In December 2017, my Onkel Helmut passed away at the age of eighty-four. He was stern, yet jovial, with a round and kind face. He, my Tante Resi, my sister, and I would often go on walks in the park in Queens and have simple lunches of hard-boiled eggs, ham, and bread. Occasionally, he taught me bits of German, like the slogan written on the thin yellow tag of a Steiff teddy bear: Knopf im Ohr, “button in ear.” After the funeral, we all went somberly to eat together at a place called Gottscheer Hall. My mother told my sister and I that Onkel Helmut, like the rest of my father’s side of the family, was from a place called Gottschee. Sitting in the car, trying to wrap my head around the pronunciation of the name, I reevaluated my family’s history. My father always told us that our family was from Germany. Stray German words flit through our conversations, like schlafen (“to sleep”) and Schatz (an endearment, literally “treasure”). Yet, my Oma and Auntie’s immigration papers list Yugoslavia and Austria-Hungary as their countries of origin. I always felt that I lacked some crucial piece of information that would bring all these scattered bits of history and culture together — Gottschee was that keystone.
Pieces of my family’s story slowly came forward as I read about Gottschee’s history. Gottschee was a small region in present-day Kočevje, Slovenia, that Germanic farmers settled in the thirteenth century. Their language, Gottscheerisch, is a dialect of medieval German; Gottscheers, like my Onkel Helmut and my grandmother, could speak German, but a German speaker couldn’t understand Gottscheerisch. Gottscheers used German in business contexts and spoke Gottscheerisch at home, a linguistic island surrounded by Slovenian-speaking neighbors. This linguistic fluidity mirrors the confusion surrounding the Gottscheers’ identity, as clashing empires passed the county back and forth over the course of its history. Outside observers and Gottscheers themselves have identified Gottscheers as German, Austrian, Slavic, yet also as an entirely distinct people. I understand why my father never mentioned Gottschee — I don’t know how to talk about it without giving a history lesson. The most important part of this history begins in 1918, when Gottschee became a part of Yugoslavia after the fall of Austria-Hungary. Gottschee’s few colleges were closed, and Slovenian became the county’s only official language, although due to many children’s complete lack of understanding of Slovenian, public school instruction was eventually conducted half in German and half in Slovenian. Gottschee soon changed hands again, however, with much more severe consequences for its people.
Soon after the beginning of WWII, in 1941, Italy annexed the southern part of Yugoslavia, which included Gottschee. My Tante Berta Kropf, who lived in Gottschee during the annexation, wrote that the Gottscheers received an ultimatum that they either needed to assimilate into Italy or move to Germany. Propaganda promising prosperity in Nazi Germany, some of it spread by Gottscheer leaders, and the threat of cultural erasure forced nearly all the Gottscheers to comply. They soon found, however, that they were not relocated to Germany, but to Lower Styria (near the current border of Croatia), into the homes of Slovenians who were taken to Nazi labor camps. They left the farms they had cultivated for centuries to find themselves forced into often-cramped conditions with little land. I’m sure that part of why my father never mentioned Gottschee is the Gottscheers’s role, although unwilling, in Nazi Germany’s atrocities against Slavs. I sit and wonder how many Gottscheers genuinely believed in Hitler’s Pan-Germanism, and how many simply followed their relatives and neighbors or felt that they had no choice but to leave. Yet the Nazi Party also banned the use of Gottscheerisch, seeking to fully Germanize the Gottscheers and to erase their culture.
Their fragile living in Lower Styria was upended again at the end of WWII, when Nazi Germany was expelled from Yugoslavia. The Gottscheers had no right whatsoever to stay, but they were not allowed to return to their homes in Gottschee, as it became part of Yugoslavia. The Anti-Fascist Council for the Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ), led by Josip Broz Tito, held all ethnic Germans, including the Gottscheers, responsible for Nazi Germany’s crimes during the war. Gottscheerisch and German were banned permanently, replaced by Slovenian. In 1945, the Department for People’s Protection (OZNA) carried out a campaign to eradicate or evict ethnic Germans living in Yugoslavia. Thousands of Gottscheers and other ethnic Germans were held in the Sterntal concentration camp, located in present-day Kidričevo, Slovenia, where two to seven thousand people died. In addition, around eight to twelve thousand Gottscheers were stripped of their possessions and land and marched to Austria in August 1945. About three thousand people died on the march; those who survived were placed in overcrowded refugee camps in Austria. I wonder, too, what it must have felt like for the Gottscheers, most of whom wanted no affiliation with Germany whatsoever, to be forced to move, then to be treated brutally by the OZNA, only to be rejected as outsiders in Germany and Austria. Some Gottscheers remained in Gottschee — particularly those who had agreed to fight with the Yugoslavian partisans — some stayed in Austria, some went to Canada, but most immigrated to the United States. And even there, many Gottscheers were received with hostility; my grandmother, who was born in New York but spoke German as a first-generation Gottscheer American, was frequently called a Nazi by her classmates; meanwhile, her relatives were suffering because of Nazi Germany’s crimes.
As I continued reading about Gottschee, I discovered an old, spineless book entitled Gottscheer Gedenkbuch (Gottscheer Memorial-Book) tucked away in the back corner of my family’s office. Its light blue cover, embossed with the city seal of Gottschee, was held on by the oldest-looking masking tape I’ve ever seen. On the title page, it reads: “Herausgegeben un mit dem Reingewinne dieses Buches dem in Not befindlichen Gottscheer Folk zu helfen.” “Published to help the Gottscheer people in need with the book’s net profit.” Many Gottscheers immigrated to Brooklyn and Queens or the Midwest at the turn of the twentieth century and established a variety of Gottscheer cultural associations to preserve a sense of community in the States. These Gottscheers, as a part of the Gottscheer Relief Association, wrote and sold the memorial-book to raise funds for the Gottscheer refugees after WWII; my Tante Kropf writes gratefully of the clothing and food her family received. I don’t know which of my relatives purchased this book — my father didn’t even know we owned it — but I can find many of my relatives’ names in the lists of hundreds of Gottscheers who settled in the United States. Written in German and English, it comprises writings on Gottschee, information on the various Gottscheer organizations in the United States, and advertisements for Gottscheer businesses. I’m still struck by how much care was put into compiling the book, which included even people’s old house numbers back in Gottschee, so you might recognize a neighbor even if you forgot their name.
Even as it seeks to preserve Gottscheer history and culture, however, the Gottscheer Memorial-Book rings a sense of inevitable loss. In the words of John Kikel, a lawyer from Ridgewood, Queens, who led the Gottscheer Relief Association, Gottscheerisch “dies with the first generation.” The pressure to Americanize, to stop speaking your own language and celebrating your own culture, is difficult to resist, especially as new generations are born. But what happens to a language and a culture when a home country no longer exists to maintain it? When the Gottscheers immigrated to the States, they accepted that with the loss of their country came the loss of their language. My grandmother was the last person in my close family who spoke Gottscheerisch; she passed in April 2018, soon after my Onkel Helmut. I know that Americanization has significantly benefited my family. Whiteness, especially American whiteness, opens innumerable doors and protects me from facing opposition due to other facets of my identity. But I feel a deep grief when I think about the fate of Gottschee and Gottscheerisch. I had barely discovered my ancestry, only to find that my family’s language is nearly extinct. I still don’t know what to say to people when they ask me where my family is from. Do I explain? Do I call myself German, which is accurate and not at the same time? Is it even relevant to me, three generations removed from my great-grandparents who immigrated here? I remember once telling my Tante Resi that I wanted to learn German. She told me I didn’t have to, and though she didn’t say it, I heard the hidden meaning — you live in the United States. You only need English. Yet I feel like something’s missing; I reach for a language I need to speak but I will most likely never learn.
Gottscheer Hall shows that there’s still a Gottscheer community in the United States, but most estimate that only one hundred Gottscheerisch speakers are still alive. I know that I will never learn to speak Gottscheerisch, no matter how much I wish I could go back in time and cajole my grandmother into teaching me. But I can learn from what others have written and record my own family’s stories. It is most likely too late to save Gottscheerisch outside of books, but it might not be too late for us to record, listen to, and learn from speakers of other minority languages. Colonialism, the pressure of assimilation, the ease of communication through digital media, and the growing dominance of English and a select few other languages all threaten the extinction of at least half the world’s languages by 2100, according to UNESCO. Entire cultures and histories live inside every language. Organizations like Wikitongues, the Endangered Languages Project, and language schools established by Native/Indigenous peoples and other minority language speakers are doing crucial work to keep endangered languages alive. As people living in an increasingly interwoven world, we must do what we can to carry our own histories and languages forward and to reckon with the pain, but also the comfort and joy, that they bring. That’s how we stay alive.
(I gathered much of the history recounted above from the Gottscheer Memorial-Book, Tante Kropf’s account, “An Homage to the Quiet Heroes who were our Parents,” a 2015 Smithsonian article on Gottschee by Daniel Gross, and information on Gottschee from the Gottscheer Heritage and Genealogy Association and Gottscheer Hall. For a short overview of the Gottscheerisch language written in English, John Dyneley Prince, the ambassador to Yugoslavia at the time, wrote an article in 1931 called “The Gottschee Germans of Slovenia” that articulates many of the grammatical differences between Gottscheerisch and German. There are also many German-language resources on Gottschee available online.)