IT USED TO BE A WONDERFUL VILLAGE

One interaction is enough with any local, even one who moved in recently (say 10 years ago) and the following line will inevitably pop up in conversation: ”… it used to be a wonderful village”. Why was Lenauheim a wonderful village? Because it was inhabited by diligent people, because the land was overly fertile and well suited to agriculture, because it had a birthing house, a nursery, a kindergarten, a school, a salon, a confectionery, a pharmacy etc. All that a community could need. But why did it used to be wonderful and now isn’t?

Maybe back then, when everything was different, this paradise was inhabited by Swabians. Therefore, the present population invokes the glamour of Lenauheim as an all encompassing phrase which is meant to convince the newcomer, that whatever their impressions of the present, the village still holds the remnants of a civilisation model within it. It is noteworthy to take note of the fact that this population is now Romanian in its majority, very few villagers still having roots that go back to the families of German colonizers that settled and built the village.

It seems that the Swabians were a role model to the Romanians, but one that was hard to keep up with.

I begin this journal with an episode that took place at the end of field work in Lenauheim, that quickly brought to light one of the paradoxes of this place.

The curious fate of the station – I walk with Nicoleta on the street we had walked down the previous day in order to reach the cemetery. But the station is at the other end of the village. What irony! I suspected we would be taking photographs of a ruin, of train tracks being engulfed in weeds, the sign ”Lenauheim Station” standing like a cross over the grave of the station. But as we advance, signs of life started popping up. A yellow flower-bed opened the way, followed by a partially planted garden, a chained dog, some flower pots with carnations giving color to an annex. The second floor of the building had drapes that covered plants set in the light. The train station looked something like a homestead. I had the sensation that I was close to the bed of a sufferer who cannot die. What was keeping it alive? Mister Nelu.

Taken over by the poetry of the place, the meeting with Mister Nelu was more than surprising. The station started looking more and more with the space found at the other end of the village, where people go to lay down for their final rest, a pathetic mausoleum. I found out I had photographed a private space, that this gentleman had purchased the train station building and had been trying for some years now to keep it from falling apart because it has become his home, as well as being a historical monument (built in 1918). Why all this detour from the main idea? Because Mister Nelu is not a native, and one of his lines is highly suggestive: ”I came here because I thought this was a German village! (pause for gathering thoughts) But is this really what a German village is supposed to look like?” The answer could be as follows: No, not any more, but those who inhabit it are we… the Romanians. Therefore the Swabian model was hard to follow, but the past of the village deserve to survive through the phrase ”… it used to be a wonderful village”. Even the facade of the town hall keeps to the phrase under the guise of a plaque with the signs of royalty on it, placing Lenauheim in Jimbolia Area, Timiș-Torontal county, attesting that the past is still firmly anchored to the present.

If in 1763 the process of colonisation starts and the village that was then named  Csatád becomes one with a mainly German population, the 20th century brings with it the reverse, staring with a movement of leaving the homesteads behind. Mister M., known in the village as Fredi, born in 1930 in Lenauheim, told us about his experience as a youth of 14 who was forced to seek refuge in Czechoslovakia for a year, together with his family and other German families. Horrified by the approaching Russians and the prospect of deportation, the solution was exile. The image of tens of wagons loaded with the little each family could take on short notice, leaving behind home and the labor of generations, make me think at the inner strength the Germans, but not only them, needed to leave everything behind in order to save themselves. Of course, even more inner strength is required when, upon returning one year later, you find your house taken over. Mister Fredi told us with enormous simplicity and lack of emphasis about the moment of departure and return. He spoke softly when mentioning T. G., the Romanian butcher that had taken over the M. house. He confessed that G. would have welcomed them back into their old house, but there was no more room left for cohabitation. Other Romanians, on the other hand, fresh owners of German houses, brought strife into the village, unable to welcome them with anything except ”Go back to Hitler!”. Perhaps Mister Nelu, the owner of the train station, upon hearing this story, would better come to understand why Lenauheim is no longer a village of German discipline, and where the downfall of the German community began.

The time that the Swabians spent as refugees in Czechoslovakia sheds even more light on the discipline and unity they showed, together with the Pems, Czechs of German ethnicity, that took them into their homes according to the number of free beds they had in the house. It is also noteworthy to observe the way in which population displacement stimulates communities to adapt and respond to the needs of the group. The municipality where this group of Lenauheim Swabians found refuge offered them ration cards through which they could buy food, shoes and cigarettes. It’s not a small feat to receive, as a refugee, to be offered means of survival and even a little comfort.

Why did these people return to Lenauheim? Why did Fredi’s grandmother prefer to leave for America, work in a candy factory and come back to the village in order to buy a house? Why did she leave a second time and came back to buy land? Why didn’t she stay, there, in the Promised Land? The answer is simple: because home was Lenauheim. Even Mister Alfred confesses during the interview that he could not imagine another place that could belong to him, in which he could find his origin. On the other hand, there were no reasons for leaving, Lenauheim was a wonderful village. This fact is confirmed once more through a phrase that can be used as a substitute: ”Lenauheim was amongst the first rich villages in the region.”

The village kept being great during Communism, said political period having a solid base in the village upon which it could build its future glory. This time, the Germans as well as Romanians were forced to prove and accept their labor of a lifetime had become common property and they have no alternative but to give it over to the state. After many years the collective farm remained in the memory of our interlocutor as a meeting place of Romanians and Swabians. A sort of ethin communion through work. Fredi is the example of the person who knew how to survive and adapt to the times. He became vice-president of the collective farm, and in the summer of 1969 he became mayor. He confessed that he had a lot of luck in life, otherwise he cannot explain the fact that his family escaped deportation to the Bărăgan, through the simple fact that Fredi met a friend from the football team he was playing for at the right time and place. Luck is sometimes an accumulation of qualities, and sometimes just randomness, destiny or divine intervention, but the impression that Fredi left on me is that his luck lay in his extremely adaptable nature, having in it the gene of the migratory human.

Another paradox is the fact that the ability for adapting of the migrant mentioned above contrasts with the need for stability. The few years in which Fredi worked in Germany, where his children had emigrate, made him understand that his true Heimatland is Lenauheim. He returned to the village at 81, choosing to live out his days in the only place in which he can return to his childhood. Although life abroad was prosperous, managing to buy a house in Bavaria after a few years of work, this did not constitute a strong enough argument for the counteracting of words like: ”You Romanian gypsies come here to take our jobs!” The slur hurt Fredi so badly that at 81 he decided that the only place he belonged to was his native village. This is a typical situation for ethnic minorities. For Romanians will be forever German and will have the accompanying stereotypes, mostly positive (as in Mister Nelu’s case) and for the Germans, the Swabians are probably Romanians or ”gypsies”, an estranged population no longer belonging to the fatherland. My conclusion is that neither Germany nor Romania could fulfill the needs of this minority, the only suitable space is the native village, that microcosm in which the individual grew up and learned about life. The present comes with bigger challenges though. What of the wonderful village’s spirit still remains? Perhaps only its memory.

Although there are not many Swabians left in the village, I had the opportunity to meet two people from different generations. On the one hand Fredi, on the other hand Misses E. who knows about the glory of Lenauheim from the stories of the parents and grandparents. I hear from hear a varian of the ”it was a wonderful village” line, and after the interview we noticed that the village had a special aura even in communist times, keeping a certain spirit from the good old days, when there was a confectionary and the children were born in the birthing room in the village and not in the city of Jimbolia.

We can think of Lenauheim as a veritably citadel that could have withstood a siege with ease. Still, it did not… Coming back to the two Swabians who shared their life stories, I now realize that we got to meet them because they are part of those who could only find their place in their native village. Misses E. also tried settling in Germany, a state in which most of her family has emigrated, but the monotony of the landscape and the lack of communication, even conflicts with neighbors, made her come back home.

A majority of Swabians who did manage to adapt to the east-west movement, have the opportunity to come back to their place of origin every two years for the event ”Sons of the village”. It becomes an opportunity to remember the glory days of Lenauheim.

On the other hand, those that end up out of chance or purposefully in Lenauheim, those who discovered the village through literature and follow the footsteps of Nikolaus Lenau, entering the museum that is named after him will discover, starting with the first room, that the village had indeed been wonderful, the phrase being evoked by each object on display and by the whole atmosphere and story created around the writer and the Swabian community.

The Welcome page of the website www.satul-lenauheim.ro points out a fact upon which I wish to end this journal, namely that the Swabians ”blessed the lands of the Banat with their presence. Unfortunately, we, the ones from the present, only have the memories of those days.”1

And jumping on the back of a golden dragon, after telling you the story of the wonderful village!


[1] http://www.satul-lenauheim.ro/home.php?page=home, 23.07.2019.


This story was initially published in the MOVING FIREPLACES. 2019 book.

Photo credit: Diana Bilec

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