»OLD« VS. »NEW« TOWNS. MEMORIES, HISTORIES, AND HERITAGE AFTER POPULATION TRANSFERS AND BORDER CHANGES

International academic conference, 11 October 2021, Faculty of Humanities University of Primorska, Koper-Capodistria

A review by Michèle Baussant (CEFRES, CNRS)

The conference, organized by Katja Hrobat Virloget, Aleksej Kalc, and Michèle Baussant, is the result of two joint research projects, the Slovenian-French bilateral Proteus project entitled “Pasts without history and displaced histories of people without traces” (Baussant, Hrobat Virloget) and the Slovenian SRA project “Migrations and social changes in a comparative perspective: the case of Western Slovenia after WW II” (Kalc) from the University of Primorska, Faculty of Humanities, Koper-Capodistria, ZRC SAZU, Slovenian Migration Institute, Ljubljana and CNRS, CEFRES, Prague. It gathered members of the French (M. Baussant and M. Kokkinou) and Slovene teams (K. Hrobat-Virloget, A. Kalc, N. Cebron Lipovec). The conference began with a welcome and opening discourse by IRENA LAZAR, dean of the FH UP, and VALENTINE MOREL, attachée for scientific and university cooperation at the French institute, followed by three different panels.

The conference aimed to present and discuss some historical, memory, and heritage issues related to violent and silenced pasts, movements of depopulations, and repopulations linked to the changing of national borders in a comparative way. It focused in particular on the political reorganization of Europe in 1945, North Africa, and other former colonial countries, which also led to expulsions or massive emigrations of ethnic minorities, viewed as the “losers” of history. As a result, their towns became “home” to other populations that did not necessarily have links to the place and cultural heritage of the previous populations.

During the conference, researchers discussed silenced and conflict memories, contested heritage discourses, appropriations and interruptions of histories along with questions of changeable national/ethnic borderlands’ identities, through different cases: from the creations of new towns in a social and material dimension and the tangible, visual traces of post-colonial worlds and the different topographies and memory layers in transit shaped by colonial migrations and independence exiles.

In Slovenia, two study cases focused on the change of the Italian-Yugoslavian border after WW II in a multiethnic environment: Nova Gorica as a newly created socialist city, built vis-a-vis and instead of the historical center of Gorica, which remained on the Italian side of the state border, and the Istrian towns, from where the majority of the Italian-speaking population emigrated and was replaced by newcomers from Slovenia and other parts of Yugoslavia. MIRJAM MILHARČIČ HLADNIK (ZRC SAZU, Slovenian Migration Institute, Ljubljana) focused on testimonies about defection and other types of youth emigration from Slovenia/Yugoslavia after the second world war, highlighting the diverse combinations of intimate, personal reasons for illegal emigration seldom dealt with by historians.  ALEKSEJ KALC (ZRC SAZU, Slovenian Migration Institute, Ljubljana, University of Primorska, Faculty of Humanities, Koper-Capodistria) discussed key questions on archival sources – or their absence, gaps or discrepancies with others sources – for the study of the repopulation and the reconstruction of the social fabric in Slovenian coastal towns of Koper, Izola and Piran after the »exodus« of almost all of the Italian inhabitants in the 1950s, entailing a radical change in the ethnic and cultural landscape of the area. KATJA HROBAT VIRLOGET (the University of Primorska, Faculty of Humanities, Koper-Capodistria) reflected on the stereotypical discourse of urban, civilized vs. rural, barbaric and the way it changed through time due to the social and ethnic transformations among the urban Istrian communities from the time before “exodus” to the time after it. Based on long-term fieldwork, the paper addressed the issue of urban heritage and place attachment of the old and new inhabitants that accompanied these stereotypical narratives on the “Other and shaped forms of rejection, ignorance, silences, and reappropriation. JANJA SEDLAČEK’s paper dealt with the role of the port of Koper in political, economic, social, demographic, and cultural changes. It attracted a working force from the Slovene and other parts of the Yugoslav territory, participating in the reshaping of the ethnic and cultural landscape of the city. NEŽA ČEBRON LIPOVEC (the University of Primorska, Faculty of Humanities, Koper-Capodistria, postdoctoral fellow) ended the presentation of the Slovene case study through a paper dedicated to the issue of the living standard in the contested city of Koper in the early post-WWII period (the early 1950s), still during the buffer-state Free Territory of Trieste. In the analysis, she related one particular report on living standards in the historic town with the then-contemporary building projects of new housing. Starting from a major dispute about the norms and standards of furbishing new dwellings, she focused on the underlying ideological and political purposes surrounding this issue. She showed how the displacement of borders and people find their expressions in the production of domestic and private spaces. Two different case studies – the example of Egypt by MICHELE BAUSSANT (CNRS, Cefres) and Greek refugees by MARIA KOKKINOU (Cefres, Charles University)– finally opened a more extensive debate on the heritage of displaced populations in Egypt, Greece and the Czech Republic. They raised specific issues on absence,  silence, reappropriation, or abandonment of artifacts and public-private spaces.

Despite the different histories and territories covered, the presentations and discussions highlighted the comparable, if not connected, effects of these pasts in the present. We can observe these connexions through political uses and identities, transmission within generations, and the construction of historical knowledge. Furthermore, each presentation offered a complementary perspective on a case study of decomposition and recomposition, of fragmentation and “imagined” unity often approached in a segmented way. Some papers explicitly focused on architecture, others on statistics of departures, historiographic representations of these departures, and on what oral memories can bring back, on the objects of exile or languages. Through this “mosaic,” we learned how several layers of silence had been built around these experiences of violence and loss in different domains. We were also able to follow the displacements and circulations of different populations between various places after the reshaping of national borders. Then we can grasp how these circulations created visible and invisible geographies and landscapes of movements, displacement that still marked private and public spaces. Finally, the presentations articulated, in each field, how silences, erasures, and omissions always accompanied the production of discourses, buildings, and official statistics.  If we want to understand these divided and shared spaces around borders and the massive displacement of populations linked to national reconfigurations, we need to rethink our categories f analysis and build our archives. We must also question the sources, including archives, that we have and that are cultural artifacts based on institutional structures that have erased, produced, and valorized certain types of knowledge.