THE WORLD WAR I GMÜND REFUGEE CAMP AND ITS POSTAL FACILITIES

by Ingert Kuzych, Roman Dubyniak, and Peter Cybaniak

The early weeks of World War I did not at all go according to how the Austrians had planned. Glowing hopes for a speedy victory by Austrian troops over their nemesis of Serbia were dashed when Russia, Serbia’s ally, mobilized more quickly and attacked both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its ally Germany, making substantial initial gains. Large portions of the Austrian crownlands of Galicia and Bukovina were occupied in the fall of 1914 and even though many of the territories were cleared of the Russians by the summer of 1915, some remained under occupation throughout the conflict.

By the end of September 1914, less than two months after the outbreak of the war, between 60,000 and 70,000 refugees had arrived in Vienna from the Russian-occupied eastern front. By 1915, the Austrian Ministry for the Interior estimated that the number of refugees who were eligible for state support had reached 600,000, of whom 450,000 came from Galicia and Bukovina on the eastern front and 150,000 came from the southwestern front on the Italian border. Transported by train to refugee camps in the German-speaking hinterlands, the Austrian War Ministry sought to group refugees according to nationality for ease and speed of repatriation, and to prevent their assimilation into the surrounding communities.

One of the largest camps was in the town of Gmünd, Lower Austria (Niederösterriech), some 120 km (75 miles) northwest of Vienna, very close to the Austrian-Bohemian border (Figure 1). Following World War I the new Austrian-Czechoslovak border ran through the town of Gmünd. A section north of the River Lainsitz went to Czechoslovakia and was renamed České Velenice. The southern, main part of the town, however, remained with Austria

The crownlands of Galicia and Bukovina were heavily populated by Ukrainians and it was in the Ukrainian-inhabited lands that some of the fiercest early fighting of the conflict took place. At the outbreak of the war, 43 percent of the inhabitants of the crownlands were Ukrainian. Many Austrians still referred to these people as Ruthenians, but by the war years the description Ukrainian(s) was becoming more widely used.

In September of 1914, Gmünd was designated as the site of a refugee camp for Ruthenian (Ukrainian) evacuees from the eastern Austrian crownlands, and a barracks camp (Barackenlager) was hastily constructed south of the town. Gmünd was a major railway center, which made the locale an ideal site for such a camp. Building materials could be quickly ferried in to construct such a camp and subsequently, all manner of supplies to keep the camp functioning could be brought in at regular intervalsAround 30,000 Ukrainians were housed in this locale, while another 10,000 Ukrainians were interned in Wolfsberg and St. Andra, Carinthia (Kärnten). Examples of camps for other nationalities from Galicia and Bukovina included those for Poles in Leibnitz, Styria (Steiermark; for 30,000 internees) and Chotzen, Bohemia (for 20,000); some 20,000 Jews were housed in Nikolsburg, Pohrlitz, and Gaya in Moravia, and another 3,000 Jews in Bruck an der Leitha, Lower Austria


Figure 1. The town of Gmünd as it appeared before the war.

Ukrainian refugees underwent all sorts of hardships in seeking to flee from the ravages and misery of the war; we have been able to obtain several postcards showing their plight. The hardest part for many was getting from their relatively isolated villages to towns or cities where they could sometimes board trains to take them safety. However, families with livestock were often not able to obtain conveyance and had to make the journey of hundreds of kilometers on foot. Figures 2 and 3 depict some of the more fortunate refugees who were able to harness animals to wagons to make their escape. Figure 4 shows a refugee family’s earthen shelter thrown together in some woods (somewhat reminiscent of the sod houses constructed on the American prairie during the 19th century). Figure 5 illustrates refugees arriving at the Gmünd camp with some of their livestock.


Figure 2. Galician refugees walking and riding to safety.


Figure 3. A group of Ukrainian refugees resting by the side of a road.


Figure 4. A makeshift refugee camp with an earthen shelter.


Figure 5. Refugees arriving at the Gmünd camp with their cattle after having travelled hundreds of miles on foot.

Constructing the Camp

The building of large barrack living quarters in Gmünd began in December 1914 and by September 1915, 144 units were complete. When construction began, the barracks were hastily thrown together and rather flimsy, since no one thought the war would last as long as it did. Originally, the buildings had no floors. Eventually, all of the barracks had to be renovated to some extent. Each barrack was 40 meters long and 12 meters wide and constructed of wood. Each had four entrances with 12 high-set windows along its length.

The camp was divided into 15 sections, each with eight housing barracks and one large additional building, half of which served as a kitchen barrack and the other half for camp institutions. In addition to these accommodations for shelter and board, there were other camp buildings dedicated to camp organization, security, maintenance, and support. Electricity and water were provided to the camp. Until lodging could be completed at the camp, refugees were sheltered in guest houses in the Gmünd vicinity.

The living-quarter barracks were each designed to hold 200-250 persons, and some 25,000 to 30,000 inhabitants were regularly accommodated in the camp. At one point the number of inhabitants reached over 36,000. This figure dwarfs the 1915 population total of 5,000 for the town of Gmünd itself! According to the 1951 history of the Gmünd refugee camp prepared by city archivist Rupert Hauer, the Barackenlager Gmünd housed some 25,000 Ukrainian refugee families by May of 1915 and within a year the number reached 70,000. Based on the number of buildings and their capacity, however, these figures seem very much inflated.

A section built in the western portion of the camp in 1917 was for "superior-status refugees" (including minor nobility and intelligentsia) as well as administrative staff. It attempted to meet the needs of this more privileged portion of society. Hence each house was allotted a bit of acreage where a vegetable patch could be grown and a storage shed could be set up. Because these buildings were constructed of more durable materials, a more comfortable existence was possible in this area. (Some of these houses survive to the present day.)

The vast majority of refugees were Ukrainians, but Slovenians, Italians, and Croats were also housed at the camp. All these nationalities of the Empire did not necessarily get along even during peacetime; the crowded conditions made for an explosive situation and riots occasionally broke out. The Croats were particularly Russophilic and their removal in January 1916 was met with relief. They were replaced with 10,000 new refugees from Galicia.

Behind the camp gate was a section devoted to the camp security. Three barracks housed guards and the gendarmerie, which was composed entirely of Czech-speakers. The Ukrainians had absolutely no problems coming to an understanding with these fellow-Slav protectors.

The main street into the camp and two side streets were asphalted; the others were covered with gravel. Separate buildings existed for post, telegraph, telephone, a cantina, and administration; behind the latter was a warehouse and a group of buildings containing a storehouse, a bakery, the electric station, a butcher, the cold-storage depot, stables, disinfection chemicals depository, and a fire department. Additionally, 11 clothes washing kitchens were set up. For the aged, children, and orphans separate residences, nurseries, and play centers were constructed.

Across from the admin building was the hospital section with 15 hospitals, an apothecary, a hospital warehouse, an apothecary storehouse, an outpatient center, and a building for disinfecting the sick and new arrivals. In the middle of the camp was a large, open area some 200 meters square, and in the center of this site was a covered stage where school children and camp residents could present various programs. Fronting the open area was a large wooden church designed to meet the people’s spiritual needs.

A camp school provided rudimentary education for the youngsters as well as advanced training courses for adults (Figure 6). Lessons for children began in the spring of 1915 and a five-grade curriculum was set up. By the time the camp closed in 1918, 1,628 children had taken advantage of this educational system, which awarded semiannual report cards. In addition to traditional school subjects, other activities such as singing, handicrafts, and theater presentations were organized. In the fall of 1915, a first year gymnasium (high school) curriculum was begun. In the evenings, adult courses were offered for illiterate internees (to learn to read and write Ukrainian) as well as for those who wished to learn German (Figure 7). A total of 917 adults are recorded as having attended these sessions.


Figure 6. A Gmünd refugee camp school room in 1916.
By this time desks and a blackboard had been provided.


Figure 7. Many, if not most, of the camp’s internees were illiterate. This photo shows a large class of adults learning to read in 1915.

Although strict sanitary rules and procedures were enforced, the crowded conditions of the camp made the refugees susceptible to a variety of ills and periodic disease outbreaks did occur, particularly typhus. These epidemics contributed to a fairly high death rate in the camp. During the course of 1916 a drainage system was set up for the camp’s sewerage. The wastewater was cleaned in coke "distilleries" and then channeled into the nearby stream. All in all, the first year of 1915 was the hardest and most frightful for the camp’s inhabitants. It was also the period of greatest crowding. Many internees did not receive adequate shelter until the second half of that year. Food shortages and crowding led to stress, sickness, and, for the weakest, death. By 1916, conditions had improved markedly. More buildings and services became available and a more normal life could be lived. Continued improvements in 1917 made camp life even more tolerable.

Life in the Camp

Many of the able-bodied males in the camp, as well as some females, went to work in jobs outside the camp. They were employed working in fields (planting or harvesting), in forests (cutting wood), in factories (industrial or munitions plants), or as household servants. During the years that the camp functioned, some 22,000 internees found work in the surrounding towns and villages; all of their labor was recompensed.

A sizeable Ukrainian community lived in Vienna during the early part of the 20th century and it maintained close ties with the Gmünd refugee camp. A number of social and cultural activities were organised including some of the aforementioned courses for illiterate camp inhabitants and the staging of plays and concerts. Eventually, a fairly rich cultural life developed at the camp. Several singing groups emerged (Figures 8, 9, and 10) and the theatre program gave the internees something to look forward to and promoted morale (Figures 11 and 12).


Figure 8. A choir formed at the Gmünd camp.


Figure 9. A ladies singing group at Camp Gmünd in folk costume.


Figure 10. A concert at the camp’s open-air pavilion.
Note that a piano was provided for the choristers.




Figures 11 &12. Scenes from the operetta "Perekhytryly" performed at the camp.

On 18 August 1915, the 85th birthday of Emperor Franz Josef, a monument was dedicated at the camp in the presence of high-ranking Austrian and Ukrainian dignitaries (Figures 13 and 14). The Governor of Lower Austria, Count Richard Bienert-Schmerling, visited the camp on 10 September 1915 (Figure 15). In September of 1917, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Metropolitan Count Andriy Sheptytsky visited the camp for three days.


Figure 13. Dedication of a monument to Austrian Emperor Franz-Joseph on his 85th birthday, 18 August 1915. Note some of the barracks buildings in the background.


Figure 14. Officials at the dedication of the Franz-Joseph monument.


Figure 15. The Governor of Lower Austria, Count Richard Binerth-Schmerling, visited the refugee camp on 10 September 1915. More barracks are visible in the background.

Squabbling did not necessarily occur only among the different ethnic groups within the camp. There were plenty of disgruntled internees who were unhappy with the Austrian Government who brought them to their sorry condition. On the other hand, there were others who supported the monarchy and who agitated against the idea of a greater Ukraine – the merging of the Austrian Ukrainians with those in the Russian Empire. [Prior to World War I, Ukrainian ethnographic territories were divided between the Russian Empire in the east (roughly 90%) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the west (some 10%).] The possibility of such a notion had begun to be discussed after Ukrainians from various parts of the Austrian Empire were thrown together in the camp, some of whom also met fellow Ukrainians from the Russian Empire who had deserted or were POWs.

One episode that left a bitter taste had to do with the Ukrainians from Bukovyna. Initially there were only a few hundred in the camp and they were repatriated in the summer of 1915. In June of 1916, however, a Russian offensive drove a much larger number of Bukovyna Ukrainians to the Gmünd camp. These new refugees were for the most part Orthodox Christians, while the Galicians were Greek-Catholic (Uniate) Christians. Since the Russian enemy was Orthodox, the Bukovyna Orthodox Ukrainians felt themselves a threatened minority amongst so many Greek-Catholics. Under the strident influence of a group of intellectuals, they demanded their "own" church, barracks, school, teachers, inspectors, etc. In short, a complete separation with the Galicians. These Bukovyna Ukrainians numbered about 2,200 and they raised such a clamor that eventually the camp administrators relented and on 6 September 1916 all of the Bukovynians were resettled into another camp at Enzersdorf, outside of Vienna.

A large number of Ukrainians served in the Imperial Austrian Army (about 8% were Ukrainian) as young men of Galicia were called up for military service irrespective of ethnicity. Since on the eastern front Austria was engaged in fighting Tsarist Russia, Ukrainians who had not been called up or who had been exempted from call-up, volunteered to form a separate Ukrainian Legion of Ukrainian officers and men within the Austrian Army. The Austrian authorities, though at first a bit reluctant, soon agreed. One of the aims of this unit was to support Ukrainian aspirations of national sovereignty within the Russian Empire.

The Barackenlager Gmünd was an important support facility for the Ukrainian Legion and the camp also provided volunteer recruits for this military unit. We have come across a photograph showing a group of about 130 volunteers in April of 1916, all smartly dressed in uniforms and marching four abreast, leaving the camp and heading for the Legion’s recruiting center (Figure 16).


Figure 16. Volunteers depart the Gmünd camp on their way to the
Ukrainian Legion recruiting center in Vienna.

A hospital at the Gmünd camp was set aside for wounded Ukrainian soldiers. Figure 17 shows a ward in this medical facility.


Figure 17. Ukrainian soldiers being treated at the Legionnaire hospital
at the Gmünd refugee camp.

Camp Mails

A post office also existed in the camp and it used a circular, double-ring, bridged postmark "Barackenlager/ Gmünd, N. Ö.". Counter-letters "a", "b", and "c" are known used 1915-1920; "d" was used 1915-1926 although the office was renamed Gmünd 2 on 1 August 1920. Figures 18 to 21 show four covers, each with the same pre-printed return address, but prepared slightly differently (four different types). The address itself "K. k. Barackenverwaltung, Gmünd, N. Ö." translates as the "Imperial and Royal Barracks’ Administration in Gmünd, Lower Austria." The return address types differ in the thickness of the lettering or in the length of the underlying lines (two complete lines in the case of Figures 18 and 19 or the second line shortened at either end in Figures 20 and 21). The four illustrated covers display three of the four circular postmarks ("b", "c", and "d"). Note that no postage was required for mail sent on official business. The envelopes used in these official dispatches differ in their color, having been prepared with whatever paper was available at the printer at the time the request for pre-printed envelopes was made. Colors we have seen range from cream, to buff, to light brown, to greenish-blue.


Figure 18. Type I Gmünd camp official envelope (thick print, two full lines). Sent to the Ukrainian Relief Committee in Vienna on 29 June 1915, it displays the Gmünd "b" cancel.


Figure 19. Type II Gmünd camp official envelope (thin print, two full lines). Sent to the Ukrainian Relief Committee in Vienna on 30 July 1917, it displays the Gmünd "d" cancel.


Figure 20. Type III Gmünd camp official envelope (thick print, shortened second line). Sent registered to the Ukrainian Relief Committee in Vienna on 30 April 1917, it bears a handstamp of the Work Procurement Department of Camp Gmünd as well as the Gmünd "c" cancel.


Figure 21. Type IV Gmünd camp official envelope (thin print, shortened second line). Sent to the United Ukrainian Cultural Council in Vienna on 4 May 1917, it shows a Gmünd "d" cancel.

The addressees on the covers shown in Figures 18-21 – as well on many others we have come across – are Ukrainian relief organizations that sought to improve the condition of the camp’s inhabitants. The vast majority of the letters went to the "Hilfskomitee für ukrainische Flüchtlinge aus Galizien und der Bukowina" (the Relief Committee for Galician and Bukovinian Refugees), which in 1915 was at Mezzanin 5, Piaristengasse, but by late 1916 was located on Strozzigasse 32 (both in Wien VIII) in Vienna. Some letters went to the "Gesamt-ukrainischen Kulturrates" (United Ukrainian Cultural Council), which was located at the same address and provided supplies and publications of an educational nature. Several letter writers we found decided to ignore regular channels and sent their petitions – using registered mail – straight to the top, to "Lev" Levitsky, the senior Ukrainian member in the Austrian Parliament (Figure 22). In this case, an "a" circular postmark was utilized.

Lev (Leo) was a nickname; his true name was Kost Levytsky. He was elected to the Austrian Parliament in 1907 and to the Galician Diet in 1908. As head of the National Democratic Party, the strongest Ukrainian party, and as chairman of the Ukrainian clubs in the Parliament and Diet, he became the most influential Ukrainian political leader in Galicia by 1910. In 1914 he was elected the president of the Supreme Ukrainian Council in Lviv, and in 1915-16, of the General Ukrainian Council in Vienna


Figure 22. Registered letter mailed to "Lev" Levitsky, the senior Ukrainian member in the Austrian Parliament, on 21 June 1915. Since this was not an official dispatch, full postage was required: 15-heller letter rate and 20-heller registry. Note the Gmünd "a" cancel.

Since the Ukrainian Legion was part of the Imperial Austrian Army, its various units utilised the Austrian Field Post. The Ukrainian Legion’s Facilities at Camp Gmünd were assigned Field Post No. 445. Thus, outgoing military mail from the camp was marked "Field Post 445" and required no postage (Figure 23). However, some military mails were sent via the camp post office and did require franking. Figure 24 presents a distinctive Ukrainian Legion field post correspondence card – with its prominent Ukrainian Legion seal – sent from Camp Gmünd.


Figure 23. Postcard sent via Field Post 445 from Camp Gmünd on 1 June 1917.


Figure 24. Ukrainian Legion field post correspondence card sent via the Gmünd post office on 21 July 1916 franked with a 5-heller stamp to pay the postcard rate. Note the two-line receiving handstamp of the Ukrainian Legion office in Vienna.

We have also been able to locate a few pieces of mail from the Bukovinian Ukrainian refugee camp at Enzersdorf. Figure 25 shows a postcard sent via that camp’s Field Post No. 182.


Figure 25. Postcard sent via Field Post 182 from the Bukovynian Ukrainian refugee camp at Enzersdorf on 26 December 1916.

About 200 to 300 thousand people are estimated to have passed through the Barackenlager Gmünd during the years that the camp remained open (1915-1918). However, many refugees arrived ill, debilitated, emaciated, or wounded. At least 20,000 inhabitants (including Legionaries) died and were buried in Gmünd. Some sources cite a death total of 30 or 35 thousand. (On average, over two dozen people were interred daily.) On 26 September 1964, the 50th anniversary of the camp founding, a monument entitled "Refugees" by the renowned Ukrainian sculptor Gregor Kruk was dedicated to these victims of the war at the Gmünd refugee cemetery.

The commemorative envelope shown in Figure 26 was issued on 18 October 1997 in Gmünd for a memorial exhibition. Shown on both the cachet and cancellation are the entrance to the Barackenlager Gmünd as well as the "Refugees" memorial.


Figure 26. Cover sponsored by the Ukrainian Stamp Collectors Club of Austria in 1997.
It depicts the entrance to the Gmünd camp and the "Refugees" monument.

What Happened to the Camp?

There was a continuous turnover of refugees in the camp for a variety of reasons. During the course of the war, if the enemy was driven out of a certain region and if the area now seemed secure, the inhabitants were allowed to return to rebuild their lives. At other times, refugees were able to find accommodations with extended family or with friends. Or, they would leave because they had found employment and a place to live in some city or town. These as well as many other circumstances help explain why there is no definite accounting for the total number of refugees that passed through the camp. In early 1918, Austria-Hungary and Germany signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Soviet Russia ending the war in the east. During the course of the year the Gmünd Camp was emptied as people simply went home or left to start new lives elsewhere (Figure 27).


Figure 27. Ukrainian refugees departing the Gmünd camp in 1917 or 1918.

After the war, numerous Austrian companies bought up the cheap plots of land and settled into the abandoned buildings in this new part of the town. In 1921, the dye manufacturer "Heinisch" (today "Eybl International AG") moved into the former hospital laundry and the hospital surgery; the factory "Bobbin" (a furniture builder that became one of the biggest firms in the area) moved into the disinfection facility. During the following years, "Agrana" – the biggest industrial facility in Gmünd-Neustadt – also moved into the area. Today the factory largely produces products based on potato starch. Another very important company in this area is "Leyrer und Graf," a construction company. But small businesses, cooking, and commercial operations also continue to pump life into this part of the town. On the main street of the camp, where the former camp administration was once situated, there is today a Café Pub, a plant center, and a fashion-boutique. Various housing developments (obviously of more durable design) have been built along some of the streets that formerly ran alongside the barracks.

Bibliography

  1. The Gmünd website features a Themenweg (guided tour) with Infotafeln (information signs) many of which describe and show what life was like at the refugee camp: http://gmuend.riskommunal.net/system/web/zusatzseite.aspx?menuonr=219170187&detailonr=219399089
  2. Hnatkova, Ya. "Ukrainskyi Tabir Bizhentsiv u Gmindi, Avstria, 1914-1917 ta Yikhnye Poshtove Ustatkuvannia" (The Ukrainian Refugee Camp in Gmünd, Austria, 1914-1917 and its Postal Facilities). Visti Kombatanta No. 1 (2004): 76-77.
  3. Hugel, Lubomyr. "The Ukrainian Refugee Camp in Gmünd, Austria, 1914-1917, and its Postal Facilities. Ukrainian Philatelist No. 53/54 (1988): 39-43.
  4. Ostheim-Dzerowycz, Maria. "Das Flüchtlingslager in Gmünd" (The Refugee Camp in Gmünd). Die Briefmarke (July 2000): 34-37 and (August 2000): 28-29. (Originally appeared in Osterreichisch-Ukrainische Rundschau, Sonderausgabe Nr. 5 (October 1977)).
  5. Thorpe, Julie. "Belonging in Austria: Citizens, Minorities, and Refugees in the Twentieth Century" in Matt Killingsworth (ed.), Europe: New Voices, New Perspectives (Melbourne: The Contemporary Europe Research Centre, University of Melbourne, 2007): 90-104.
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