|Photo courtesy Stephie Lierzer Pichler|
This is not a view from my kitchen window, you say? Well, I am forced to agree with you. Still, it IS a view and not a bad one either I think. Furthermore, a window IS involved, a window into the past, as well as into my soul.
In the picture, I am standing on the lofty ridge of Gleinalpe, the majestic divide between Upper and Lower Styria. You of course are well aware that Styria is one of the oldest Duchies in Austria. What on earth was I doing there, when instead I should be shooting nice pictures of Hammarby Sound for your benefit?
Yesterday was the last day of a prolonged hiking trip that had, 7 days earlier, started in Neudau, which lies in the Lafnitz Valley on the old border to Hungary. After days of steady trudging, drenched in drizzles and scorched by intermittent sunbursts, laboring uphills and downhills and treading treacherous mountain paths on steep declines, I was met, on the morning of this final day, by two nice ladies - Stephie, my godmother's daughter, and her friend Ingrid - who carried me in congenial triumph across the ultimate rises and on to the expedition's destination, Knittelfeld.
I trust you agree with me that a man, when reaching his 65 years or more, has to gain a perspective of his existence or, if you prefer, start writing the Chapter "Summing UP and Conclusions" in his great book of life. This preoccupies my mind a lot lately, following some forceful signals from way down in my subconscious.You may recall that last year was spent reminiscing the most dynamic and challenging years of my youth (Déjà vu - down memory lane in California
). This year, already, I made a nostalgic journey to the Canaries, to relive a period of distress and its resolution later in life (A felicitous isle for a troubled soul
). With the seven days of labour just accomplished, I went FAR BACK in time for once, re-experiencing a corresponding expedition in the very early days of my existence, more than 65 years hence.
|My mother Maria Ems on her wedding day in early 1944, together with my godmother Steffi Lierzer|
I was born in December 1944, in the last trembling days of the greatest European war of our times. Our village, Neudau, was still spared and my mother lived alone in our bakery, with my father on the front, somewhere in Bulgaria, she believed. But the clouds were darkening over the idyllic Lafnitz Valley. The German Army had built a last line of defense along the hills just across the river, the "Südostwall", hoping to stem, at long last, the hitherto irresistible onslaught of the Red Army masses. But in early spring of 1945, the night horizon towards the East took on a vermillion shade, the Earth started shaking and noise like of thundering cannons was keeping the trembling inhabitants of our humble hamlet in a permanent stage of fright and despair. Soon desolate remains of the German defense came stumbling down the hills and across the river and it became evident that the end was near.
|My parents Maria and Emil Leopold Ems, as betrothed|
In the stage of extreme fright and chaos that followed, my mother had no choice but to grab a few belongings in a bag, put me on her back and follow the lead of other fugitives westward over the foothills of Lower Styria. The first stage of her flight took her to Gleisdorf, the hometown of her parents (Johann and Leopoldine Resch) which was not yet invaded by the Russian forces. There was hope that the town would be spared the terrors of direct warfare, since German capitulation appeared imminent. And, indeed, armistice was declared on 7 May and we all started to feel relieved. On 8 May, the Red Army entered the city, seemingly orderly. But the calm proved false. After some shootings by fanatical German soldiers, who had remained hidden in the church tower, the Red commander declared the town free for plunder and bloodletting during two days.
How we all (barely) survived this terrible ordeal will have to be told another time. Suffice it to say that my mother felt obliged to flee again from the occupiers' threats and this time aimed at reaching Knittelfeld, in the mountains of Upper Styria, hoping to escape the red danger once and for all. Before the war, my grandfather had been stationed at the post office there and my mother's dearest childhood friend Steffi (also my godmother) was still living there on her parents' farm. After a hardy and dangerous hike across the mountains, Maria finally reached her destination, just to find that the Russians had arrived ahead of her, having taken a more comfortable route along the river Mur.
|My mother and godmother as teenagers in Knittelfeld|
Fortunately, the Soviets' bloodlust had abated some at that stage, so we managed to recuperate on Steffi's parents' farm. Soon after, in July that year, the Allieds reached an occupation agreement that left it to the Britains to occupy Styria, and the Russian troups had to withdraw back behind the river Lafnitz. About a month later, my father suddenly appeared at the farm, to the great relief of everyone, including myself I have to assume, and brought us back home to Neudau, where both parents lived out their days in an again peaceful Lafnitz Valley, taking care to forget the troubles of the past.
Now back to the present: Upon arriving in Knittelfeld, I had hoped to meet yet again, and have a long talk, with my godmother, who is the only one, but me, still alive to tell the tale. Surely, I presumed, she would be able to render the events of those days alive again and to complement my scarce bits of knowledge with her own memories. But this was not to be. At her advanced age, illness is getting the better of her and she has to spend, bravely, her remaining energy just to stay alive. But at least, we were able to see each other once again and to experience some precious moments of togetherness.
I am dedicating this post to two courageous women, always humble and nonpretentious, but always ready to live up to what it takes, even in times of extreme danger; in short, a shining example for us all.