One of Carthage's Best-Kept Secrets
Born in a small town in Austria in 1935, Maria Sallaberger Vanover may be one of Carthage’s best-kept and most interesting secrets. What an amazing storehouse of fascinating life memories she is, and what a tribute to the indomitable spirit of European people who survived World War II!
Maria was too young during the early years of World War II to remember much, but she has vivid memories of the later war and post-war years. While her own small town escaped the bombing, she saw the smoke and heard the frightening sounds during bombings close by, and the devastation of the people and property everywhere. Perhaps her most dominant memory is of hunger and the terrible scarcity of food. However, she also remembers the resourcefulness of her parents and how they always found a way to manage. Austria is such a cold country that the growing season is very short. The family grew a variety of summer vegetables that had to be eaten quickly because they had no way to preserve them, but they also grew potatoes, cabbages, and beets that they could store in winter in the concrete cellar her father had built. They had to be very frugal, though, because it would be a long, cold time until the new crops would be ready, and virtually nothing was available in the local stores.
Luckily there were wheat farmers in the area who allowed people to come after the harvest and pick up any leftovers from the fields. “We were gleaners, just like in the Bible,” Maria remembers. “We also had a miller across the street to grind the wheat, so we were able to have flour when hardly anyone else did.” She remembers with fondness the wonderful noodles and dumplings it allowed her mother to make. The family eventually got a few chickens (for eggs, not for meat!), and a goat for milk. The goat had a baby in the spring, so the family celebrated Easter with roasted kid.
Many of Maria’s post-war memories center around the road that ran in front of the family home. One is of a man walking on the road. Seeing Maria and her mother and siblings pumping water from their deep well, he crossed the little field in front and asked them for a drink. Her mother went inside to get a cup and returned also holding a boiled potato from the kitchen, which she offered him. He looked at the potato and then at all the children standing behind their mother, and his tears began flowing. He was starving and of course wanted desperately to eat it, but he was hesitant—obviously shamed and embarrassed to be taking it from this family. She recalls with her own tears, “He finally took it, kissed my mother’s hand, and walked away. Mother thought he was French, likely a soldier returning from war. We never learned whether he made it home.”
A joyous memory of that road is the day her father returned, having been commandeered to serve quite late in the war. Maria says, “He was called up in World War I at 18, probably a little too young, and at 44 in Word War II, probably a little too old!” She and her siblings saw her mother suddenly and uncharacteristically running full speed toward the road. Suddenly realizing the identity of the man walking there, the children also began to run. Just released from a prison camp only about 20 miles from their house, he told them all not to hug or even touch him yet because he was “crawling” with vermin, but she recalls, “After he finished with his bath, we had the loveliest reunion.” She says her father saw many terrible and brutal acts, especially in the first war, but he never felt he could share such gruesome and inhumane stories with his wife and children. Only after her brother was grown and her father told him some of the stories was she able to find out details of some of the horror he had experienced.
She also remembers the day when American soldiers came down that same road in tanks and trucks, signaling the end of the war. Shortly after that, food started appearing in the stores, sent by the American government. Maria remembers getting rice, a luxury they had not seen in a long time, a big bag of cornmeal, dried beans, and dry milk. “We had never even heard of cornmeal,” she recalls, “and had absolutely no idea what to do with it, but we were grateful for it, and my mother did a good job of just using it sort of like flour.”
Several years later she heard unusual sounds on the road and looked out to see rows and rows of farm wagons, some drawn by oxen, some by horses, and even a few by cows. The people all looked very different from everyone she knew, especially the women wearing long black dresses with scarves on their heads. They were from Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and other Eastern European countries, fleeing from the invading Communists into Western Europe. Maria recalls that people took them into their homes, their children attended local schools, and they were provided classes to learn the language and ways of their new country, assimilating so completely that over a short time they were indistinguishable from the native Austrians.
As a child and teen, Maria remembers loving school and reading, becoming proficient in English quickly. She enjoyed knitting and crocheting, learning at an early age to make her own socks and other garments. She loved swimming in the summer and sleigh riding and sledding in the winter. She says it is unbelievable what a relatively worry-free childhood she had, even in the middle of so much to be worried about. She gives credit to her mother for that. “She was so smart. She just never spoke of anything bad in front of us children, never let us know there was anything to worry about. I think that’s why I am not, and never have been, a worrier!”
At 17, she met American soldier Webb Vanover, who had stayed after the war with the occupation forces in Austria. They were both attending one of the great balls held in Austria for “Fasching,” a season of celebration, dances, and parades much like Mardi Gras, lasting from January until Lent. They danced together that evening, he asked her out, they began dating, and an almost-60-year romance was born. Webb soon had to return to the States, but only displaced Europeans could come, so as an Austrian Maria didn’t qualify. Then an ad in a newspaper caught her eye: “Domestic Help Wanted in Canada.” She wrote a letter to a Canadian government office in Linz and within days had an appointment for an interview and physical. She was initially turned down because she was not yet 18, but was finally accepted after her parents signed a legal document permitting her to go. She took a train to Italy and then traveled by ship for nine days across the Atlantic to Halifax.
She was hired to work in Toronto in a hospital for elderly patients, filling and delivering food trays. She loved the patients and her work and made many wonderful friends. The hospital had living quarters for employees, and one day when she came in from work, she found Webb sitting in the visitors’ room. They decided to get married right away and had a small simple wedding there in Toronto. Webb had to get back to his job in Detroit, so Maria gave her proper two-weeks notice to the hospital, took a train to Windsor (just across the river from Detroit), and found a room for rent with a kitchen and bath. She lived there alone during the week, and he joined her there on weekends. This arrangement lasted about a year while she was waiting on the papers to allow her to come to America.
The couple lived in Detroit for several more years, in Florida for 23 years, and in Kentucky for a short while, bearing and raising five children during that time—four sons and a daughter. Maria also took the course of study in American history and government and became an American citizen in 1963. After two of their adult children who had moved to Texas introduced the Lone Star State to them, they moved to Carthage to enjoy retirement. One morning a little over nine years ago, Webb came to breakfast saying he was not feeling well and totally sapped of energy. He had always been very healthy and robust and had completed a 2,000-mile motorcycle trip only two weeks earlier. But despite the very quick onset of symptoms, lab work showed him to be in the last stages of leukemia, and he passed away within six months. Maria called on that indomitable spirit of strength, courage, and determination that she had exhibited throughout her life to get her through this trial, and she most certainly still has a full measure of it today at 81 years!