Lessons from my Mother

by Theresa Peluso

Imagine never leaving your village in your lifetime, but being forced to change nationalities three times. Imagine going to a school where you are punished for speaking your own language. Imagine fighting with a group against powerful enemies for a cause you believe in, being imprisoned by your enemies, and then afterwards, being imprisoned by those you thought were your friends, with no justification.

That is how it was many years ago in a small region in what is now Slovenia. The first sentence relates to my maternal grandfather, who was born Austrian (when Slovenia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire), lived as an Italian (between the end of World War I and the end of World War II), and died as a Yugoslav under President Tito. The other two sentences relate to my mother.

Today, many decades later, we think we have become wiser and more knowledgeable, and think events like these are just sad but quaint stories from the past. To me they aren’t. Think about how government policies in Canada, at all levels, have been influenced by powerful corporations in their quest for even more money and more power. Luckily, we live in a country with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and although our rights are being chewed away at the edges, we still have a working democracy.

Slovenia was battered by wars between major powers for many centuries, from the Roman empire through to the Austro-Hungarian empire, but nevertheless managed to acquire a standardized language and a flourishing civil society with one of the highest literacy levels in the Austro-Hungarian empire by the time my grandfather was born. Despite these advantages, the personal safety and security of the Slovene people was jeopardized by the power-hungry countries around them.

My mother was born in a small village in the foothills of the Alps. It was a small community of about 40 houses surrounded by towering, thickly treed mountains, situated not far from Austria, which lay about 100 kilometres to the north, and Italy, roughly 25 kilometres to the west. About 145 kilometres to the south lay Croatia, which was joined after World War II with Slovenia and other small countries to form Yugoslavia.

World War I inflicted a huge death toll on the Slovenian population, especially on the Soča front (the Soča is an important river in western Slovenia, which flows down from the Alps), not far from my mother’s village. Of the hundreds of thousands of Slovene conscripts drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army, over 30,000 of them died. Hundreds of thousands of Slovenes were resettled in refugee camps in Italy and Austria, and several thousands died of malnutrition and diseases during the war. Entire areas of the Slovenian countryside and coastline were destroyed. But even after the end of World War I, more was to come. According to Wikipedia:

In exchange for joining the Allied Powers in the First World War, the Kingdom of Italy, under the secret Treaty of London (1915) and later, the Treaty of Rapallo (1920), was granted rule over much of the Slovene territories. These included a quarter of the Slovene ethnic territory, including areas that were exclusively ethnic Slovene. The population of the affected areas was approximately 327,000 of the total population of 1.3 million Slovenes. (excerpt from Wikipedia under History of Slovenia)

The Austro-Hungarian Army in western Slovenia during the Battles of the Isonzo (Soča) in October 1917


My mother was born three years later. One result of this opportunistic land-trading was that her village school was controlled by Italians who treated the Slovenes as third-rate people. She and her schoolmates were taught in Italian and forbidden to speak their native language, which they had to learn in secret at home. Again, from Wikipedia:

The Slovene minority in Italy (1920-1947) lacked any minority protection under international or domestic law. Clashes between the Italian authorities and Fascist squads on one side, and the local Slovene population on the other, started as early as 1920. (History of Slovenia)

The year my mother turned 18, World War II broke out. Germany and Hungary occupied northern Slovenia after Yugoslavia was invaded by the Axis powers on April 6, 1941.

My mother abandoned her studies in Padua, Italy, and decided to join the Slovene partisans in opposing the Fascist invaders. The partisans lived desperate lives in the treacherous mountains, as they tried every means possible to prevent the Fascist convoys from travelling through their villages and pillaging them. Six weeks before the end of the war, my mother was captured by the Fascists and imprisoned. Her family told me many years later that she was tortured during her incarceration, but she never told me the details. When she was released at the end of the war, she was in a terrible state physically and emotionally, but her family did their best to nurture her back to health, and she eventually improved.

But matters didn’t end there. A few months after the war ended, my mother then went to work in another town not far from her village, and then for many weeks afterwards, her family heard nothing from her. When they enquired, they were told that all was well, but her family weren’t reassured. My mother would never have stopped writing to them. Her family pushed further for answers, and found that she had been imprisoned again and tortured as a result of false allegations against her, and was suicidal. Luckily they were able to find a well-placed friend who could secure her release. My mother was told she couldn’t return to her country or she would risk imprisonment again. It seems the reason for this new incarceration was that fighting had broken out at the end of World War II between the different factions trying to gain control of the country, and my mother belonged to the “wrong” faction.

From Wikipedia:

Due to the Communist violence towards the opponents of the Liberation Front as well as anti-revolutionary sentiments, some of the residents of cities as well as clericals and major farmers formed several anti-communist groups that collaborated with the occupying forces. After 1942, the situation in the Slovene Lands has been characterised as a civil war. After the war, large ideologically and ethnically motivated massacres took place.

The overall number of Slovene civilians killed by the Nazis, Italian Fascists and their allies is estimated at around 33,000 – this number does not include killed prisoners of war. (History of Slovenia)

Following her release from this second imprisonment, my mother fled to Italy. She only saw her family a few times after that, at a distance. With the help of a trustworthy go-between, her family arranged meetings which consisted of my mother casually walking along the Italian side of the border, while one of her sisters did the same on the Yugoslav side, trying the whole time not to draw attention to themselves.

My mother managed to complete her studies in Italy, and then successfully applied to immigrate to Canada in 1952. Despite all she had been through, her will was not broken. She was proud to be a Canadian, and continued to fight for causes she believed in. Her experiences during the war left their mark on her, though, and she suffered from recurring periods of depression and anger.

Soon after the death of President Tito, who had ruled Yugoslavia in various capacities from 1944 on, Slovenia broke away from Yugoslavia and became an independent country. In 2004 it joined the European Union. It is my fervent hope that all these recurring wars and occupations by powerful countries will become a distant memory for all Slovenes.

What was my mother’s legacy to me? Admiration for all those who campaign for human rights and environmental protection, and a determination to do my part by getting involved. Only by standing up for these rights can we hope to maintain our freedom and natural environment for ourselves and future generations. Also, a conviction that we have to work together, respectfully, to accomplish this. Lack of respect can lead to extremism and violence. A realization that the political is personal, and even though government decisions may seem remote and unrelated to our own lives, much of the time they aren’t. The very least we can all do to sustain a healthy democracy in our country is to take an active interest in political events and leaders and participate in the election process at all levels of government.