My Grandmother and the Partisans

“You know, all my life I’ve only ever been with one man.“

“That’s good, no?”

“Well. Sometimes I wish I would have, well, let’s say, ‘given in to temptation’ a little more. There were nice boys coming through our town during the war. You know. Partisans.”

My grandmother was born in Slovenia in 1919. She was too little to remember, but that was the time when all the former colonies (if you will) of the Austrian Empire gained independence. Slovenia did so in the context of what would become Yugoslavia, and there were all these haggles over how the border should run, and some of my grandma’s family ended up on the side of the new tiny state of Austria, while my grandma herself and her parents and siblings stayed in Slovenia, or Yugoslavia, or whichever way you wanna have it.

Her parents had been farmers not too far from Maribor, and supposedly it had been a hard life and all, but that’s what all farmers always tell you everywhere, so even though it was probably true I was never too impressed.

I was more impressed with the stories of what they had to go through once the Germans (well, and Austrians) came to occupy the Balkans in 1941. I especially liked the stories of the clandestine resistance that was put up against the Nazis. I hated the Nazis, even though my other grandparents had been in the party, but then again I never talked to those grandparents, and neither did my dad whose parents they were because he was a righteous man. Too bad he died of cancer when I was only 12.

My grandmother had never talked about the war much, it was more my granddad who had, and who thereby kept me sane as a young Austrian inevitably ashamed of his country’s involvement in the Holocaust while developing some kind of political awareness and conscience, and it was thanks to him that I retained my belief in the goodness of at least some of my compatriots. Most of his family was from the Austrian side of the border and a lot of his cousins had actively fought in the resistance. My granddad himself was actually a kind of hero too, because after having been forcefully recruited into the German army as an interpreter, he deserted and was put in a labor camp, and he only survived the war due to those lucky circumstances that made most survivors of the camps survive (a sympathetic overseer here or there, a train to a concentration camp that broke down, some bridge that needed to be built and required labor, those kinds of things – he had a good many of these stories to tell). However, my granddad always regretted, even felt guilty I think, that he hadn’t been around to join the active resistance against the Nazi occupation that was organized in the hills and mountains of Slovenia and southern Austria. I’m sure he would have loved to join the many Slovenian men of his age who had left their farms for the mountains to form the guerrilla commandos that put up the fiercest militant opposition to the Nazis along and in Austrian territory.

I think it was this history of the anti-Nazi struggle that had always made my granddad admire General Tito and that even caused him to be amongst the few Slovenians who weren’t all gung-ho about independence in 1991: to him, the post-World-War-II Yugoslavia was the Yugoslavia of Tito, born out of a heroic fight against fascism, and whatever the problems might have been, there lay a lot of “blood, sweat and tears” in this country (he really liked that expression, I have no idea where he got it from, it was the only English he ever used), meaning to him that there lay a lot of virtue in it - and seeing all this torn apart by the evils of nationalism did not make him happy, he would say.

I mainly learned about the war and the resistance from my granddad before he died two years ago. My grandma told stories every now and again, but overall she was quiet and concentrated on being, well, a good grandma, I suppose. You know, she would make you hot chocolate when something bad had happened and always cooked your favorite meal when you came visit, that sort of thing. I always thought she had a lot to say but just didn’t, out of shyness or politeness or something. Or maybe ‘cause she thought it wasn’t her place. My grandparents were proud antifascists and all, but they had still been raised as catholic farmers, if you know what I mean.

Anyway, once my granddad was dead grandma talked more, maybe only ‘cause someone had to talk when I came to visit and granddad wasn’t around any longer to take care of that, but whatever the reason, I enjoyed listening to her stories. They essentially didn’t differ much from my granddad’s, but they provided what you’d call a different perspective, I guess.

I was still caught by surprise when she hit me with that comment about how she should have maybe “given in to temptation a little more”. I had never heard any such thing from my grandma before. Not even remotely. And I guess you don’t really think so much about how your grandma contemplates the men she has, or hasn’t, slept with. At least not me. It wasn’t really part of how I saw my grandma. Which was without doubt naïve. Most people think about sex one way or another, I’m sure. Even gentle and caring and innocent grandmas.

I knew that she had loved my granddad dearly, who really was a compassionate and kindhearted man and who I never saw raise as much as his voice against her, so I figured her comment couldn’t have had anything to do with him. It didn’t even sound like she really regretted anything. It felt more like she was wondering about how things might have been if, and when I said: “Really, you would have wanted to get it on with the partisans? Tell me more, grandma!”, she just smiled and said: “No, in fact, I don’t really think so,” and then she turned away from the balcony and went back into the kitchen to stir the apples for the apple stew, and I knew there was no need to push the subject any further ‘cause I’ve had, like, a moment with my grandma, and I was very happy about that.

Later that day, we stopped by at my granddad’s grave. I’m sure he would have understood my grandma giving in to those “temptations” in regard to the partisans. Even though he was probably happy it never happened. You know how men are. Even compassionate and kindhearted antifascists.

Me, I didn’t care of course. None of my business, right? And it would have been a difficult call anyway: On the one hand, I was happy for my granddad ‘cause I didn’t like my girlfriends sleeping around either – on the other hand, there was something rather alluring about imagining my grandma with brave, young, handsome partisans.

I looked at grandma. She looked at the gravestone reading Tine Pretnar - 1915-2001 and she smiled that smile again and seemed content.