I Still Remember Scenes Of Horror From The World War II

On August 10 2017, I spent a nice week at Steiermark (Styria) in Sternhof (Star Court), among the apple trees, green corn fields, purple flowers, small ponds, long grass disappearing among them, deer, rabbits, birds and wild animals whose heads can be seen looking carefully around to feel safe. I watched the beautiful butterflies dance and fly from flower to another in attractive dances similar to ballet. I saw the farmers riding tractors and plowing the fields in romantic rounds. At night the sky was pretty clear and scattered with bright stars. The aromas of the countryside, scented with manure, were scattered with the airy breeze that reminded me of my presence in the beautiful countryside.

In this beautiful atmosphere, I met and interviewed Erika Swoboda, who in the age of 80 still enjoys the vitality and agility as if she were in her fourth decade. In the morning she practices yoga while listening to faint music and news, and beside her sit two cats watching the sport in great fun, a black cat, colored with little white, and a brown cat.

The story of Erika Swoboda could be simply described as a story of the queen of Austria who did not put a crown on her head inlaid with diamonds, but placed a crown of flowers and sat on the throne of nature in the Austrian province of Steiermark.

In August 1974 Swoboda had abandoned the city life of Vienna and the awful memories of the second world war she witnessed in her childhood in Vienna in search of tranquility between the embracing arms of nature. She began her life and career when pregnant with her daughter Anna together with her young husband Gerhard Swoboda, an actor for theater and television.

But the beautiful nature and continued success of the work did not make Swoboda forget the memories of World War II she experienced in her childhood:

She said: “the worst event was as a bomb hitting next door, and the people who lived there broke from their basement through to ours and fled to our basement full of fear. I can still remember these terrible, frightened faces full of dust! The people who had stayed next door in their flats above had all been buried and died.”

Swoboda often saw the bombs falling near her on her way to the school: She said: “Certainly I often was on the way to school and it happened to be air alert and bombs have been dropped. And for this case i was charged to immediately hide myself under a front door to be safe. And so I was standing there all alone as the bombs fell down and this certainly was a terrible time for me.”

But the tragedies of the Second World War experienced by Swoboda did not affect her love for nature, and the hug wild mulberry tree and jasmine that grows in the yard of the house has a significant positive impact her life, says  Swoboda: “I believe that in this early period of time, in which I was enveloped by fragrance, fruit and leaf, a natural imprint has emerged, to which I owe my present attraction to herbs, roots, and flowers.”

She added: “Only a few years ago I took the scent of childhood back. In front of my house in Styria there are jasmine and sword lilies, and when I look out the window I see a mulberry tree, still small, but at least there are already fruits.”

Despite the relocation of Swoboda to live in Steirmark’s beautiful nature, her memories and relationship in Vienna where she was born and grew up is still close, says Swoboda: “In the Viennese scene, I was at home between Hawelka and Vanilla, befriended by many painters, writers and filmmakers, until the storm of time drove me into one of the then existing land communes.”

She added: “My vision was to live and work with people in a community. This started in Vienna, where I was in several municipalities and ends up to this day at Sternhof, a 250-year-old farmhouse in the middle of South Styria, where I am living since 43 years.”

Who is Erika Swoboda? Why did she leave Vienna and choose instead to live in Steiermark, how where the early days of the woman of the city living among the national Austrian farmers?? What had she done there and how did she become the Queen of Styria? These and other questions are answered by  Swoboda in the interview below.

Q: Erika Swoboda, the famous woman in the South-Steiermark, there must be something about her childhood. Everybody interested to know something about that. Who is Erika Swoboda and how was her childhood and what are the most important things you kept in memories until now?

Swoboda: My childhood?

Me: yes.

Swoboda: But you know

Me: If you was born into a rich or a poor family, everything.

Erika: But I have written about this in my book, briefly but exactly.

Erika Swoboda, an Austrian woman born 26 January 1937 in Vienna. I grew up in “Arche Noah”, one of those old Viennese houses in the district of Josefstadt. The backside of the house which was hidden for the pedestrians was a wild and beautiful smelling garden. We lived in the ground floor, and in warm spring nights the air was filled with the smell of jasmine blossoms. The plants were right in front of our windows.

The most beautiful part of the garden was a tree of mulberries. Each branch was known to me so that I could have climbed it in blindness. When I close the eyes I remember the smell and the taste of the black and juicy tasteful fruits and pictures of the past ascend to my inner eyes. In this tree I was at home and each branch was known to me and I could have  climbed each one of them in blindness. Between the thick leaves we children could have  found a home and the branches could have protected and hidden us.

Q: What would you want to say about your memories in the war, why did your parents leave you alone, what was your feeling as a little girl and what is the impact the war time on you after you heard about the conflict in the Middle East and how do you react on it?

Lets talk about your childhood. I am interested in further details about your life in the war and how was your impression when you was hiding in the basements.

Swoboda: I do remember the time well, when the bombs fell down, and this happened especially in the years 1943 and 1944. At this time, 1944, i was seven years old, and this was the instant of time when Vienna primarily was bombed. Then I was often alone in the basement because my parents had to work. My father had his work and my mother was commandeered to work for the military postal service and so i was often alone in the basement in a house, in which in fact were many neighbours, but as a child I was alone there. And I was naturally occupied with fear, because the bombs dropped everywhere and I was alone, without parents.

The worst event was as a bomb hit next door, and the people who lived there broke from there basement through to ours and fled to our basement and where full of fear. I can still remember these terrible, frightened faces full of dust! The people who had stayed next door in their flats above had all been buried and died.

Certainly I often was on the way to school and it happened to be air alert and bombs have been dropped. And for this case i was charged to immediately hide myself under a front door to be safe. And so I was standing there all alone as the bombs fell down and this certainly was a terrible time for me.

Q: When your mother returned what did you tell her? Did you meet her crying or begged her to stay next time with you?

Swoboda: No, no, no! I was used to it. I was not always alone, sometimes my mother also was with me. I was used to it, I was used to be alone with the neighbours in the basement. It was a habit then. I took it as it was.

Q: How did these memories last and continue when you grew up?

Swoboda: I will never forget this time. These fears I had as a child back then I will never forget. This is why I do understand people who are living in war zones, who want to flee. This is obvious that one flees from a war which seems to be endless! At that time war was over in 1945. But these wars nowadays seem to be eternal, they do not end at all! And I am fully aware that the people cannot and do not want to stay there with their families and flee these wars. This is self-evident.

And I met these people in my commune, I visited these refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq and I asked what I could do for them. And they said the only thing they wished was to learn the German language. They want to learn German, German, German! And so I organized German courses for these 75 people who where housed her for a period of one year, financed by donations of friends, so they could have daily German lessons. As well I organized courses about our values for them to take a look at our culture and traditions. And this year of teaching was a big success for they where incredibly eager to learn, so they learned the German language within a few months and got even German certificates. They got themselves driver’s licenses, they made work experiences and got partially already right of residence and had professions.

Q: How was your personal relationship with the refugees?

Swoboda: We had a very good relationship! I invited some of them to my birthday party and I, too, was invited in their houses and to their celebrations.

Q: After you told me about your childhood in the war. Now let us talk about the most beautiful remembering of your childhood of which you are still proud of…

Swoboda: The most beautiful memory is connected with a big, giant mulberry behind our house that was under conservation. His trunk was so big, no one could embrace it. This tree was very, very old and giant! We were many children and we literally lived in its branches. There we had our „livng-rooms“ and we were hilariously happy there. This was a wonderful time and I loved this tree, and when I settled in Südsteiermark (South-Styria), in 1986 I planted a mulberry behind the house as a memorial of my childhood.

Q: Erika Swoboda, this is the second time I visit you and stay in your house and I see you as a strong woman. How did you learn to be such a strong woman?

Erika: This is rooted in the fact that I had already many life’s in this life: there was the life of my childhood, there was the life of my youth, when I was with a very rich industrialist and led a life of high luxury for some years. And then I dipped into the cultural underground scene in the Vienna of the the sixties, experienced the year 1968 in Vienna, too, the communes and shared flats and many friends and artists; I made happenings and actionsim with Valie Export, Peter Weibel and others as well as myself in the times of Viennese Actionism; finally, living in a commune I met my husband and got pregnant. Due to this pregnancy I wanted to live at the countryside and so I came to Südsteiermark (South-Styria) and landed in the „Sternhof“.

Q: When you arrived at Steiermark you was the first young woman from the city who live among the farmers in the countryside. How you describe the situation in and your relation with the farmers at that time?

Swoboda: Well, this was a big change! The „Sternhof“ was a house in some condition: the windows were broken, out of the water pipe there came a brown broth, the walls were wet; it was terrible, actually! If I had had the knowledge of today referring to renovation of old houses, I would have run away, screaming! But we were very naive back then. My husband was very gifted in arts, so he covered the wet spots with very beautiful saris and silk cloth, we fetched the water from a nearby fountain using buckets and that’s how we lived and it absolutely did not matter to us. Unbelievable! It was just taken for granted. Unbelievable for me today, but naturalness back then.

Q: Yah, seems to be you had everything like a pampered girl!

Swoboda: Yes, and then I came here and then we had no luxury anymore. But this did not matter to us at all. I moved in in August 1st 1974, my daughter was born here on February 4th 1975 and by chance the first people from the city came to visit, and so the word was spread that there is a farm in Steiermark where people could dwell and participate. And so the people came. It happened that we started manufacturing because we had to make a living and in the Südsteiermark there was a high rate of unemployment that time. There was no money at all. It’s not like nowadays: today Südsteiermark is a tourism area and very rich. But back then there was nothing, the population was very poor. So we started our own production. We taught handicraft to ourselves out of books! There were many books about survival in the countryside, about craftsmanship and so on. So we had these books and we started to make shoes, weaving cloth, knitting, we were spinning wool, coloring wool, I started to produce natural cosmetics. And as the „Sternhof“ became known more and more, yard sell increased and in the towns the first marts emerged where we could sell our products and our commune could make a living out of it. We all lived from the things we made.

Q: I saw and read „Kunsthandwerk“ (craft) at the beginning of the road to „Sternhof“? What does this mean?

Swoboda: Yes, „Kunsthandwerk“, art handicraft. Now it is just natural cosmetics.

But back then the residents, the farmers were not sympathetic to us. They treated us as aliens. As they treat the foreigners now, so they treated us back then.

Q: But I see now they treat you like a boss or a Queen here…

Swoboda: Yes, nowadays. But in the times when we arrived this was different.

Q: What did your daughter learn from you?

Swoboda: Well, she has good self-assertion, she is very intelligent, she is a good speaker. She became a jurist and works in Graz for the County of Steiermark in her profession. She is with a doctor and is the mother of twins, two boys who are six years of age now.

Q: How do the people receive your natural cosmetics? How does the project develop nowadays?

Swoboda: Well, I started very simple, with a basic cream, a face lotion and a body lotion, very minimal. Over the years the product range expanded and now I offer 45 different products like aetheric oiles and soaps, highly potent and high-quality.

Q: What is your current message to the women in the countryside, the world and to the women in general? What do you recommend and advice would you give to them?

Swoboda: The women I just can advise: they should be self-reliant, stand on their own feet, they shall be able to assert themselves. They shall learn much! They shall educate themselves, and they shall take care of their emotions…this is what I can tell to the women. But most women do this anyway.

Q: What is your message to the government of the EU and other western countries that finance the war in different ways?

Swoboda: Here I would address the women as well! Especially I do not understand that the women, the young women, do not take to the streets no more! One can only change things by protesting in the street! I cannot understand why the young people, the young women globally do not demonstrate against the war, I cannot understand this! I don’t know, there is so much rubbish on Facebook and in social networks, they talk about so many matters of no importance. Although it would be possible to coordinate in these social networks and take action now better than anytime before! If this happened globally and if the women, in which i have the biggest trust, took in hand then, I do believe, the wars soon would be over. I don’t see no other way.

Q: Now I come to a different subject. You are in the age of 80 and still beautiful. After the death of your husband there were many men who wished to be with you. Why did you stay without a second marriage, and do you think that women can live normally without men?

Swoboda: Of course they can live without men! I am very happy to live without men! Yes, I did not miss anything in my life! That’s the point! I had so many friends, I had so many affairs in my life and I failed to do nothing. Maybe this is why can be easily alone now. I don’t know. Possibly. No, particularly I can be alone because I am able to be with a person as a pair. Well, if you are able to be on your own, you are able to be with somebody, too. If one can be a pair with somebody, maybe one can be alone, too; but this is not granted.

Well I am very happy. I have lived with so many people, that I don’t miss it at all. I need my friends, I surely need my friends. Without friends it would be a sad life. I need my family and my friends. This is what I need for sure, and I have it.

Q: Coming to the young women. what would you advise the young woman to do in order to build themselves, being strong from the very beginning? Do you think that they should try everything and decide what they want? And how they should keep on what they want? Where does the building of the personality of the woman start?

Swoboda: In the childhood, of course. Every human being, man or woman, starts building his personality in the childhood: education in the parental home, environment and character form the human being; it’s the parents, the genetic inheritance, the people around them, the friends, it’s where you’re born into, which chances you get in life; this is what is important. And if you are with your mind, even when you got nothing, even if you come from a bad home, a bad environment, if got little chances, the more you have to learn, the more you have to shape yourself and the stronger you will get.

Q: Are you satisfied with the woman of today? How she is, how she behaves?

Swoboda: The women believe they have to…well, it’s important that they fight for their rights…

Q: What is the difference between the woman now and the woman of the past?

Swoboda: The women have to fight for their rights, obviously. But they have to be aware of Capitalism! It’s not just about to sit in the boards of directors. It’s OK if there are there as many women as men, and if they were as many managers as the men who do this job. It’s about the same income for the same jobs, of course. But fighting all these battles the women should not forget in which society they live, in which capitalist society. They should look through. They should fight it. They should ally themselves with others. How else should there be change? I don’t know. It’s just about interconnection. Awareness and interconnection. And if one knows that, one must connect. This can happen in the internet, in social networks. But then one must take the streets. Just to post on Facebook helps nobody. That’s nonsense, and weakness.

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