16 March 2018

Special Guest Post by Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger, Author of The Breach: Reschen Valley Part 2


New on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Burying the past comes at a high price… It’s 1922 and a year after the Italian Fascists marched on Bozen. Nationalism in the Tyrolean Reschen Valley creates enemies out of old friends and Katharina Steinhauser fiercely protects the identity of her daughter’s father from both her family and her community.

Beneath the Surface: The (hi)Stories We've Never Before Heard

Imagine driving south over the Austrian border into northern Italy. The top is down. The sun is shining. You start to run through what Italian you know, and as you cross the Reschen Pass—still a German name—you encounter the first pizzeria on the side of the road and, “Yes! We’re in Italy!”

Other than that little bit of Italian signage, not much has yet changed. The landscape still looks like the Austrian Tyrol: mountains, fields, a bubbling creek, the sturdy, wooden alpine architecture. Right next to the pizzeria is a Speck and Äpfel stand. Because you’ve been in Austria for at least a day, you already know that these are the signs for that incredible smoked bacon you had with your dumplings, and those delicious apples were in the last guesthouse’s strudel.

At first, you might believe some Tyroleans migrated over the border, maintained their “brand” and wrote their signs in German. Except, that’s not it. The first town you encounter, Reschen, also has another name: Rescia. Graun—the sign indicates—is also called Curon Venosta. The valley itself is both called Obervinschgau and Val Venosta. And then, coming over a ridge, you gasp. Where once there was fertile farmland, now a beautiful 4-mile-long reservoir, nestled in the Alpine peaks, stretches to the southern horizon. You slow down because something else has caught your attention and everyone on the road is pulling off to the right. You follow them because you can’t believe what you’re looking at. About 200 yards from the eastern shore, and rising out of the water, is a medieval church tower, fully intact.

The first time I saw it, all I wanted to know was what in the world happened here?

Step into the time machine, dear reader. Let’s go back to just before the outbreak of World War I and illustrate the situation: the Austro-Hungarian Empire had its reach into a good part of today’s northern Italy, just above the Po Valley. A good majority of that land also belonged to the autonomous province of Tyrol, which had earned its hard-won freedom after the Napoleonic Wars. However, in Italy, a large group of disgruntled nationalists held to the belief that the lands to the Brenner Frontier (if you Google this, look just south of Innsbruck) were rightfully Italian. After all, that line of mountains was a wonderful natural barrier against potential enemies to the north.

The thing is, Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had little conflict with one another. In the Tyrolean province, Italian migrants were generally welcomed with open arms. They worked there, lived there, filled in the jobs that needed filling, especially in agricultural labour.

So what happened? It’s called the Treaty of London. Signed in 1915, the Triple Entente promised huge swaths of land to the Italian nationalists if Italy took up arms against its neighbours and Germany. And there you go. Now imagine Giuseppe and his family work on your Tyrolean farm. He’s called to service. He has to cross the line to the south, pick up his weapon, turn around and face his employer in a war where not one single Italian unit ever crossed into Tyrol. Not one. The battles were all fought south of the line.

Enter the good ol’ U-S-of-A, the end of the war, and Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, specifically number 9, which stated:

“IX. A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.

Now, Imagine you’re Wilson, stirring your cup of tea. The French, the Russians and the British pull you aside and say, “With all due respect, we’re going to have to ignore point number nine in the case of Tyrol, at least starting at the south of the Brenner Frontier.” And, they added, there were also places like Trieste that wouldn’t count in this imaginary “line of nationality” because, ehem, there was, ehem, a secret treaty.

Wilson was not prepared to budge on this, so Italy’s prime minister, Vittorio Orlando, arrived with his delegation and debated how the Brenner Frontier was absolutely Italian. He rolled out some maps and pointed out that this was naturally true. The rivers, look! They flowed from the south to the north.

Nobody checked to see whether they really did. And they didn’t. The Italians had fudged the maps.

Very simply put, Wilson was in a pickle. Italy was granted the new frontier and the Tyroleans were faced with a cultural pogrom not unlike Stalin’s over Ukraine: the German language and culture were systematically oppressed and eradicated starting in 1920. When Hitler and Mussolini created a pact, they demanded the Tyroleans stop complaining and choose to either be Italian or German citizens. Those who voted German were relocated to new territories within the Third Reich (an ironic drama in itself for those who were relocated to farms seized in the Sudetenland). Those who chose to stay in Italy were threatened with relocation to the colonies in Abyssinia. Either way, the Tyroleans were facing displacement. If World War II had not broken out, who knows how things would have turned out? But when Hitler marched on Poland, the whole program came to a halt.

And what of this church tower? What happened at this lake on the Reschen Pass?

The Austro-Hungarian Empire had laws in place, which dictated that no man-made structure could be built if it affected over a certain percentage of the locals’ livelihoods. Those laws protected the Obervinschgau Valley from a proposal to raise the lakes of Reschen and Graun by five meters for the purposes of producing electricity. The plan was reneged. Dead in the water, so to speak, before it could find its legs because it would have affected too much of the fertile farmland in the valley.

But Italy suffered in World War I. They had barely managed to hang onto their breeches and one of the first things that occurred was a very strong force that swore that would never happen again. Enter stage right: Benito Mussolini. Italy was in chaos and, after wresting control from the monarchy, he laid out a plan to make Italy the strongest industrial nation in Europe. The race against America began.

In order to build machines and technology, you need power. You need electricity. And the new territory of the Alto Adige / Südtirol, or South Tyrol, had a treasure trove of areas for reservoirs and dams. But how do you get around those old laws? You write new ones.

The Reschensee / Lago di Rescia is just one of perhaps a thousand stories about the misdeeds enacted against the German-speaking Tyroleans but the way this particular reservoir was built reads like a thriller. Corruption, greed, and prejudice were the key cornerstones in making this beautiful reservoir possible. Beneath the surface, lie seven villages, wholly and completely destroyed and a history of families who were ripped from their homes. The only thing the Fascists were not able to take down? The church tower. A story in itself.

Discovering the plight of the Tyroleans to the south of the Brenner really got under my skin. The more I dug into the history, the more I could understand why there is—to this day—a film of discontent, a bitterness that lies just beneath the surface, still hot to the touch.

On subsequent visits to the reservoir—regular trips that had taken on the form of a pilgrimage—the history began to unfold. On one such visit in 2005, I sat on the water’s edge and watched as—from the surface—an entire village of characters rose like ghosts from the destruction beneath the lake. They clambered into my little Fiat and never left. I’m telling you, I’ve got a story to tell.

Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

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About the Author


Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger was born in Minnesota, USA, in 1969 and grew up in the culture-rich neighborhood of "Nordeast" Minneapolis. She started her writing career with short stories, travel narratives, worked as a journalist and managing editor of 14 magazines before jumping the editor's desk and pursuing her dreams of writing and traveling. In 2005, she self-published a historical narrative based on her relatives' personal histories and experiences in Ukraine during WWII. In 2000, she moved to western Austria and established her own company. She now primarily writes historical fiction, with two series set to be launched in 2018/2019. You can find out more at www.inktreks.com and follow Chrystyna on Facebook and Twitter @ckalyna

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