Guard: They’ve changed the rules…She can speak in her own language. Until further notice… Harold Pinter, Mountain Language
Eiskaffee this morning with my 85-year-old neighbour, Frau K., always immaculately dressed yet warm-hearted; liberal and earnest but with a twinkle in her eye. She makes the best Eiskaffee in Graz. Every few weeks we sit down together to catch up on life and neighbourhood gossip. Our chat meanders over holidays, the rain, the expensive prices at the spice shop, and then somehow arrives in the past. Frau K. grew up on a farm south of Graz and was ten years old when World War II broke out. They lived, she tells me gently, out of range of most of its happenings. But what has lasted more in her memory is a sensation, the everyday fear, heavy in the stomach. Her grandmother came originally from just across the border in Slovenia, and never learned German. After the Slovenian language was banned, she was especially silent when one particular neighbour came round. Everyone knew he was the kind to file a report with the police. People from their village disappeared quietly, and turned up dead in a field somewhere, and that was how their war was. Over time, her grandmother stopped talking all together.
Later on, Frau K. married a man whose Habsburg Austrian cousins still lived in Ljubljana in Tito’s Yugoslavia. The speaking of German among these descendants was illegal. Inside, within small circles, there were furtive, whispered conversations, always with one eye on the door.
When I describe our project to Frau K., she says that more than anything she would have loved to have studied history if only she had had the chance, which she didn’t on the land, and she tells me that is very important not to bury the past, however uncomfortable it may be.