- June 6, 2014
Why Would Poles From the Vilnius Region Envy Italians From Istria?
I love good coffee but the thick, aromatic, pitch-black espresso that you can taste while sitting in the sunlight of the South – the greatest Roman part of Europe – is indescribably delicious. Bells of St. Pelagius Church are ringing. For centuries, their sound has indicated the rhythm of a day and reminded of a prayer; as for me, it makes me think of the merciless flow of time. But it’s better to admire the breathtaking scent of blooming trees in the park at Via Mandracchio. So I look at beautiful high cedars, old pines, and plane trees. I breathe deeply. Spring in Cittanova is enchanting. . .
You’re probably thinking that I am in Italy and about to describe my trip to that country? Don’t let the Italian names of the park, street, or town. I’m in Croatia, and more precisely – on Istria. Here the language of Italian natives not only has the right to exist in a public space, and on traffic and street signs, but you can also use it in the administration.
Istria used to be inhabited by Illyrian tribes: the Iapydes, Liburnians, and Histri, from which the peninsula derives its name. Romans conquered that beautiful land 178 and 177 BC. You can still find traces of their presence there: a fantastic amphitheatre in Pula/Pola, or the remnants of a pagan temple on the Poreč/Parenzo’s town square (or, how Romans would call it, a forum). In the 6th century, Istria became a part of Byzantium; that was also the time when Slavs began to come to the peninsula. Later, the western Istria was controlled by the Republic of Venice, while the eastern Istria was controlled by the Hapsburg Empire, which conquered and incorporated the entire peninsula in the early 19th century.
After World War I, Istria was given to Italy where it officially stayed until 1947. Awful things were happening under the rule of Mussolini. The Istrian population was exposed to an extremely brutal policy of forced Italianization. Croatian schools and cultural institutions were shut down. Croats lost even their names, which were spelled in the Italian form. The issue with names reminds me of something. . . In one of the countries in the European Union, a native national minority can’t spell their names in their proper form as well, even though someone wrote in some agreement that “persons. . . belonging to . . . [a] national minority . . . have the right . . . to use their names and surnames according to the sound of the national minority language.” But I digress: we better don’t talk about that, or someone will think that I’m pointing out similarities between a democratic country, the land of freedom, and Fascist Italy.
During World War II, mass killings against Italian civilians on Istria occurred in 1943 and 1945. Those horrific crimes were committed by the Yugoslav communist partisans. It it estimated that from from ten thousand to twelve thousand people died during the ethnic cleansing. Almost all of them were Italians. Those killings resulted in a mass departure of Italians from Yugoslavia, especially from Istria; that was the so-called ‘Istrian exodus.” Over 300,000 people left their homeland. Today the independent Croatia perceives that event as a negative one. A historian Antun Travirka writes openly that “what happened was an unnecessary and, above all, pathetic exodus of a part of the native Italians which resulted in new changes in demographics of Istria.” Come to think of it, I wonder if any of Lithuanian historians would say something similar about the expatriates from Kaunus and the Vilnius Region that had to leave their homeland after 1945? I would be especially interested in reactions of Lithuanian historians, journalists, or politicians. I believe. . . no, I’m even willing to bet big money that a person daring to say something like that would be severely bad-mouthed and become the public enemy. Well, every country has its customs.
Not all Italians have left, however. Several thousand of them have remained on Istria, constituting over 7% of the inhabitants. In my beloved Novigrad/Cittanova, Italians constitute 10% of the population. I’ve met them also at a farmers’ market in Pula/Pola, where I’ve bought sweet and juicy tomatoes and green asparagus from them. In Poreč/Parenzo, near the Roman forum’s ruins, I’ve found a school where some lessons are taught in Italian. But I think most Italians lives in the beautiful, breathtaking Rovinj/Rovigno; one-third of that city’s inhabitans are Italian.
The Statutes of Istria County (Statuto della Regione Istriana, Statut Istarske županije), enacted in October 2009, introduced bilingualism on the peninsula. You can use Italian in the administration, all street and town names are written in Croatian and Italian, and both Croatian and Italian flags are waving on local government offices. I haven’t seen any act of vandalism against the Italian signs or the three-colour flags. Croats show us that, as a modern country in the 21st century, they treat norms of protecting national minorities seriously and take care of their common heritage. I have nothing but respect for this small nation of four million people, which after long and hard fight gained their independence in the 1990s. I’m impressed with what they did for their Italian neigbours, and with that they were able to brush aside their difficult history of being discriminated by Italian Facists and decided that the Italian cultural and historical heritage was as important as their own. Bravo!
Croatia is a popular place for summer vacation among both Poles and Lithuanians. Spring this year, especially May, was undoubtedly a difficult time for Lithuanian politicians and, after two elections, they deserve a moment of rest. Dalia Grybauskaitė especially needs rest; after all, she has won a second term and she doesn’t have to move out from the Presidential Palace. After enduring hardships of a presidential campaign and being inaugurated again, I recommend her a trip to Istria, where could meet many of her compatriots. Summer vacation on that beautiful peninsula could give her food for thought. Maybe after spending some time there she wouldn’t go to tell fairy tales about Poles in Lithuania having wonderful conditions to preserve and cultivate their identity and cultural distinctness. Or perhaps she would want to adopt Croatian standards of protecting national minorities in Lithuania?
There is no such diacritic like “ė“ in my language, so I could spell the President’s name in other, Polonised form. Or I could translate it to “Grzybowska”. But I will never do anything like that. I believe that a name belongs to the person bearing it, and that’s why I will always spell in the way they prefer it to be spelled. After all, like Slavic Croats, I belong to Western culture.
Tłumaczenie by Michał M. Kowalski w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Michał M. Kowalski within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.