'We are survivors': How a family fled Yugoslavia after World War II

An immigrant's memoir reveals a tale of desperation and rebirth in war-ravaged Europe, with Pittsburgh as the safe haven

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Kay Schachner, 78, of Ross was 9 when she saw her father for the last time.

It was November 1944.

The Soviets had swept into her village in Yugoslavia the month before, riding ponies, and the Red Army began exacting revenge on the ethnic Germans living in what is now Serbia.

Kay's father, Joseph Jost, had a Yugoslav friend whom he had once mentored. But the man had since joined Marshal Tito's communist Partisans and, in Kay's words, "was looking to make a name for himself."

He arrived at the Jost home with Soviet soldiers, sat down at the dinner table and told Joseph -- "Sepp" -- that he needed to come to the Soviet headquarters. Joseph, he said, would return in a few hours.

It was a lie. Sepp didn't come back that night, and as Kay returned from delivering milk the next morning, she saw him hauled away in the back of a wagon with other men from the village.

"When he saw me he stood to wave goodbye and was immediately hit in the stomach with a gun butt," Kay recalls in a recently self-published memoir. "I saw father collapse into the wagon. He was a kind man who loved his family. As sick as he was [with tuberculosis], he probably knew he would never see us again and wanted one last farewell wave."

The family later learned the Soviets shot him after he collapsed while working on a bridge project in the mountains. He was 44.

This searing memory is one of many Kay Schachner carries with her from a childhood marked by hardship in the aftermath of World War II.

Hers is a Pittsburgh immigrant story like many others. But hers is also different because it illustrates the suffering of ordinary Germans after the collapse of the Third Reich.

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KAY’S PEOPLE, called Danube Swabians, were ethnic Germans in the Danube River valley who paid a terrible price at the hands of the Soviets and Partisans.

After an odyssey in which she lost her father and her grandparents, escaped from concentration camps and hiked to safety in Austria, she came to America in 1949 with her mother and brother, married, raised a family and built a life in Pittsburgh.

PG map: Eastern Europe
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Over the years, Kay's family often asked about her girlhood experiences. She told the story in pieces but finally decided to write it down. "I'm getting older," she said. "I wanted to give the kids a little bit of knowledge about what I went through."

Darlene Lucas, a friend at the Teutonia Mannerchor on the North Side where Kay has been singing since she was 18, wrote the 31-page memoir over the past two years from a series of recorded interviews.

"It's harrowing," said Ms. Lucas, 68, of Scott. "She's an amazing person to have lived through that, and still she smiles."

She said the story resonates in this region because so many people here share German heritage. "I think the world needs to know [what happened] while these things are still fresh," said Ms. Lucas.

Born in 1935, Kay grew up in the village of Tschestelek with her parents and brother, Matt. Her father was a cabinet-maker and the family raised livestock and chickens, supplementing their food supply with fruits and vegetables from a garden and grains from family fields.

Kay's grandmother, Oma Pape, lived nearby with her husband, Peter. She had emigrated to America in the early 1900s and settled in Pittsburgh with her siblings, cooking for a Squirrel Hill family and doing embroidery at the Downtown Kaufmann's store.

She also met her husband, who came from the same village, here. They eventually returned to Yugoslavia and married. Oma's siblings stayed in Pittsburgh and would one day be Kay's ticket to America.

Kay recalls an idyllic childhood of riding bikes, swimming, sampling Oma's baking. Her favorite memories are snuggling with her parents on winter nights and playing with her prized baby doll.

In the early years of the war, life didn't change much. Most of the men had left to fight for Germany, but Kay's father's tuberculosis left him unfit to serve. Then, in October 1944, the Soviets arrived.

"They came in on their ponies," recalled Kay. "I'd never seen ponies before."

Many local Yugoslavs capitalized on the change in fortune. "The Partisans were only too eager to please and turn on their former friends in order to ingratiate themselves," Kay said in her memoir.

Some Germans killed themselves rather than face rape or torture. Kay's neighbor hung herself in her attic. "To this day I still see her hanging there," she said.

The following month, Sepp was taken away. The Soviets also shipped her grandfather, Opa Pape, to a work camp. She later learned he and others were lined up and shot. Some were still alive when the Soviets dumped acid on the bodies to dissolve them.

In December, soldiers herded the women into the town square. Those 18 to 29 were shipped to Siberian mines. When the local priest objected, the Soviets shot him.

One night, soldiers burst into the Jost home to take Kay's mother, Anna, because the Partisans said she was of age to be sent to Siberia. But Kay and Matt "yelled and cried and hollered so much that they eventually left without her."

The Soviets again rounded up the remaining women and children. This time the Jost home was turned over to Bosnians. Kay, Matt and Oma Pape were jammed into a wagon to be taken to Romania, while her mother was ordered to stay behind and cook.

After three days of wandering in Romania, Kay and her family were sent back to Tschestelek while the Soviets prepared the town of Rudolfsknad, 75 miles away, as a prison camp.

In January 1945, Kay, Matt and Oma Pape were loaded into cattle cars and shipped there. Some 23,000 refugees ended up in Rudolfsgnad, crammed into houses 20 to a room.

Food was rationed and there was little of it; the refugees took to making soup out of grass.

Oma got sick within weeks, probably because she was giving some of her rations to the children. One night in February, lying between Kay and Matt, she died. She was 62.

With the help of some women in her room, the children sewed Oma into a blanket "so at least she could have some dignity in death." A wagon that came each morning to haul off the dead took her away.

Oma was among some 13,000 Germans who died in the camp and were buried there in mass graves dug by Germans.

"Today they still lie in mounds, covered by weeds," Kay wrote. "There are no crosses or plaques to mark their passing. No mention that those men, women and children had left a footprint on this earth."

Alone, the children subsisted on spoonfuls of barley and "transformed into skeletons," covered with lice. When they went begging for food one day, one woman said to the other adults: "It will be a waste of food. Look, they're already dying."

(Years later, Kay's mother and the woman became friends when the woman lived in Philadelphia; Kay was a bridesmaid in her daughter's wedding. "People say things in desperate situations that it's best to forget," she said in the memoir).

In winter 1946, Kay's mother managed to locate the children and brought them food. Eventually, taking advantage of the lackadaisical guards and disorganization in the camp, she just stayed.

They endured the camp until the spring of 1947, when Anna decided it was time to escape. They waited for dark one night and then bolted, crawling under the camp fence.

They walked through the countryside, Kay carrying her baby doll, but they'd only made it as far as the next town when Serbian soldiers caught them.

"We were forced to line up and say our last prayer because we were going to be shot for escaping the camp," Kay wrote.

But it was a sadistic game. Instead, they were forced to walk back to the camp, where the Soviets confined them in a pit with no food, light or blankets. After several days there, they returned to their normal quarters. Anna began planning a second escape.

One summer night, they again crawled under the fence and walked from dusk until dawn, slipping among the corn rows. Kay held onto her baby doll, as always. During the day, they stayed out of sight in the woods or in haylofts.

Then, along the Romanian border, Romanian soldiers caught them. A guard escorted them back to the Yugoslav border.

"He must have been a kind soul," Kay said in the memoir. "At the border, he dropped us off, turned around and headed back to the Romanian side without handing us over to anyone."

For a month, the trio trudged through Romania toward Budapest, walking by night, hiding by day and eating what they could find in the fields. Sometimes, people gave them food, risking their own freedom.

Eventually they reached Budapest, where they hid in a hayloft. Anna spoke with some local women who told her that the camp in Budapest was bad and that she should go to Vienna. One woman, who had lost a child about Kay's age, offered to adopt Kay.

Anna said no. "I've brought you this far," she said. "I'm taking you the rest of the way!"

They started off, Kay again clutching her baby doll, and followed the Danube River to Austria. They finally arrived in a refugee zone in the French sector of Vienna. "For the first time in years, I was able to sleep in a bed and not on straw on the floor or in a field or hiding in a hayloft," Kay wrote.

They set up in a schoolhouse, 20 to a classroom, with bunk beds. They had ration cards and waited in line to cook on a hot plate. Kay remembers eating a lot of horse ghoulash and fish stew.

While Matt took to begging, their mother got a job in a hat factory and bought new shoes for the children. Kay and Matt started school; the family attended church for the first time in years.

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AFTER TWO YEARS in the city, Anne made contact with Kay's great aunt and uncle in Pittsburgh. They soon sent packages from America. "Each time we opened one, it was like Christmas," Kay recalled, and agreed to sponsor the family's immigration.

As the trio prepared to leave for America, refugees were still arriving at the schoolhouse. Among them was a little girl who had nothing. Kay gave the girl her battered baby doll.

"She had traveled with me and comforted me from my home, which by now was only a distant memory, through grandma's death, the starvation camp, both escape attempts and our trek to Vienna," Kay wrote.

The family boarded a ship in France, endured seasickness and arrived at Ellis Island, where the Red Cross put them on a train to Pittsburgh. They initially stayed with Kay's aunt and uncle in Carrick. He owned a beauty shop and gave her a perm. Her mother and Matt got makeovers, too, and new clothes.

The children lived for a while near Conneaut Lake while their mother worked in a meat-packing plant, and the family settled on the North Side in 1949.

Kay went to Allegheny High School, played basketball and volleyball, and swam at the Sarah Heinz House. Matt worked at McCrory's dime store on East Ohio Street. Anna dragged them both to the Teutonia Mannerchor, the German social club in East Allegheny.

When she turned 18, Kay joined the club with her mother.

She also met Konrad Schachner, a bricklayer who came to America from Bavaria in 1949. He was six years older, but the two began dating. They got engaged and Konrad began building a house.

After high school, Kay went to work at McCrory's, taught dancing and later became a receptionist at Gulf Oil.

Konrad was drafted during the Korean War but didn't have to serve. He and Kay married in 1956 in a double ceremony with Matt and his first wife, Esther.

Kay and Konrad moved into the house he'd built on William Street in Ross, where the couple raised their six children. One, Ricky, died in 2006 at 32; the others, all with families of their own, are still in the area. Konrad died in 1989.

Kay's mother, who remarried in 1958, lived on the North Side until her death in 1999. Kay still reveres her for her gumption after the war. "My mom was a gutsy lady," she said. "She said she would get us out, and she did."

History has not forgotten the Danube Swabians. There are memorials in Cleveland, Cincinnati and other U.S. cities and also in Germany, where the scars of war remain in every town.

Kay has traveled to Germany many times with her family and with the German club, but she has never returned to her hometown. The memories of those hard times are difficult.

"You can never forget it," she said. "We survived and we made the best of what we had."

She remains fiercely proud of her family and her heritage. Sprinkled throughout her memoir is this exhortation: "We are survivors!"

Torsten Ove:, 412-263-1510.

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