Gusti Jirku Stridsberg

Gusti Jirku Stridsberg (detail). Property of Voge family, taken from the book The Six Lives of Gusti Stridsberg (2020)

Born in 1902 in Ukraine as Augustina Franziska Mayer; died in 1978 in Sweden. Writer, translator, journalist, war correspondent, and alleged secret agent.

Not many lives bear as compelling a testament to the turbulent 20th century as the fate of Gusti Jirku Stridsberg. She was born on the fringe of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and spent her youth in Vienna as the daughter of a wealthy banker. World War I turned the world as she knew it upside down: she substituted her cosmopolitan life in Vienna for a life of want in Postojna where she tried to help Austrian soldiers fighting at the nearby front. When her family lost most of their wealth in the aftermath of war, she was forced to move to the family estate near Slovenj Gradec, which, in post-war Europe, had become part of another country, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

She therefore spent more than a decade at Hartenstein Castle, which was destroyed in World War II. The young Gusti Jirku had to manage the estate all by herself as her then husband Bernhard Jirku was still a university student. She learned Slovenian and translated into German several works by Ivan Cankar who, to her, was a “religious and social revelation” and influenced her outlook on life. Having lived a noblewoman’s life, filled with feasts, balls and expensive dresses in the early 1920s, she found the repressive system of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia increasingly constraining towards the end of the decade. At the time, anyone who dared oppose the autocratic monarchic rule was deemed a communist and suffered the severest of punishments. Gusti Jirku helped several of her village acquaintances, who were locked up only for being in possession of the wrong kinds of books, escape prison; thanks to her wealth she herself was safe, even though her book collection included the likes of Marx and Engels. Or as a police officer once said to her: “There are no laws for the rich.”

The autobiography of G. J. Stridsberg is proof that identity – be it class, national or social – has always been fluid and that people’s fates resist any delimitation.

In the 1930s, she set out on a dangerous journey to Moscow, reporting for Vienna newspapers, working as a radio journalist, and teaching English to the agents of the Communist International. She became close with many cosmopolitans and intellectuals who, like her, had ended up in Moscow due to a mix of idealism and a sense of adventure. After returning to Vienna, she helped Yugoslavian communists, who had fled to Austria and went into hiding to escape the repression of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, organise an underground network. Due to the increasingly dangerous situation that developed with the rise of Austrofascism, as well as her love for a Yugoslavian communist, she went back to Moscow. Upon her return, she found the atmosphere growing increasingly tense in the light of Stalin’s purges and she soon realised that, in order to survive, she would have to leave the Soviet Union. She barely escaped using a badly forged passport, which got her thrown in a gestapo prison on her way through Germany. She managed to get out only through a series of coincidences.

But her faith in a better world never left her and she joined the thousands of people in the fight against Spanish fascism. During the Spanish Civil War, she worked as a republican correspondent from the front, a nurse, and allegedly a foreign agent. In 1939, when there was practically not a safe place to be found in the whole of Europe, she emigrated to Sweden where she married Spanish war veteran Hugo Stridsberg in order to obtain citizenship and make her life easier. She had to defend herself before the Swedish authorities for her alleged intelligence work, and her foreign-agent reputation stayed with her even after her death. Her role in secret service is still a mystery.

Gusti Jirku Stridsberg was fluent in several languages, easily adapted to various social settings, and could handle herself in the most dangerous of circumstances. Her literary talent is demonstrated by her autobiography My Five Lives (1961), which is also an exceptional guidebook to understanding 20th-century history, as it is proof that identity – be it class, national or social – has always been fluid and that people’s fates resist any delimitation.

Velenje Museum

The Velenje Castle is considered to be one of the best-preserved Slovenian castles. Today, it is home to the Velenje Museum displaying both the socialist and the medieval historical background of the town. Even though she did not leave behind any physical traces, Gusti Jirku Stridsberg got to know the two traditions; some sources say she even took up temporary residence in the Velenje Castle. The museum collections are adapted to the visually impaired and, upon prior request, accessible for persons with reduced mobility.