The bottle of schnapps sits on the dining room sideboard prominently, displayed really, as special. My friend George made it, having shown me the process: using the old copper still, a cooling bucket of coils, the hydrometer. The homemade liquor, or moonshine if you prefer, has been infused with sweetened cherries. Some might be inclined to call this kirschwasser, cherry water, a kind of fruit brandy, although to be correct this brandy was a double distillation of grape wine that had gone “off,” thus it’s not a proper kirsch. It is however, delicious. Made more so by hearing George tell stories.
After the tutorial of schnapps making—which I’d love to say was all accumulated knowledge he’d inherited from the old country, but he’s googled and learned a good deal of it using the internet just as most any of us would—we sit down and enjoy a glass or two of his labours, along with his cousin one of my congregants who brought me with her today. They are both in their late 70’s/early 80’s but still as spry and winsome as ever. They start to tell stories, their stories, of their lives, families, jobs, and milestones. Some of what they share is new, much I have heard before but it is good to hear again.
George and his cousin were born in a small city that is now part of Serbia. Once part of the Ottoman Empire, their town was eventually settled by ethnic Germans, farmers predominantly from Swabia, and over the centuries was ruled by Hungary and Austria and eventually to what was then Yugoslavia as they were growing up. When World War II broke out, ethnic German communities throughout Central and Eastern Europe were claimed by Hitler as greater Germany. These communities found themselves conscripted and torn between both Allied and Axis powers. When George and his cousin were still children, Yugoslav Partisans forces took control of the region where their families were living. Their lands and homes were confiscated and their people were imprisoned in forced-labour concentration camps. In these camps many of the oldest and the youngest did not survive including George’s grandparents.
George and his cousin, as said above, are spry and winsome in their older years. But let that not betray the great tragedies they have experienced: the loss of loved ones, of war and occupation, of dispossessed homeland. Still they are fortunate. Eventually they escaped from the camps, eventually found refuge in Austria, resettlement Germany, and ultimately began as immigrants in the United States. They have survived and ultimately thrived. They have made their new communities better because they are here.
They have also had help along the way.
George shared a particular incident, of how once they had escaped the Partisans and found refuge in Austria and his family was given space in a refugee shelter, overflowing there was nonetheless no room for him. He was by this point in his older teen years. He took up with another young man and found shelter beneath a bridge. Post war Austria as most of post war Europe was in a bad way and times were incredibly difficult. To work one needed residence papers and an address, and without room in the shelter, George and his companion found themselves in a catch-22 were they neither had a reliable home nor the resulting benefit of opportunity for work. On a particularly cold night after an especially bad run at it, he and his companion decide their best option would be to get arrested and spend the night in the warmth of the jail. They go to a local tavern and order as he says, “a schnitzel and a little wine.” They eat their fill full knowing they have no cash to pay the bill. When time comes to settle up, tensions rise, fellow patrons of the tavern are as incredulous of the offenders as the proprietor is. But then a Good Samaritan like miracle takes place. One of the patrons questions the young men, eventually pays their bill, and offers them employment in a local machine shop where they may also take up shelter if they would also provide security for the building.
George eventually became a mechanic. After immigrating to this country he served in the Korean War. He married and raised a family, owned multiple local businesses, coached a club soccer team. He later learned how to make schnapps.
It was hours that George and his cousin sat sharing stories with me. I said we had had a glass or two of his labours but we may have had more.
There are times when hearing the stories that I have heard over the years of these World War II experiences I can’t help but picture movies that have depicted similar times: The Book Thief, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Bent, and to a much lesser degree even The Sound of Music. Dated pictures in my mind of a different time and place attempting to help me understand how things could have been as they once were. But now I have not only film pictures but pictures of real people, actual relationship in my life that show and tell their stories. It is jarring however, to consider that one does not need to imagine so much a different time. Even if the wars and catch-22 situations people find themselves in are located elsewhere—Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Kurdistan, Palestine—refugees once again find themselves seeking security in Central Europe. It seems entirely too cliché to say the more things change the more they stay the same. Yet…
Micah 4:3-4 promises a time when “The Lord shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” May it be so.