FAITH OF OUR FATHERS: ETHOS AND POPULAR RELIGIOUS PRACTICES AMONG THE GERMAN CATHOLICS OF BUKOVINA IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY
Dr. Sophie A. Welisch
Published in the
Journal of the American Historical Society of Germans From
Posted on the World-Wide Web by the Bukovina Society of the Americas,
There are many lands in Central and Eastern Europe where frontiers in this century have expanded and contracted in response to the vagaries of politics and the fortunes of war. One such territory nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains is Bukovina, gateway to the Balkans, which once linked the Habsburg provinces of Galicia and Transylvania. Without moving from his native village, a person born in northern Bukovina before the First World War would have changed his state allegiance three times by 1940. Moreover, a visitor to Bukovina today would hardly suspect that this easternmost crown land of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had once sustained a viable German minority of some 75,000 and that German had been its official language.
While under Austrian administration there existed in Bukovina a multinational, multireligious symbiosis that has often been described as a model for a united Europe. Romanians, Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, Armenians, Germans, and Gypsies were only several of the dozen or so ethnic groups which shared a territory of 10,456 square kilometers -- smaller than the state of Connecticut -- in which national cooperation and religious toleration had become a way of life. There existed no constitutional separation of church and state. The Greek Orthodox Church, to which the overwhelming majority of the Romanians and Ukrainians belonged, was financed by the Religious Foundation established under Joseph II from the amalgamated possessions of the Romanian monasteries shortly after Austria's annexation of Bukovina in 1775. Based on the Concordat of 1855, the state subsidized the Roman Catholic clergy, sponsored religious and moral education in the public schools, and patterned civil law on Christian principles.
At the turn of the century, Bukovina's Roman Catholic community -- composed largely of Germans with a sprinkling of Poles, Slovaks, and Hungarians -- represented scarcely 10 percent of a total population of a little under 800,000. Some Catholics could be found in virtually all areas with numbers highest in villages settled by German Bohemians (today called Sudeten Germans) in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Originating mainly from the Bohemian Forest (now under Czechoslovak administration), German Bohemians founded some dozen villages in Bukovina including Althütte (1793), Karlsberg (1797), Fürstenthal (1803), Neuhütte (1815), Bori and Lichtenberg (both 1835), Schwarzthal and Buchenhain -- also known as Deutsch-Pojana Mikuli -- (both 1838), Glitt (1843), and Augustendorf (1850). Some established themselves in already-existing, multi-national villages or later took up residence in these when faced with overpopulation in their original settlements. The Habsburg government actively promoted colonization by skilled German farmers and artisans from other provinces of the Empire in an attempt to hasten Bukovina's economic development. Continuing their eastward migration well into the nineteenth century, German Bohemians eventually became the most numerous of the crownland's German groups which also included the predominantly Protestant "Swabians" of southwest Germany and the Zipsers of Spis in today's Slovakia, one-third of whom were Catholic. Despite their small number within the total population, the colonists were able to retain their German ethnic and cultural identity as well as the religious practices of their Catholic faith.
As a result of the upheavals of the Second World War, the Bukovina Germans, both Protestant and Catholic, are now widely scattered; fewer than 2000 live in their homeland today. Most have relocated to the German Federal Republic, the German Democratic Republic, and Austria with others immigrating to the New World and Australia.
In an effort to recapture the ethos and religiosity which once characterized this remote province, the author interviewed numerous Bukovina Catholics who came to the United States as adults between 1920 and 1957. Most were of German-Bohemian descent, whose forebears had settled in the villages of Bori, Gurahumora, and Paltinossa in the first third of the nineteenth century. One interviewee had a cousin who, as an ordained priest, had been active in the religious life of Czernowitz, Bukovina's capital city.
Several publications also yielded valuable insights, in particular Alfred Karasek and Josef Lanz's Das deutsche Volksschauspiel in der Bukowina (German Popular Theater in Bukovina ); Raimund Friedrich Kaindl's Die Deutschen in Galizien und in der Bukowina (The Germans in Galicia and in Bukovina ); Otto Weber's "Die deutsche Kirche im Buchenland: Die katholische Kirche" (The German Church in Bukovina: The Catholic Church), in Erwin Massier, Josef Talsky, and B. C. Grigorowicz (eds.), Bukowina: Heimat von Gestern (Bukovina: Yesterday's Homeland [19561), pp. 168-170; and Edmund Neumann's "Das deutsche Volksschauspiel im Buchenland" (German Popular Theater in Bukovina) in Kaindl Archiv: Mitteilungen der Raimund Friedrich Kaindl Gesellschaft (Kaindl Archives: Proceedings of the Raimund Friedrich Kaindl Society ), pp. 15-18. Articles in Der Südostdeutsche, a newspaper published monthly in Munich by the Landsmannschaft der Buchenlanddeutschen (Association of Bukovina Germans) also proved helpful.
Dispersed in small, relatively self-sufficient agricultural villages ranging from several hundred to several thousand, Bukovina's inhabitants were socialized by two institutions: the extended family and the Church. On Sundays no farmer could be seen doing any work other than attending to his animals, while his wife had so arranged her schedule that all basic household chores had been completed the previous day. Taking literally the Lord's commandment, "Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day," they retained Sunday as a day of worship and family gatherings. After church services the family usually spent the afternoon with grandmother, the transmitter of oral tradition and the provider of such delicacies as Strudel, Kugelhupf, and Palatschinken. A generation gap was unheard of, as old and young lived, worked, and worshipped side by side.
A simple, agrarian folk living close to nature and barely literate, the people of Bukovina readily accepted the concept of supernatural intervention in the affairs of men. Their belief in the power, mercy, and chastisement of God was never far from mind and was often reflected in speech. When slandering the dead, they might balance it with, "Gott schenke ihm die ewige Ruhe" (God grant him eternal peace) or "Gott schenke ihm den Himmel" (God grant him heaven); yet when defaming the living, it became "Der Teufel schaut ihm aus den Augen" (the devil looks out of his eyes). References to hell were uncommon, but its prince was readily invoked. To convince another of the veracity of his statements, a Bukoviner might add "...so wahr Gott lebt" (as surely as there is a God) or "...Gott soll mich strafen" (may God punish me).
The everyday salutation, "Grüss Gott!" (may God greet you), changed during Easter week to "Christ ist erstanden" (Christ has risen), countered by "Wahrlich ist er erstanden" (truly He has risen). These Easter greetings were common among both Catholic and Orthodox Slavs. Their use by the Germans attests to the widespread cross-cultural influences pervading the social structure of Bukovina. Moreover, in that the Catholic clergy consisted mainly of Poles, many of whom had received their theological training in the University of Lemberg (Lvov) in neighboring Galicia, Polish influence on Church customs and traditions remained strong. Reinforcing the Polish connection was Bukovina's incorporation into the archdiocese of Lemberg from 1786 until the end of the Habsburg period.
The cross, the Christian symbol of suffering and salvation, was popularly used as an expression of faith. People made the sign of the cross when passing or entering a church, facing imminent danger, or upon hearing bad news. Farmers signed themselves before beginning work in the fields in the morning and again when leaving the fields after the completion of their day's tasks. Bertha Hartl of Gurahumora recounted that each year after his spring planting, her father crossed himself and prayed: "I have done my work, O Lord; now I beseech you to do yours." When a funeral cortege passed by, Christians of all denominations paused, made the sign of the cross, and waited respectfully until it was out of sight. The Jews among them stood with hat in hand.
Before cutting a piece of bread from a new loaf, Susanna Loy of Paltinossa traced the cross on its underside. Bread, as the staff of life and the only food mentioned in the Lord's Prayer, had special significance, as did salt. The ritualistic use of bread and salt in welcoming lay and ecclesiastical dignitaries passed into German usage from Slavic custom. When a bridal couple crossed the threshold of the bride's home after a wedding ceremony, her parents offered them bread and salt, symbolizing longevity, prosperity, and fecundity.
On solemn occasions people swore an oath by lighted candle and crucifix, rather than on a Bible, which few possessed. The villagers considered such an oath as binding and sacrosanct, since this was a promise to God. The author is familiar with one instance when, as witnessed by family and friends, a young man from Bori took an oath of eternal fidelity with his fiancée before leaving for America in 1920. However, soon after his arrival in New York, he married another. As late as 1987 his Landsleute (compatriots) from Bori and their descendants into the second and third generation still spoke of I. S. as the rogue who broke his pledged troth. To compensate for his transgression, I. S. sent his former betrothed gifts of money for the four years she had lost in keeping company with him. But this did little to raise his esteem in the eyes of his coreligionists. Oath taking was a serious matter, and a man was as good as his word. Bordering on functional illiteracy, Bukovina's society relied more on the oral than on the written word.
It is safe to speculate that no house was without a crucifix and many had a Herrgottsecke, viz., a religious corner in which they placed relics and candles, as well as pictures and statues of favorite saints. Crucifixes, usually of wood, dotted the countryside everywhere. Built by the villagers in fields, on the roadside, or in front of their homes, these served as wayside chapels where the passing visitor could pause and reflect on the deeper meaning of life or seek comfort for his mundane problems. On days of atonement and prayer (Buss- und Bettage) between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost, the parish priest led processions to these sites where in song and prayer the faithful sought God's blessings for a fruitful harvest. The colonists of Bori erected a crucifix on the outskirts of their village where each evening during the Marian months of May, and October they recited the rosary in group services. Not having a church of their own, they attended mass in neighboring Gurahumora, the poorer parishioners carrying their Holzpantoffel (wooden shoes) to and from church to prevent wear and tear on their footgear.
A frequent and familiar sound across the length and breadth of the land was the pealing of church bells. The pervasive quiet of a pre-industrial society, undisturbed by the mechanical or electronic sounds of radios, automobiles, trains, or factory whistles, was broken only by the ringing of bells. They tolled three times daily: at 6:00 a.m., at noon, and at 6:00 p.m., alerting all to the time of day. Upon hearing the bells, the people paused momentarily, made the sign of the cross, and then resumed their activities. Those familiar with The Angelus by the nineteenth-century French genre and landscape painter Jean François Millet, will undoubtedly be able to capture the essence of this experience. In the event that a parishioner had died, the bells began again to toll after a short pause: small ones with high-pitched tones for children; large ones with low tones for adults.
Bells served other purposes as well. With the approach of bad weather, especially a hailstorm, they pealed vigorously in an attempt to set vibrations of air currents into motion to dissipate the cloud formations. In addition, bells also announced events of national significance such as the birth of a royal heir, the death of the sovereign, the threat of invasion, an order for general mobilization, a declaration of war, or the signing of an armistice. At such times the bells of the churches of all denominations rang out simultaneously. The town crier then began the roll of the drum, and after the people had gathered in the town square, he announced the news. Few Eastern-European immigrants, although beset on every side by the din of America's cities, have failed to miss the familiar sound of bells, once an integral part of their daily life. "How can a nation so rich in material goods," one interviewee exclaimed, "not have bells for its churches!"
To its followers, the Church symoblized order and security. The parish priest served as confessor, consultant, teacher, psychologist, and friend. With a level of education far above that of his congregation, his opinion was taken as authority and his decisions seldom questioned. Families looked with pride at one of their own who entered the clergy. Children, seeing a priest, greeted him respectfully and stopped their games until he had passed lest they disturb him with their prattle.
From cradle to grave the church, by its religious traditions and social activities, shaped the values, manners, and morals of its adherents. Accompanying an individual's passage from birth, through adolescence, maturity, and finally death, it dispensed the sacraments of baptism, Holy Communion, confirmation, marriage, and last rites (Extreme Unction). With its festivals, art, music, and drama, the Church offered the only cultural life available to many of its followers, much as it had in the Middle Ages.
Holidays centered on religious activities. Among the most popular of
these were pilgrimages to shrines and churches on the anniversary
of their consecration (Kirchweih). The Church of Assumption
in Kaczyka in southern Bukovina was perhaps the most well known of these
pilgrimage sites. According to Otto Weber, a Catholic priest in Bukovina
before the Second World War, thousands from neighboring villages
participated in the Kaczyka Kirchweih on August 15, the Feast of
the Assumption, which drew followers of all denominations. As in the
days of old, the penitents marched barefooted to their destination,
singing and praying as they went. But, as we learn from Chaucer's
Canterbury Tales, a pilgrimage was not all solemnity; nor was it intended
to be. The pilgrims also used the occasion as a social outlet to escape
the monotony of village life.
[Photo unavailable] Polish Marian art typically depicts the regal, i.e. crowned Madonna,
rather than the veiled Madonna of Byzantine and Italian paintings.
This picture has been in the possession of the author's family since
the early twentieth century.
Polish Marian art typically depicts the regal, i.e. crowned Madonna, rather than the veiled Madonna of Byzantine and Italian paintings.
This picture has been in the possession of the author's family since the early twentieth century.
Another social diversion under a religious rubric falls into the category of the dramatic arts. Since professional theatrical groups seldom if ever performed in Bukovina's villages, their inhabitants relied on their own dramatic creativity. In Das deutsche Volksschauspiel in der Bukowina, Alfred Karasek and Josef Lanz describe ten different plays and their variations, some of which had been introduced by the Protestant Zipsers of Jakobeny and Eisenau but soon became the cultural heritage of Catholics and Protestants alike. Performed in the open streets, in churches, auditoriums, public halls, or from house to house, these included nativity, morality, and passion plays. Among, the most popular were the so-called apostle plays (Apostelspiele) with twelve characters in which the sinner is eventually saved from danmation and reconciled with God after overcoming a serious moral flaw. The Bukovina historian Raimund Friedrich Kaindl traced the apostle plays to the Prachin and Pisek Districts of the Bohemian Forest where Catholic practices had not been interrupted by the Reformation.
Among the most popular of the folk dramatizations was the Christkindlspiel (Little Christ Child Play). In its simplest form, it was performed by two characters, the Christ Child as a young adult, dressed in long white robes, and an angel. Depending upon the circumstances, the group could be increased to include saints (usually Peter, Nicholas, and Joseph), the Archangel Michael, and any number of angels.
In Czudyn, in the district of Storozynetz, three young men dressed as the Magi, with one carrying a star, went from house to house singing of their quest for the newborn king. When they reached the final refrain which told of their finding the infant Jesus in a stable, the Sternsinger (star singers) fell to their knees in adoration. After receiving small gifts, usually of food, and exchanging season's greetings, the players proceeded to the next house.
Herodian plays, dramatizing Herod's visit by the Three Kings, the massacre of the innocents, his death and damnation, were performed in many communities on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, and Three Kings' Day (January 6). One version, Herodesspiel mit Tod und Teufel (Herodian Play with Death and Devil), the longest and the most popular, was enacted in Rosch until the eve of World War II. Another variation of the well-known Biblical theme, the Herodes-Ritter-Spiel (Herod-Knights Play), famous for its fencing scene, was staged in Gurahumora, Fürstenthal, Molodia, and Czernowitz. In Gurahumora the participants also visited the homes of non-Germans while those in Fürstenthal went to neighboring communities, sometimes performing for more than three hundred families. People often waited for them well into the morning, wiling away their time by playing cards, singing, and telling stories.
All major holidays, including Christmas and Easter, were circumscribed by custom and tradition. Christmas celebrations, characterized by the giving of gifts to children, family festivities, and religious services, continued until January 6. Even the poorest home had a Christmas tree, usually decorated with apples, candies, and nuts, which were gradually consumed as the holidays wore on. There was no commercialization of Christmas as few people had money to spend and adults did not exchange gifts.
Of the many Christmas customs associated with foods, mention will be made of only two. Before the Christmas Eve meal, the head of the family broke an unconsecrated host, which he had earlier obtained from the priest for a small contribution, giving a piece to each person at the table. Everyone then dipped his portion into a cup of wine and consumed it, reminiscent of the Last Supper which Jesus shared with his disciples. After the meal, the head of the family threw a handful of Weizen (wheat prepared with honey, nuts, and poppy seeds) up to the ceiling. if it stuck, it portended good luck. It was said that when needed, kernels of wheat would drop from the ceiling to feed the family, symbolic of manna from heaven. Because Christmas Eve was a day of abstinence from meat, fish and Weizen served as the basic foods for the festivities.
Christmas was a holiday for children. They were told that at midnight of Christmas Eve, the animals speak -- a gift bestowed on them by God whose Son had been born in a stable. With their newly gained power of speech, the animals then proceeded to tell each other how they had been treated throughout the year. If they complained of abuse, bad luck would befall their owner. But the children dared not approach the animals to listen to their conversation, since to do so would bring bad luck to them as well.
On Christmas Eve children anxiously awaited the Christkindlspiel (Little Christ Child), usually a young woman of the village dressed in white robes with veiled face. However, the Christkindl did not come alone. He (or she) had a companion, Krampus, a formidable, black-robed character who brandished a switch and clanged heavy chains. Before entering the house, the pair either rang a small bell or tapped on the window, alerting those within of their presence. At this sign, the small children knelt down and began praying, since they had to convince their visitors they knew their prayers and had behaved all year. In a scene symbolic of the Last Judgment, two figures, alternately representing good and evil., confronted the children who would either be rewarded or punished according to their deeds. If the report about them proved positive, if they knew their prayers and could recite a Christmas poem or sing a hymn, they received small gifts, usually food or clothing. But if they had misbehaved, Krampus filled their stockings with lumps of coal or, worse still, let them feel the switch. It usually turned out that the children had been good; nonetheless, many an adult still recalls the terror he felt as a child when faced with the threats and machinations of Krampus.
In some communities St. Nicholas came on December 6, and Christkindl was the sole arbiter of rewards and punishments on December 24. In the absence of an adult to play Christkindl a pair of shoes on the doorstep indicated to the children that he had been there but that for some reason they had not seen him. In any event, the end objectives remained the same: to inculcate an acceptable standard of behavior in the child and to heighten his sense of accountability for his actions.
Easter, too, with customs encompassing young and old alike, reinforced family and community cohesiveness and served to unite the individual with his neighbor and his creator. Celebration of this holiday began with Fasching (Shrove Tuesday), when masqueraders exchanged social calls. Characterized by partying, feasting, and joviality, this day afforded the last chance for merriment before the forty-day Lenten period of penance and fasting.
On Ash Wednesday the faithful went to church to have the shape of a cross traced on their forehead with ashes, symbolizing their mortality and eventual return to dust. During Lent no marriage ceremonies were performed. Wednesdays and Fridays were meatless, and every Friday evening the parishioners attended church for Stations of the Cross devotions. On Holy Thursday religious statues were draped in purple cloth while bells and organ fell silent.
On Palm Sunday the Church substituted pussy willows for palms and distributed these along with holy water to the faithful. Some mixed the holy water with their animals' feed and scattered the pussy willows in the fields to insure a good harvest. On Holy Saturday the parishioners brought a basket of food -- often including eggs, Babka, salt and ham -- to the church to be blessed. The next day, Easter Sunday, the head of the family sliced an egg blessed the previous day and gave a piece to all at the breakfast table, as he had done with the unconsecrated host on Christmas Eve. Many of these customs, widely practiced by Polish Catholic, Ukrainian Uniate, and Ukrainian and Romanian Orthodox worshippers, became part of the Catholic-German tradition of Bukovina. In time they helped forge a community of religious fellowship among the polyglot peoples of Austria's easternmost crown land.
The celebration of the Resurrection climaxed Easter services. In Gurahumora's Church of the Holy Trinity, an honor guard of uniformed soldiers, usually men on army leave, kept vigil over the tomb of Jesus from Holy Thursday through the evening of Holy Saturday. Then at 6:00 p.m., the priest led a procession around the church three times, after which he struck the church doors with a willow branch. At this sign the portals swung open, the bells rang out, and the choir sang to organ music once again. Jesus had triumphed over death which his undraped statue, now visible to all, so clearly demonstrated. Karasek and Lanz point out that the religious expression of the Catholic Germans from Bohemia, shaped by decades of confessional strife during the Reformation, manifested itself in a bold assertiveness which took the form of massive processions, frequent passion plays, and elaborate Resurrection ceremonies.
The Easter holidays closed after three more days of visiting family and friends, giving children colored Easter eggs and sprinkling (begiessen) water on members of the opposite sex. Time has obscured the significance of this latter custom. Nonetheless, the author recalls a certain Stefan Schindelar from Gurahumora who, with his small grandsons, visited the ladies of his suburban New York community as late as the mid-1950s to "sprinkle" them. Moreover, he introduced a new feature: instead of water, he used perfume.
While water is used in many religions as an agent of purification, in Bukovina it was also considered a gift from God to be shared by all: "God makes his sun rise on good and bad alike, and sends the rain on the honest and dishonest" (Matthew 5:45 [New English Bible]). A villager who did not have his own well could always draw freely from the well of his neighbor. In his novel Ein Mensch unterwegs (A Person Underway, [1955, p. 413]), Karl Springenschmid tells of a thirsty soldier traveling through northern Bukovina and stopping at a courtyard to pump water. After drinking his fill, the well's owner, a Ukrainian named Pjotr, came out of the house. "Many thanks," the soldier called to him. "There is nothing for which to thank me," replied Pjotr. "The water is from God." Within this context it was comprehensible although naive of some Bukovina Germans in 1940 to have serious reservations about resettling in Germany -- a land where people had to pay for their water.
The values of the Bukovina Germans, shaped by their religious traditions and their agrarian, family-oriented environment, are also reflected in their proverbs and adages. Although not limited exclusively to Bukovina, these idioms of everyday speech tell us what the German settlers thought about work and thrift, fatalism and the inevitable, demeanor and deportment. Often of a commonsense and practical nature, their proverbial sayings, several of which are listed below, contain a kernel of wisdom for the conduct of life.
On work and thrift:
On fatalism and the inevitable:
On deportment and demeanor:
The dialect of Bukovina's German Bohemians was that spoken in the Bohemian Forest, akin to the vernacular of Lower Austria and Bavaria. With the transfer and dispersion of the Bukovina Germans in 1940 and the forcible expulsion in 1946-1947 of the Germans from Czechoslovakia, their dialect is doomed to inevitable extinction. Their religious practices, threatened by individualism, materialism, and secularism, face a similar fate.
Shaped by customs and traditions deeply rooted in his culture and religion, the Bukoviner achieved a sense of identity and community which defined his personal loyalties and enhanced his ethnic awareness. Aside from providing a channel for expression and development, his customs forged a link with the past and gave direction for the future. He did not feel isolated and abandoned in his remote village but shared a spirit of brotherhood with his neighbor and lived in harmony with nature. Moreover, he actively planned and participated in his own entertainment, not waiting for others to provide it for him. His was a pre-capitalistic society which fostered cooperation and humility; where children had responsibilities from age two and were ready to step into an adult role by age eighteen; and where psychoanalysts and family counselors would soon have become an endangered species.
It is not by chance that one finds relatively little crime in such an environment. One interviewee, who had served on the police force in Czernowitz between 1920 and 1923, commented on the low incidence of social deviance in Bukovina's capital city (est. population in 1939: 109,698). When asked what cases had most frequently called for police intervention, he identified them as pilfering from fields, brawling in saloons, and smuggling across the Russian border. By today's standards these breaches of the public order seem minimal indeed.
Nonetheless, the Bukovina's faith, deeply rooted in family activities,
congregational prayers, and church processions, i.e., on outward
mechanical rather than on inward spiritual affirmation, often suffered a
serious blow when transported outside the province. As a refugee
in Germany or Austria or as an immigrant in the United States, he truly
became a displaced person, having lost the security of his extended
family, the familiarity of his village community, and the comfort of his
church as he knew it. Life in modern urban industrial centers hardly
permits the Gemütlichkeit (congeniality) of week-long holidays,
while the secularism of a materialistic society based on consumerism and
profit threatened the essence of his religious fabric. Some looked upon
his religious expression as superstition tinged with paganism. The
traditions of his homeland, developed over generations in a relatively
static, agrarian society, had few parallels elsewhere and gradually slipped
into disuse. Today they encompass an area of study for historians,
folklorists, and sociologists.
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