Riding the rails between Novi Sad and Subotica took me on a journey through a land that looked frozen in time. The fact that frost had built up on scrub grass beside the tracks and the twisted limbs of trees had turned translucent only added to the sense of stagnation. There was a dramatic beauty in the semi-ruined townscapes and outbuildings in the countryside. I snapped photo after photo with my phone hoping the perfect picture would capture the rustic scenery. There was one scene that really caught my eye. Whether it was a barn or a barrack I have no way of knowing, but the early morning sun illuminated the side of a rustic and roofless building. The grass around it was flecked in frost. The building was caught somewhere between abandonment and ruin. It was the very definition of the phrase, “a long time coming.” What I imagined was a slow, glacial pace of unsightly decay made me wonder if anything ever really changed or everything just crumbled in rural Vojvodina.
Generating Genocide – The German Experience
At the approximate midpoint of this journey, the train pulled up to a two-story train station in the village of Lovcenac. The town itself was a good distance east of the station. Farm fields could be seen in all directions. The fields looked as though they had been there since time immemorial. One could be forgiven for assuming that this landscape was timeless. I later learned that Lovcenac had been transformed by the 20th century. A breathtaking wave of historic change had swept over the town, it had been tormented by the whirlwind of modern warfare and buffeted by extreme racial and ideological ideas. All the problems usually associated with the Balkans had taken place in Lovcenac. Ethnic cleansing, forcible population transfers and demographic decline had unsettled and resettled this village of 3,100 inhabitants. The ethnic cleansing occurred in the latter part of World War II, when a century and a half of ethnic German settlement and successful development abruptly ended.
The communist partisans and South Slavic peoples exacted a deadly retribution for all that they had suffered during the war. The fact that there was no remorse is hardly surprising. After all, the German military command during the war had issued orders stating that for every German soldier killed by a partisan, one hundred Yugoslavs would be murdered. This led to a vicious cycle of violence that boomeranged on ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia. Any ethnic German was subject at best to expulsion, at worst confinement and eventual execution. The Germans of Lovcenac were symbolic of a much larger movement across eastern Europe. Ethnic Germans were thrown out of their homes, never to return. The lucky ones made it back to Germany, the unlucky ones ended up as collateral damage, pawns in a deadly geopolitical game of retribution.
Dawn Harvest – Off the Tracks in Vojvodina
Making Ends Meet – The Ebb & Flow of Montenegrins
Lovcenac was one of hundreds of towns dislocated from its past during the post-war period. The agent of change was first the Red Army, a sort of hell on wheels, rails, boots and horseback. They took the area and then handed it over to the Yugoslav communists who marched the German citizens off to perform forced labor. Their main church and cemetery were plowed under. The town was just as fallow as the surrounding fields following the war. Rebuilding the population started after the war when Montenegrins settled in Lovcenac. They had staying power. Today their descendants make up a large portion of the residents. The resettlement was successful, but the town has never really recovered demographically. Lovcenac’s population is a third lower than it was a hundred years ago. It is not just ethnic Germans who are missing. Young and upwardly mobile Montenegrins and Serbs have voted with their feet as well, escaping for greener pastures even though they were already surrounded by hectare upon hectare of pastures and fertile fields.
The hollowing out of rural Vojvodina has been no different than that seen in so many European societies. Since 1991, the town has lost a quarter of its population. Sometimes I wonder if anyone will be left in villages like Lovcenac a hundred years from now. This is a pattern being repeated all cross Eastern Europe. The first time I came across the physical manifestations of demographic decline was in northeastern Hungary. On the outskirts of villages, ruined houses were the lone traces of the inhabitants who left decades ago. Windows and doors were missing, large sections of plaster and paint had chipped off and weeds choked abandoned garden plots. These scenes are supposed to be reminiscent of the past, but they seem to be creeping portents of the future.
It used to be that war, disease and famine caused depopulation. Now low birthrates and an aging populace threaten to further marginalize regions such as the Vojvodina. From the window of my train I passed through a world in perpetual decline, where everything was tending toward decay. And yet I still felt hopeful that this region and its people would survive. This land, these towns and villages had been through much worse. There were people living up and down this train line who had witnessed the horrors of World War II. Somehow, they had managed to make it through to the present. By comparison, the present danger seemed rather benign. The difference between the problems facing Lovcenac in 1944 and those of the 21st century is the difference between dying in your life and dying in your sleep. The former happens in a moment of horror, the other in a moment of indifference.
The Final Stop – A Hungarian Foothold
After Lovcenac only a couple of stops remained before the train would reach Subotica. One minute I was peering out at the countryside, lost in dreamy wanderlust, the next I was preparing for imminent arrival. As I expected, the train was running behind by about ten minutes. Its tepid pace had become quite enjoyable. Slowly, ever so slowly the train crawled northward. Arriving at Backa Topola we were now transitioning into a Hungarian world. This may have been Serbian territory, but the town was majority Hungarian.
Interestingly, when Backa Topola was first mentioned in recorded history during the mid-15th century, the town was then chiefly Hungarian. It still is today, five and half centuries later. This was deceptive. Backa Topola had been obliterated by the end of the Ottoman period, then risen from the wasteland to a vibrant community through the collective efforts of generations of Hungarian settlers. Unlike ethnic Germans in the Vojvodina, the Hungarians had managed to keep a tenuous hold on parts of this region. Their presence, both historical and current, was what now brought me to my final stop, Subotica.
Click here for: A Kingdom In Fragments – Subotica: Multiple Personality Disorders (A Balkan Affair #35)