A Short History of Semlak

By Georg Schmidt, Grevenbroich, translated into English by Erika Dragoi

The town of Semlak (in Romanian Semlac and in Hungarian Szemlak) is situated on the northern bank of the river Marosch (in Romanian Mures), 38 kilometers (24 miles) west of Arad with its geographic co-ordinates of 46 degrees and 05 minutes northern latitude and 20 degrees and 54 minutes longitude east of Greenwich and having an altitude of 110 to 124 meters (360 to 407 feet) height above sea level (the Adriatic Sea).
Within the bounds of present day Semlak there existed in the course of time several hamlets of which a part of them have continuously been more or less inhabited.
According to the earliest known records the location belonged to the Hungarian king Andrew II, who donated it to the Roman Catholic diocese of Csanád. In 1320 Semlak belonged to the Hungarian King Charles I (also known as Charles Robert, or Charles Robert of Anjou) of the older House of Anjou, who in turn offered it to one of his soldiers, Count John Zemleky. It is unclear whether the name Semlak originated from this Zemleky, or vice versa. When Zemleky’s daughter married Count Joksy of Nadlak, Semlak got into his possession. After Joksy’s death, Semlak got into the possession of king Vladislaus I, who in turn donated it to John Hunyádi, and this one gave it to his mother. She divided 3/4 of the acreage amongst the inhabitants of Semlak and turned the remaining 1/4 into an independent estate.
The first mention of Romanian settlers dates back to the 11th century. During the 15th century Serbians settled down in the region. They built the first Greek orthodox church here.
From 1564 to 1697 Semlak was part of the Ottoman Empire and became a fortified settlement. Throughout the time of the "military frontier" along the rivers Theiss (Tisa) and Marosch, Semlak was an important base on the northern bank of the Marosch being mainly inhabited by Serbian farmers who were also doing military duties.
The Imperial Chancery of Hungary sold the Semlak estate in 1841 to Count Gustav Hádik of Futok and it remained in his property up to the revolution of 1848. Thereafter it was given to a Hungarian state foundation.
In 1819 the first Germans were settled in Semlak by the Imperial Chancery of Hungary. They were Lutheran Protestants of the Augsburg Confession and came from the small town of Mezöberény (also called Harruckernau or Berin), approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) northwest of Semlak, in the county of Békés, Hungary. They were followed from 1823 to 1827 by approximately 38 German families coming from Balmazújváros, also situated in Hungary, west of Debrecen. These were Protestants of the Helvetian Reformed Church in the Calvinist tradition.
The colonization of Semlak by Germans took place through a migration within the Hungarian borders. Their ancestors had come to Hungary after the wars against the Turks as part of private colonizations. This is a considerable difference to the colonization of Banat. The Germans of Semlak have their own history, having very little in common with that of the Swabians of Banat. The "Semlakers" do not consider themselves as Swabians and "Banat" is to them the land on the other side of the Marosch river. Only starting with 1919, after the union with Romania brought about by the peace treaty of Trianon (Versailles), and the events during the 1930s, the Germans of Semlak and the Swabians of Banat shared a common destiny.
Separated by their creed and different ancestry, two strong German communities developed in Semlak during the 19th century - the "Beriners" (Lutherans), primarily the descendents of the immigrants from Mezöberény, as well as from Hartau (Harta in Hungary) and Soltvadkert, and the "Gubaschen" (Reformed), whose ancestors came from Balmazújváros. The latter got their name on account of the felt cloak, the "guba" they wore. It was a distinguishing mark in their traditional costume. Both communities resided separately in their own part of the town, right until the present times. It is quite unique for our settlement area that two different German dialects have been kept alive in Semlak all along. The Lutherans speak a Rhenish-Franconian "fest"- dialect whereas the Reformed speak a Rhenish-Franconian "fescht" one. These dialects had substantially developed in Mezöberény and Balmazújváros.
Semlak has always been a place where a number of different nationalities have been living side by side. Here we concentrate primarily on the history of the Germans in Semlak.
The Lutherans had already built their first school in 1822 and they conducted their own confessional school system in German up to 1948. In 1829 the congregation received its first pastor, but the present day church was not built until 1845. The Reformed initially joined the Lutherans in their congregation up to 1835. In 1838 they built their first school, in which the church services were also conducted till the building of their church was completed in 1885. They too had their own confessional school until the school reform of 1948. On account of their Protestant Creed the Germans of Semlak were culturally more oriented towards Hungary until the end of World War I, rather than towards the Swabian Banat. It was not until 1923 that the Lutheran Church of the Augsburg Confession joined the National Church of the Saxons of Transylvania.
The Germans of Semlak had always been the second largest group after the Romanians in the town. A statistic of 1848 indicated that besides the 2630 Romanians, there were living 1883 Germans and 987 members of other nationalities (Hungarians, Slovaks, Serbians, Jews, Gypsies, Ruthenians) in Semlak. In 1890 there were 2419 Germans out of a total of 6321. Towards the end of the 19th century a considerable decline in their number took place. In order to find new living space Germans did not only emigrate overseas, but also to Serbia and even to Bulgaria. 51 young men lost their lives during World War I. This caused a considerable decline in births. Thus the number of Germans in the community had dropped to 1873 by 1930, and rose again to 2001 by 1941.
The events around World War II caused a steady decrease of the Germans in Semlak. 104 young men died serving in the German and Romanian armies, 27 young men and women died during the deportation into labor camps in the Soviet Union and many of the ones who fled to the West in the fall of 1944 never returned. In 1977 there were 1065 Germans still living in Semlak, but by 1994 there were only about 200 left.
The Germans of Semlak were settled as farmers, and the majority of them carried on farming until the expropriation of 1945. The craftsmen in the village largely belonged to the other nationalities.
The cultural life revolved exclusively around the churches and took place in the congregations until 1941. In 1925 the Protestant cultural hall was built on the initiative of Andreas Gottschick. Many cultural events up to the performance of operettes took place here.
In 1931 the Protestant men's choir "Brudertreu" (Brother-loyal) was founded, that belonged to the Huber-Grünn-Group of the German Choirs Association of Banat. The blessing of its flag took place in August 27th 1933. Many choral societies from Banat participated in this event. It was the largest festival that Semlak had ever witnessed. In the course of the national awakening in the period between the two world wars a series of further German clubs/unions/associations were founded:
In:
•    1932 a Lutheran and a Reformed ladies’ club.
•    1934 the German Citizens Reading Club.
•    1936 the Producers’ Co-operative.
•    1939 the Swabian Farmers’ Association (Chairman Georg Schmidt, Vice Chairman Friedrich Schilling) and the craftsmen’s association
In the political life of Semlak the Germans always played a minor role, as they were only the second largest group. With Friedrich Schilling in the 19th century and Georg Wagner in the 1970s they won the mayor’s election only twice. The German political parties after World War I found little attention. Only towards the end of the 1930s, respectively after the founding of the “folk group” and up to the end of World War II a strong political commitment was noticeable.
The emerging of the economic revival at the eve of World War II was destroyed by the latter and by its outcome. With the expropriation in 1945, the Germans of Semlak, who had been mostly farmers, were faced with economic ruin. For the time being most of them worked as day-laborers on the state farm, that was founded with their expropriated land. In 1952 two collective farms were founded and by and by also many Germans joined them. However starting with the beginning of the fifties the younger people turned more and more to other employments. Others attended high schools or vocational schools in the nearby towns. Especially after the railroad connection to the county seat Arad was completed by 1950 many "Semlakers" commuted to work there in one of the many factories thus earning their living.
With the educational reform of 1948 a strong German school developed by and by. It eventually became part of the local public school until the end of the 1980s. Thanks to the devoted teachers of this school an active German cultural life flourished starting with 1950 up to the end of the 80s. The teachers Jakob Schmidt, Alfred Müller, Katharina Gal, Michael Jost deserve special acknowledgement, as well as the amateur artists Georg Kaiser, Josef Haibach and many more.
Beginning with the 1970s the large scale emigration to Germany took hold of Semlak too and reached its climax with the Romanian "Revolution". The few Germans still living in Semlak have founded a local branch of the Democratic Forum of the Germans. Under the leadership of the Lutheran Pastor Walter Sinn they strive to maintain our traditions. The 175th anniversary of the settlement of the first Germans in Semlak, in August 1994, was celebrated with a large festival.
Since 1980 regular reunions of the former "Semlakers" take place in Germany. At the third reunion in Ingolstadt, in May 22, 1983, the Home Town Association (Heimatortsgemeinschaft, HOG) was founded. Its first chairman was Heinrich Schubkegel (1938-1991). In 1991 Georg Schmidt was elected chairman. At the general meeting on Pentecost 1997, the Association adopted its own memorandum of the association being a recognized non-profit association having as a main purpose to further and cherish the ties between fellow Semlakers, as well as their descendents, in close co-operation with the Association of the Swabians of Banat.
In October, 18th 2003 Georg Braun was elected Chairman and Georg Schmidt Honorary Chairman.
The Home Town Association, under the editorship of Georg Schmidt produces and distributes the newsletter "Heimatbrief", in which studies and reports concerning the Association, as well as the history and traditions of the Germans of Semlak are being published.