When we think of the Second World War, for many people, the images of Nazi concentration camps and brutality often prevail in our thoughts. This is rightfully so, as the monstrosities committed by the Third Reich were unspeakable. This part of history is well documented. As they say, history is written by the victors. What I would like to focus on here is the period just before and following the end of the war, in Hungary.
During the 17 and early 18th century, war raged between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. Fighting was widespread and devastating, especially in the Pannonian Plain, which is the region between the Alps, the Balkans and the Carpathian Mountains, where present day Hungary sits. Years of war left the area depopulated.
Starting in the late 1600s, the Habsburgs, who had begun to push the Ottomans out of Hungary, brought in Germans to settle the area. My ancestors were part of this wave, and they settled in Budapest and the surrounding area. My family primarily comes from a small town called Budakeszi. They maintained their ethnic identity for over 250 years, remaining strongly Roman Catholic and rarely intermarrying with the Hungarians living around them in the first few generations, though they gradually integrated with the surrounding culture as time passed. They lived modestly, but they supported each other through times joyous and sorrowful.
In 1941, after Hungary was overrun by the Nazis, a pseudo-mandatory military service was imposed on the people of Hungary who were of German heritage. This included my grandfather. As a result, after the Russians beat back the Germans, many of the remaining Germans, who had lived in the area for centuries, were brutalized, raped, robbed, and deported. These Germans, who mostly did not side with the ideological slant of the Nazis were nonetheless treated as such, and suffered greatly at the hands of the Soviets.
Between 1945 and 1948, many Germans were dispossessed, and deported to Germany, even though they had occupied Hungary, Romania, Croatia, and other countries for hundreds of years. This process was filled with misery and hardship. As the Nazis were forced out, they looted the Hungarians’ banks, museums, houses, businesses, and government buildings. The damage was severe.
As mentioned above, the Nazis were not the only party to commit terrible atrocities. As the Soviet Red Army came through, they exerted their power by widespread rape and deportation. They too, emptied many houses, churches and businesses of valuables.
My father tells a story of his uncle, who was deported by the Soviets. They knocked on his door and ordered him to come outside to help with something. He told them he was going to get his coat, since it was the middle of winter. The Soviets told him he would be back shortly, and there was no need. His family never heard from him again. They believe he was shipped to a labor camp in Siberia. Supposedly, someone from the town saw him in Siberia some years after this, but no one was ever able to contact him.
Budakeszi is in the western part of Hungary, one of the last areas to be conquered by the Soviets. In 1946, Budakeszi was the site of ethnic cleansing. My father and grandparents were dispossessed and deported in this great upheaval. The Soviets gave them 8 hours to prepare to leave their homeland. They were ordered to meet together in a central location and to bring with them only what they could carry on their backs. My grandmother somehow brought a sewing machine with her. My father, his brother, my grandparents and many other ethnic Germans from the town were loaded on a crowded boxcar and shipped off, not knowing where they were headed. They knew of the labor camps in Siberia and it wasn’t until the next day that they entered Austria and knew that they were headed west, to Germany, and not Siberia.
The family lived together with extended family in a single room in Kirrlach, Germany. Conditions were very poor, and there was little hope at that time economically in Germany. They lived in that small room for 6 years, until in 1952, they made their way to the United States and with time and hard work, they were able to build a better life.
For anyone with ancestors of German heritage living in Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Yugoslavia, and other places, this can be a challenging period for family history research. The dramatic upheaval and deportations make research difficult. Many of us may have no idea where relatives ended up. Some were sent to Siberia, some to Germany, many of the ethnic Germans in Romania were dispersed throughout that country after the war.
Update: This article has been featured in the 26 Edition of the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy. Thanks, Jessica!