If you’re interested, here is a copy of the original prologue. It’s long for a prologue and ultimately, it had to be cut. But I didn’t know that when I first wrote it, and researching and writing it were critical for me in order to understand Adam’s family of origin. Some elements of it are woven into the early chapters of the story, but much of the detail was not needed on the page as it turned out. It was only needed in my mind, to help me build the characters and the stories found on the pages of The Upside of Hunger. You might find it boring, and that’s why it hit the cutting room floor, but then again, you might find the historical backstory interesting. In any case, here it is… just remember that it was still in draft when it was cut.
Original Prologue of The Upside of Hunger (cut in the final draft of the book)
Life in Germany in the early 1700s was harsh. That is to say, it was harsh for those who didn’t own land. Some people owned a lot of land and for them, life wasn’t very harsh at all. Wealthy estate owners, many of them nobles, others clergymen, held well over half of the German population in a state of servitude. Like their compatriots, peasants from around Gerolzhofen in the Upper Franconia region of Germany laboured on the farms of the estate owners in exchange for a rudimentary hut to shelter their families, and the use of a bit of land to grow food and perhaps keep an animal or two. Those with their own milk, eggs, or even meat were fortunate. The most certain thing, the thing that German peasants could count on in the early 1700s, was hunger. Many other things were uncertain – whether the landlord would allow them to stay on the land for another year, and how much the Church would demand in taxes, for example. Working your own little bit of land brought no relief in the amount of work required on the landlord’s estate, and rarely was the labour of the head of the household adequate to meet the landlord’s requirements. Thus, women worked at exhausting manual labour alongside their husbands for the survival of their family. Once a child reached six or eight years of age, big enough to work and expected to do so, he or she would become a herdsman in the landlord’s fields or a servant, cooking and cleaning for the landlord’s family.
The social and religious aspects of peasant life were no more heartening, the bondage of serfdom encompassing these as well. Marrying required a landlord’s permission. The Church held the authority over who was permitted to pursue a trade. And, regardless, labourers didn’t have the discretion to leave the “employ” of a feudal master – the landlord’s permission was required and if granted, a monetary fee was required to secure the release.
Living in poverty and denied the freedom to even make basic choices about their own lives, the downtrodden Franconian serfs saw no reason to expect a different future within Germany. But neither was there anyplace else for a family to go.
In the southeast part of the Carpathian Basin lies The Great Plain. Scientists say this Great Plain, whose climate is stabilized by its surrounding mountains, has been populated for 2 thousands of years. For millennia, plentiful rivers and lakes distributed each season’s melting snow and ice from the mountains, providing abundant moisture on which dense vegetation thrived. The vegetation provided food for a large variety of animals, and the lakes and waterways were rich in all sorts of fish. Certainly, ancient man would have enjoyed the bounty of the Great Plain.
In the 4th century, the region was conquered and inhabited by the Huns, but they were not the first or the last to desire control over this bountiful land, and for centuries, the warring continued, each victor enjoying the bounty of the region for a time, but none holding the area for long, until the Magyars. These forebears of today’s Hungarians first inhabited the Carpathian Basin in the late 9th century AD. Surrounded by rich soil and a network of rivers, the Magyars developed a thriving farming culture.
Although a blessing, the hospitable environment continued to bring the threat of attack by those who coveted the fertile land. Attacked by the nomadic Mongols in the 13th century, the Magyars held out through a long resistance and maintained control of their land. But by the time the enemy withdrew, the countryside had been destroyed and up to 50% of the population slaughtered. Only the forts and fortified cities had survived, unable to be breached by the light cavalry style of warfare practiced by the invaders. Taking this lesson to heart, the Magyars set to strengthening their defenses, building networks of forts and castles throughout the country.
Villages soon grew up within and around these new fortifications. One of these fortifications was called Bekes, Hungarian for “peaceful.” Well supplied with water and arable land, the population of Bekes grew and prospered, becoming the county seat for the surrounding area, which came to be known as Bekes County. The defense strategy based on the system of stone castles and forts was successful, and for another two centuries, the attacks of Mongols and other would-be usurpers were successfully repelled.
The development of the defense system had come at a cost, however. Landowners and lords who had invested heavily in the rebuilding were losing patience with the monarchy, desiring greater autonomy. Royal power weakened, and over time the organized system of defense deteriorated. Hungary was once again susceptible to attack.
In the mid-16th century the peace of Bekes County was shattered by Turkish armies intent on expanding the Ottoman Empire. The Turks were successful in their quest, massacring the Hungarian people and destroying everything in their path. During the ensuing 150-year 3 occupation, the Turks’ physical devastation of the land was in keeping with their attitude towards the Magyars over which they ruled. Before the occupation, the fertile lands of The Great Plain were thickly studded with medieval villages, each surrounded by forests, ponds, and rich fields, with white Roman or Gothic spires of churches peeping out of their refreshingly green surroundings. The Turkish occupation changed everything. Forests were cut down or burned and agricultural land destroyed, as the Ottomans slashed their way through Hungary using the country’s resources recklessly, heedless of the consequence of their methods. Filled with the decaying debris of destruction, the ponds became swamps emitting noxious vapours. With no forests or lush vegetation to absorb the water, the rivers spread unrestrained over the Plain. The flooding blended together riverbeds, fields, and roads. Vast swamps appeared, covered in thick brush. The peaceful villages disappeared and the Plain became a scene of desolation. As in much of the country, the population of Bekes County was decimated by wide-spread massacre, enslavement of men, women, and children alike, and fleeing of its people during the Ottoman rule.
Liberation from the Turks by the Habsburgs in the late 1600’s was a mighty victory for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the end of the Ottoman occupation. But a daunting rebuilding process would be required if The Great Plain was ever to return to its former bounty.
Imperial Supply Commissioner Johann Georg Harrucher was born in Austria in 1664, the son of a weaver. Hard working and loyal, he had made a successful military career out of supporting the Habsburgs. On his retirement from active duty in 1719, Harrucher requested a reward for his services, expressing a desire to settle in the recently reconquered Kingdom of Hungary. Granted title to most of Bekes County in payment for his work, Harrucher became the Baron of large tracts of desolate land and deserted medieval townships. His land would only gain value if it was productive. He needed to develop farmland and to do that, he needed people.
Quickly realizing that the depleted Hungarian population was inadequate to support his goals, Harrucher sought the blessing of the Habsburgs to recruit settlers from outside Hungary. The opportunity to strengthen their hold on their new conquest, and to further the Roman Catholic religion in Eastern Europe was not lost on the Habsburg Emperor, and 4 permission was eagerly granted, on the condition that the settlement program be limited to faithful Roman Catholics. Harrucher immediately began campaigning the peasants of the Franconian region to populate his realm.
Elek was one of the next names on Harrucher’s list of villages to repopulate. A ruined ghost town that had flourished in the Middle Ages, it would take hard work to re-build Elek. The new Baron directed his men to take action. The next group of settlers was to come from Gerolzhofen.
They’d never owned anything before, truly owned, and had certainly never been given the opportunity to decide their own future, so it was hard for the peasants to understand the speeches that Baron Harrucher’s men made at the church and in the town square. They spoke of title to farm land, homesites in exchange for working the land, sharing the proceeds for an agreed number of years, and tax exemptions. They also spoke of building materials, livestock, and farming supplies being available at subsidized prices to assist settlers in their first season. The peasants shook their heads, not comprehending or perhaps not believing the offer. Harrucher’s men patiently re-explained the program and answered the simple questions they posed. Many walked out of the meetings, wary and even angry about the foolish talk. Others got excited. But even if it was real, the offer of liberation from serfdom meant leaving the motherland. Uprooting their families, leaving their neighbours, and traveling to a strange land where the Turks had recently reigned without mercy for all of recent history. Others had left for less attractive offers though, fighting the fights between other countries, putting their lives on the line every day to escape starvation.
In the weeks and months following the talks by Harrucher’s men, the most visionary or perhaps the most daring peasants re-hashed the offer in scraps of conversation here and there in the fields and after church on Sundays. One by one, decisions were made to pursue the Hungarian Baron’s offer until enough immigrants had been identified and a date was set. The challenge now was to earn and save enough guilders to pay the nobles to be released from their bondage before the departure date, plus enough to establish themselves on arrival in the promise land.
The families prepared carefully for their journey into the unknown. There was a limit to how much they could take, but it meant little in reality. Most of the families could easily fit their meagre belongings into the wagon space provided. Fathers and mothers did their best to plan what their family would need to survive the journey and provide for themselves in a foreign land with no one to go to for help.
The market square of Gerolzhofen filled up early on the morning of May 20, 1724 as people jostled for space at the farewell ceremony organized to send off the 380 men, women, and children who were packed and ready to depart. The 66 immigrants from Gerolzhofen itself, and the remaining 314 from the surrounding parts of Franconia were bound by a nervous anticipation of a new life as free settlers in the decimated Kingdom of Hungary.
The procession of horse-drawn wagons full of tools and supplies pulled out of the square, followed by the few oxen the immigrants owned. The first leg of the trek would take them to Bamburg, some 50 kilometres east, and then on to Regensburg where they would load their wagons and animals onto crude barges and float some 700 kilometres downstream, through Austria, to Budapest and beyond. After disembarking from the barges, the overland journey would resume for another 250 kilometres, crossing the Tisza River and continuing on to Gyula at the heart of Baron Harrucher’s Bekes County estates. At Gyula, the group would be separated. Based on the Baron’s orders, some of them would travel the short distance to Elek and begin to build their new lives over top of the ruins of the Elek’ers who had come before. The rest would continue south and east to reach their assigned land.
Shock turned into bitter disappointment as the settlers surveyed their new home. A permanent change in the ecosystem had resulted from the general destruction of the Ottoman occupation. The rivers flowing from the Carpathian Mountains brought frequent flooding to the naked land, without adequate foliage to absorb it. Vapors from the large swamps, the unbearable heat of the days and cold of the nights, the insatiable mosquitos, expanses of still water where disease bred, and scarcity of good drinking water were a constant threat to the health of the settlers. Morbus Hungaricus, the medical name given to the most common illness, a kind of typhoid fever, raged along with malaria and dysentery.
Despite the inhospitable conditions, the settlers toiled tirelessly, fending off raids and defending themselves against the elements. Slowly, functioning communities began to take shape.
The progress made through this back-breaking effort, however, was erased in a matter of months by another Turkish invasion in 1738. Burning and looting of the new settlements in the southern part of the Banat, a few hundred kilometers south of Elek, reduced a generation of hard work to rubble. While the violence didn’t reach as far north as Elek, the immediate after affect did. The plague that broke out killed some 25,000 of the 80,000 German settlers in the Kingdom of Hungary before it was contained in late 1739. One hundred and forty-eight new Elek’ers fell prey to the disease. Some of those who survived the plague subsequently starved in the famine that resulted from that most recent decimation of the area.
But Harrucher and his family were determined. For the next several years, Harrucher’s son, Franz, was able to entice additional groups of German settlers to Elek, a sure sign that life had not improved back home in the motherland. The emigrants maintained their conviction that they had made the right choice.
Still seeking escape from poverty in Germany, a newlywed couple named Gottfried and Ursula (Heffner) Baumann joined one of Harrucher’s latter campaigns. It was early in the season when the young couple arrived in Elek after journeying from Bergtheim, just a few kilometers west of Gerolzhofen, on a journey much like that of the original pioneers a few decades earlier. They knew that their critical tasks before winter were to construct a shelter and establish adequate food stores. Quickly building a crude mud hut in the likeness of those of their neighbours, Gottfried and Ursula turned to the foraging and preservation of food, readying themselves for their first winter in this strange land.
As that season and the next passed, the Baumanns became more confident that they could survive. The coming years saw three sons born to Gottfried and Ursula – Gregorius in 1775, Josephum in 1777, and Franciscum in 1779 – and the genesis of a long line of Germanic Hungarian Baumanns.
The German farmers had great knowledge and skills in animal husbandry and agriculture, 7 and for generations had used them to the benefit of their noble landlords in Germany. Now they worked for much greater reward, applying their knowledge and skills and innovating where needed to rebuild for their own benefit what the Turks had repeatedly destroyed. As time passed, dams were built and dikes constructed to better control the river system across The Great Plain and flooding became less of a constant threat. The growing system of drainage ditches in and around Elek rendered more land dry enough to plant each season and yields gradually grew. Residents came to know more about their new land with the passing of time and handed that knowledge down to each new generation.
As time passed, the population of Elek recovered and began to grow, reaching 1,200 by 1802, a trajectory that would continue for a century and a half until the just after the second world war and the deportation of 1946. Although the community remained predominantly German, by the early 1800s Elek included a smattering of Hungarians and Romanians, and a community of Gypsies had been established on the south edge of town beside the sand pit, where they scratched out a living using their wagons to haul sand for construction. The Catholic tradition of large families continued in Elek as it had back in Germany, and by 1890 the flourishing village was home to 5,700 residents.
No longer living under the oppression of serfdom, people prospered or struggled according to their individual nature. The population was soon comprised of landowners in their own right whose families had worked diligently to purchase land and make it productive, tradesmen who had developed successful businesses, subsistence farmers, and variations in between. Churches and schools had been built, and municipal order had been established. The dirt streets were wide and lined with acacia trees and grassy banks where chickens and geese could be let out to scratch, and sheep or goats could be tethered to feed. A shared pasture had been established for communal grazing of cattle.
Drinking water, however, remained a problem. Water itself was plentiful and the naturally high water table of the area fed the wells that were dug as each new home was staked out and built. But the water had never recovered from the layers of rotting sediment left by the destruction of the Turkish occupation. The taste and smell made drinking it most unpleasant, and people suspected that it contributed to long term illness. Capturing rain and snow provided some water, but not enough for cooking, drinking, and washing. Until a more plentiful source could found, no amount of scrubbing could remove the dull brown stain from their clothing, and clean 8 drinking water was in constant demand. Residents dreamed of digging a well deep enough to get below the layers of toxic sediment in hopes that clean water existed there, but for many years, efforts with existing tools and methods failed. More than a century and a half after arriving, the pioneers of the new Elek finally tapped into cleaner groundwater in 1894. Their persistent attempts had reached a deep source of clean water which had enough positive pressure to push near enough to the surface that a system of pulleys and buckets could be set up for communal use. The town well became a new meeting place, as women and children visited it regularly to replenish their household water barrels.
The settlers from Upper Franconia had packed up their lives, left their homes, and traveled over 1,100 unknown kilometres to reach Elek. Since that courageous trek, however, the they hadn’t ventured far. Traveling more than a few kilometers from the village, other than to reach outlying fields or visit relatives in surrounding villages, was rare. It was as if the great trek from Germany had created in them an innate need to stay close to their home to avoid ever feeling that detached again. Of course, long distance travel and communication remained limited the world over in those years, but in Elek and many other German Hungarian communities, the strangeness of a foreign country began not when you reached a border but when you ventured just outside of town. Nostalgia for the motherland remained strong, and people held fast to the ways of life which linked them with their past. Even though this gave them comfort, the world it created was small.
In the late 1860’s a son was born to an unwed female descendant of Gottfried and Ursula Baumann. She called him Florian and gave him the Baumann family name. Florian had an adventurous spirit not common in these German Hungarian communities. His talent for music resulted in an invitation to travel to the United States with a youth brass band in 1882. Florian was amazed at how different life was outside Elek. After his return, he apprenticed as a carpenter and began his own family but sadly, was left with a baby daughter when his wife passed away. Veronica, the unmarried daughter of a family known to his parents, who willing to take on another woman’s child to raise became his second wife.
As the years went by, Florian tried to explain the things he’d seen on his big trip. Farmers in other parts of Europe and in America had wheeled devices that they filled with corn seed and as they pulled them across the field with a horse, the device dropped seeds at perfect intervals. They had teams of donkeys that pulled machines which could cut a swathe almost two fathoms wide. Some of the hotels and boarding houses they’d stayed in had water piped into a water closet on each floor for washing, and indoor privies. But the citizens of Elek were happy with manual planting and harvesting using hoes and scythes. No one had any interest in Florian’s fantastic tales, and over time he spoke of them less and less.
Florian was a good provider, and happily maintained their family home at the edge of town next to the vineyards, while Veronica cared for their eleven children, including a son called George. As their children grew, Florian’s ready smile and the twinkle in his eye remained. Veronica, however, seemingly bitter about her lot in life, did not exude the same sense of contentment, and by the time her child rearing work was done and she might have been enjoying her grandchildren, had adopted a permanently ill-tempered outlook.
Johann Bambach was born in 1887, also to descendants of German immigrants who had arrived the previous century. When he was big enough to work, his father started taking him along to the meeting place where the farmers came to pick up day labourers each morning. Neither then, nor throughout his life did Johann develop a taste for work. But with the basic skills learned alongside his father, he was able to get steady employment for a few months at a time on local farms or as a general labourer on building projects.
Around the age of twenty, Johann married Maria, a local girl of a similar age, and settled into a “salash,” a sharecropping position where they could live in a hut out on one of the big farms outside of Elek and tend the animals and crops for the landlord, who lived in town with his family. For many years they remained at the salash, and in those years, Maria bore three girls, the oldest of which she called Anna, and two sons.
As his children became old enough to work, Johann hired them out as house servants and farm labourers. Their wages were meager, but enough to feed the family, and Johann was free to give up his sharecropping work. Soon he moved the family into town and took on the leisurely 10 job of town cow herder, guiding the cows of the townspeople to the communal pasture each morning, keeping an eye on them through the day as they ate their fill, and then following them back through the streets as they headed for home, each cow stopping at its own gate, waiting patiently to be let in for the night.
In the late 1800’s, Hungary underwent a period of rapid Magyarization, during which it attempted to assimilate all of its minorities. One of the outcomes was that schools were required to teach only in the Hungarian language. Loyalty to Hungary, which had never been strong in the German communities, was further weakened, resulting in multiple unsuccessful attempts to establish a “new Germany,” called the Republic of Banatia, in the years following WWI. The Germanic communities maintained their nostalgic loyalty to the motherland, and at home they continued to speak the German they had brought to Hungary in the 1700s.
In other parts of Europe and on other continents, modernization was in full swing. Systems to deliver natural gas, running water and sewage disposal, and electricity to homes were rapidly become common. Homes and cities were being transformed overnight by these amenities and the advent of related mechanization such as vacuum cleaners and electric washing machines. Beyond the German settlements such as Elek, comfort was rapidly becoming available and affordable to all, and industrialization was changing the way the world worked. Within the Germanic communities such as Elek, however, tradition remained strong and change was slow to come.
(Original Prologue Ends)
Hi Roxi – I enjoyed reading the Prologue. Well laid out as to the history during that time period.
Hi Joanne. Sorry for late reply. Glad you enjoyed this piece. I’ve wondered if I should have included it in the published book. Maybe next edition. Warm regards, Roxi.
Most interesting read. Thank you for posting.
My in-laws ancestors migrated in the 1700s from Germany to the Austria- Hungary Empire region. After the Second World War and the formation of Yugoslavia under Tito they were put in camps. In 1946 they escaped into Hungary and then put in refugee camps in Austria. In 1953 they came to Edmonton Alberta. My husband was 13 at the hat time.
I look forward to reading your book “ The Upside of Hunger”
I’m a defendant of Donau Schwabian people. My family of ethnic Germans lived in Hodschag (now Odžaci). I traced my family tree back to Welchensteinach Germany. Thanks got sharing.
Hi Joseph. Sorry for late reply. I’d never heard of the Danube Schwabs before meeting Adam and doing the research for The Upside of Hunger. I’m sure the small part I learned is a very small tip of the iceberg. Very, very interesting history. How difficult was the tracing of your family tree?
So glad to find this! I’m halfway through The Upside Of Hunger and bursting with questions. After checking various online sites, this prologue was a perfect find to put things in perspective. Interesting for me on another note, I have recently discovered that German immigrants in my own past settled in Pennsylvania in 1724 – part of that same exodus I imagine. Really enjoying the book and all the history in it!
I’m so pleased to hear that you’re enjoying The a Upside of Hunger, and that the extended prologue is of interest. I wrote it for the book obviously, but it was cut by my editor. For me it was such important history, understanding how the German communities came to exist in Hungary. And love the historical connection with your ancestors! Feel free to send more questions if you have any and I’ll be happy to try to answer them. Cheers! Roxi