Man from Banat

Chapter One The history of Mathias Bohr


Mathias Bohr Immigrant from Banat

During the government furlough, I started a project that I had wanted to begin for a long time. I have always known that my grandfather, Mathias Bohr, came from some place in central Europe, called Banat. I have also known that my grandfather was a German. But I did not know how the Germans got to Banat. Why did they leave Germany? The paragraphs that follow contain the information that I have compiled so far. If you find mistakes or facts that are different then you remember please let me know. If you have additional information, I would also like to hear about it. Please ask questions ! A newspaper interview with my grandfather quoted him as saying that the Germans had moved there about 200 years earlier after the Turks were forced out of Europe about 1760 - 1770. That would mean that the Germans had been in Banat for about 124 years when my grandfather was born in 1889 or about 6 or 7 generations. My mother remembers that he had told her that his ancestors had moved there from Ulm and that they had moved because of religious persecution. Mathias Bohr’s father was also named Mathias and his mother’s name was Anna Retzler. Mathias had a sister who was also named Anna. Great grandfather Bohr worked as a farm manager for a baron. In his later years he worked as a guard in a bank. He also was in the Army and fought against the Turks. Sister Anna came to America after Mathias, she settled in New York City. In the late 1920’s after her husband died she returned to Banat. Mathias Bohr came to America in 1908 when he was 18 years old. He went to school until he was 14 years old, then he apprenticed with a wagon maker to learn the trade of carriage painting. His father became convinced that the future of Banat was so uncertain that he encouraged both his children to immigrate to America. This turned out to be a very wise advice, the junior Mathias was always grateful his father had helped him to decide to immigrate, but he never got to see him again after he left. He could not find the money to travel to Banat. When he came to Cleveland he found a job painting carriages and later worked painting automobiles and trucks. Eventually he became a foreman of the painting department of American Coach and Body Company. He worked in this business until he retired at age 65. Mathias met his wife in Cleveland. They went to school and learned to read, write and speak English. At this time when a man became a citizen his wife automatically also became a citizen. Mathias was very active in the community. He was one of the founders and first president of the Banater Club. He was a sports enthusiast and played and managed the soccer team sponsored by the German Club. He was also very active in the formation of the automobile union and was blackballed at various auto companies because of his union activities. Banat is a region in southeastern Europe. It extends over an area that is present day western Romania, northeastern Serbia and southern Hungary. It is approximately 100 miles by 100 miles square. The name Banat is derived from the word ban, the local name for a provincial governor. Banat was an Ottoman province from 1552 to 1718, when it became part of Hapsburg Austria. It remained in the Austria-Hungarian Empire until the end of World War I (1914-1918). The Treaty of Trianon (1920) broke Banat up into parts of Romania, Yugoslavia and Hungary. Banat is bounded by the Danube river on the South, the Marosch River on the North, the Thiesse river on the West and by the Carpathian foothills on the East. From the swampy confluence of rivers in the south-west to the rolling hills in the north and east, Banat is part of the Hungarian Plain. Banat is relatively flat grassland. Roads stretch off to the horizon unadorned by trees or shrubs. Banat has a fairly uniform distribution of small villages with a few strategically located cities that were the site of ancient forts. In the summer a glimmering heat hovers over the land a natural greenhouse. The ground is deep layers of fine soil that forms into clouds of dust when disturbed. When it rains the dust is transformed into a dark pasty mud. In the Southwest the roads are on dikes which allows travel between cities and into the heartland fields of corn and wheat. The beauty of the land is in these fields of growing and ripening crops that from a bird's eye view appear to be a limitless vista of checkerboard patterns. The trill of larks and the croaking of frogs add natural songs to the pastoral pageantry. The villages themselves almost all have a very orderly core that is derived from central planning in Vienna. These were new towns two hundred years ago. The developments of daily life have disturbed the symmetry, but the order is in the people also. There is a spaciousness to the villages with a very regular array of streets and houses. They have large central plazas dominated by the church. The villages serve as marketplaces and as cultural centers. Many are modified baroque forms reflecting the styles of the Holy Roman empire of the 18th century. They have the idealistic nature of new towns or colonies that are created from a utopian view of a transplanted and perfected way of life. The order imprints the people with a spirit and philosophy of life that protects them from the darkside of history past and future. When some of the people leave the land of Banat they carry the village with them to new lands. They recreate the village in only slightly modified forms and they pass it on in their genes to future generations. Because it is a plain and because it is bordered by the primary river of central Europe, Banat has had the misfortune to be the easiest route of transfer and as a result it has been historically a cultural crossroads. It is accessible from the North through the Carpathian mountain passes and the Marosch valley. In the southeast corner the Danube passes through the Carpathian Mountains in a very tortuous pass that is known as the “Iron Gate”, a term more derived from hope than reality. From the earliest times before it was known as Banat this plain was known as the locale of long vanished people. Its key location between east and west has defined its destiny. Chaos flows around the mountains and overflows the rivers disrupting the pastoral life of the plain. The peace is temporal, chaos is eternal. The history of Banat is characterized by periods of peace from decades to centuries long sandwiched between very short eras of cataclysmic disruption. The history is very complex and what is described in the following paragraphs is a superficial summary that seeks to capture a sense of history but leaves out many details. The earliest unrecorded history is imagined to be a series of waves of nomadic tribes first settling and then being pushed off the plain by other nomadic tribes that were either greater in number or fearsome in battle. The Romans used Banat as a staging area to launch attacks against the Dacian Empire. They established a number of city-forts such as Temesvar in central Banat. The Romans were later forced to leave by an influx of Germanic tribes, who themselves were never able to establish permanent residence. In 100 AD the Hungarian king St. Stephen established dominion over Banat making it part of the Hungarian monarchy. However, after approximately two hundred years of relative peace Banat was overrun by Ghengis Kahn and towns and villages were turned into rubble and ashes. The region barely had time to recover before it came under the threat of the expanding Ottoman Empire. The rest of Europe thought of Banat as the defensive wall of Christianity against the Turks. However in 1526 it fell to the Turks in the battle of Mohacs and remained under Turkish control until freed by the campaigns of Prince Eugene of Savoy in 1718. The rebuilding of the land was entrusted to the Imperial General Count Claudius Foorimund Mercy. Mercy was the executor of a plan developed by Prince Eugene to transport German Catholics into the invasion corridors and establish Banat as a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Mercy oversaw the building of a set of fortresses at key points in Banat and between 1722 and 1726, 15,000 settlers were transplanted into 46 German villages. People choose to immigrate because of the predatory wars with the French and because of the extreme taxes required to support the frivolities an extravagances of their own nobility. In addition very powerful advertisements exaggerated the benefits of the move, but most certainly the strongest incentive was the promise of a free homestead, free passage and three years free of all taxes and assessments. In the next decade the Germans settlers established a thriving civilization. Unfortunately in 1738 the Turks returned setting off another siege of terror. The non-German population join in the pillaging the German towns along the Danube. Also at this same time there was an episode of the plague that reaped its own terrible devastation. It took another decade to reestablish security and initiate a second migration. In a colonization decree Maria Theresa invited commissioned and non-commissioned soldiers to settle in Banat. It is in this period between 1763 and 1770 that is the most likely time for the Bohrs to have immigrated to Banat. Verbal history recounts that they came from Ulm boarding barges called “Ulmer Schachtels” and that they floated down the Danube. The Thesesian settlement was successful in establishing a life style for the next hundred and twenty-five years. Although the Germans drained the swamps and built villages they were afflicted with sever epidemics of swamp fever and cholera. And in 1788 the Turks returned and destroyed over 100 villages. In 1777 the total population was 320,000 of which 181,000 were Romanians, 78,000 were Serbians and 43,000 were Germans -- an ethnic mixture. It was the Austria-Hungarian Empire that held things together, but in the next several decades the Empire turned more responsibility over to local kingdoms. In the case of Banat this meant an increasing influence and friction with the Hungarian kingdom. There was a Magyarization which tried to replace German city and region names with Hungarian names. The kingdom also tried to surpress the German language and replace it with Hungarian. The Germans struggled against Magyarization actually petitioning the empire to have their own German Count assigned and to be under the direct protection of the empire rather that the Hungarians. This was extreme behavior for the Germans because their natural tendency was not to be involved in politics but to focus on the day to day business of farming and the daily life of their village communities. The best characterization of the prevailing influence of the empire is captured in the story Nervous Splendor, which interestingly takes place in Vienna the year before the birth of Mathias Bohr which also was the birth place and time of Adolph Hitler. Mathias Bohr wisely left Europe before Adolph Hitler caused it to be torn apart. Back in Banat imagine what happened during and following two world wars. Imagine how the Germans were treated by the indigenous people and by the Russians.


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