“My name is Iacob Domăneanț, I’m a sociologist by profession and I’ve been working at thel library in Carașova for 15 years,” begins our interlocutor. “I attended primary school in the village, high school in Reșița and the university in Zagreb.” But Iacob is one of the people who came back to tell the stories of others’ departures, both from the past and the present.
Iacob declares himself Croatian, but the people in Carașova have long considered themselves a separate ethnic group in their own right. The chronicles of the Middle Ages tell of various populations that, starting with the 14th, have come to this area driven away from their homelands by historical circumstances, and settled in the seven villages of Carașova, Iabalcea, Nermet, Clocotici, Rafnic, Vodnic and Lupac. They were Bulgarians, Serbs, Bosnians, Albanians — all Catholics. In the 18th century, under Austrian rule, the people of Carașova received, through the Church, books printed in Zagreb, which facilitated the spread of the Croatian language and the identification with this group. After the Revolution, when everyone was trying to prove that they were of foreign ethnicity in order to leave the country, the number of people who declared themselves Carașovans decreased, while the number of Croats increased proportionally.
In addition to the relationship with Croatia created through the Church, Iacob recalls that in the 1990s relations were established with Croatian communities in Austria. “Bridges were built for them [the people of Carașova] to go to work there. Knowing the language, they adapted, they found jobs. Then they learned German and they left for Germany.” This is what Jacob’s sister did, and his cousin, who now lives in Austria.
When we ask him if he ever thought about staying in Croatia, Jacob says: “This is my home, this is where I live… I didn’t like it there [in Croatia], I don’t like living in a city. This is a beautiful area, the Caraș Gorges. I for one like walking a lot and… I couldn’t adapt there.”
He chose to study sociology because he has always been interested in how society works. He wrote his degree on wedding, baptism and funeral customs in Carașova.
During a discussion on the traditional costume of Carașova, he mentions — so discreetly that we almost miss it — that he took all the local models to the Ethnography Museum in Zagreb.
Perhaps through the nature of his profession, perhaps through his own inclinations, Jacob seems acutely aware of change and the passage of time. He knows about how it used to be in olden days from the stories he heard from his mother and grandmother. “Only 5% of what they tell me has survived.”
Jacob’s grandfather on his father’s side died in the siege of Stalingrad. His grandmother never remarried, she raised two children on her own. “My grandmother never wore civilian clothes,” jokes Jacob. “She wore the traditional dress all her life.” She only spoke Croatian. She didn’t need Romanian. “[Carașova] was a small world in which they were born, they married and lived their entire lives.”
Jacob remembers that his grandfather on his mother’s side slept only 2-3 hours per night. “He was employed at a basket weaving factory here, in Carașova, on the evening shift. During the day he worked in the fields, in the afternoon he would nap for 30-45 minutes, no more, and when he finished his shift at the basket factory, he would catch a couple more hours of sleep.” He did all this to help Jacob’s mother and uncle build homes. But that was closer to the present, in Communist times.
“Reșița [and its transformation into a large industrial centre] changed the lifestyle and values, which had been static for hundreds of years,” says Jacob. In the past, the community was agricultural and almost completely closed. Then the men started working in factories in Reșița, and the women, who until then had been housewives, keeping house and raising children, started taking the donkeys and selling fruit, milk and țuică, the local brandy, to workers and miners in Reșița and Anina.
During the communist period, teaching in Croatian was banned. “Until third grade, I didn’t understand what was said in school,” laughs Iacob. He had a Romanian teacher who had been sent to Carașova without knowing any Croatian. Jacob remembers that she tried to explain the inclusion of subsets in math by drawing chalk circles around herself.
But neither the commute to Reșița, nor the ban on studying in Croatian had as big of an impact as people going to work abroad. The village has only started changing 15 years ago, says Jacob. Many young people have left. Most of the marriages that take place now are mixed, in the sense that one of the partners is not from Carașova. Women more often marry foreigners (Croats, Serbs, Germans) and move to their countries. Men marry Romanian women who come to Carașova, learn the language, start going to the Catholic church. There are also Romanians and Roma in the village. The latter came here 150 years ago, speak Croatian and are the living repositories of traditional local music.
At the high school in Carașova, classes are now taught in Croatian, Romanian or a mix of both languages. But the children are few and “they don’t speak the language [Croatian] anymore,” says Iacob, even when both parents are from Carașova.
“Ethnic communities are closed, it’s a common phenomenon for all ethnic minorities living among a majority. Some, after a while, open up and disappear, like we are about to disappear,” says Iacob detachedly.
More recently, some houses have been bought by people from Timisoara or Reșița. When we ask him how the newcomers are seen, he says: “if you’re a good person, in small communities people are more interested in how you are as a person, it doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are.”
The village is clean, well-kept, with houses that look new; there are cobblestones in the centre, a newly restored church dating back to 1726 and, next to the town hall, a stage erected by the Croatian Union, where concerts and traditional dance festivals take place. The people in Carașova return to the village four times a year, for Christmas, New Year, Easter and the Feast of St Mary. Of his sister, Jacob thinks she will come back to live in the village, but he’s not so sure of her children. They are already integrated into German society.
Before we leave, Jacob tells us to stop and see the statue of Virgin Mary. We discover a wild-looking corner of nature: moss-covered rocks, a spring and, among the trees, arranged as neatly as possible on such uneven ground, benches facing an altar. Above it, set in a natural niche in the mountain, there is a statue of Virgin Mary. During World War II, Jacob tells us, when the Germans were retreating, they passed through the village. Russian planes were looking to bomb them and they reached the village just as the German convoy was passing. If they had dropped their bombs, the village would have been destroyed. But that day, St Mary’s Day, the valley where the village is located was covered with clouds and thick fog, “as it sometimes happens here,” says Jacob. The Russians didn’t see them and the village was saved. But the elders still remember the sound of planes hovering in the fog. Virgin Mary had protected the village.
The place seems in use — the flowers are fresh, the candles are still lit — and just as clean and neat as the village centre. And from high in the grotto, the statue of Virgin Mary watches over, protecting the village now as it did then.
Photo credit: Anca-Raluca Majaru