sunset on the salasch

“Salasch-hund,” my father used to grumble to himself about that lazy co-worker, slacker gas station attendant, and the occasional late-sleeping daughter.

I actually saw what he meant when Aleksandra, Alphild and I took our first look around Salas 137, one of the several Vojvodina “farm-estates” now more devoted to entertaining tourists than harvesting wheat and corn.


Salas 137 attempts to portray a type of existence that my family knew and loved for a century and a half, though it is lost to us now.  My father, along with his parents, grandparents, and everyone else in the Vojvodina village of Sekitsch (now Lovcenac), were expelled from their homes, dispossessed of their properties, and put into death- and work-camps at the end of 1944.   After nearly eight years of suffering, sickness, the experience of watching others tortured, killed, or die of starvation, my father, his sister, and their father were reunited with my grandmother (who had been working in a coal mine in a forced-labor camp in the Ukraine, near Luhansk).  Homeless and homeland-less, my Oma decided for them all: “America is the future.”  On the 17 of December 1955, they caught their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.

And my father never wanted to look back—never even wanted to tell his daughters about what he had been through, what had been lost and left behind.  He loved America with a fierceness that was eye-roll-worthy to my sister and me when we were younger.  He seemed content with the fact that he had a precious few family photos from his own youth, and no tokens or trinkets or papers that linked him to another place or time.  I’m as sure that his disinterest in our family history inspired my own stubborn interest in that subject, as I am certain that his allegiance to New York led me to my own dedication to our hometown, the greatest city on earth.

But traces of the past remain.  Wounds heal, but leave their mark.  And the proud new resident of Brooklyn, New York—the twenty-year-old city boy who worked in a meat factory and lived in a railroad flat—couldn’t shake his passion for horses.  Before I learned to ride a bike, my dad was carting me off every Sunday to the World’s Fairgrounds.  And as he hand-led the pony round the ring (he insisted upon this, I still remember), he’d tell me stories of the horses on the salasch, particularly Ferner, his favorite.



Alphild, Aleksandra and I toured the well-maintained stables of this representative salas, and then walked up to the farmhouse.  It’s comfortably settled in the midst of fruit-laden walnut trees, curled around itself like an old barn cat.  Salasi in Vojvodina typically included such a house on their property.  Families would spend summer months out here amidst ripening crops as the towns baked in the long stark sun.  As we stepped through the old kitchen doorway, we smelled the coolness afforded by its thick walls and heavily curtained windows.


Though the interior décor included its share of kitsch (I’m sparing you from the photos of the old radio and typewriter collections), check out the great tile stove.  It stands as proof that these “outposts” really were homesteads, and for much more than one season.  To my eye, this type of stove resembles some of the handsomely crafted examples I saw this June in the Museum of Alsace, Strasbourg.  The deep baking oven was new to me, though the lovely primitive decoration felt familiar and homey.


The decorative touch that really captured my interest was the hand-painted “wallpaper,” an effect achieved by rolling a carved wooden cylinder up the walls in rows.  I’m not sure you can see it that clearly from the pictures, but the red pattern around the stove, and the blue chickens framing Aleksandra and me are the product of much labor and precision on the part of the salas housewife (or a professional, if it was a wealthy family).  My friend Jovan Knezevic explained the skill to me as we admired the sunflower design decorating his kitchen in Feketic.  “It was a great skill to know just where to end, and where to begin the next row,” he explained, pointing out the patterns that lined up both horizontally and vertically.  And it’s so much better than wallpaper on these uneven walls—so much prettier and more eye-catching than a single color.


Really, though, the finest art exhibited in these salasi wasn’t on the walls, but on the plates of the lucky folk around its dining table.  The menu of Salas 137 was ten pages long—and available in English to boot.  The translations artfully described the “relationships” between the meat and vegetables in a dish, with mouth-watering descriptions to tickle the palate and unfamiliar phrases to twist the tongue.


Though I never had the taste for it when I was a kid, “Rindfleisch” now made my heart pound for the first time.  “Meat cooked in a soup with tomato or dill sauce—just like a Sunday at your granny’s (580 dinar).”  Oma, what would you say about the low price on this meal that took you so long to make?  But it wasn’t simply the dishes with German names that induced a dizzying wave of nostalgia.  On the opposite page, “Sarmice” was described as “ground meat nicely wrapped into cabbage leaves, stacked into a ceramic pot and baked in a village stove (560 dinar).”  This blending of German and Slavic tastes is found on every page of the menu, right down to the desserts—where “creme bitte” kept happy company with “baklava.”  Just look at our lovely appetizer plate, where delectable cheese-filled pita slices were accompanied by schinken (here being devoured by Alfild, a Kansas native who appreciates the time and effort behind these homemade delicacies).


IMG_0322–that’s Aleksandra indulging in the last of the cherry baklava.


Food does so much more than bring friends and family together round a table.  It brings together cultures, creating interest in difference and blending diverse tastes and preferences.  As my Oma continued to make coffee in a Turkish pot in her New York apartment, so do Serbian guests of Salas 137 get a taste of the her famous “schnee nockerl.”  No matter how seperatist cultures claim they stand, their food choices make plain the everyday give-and-take of life in these farming villages.  Out here on the wide plains of Vojvodina, people learn to work together, to live together, and even to sup with one another.  One more quote from the delectable Salas 137 menu will illustrate my point.  “The recipe is secret,” begins the description of the “homemade fine pate from ‘Salas’” appetizer.  “It was given to us as a gift by a heir to once well-known butcher, a Vojvodinian German.”

It pleases the soul well to know that a long-ago act of generosity is still recognized and appreciated, by such a diverse—and hungry– audience.


After the meal, we took a long late-afternoon stroll around the grounds.  Old salas maps indicate that these properties were commonly thin and long, and Salas 137 seemed to stretch back endlessly as we left the farm’s outbuildings behind us.



We delighted in finding orchards laden with fruit.  That little pear tree filled our bags with future snack food (geez, should I have admitted that?), and the quince trees perfumed the air with their delicate scent.  Wildflowers and what looked like tobacco plants grew in between the lines of the plantings.  The quiet scene evoked images of a healthy “Schlaraffenland.”  Didn’t anybody come back here and harvest these fertile trees?  Perhaps they were really just for show, or what remained from an earlier working orchard.


The goat took a fancy to Alphild, particularly afterAleksandra identified and plucked wild basil just for him.  And I found poetry and strange comfort in the fields of freshly harvested kukuruz, or ‘kookoorootz’ as my father used to say, smiling at Tanya and me.


“Bring the horses round to the salasch.”  Those were among the last words of my grandfather in 1989.  After a tumultuous life of great loss and even greater new beginnings, Opa was dreaming of his idea of heaven.  And it is no wonder to me anymore, why his idea of peace and perfection was a Vojvodina farm.  As the sun set on our day at Salas 137 and the Yugo pulled away from the homestead’s twinkling lights, I felt the pull of long-lost roots.


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Karen Karbiener

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10 2009

10 Comments Add Yours ↓

The upper is the most recent comment

  1. Mark Mebes #

    Thank you so much for directing me to your blog. I am enjoying it immensely. Your descriptions are beautiful, thoughtful and vivid.
    Thank you for allowing me a “visit” today with Oma, Opa and Onkel Phil. The recollections put a lump in my throat.
    The Salasch was just as I had pictured it from descriptions. Typical German efficiency, and careful craftsmanship, right? I loved your decription of the “wallpaper”, the ovens and the Salasch grounds. I imagine that the farms were laid out long and narrow for plowing. From what little I know about farming I understand the less turns you have to make, the better (I would suspect that this is even more true when plowing with horses).
    Thank you again for taking me to our homeland for a few moments today. I will anxiously await your next entry. Keep safe.

  2. 2

    Hello new friend,

    You have a great gift for description . . . giving your reader a feeling of actually having been there with you. Thank you for sharing your trip to the homeland of your family. I look forward to more!
    Rose Mary

  3. Inge Mebes #

    Mark directed me to your blog today and we read it in the living room at my house on his laptop.
    Thank you for the beautiful description of my beloved country. I was choking back tears as Mark was reading it to me. I hope you make many more discoveries, which will bring you closer to our roots and help you understand what lay buried deep within your father’s heart. It will give you a new understanding of him, and help you see all that we have lost.
    If I can help with any information, please give me a call. Things should be settling down now, and I will have a little more time.
    Much Love,
    Tante Inge

  4. Avatar of indira

    I love the fact that you are so interested in learning about Vojvodina…Well it is your country in a way too. Hope that the roots will pull you and not let go for a bit longer than December 2009.

  5. Elyssa #

    Karen, the stoves/heaters that you describe in this post and the next one are exactly what I have in my apartment in Romania! One in the bedroom, a big one in the living room, and one in the kitchen. Lots of places (homes, stores, etc) still have and use them here…..

  6. Adam #

    So schön geschrieben! Ich bin neidisch.

  7. Kurt Tauss #

    Dear Karen,

    What a treasure to find your articles! It allowed me to visit the town I was born in through you eyes, and words. I forwarded the articles to my daughters Amanda and Christiana. Cathy and I will be at Uncle Ludwicks birthday party on Saturday and hope to see you there.

    Thank you againn

  8. Avatar of Karen Karbiener

    …thank you so much for this heartwarming comment! We’re all looking forward to celebrating Onkel Ludwig’s landmark and enjoying time with the whole family. Much love, and see you soon, Karen

  9. Ray Matter #

    Dear Karen:
    What fantastic photos. My Grandmother is from Sekitsch and we also have a Christina Karbiener in her family tree married to a Stefan Pratscher. I also have a dozen books inherited from my grandmother on the subject of Sekitsch including 3 no longer published archives with thousands of photo’s of homes, families and events, all in German. I’ve gone through the photo’s and have found pictures referencing to Karbiener’s with photo’s as well as my family. The books are unbelievably detailed, rare and apparently published only in the 40’s and 50’s. Let us know if you need any info if you plan on writing on the subject.

  10. 10

    Hello Karen,

    My Grandparents were from Sekitsch and Feketic. I had seen old photographs of the salasch, but your story really made it come alive. Though they had comfortable lives in Ridgewood, the heimat was always in their thoughts and in their hearts. I grew up with the stories of home, which were always bittersweet. By the way, my Grandparents knew the Karbiener family in Ridgewood. Whenever I walk in Ridgewood, the names and faces come back to my mind. I remember all the people who walked those streets before me and I miss them. Thank you so much for renewing old memories.

    Robert Metzger

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