I grew up in pink suburbia but my mother is from the countryside. Not the countryside that is on tourism brochures, with yodelling and smiling cows. Her countryside lies on prehistoric, run-down mountains, on a soil that burps up granite rocks and breaks tractors. It’s always the coldest part of the country. People don’t move there because they want to, but because they’ve tried everything else. There’s a church on every tenth hill.
I went there on holidays. My grandparents fed me with unpasteurised milk and looked away when I ate the cat food. I tanned and turned blonde, scraped my knees bloody and fell into the stream behind their house, the nettles next to the dunghill and from the hayloft. My friends back home didn’t believe me when I told them I’d watched lightning hit a tree and the birth of a calf. They thought I was making up stories when I told them that their thin white milk was originally yellow and warm. My grandparent’s farm lies in Wartberg ob der Aist, a little village with a church tower that looks like it’s cut off half-way, like the money ran out before they could finish it. Google maps tells me the village lies 10,2 km from the Mauthausen concentration camp.
Every national election, the question of how to teach Austria’s history resurfaces. Asking the new minister of education about it is a fast track to pitch black headlines and sold-out newspapers. In 2008, someone wrote “Was unsern Vätern der Jud, ist für uns die Moslembrut [What the Jew is to our fathers, the Muslim spawn is to us] “on a wall in Mauthausen (Meinhart). In 2009, chancellor Faymann mentioned that he thought too few students visited memorials (OTS0333). It must have been 2012 when my class was assigned a trip.
Coming to the UK showed me how embarrassingly blotchy my knowledge of World War Two is. My uni friends would know more about it than I did. During my time in public education, I had three history teachers, and only one – my primary school teacher – did not assume I already knew everything about it. We learned how Maria Theresia ascended to the throne, but not how Hitler did it. I don’t believe that my teachers deemed it unimportant – they just assumed we’d already know. I knew “Germany annexed Austria” and that there was a war, I knew they bombed Vienna and that the cold and hunger was so great they cut down trees in the parks. The history I was taught felt so far away, so distant. Whilst really, I should have been able to feel it breathe down my neck.
Because my sense of balance is so bad, I always get motion sickness. Sometimes even when I drive myself. The road to my grandparents forms an exception, however, because I have travelled it so many times. I remember having feared the journey to the Mauthausen concentration camp in our school bus, and then being surprised by myself for not feeling ill. We took the motorway leading west, cutting through Austria’s top half. Then we got off at Sankt Valentin, crossed the green train bridge and turned left after that. I only felt sick when I stepped out of the bus and saw the cut-off church tower two hills over.
My Religions teacher was our tour guide, he was German and had a preference for mustard corduroy trousers. He led us to the gas chambers and closed the doors, something that is illegal now. They have someone standing next to grey steel doors, making sure that nobody shuts them close. But my religion teacher stood inside the gas chamber, doors locked, and told us about how they’d have to cut the bodies apart because gas and death would make them rigid and all those limbs and arms were tangled together because they climbed each other, gasping for the air that stuck to the ceiling. Nobody talked on the way back.
Facebook tells me that some of my childhood friends and classmates are now members of “schagenden Burschenschaften”, nationalist fraternities that are known for their extremism and rough initiations. “Schlagende Burschenschaften” drink and sing. They also fence without protection and then don’t treat their wounds. To them, cheeks slashed open are a sign of prowess, of masculinity. The scars are what give them away when they sit in parliament. They shout louder than anybody else, they scream. They are not polite, but brutally clean in dark suits and light blue ties. Almost all of them sit in the faction of the leading oppositional party, the right-winged “FPÖ”.
A party whose blue-eyed, beautiful leader demands fences all around the borders, who wants to leave the EU and expel refugees and immigrants. Their presidential candidate almost won the election (Österreich – gesamt) and now they’re part of the coalition forming government. With their eloquence and money, they made nationalism ok. They’ve managed to make it cool. It’s no longer shameful to hate foreigners, to want a “pure” nation. Our culture of beer drinking and dirndl-wearing is endangered, and it is our duty as honourable Austrians to protect it.
During the election, my Facebook timeline was flooded with Austria’s colours – red and white. Suddenly the people I grew up with, the people I was fond of and trusted, turned out to believe that migrants were dangerous. The friends that found my Swedish father fascinating began asking for the expulsion of people without Austrian citizenship. They posed in front of flags with white hats, smiling, and wanted laws that would make me fatherless. Somehow, that made me think back to that school trip. I started wondering whether we had seen the same thing. The same pictures and bed bunks. The same emptiness.
I wish I could just call them patriotic. But this country is never patriotic. Not at football matches, tea parties or national days. There are no military parades and we don’t march. One midsummer, my dad put up a flag pole with a Swedish flag. All neighbours had to comment. They all stopped at our gate, with smiles and their elbows on the metal, and wondered why there was Swedish flag billowing above their peachy suburbia. They did not see that my dad was homesick. They did not see that he wanted to teach his children pride in their country. That it was nothing but a flag, nothing but coloured cloth. My dad did not put it up next summer. We don’t hang flags here, never. Because the last time we did, they were not red-white.
After the war, Austria was branded “the first victim” of Nazi Germany. Our economy picked up relatively quickly because we didn’t have to pay war repairs to the Allied forces, thanks to that label. My grandfather’s generation is the one that still pretends it’s true. I tell myself it is because they needed to believe in the war their sons and brothers left for. The fallen soldiers that have crosses behind the dark hedges next to my grandmother’s tombstone. Some of those graves are empty, some of those boys never came back. The hedges are tall and thick, evergreen. The crosses are wrought of black iron and there’s not more than a hundred. Three of them carry my mother’s maiden name.
But we never bring any flowers, and only tea lights on All Saint’s Day. These deaths were for a cause we are taught to feel shame for. They are deaths never mourned, so they must rest in the shadow behind hedges and not next to their parents and wives. My mother’s generation was taught to feel guilty. I am part of the one that is forgetting. Our scars are faded. The marks are not fresh, not self-inflicted or painful. They’re just there, silent and paler than the rest of our skin. We don’t mind them, they are not important, we don’t care anymore. We no longer see the danger that comes from marching with flags. We’re ready to do it. We’re ready to do it again.
The blind spots in our school books are dangerous. We cannot know whether we’re repeating history, because we don’t know history. And a few school trips and war memorials are not enough to fix it. We need our grandparents to break the silence. We need to ask all the questions our parents are too ashamed to ask, and we need to listen. I need my grandfather to tell me how he got his first motorbike from a Russian captain who lived in their house for a summer. I need him to tell me how he got his first chewing gum from an American marine. How that marine was probably one of those soldiers who liberated the concentration camp just two hills down the road. A man in uniform who saw people so thin and white like paper that they were almost see-through. A guy who saw the ignorance of the village and who still handed out chewing gum to its boys.
I need my grandfather to explain how his house is built from stones made in the mines that an estimated 300,000 people were worked to death in. I need my Opa to tell me why there are no photographs of his fallen brothers above the TV.
It is peculiar to grow up in a country that has a chapter of history everybody points at with sharp fingers and closed eyes. Because it rests here, it rests in between the bright hills and dark forests, it sleeps at the end of roads and lingers in the caves I used to play hide and seek in. The generation that teaches us was taught to feel guilty, they grew up to chants of starved children and blind parents. They put up signs with numbers and names so we don’t think we are forgetting. But we are.
Change is buried along with half-forgotten tepid deaths, hidden behind hedges. If we don’t listen, we cannot move on.
Meinhart, Georgia and Kocina, Erich. “Schüsse und Hitlergruß im KZ Ebensee.” Die Presse, 11 May 2009, diepresse.com/home/innenpolitik/478323/Schuesse-und-Hitlergruss-im-KZ-Ebensee. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.
OTS0333. „Faymann/Schmied präsentieren Maßnahmen für bessere politische Bildung.“ APA OTS, 29 May 2009, ots.at/presseaussendung/OTS_20090529_OTS0333/faymannschmied-praesentieren-massnahmen-fuer-bessere-politische-bildung. Accessed 16 Apr. 2017
„Österreich – gesamt.“ Die Presse.com, diepresse.com/layout/diepresse/files/bpwahl/index.jsp. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.
One thought on “Listen to the Bones in the Hills”
Powerful and very thoughtful. Thank you for this reflection!