Can We Talk?

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Can We Talk?

Full Circle

It all started here.  My protector, Hansi.  My “older brother”, Hansi.  He had a gentle nature and lived with my family from 1941 until 1945.  He was my grand-parents’ foster child.

His father had died in a work-related accident. His mother had nobody to look after the young boy while she worked. The German government wanted to place him with a German-speaking family and that’s how he came to live with us.  I’ve been told those were very happy years for him.

This picture was taken some time in 1944, one year before the world we knew ended.

The country was called Yugoslavia at that time.  Before WW I, it had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is still referred to as Lower Styria by the Austrians, of course.  The hamlet was called Lugatz.  That same country is now called Slovenia and the hamlet is now called Lokavec.

Our family had owned and lived on the farm at # 7 Lugatz for many generations.  But all that was of no import for what was to come.  In times of war home, country, assets, ownership, family – nothing matters.  It is all razed as though it had never existed.  The looters take what they want, happily tossing the rightful owners aside.  Well, if you’re on the losing side, that is.

And so it was that Spring of 1945, my family and I were rounded up and thrown into a concentration camp in Sternthal, our home and land seized, our family and the life we knew, in tatters.  And so it was that Hansi was separated from us.  But life goes on.

One evening, while watching television with my husband, the phone rang.  I answered.  I heard a voice asking if this were Erika.  I said “Yes”.  He said “This is Hansi”. I knew immediately who it was for there was only one person called Hansi that I ever knew in my life.  Of course, I remembered him only through stories my mother told me and through family pictures.  We corresponded from that moment on.  When he asked if I would come to his 50th Jubilee as priest, I answered “Yes”.  Sixty-four years had passed since we had last seen each other.

We arrived in Vienna at 8:30 AM.  Hansi and his friend, Branko, were waiting to pick us up and drive us to Polskava, Slovenia. Hansi had had a stroke and half his face was paralyzed.  Life goes on but it can be cruel.   Of course, in the typical European tradition, the first thing he wanted to know is if I was hungry. His friend, Branko, is a quiet man, very kind and eager to please.  He is learning English in readiness of his trip to Canada which he wants to visit next year.

Hansi is driving despite his affliction. Nice car. He drives like the freaking wind. We stopped along the way to use the bathroom and of course, Hansi kept trying to feed me always asking me if I was hungry. I know it’s the European way. Being a good host is very important but, man, they’re killing me with kindness. I’m kidding.

What can I say of Slovenia?  It’s lush and fertile, hilly, mostly agricultural.  To be specific, grapes for wine, corn for livestock and pumpkins for their seeds to make pumpkin seed oil.  It is clean and prosperous.  Flowers are everwhere, cascading from every window sill and balcony.  Gardens are well kept.  The cars on the roads are new and clean. The houses are large and well kept. Arriving The roads are in excellent condition and well marked.  In fact, my impression of Slovenia was almost surreal – a perfect jewel, well hidden from the rest of the world.

We drove to Lugatz and had a drink at Golob’s Cafe where we met more friendly people.  We then went to the property that was once owned by Zacharias.  I cried.  I looked around at the lovely vineyards and the lush, rolling hills.  This is the place where I was born.  This very place.  I could easily stay here forever and never leave and die blissfully happy.

After some time we left for Branko’s home.  His wife, Aniza and daughter, Natasha greeted us and we made ourselved comfortable in the arbour while his wife brought goulash and bread for our supper.  Of course, also wine and beer. Natasha’s husband Tomaj joined us later.  He is a good-looking young man with a great job.  They’re building their house nearby but are living with her parents in the meantime.

Finally, we left for the pension.  We were pretty dog-tired, not having slept much on the plane.  We checked in, quickly unpacked and met Hansi downstairs in the lobby.  Of course, we were asked if we were hungry.  We had soup, I think.  It was good. 

We finally said our good-byes and Hansi reminded us that we’re having breakfast with him the following morning.

Ptuj

We were to have been ready for breakfast at 9AM but we slept and slept.  We were exhausted.  People knocked on the door at 9:30.  Nothing.  I must have woken up shortly thereafter because we were ready just after 10.  It helps when you shower the night before.  Saves a lot of time.

How can I describe Saturday? Natasha, Tom & Branko took us sightseeing to Ptuj. It’s a wonderful old town which dates back to Roman days. I heard music – a mystical, haunting melody. We came closer and watched them perform. It was wonderful. People sitting around at the cafes. Children playing in th big courtyard. It was calming and restful.

We walked up to the castle – me in my stupid gold sandals that have always hurt my feet. Me and my asthma that has always been a problem. The path up was coble-stoned. The rest of the time it was steps. But all the time, it was straight uphill. When we finally got to the top I had to use my puffer. But the view was worth it. I took a lot of pictures. We then toured the castle. Awesome. By the time I finished touring all three floors, my feet felt like knives were cutting them. I got a couple of bad blisters. We walked back down on the cobble-stoned path and the large wooden steps. We then drove to a shopping centre to buy a new pair of shoes. Footware – excellent footware is dirt cheap here. Of course, I had to find something that didn’t touch the blisters I had just obtained. Charlie was a bit pissed off with me mostly over my shoes and insisted I wear the new ones and throw the old ones out. The cashier had a hard time with that because they look new. Well, I’d only worn them a dozen times at the most.

Then Branko took us to dinner where I had a couple of beers and a huge feast. This was about 5 PM. We went to visit Branko’s son, Andre’s business establishment-a bustling Bistro. He has also built two apartment buildings. He is well on his way to becoming a millionaire. Then, Branko announced we had to go to dinner at Hansi’s. Are you kidding? But we went anyway. The long table was full with his friends who had driven in to be at his 50th Jubilee. Of course, it’s sit down and eat. We didn’t. We couldn’t.

Suddenly, a glee club appeared and proceeded to sing. They were wonderful. They sang like angels. I was moved to tears but when Hansi suggested they sing “Am Brunen vor dem Tore” I started to cry even more. I’ve been doing a lot of crying. Everything is so moving to me. These people are so wonderful and they’ve taken Charlie and me under their wing. I feel like the girl in “While You Were Sleeping”. It was a lovely evening. Tomorrow is Hansi’s big day. Better get some rest. For pictures of our day in Ptuj, click here.

HANSI’S JUBILEE

The big day. We decided to walk to the church. It isn’t far. Never thought of the mean dogs. When we were almost there, a couple of guests had been told to pick us up. We continued to walk. This is the reason we’re here. The day began at 9AM with breakfast at the rectory. The usual fare of sliced cold cuts, sliced cheese, rolls and dark bread. We then headed outside.The crowds were gathering. The musicians were gathering. Women were walking around with baked goods. We were being seated in the guest of honour seats in the church, right behind and beside the priests. Along with us were the doctor and his wife. He spoke flawless English.

The mass was 2 ½ hours long. It did not seem that long because of all that was going on. The choir sang heavenly. Hansi spoke so sweetly about not having seen me since I was two and that I came here, along with Charlie, specifically to participate in his 50th Jubilee. He spoke about living with my grandparents for four years and how happy he was. He spoke of the hardships that had befallen a good family. See more pictures

I, along with most of the congregation, took the host. When the mass was finally over, we lined up with everyone else to put money in the basket. Interestingly, the basket had a cover over it, with a round opening cut out. That way, your contribution was more discrete. As soon as we got outside, the music was played by a brass band in uniform. Wine was everywhere, red and two types of white, also, juices and mineral water etc. Oh, and endless goodies by way of baked goods. It was just incredible. We stayed there another half hour and then it was time to drive to the Bauernhof. To get there we drove along steep and curvy mountain roads. That was quite a trek. The view all along the way was breathtaking. Vineyards as far as the eye could see, up and down every mountain.

Once we got to the Bauernhof, which by the way was a grand country estate, we were greeted by waiters carrying trays of shot glasses filled with two types of schnapps – one was strawberry and each glass had a strawberry in it, the other was blueberry. Boy these folks know how to live. Altogether there were 270 guests. Inside the building were long tables set up with linen tablecloths, two kinds of white wine, red wine, juices – the list goes on.

We were seated at the head table with the other dignitaries. Let’s see, there were a couple of monks, a bishop, the guest of honour who was Hansi, the doctor and his wife, Charlie and myself. A live band was playing, the choir was singing. Suddenly, the parade began – at the fore, the host – behind him the waiters with the trays of food. The band played the proper marching music. It was unbelievable. The tables groaned with food. There were two complete meals served, interrupted by a couple of hours of socializing outside while people chatted and smoked cigarettes. They came around with trays of wine. They photographers took pictures and videos. I felt so honoured to have been invited to be part of this. There was one particular photo that Charlie wasn’t in, I’m sorry to say. Instead he was inside on the toilet. Well, what’s got to go’s got to go.

It was then time to go back in for meal number two. Well, talk about partying. These folks don’t fool around. Finally, the huge cake was carried out and Hansi requested I be by his side. He cut a huge piece and gave it to me. Then the waiters took over, slicing and passing them out to the guests. In the meanwhile, the sun was starting to set and it was getting cooler. The end of the day had arrived.  People started to leave.

A group of us continued up the mountain road to the very peak. That’s where Hansi had rescued a little chapel and refurbished it. He gives high mass in that little chapel, once every month. We got home about 8:30. What a day. It was a long day but a good day.

September 23rd, 2008 Posted by | Zacharias - The Story of a Family | no comments

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