The Lost Children
An elderly woman and her parrot cross the Alpes in search of the little boy she made a promise to many decades ago.
When Edna was little more than a child, she made a promise that bound her fate to Jacob. They were ‘Swabian children’, forced by their families to undertake a terrible trek on foot through the mountains to German farmlands where they were sold off as farmhands. Now that she has finally, after seventy years, found Jacob again, Edna has a confession to make. Following the same map that she drew as a little girl to find her way home, she and her pet parrot set off by foot along ancient Roman roads and pilgrim trails across the Alpes to discover whether it is still possible to forgive.
“I grew up in Alto Adige, a contested border territory between Italy, Austria and Switzerland. My mother is German and my father is Italian, which makes me a “border person” from all angles, I suppose, with a complicated past.
Personal memory, like historical memory, is always a deformed mirror of reality: how much of what we see is an effort to veil or compensate for what is missing, and what do we want to erase? I believe that appropriating one’s own historical memory, tracing the causes of fracture, is fundamental to putting it back together.
A deep wound in my land has been negated, ignored and erased and only in recent years has historiography attempted to bring it to light, through the collection of data and testimonies. Children forced to emigrate from the border areas to the rich farms on the other side of the Alps for almost three centuries were called “children of Swabia-Schwabenkinder”, from the name of the region that gave them a job and, sometimes, a destiny.
And yet, the common, collective memory has struggled and still struggles to come to terms with this phenomenon, so much so that, erroneously, some people I interviewed have called them “Schwalbenkinder – swallow children”, children released into the wild, who, like swallows would return, emphasizing the detachment, the seemingly irreconcilable distance between a historical reality and distortion, in its most objective contours. There is also a denial of responsibility, mostly by the part of the population involved.
I had the opportunity to learn about this episode in history because I worked for many years as a teach- er of Italian- as a second language in the same valley as the novel’s protagonist and I found it incredible that such a widespread phenomenon – South Tyrol, Ticino, Austria, and some areas on the eastern Italian border – have been silenced, despite the number of people involved and the time frame. But upon further consideration, I recognized that these “people” transformed their experience with tenacity and stoic silence, and it rooted them more deeply into the social fabric of the area.
My desire to tell stories was born by making use of my personal and family memory. My grandfather is the same age that Jacob would be now. He is an old mountain gentleman. Some of the terrible experiences, including corporal punishment, experienced by Jacob, are his. Like Jacob, he too was an illegitimate child, the German son of Fascist Alto Adige, of a woman who left him without revealing the true identity of his father. Same social condition as Jacob, same cultural substratum, traditions, and territory.
The journey made by the children of Swabia was the first, difficult test for these hopeful boys and girls. Edna traces it backwards, in different conditions, with different objectives. And through her voyage she overcomes her own limits, physical and emotional. She jumps the barriers that she has built in her own mind, barriers that delude her with the promise of comfort. The mountains, the first physical barrier, have always – and against common prejudice – united rather than divided, and the protagonist is at the center of this coming and going of people, lives, experiences that meet and exchange.”
France (Fleuve Noir)
Germany (Fischer Verlag)
Lebanon (Dar Al Khayal)