, separately enclosed in the envelope, written in biro, like an appendix, there was a note at the bottom of the page written in capital letters. Like a special instruction which connects diachrony (“ the reign of an enlightened but not completely understood Empress”), and synchrony, Nustar , a small town in Slavonia, around which there were terrible battles in the last Balkan war in the ninth decade of the last century. Synchrony, simultaneity, contemporaneity are intertwined, because my great-uncle in mente, in memory, stayed in Nustar and NEVER arrived in Passau, where he was quite successful in “rural tourism”.
“Our family which was supposed to mean your family, my family”. My great-uncle, the only living bridge with those past generations, did not write down where they came from. There is a vague traditional belief that it was south Germany, and I know that they prayed on the raft as Catholics.
It was understood that there was one God, and that he was polyglot. The most important thing was to connect with him at the point of crossing: upstream of the Duppsteiner rocks there was the world which a colourful little group on the raft left behind, almost always for good. Downstream, there was an unknown world which one could only imagine. One had to be seduced by the promises of the customs officials with which they lured the settlers in every imaginable way. It’s not a simple decision to leave everything, even when you don’t have anything. One of Maria Theresa’s officials perhaps appeared in the form of a rat hunter from a fairytale by the brothers Grimm; by the way, we are taking into consideration the time when Herder started to travel “amongst the people” who he had just discovered. But not in the mentioned 1769, when he went to Nantes, on the way to Paris.
But even that was adventurous enough for Herder to write an account of his travels. The people, recently discovered, das Volk, in the meantime were running away from the famine to the East following in the footsteps of the Saxon miners who had been prospecting the Balkan mountains for several centuries. The people who were escaping were pushing towards the East, Drang nach Osten, in those days without tanks, which as we know, started to follow such and similar invasions much later.
Perhaps a “seducer” employed by Maria Theresa with a fairytale about “a new beginning”, lured the younger inhabitants of “childbearing age” by night with a flute on which he played music about a land of luxury and easy existence – behind seven mountains, behind seven seas (I’m not absolutely sure, but I think that Bavaria has seven big lakes), on the other side of the dark forests - a sort of Transylvania.
Slavonia had not yet been mentioned. Neither was Nustar, at that point a little town situated next to a monastery, so small that it barely existed. The settlers were given the exact destinations only when the raft set sail. It was important for the captain to develop a whole net of languages through which he perhaps could try to attract God’s mercy. He considered a multicultural clientele on the raft a distinct advantage. Even if a Chinese merchant had boarded the raft, he would have considered that as a good omen. It didn’t bother him that Hasid on board existed in a different year. For the Jews, 1769 was the year between 5529 and 5530. So everybody on the raft was counting and praying in their own way, and all the rosaries were climbing in a flock towards the Heavens, and the rocks were coming nearer and nearer, and the green whirlpool was becoming more and more fierce and powerful. The fish were waiting along with the Danube maidens and the water king in his glass palace at the bottom of the river. The Empress undoubtedly reigned above, although deep down at the entrance of the underwater kingdom there were different customs officials.
Maria Theresa’s customs officials confiscated the settlers’ Lutheran Bibles as they entered her kingdom. A German settler could import a cat, a dog or a cow, but nobody inquired about money. The customs officials supplied them with the necessary documentation, food provisions and a small allowance which was exactly prescribed by the government office. The customs officials were aware that a settler couldn’t bring in a sufficient sum of foreign currency which could have been a threat to the Empresses’ currency. The customs officials knew that the settlers were importing themselves, their labour and their reproductive capacity. But what might have been imported in their heads had nevertheless to undergo some checking, had to be aired and cleaned. Luther’s translation of the Bible, the beginning of the modern German idiom, was not tolerated among their luggage. The passengers surrendered it themselves, even if they were Lutherans, even when they were sent into exile around the empire of Maria Theresa. Who knows how many Bibles ended at the bottom of the Danube? Those differences, which had been welcomed on the raft racing towards the fate which they would overcome or to which they would succumb, now became suspicious. Formerly united in the face of the threat of death, the passengers now started to appear as individuals, attracting distrust and suspicion. They now discovered that their destinations were different, although the names of the settlements didn’t mean anything to them. Everything that was on the other side of the German forests was Transylvania. They discovered that they travelled for various reasons. A Jewish salesman would disappear in Vienna as well as the ladies of easy virtue. The group suddenly became smaller, although for some the end of journey was still far away. Those who remained were told that it was wise to guard the raft. At the Vienna docks on the Danube vultures of all colours and shades were already sniffing around it, tapping the timbers and measuring it. They wanted to buy it, and failing that, they would try to steal it.
After successfully and in one piece passing through those mythical rocks, the Danube Scylla, which like its Greek counterpart, had cannibalistic tastes, the group which had sailed along the Danube, would dissolve, parting company in Vienna, where it was customary to sell the raft to timber merchants. It was possible to sail upstream as well, by means of horse power, the horses belong to the most exploited and miserable set of working animals in history. But in general it was entirely unprofitable to pull such a big raft upstream in order to let it sail downstream again with journeymen, promiscuous women and Jews.
The majority of the settlers would join the captain and a handful of adventurers in something like a joint venture. They would buy timber, slap a raft together and erect on it a little cabin for those who could pay to hide from the strongest sunshine. They would put in the front and the back big helms, attach some oars – and let it go downstream, let’s say, to Ulm. The sale in Vienna was pre-arranged. The settlers probably didn’t know that the Greek settlers did a similar thing when laying the foundations for the Greek emporium in Sicily, which owing to their bravery later became known as Magna Greacia: there earlier Greek settlers would burn their ships when they arrived at their destination, still not a proper port at that time.
The German settlers probably didn’t know that they would do the same. Their ship was also burnt by the mutineers on the Bounty as soon as they arrived in Pitcairn, in 1789, exactly two decades after the destruction of “our” raft, in the year in which guillotines were sharpened. In order to create a new world, it is sometimes necessary to burn down the bridges which connect it to the old world. Necessary and wise. As far as guillotines are concerned, the views nowadays are various, even contradictory. Hardly any of those German settlers ever returned to their “homeland”. Within a few years, their “homeland” was already called something else. The settlers brought in their loins, a new generation for whom their “homeland” would be somewhere different. The old “homeland” was gone forever, as the majority of those male and female settlers settled forever in their new “homeland”, apart that is, from those people, who like the Bibles in an unauthorised translation, remained at the bottom of the mighty river. Between 1769 and 1945 hardly anybody returned. In 1945, almost all of them were forced to return. At this point things came full circle.
The exception was a single restless man, in his rags more exposed to the sunshine than covered by them, who had earlier passed through the mystical dangers of the Danube Scylla. Taciturn by nature, he was reluctant to get involved in any conversation. He could have been a valuable source of information; he could have filled the gaps in the imaginary fabrication which the majority of passengers had already made about their Transylvania. Well, he had been there, and then he returned to Germany as he was specially asked to do by those who had travelled with him only three months before. It was a very short space of time considering that the voyage to Vienna alone under good conditions took almost two weeks. This uncommunicative settler had a special mission. He was sent back to Germany in order to bring from Germany to Slavonia or to somewhere else on the other side of forests (Transylvania), an especially important message, something that the settlers in their haste during the final migration had overlooked, and without which they couldn’t survive. What was that message? A code of some kind? A description of a procedure, a recipe, some magic formula which could bring rain? In order to bring rain it was sufficient for a village witch, whether denounced or not, to urinate in a bucket. Home remedies didn’t require prescriptions and surgery was performed, as we know, by village barbers.
This secretive passenger was especially reluctant to give any information about any of the countries or even a particular country, cities or each city which the settlers had been given in their papers as their final destination. Either he didn’t know anything about these things, although he had already accomplished the crossing, or he withheld the information for some other reason. Perhaps he was an empress’s spy. Perhaps he kept quiet because he was on some important mission, fearing that he might blurt out something upon which the fate of the empire, or even the world depended. Could he have been a spy acting for the Sublime Porte? Were those regions safe from the Turks? Had Eugene of Savoy inflicted sufficient defeats on the Turks? Did the local population speak German? What religion were they? Did they have any churches? What were they eating? Were they producing any children? Were the Mohammedans raping everybody all over the place? Raping even elderly women and mares? Most important of all was: What kind of land was this? Was it truly so black and so fertile as they were told by those who had lured them onto the raft by playing the flute intended to seduce rats and children.
The sunburnt passenger quite rightly withdrew into the superior world of those veterans who anyhow wouldn’t be able to explain ”all that waits for this people over there, at the end of the trip”. Since they couldn’t find any form of trickery, including women’s smiles, which would elicit from him even the smallest bit of information about their destinations, on the third day the settlers gave up trying. Nobody looked at the silent man any more or asked him anything. He made use of that. In the night when everybody was asleep and when the Moon wrapped the whole Danube into a milky-white flow, the stranger would pull out the message hidden in his shirt close to his heart. The captain, who watched him secretly, discovered his hidden secret, but ignored it.
Carefully, and with the awe with which people feed their fetishes, the frowning passenger brought three potatoes closer to the Moon’s face.
The settlers had strong reasons to make inquiries about what might be waiting for them, since their ideas were extremely vague. Although they were on the whole young and ready for the recklessness of the new beginning (because they have not yet started anything at all), they were nevertheless experienced enough to know that one should not trust the customs officials but rather approach with the reservation and apprehension. They knew that their imperial wooers were paid a per capita commission. Some settlers left without the knowledge or permission of their feudal masters, which means that they had in effect run away, so there was nowhere for them to return to. Some left like our family or my family with the counts, and that might have been easier because they had been going with the counts, for hundreds of years to wars, whose purpose even the counts didn’t know, because there was more reason in ordinary fox hunting than in the majority of the Baroque wars. The present journey had in the meanwhile some vague purpose, called “better life”, although it was in fact bare survival. People ran away from starvation, and they left by night not only because they feared their masters, but because it was easier to leave their homeland and their fire-side in darkness. They were attracted by the Pied Piper, driven away by starvation and all kinds of other deprivation. Nevertheless it must have been a hard decision. Even if they had been literate, it would have difficult to get to know anything about their given destination. It took another hundred and fifty years before guidebooks were invented. Slavonia for example hardly appeared on the maps. Some scanty news would arrive to the effect that it was the land of wolves. But the silent stranger who kept next three potatoes to his heart didn’t tell them that).
Besides a shortage of potatoes, youngsters and labourers from South Germany suffered from other forms of poverty. Besides a shortage of potatoes there was a permanent and complete shortage of women.
On the raft that was now sailing fast without a helmsman and with a captain who raised both arms in the air and prayed with the passengers, there were very few women. Settlers were almost always the vanguard: the advance guard, like a forward convoy which had “to test the terrain”. On this terrain, cleared from the Turks, there were hardly any women. It’s as difficult to live without women as it is impossible to manage without cattle. I don’t know how the Greek colonists solved similar shortages. Were they mating with local women? Might this explain the appearance of centaurs at least according to materialistic view?
Wrapped up to their chins three promiscuous women were seated on that raft where “my family” sailed in search of “a better life”, carrying in their bags, on a little piece of paper, the name of a small town which had hardly yet been founded, and was situated in Slavonia, or rather Sclvonija, Turkish Slavonia, which had just been ascribed to Croatia, but only in the maps of the Empress’s generals and in Maria Theresa’s erotic imagination, where Slavonia appeared in the form of the well equipped baron Trenk. The name of this monastic fortress was Nustar, The women were craving in this mathematics of desire for those three potatoes, but, of course, potato goulash is one thing and descendents are something totally different. They weren’t counted in the equation of deprivation, which had one difficult unknown factor: a woman and mother. A mare and a womb. The erotic imagination of the Empress’s boudoir and reality don’t have any common dominators, they are two completely different kinds of shortages, the first one could be called playful and the second one we should consider existential. The second shortage goes to the heart of the survival of the future colonies, and of the settlers themselves. That’s why the labourers, youngsters and newly qualified apprentices wrote home (was it still their home?) to Germany: “Send us women!”
And the unknown factor of the mentioned equation had to be solved by all means. And it had to be solved in the same way as the problem of famine was solved – by sacrificing three potatoes to the God of the Moon. Luna is the goddess and would prefer to watch the colourful, singing crowd of girls from the southern German provinces who with their multicoloured skirts covered the whole deck above the timber logs from which the raft was made.
Germany has just sent the contingent of marriageable girls, and in Slavonia, where they were heading, they would be called a newly-married woman, and in the second generation it would be only “snasha”. That was supposed to be a jollier journey, so one could hear the accordion playing and ladies giggling, which put the crew and even the captain, people who would stop at nothing, in a good mood.
The Duppsteiner rocks required respect and silence, and so the singing stopped, and accordion fell silent; the oars were pulled in, as well as the bulges visible under the heavy, and wet clothes of the rafter and the captain. The girls were praying in the same way as they prayed to Mary in Catholic places of worship; they sang psalms as they would sing in the cathedrals. There were no promiscuous women on this journey, because the person who organized the journey took every care to look after the morals of its cargo: any potentially infectious examples had to be excluded. He, that is the raft’s travel agent, guaranteed that the girls would be delivered in the same condition as at the beginning of the journey, and definitely in no other state. The Duppsteiner rocks were a relatively small danger compared with the dangers which threatened the honour of women during such a long journey in the middle of the 18th century. The raft’s travel agent would charge the settlers who had already arrived in Slavonia, and from that money pay for the chaperons in the form of three strong men, who for a certain fee, swore under oath that they would protect the chastity of the women from any men who pestered them. In other words, the singing girls of marriageable age had three bodyguards, who were there to protect their virginity, and they in return protected them from the Danube temptresses, nymphs who lured many Fauns to the bottom of the river. A man plans while God decides, especially that cherub who shoots blindfolded: all three men found on the raft women of their dreams, and all three of them travelled downstream the Danube for the first and for the last time unknowingly. Their task was to guarantee protection from seducers, but not from love, something that was not stipulated in their contract with the travel agent. Let’s consider it as a triumph of higher force. They gladly succumbed to it, but they protected the raft from the invasion of the Viennese vultures who wanted to sell it.
After all those events and dangers, the raft with the marriageable women was just about to arrive in Vukovar, its port of destination. ‘They’re coming, they’re coming!’, children were screaming, and those could be only the children of the local inhabitants, who could see the ship on one of the river bends upstream and who now kept running alongside it screaming. In the quay there was a band playing, while all youngsters, labourers, tradesmen put on their best clothes. From a hill, a priest would be watching the spectacle. The wise Empress, allocated one doctor and one priest to every three villages, by decree. The raft moored. The gangplank was lowered. Somebody fired a shot in delight, the band started playing a fanfare, the marriageable women were coming ashore, or better to say approaching. …
Young men were watching from the river bank, some of them had telescopes, which were now in great demand, but weren’t available to be lent out.
There stood my great-great-great-grandfather, the one who had come with the counts, and through the telescope he saw my great-great-great-grandmother, with her rosy cheeks, who in a wide floating skirt which could have taken her up into the air like a balloon, tried awkwardly to keep her balance on the narrow gangplank, her bridge between yesterday and tomorrow. And look over there, my great-great-great-grandmother was lifted up in the air and then landed like a water lily on the Danube branch.
So “our family” was now complete. And would stay complete for two centuries, that is for at least nine generations. Enough time for the “origins” and “roots” to melt away in mythical beginnings.
“Was it complete”? If they had survived the hardships and dangers of the journey in 1769, the year of famine, and somehow managed to get by within the structures of the decrees issued by the powerful woman in Vienna (“the reforms of Maria Theresa”), they were standing now at the beginning of their “new life”. They had some difficulty finding a place for this “new life”, perhaps it was more likely that they found it following the stars, like the father in the novel by Kish: A Garden, Ashes. If the sky became cloudy, they would stop and pitch a camp, like nomads.
But they were labourers, journeymen, tradesmen. In the 19th century at the time of the Monarchy, they were the first representatives of industrialism that remained loyal to the state, even in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. It was an unbelievable stupidity by the new government to expel those people from the region where they have already become “the native population”, because there wasn’t any other population there. After the Turkish defeat Slavonia was almost empty. I say it was utter stupidity – because those people would have been absolutely essential for the industrialisation of the country which the new government wanted so much after the otherwise heroic partisan war.
In the cemetery in Pecuh, which is not far away from Nustar and which had at that time the same population, a German inscription can be seen today:
Death to the first ones,
Necessity to the second ones,
Bread to the third ones.
Life turned out to be like a rhyme in German: Tod, Not, Brot.
Those who survived the dangers of the Duppsteiner rocks arrived in their new homeland, perhaps half of those who had originally set out. What they imagined as a land on the other side of the forests (Transylvania), lured by the Pied Piper, turned out to be a cruel mother who had to kill some of her offspring to give the others a chance of survival.
Unfortunately I didn’t immediately dial the number mentioned in the letter which my great-uncle had sent from some village in the Passau district during the nineties when war was raging in our country. I did it two years later during a literary visit to Munchen. I reckoned that Passau wasn’t far away, and anyway, what does “far away” mean these days? In 1769 it took the best part of two weeks to sail to Vienna.
Some relative of mine answered the telephone: old Johannes had died. His offspring did not speak Croatian any more. I realized that at that moment I was linguistically incapable of explaining to my distant relative that I was in fact a relative of his! That was a very difficult question of identity!
What did Slavonia mean to him? What did Croatia mean to him?
It was something that he had to imagine, just as the passengers on the raft had to do. But why should one do that? Thirteen generations of people with my DNA had lived in Slavonia, on the other side of the forests, on the other side of the seven lakes and seven hills, because having sneaked out at dawn from their poverty they had followed the call of a flautist.
In the last Balkan war, the warring sides were attacking one another fiercely with heavy artillery. One of the artillery positions was located in Nustar cemetery. The graves of the German settlers from the 18th century were ravaged in the early nineties of the 20th century, as if they were re-dug. There is always some urgency in war, so there was no time to take care of the bones. Some of my relatives, nevertheless, found their happiness in Slavonia. During two hundred years, all kinds of things could be found, even happiness.
But a circle has closed: the descendants of those brave passengers on the raft are now being born in the same places from which they had run away so long ago. Those descendents have returned not only to those places but to their own language, after some interlude which is now sinking deeper and deeper in into the past, or to the bottom of the Danube.
To which world do those two hundred years belong? Is there any difference between the descendents of those who had stayed behind and those who sailed away? What does “Slavonia“ mean to them? Is it like that Hecuba which was mentioned in Hamlet? Or is it something more than the pretending to be touched?
Maybe, if there are any differences, they are reflected in the language, in its fairy-tale impurity, like the language in which the letter of my great-uncle was written. But even that language has now been forgotten and is no longer spoken... Slavonia remains only a memory. Maybe a lofty one, but useless. Is it an imaginary country, like Yoknapatawpha County in Faulkner’s novel? Isn’t Slavonia that barely assembled raft which is carried by the Danube’s stream of consciousness or even sub-consciousness? Is it the Yawapaha Village which I saw on one Indian reservation near the Grand Canyon? Perhaps it’s something actually displaced that is left to an imagination, able to create some other kind of continuity, despite being interrupted by the “kingdom” of political (or some other sort of) necessity.