Thanksgiving in Serbia: in loving memory of Philipp Karbiener, 1 March 1935 (Sekitsch, Yugoslavia) – 22 November 2002 (Glen Cove, NY, USA)


One of our family's treasures is this rare photo of my father and Inge, taken before the onset of Tito's expulsion campaigns in 1944.

21 November 2009.

All day long I walked around thinking that this was the anniversary of Daddy’s death.  I lit a candle for him in the Serbian Orthodox Church in Zrenanin, and told Aleksandra’s mother (who had made some vanille krenzen for a lavish St. Michael’s Day feast I was treated to today) that these were my father’s favorite cookies, that he would be pleased to see (even more to eat) them.  I just called my friend Jackie Gardy to tell her no, I wouldn’t be able to come to the Novi Sad Jazz Festival tonight, that I wasn’t up to it.  You see, seven years ago, I lost my beloved dad.  His end was sudden and quick, the result of a brain anheurism and, undoubtedly, more than a lifetime of trauma and hard work.  In 2002, November 22 became the most difficult day imaginable.  And every year on this date, I allow myself to be engulfed by floods of memories and emotions.  November 22 marks my counter-celebration of self-pity and grief.

Well, November 22 is tomorrow.

I only realized that when I looked at my calendar a moment ago.  Today’s the twenty-FIRST, not the twenty-SECOND, of November.  So that call to my mom, and the drama of thinking about my father on this heaviest of days, could wait another day.

But it felt like today, like today was connected with that other day in 2002 when I last spoke to my father in person and when I had angry words with a thoughtless, disconnected doctor in Glen Cove Hospital, about disconnecting my father from life support.  Such a strange day.  I was teaching at Colby College at the time, and had flown down from Maine to New York the day before, at my sister’s request.  Dutifully teaching my last pre-Thanksgiving classes and giving my students assignments for the break, I drove to Portland Airport in a daze.  When the fog lifted, I was holding my father’s hand in the hospital and thinking about what I needed to tell him.

I will write the story, Daddy.  I promise.

And then blurriness and hospital smell, and then Tante Inge’s arrival and then waiting.  And then hope and then not.  And then blankness.

My father is the reason that I am writing to you from Serbia.  He, along with my great-grandfather, are my loving courage-teachers, my representatives of what the best of us can aspire to be.  Philipp Karbiener (or, as his birth record reads, Филип Михаел КАРБИНЕР) was the first son born to one of the wealthiest households in Sekitsch, Yugoslavia in 1935.  His grandfather, who had served as the mayor of Sekitsch and had  expanded the family’s properties and wealth, saw more potential in the steady gaze of his grandson (see photo above) than in the boy’s father.  From an early age, my dad had received tutelage on land and agricultural management; by age nine, he was a skilled horseman who could gentle-break the wildest stallion on any of the family’s four farms.

He was nine years old, too, when he was expelled from his home and placed in the first of four detention camps set up by Tito for the ethnic Germans of Vojvodina.  His father, sister, grandparents and Onkel Philipp (my grandmother’s brother) all went with him, while his mother was sent to a forced labor camp outside of Luhansk, Ukraine.

My dad became the head of the family in these camps.  His father was stultefied by the displacement, and was physically and mentally useless—a mere shell of a man.  Inge was a hysterical four year old.  And his grandfather once again reached over his 33-year old son to grab the boy’s skinny shoulders.  The inheritance was lost, but Philipp still represented hope and the future.  Blue steely-eyed gaze met gaze.  You are in charge now.  You take care of your sister, your father.

And so the boy did.  Sneaking out of Camp Gakowa to work for Hungarian farmers, he carried salt, potatoes, and corn back under the barbed-wire fence to feed his little sister, his sullen father, his sickly grandparents.  Philipp declined offers of free passage over the Hungarian border by the farmer’s son—a border patrol officer—so that he could continue his missions in and out of the camp.  He was eleven, going on twelve.

He even got caught one time.  The Red Army guards at Gakowa were known for their particularly cruel punishments, such as making rule violators stare at the sun to the point of blindness.  My father’s sentence was comparatively light: he was sent to the basement of an abandoned farmhouse flooded with water.  Seating him on an uneven stool in the brine, the guards ordered that he stay there all night—and that he sing loudly, so they’d know he was down there.  My dad defiantly blared a steady stream of Lutheran hymns and German folk songs, much to the soldiers’ disgust.   But Daddy ultimately suffered the most from this incident.  He never sang again.  Though he loved to hear my sister and I croon nursery rhymes or Christmas songs, he never mustered the will to chime in.

When Tito’s camps were dissolved in May 1948, my father, aunt, and grandfather were sent to work on a ”community farm.”  Whether by the cruelty of fate or Tito’s envoys, they were placed on one of their own salasches: Szenttamas salas, just outside of Srbobran.  It had been the largest of their land holdings, and had been registered under my father’s name before he could read its ‘katasatar’ number in the Srbobran Grundbuch.   On its 150 acres stood a horse stable, barn for milk cows, ”magazin” for corn and grain products, a long manager’s house, and a large farm house complete with cellar and ‘summer kitchen.’

Four years after the family’s last visit to this salas, the meticulously kept fields of wheat and corn were now overgrown with weeds.  Hundreds of  farm horses had been set free and now roamed wild, their hoofbeats echoing over the Vojvodina plains through the night.  Foxes darted throught he doorless portals of the farmhouse, which was partially occupied by a group of Roma.  My grandfather saw the lice on the women’s long hair and ordered his children to sleep outside on the porch.  Conditions were so poor that he decided to try and find a foster home for Inge, now barely eight years old.  As he wandered through the burnt-out villages in search of someone to take her in, my 13-year old father went looking for work in the neighboring fields.

He first found work on the sheep farm of Pero Milotic, just outside of Srbobran.  They were good to him, though he soon realized that his skills as a horseman might be better utilized on a bigger farm.  Pajo and Radinka Gavanski of Srbobran offered him a job breaking in horses on their salas.  He liked the work and excelled at it; Radinka felt compassion for the pitifully skinny boy and, perhaps, admired his sense of responsibility towards work and family.  Her generosity towards my father is part of our family lore.  For a good year or so, he benefitted immeasurably from her gifts of food, shelter, and human kindness.  I like to think that they provided each other with some basic needs in a time of crisis: a son’s devotion, a mother’s love.

Spending 22 November as well as Thanksgiving in Serbia without my family this year, I decided to combine these two landmark dates in one mission: to locate some of the several people that enabled my father’s survival, and to thank them personally for their priceless gift to us.

I called my friend Slobodan Jovn, who runs a cab company in Novi Sad (Heligon Taxi: 064 232 0816).  Was he up for another ‘research adventure’, to Srbobran this time? ”No problem.”  (He always says that.)  We sped off from Novi Sad at 9 am on Friday morning, a thick fog setting the perfrect mood for our detective work.

That's me in front of the Srbobran registrar's office, where the lovely, patient Stefanka proved instrumental in my search for Radinka Gavanski.
That’s me in front of the Srbobran registrar’s office, where the lovely, patient Stefanka proved instrumental in my search for Radinka Gavanski.

Srbobran has preserved its majestic center, a cluster of grand Austro-Hungarian structures around its high-baroque, double-spired cathedral.  One of these is the Registrar’s Office, where a clerk named Stefanka remains Srbobran’s walking, talking town record.  She listened to Slobodon’s translation of my request.  Pero Milotic?  No, she was drawing a blank with that name.  Radinka Gowanski? (she looked at my Germanized spelling.  Serbs don’t use ‘w’s.)  Hm.  Radinka Gavanski?  Radinka?  She opened a huge metal file cabinet, pulled down several oversized books, and began to look through the town records.  And then the death records.  Looking over her glasses at her fellow worker (Zita; of course we’re all on a first-name basis), she asked her to call the police station.  And then she took out the well-thumbed mountains of citizenship records.  I watched helplessly, trying to distract myself with the view of the town’s ‘wedding room’ next door, with its grand chandelier and dark wooden panelling.  The enormously high ceilings (15 feet, at least) and grand décor must make young couples feel the momentousness of the occasion.  Turning back around to Stefanka’s office, I noted how much smaller it was, despite the amount of information contained in the room.  Her filing system had had to expand upward rather than outward, utilizing unreachable wall space far above our heads.

About forty minutes later, Stefanka paused over  a worn blue index card.  Radinka Gavanski.  30 September 1925- 21 December 2002.  She lived at 73 Petra Drapsina even after her husband died and the salas lands had been sold.  And though she had been childless, someone had come in to the police station to report her death— Rajko Pivncki, presumably her brother.  Sarplaninska 46 in Novi Sad, of all places.  We could look him up in the phone book.

The sadness of realizing that I was too late to thank Radinka in person, was eased by the fact that I might be able to thank her through a visit to another family member—and by way of a visit to the house where she and my father had developed their special friendship.  Families don’t live on their salasi in Vojvodina; they might stay temporarily as an escape from a more urban existence, but their everyday lives were always conducted from their homes in town.  The house at 73 Petra Drapsina was thus the place my father would have shared his meals with the Gavanskis, where he slept to escape the cold of the windowless Szentatamas salas, where he found an open door and a warm hearth in an otherwise cold and closed world.

The house and street entrance of the former Gavanski residence in Srbobran.
The house and street entrance of the former Gavanski residence in Srbobran.

It was easy to find 73 Drapsina Ulica on Srbobran’s well-organized grid plan, though the house possessed no outstanding features: this was a modest example of late 19th-century ”German house”, with its perpendicular positioning to the street, carefully tiled roof, and linear ornamentation.  Shades were drawn, but Slobodan knocked and tried the handle of the door to the courtyard.  It gave way with a creak.

The quiet interior courtyard of Petra Drapsina 73, Srbobran.
The quiet interior courtyard of Petra Drapsina 73, Srbobran.

We walked right in to a humble but welcoming courtyard.  And there was something magical about this place, as careworn and tired as the house and garden looked.  Perfect stillness greeted us—this, despite the healthy flock of chickens and geese in the backyard coop. Beets stewed quietly on a table near the front door.  Late tomatoes hung sleepily from the vine.  A quince lay perfectly split in half, knife by its side, on an old table against the back barn.  Smoke rose gently from a little stove pipe on the roof.  A child’s socks danced on the clothesline.  A pair of women’s clogs rested on the front stoop.  And the lace-curtained front door was open, inviting us inside.

At first, Slobodan and I shouted our ”dobar dan”s around the house and into it.  But gradually we too succumbed to the absolute peace of this scene.  While he noted the old mud construction of parts of the outbuildings, I envisioned my father as the thirteen year old boy who had also enjoyed this simple, pleasing garden.  After enduring four years of near-starvation, exhaustive labor, and humiliation at the hands of his captors, my father had been offered comfort and affection in Radinka’s humble home.

My great facilitator and friend Slobodan Jovn, pointing out the time-honored 'waddle-and-daub' technique of the construction of Radinka's barn.
My great facilitator and friend Slobodan Jovn, pointing out the time-honored ‘waddle-and-daub’ technique of the construction of Radinka’s barn.
...Radinka, are you there?  Spirits from the past linger in the corners of her former backyard.

...Radinka, are you there? Spirits from the past linger in the corners of her former backyard.

As we walked out, we saw an old woman emerge from her own gate next door.  Yes, of course she remembered Radinka.  An open-hearted person, a good neighbor.  They lived next door to each other for well over 50 years before Radinka died.  Now there were Bosnian refugees living in the house.  She didn’t know much about them, they kept to themselves.

Radinka’s house, then, opened its doors to many different needy people at points of crisis.  To my  13 year old father, in the wake of a traumatic separation from his mother, displacement from his home, and survival of a brutal ‘ethnic cleaning’ of the Vojvodina Germans.  To the Bosnian refugees, who now seek asylum after a horrific period of religious persecution and genocide in their homeland.  And to me.  Though my suffering cannot be compared with these two examples, I too have been given sustenance during a difficult moment of loss.  Radinka helped me recover my father, understand this complex, loving man better, love him all the more.

How can I begin to thank such people?  Where, in my bounded vocabulary, can I find the words to describe how grateful I am to Radinka, ‘working woman’ who found it in her heart to be generous to others when most people felt forced to think only of themselves? How can I help commemmorate these everyday heroes that refuse to let the status quo of the moment dictate their own actions?

I can start here and now.  We are all so very responsible for what we do, no matter what we have led ourselves to believe, no matter how others have sworn they forgive us, they understand.   All our decisions, great or small, indicate our mettle.  Will you help the homeless man carry his bags up those steep stairs to the 125th St. 1/9?  Do you take in the blue-eyed boy, though he’s a living embodiment of ‘the enemy’ to people in power?  Will I find and thank the surviving members of a family that gave my dad life and love?

The open door of Radinka's house-- for my father in 1948, and now for me.
The open door of Radinka’s house– for my father in 1948, and now for me.

This Thursday, Aleksandra and I are planning to spend part of Thanksgiving at a nursing home.  Rajko Picncki, it turns out, sold his house at Sarplaninska 46 and now resides in one of several such facilites in the Novi Sad area (the guy living in his house right now didn’t know which one).  On Tuesday, we’ll be making calls to the list of nursing homes we’ve compiled, hoping to track Rajko down.  And then, after a baking marathon (vanille krenzen, maybe), we’ll offer our thanks to Rajko and the memory of his sister Radinka.

Thanks, Daddy.  For everything. Love always.

About The Author

Avatar of Karen Karbiener

Karen Karbiener

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11 2009

6 Comments Add Yours ↓

The upper is the most recent comment

  1. 1

    Hi Karen!

    As there is no contact info available on your blog I need to contact you through comment instead. My fellow researcher Brigitte Wolf from Berlin told me about you and our common interest in family research of the Sekitsch area.

    There is a KARBIENER Elisabetha in my family tree who got married to BRAUCHLER Philipp in Feketitsch (reformed) around 1880. Let me know if this links to your family tree please. I’d also like to link your blog on my website if you agree.

    All the best,

  2. Avatar of Mara Scanlon


    Many, many miles and five days away from your posting, I’m moved to tears by your loss, your story, your vow, and your questions. I hope you realize how much honor you give by them, even if you never find the living human beings you are seeking.


  3. Katie #

    Karen – as always, your writing is nothing less than wonderful. This posting truly honors your father and made me appreciate the time spent with my own dad this past week all the more. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Dr. Brian Landry #

    Hello Karen,
    I absolutely love this photo…so much so, that as you already know, I used it in my dissertation. I espeically love the side story of the ear rings Inge is wearing.
    Good luck with your research,

  5. Steve Schaefer #

    Hi Karen,

    It has been many years. Your parents are my godparents. I don’t know if you remember me, but we often visited your house in Glen Cove when you were growing up. I hope your Mom is doing well !!!

    My wife actually found this article. It is obviously very touching and your father and mother were extremely good to me growing up. I never knew any of this. Our parents really never talked about the past much, for obvious reasons.

    I have very fond memories of your family. My Mom married Roland Hartmann of Sekitsch, and his brother Oswald publishes Das Donautal Magazine.

    Please keep in touch. I now live in Rhode Island with my wife and 3 kids, one of whom is in school in Boston now. I hope you are doing well and I really applaud you for writing this.

    Warm Regards,

    Steven Schaefer

  6. 6

    Such a beautiful tribute! You are a gifted writer. Thank you so much for posting this link on the DVHH list.
    Rose Mary

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