- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004

GORIZIA, Italy — Guns and roses define this town’s postwar history.

The guns — and the border guards who toted them — are now only a memory. So is the Iron Curtain that split Gorizia between Italy and Yugoslavia after World War II.

Fifty-seven years later, the border is hard to spot — just worn stone markers, a thin iron fence, or a fading white line on a house that straddled the frontier.

Yugoslavia has vanished, and the country across the border is now Slovenia. Next to disappear will be the fence, which is being replaced by rose bushes on May 1, when Slovenia and nine other mostly ex-communist newcomers join the European Union.

Gorizia and its Slovenian side, Nova Gorica, will be awash in street festivals, and are sending a joint team to compete in a soccer tournament pitting new and old EU members against each other.

“We have to overcome the divisions of the past, but I’m not worried,” said Vittorio Brancati, Gorizia’s Italian mayor. “We — both of us — are open peoples, with a multicultural tradition.”

Gorizians and Goricans aren’t alone.

Come May 1, flags will fly and bands will oompah in Germany and Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic and elsewhere as a handful of border towns and villages reunite after decades of separation.

In Gorizia’s case, the boundary drawn by the Allies on Feb. 10, 1947, probably did some initial good. Atrocities during and immediately after World War II by Italian fascists, then by Slovene partisans had poisoned relations.

But for many, the new border exacerbated the pain.

Parents were split from their children. A wife visiting her parents found herself unable to return to her husband on what was suddenly the Slovene side. The border arbitrarily put living rooms in Italy and kitchens in Slovenia.

“The border that was finally decided on had no consideration for the people,” recalled Martino Michele, Gorizia’s former mayor. “It separated cows in the fields from their barns. It cut through graveyards. It even bisected individual graves.”

Overnight, the border had become an ideological front line between Italy in the Western camp, and communist Yugoslavia, complete with barbed wire, guard towers and troops.

Some tried to defy the new reality. They paid with their lives.

Older people on both sides remember the nightly sound of shooting — and the sight of carts leaving the border area the next morning, legs of corpses sticking out over the end and bouncing to the rhythm of the horses pulling the wagons.

With the lines drawn, the two nations clamped down. Slovene was spoken only in whispers on the Italian side — as was Italian in the Slovene part of town. Schools and theaters became unilingual, as did street and other public signs.

Change came, but slowly.

“By the early 1960s, people on both sides started saying, ‘Those on the other side are people just like we are,’” Mr. Michele recalls.

He and his Slovene counterpart, Josko Strukelj, worked surreptitiously to right some wrongs. Mr. Strukelj recalled an anxious night spent moving border stakes in the cemetery “so that some of our graves could remain in Slovenia.”

Mr. Michele ignored a law passed in Rome requiring Slovenes to give their newborns Italian names.

In 1963, they arranged their first secret meeting, risking dismissal and prison for consorting with the enemy.

“There were a lot of suspicions on both sides, but we made a deal, and that was part of our personal friendship,” said Mr. Michele, exchanging a smile with Mr. Strukelj. “Each of us would live up to our promises — even if that meant going against our political parties and our political systems.”

While the border still exists, it is a far cry from the forbidding barrier of the past. To cross it, the 35,000 Gorizians and 18,000 Nova Goricans need only to show ID cards to a bored guard in a booth, and that too will end in about three years.

Municipal officials from both sides sit on committees to plan common utilities, transportation, even a theater subscription good for performances on both sides of town.

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