poppy image  An account of a visit to Father Wendelin Gruber, SJ poppy image

In his jungle parish of San Cristobal in the Alto Parana of Paraguay
by Frank Schmidt, the editor of the Danube Swabian monthly newspaper Heimatbote, and his wife Elizabeth in January of 1990.


Wooden cross

Father Gruber smilingIn the past year, due to the publication of Father Wendelin Gruber's book In the Claws of the Red Dragon which I translated into English, his name has become a household word throughout North America. Well at least in Danube Swabian circles. As many of you know, or should know, Father Gruber is the Catholic priest, who in the aftermath of World War II (1944-1948) witnessed the extermination of the Danube Swabians, the indigenous ethnic Germans of Yugoslavia. His people - and mine.

Unlike their partisan tormentors the Danube Swabians, the largest non-Slavic ethnic group in that polyglot country, were not newcomers to the region. Their German ancestors were the first to settle the depopulated wasteland wrung from Turkish occupation more than two centuries before Yugoslavia existed. Despite their isolation from the contiguous German-speaking areas of Europe and their compliance with any regime in power, they were herded into concentration camps where the majority perished from physical abuse and denial of basic human needs.

When the world was ostensibly at peace these decent, inoffensive, naively apolitical utterly defenceless people became captives in their homeland, scapegoats who bore the brunt of the insane hatred of the partisans generated by the warring factions in the Balkans. The bitter irony is, though they had been the most provident farmers in that country, they were deliberately starved to death in their bountiful land by the very people who had benefitted most from their toil.

Father Gruber kept a diary of what he saw and experienced in the death camps, hoping to smuggle it out of the country to let the world know what was happening in Tito's Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, it was discovered and he was sentenced to 14 years in prison with hard labour for daring to write such an incriminating document. After serving ten years he was unexpectedly released and deported to Germany, where he rewrote it from memory.

In the many hours I spent translating his diary into English I learned a lot about this courageous man. He emigrated to South America in the 1950'. I knew he had medical problems and had left a settlement he had founded in Paraguay. My concern about his health and whereabouts deepened when he had not answered my letters for several months. The only address I had was a postal box number in a Brazilian city. Not much to go on to find a man whose present whereabouts even his contacts in Germany didn't know.

Since he is a Jesuit priest, when I arrived in Brazil in January 1990 I placed a number of long distance phone calls to Jesuit offices in various cities and was finally referred to a church in Foz do Iguacu, a town on the Brazil-Paraguay border. The priest on the other end of the line not only spoke Portuguese, a language with which I have some difficulty but, to my relief, English and German as well. He assured me that Father Gruber was alive and well, that he had a strong heart, had just purchased a used Volkswagen and was back at his post at San Cristobal, 170 km in the interior of the Alto-Parana region of Paraguay where he was ministering to the settlers and Indians. Since he had no phone, messages had to be funneled through the church in Iguacu, which was also his postal address.

While visiting the Danube Swabian settlement at Entre Rios (Brazil) I told Mathias Leh, the president of the Cooperativa Agraria that I had located Father Gruber and intended to visit him in Paraguay. Without hesitation he provided a car for the trip plus the services of Eugenio Leonhardt, a fifth generation German-Brazilian who spoke Portuguese, Spanish, German and also English. He was familiar with conditions in Paraguay and was to be our driver and interpreter.

Next morning Elisabeth Leh, the president's wife, Eugenio, my wife and I piled into a small station wagon and headed for Paraguay. We reached Foz do Iguacu in mid-afternoon and stopped by the church to get the latest information on road conditions. The Jesuit priest with whom I had spoken on the phone told us that due to recent heavy rains the 70 km of dirt road to San Cristobal would probably be impassable. Another priest, who had just returned from Paraguay, arrived at the church and strongly advised us not to venture off the paved roads because we would surely get mired. It would be better to wait until conditions cleared up. But how long could we wait ?

To my surprise, the imperturbable Eugenio ignored the warnings of both priests. Armed with a pencil sketch of the road to San Cristobal, (no maps or road signs there) we crossed the bridge at Ciudad del Este and drove inland. For the first 100 km or so we were on a reasonably good paved road. When we reached the 70 kilometers of dirt road to San Cristobal it seemed to be fairly dry. In fact in places the hard packed clay looked deceptively like pavement. But the wet areas were another matter! A few times I thought we would get stuck in the middle of nowhere. But Eugenio's driving skill got us through innumerable treacherous water holes and by dusk we were in San Cristobal, a community of a few wood-framed dwellings and an unfinished, as well as unfurnished, barrack-like structure they called "the hotel."

Frank Schmidt and Father Wendelin Gruber

On the rise above the road we saw the skeleton of an unfinished gray structure which we recognized as a church because it was toped off with a cross. A lone white-haired man, carrying a suitcase emerged and headed toward us. Elisabeth Leh, the only one in the car who knew him personally, was sure that it was Father Gruber. Even before the car came to a complete standstill I got out and strode toward him. For want of a more appropriate greeting, in my excitement I blurted out the German equivalent of "Father Gruber, I presume?" When he answered that he was indeed Father Gruber, I told him that I was the Frank Schmidt from Canada who had translated his book into English. With tears of joy in his eyes he embraced me like a long lost brother and in a trembling voice asked "How did you find me in this place?" I did not answer his question because Elizabeth Leh, my wife and Eugenio were all greeting him at the same time and talking excitedly.

Father GruberPerhaps because I expected to find an ailing man, my first impression was that he seemed quite fit and was very alert. He quickly took command of the situation and stopped by a house to ask a woman to prepare a meal for his guests. Then we went to the "hotel", where he made arrangements for our overnight stay. When that was taken care of he took us to his dwelling, best described as a deteriorating wooden cabin with no running water or other inside conveniences. On the porch a wild hen had made a nest in an old tire and had just hatched her chicks. The plain wooden walls of the interior were lined with bookshelves made of rough lumber. A small table was also stacked with books. A single light bulb provided the illumination. The power source, as far as I could determine, seemed to be a car battery on the porch.

Father Gruber sat in a low deck chair and the four of us sat in a semi-circle in front of him. The dim light cast bold shadows on the walls. It reminded me of the petroleum lamps which were still common on Ontario farms in my youth. This was a good setting for story-telling and Father Gruber did not disappoint us. He is fluent in many languages but when I told him that I was born in a town close to his birth place, we switched from the formality of High German to our homey Danube Swabian dialect which we both love. Now we were no longer strangers but empathis "Landsleit". I was spellbound as he regaled us with stories and anecdotes peppered with gentle humor about the trials and tribulations, as well as the triumphs, of his life in that remote corner of the world.

He told us that the majority of the settlers in the area were Brazilians of German stock who had migrated from their stoney hillside farms in the southern states of Brazil, where they just managed to eke out a living, for an easier and more financially rewarding life in the Alto-Parana. Despite the fact that during the last war Vargas, the dictator president of Brazil, made it a criminal offense to use the German language, some still speak their quaint Hunsr├╝ck dialect, but know practically nothing of their great cultural heritage. In contrast to Brazil, and some of the other countries, the people of Paraguay have not been subject to incessant anti-German propaganda. Consequently there is no animosity toward Germans in that country and they are accepted for what they are, a decent, intelligent and industrious people.

Father Gruber is greatly concerned about the native Guarani Indians whom he is trying to convert to Christianity. His eyes flashed with indignation when he told us how they are being deprived of their land by the government and land speculators, both of whom were also flagrant abusers of the environment.

He deplored the fact that so many young Brazilian priests, the majority in fact, who in their ignorance of the facts espouse leftist causes. Since he and millions of others had suffered under Communism he will have no part of it. It bothers him that these priests, who rightly champion the cause of the downtrodden, have no compassion for those who were being persecuted in Communist countries. They have even upbraided him for having written a book about the genocide of the Danube Swabians, "They are priests, but where is their compassion?" he asked, not expecting an answer.

That evening I got to know the man in the book and he was not found wanting. The years in prison had not cowed him, not had they robbed him of his sense of justice or decency, his devotion to his Danube Swabian heritage and to his God. When he spoke of injustices in the world, the disregard of the rights of minorities in many countries, the lunacy of an arms race in today's world, the abuse of the environment, man's cruelty to his fellow man, his eyes mirrored the conviction of his soul. His sharp analytical mind quickly dissected a problem and laid bare its essential elements. He had a ready answer for everything and was not stumped for what I would call awkward questions. After listening to him for hours in that remote cabin I realized what a strong character he was. He is one of the brightest people I have ever met, a remarkable man, a great Danube Swabian and a credit to the human race. Meeting him was one of the most stimulating and most rewarding experiences in my life. He will not fade from my memory for a long, long time.

Before retiring for the night Father Gruber told us that he had promised to say Mass in tow jungle clearings next morning and was to visit some Guarani Indians he was trying to befriend. So that we wouldn't be shocked or offended he thought it best to warn us that the Indians who lived in the jungle still went around in their birthday suits.

Because Father Gruber's little Volkswagen had a higher road clearance, we used it instead of our station wagon. Squeezed into the tiny car like sardines we started out early in the morning and made our first stop at a crossroad recently carved out of the rain forest. In a clearing a kitchen table covered with an embroidered tablecloth had been set up as an altar. A group of women and girls sat on logs and planks, apparently awaiting the arrival of the priest. The good Father greeted them in a friendly paternal manner, donned his vestments and set the candles, crucifix and other altar pieces on the table.

The giant trees on the perimeter of the clearing seemed like the pillars in a gothic cathedral. Their branches formed arches and interlaced at the summit to form a green canopy over the tiny congregation. Enormous vines with multi-colored leaves hung from branches and wild orchids grew in the crevices of trees. A flock of macaws roosted in the shade of the upper branches. I admired their colourful plumage , but their grating squawks were disturbing. Closer to the ground a myriad of little white butterflies flitted about in the speckled sunlight. I was struck by the natural setting and all four of us visitors agreed that it was a beautiful place to celebrate mass. Just when the mass was about to begin the bulldozer operators shut down their engines and the surveyors left their instruments to join us in the clearing. Even the macaws about us quit their raucous squawking and the forest became strangely silent.

Father Gruber began his sermon by telling the tiny congregation that he had brought along some visitors from Brazil and Canada, so the mass would be said in Spanish, Portuguese and German in order that everyone present would understand it. He spoke in a kindly tone, clearly articulating every syllable. I was impressed with the way he put so much feeling into every word he uttered and every move he made. The heartfelt reverence of those simple, uncomplicated people was very touching. In his sermon Father Gruber spoke of love in the family, of kindness and goodness toward others, and the little congregation clung to his every word.

His enunciation was so clear and precise that I had little difficulty understanding what he said in any of the three languages. Eugenio felt honoured when he was asked to read the lesson in Portuguese - especially since he is a Lutheran. He, too spoke very clearly, so that I had no trouble understanding the essence of what he said.

When, in that ethereal setting, Father Gruber sang the well-known German hymn; "Maria zu lieben ist allzeit mein Sinn..." and his clear melodious voice rang through the jungle, I was almost moved to tears. I could not help but picture this priest in solitary confinement in a dark dungeon in Communist Yugoslavia, emaciated, hollow-eyed, and near death from torture and hunger, praying for a bit of sunlight so he could at least tell whether it was day or night. Thus enraptured, the mass was a revelation to me. Good had triumphed over evil. For there before my very eyes was this same man in a remote part of the earth bringing Christianity to people who had no one else to care for their spiritual needs. When he held up the chalice and the host during the most sacred part of the mass, a ray of sunlight broke through the forest cover and lit up his countenance. Was God granting him the light he once so fervently prayed for? At that moment I saw him as a saint - which perhaps he is.


Rosary

When the mass was over a surveyor took us to the cage where he kept some young toucans, exotic birds with black and white feathers and huge yellow bills. Cute little creatures. He told us that their mother was killed in the clearing operations and he was caring for them until they could fly.

Father Gruber had to cancel another mass he had planned to celebrate that morning because the road was washed out. The people would understand, he said. Instead we headed to the end of the newly bulldozed road where an Indian encampment was said to be located. We had just gotten underway when Father Gruber pointed to a grizzly sight, tow human eyeballs stung up on a pole. He explained that the Indians had killed one of their own the day before and this was their way of letting trespassers know of the vile deed in the hope that they would stay away. It gives one an uneasy feeling to drive along a deserted muddy road through the foreboding vastness of the jungle knowing that life is cheap in that remote part of the world.

The wheels of our car was carving deep ruts into the soggy red earth and when we reached a swamp that not even a tracked vehicle could cross, Eugenio conceded that though we were only three kilometers from our destination, a primitive Indian encampment which had only recently been seen by Europeans, it was time to give up. Besides, Father Gruber was very tired and we didn't want to overdo it.

Father Gruber with indian children

On our return to San Cristobal we met some young Guarani Indians along the road. These had already adapted to the European code of dress, that is they wore clothes, but none spoke Spanish. They knew what a camera was for and when I asked by sign language if I could take their picture they readily agreed, providing they get copies. I motioned that they first had to be developed - not an easy task in sign language - and they could pick up the prints at the Padre's church in due time. Perhaps they will even become converts.

Back in San Cristobal they had slaughtered a pig in celebration of our visit and one of the Brazilian-German women had cooked an appetizing pork dinner for us. In comparison to our bland supermarket variety, the meat had a most appealing flavor and was enjoyed by visitors and natives alike.

News of our visit had gotten around. After dinner, the local prefect (mayor) a product of an Austrian father and an Indian mother came to visit. My wife and I were the first Canadians he had ever met. He was curious about our country and wanted to know what the temperature would be at that time of the year (January). When I told him that it could be well below zero Celsius (32 degree F) he added in mock incredulity "How could anyone live in such a place?"

He knew I had translated Father Gruber's book into English and asked what the people who read it thought of his friend, the priest. "The majority", I answered "especially our young people, think very highly of him". "Don't take him away now" he protested jokingly. We like him, too, and we need him." During this good natured banter Father Gruber winked at me and told the prefect that I had said "No matter what offer I make, I don't think I could drag your priest from this beautiful place," and we all laughed, knowing it was probably true.

Before leaving I asked Father Gruber, "Why at age 76 and considering the state of your health do you stay in this remote place. You have suffered enough and have given more of yourself than your church and your people have a right to expect. Why do you tax your energies under these trying conditions?"

Without weighing the question he replied earnestly; "I have been asked this question before by my contact in Germany, who by the way, thinks I'm crazy for staying here. The church did not ask me to come here. It was my choice. When I was in Gakowa concentration camp where 20,000 of our (Danube Swabian) people perished from maltreatment , torture, starvation, disease and lack of medical attention, I made a personal vow to Almighty God that if the lives of those still alive in the camps were spared, and they would be allowed their freedom, I would go to the end of the earth and undertake any task in His service. Soon after that the camps were closed and the survivors were allowed to flee their homeland, I felt that my prayers had been answered. By doing the Lord's work in this place I am fulfilling my vow. "Besides" he added with a twinkle in his eye, "I like what I'm doing."

I'm sure he does and aims to stay where he is for the rest of his life. More power to him and may God bless him in his work.

My wife and I said good-bye to Elisabeth Leh and Eugenio Leonhardt in the Hotel Cataratas adjacent to the great Iguacu waterfall. We stayed in the hotel and they returned to Entre Rios , a five to six hour trip.

On the TV news that evening we saw that it had rained heavily and that the dirt roads in Paraguay were closed. Had we stayed in San Cristobal one more day, we would not have been able to get out for a week. During a month of incessant downpours there had been only three days without rain, and we had picked those very days to visit Father Gruber.

Was it providence, or dumb luck?
You decide.


Frank Schmidt

************

This award winning article was first published in the Heimatbote in 1990 when Frank Schmidt was the editor.

Republished with permission of the author.

Copyright © 2007-2017 Anita Paré and Mark Remsing   Contact Us