Re-visiting the Banat

A diary of our trip from 16th to 24th May, 2004

By Diana Lambing

Our group at the Zefir - left to right: Sammy, Jody, Louise, Diana, Marge, Tom

(numbers in brackets refer to the photos after each daily entry)

Sunday 16th May - all six of us meet up at Vienna airport, most of us making it by the skin of our teeth! We have come from as far as California, Georgia, New Jersey and the UK. An hour-long flight to Timisoara during which we get to know each other a little...this is going to be a great little group! We are met at Timisoara airport by Pavel, the owner of the Pensiunea Zefir, the small 6-roomed hotel on the outskirts of town (Mehala)... he is holding up a sign saying 'Zefir', so we will recognize him. He and his daughter, Laura, have their two cars outside to take us all to the hotel - a bit of a squeeze, to say the least, trying to get six people and all their baggage into two small cars (1), but we somehow manage it! The hotel is a sweet little place, very new and very friendly, being so small. We get to know their quirky little ways over the days, having to ask for extra towels or to borrow the hair-dryer etc. (and they don't seem to have face cloths in Romania!), but it's a great little place and ideal for our group. Once unpacked, we all decide we've just got to make the most of the rest of the day (it's about 5 p.m.) and make a quick trip to our places of interest, i.e. our own villages. One of the receptionists, Dora, speaks good English, so she comes with Tom, Marge and myself who are being driven by Pavel (no English, no German!) to  Şandra (Alexanderhausen) to announce our arrival to my third cousin and his father (2). Then it's on to Uihei (Neusiedel) for a quick look around the tiny village and the cemetery (3, 4, 5). I haven't been here for 35 years, but it all comes back to me. It's wonderful to see the place again. Then it's back to the hotel, and the whole group decides to go out for a meal at the Pink Panther, a local Hungarian restaurant where we all have the same dish (Chicken Paprikasch) - delicious, home-made food.

 

Monday 17th May - we all have to go into town in the morning to change our money into local currency, and immediately become millionaires (one million Lei is equal to about $30). A quick look around the shopping mall next to the bank - this is so different to when I was last in Timisoara during the Communist era, where everything was so drab and colourless, and the streets were full of marching troops of soldiers and huge posters of Ceausescu everywhere - quite scary, really. I have to buy a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt as the weather is quite cool today and I haven't bought anything really warm with me. Oh well, it's all good for the economy! Once we've done our bits of shopping, we look for a taxi driver to get us back to the Zefir, preferably one who speaks English or German. Tom, Marge and I eye up a couple of taxis on the stand and I approach a young-looking driver and ask if he speaks English. It seems he does a little, and when I hand him the hotel's business card, he recognizes the address and takes us there. During the short journey, we strike up a conversation with him and get a good feeling about him. He seems keen and trustworthy, so once we get back to the Zefir (1), we ask if he'd be prepared to take us to Carpinis (Gertianosch) that afternoon. We negotiate a price, which is very favorable as it will be divided between the three of us, and head off almost immediately to Carpinis, laden with cameras, video recorders, audio cassette recorder and a really good map which I'd downloaded from the internet, enlarged and laminated. We make very good use of that map during the week! We take the road towards Jimbolia (Hatzfeld) (2) and pass through Sacalaz (Sackelhausen) and Beregsau (Bergsau) before we get to Carpinis, where we ask the locals where a particular house number is. We are directed to Frau Wambach's house at number 21 and she turns out to be a wonderful lady who was a teacher (and still teaches part-time)(3). She lives in a typical Donauschwaben house, absolutely immaculate, with her elderly mother and is actually a native of Iecea Mare (Gross Jetscha), her maiden name being Jost. She has documented every single grave in Gertianosch cemetery and gives us a copy of two Gertianosch Heimat magazines, one of which contains the cemetery plan. A delightful lady, she helps us as much as she can, and then off we go to search for names in the cemetery (4, 5). It is a large cemetery, beautifully kept. Michael, our new-found friend, the taxi driver, is keen to help us from the start. We meet with an elderly German lady in the cemetery whose husband had died only six weeks ago and who is keen for us to go to her house. Everyone we meet here is so friendly, it is hard to refuse such a request, but we have to keep our eye on the ball, as it were, and not get too distracted from the aim of our trip. Once we get back to the Zefir, we find that Sorin (the genealogist and historian) is there, chatting to Louise - he knew we were coming and it is a good opportunity to meet up with him at last. We eat at the hotel in the evening, as agreed earlier (6).

 

Tuesday 18th May - today, Louise is coming with our group, as there are names she wants to look for in the village cemeteries we are visiting today. Michael, our taxi driver, is early - what a blessing! - so we make a prompt start and our first visit is back to Gertianosch to look for some graves we had missed the previous day. Louise is dragged off by the the recently widowed lady, who sees we are back in town! Our next stop is Iecea Mica (Klein Jetscha), where there are builders working on the wall of the graveyard, and we meet the local Romanian Orthodox priest there (1). It's very overgrown in parts, but we have some success, and the wild flowers amongst the long grasses are so pretty (2), I spend more time photographing them instead of the graves! Then it's on to Iecea Mare (Gross Jetscha), where I've been told to look up Margaretha Marinescu (3), a German lady who looks after the church and who knows the two cemeteries well. Again, she is a lovely lady who is more than willing to show us around the church and to light the candles for us (4). She works very, very hard keeping everything perfect for the local Catholic priest when he comes to conduct a service, and amongst other stories, she tells us how money the Germans received after their enforced stay in Russian labour camps was used to buy and make the long cushions on the church pews to make them a little warmer and more comfortable in the winter months. Once we leave the church, she is immediately seen taking another small group around the church, and the church bells begin to ring - what a lovely sound! We go off in our different directions, looking for our old ancestors' houses, and I have great luck in finding mine in Triergasse (5). The house has obviously been renovated and kept up well over the past 200 years, and now has a wonderful landscape mural along the whole side of the main building (6). The current occupant is happy for me to photograph it, and I spend quite some time in the little street which is a sort of raised, cobbled lane - I love it! Once our little group has re-assembled, we walk up to the second cemetery in Gross Jetscha and have a look around for our ancestors' names there - again, with some success. Then we decide to go on to Uihei (Neusiedel) and take the small road in that direction, but when Michael checks with a local man which track to take, we are sent on a 'short cut' across the fields... well, five of us in Michael's taxi, bumping over a ploughed track at 5 miles an hour, it obviously isn't going to be much of a short cut! I ask him if it would be better if we get out and walk part of the way where the track is particularly rough. I don't think I'll ever be forgiven for that by the other three!! We climb out of the taxi and off Michael drives, a whole load lighter. Unfortunately, he seems to think we want to walk ALL the way across the fields to Uihei (which I am quite happy to do myself) (7)... anyway, we survive! Once we reach Uihei, I go for a quick visit to my grandparents' old house, right on the very edge of the village, with wonderful views across the open countryside. The old lady who lives there is one of only two German people left in the village, and she is away recuperating from an illness, but her son is there and he welcomes me with open arms. The family looked after my grandmother in her later years on the understanding that they would inherit the house on her death. The place is looking very dilapidated on the one side, but I manage to take photographs of every nook and cranny before it falls down completely! 'Buyu', the son living there, is hoping to build a new house on the site, but other people in the village say it is just wishful thinking. I begin having fanciful ideas of buying the place from him and his mother and keeping it as a 'holiday home' for myself and like-minded people... Buyu lets me take an old frying pan which I find in the cellar and which belonged to Grandma, and he also lets me take a bed cover from her old bed. The bedroom suite is absolutely gorgeous and obviously worth a lot - all inlaid wood, a beautiful golden colour. Buyu says he would never sell it, though. Back to reality, and I meet up with the others in the village by the church and the local bar where one of the elderly locals (many of the older Romanians in the village speak German) tells me he'll take us to Pitzer Mari, the only other German lady who lives in the village. We call by her house, but she's not there, so we make our way back to the Zefir, calling in at my cousin Robi's in Şandra (Alexanderhausen) on the way. His father is 90 years old, but he looks and sounds much younger and has a wonderful, booming voice (probably because he's rather deaf!). Tonight, we eat at a popular pizza place in Timisoara with Michael (8).

 

Wednesday 19th May - Louise joins us again for the day, as Jody and Sammy are very involved with their family in Mercydorf. We first head for Becicherecul Mic (Klein Betschkerek), which is on a different route to the previous two days - it's on the road to Sinnicolau Mare (Gross Sankt Nikolaus). Again, the cemetery is full of pretty wild flowers and the cuckoo is singing and the crickets are chirping away - we seem to have hit the best time of year for our visit, as the weather is glorious and all the animals and birds have their young ones around them. Then it's on to Biled (Billed), passing by the Calvarienberg (Mount Calvary) (1) just before we hit the town. This is worth a stop and we take pictures of the stations of the cross and the view from the top of the mount. Once in Biled, we suss out the local shop (2) and bar opposite the town hall and then go to look for Father Bonaventura Dumea, the local Catholic priest. He is not at home, but the church is open, so we spend time looking around and taking pictures inside the church. When we go back to the shop for provisions, he finds us there (he had had to take a local person to the dentist, which is why he was not at home). A very kind and softly-spoken man, he takes us back to his house, giving us a history lesson on the way (which we video and record also on audio tape), and he then proceeds to get all the relevant church registers for Uihei for us to peruse (3) and photograph. Not only that, but he also offers to photocopy his own personal notes which he made in 1988 when he came to the area, of all the Catholic residents of Uihei and details of their family and professions. What a goldmine! It's the little unexpected touches like this that make the trip so special. There are civilian records which we can look at, too, which are held at the town hall and which we are keen to see. However, we need to make our way to Periam (Perjamosch) as Tom is looking for graves in the cemetery there (4). It turns out to be quite large, and by now we are all beginning to see gravestones in our dreams, so we don't stay for very long. Our next port of call is Bulgarus (Bogarosch), so it's back down the small road, and across the main Timisoara to Sinnicolau Mare road, down along a tree-lined lane where people are actually cutting down the trees (we wonder why?). In the centre of the village we stop at the corner shop and tell locals we are looking for certain houses. Armed with our street plans of the village, we go off to look for our ancestors' houses and again I have tremendous luck in finding the one I'm looking for. The old man who owns it now (Franz Foos, aged 71) (5) bought the house from Kaspar Noel in 1963 and prior to that it had belonged to the Engelmann family. He is very happy to chat, and poses for pictures with some local children, and I manage to get quite a bit of the conversation on tape. Back at the village centre, we all meet up and go up to the cemetery. Being nosey, I always like to look behind the obvious places one tends to see (6), so I creep down into the mausoleum of the chapel in the cemetery and find some fascinating tombstones and old paintings of stars on the ceiling. I (well, Tom actually) manages to procure some bits of broken stained glass that are lying around, as a souvenir of Bogarosch, and then we make our way back to the Zefir, making another stop at Billed en route, where the local shopkeepers got to know us quite well eventually! We have to stop at a level crossing to let a train pass by - many seem to be double-deck trains - and we manage to get the sound of the horn on tape, too (7)

 

Thursday 20th May - today we have an early start to make sure we are at the mayor's office by 8.30 or 9.00 a.m.  Michael is, as always, 15 minutes early - hurrah! However, when we get to the town hall in Biled, we are not sure which is the mayor's office and wander around the building, feeling lost. Instead, we decide to visit the German Forum just down the road, and Adam Csonti, who is the manager there, shows us around the place and explains what goes on there. Apart from rooms for socialising, they have also started to build up a museum on the upper floor, which is well worth a look around. We don't stay very long as we are concerned that we might miss the mayor back at the town hall altogether, so we go to visit Father Bonaventura again to ask him where we can find the mayor. He thinks that we have been expected an hour ago and rings through to the mayor's office - sure enough, he has been waiting for us, but we hadn't known which door to knock on! Back to the town hall, (1) and we are rushed passed a queue of  people waiting to see either the mayor or one of his officers, and are introduced to him by the name of 'Sorin' - yes, another Sorin! His archivist had given up on us and had gone into Timisoara on business, to do with the forthcoming elections, but Sorin has another person who could be put at our disposal in the archives. We are asked to write a list of people, dates and events for the documents we wish to see and photograph (2), and they would then search out the relevant books and have them ready for us either later that day or early next morning. Travelling on to Uihei again, we hear the church bells ringing and we split up for a short time, me to go back to my grandparents' old house, and Tom and Marge to look for their Beitz ancestors' houses. The wonderful cacophany of the geese and goslings, the ducks, the turkeys, the cows, sheep and goats, the cuckoo and crickets, and all the other domestic and wildlife, evokes such strong memories in me, I'm immediately transported back thirty-five years. Later, the three of us meet up at the cemetery to begin our 'project' and I see that Tom has found 'Pitzer Mari', as she becomes known to us. This is the German lady who looks after the graves in the cemetery for several families who now live mainly in Germany. Word has got around fast about the two Americans and the English woman, and she immediately comes up to me (3) and realises who I am and is quite overcome. Questions are fired at me, and when asked how many children I have and I reply 'none', she tut-tuts and shakes her head!! There is a lot to catch up on, and I explain that we are documenting all the graves in Uihei cemetery. We have brought chalk along with us to rub onto the harder-to-read headstones, to make them more legible, and I explain that is why there are now some multi-coloured headstones in Uihei graveyard (the rain will soon wash off the chalk). At lunchtime we break off as we have arranged to see a lady, Ileana Rohnean at house number 106, who has the key to Uihei church. She fetches her bundle of keys and, followed by an ever-growing number of children, we have a look around the church, the focal point of all villages. Once again, my eyes are drawn to the nooks and crannies of the church and to the steps leading up to the gallery and then up another flight to the belfry. Tom follows me and we find a treasure trove of old, disused and broken bits and pieces amongst the rubbish and the pigeon droppings. I desperately want to take something home with me from this church, as I can just picture Dad as an altar boy in the early 1930s down by the main altar. Tom finds what looks like a huge, rusty old key which has been broken off, and I slip it into my bag... there's an old confessional door lying on the floor, too, so I say a quick penance for having taken the object! Back outside, the number of children has grown even more and we dig into our bags for the packets of sweets and chocolates we have brought with us for the children (4). We have been invited to lunch at my grandparents' old house, where Buyu brings out dishes of cold smoked ham and sheep's cheese, spring onions, fresh bread, and water from the well - quite delicious (5)! Then it's back to the cemetery again to start the recording of the graves and we stay there until almost 6 p.m. As we draw near the church again on our way back to the Zefir, the church bells are ringing again and I lean out the taxi to record them. Tom, as quick as ever, says 'well, don't just sit there - go and ring the bells!' I don't need telling twice, and race up the steps to the gallery where a young local lad is pulling on the two bell ropes, Tom following with his camera, and the lad hands me one of the ropes to pull (6). So now I can truly say that I've rung the Uihei church bells (well, one of them at least... and it was the lower one). We then figure out that this is a Romanian Orthodox service (the church is used by both religious denominations these days), so we stay for part of the service (7) and record the lovely chanting voices, even though there are only half a dozen or so people in the congregation. Back at the Zefir, we chill out and Tom loads all our day's pictures onto his hard drive before making a hard copy for each of us. We are all too full from lunch still to want to eat anything more today. 

 

Friday 21st May - Michael is already waiting for us at 7.15 a.m.... today, we really ARE going to get to the mayor's office at 8! The fields and roadside verges on the way to Biled are full of bright red poppies (1)and we stop to take some wonderful pictures of  them. Another train passes over the level crossing - it's obviously rush hour, or at least as near as you can get to 'rush hour' in the Banat! Sorin's archivist has been very diligent and has all the relevant books ready for us to peruse and photograph. As none of us had realised that anything like this number of documents would be available for us to look at, we hadn't bothered to bring along very many details of our ancestors, and I am doing it mostly from memory. Civilian records prior to 1895 are, however, held in Timisoara, and that is a very different scenario, far more difficult to access. We spend a couple of hours poring over the books and then carry on to Uihei, where Mari has been working on my own grandparents' grave since 7 a.m., tidying it up and making a flower bed all around it. We discuss how to fix the broken cement cover to the grave (nearly all the old graves have been cemented over since the Germans left the villages, as there are too many graves for one person alone to tend). Mari suggests a young labourer in the village whom she knows well, and goes to fetch him (2). Meanwhile, Tom and Marge have found a discarded headstone for a baby Beitz child and would like it cemented between two large and well cared for Beitz headstones, which the labourer agrees to do (3), all for a pitifully small sum. Another local child gets to cleaning off the lichen from our family headstone, and then Michael and I ink in the names and dates which have faded over the years. By the end of the afternoon, the graves are in pristine condition again (4). We carry on documenting the gravestones, Tom photographing every one with a high resolution digital camera (well, he IS a professional photographer!), and Marge chalking all the stones which are difficult to read, whilst I go around with my little dictaphone, reading out every detail of every stone. One of the last ones I come across today is actually the most important one for me personally, as it is that of my Dad's paternal grandparents, i.e. a direct Lambing ancestor (5). The stone itself is rather beautiful as it is completely covered in lichen, being so old, and I will probably leave it as it is and just tidy up the grass and weeds around the grave. However, that is a project for next year! We have another visitor in the graveyard - Dinu Hans, who had seen Tom and Marge looking at their old family houses in his street. He's come to see who we are and what we are doing, and we have a long chat about our families and life in the village as it used to be. His mother was German and his father Romanian, one of the several mixed marriages in the village. Mari's husband was also Romanian and her married name is Cojocaru. She has asked us to go to her house when we have finished, which we do, and she shows us around her lovely family home where she now lives alone, and invites us to be her guests for the rest of our stay. Her garden is immaculate and her small plot of land is full of crops. There is no mains water, but the drinking water from her well (41 metres deep) is delicious and we soon get used to using the outdoor privy - though a natural reflex makes you look for the flush button! She brings out the cakes and the schnapps (apricot brandy) and shows us the many beautiful hand-made dolls she and one of her sons have made over the years (6). We agree to spend the following two days in Uihei again and to stay at her house overnight, which thrills both her and us three. Then it's back to the Zefir with Michael, who is by now part of our team. We arrange for him and his girlfriend, Roxanna, to pick us up in the morning to do some shopping in Timisoara before we head back to Uihei. That evening, Tom, Marge and I go out for a meal in a nearby restaurant called the Piano Bar, which Tom noticed on his first wander around the streets. The restaurant is very modern and the meal is excellent, but we somehow take a wrong turning on our way back to the Zefir and get completely lost! However, the evening is fine and warm, the frogs are croaking, the dogs all barking, the crickets singing, and we aren't unduly worried until we realise that we have no idea where we are and we've been wandering around for probably the best part of an hour. All credit to Tom, he DOES actually try to ask someone where we are when we reach another small restaurant in the suburbs, but it is already closed, being past 11 p.m. Not many men would admit to having to ask the way, methinks! As luck would have it, I have my mobile phone with me, as well as the Zefir's phone number. We ring and Dora answers - lucky it is she who answers as some of the other people there don't have any English. After a quick explanation and a lot of laughter, we are told to stay where we are and she will come and find us. 

 

Saturday 22nd May - Michael and Roxanna pick us up around 10 a.m. and we spend a leisurely morning in Timisoara, which is a bustling town today (1, 2, 3). There are souvenirs to be bought, plants for Mari's garden (9), coffee for everyone, and Tom finds a music shop that sells violins and mandolins - and promptly buys one of each (4)! Just watch out for him busking in your local streets... when he's learned how to play the instruments! We DO pass a wonderful busker in town, whom I record and photograph, whilst being pestered by an unsavoury-looking group of gypsies. We then go on to the Adam Müller Guttenbrunn House, which is also very central, and are shown around this German meeting place and home for the elderly Germans who have no-one to look after them in this country. There is a wonderful museum in the building (5, 6, 7, 8), too, and we really need to spend more time here, but unfortunately we still have work to do back in Uihei. Michael and Roxanna drive us back to Mari's house in Uihei, where we drop Marge off before Tom and I return to Şandra to have a mooch around (10, 11) and to see Robi again, and then to walk the 2 miles back to Uihei - something I've always wanted to do again (12, 13, 15). We manage to recreate a photograph taken in 1970 of my Dad leaning against the Uihei milestone, but this time with myself and then with Tom in Dad's place (14). When we view the images later that day on Tom's laptop, we notice that the tree in the background on Dad's photo was a mere sapling and that now it is a fully-grown poplar tree. We have arranged for Michael to pick us all up again around 8 p.m. on the Sunday evening, as we want to attend the Catholic service before we leave the village for good - Father Bonaventura spends the whole of Sunday travelling to five or six different villages, conducting services in each village church, and Uihei is always the last one of the day, at 7 p.m. When Tom and I reach Mari's place after the wonderful walk from Şandra, we have something to eat and drink (16) and then carry on with the work at the cemetery, together with Marge. We are way-laid on the road back to Mari's that evening by a crowd of people (mainly men) watching a football match on TV at the local 'Magazin', which is actually one of Tom and Marge's ancestors' houses - they welcome us into the yard, where there are seats around the TV, and it seems Tom has bought them a round of drinks! That night we sleep in fresh cotton sheets and feather beds and awake to the sound and smell of Mari cooking eggs for breakfast. 

 

Sunday 23rd May - the day begins rather drizzly, but having had five or six days of hot sunshine, we can't complain. Mari insists on dressing us girls up in tights and warm clothing and sensible shoes before we go off to the cemetery again, and we manage to get a whole lot more recording done. Tom finishes photographing all the headstones and he and Marge go off to do other things whilst I stay on to finish my work (1). The weather has cleared by lunchtime, and I make another quick visit to Buyu to bring him some coffee and to say goodbye before we leave. Then it's back to Mari's place for refreshments, where Robi from Şandra has already appeared, and we spend a couple of hours chatting away, eating cakes and drinking schnapps and hearing some wonderful stories of 'the old days', including a hilarious one about my grandmother. As Robi put it, 'I don't know how your grandfather put up with her for so long!'  I think that's why Dad joined the army at such a tender age (17) - to get away from her! Towards late afternoon, we three go back to the cemetery for a final check of the headstones, and to see if we can lift some that had toppled over forwards. A crowd of children have followed us and are eager to help lift the stones and to fetch water from the pump in the cemetery to wash off the dirt so we can read the inscriptions (2). They soon get the hang of it and are bringing us bits of stones from all over the place! Walking back to Mari's (3) for a meal before church, the children are following us and still growing in number... and the sweetest thing is seeing many of them holding hands in a long chain. Mari has cooked a wonderful supper of chicken and mashed potato and horse radish salad, which is very welcome by now. When we get to the church, the service is already under way (4), but as it goes on until about a quarter past eight, we still have plenty to video and record. Father Bonaventura makes a special mention about us visitors from abroad who have come to look for their roots (this was in German), and although I have not been a Catholic since I was a young girl, I'm still glad I attended the service. Michael, as always, is waiting for us when we come out of church (5), and after a tearful farewell to Mari (6, 7), with a promise to return next year, we head back to the Zefir, laden with home-made gifts from Mari. Of course, we can't pass through Sandra without saying goodbye to Robi and his father. Robi hands me a bottle of his own home-made schnapps (plum brandy, this time - stronger than Mari's apricot brandy, apparently!). Upon closer inspection, there is more to the bottle than just schnapps... like maybe a bit of protein?! The rest of the evening is spent recuperating from the long, hard day (8) and I go straight to bed, vowing never again to eat so many cakes nor to drink so much schnapps! 

 

Monday 24th May - our final day. I feel distinctly unwell and just want to hang around the Zefir until it is time to leave in the afternoon. I can't remember what anyone else did, whether they utilised those last few hours in town maybe - but I certainly wasn't going anywhere! Jody, Sammy, Louise and I have all booked on the same plane leaving Timisoara for Vienna that afternoon, and the three of them (not me) are going on to the big Donauschwaben meeting in Ulm the following weekend. Tom and Marge's plane isn't due to leave until very early next morning, and after wondering where to stay for the night, they end up at Michael's parents' home! We all finally reach home with varying degrees of success - some have trouble with overweight baggage, someone else's baggage is left behind etc. etc. But all in all, the trip has been a huge success and not a minute was wasted. And I'm already making plans for a return trip same time next year... 

Diana. 

P.S. Some of the photos I took of the village can be viewed under the Photo gallery link.

 

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