Story By: Ana Marjanovic, Sub-Editor: Michael Leidig, Agency: Newsflash
A brave woman who refused to accept that she had to speak Italian when Austria lost South Tyrol to the fascists after the First World War has said she wants to get her Austrian citizenship back before she dies.
The area where she lives was taken from Austria and handed to Italy in the Treaty of London in 1915 in order to persuade the latter to enter the war on the side of the Allies.
Until 1918, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Princely County of Tyrol, but this almost completely German-speaking territory was occupied by Italy at the end of the war in November 1918 and was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy in 1919.
In the 1920s and 30s, the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who came to power in 1922, organised a mass movement of Italians into the region, and the use of the German language was banned in schools and official buildings, including courts and public offices.
Even German names of places were changed to make them more Italian-sounding.
German-speaking Hermine Orian, who was a schoolgirl at the time, risked her life by challenging this ruling and joining a network of underground schools known as ‘catacomb schools’, where German could still be taught to the children of local families.
The now centenarian, who is the last surviving catacomb schoolteacher, is now facing one last battle – to obtain Austrian citizenship, as all she wants is “to die as an Austrian”.
The clandestine schools, like the one where she worked, were set up illegally during the period of Fascist Italianisation in the 1920s.
Teaching German was banned in the whole country by the Federal Government in 1923.
Orian was eligible to officially work as a teacher only after the end of World War II in 1945.
The South Tyrolean told the Austrian daily Kronen Zeitung: “I have just one wish for my 103rd birthday: becoming an Austrian citizen. I was born Austrian and I want to die Austrian.”
The catacomb school network was organised and financed by patriotic clergymen and lawyers. Their main tasks were to provide books and find suitable locations, such as cellars, stables and remote huts owned by supporters of the movement.
Orian was one of around 200 catacomb schoolteachers. She joined their undercover network at the age of 13.
Orian has received various awards acknowledging her passion and determination in promoting and preserving her German mother tongue in the region.
Orian was born as Hermine Aloisia Mair on 29th April 1919 in Cortaccia, a municipality around 16 miles south-west of Bolzano, the capital of South Tyrol.
Today, the great-grandmother – who is in good physical condition despite her advanced age – lives in Schenna, a small town around 16 miles north-west of Bolzano.
South Tyrol is an autonomous Italian province bordering Austria. Around 62 per cent of its 532,000 inhabitants declare German as their mother tongue. Italian is the native language of just 23 per cent of residents of South Tyrol.
Peter Wurm of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe) said: “Becoming an Austrian citizen has become something being given to people from all over the world. The government has acted as if this precious gift was worth nothing.
“However, it refuses to acknowledge the merits of a renowned citizen. This is outrageous. She has been a part of our people for decades.
“The Austrian legislative should express our gratitude for Ms Orian’s achievements by providing her with an Austrian passport.”
Orian has also received support from the Andreas Hofer Bund (AHB), a patriotic association named after Andreas Hofer, an innkeeper and leader of the Tyrolean Rebellion against the invasion of Napoleonic troops during the War of the Fifth Coalition in 1809, a conflict of the Napoleonic Wars.
The AHB said in a statement: “This courageous woman has made enormous sacrifices. Her engagement has prevented the extinction of South Tyrolean cultural heritage as intended by the fascists.”
The organisation has appealed for Federal Chancellor Karl Nehammer of the conservative People’s Party (OeVP) and Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen to take action.
The current Austrian coalition government of the OeVP and the Green Party has shown no intention to change current citizenship regulations.
Italian citizens living in South Tyrol with German as their mother tongue are not eligible to become dual citizens of Italy and Austria.
The previous OeVP-FPOe government had expressed its intention to “rethink” the dual citizenship law. It set up a committee of experts to evaluate possibilities in this matter. However, the current OeVP-Greens coalition has put the matter on hold.